Having explained mortification and given principles and general rules to mortifying sin, Owen now begins in this chapter to give specific directions for killing sin. Chapter 9 is devoted entirely to the first direction, which is that we must consider a few dangerous symptoms of sin in order to see if it is particularly deadly. He goes on to list six symptoms that mark such deadly lusts that, if observed, mean that “extraordinary remedies are to be used; an ordinary course of mortification will not do it” (87).
The first symptom is inveterateness, meaning that it is persistent, chronic, and habitual. He notes the danger of such a condition:
When a lust hath lain long in the heart, corrupting, festering, cankering, it brings the soul to a woeful condition. In such a case an ordinary course of humiliation will not do the work. For, whatever it will be, it will, by the means foregoing, insinuate itself more or less into all the faculties of the soul, and habituate the affections to its company and society; it grows familiar to the mind and conscience, that they do not startle at it as a strange thing, but are bold with it as that which they are wonted unto; yea, it will get such advantage by this means as oftentimes to exert and put forth itself without having any notice taken of it at all, as it seems to have been with Joseph in his swearing by the life of Pharaoh. Unless some extraordinary course be taken, such a person hath no ground in the world to expect that his latter end shall be peace.88
Owen compares such neglected sins to wounds, which is an analogy that we can take a bit further. A cut or puncture to the skin may be painful but care by cleaning and antiseptics prevent the wound from becoming infected. However, if an infection is allowed to develop, antibiotics must be brought in because the condition has worsened. If the infection too remains untreated, it can seep into the blood and causing sepsis, which then needs to be treated immediately if the illness is to be overcome. In the same way, a sin that is immediately dealt with is always easier to kill than one that has been long neglected.
A second symptom is when our heart longs for the peace of being right with God without ever attempting to mortify our sin. He describes two ways in which this might be done. First, evidences of salvation can be used as superficial balm to the conscience. He happily notes that Scripture calls us to examine the proofs that we truly belong to God; however, “to do it for this end, to satisfy conscience which cries and calls for another purpose, is a desperate device of a heart in love with sin” (90). Second, we can apply “grace and mercy to an unmortified sin” (90). Again, grace and mercy are happily given by God to us in abundance, yet the usage of grace and mercy to excuse sin is a deceit and perversion of God’s gifts. After noting these two patterns, Owen concludes this symptom with a warning:
Now, when a man with his sin is in this condition, and there is a secret liking of the sin prevalent in his heart, so that, though his will be not wholly set upon it, yet he hath an imperfect willingness towards it, would practise it were it not for such and such considerations, and hereupon relieves himself other ways than by the mortification and pardon of it in the blood of Christ; that man’s wounds stink and are corrupt, and he will, without speedy deliverance, be at the door of death.91
Symptom number three is when the “frequency of success in sin’s seduction” is high (91). Owen notes that success here should be viewed as being whenever sin “gets the consent of the will with some delight, though it be not actually outwardly perpetrated” (92). Even if sin rarely or never is acted upon, it may still have success by rooting itself into our heart. Indeed, Proverbs 4:23 rightly warns us to “keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life.”
Fourth, if a sin is only fought against because of its negative effects, that is another symptom of the sin’s great danger. “Such a man as opposes nothing to the seduction of sin and lust in his heart, but fear of shame among men or hell from God, is sufficiently resolved to do the sin, if there were no punishment attending it” (92-93). He goes on to question whether such “victory” over sin is even better than living in sin at all. Such warring against sin is done through “arms of the law” rather than “with gospel weapons.” Fear of punishment, hell, or humiliation is certainly a motivation for killing sin; however, if such fears are our only motives, then we fight sin out of love of self rather than from a love of Christ. The gospel principles that we should look to include: “the death of Christ, the love of God, the detestable nature of sin, the preciousness of communion with God, a deep-grounded abhorrency of sin as sin” (93).
A fifth symptom is whenever God is using a fresh sin as corrective discipline for a previously neglected sin. Owen then asks the logical question: “how shall a man know whether there be any thing of God’s chastening hand in his being left to the disquietment of his distemper” (94)? His answer:
Examine thy heart and ways. What was the state and condition of thy soul before thou fellest into the entanglement of that sin of which now thou so complainest? Hadst thou been negligent in duties? Hadst thou lived inordinately to thyself? Is there the guilt of any great sin lying upon thee unrepented of? A new sin may be permitted, as well as a new affliction sent, to bring an old sin to remembrance… If thou findest this to have been thy state, awake, call upon God; thou art fast asleep in a storm of anger round about thee.95
The sixth and final symptom that Owen lists is when it is a sin that God has already dealt with before. He notes that God, particularly through the reading and hearing of His Word, may strike “directly on their bosom-beloved lust”, which “makes him engage to the mortification and relinquishment of the evil of his heart” (96). Yet if that sin then breaks the “bonds of the Lord” and “overcomes these convictions” so that it returns to “its old posture”, “that soul is in a sad condition” (96).
Unspeakable are the evils which attend such a frame of heart; every particular warning to a man in such a state is an inestimable mercy; how then doth he despise God in them who holds out against them! And what infinite patience is this in God that he doth not cast off such a one, and swear in his wrath that he shall never enter into his rest!96
All of these are evidences that a particular sin “is dangerous, if not mortal.” What then are we to do if we find ourselves with some of these symptoms. “As our Saviour said of the evil spirit, ‘This kind goeth not out but by fasting and prayer’, so say I of lust of this kind; an ordinary course of mortification will not do it; extraordinary ways must be fixed on” (96). Let cries of repentance be made day and night until by the Spirit’s power the sin is uprooted and the love of Christ is deepened.
Owen concludes with the chapter with a final warning about not using any of these symptoms as evidences of being a true believer, which would be like an adulterer concluding that he was a believer simply because David was a believer who committed adultery. Instead, Owen writes, “he that hath these things in himself may safely conclude, ‘If I am a believer, I am a most miserable one.’ But that any man is so, he must look for other evidences, if he will have peace” (97).
Why are these six symptoms evidences of a particularly dangerous sin?
Upon self-examination, do you find any of these symptoms in yourself?
If so, how will you respond to Owen’s warnings?
Note: page numbers are for this edition of the book.