With Owen’s first two directions for mortifying sin covered by the previous two chapters, our present chapter continues with not one but five more directions to follow (3-7).
Direction 3, as alluded to last week, is to “load thy conscience with the guilt of it. Not only consider that it hath a guilt, but load thy conscience with the guilt of its actual eruptions and disturbances” (109). Again, this counsel runs in direct opposition to our culture. Today, since happiness is a prime virtue, guilt is seen as an evil that robs us of happiness and must, therefore, be destroyed.
Owen calls us first to use God’s method of feeling the guilt of our sin, namely, through His law. “Perhaps thy conscience will invent shifts and evasions to keep off the power of this consideration”, Owen warns, “as, that condemning power of the law doth not belong to thee, that thou art set free from it and the like; and that so, though thou be not conformable to it, yet thou needest not to be so much troubled by it. But, tell thy conscience that it cannot manage any evidence to the purpose that thou art not free from the condemning power of sin, whilst thy unmortified lust lies in thy heart; so that, perhaps, the law may make good its pleas against thee for a full dominion, and then thou art a lost creature. Wherefore it is best to ponder to the utmost what it hath to say” (109-110).
The law of God is still in effect for all who are under the grace of Christ. We are not bound nor condemned under the law, yet it is a mirror through which we are able to see our sin and self clearly. It displays to us the depths of our sin, at which point we can take our sin to the cross of Christ. This is the law’s work in us presently, and to ignore it entirely is a grievous danger. Owen notes that many have fallen into apostasy by convincing themselves that they have entirely transcended the law (which inevitably only means that they have become their own law).
He also notes that we must bring our sin “to the gospel, not for relief, but for further conviction of its guilt: look on him whom thou hast pierced, and be in bitterness” (111). If there is anything that will make us come to hate our sin, it should be thought of how our continued sin is committed in mockery of the cross and grace of Christ. “If this make it not sink in some measure, and melt, I fear thy case is dangerous” (112).
Lastly, still under the discussion of loading your conscience with guilt, Owen counsels us to “descend to particulars” (112). “Consider”, he says, “the infinite patience and forbearance of God towards thee in particular” (112). How often have we been on the brink of despairing that we have sinned too much, that our hearts have become too hardened? Yet God still gives us His mercy and love. Do not swerve from the rightful guilt of such faithlessness. “While the conscience hath any means to alleviate the guilt of sin, the soul will never vigorously attempt its mortification” (113).
How should a Christian now rightly use the law to lead us to repentance?
In what ways do you attempt to wiggle out guilt over your sin?
The 4th Direction is to “get a constant longing and breathing after deliverance from the power of” sin (113). Owen notes that “in things natural and civil” longing desires are only valuable as the object that they are directing us toward. Longing for deliverance, however, “is a grace in itself, that that a mighty power to conform the soul into the likeness of the thing longed after” (114). Such a longing for rescue from our sin is the only thing that will drive us to actually mortify our sin, to bring it without ceasing before God’s throne until He delivers us. “Assure thyself, unless thou longest for deliverance, thou shalt not have it” (114).
Pause right now and pray to God for a deep longing to be free from sin.
In Direction 5, Owen urges us to “consider whether the distemper with which thou art perplexed, be not rooted in thy nature, and cherished, fomented and heightened from they constitution. A proneness to some sins may doubtless lie in the natural temper and disposition of men” (114-115). He immediately addresses the first thought that may enter our minds have hearing such a statement: “This is not in the least an extenuation of the guilt of thy sin” (115). A natural disposition toward a particular sin does not excuse you of that sin; instead, it only means that you must be hyper-vigilant against such a sin, whereas others may not struggle with that sin at all. Of course, we should remember that because everyone has different dispositions, everyone will also have a natural tendency toward different sins. Like Lewis, I can safely say that gambling is not a vice that I feel any draw towards; however, I am aware of the reality that gambling has utterly destroyed the lives of many. We must be aware of our own particular faults, so that we can be particularly watchful for sin’s grasp in those areas.
Helpfully, Owen encourages us to use means such as fasting to cut “short the natural appetite” (116). He points out that in response to the Catholic emphasis upon such actions, many protestants of his day had fallen into the opposite extreme of neglecting entirely such “means of humiliation which by God himself are owned and appointed” (116).
What are some sins that you are naturally drawn toward?
How can you be particularly watchful against those sins?
The 6th Direction is that we should consider that circumstances during which we fall into sin. He notes that “men will do this with respect to their bodily infirmities and distempers: the seasons, the diet, the air that have proved offensive shall be avoided. Are the things of the soul of less importance” (117)? If this sounds like a point that should be expounded upon much more significantly, Owen had the same thought and wrote a treatise on understanding and repelling temptation, which we may one day read through as well.
Take time to consider the circumstances of a particular sin that you are mortifying. How might you lessen the temptation to that sin by modifying or avoiding entirely those circumstances?
Finally, he closes the chapter with the 7th Direction: “Rise mightily against the first actings of thy distemper, its first conceptions” (118). If given a chance, all sin will take us all the way to destruction and death; therefore, we should strive to cut sin off as soon as it is noticed. I am currently battling to remove poison ivy from our new home, so I see this point brought to life. When the leaves are young and the plant is first starting to the spread, ripping it out of the ground is relatively simple. My arms, however, bear the itchy consequences of time spent pulling up roots that had begun to run deep. Root out sin at the first sight of it, and the battle will be easier for it. Put off mortification at your own harm and peril later.
Pray for grace this week to notice your sins at their first appearance so that you can kill them from the beginning.
Note: page numbers are for this edition of the book.