We come now to the penultimate chapter of John Owen’s classic, The Mortification of Sin. In this chapter Owen concludes his nine directions for making ourselves ready to mortify sin. Next week, he will conclude the book with two final directions for killing our sin before it kills us. The 9th Direction and subject of this chapter is that we must “speak no peace” to our hearts “before God speaks it” (131). In other words, we must not comfort ourselves too quickly. The gospel certainly does bring peace that surpasses all understanding to even chief sinners; however, that peace must come from God, not by our own attempt to balm and quiet our conscience. Owen notes that “this is a business of great importance” because an unwarranted peace is nothing more than self-deception (131).
Owen structures the chapter by, first, making two observations and then giving five rules regarding this direction.
The first observation is that just “as it is the great prerogative and sovereignty of God to give grace to whom he pleases… so… he yet reserves this privilege to himself, to speak peace to whom he pleaseth, and in what degree he pleaseth, even amongst them on whom he hath bestowed grace” (132). The second observation is that just as God creates peace “for whom he pleases, so it is the prerogative of Christ to speak it home to the conscience” (132). He uses Christ’s evaluation of the Laodicean church as an example of such false peace. For Christ warned them:
For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness may not be seen, and slave to anoint your eyes, so that you may see.Revelation 3:17-18
Why does God alone hold to right to give both grace and peace to whom He wills?
With these two observations now in mind, Owen goes on to give five rules. The first rule is that “men certainly speak peace to themselves” when they do not afflict upon their sin “the greatest detestation imaginable” (133). As we look to Christ for salvation, we should also be struck with the horror of realizing that it was our very sin that pierced and killed our Lord. Citing Ezekiel 16:60-61, 2 Corinthians 7:11, and Job 42:6, he notes that “when God comes home to speak peace in a sure covenant of it, it fills the soul with shame for all the ways whereby it hath been alienated from him” (134). Conversely, if we only hate the consequences of our sin but still love the sin itself, Owen notes that “perhaps thou mayest be saved, yet, as through fire, and God will have some work with thee before he hath done: but thou wilt have little peace in this life; thou wilt be sick and fainting all thy days” (136).
The second rule is that may apply the promises of God to our guilt-ridden hearts in a purely rational way. This treats the promises of Scripture as if they were bandages to be measured out an applied to the wounds of our sin, yet Owen warns “this is another appearance upon the mount; the Lord is near, but the Lord is not in it” (137). He gives a hypothetical example of man who is troubled by a persistent sin and turned to the promise of Hosea 14:4: “I will heal their backsliding, I will love them freely.” He then comforts himself with this promise without ever waiting for God Himself to actually apply it to his heart and properly deal with his sin. Although devotionals may certainly be beneficial (I write some myself), is this not a scenario that can easily arise from reading one verse divorced from its context?
Owen then asks a very important question that may have appeared in our minds: “how shall we know when we go alone ourselves, and when the Spirit also doth accompany us” (139)? How can we know the difference between our own peace and the peace that the Spirit gives? His answer is fourfold. First, he assures us that we will soon know if we have spoken peace to ourselves, for that peace will not last long and “God will not let you always err” (139). Second, self-spoken “peace is commonly taken without waiting” (139). Third, such superficial peace “may quiet the conscience and the mind… yet doth not sweeten the heart with rest and gracious contentment” (140). Finally, only the peace of God truly cures sin. Self-spoken peace often leaves us ripe for returning back to the same sin or looking for a new replacement sin.
The third rule is that “we speak peace to ourselves when we do it slightly” (141). Jeremiah 8:11 laments of prophets who “have healed the wound of my people lightly, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace.” A superficial treatment of our sin will inevitably result in its “breaking out again; and thou shalt know that thou art not cured” (141).
The fourth rule is that we speak peace to ourselves whenever we deal with one sin but are unconcerned with another equally hideous sin. The peace that we receive from mortifying one sin is a false peace whenever we still keep another sin within our hearts.
The fifth rule is that our self-spoken peace is rarely accompanied by the humiliation that God brings. “God’s peace is a humbling peace, melting peace, as it was in the case of David (Ps. 51:1)” (142).
“But,” says Owen, “you will say: When may we take the comfort of a promise as our own in relation to some peculiar wound, for the quieting of the heart” (142)? His answer is “when God speaks” (142)! He may do so immediately, or He may make us wait for His peace. If we must wait, we should do so in faith, believing that He is glad to give peace to His children in His own time.
“But,” he adds again, “you will say: We are where we were; when God speaks it, we must receive it; that is true, but how shall we know when he speak” (143)? We do so by “a secret instinct in faith, whereby it knows the voice of Christ when he speaks” (143). Like the bride in Song of Songs, our ear should be attuned to recognizing the voice of our Beloved. We may also know that God has spoken by the fruit that it brings.
If the word of the Lord doth good to your souls, he speaks it. If it humbles, if it cleanse, and be useful for those ends for which promises are given, such as to endear, to cleanse, to melt and bind to obedience, to cause self-emptiness, etc.144
Let us beware of the self-deception of speaking peace to ourselves. Let us root out any secret love of sin within our hearts, however small or concealed it may be. And let us hate our sin with a righteous and absolute hatred!
As you have read this chapter, has the Spirit convicted you of practicing such self-spoken peace?
If there is presently any sin in your life that you have given yourself peace about? How will you now bring it before God and await His peace?
Note: page numbers are for this edition of the book.