As we noted last week, chapters 5 and 6 are tied together as in them Owen is defining for us what exactly mortification means. In the previous chapter he dismantled a few of the false notions and imitations of mortification, here he moves onto what it is positively. He lays the answer out into three points.
First, it is the “habitual weakening of” sin, for “every lust is a depraved habit or disposition, continually inclining the heart to evil” (61). Owen poignantly notes that the only reason by that an unmortified man does not perpetually give himself over to one particular sin is because he serves many hungry masters, so he must give a portion of his time to each sin that calls for his attention. And sins are quite different from the graces that God calls us to, which are gentle and kind; sin, however, is violent and impetuous (62).
Owen does, nevertheless, offer one important digression: the same sin may have different strength in different people. For example, driving by a casino may be hardly noticed by one person, while another person can scarcely resist stopping to gamble for a while. This is because “lust gets strength by temptation: when a suitable temptation falls in with a lust, it gives it a new life, vigour, power, violence and rage” (63).
Similar to his point last chapter about the danger of only mortifying outward sins, he notes that some sins “are far more sensible and discernible in their violent actings than others” (63). Fornication is his example of one such sin. Looking at the 10 Commandments, we might note that coveting is no less a sin than theft, yet theft is naturally more discernible. Because of these less noticeable sins, “some men may go, in their own thoughts and in the eyes of the world, for mortified men” even though he is just as thoroughly controlled by his sin as someone with more evident vices (63).
Finally, Owen uses the imagery of crucifixion (which comes from Scripture like Galatians 5:24 and 2 Corinthians 4:16) to describe how sin is gradually weakened through mortification.
As a man nailed to the cross first struggles and strives, and cries out with great strength and might, but as his blood and spirits waste, his strivings are but faint and seldom, his cries low and hoarse, scarce to be heard: so, when a man first sets on a lust or distemper to deal with it, it struggles with great violence to break loose, it cries with earnestness and impatience to be satisfied and relieved; but when, by mortification, the blood and spirits of it are let out, it moves seldom and faintly, cries sparingly, and is scarce heard in the heart: it may have sometimes a dying pang, that makes an appearance of great vigour and strength, but it is quickly over, especially if it be kept from considerable success.64
What are some examples of habitually weakened sins in your life?
How should this process resemble crucifixion?
Second, mortification is the “constant fighting and contending against sin” (65). Here he gives three subpoints for how to constantly war against our sin. First, we must realize that sin is indeed our enemy and that our eternity is at stake. Second, we must “be acquainted with the ways, wiles, methods, advantages and occasions of its success” (66). It is commonly said that the first rule of war is to know your enemy, and that is certainly true of spiritual warfare as well. For a penetrating study on this topic, read Thomas Brooks’ Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices. Third, we must daily attack our sins with the directives that will be discussed in the coming chapters.
Why is knowing that sin is our enemy so important?
Finally, “mortification consists in success: frequent success against any lust is another part and evidence of mortification” (67). Again, Owen reminds us that while we cannot expect the complete eradication of sin, it should be our goal. We aim to kill sin at its root, not simply in the fruit or branches. This also means that we must cultivate the virtues that are directly against our sins.
So, by the implanting and growth of humility is pride weakened, passion by patience, uncleanness by purity of mind and conscience, love of this world by heavenly-mindedness.68
How should we measure success when it comes to mortifying our sin?
Let us, therefore, habitually weakening our sin, fight against it with all our strength, and trust the Spirit to grant us victory.
Note: page numbers are for this edition of the book.