In this chapter, Owen discusses the second general rule for mortifying sin: “Without sincerity and diligence in the universality of obedience, there is no mortification of any one perplexing lust to be obtained” (81). In other words, if we are not striving to obey Christ with every aspect of our lives, we will never properly mortify any particular sin that disturbs us. Owen notes that while the first general rule focused upon the nature of the person (only true believers can mortify sin), this one targets the actual act of mortification.
He helpfully explains this rule as follows:
A man finds any lust to bring him into the condition formerly described; it is powerful, strong, tumultuating, lead captive, vexes, disquiets, takes away peace. He is not able to bear it; wherefore he sets himself against it, prays against it, groans under it, sighs to be delivered. But in the mean time, perhaps in other duties, in constant communion with God, in reading, prayer, and meditation, in other ways that are not of the same kind with the lust wherewith he is troubled, he is loose and negligent. Let not that man think that ever he shall arrive to the mortification of the lust he is perplexed with.81
After using Isaiah 58 as an example of the Israelites fasting and seeking after God being rejected because of what they failed to do, he uses the illustration of a sore that is formed out of bad bodily habits, such a poor diet or intemperance with food or drink. Treating the sore may give immediate relief to the pain, but a wholistic solution is needed to prevent further sores from arising. An entire change of habits and diet is required. Attacking a particular sin functions in the same way. To attack it alone because it has begun to fester like a sore ignores the underlying conditions that gave rise to that sin.
Owen then proceeds to make two points. First, he notes that such a strategy for fighting sin is rooted in self-love rather than love of Christ.
Thou settest thyself with all diligence and earnestness to mortify such a lust or sin: what is the reason of it? It disquiets thee; it hath taken away thy peace; it fills thy heart with sorrow and trouble and fear; thou hast no rest because of it. Yea, but, friend, thou hast neglected prayer or reading; thou hast been vain and loose in thy conversation, in other things that have not been of the same nature with that lust wherewith thou art perplexed; these are no less sins and evils than those under which thou groanest; Jesus Christ bled for them also: why dost thou not set thyself against them also? If thou hatest sin as sin, every evil way, thou wouldest be no less watchful against every thing that grieves and disquiets the Spirit of God, than against that which grieves and disquiets thine own soul.82-83
Second, Owen notes that God may permit a particular sin to rise up in order to awaken us to our overall neglect of obedience. In fact, “the rage and predominancy of a particular lust is commonly the fruit and issue of a careless, negligent course in general” (84). Failing to spend time in the Scriptures and in prayer, to gather with God’s people, or any of the other spiritual disciplines creates the ideal environment for sin to take again a foothold in our heart.
He goes on to warn that if we are not vigilant to obey in every way, a sin that we thought was dead may simply rise back up in other area. I have often given similar counsel to young men who believe that getting married will solve their battles with sexual immorality. I warn them that sexual immorality is often rooted in lacking self-control, and while marriage may satisfy one aspect of that lust, it may sooner or later rise back up in other form, such as gluttony, gambling, or overspending. The answer is that we must strive for “a strict, universal watch” over our conduct (84).
He concludes by noting that “God oftentimes suffers it to chasten our other negligences” (84). We must remember that anything that ultimately leads us to repentance is a grace from the Lord. While God gives the wicked entirely over to their sins, He may give over His beloved for a time to their sin in order to awaken us from slumber and lead us to repentance.
He, then, that would really, thoroughly and acceptably mortify any disquieting lust, let him take care to be equally diligent in all parts of obedience; and know that every lust, every omission of duty, is burdensome to God, though but one is so to him.85
May this be true of us.
Why is not enough to simply attack one particular sin?
How does universally striving for obedience also help us fight particular sins?
How can only focusing on one sin give evidence of self-love rather than a love for Christ?
Note: page numbers are for this edition of the book.