If the first two chapters have not yet convinced you of the great value of this book, this third chapter should soundly accomplish that task. The subject at hand is the second of the three big principles for mortifying sin that Owen began to explore in the previous chapter and will conclude in the following. This is principle is simply that the Holy Spirit alone is sufficient for the work of mortifying our indwelling sin (39).
Owen divides this chapter into two parts: the first examining why “other remedies” for sin are insufficient (39) and the second detailing the Spirit’s work.
First, Owen frankly declares, “In vain do men seek other remedies; they shall not be healed by them” (39). He then particularly turns his attention to “the greatest part of popish religion,” by which he means Roman Catholicism. He notes that many of the intricacies of Catholicism, such as “their vows, orders, fastings, penances,” are designed “for the mortifying of sin” (39). However, he compares these prescriptions for killing sin to the demonic locusts of Revelation 9 who inflict such torment that the afflicted long to die and yet cannot do so (40).
He does not, however, exclude Protestants from this critique. Indeed, as a Protestant, he notes that “such outside endeavours, such bodily exercises, such self-performances, such merely legal duties, without the least mention of Christ or his Spirit” by fellow Protestants “was one motive to the publishing of this plain discourse” (40).
He goes on to list two reasons why such ascetic forms of religion cannot truly mortify sin: first, they use means that God has not commanded; second, they misuse the means that God has rightly commanded (41). In the first place, men add religious duties for the purpose of killing sin, yet God has not promised (and in many cases explicitly warns against) to honor such man-made ideas of devotion. In the second place, “prayer, fasting, watching, meditation and the like” are used improperly. Owen notes that “whereas they are to be looked on as streams, they look on them as the fountain. Whereas they affect and accomplish the end only as means subordinate to the Spirit and faith, they look to them to do it by virtue of the work wrought” (41). In this case, the problem is not with the duties themselves but with how we use them. “Duties,” writes Owen, “are excellent food for a healthy soul; they are no physic for a sick soul… Spiritually sick men cannot sweat out their distemper with working” (42). In other words, these duties are a means of grace only after we have been raised to life in Christ; they will by no means kill sin and give life in and of themselves.
What are examples of the “other remedies” for killing sin that Owen describes?
Why are even God-commanded duties insufficient for mortifying sin?
Second, Owen expounds upon the principle at hand, that mortification is a work of the Spirit. He begins by making two points: 1) that the Spirit has been given to us for just this purpose (42) and 2) that mortification is a gift of Christ “communicated to us, and given us, by the Spirit of Christ” (43). Of this, he appropriately cites Jesus’ words in John 15:5: “without me, you can do nothing.” We cannot mortify sin truly without the work of Christ in us through His Spirit.
He then concludes the chapter by addressing two questions that pertain to his second point. First, “how doth the Spirit mortify sin” (43)? He explains that the Spirit does so in three ways. He first causes grace and its fruits to abound, which inevitably weakens and uproots sin. After all, as he displays from Galatians 5, the fruits of the Spirit and the fruits of the flesh are diametrically opposed to one another. When one flourishes, the other wilts. Yet the Spirit also attacks the roots of our sin directly. “He is the fire which burns up the very root of lust” (44). Finally, “he brings the cross of Christ into the heart of a sinner by faith, and gives us communion with Christ in his death, and fellowship in his sufferings” (44).
The second question he answers is “if this be the work of the Spirit alone, how is it that we are exhorted to it” (44)? He then explains that the Spirit does the work, but He does it in us and makes it “still an act of our obedience” (45). The Spirit “works upon our understandings, wills, consciences and affections… he works in us and with us, not against us or without us” (45).
Why is it so significant that Christ has given us His Spirit to enable us to mortify our sin?
From this final point, he essentially reiterates and laments further his first point of the futility of attempting to mortify sin without the Spirit. He movingly states:
This is the saddest warfare that any poor creature can be engaged in. A soul under the power of conviction from the law, is pressed to fight against sin, but hath no strength for the combat. They cannot but fight, and they can never conquer; they are like men thrust on the sword of enemies in purpose to be slain. The law drives them on, and sin beats them back.45
Like the warning of Hebrews 10:27, such Spiritless war against sin only leaves “a fearful expectation of judgment” and offers no comfort as the day of wrath moves nearer and nearer. Owen, at last, concludes the chapter with a sobering question, which we will let linger as well:
And if the case be so sad with them who labour and strive, and yet enter not into the kingdom, what is their condition who despise all this; who are perpetually under the power and dominion of sin, and love to have it so; and are troubled at nothing but that they cannot make sufficient provision for the flesh, to fulfil the lusts thereof?46
Have you attempted to kill your sin through your own strength? Did you encounter the hopeless condemnation that Owen describes?
Note: page numbers are for this edition of the book.