Having established the first direction for mortifying sin in the previous chapter, Owen now moves on to discuss the second direction: “Get a clear and abiding sense upon thy mind and conscience, first, of the guilt, secondly, of the danger, thirdly, of the evil, of that sin wherewith thou art perplexed” (99). The chapter is then spent explaining these three points.
First, we must consider clearly the guilt of sin. As we will see next week as well, this instruction runs contrary to modern sensibilities. The default advice today is to diminish guilt as quickly as possible because no one should be made to feel something so negative. Yet sin rightly warrants guilt, even though it is quick to hide that fact for fear that guilt might lead to repentance.
On this point, Owen makes two subpoints. He first notes that guilt is actually heightened in believers, even though they are no longer under sin’s dominion. The greater guilt comes with having received greater grace, mercy, love, etc. “There is inconceivably more evil and guilt in the evil of thy heart that doth remain, than there would be in so much sin if thou hadst no grace at all” (101). He then points out that just as God beholds our good works and godly desires with greater favor than those of non-Christians, so He also views the “evil in the working of lust” in our hearts as “more than in the open notorious acts of wicked men” (101). This, of course, makes sense given how Hebrews 12 speaks of God’s discipline only being given to His children. A child that is not my own will need to do much more than my own children to elicit pleasure or grief from me.
Why should a Christian likely feel more guilt over sin than a non-Christian?
What is the benefit of guilt?
Second, Owen warns that we must consider the danger of sin. He then presents four dangers. The first is the danger of being hardened. He takes this warning from Hebrews 3:12-13, which in the ESV reads, “Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.” Owen remarks of such a hardening:
Can a sadder thing befall thee? Is it not enough to make any heart to tremble, to think of being brought into that state wherein slight thoughts of sin, slight thoughts of grace, of mercy, of the blood of Christ, of the law, heaven and hell, should come all in at the same season? Take heed; this is that thy lusting is working towards; even to the hardening of the heart, searing of the conscience, blinding of the mind, stupefying of the affections and deceiving of the whole soul.102-103
Sin also brings “the danger of some great temporal correction” (103). he explains that “though God shall not utterly cast thee off for this abomination that lies in thy heart, yet he will visit with the rod: though he pardon and forgive, he will take vengeance of thy inventions” (103). Considering God’s affliction upon David for his sins, Owen asks us if it would be nothing in our eyes for God to afflict us in similar ways in order to awaken us to the danger of our sin.
The third danger is a “loss of peace and strength, all a man’s days” (103). Peace with God and strength to obey Him are “the sum of the great promises of the covenant of grace… Without them in some comfortable measure, to live is to die” (103). He then gives a stark warning that we never know if in just a short time the Lord will remove peace from us: “perhaps by tomorrow thou shalt not be able to pray, read, hear or perform any duties with the least cheerfulness, life or vigour” (104).
The fourth danger is “of eternal destruction” (105). While this may sound like a danger that Christians have no concern for, Owen references Hebrews 3:12 and Hebrews 10:38 as evidences that continuing in sin leads to eternal destruction. “though God does resolve to deliver some from a continuance in sin that they may not be destroyed, yet he will deliver none from destruction that continue to sin” (105). He further notes that anyone who is entangled in sin foregoes the assurance of their salvation. They may indeed truly be saved, but their persistence in sin negates their assurance. Owen cites Romans 8:1 as the powerful promise of salvation, yet he notes that Romans 8:4 applies that promise to those who walk by the Spirit rather than the flesh.
Why should a Christian who continues to commit the same sin be warned of the dangers above?
Third, we must consider the evils of sin, which he separates from dangers as belonging to the present while dangers belong to the future. He gives three evils that come from sin. The first is that sin grieves the Holy Spirit.
Among those who walk with God, there is no greater motive and incentive unto universal holiness, to the preserving of their hearts and spirits in all purity and cleanness, than this, that the blessed Spirit, who hath undertaken to dwell in them as temples of God and to preserve them meet for him who so dwells in them, is continually considering what they give entertainment in their hearts unto, and rejoiceth when his temple is kept and undefiled.107
The second is that sin wounds Jesus afresh. Using the imagery of Hebrews, Owen says that just “as a total relinquishment of him by the deceitfulness of sin is the crucifying him afresh, and the putting him to open shame; so, every harbouring of sin that he came to destroy, wounds and grieves him” (108).
The third is that sin will strip a man of his usefulness. He warns particularly of preachers who “harbour spirit-devouring lusts in their bosoms, which lie as worms at the root of their obedience, and corrode and weaken it day by day” (108).
How can thinking over these evils of sin help mortify sin?
The chapter is concluded with a final appeal to meditate much upon these things, the guilt, danger, and evil of sin. Let them may us tremble so that we must fall upon the Lord for comfort and stability.
Note: page numbers are for this edition of the book.