Moving on from Owen’s description of what mortification is and is not in the previous two chapters, he now proceeds into two “general rules and principles, without which no sin will be mortified” (69). Our present chapter will deal with the first, and chapter 8 will discuss the second.
This first general principle is simple enough: “unless a man be a believer, that is, one that is truly ingrafted into Christ, he can never mortify any one sin” (69). As Owen goes on to show, this general rule is intimately bound to the second of the foundational principles that he originally laid out: it is the Spirit alone that can mortify sin” (71). These two are connected precisely because only genuine believers are indwelt by the Holy Spirit, and “a man can easier see without eyes, speak without a tongue, than truly mortify one sin without the Spirit” (71).
Of course, “an unregenerate man may do something like it; but the work itself, so as it may be acceptable with God, he can never perform” (70). Using the illustration of a refiner’s fire, he notes that the purify work of fire is only effective as long as there are actually precious metals to be refined. An unbeliever’s labor against sin is like a man attempting to refine the impurities out of a metal that is nothing but impurities (72).
The question then becomes: what should the unconverted man do, if mortification is a fruitless task? “I say, then, mortification is not the present business of unregenerate men. God calls them not to it as yet. Conversion is their work; the conversion of the whole soul, not the mortification of this or that particular lust” (72). Doing anything else is merely swiping at limbs and branches when the roots must be struck.
Indeed, Owen goes on to give three negative consequences of an unbeliever attempting to fruitlessly mortify their sin.
First, it is a distraction from focusing on their true need of conversion. Many find themselves convicted of their sin and stricken with a guilty conscience and are driven to mortify that particular sin. Yet this work is “a pure issue of self-love” by seeking to easy his troubled conscience (74). And so he never comes to the full conversion that his soul truly needs.
Second, building upon the first point, their mortification of particular sins gives them a false peace of their situation. They only ever fight their sin until that have temporary peace restored to them and never actually lay their sin at the foot of the cross in true repentance.
By this means men satisfy themselves that their state and condition is good, seeing they do that which is a work good in itself, and they do not do it to be seen. They know they would have the work done in sincerity, and so are hardened in a kind of self-righteousness.75
Third, when a man continues to fail to mortify a particular sin or sees that sin immediately replaced by another, “he begins at length to think that all contending is in vain, that he shall never be able to prevail” (76). Recall, of course, that Owen previously pointedly out that while sin will never be fully and completely defeated in this life, mortification should be marked by a gradual and progressive victory over our sin. But without the Spirit, such victory is impossible, and the person laments that mortification itself is impossible, not realizing that they first need the Spirit. He warns that “there are not more vile and desperate sinners in the world than such as having by conviction been put on this course, have found it fruitless, and deserted it without a discovery of Christ” (76).
Here he summarizes the overall thoughts so far:
To kill sin is the work of living men; where men are dead, as are all unbelievers (even the best of them), sin is alive, and will live. It is the work of faith, the peculiar work for faith; now if there be a work to be done that will be affected by only one instrument, it is the greatest madness for any to attempt the doing of it who hath not that instrument. Now it is faith that purifies the heart (Acts 15:9); or, as Peter speaks, ‘we purify our souls in obeying the truth through the Spirit’ (1 Pet. 1:22); and without it, it will not be done.76
However, even with this first general rule now explained, Owen continues the chapter by addressing a potential objection that some might have. Side note: directly answering such objections is one of my favorite habits of Puritan writers. The objection is: “what then would you have unregenerate men, that are convinced of the evil of sin, to do” (77)? After all, if the unconverted were to cease mortifying their sin entirely, would the earth not become a living hell?
Owen gives four answers.
First, he notes that God is pleased “to restrain the sons of men from running forth into that compass of excess and riot, which the depravity of their nature would carry them out unto with violence” (77).
There is a peculiar convincing power in the Word, which God is oftentimes pleased to put forth, to the wounding, amazing, and, in some sort, humbling of sinners, though they are never converted. And the Word is to be preached, yet not with this end, though it hath this end. Let, then, the Word be preached, and the sins of men rebuked; lust will be restrained, and some oppositions will be made against sin, though that be not the effect aimed at.77
Third, although the work of mortification is good in itself, all without the Spirit “are still in the gall of bitterness and under the power of darkness” (77).
I take not men from mortification, but put them upon conversion. He that shall call a man from mending a hole in the wall of his house, to quench a fire that is consuming the whole building, is not his enemy. Pour soul! it is not thy sore finger, but thy hectic fever, that thou art to apply thyself to the consideration of. Thou settest thyself against a particular sin, and dost not consider that thou art nothing but sin.78
In the final three pages, Owen speaks directly to “preachers of the Word, or intend through the good hand of God that employment” (78). He warns that while we must labor to show men the danger of their sins (and the danger of particular sins), we must always do so remembering “the proper end of law and gospel” (78). We should labor not to make reformed sinners but new men in Christ. Owen concludes with a lament that we should all share:
It grieves me oftentimes to see poor souls, that have a zeal for God and a desire of eternal welfare, kept by such directors and directions, under a hard, burdensome, outside worship and service of God, with many specious endeavours for mortification, in an utter ignorance of the righteousness of Christ, and un-acquaintedness with his Spirit, all their days.80
Why can an unregenerate person never mortify their sin?
Why is conversion a necessary precursor to the mortification?
What are the dangers of someone who is unconverted attempting to mortify their sins?
Note: page numbers are for this edition of the book.