Owen, ‘How Life and Comfort Depend on Mortification’

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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)

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Owen, ‘Why The Flesh Must be Mortified’

The main point thus far: Even while we claim the meritorious mortification of our sin through the work of the cross of Christ, and though the implantation of our new life in Christ is in opposition to and destructive of the expression of sin, sin remains, acts, and works in the best of believers while we are yet in this world. It must be our constant daily duty to mortify it.

Before proceeding, I cannot but note that even though there is in this generation a growing number of professors, a great noise of religion, religious duties in every corner, and preaching in abundance, there is little evidence of the fruit of true mortification. Perhaps we might find that ,judging by the principle of mortification, the number of true believers is not as multiplied as it appears from those who have made a mere profession. Some speak and profess a spirituality that far exceeds the former days, but their lives given evidence of a miserable unmortified heart. If vain spending of time, idleness, envy, strife, variance, emulations, wrath, pride, worldliness, selfishness (1 Cor 1), are the mark of Christians, we have them among us in abundance. May the good Lord send us a spirit of mortification to cure our distempers, or we will be in a sad condition!

There are two evils which certainly accompany every unmortified professor, the first, in himself, and the second, with respect to others.

First, in himself. The basic characteristic of an unmortified course is the digestion of sin without bitterness in the heart. He who is able to swallow and digest daily sins in his life without conviction in the heart is at the very brink of turning the grace of God into lasciviousness, and being hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.

Let a man pretend what he will, little concern over sin is a serious offence to the grace and mercy of God!

There is no greater evidence of a false and rotten heart in the world than to deal in such a trade. To claim the blood of Christ, which is given to cleanse us (1 John 1:7; Titus 2:14); the exaltation of Christ, which is to give us repentance (Acts 5:31); the doctrine of grace, which teaches us to deny all ungodliness (Titus 2:11-12); and then to allow sin, is a rebellion that in the outcome will break the bones. From this door have gone out from us most of the professors that have apostatized in the days in which we live. For a while most of them were under conviction, and they ‘escaped the defilements of the world through the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ’ (2 Pet 2:20). But after having become acquainted with the doctrines of the gospel, they became weary of their spiritual duties. They had no true desire for these, and they allowed evil instead to lay hold of them, and speedily tumble them into perdition.

Second, to others. Unmortified professors have an evil influence on others in two ways:

i. Others are hardened in their own sin by persuading themselves that they are in just as good a condition as the unmortified professor. They see their zeal for religion, but it is not accompanied with righteousness. They view their worldly and selfish lives. They see them talk spiritually but live vainly. They hear them mention communion with God, and yet they are in every way conformed to the world. They see them boast of forgiveness of sins, and yet never forgive others. Thus, as they see the stain of sin in the unmortified professor, they harden their own hearts in their unregeneracy.

ii. It deceives them to think that if they can just be as good as the unmortified professor it shall be well with them. In reality they might even go farther in ‘holiness’ than the unmortified professor, and yet still fall short of eternal life.

– John Owen, The Mortification of Sin (1656). (Abridged version by Richard Rushing (2004), at 10-12)

I wonder if these words of John Owen, written almost 400 years ago, are equally descriptive of the bride of Christ today?