In this chapter, Owen discusses the third and final basic principle for mortifying sin, which “is that the life, vigour and comfort of our spiritual life depend much on our mortification of sin” (47). Or as the summary at the top of the chapter calls it: “of the usefulness of mortification” (47). Of all these benefits, Owen notes the troubles of a believer almost always comes down to desiring further “strength, power, vigour, and life, in our obedience, in our walking with God; or we want peace, comfort and consolation therein” (47). And these are all dependent upon mortifying our sin.
The chapter is then divided into three large points. The first two points really serve as qualifications for what Owen means by saying that the benefits of our spiritual life depend upon mortification, while the third explains the principle at hand.
First, he clarifies that life, vigour, comfort, etc. “do not proceed from” mortification (47). Indeed, he cites Psalm 88, which a psalm of Heman, as an example that godliness does not guarantee the blessings of God. The reader should be encouraged to read Psalm 88, for in doing so you will discover that it is a unique lamentation in the psalter. Typically, within a lament (which is the most common genre in the Psalms), there is an expression of confidence or thankful hope to God at the end of the complaint. However, this is only seen in Heman through his reference to the LORD as “the God of my salvation” (v. 1) and that he still brought his prayer to God. Owen uses this example as a much needed reminder that mortifying sin does not force God’s hand into making life easy and comfortable for us. Or in Owen’s words, “The use of means for the obtaining of peace is ours; the bestowing of it is God’s prerogative” (48).
Second, he notes that mortification is “not one of the immediate causes of” the “life, vigour, courage and consolation” that God gives to us (48). Instead, “it is the privilege of our adoption made known to our souls, that gives us immediately these things” (48). In other words, Owen is warning us of the error of mistaking the effects and benefits of justification and sanctification. Our adoption and justification by God are immediate, and by it we are made alive with Christ after having been dead in sin. Belonging to sanctification, mortification is not the immediate cause of this resurrection.
Why is it necessary for Owen to make these two clarifications?
Yet with those two points having been established, Owen moves on, third, to reiterate the principle: “the vigour and comfort of our spiritual lives depend much on our mortification” (48). Under this heading, he then makes three subpoints, the first negative, the second positive, and the third brief.
Negatively, “every mortified sin will certainly do two things; first, it will weaken the soul, and deprive it of its vigour, secondly, it will darken the soul, and deprive it of its comfort and peace” (48-49). As for weakening the soul, Owen writes that “an unmortified lust will drink up the spirit and all the vigour of the soul, and weaken it for all duties” (49). He then uses two fascinating words to describe this weakening: “it untunes and unframes the heart itself” (49). Undead sin untunes us from God’s melody for life, placing us at a disharmony with Him. We clash against His creation song and become and promote chaos. It also unframes us from God’s sure foundation, leaving us adrift like a ship without an anchor.
As for darkening the soul, he writes
It is a cloud, a thick cloud, that spreads itself over the face of the soul, and intercepts all the beams of God’s love and favour. It takes away all sense of the privilege of our adoption; and if the soul begins to gather up thoughts of consolation, sin quickly scatters them.50
This brings to mind the scroll of assurance that Christian carries in The Pilgrim’s Progress. At one point, he sleeps when he was only meant to take a rest, and this disobedience caused him to lose his scroll and forced him to retrace his steps in order to find it again. Likewise, unmortified sins steal away our assurance, robbing us of the comfort and peace that we know in Christ.
He moves to the second positive point: “mortification prunes all the graces of God, and makes room for them in our hearts to grow” (50). He then uses a garden to illustrate this point. Just weeds unchecked will strangle out the “precious herbs,” so too does unkilled lust wither God’s graces. Yet if sin is daily uprooted, “how will every grace act its part, and be ready for every use and purpose” (51)!
Briefly, Owen concludes the chapter by noting how our peace is bound to mortification. Much like Christian and his scroll of assurance, Owen writes that “evidence of sincerity… is no small foundation of our peace. Mortification is the soul’s vigorous opposition to self; wherein sincerity is most evident” (51). In other words, if you want to be convinced of the sincerity of your faith and to have the peace of assurance that comes with it, put to death your sin daily by the power of the Spirit.
What evidence of mortifications usefulness in your own life?
How have you seen unmortified sin weaken and darken your soul?
How have you seen mortified sin make room for graces to grow?
Note: page numbers are for this edition of the book.