As we walk with our God we desire greatly His strength, comfort, power and peace. The realisation of these, and thus the joy of our spiritual life, depends greatly upon the mortification of sin.
Owen acknowledges that there is no necessary tie between mortification and these things – ‘the use of means for the obtaining of peace is ours; the bestowing of it is God’s prerogative’. He also notes that mortification is not the ‘immediate means that God has instituted to give us life, vigour, courage and consolation’; that would be adoption (cf Rom 8:16).
However, he goes on to explain:
In our ordinary walking with God, and in the ordinary course of His dealing with us, the vigour and comfort of our spiritual lives depend much on our mortification. Mortification not only bears a cause-and-effect relationship to our joy, but it works effectually to bring it to pass. The vigour of our spiritual lives is not possible apart from mortification.
Mortification prevents sin from depriving us of health in our spiritual life. Every unmortified sin will certainly do two things:
- It will weaken the soul, and deprive it of its vigour. When David had, for a while, harboured an unmortified lust in his heart, it broke all his bones, and left him no spiritual strength; hence he complained that he was sick, weak, wounded, faint. ‘There is,’ he said, ‘no soundness in my flesh’ (Psa 38:3); ‘I am feeble and crushed’ (v8). Indeed, I cannot so much as ‘look up’ (Psa 40:12, AV). An unmortified lust will drink up the spirit, and all the vigour of the soul, and weaken it for all duties. For:
- Sin untunes and unframes the heart itself, by entangling its affections. It diverts the heart from the spiritual frame that is required for vigorous communion with God. It lays hold on the affections, rendering its object beloved and desirable, so expelling the love of the Father (1 John 2:15; 3:17). The unmortified soul cannot say uprightly and truly that God is its portion, having something else that it loves. The soul and its affections, that should be full of God, cannot be full of Him, since it is entangled in worldly pursuits.
- Sin fills the thoughts with its enticements. First it captures the thoughts and, if unmortified, it then seeks to make provision for and fulfil the lusts of the flesh.
- Sin breaks out and actually hinders duty. The ambitious man must be studying, the worldling must be working or contriving, and the sensual, vain person providing vanity for himself, when they should be engaged in the worship of God. It would extend this discourse too much o set forth the breaches, ruin, weakness, and desolations that one unmortified lust will bring upon a soul.
- Sin will also darken the soul, and deprive it of its comfort and peace. Sin darkens the soul. It is a cloud, a thick cloud, that spreads itself over the face of the soul, and intercepts all the beams of God’s love and favour. It takes away all sense of the privilege of our adoption; and if the soul begins to gather up thoughts of consolation, sin quickly scatters them.
Mortification prunes all the graces of God, and makes room for them in our hearts to grow. The life and vigour of our spiritual life consists in the vigor and flourishing of the plants of grace in our hearts. Now, as you may see in a garden, let there be a precious herb planted, and let the ground be untilled, and the weeds grow about it, perhaps it will live still, but it will be a poor, withering and unuseful thing. You must look and search for it, and sometimes can scarce find it; and when you do, you can scarce know it, whether it is the plant you look for or not; and suppose it is, you can make no use of it at all. But let another of the same kind be set into he ground, naturally as barren and bad as the other, but let it be well weeded, and every thing that is noxious and hurtful removed from it, it flourishes and thrives; you may see it at first glance into the garden, and have it for your use when you please.
So it is with the graces of the Spirit that are planted in our hearts. If they abide in a heart where there is some neglect of mortification, and they are about to die (Rev 3:2), they are withering and decaying. The heart is like the sluggard’s field, so overgrown with weeds that you can scarce see the good corn. Such a man may search for faith, love, and zeal, and scarce be able to find any. If he does discover that these graces are there and alive, yet they are so weak and so clogged with lusts, they are of very little use; they remain, indeed, but are ready to die.
But now let the heart be cleansed by mortification, and the weeds of lust constantly and daily rooted up (as they spring daily, nature being their proper soil), there will be room for grace to thrive and flourish, the graces that God gives will act their part, and be ready for every use and purpose!
– John Owen, ‘How Life and Comfort Depend on Mortification’ (Ch 2 in his The Mortification of Sin, abridged by Richard Rushing)