In Part One of this article, I encouraged you to make it a goal for yourself in the new year to begin putting sin to death, and I introduced you to John Owen’s seminal work, The Mortification of Sin. Romans 8:13 is Owen’s key verse: “For if you live according to the flesh you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death (mortify) the deeds of the body, you will live” (New King James). He began by defining what it means to mortify, or put to death, sin, and why it’s the duty of every Christian to do so. He pointed out that only true believers can engage in the work of mortifying sin, because an unconverted person who has not been given a new nature or the Holy Spirit, can never make himself righteous.
Next Owen goes on to offer practical ways of dealing with sin in one’s life. He states that mortifying a specific sin involves three things:
- Habitual weakening of it. Different sins reside in every individual in different degrees. If a particular sin is deeply rooted, it will take every opportunity to strengthen and grow, so we must be diligent to not give it such an opportunity.
- Constant fight and contending against sin. This involves identifying and knowing the enemy – its history, methods and weaknesses.
- Success in weakening indwelling sin. This is best done by implanting that which is the opposite. For example, Owen explains, “by the implanting and growth of humility is pride weakened, passion by patience, uncleanness by purity of mind and conscience, love of this world by heavenly-mindedness, which are graces of the Spirit…”
Owen offers a few danger signs that indicate that serious attention and action need to be taken. One of these signs is inveterateness – something you have been allowing and tolerating for a long time. The conscience becomes seared by regularly ignoring a particular sin:
When a lust hath lain long in the heart, corrupting, festering, cankering, it brings the soul to a woeful condition…it grows familiar to the mind and conscience, that they do not startle at it as a strange thing…Indwelling distemper grows restive an d stubborn by continuance in ease and quiet… As it never dies of itself, so if it be not daily killed, it will always gather strength.
Another bad sign is when attempts are made to excuse, justify, or rationalize away sin. When we don’t consider the seriousness of sin, but just say to ourselves, “It’s just a little thing,” and when a certain sin is frequently successful this enables and strengthens it. If sin is consented to, even if only inwardly and not actually acted upon, it has been successful. There may be a number of self-centered reasons that a person may choose not to act on a sinful thought or idea, such as the inconvenience of doing so or the possible negative consequences. But being negligent and careless regarding sin is, practically-speaking, the same as being willing to accept and tolerate it. This is also dangerous.
By way of illustration, my husband has a lawn care business which focuses on fertilization and weed management, including the notorious crabgrass. Occasionally he visits a lawn that has been neglected for a long period of time and finds that there are more weeds than actual grass, and the grass that is there is unhealthy. He often reminds his customers that the weeds will never be completely gone because the seeds are deep in the soil. Consistency and vigilance are needed in order to stay on top of them. Owen uses this very analogy to convey to the reader what sin is like and the purpose and importance of mortifying it. Owen states, “Mortification prunes all the graces of God, and makes room for them in our hearts to grow. The life and vigour of our spiritual lives consists in the vigour and flourishing of the plants of grace in our hearts.” Owen goes on to compare the heart of the believer with a garden in which herbs and useful plants have been planted, but when left unattended weeds and thorns will grow around them and make them weak and unhealthy. He explains,
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; and if he do discover that these graces are there, still alive and sincere, yet they are so weak, so clogged with lusts, that they are of very little use; they remain indeed, but are ready to die.
This is why we need to often search our hearts and work to root out the weeds of sin. We always have to be diligent in this because as long as we live in these mortal bodies, we will never be able to completely root out or destroy all indwelling sin. This can be discouraging to some, but it should serve to humble us and cause us to constantly look to and depend on Christ, for without Him we can do nothing.
Different occasions, opportunities, and temptations feed different lusts of the natural man. While we know that God is not the author of sin, nor causes or tempts us to sin (James 1), could it be that He places us into situations that will expose areas of sin in our life so that they can be dealt with? Sort of like a metallurgist who boils metal to strain out the impurities that would otherwise remain hidden? When my children were younger, I recall observing that I never realized I had a problem with anger until I had disobedient children to deal with. It’s easy for someone to say they don’t have a problem with a particular sin (say, hatred, envy, or adultery) if he has never been in a situation which really tempted him to sin in that particular way.
When addressing specific sin, Owen suggests considering the following:
- The guilt of sin. In a believer, grace weakens the power of sin, but strengthens the guilt of sin. However, the heart is deceptive and will try to make light of and minimize sin
- The dangers of sin. Consider the deceitfulness of it, and the judgment and punishment which it deserves and may follow. “While any one abides under an abiding power of sin, the threats of destruction and everlasting separation from God are to be held out to him.”
- The evils of it. Sin grieves the Holy Spirit and shames and insults the person, work and name of Christ, who died to pay for it. It also pleases the Enemy and damages your testimony and effectiveness for the Kingdom of God.
Next Owen offers further practical advice and direction for dealing with sin, including:
1) Keep one’s conscience sensitive to the guilt of it by bringing it under the lens of both the Law and the Gospel. Some Christians like to stress the idea that “we are no longer under the law but under grace,” and this they interpret to mean that we are no longer under any obligation to keep the Law of God – it’s irrelevant. However, Owen points out that it’s the law of God which shows us our sin and holds up before us the standard of holiness; this reminds me of a hymn we sing at our church:
The Law of God is good and wise, and sets His will before our eyes; Shows us the way of righteousness, and dooms to death when we transgress.
Its light of holiness imparts the knowledge of our sinful hearts,
That we may see our lost estate and seek deliverance ere too late.
To those who help in Christ have found and would in works of love abound, It shows what deeds are his delight and should be done as good and right.
The believer, like the Psalmist, should love the Law of God, not hate it. God uses his Law not only to convict lost men, but to expose sin in converted men as well, and to bring us to sorrow and repentance over it. Being regularly under the ministry of the preached Word is essential for this.
2) Avoid opportunities and situations which may give sin an advantage. “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?” Makes total sense: If a particular food makes you ill, you eliminate it from your diet, right? If you’re allergic to cats, you avoid being around cats. We need to thoughtful evaluate what tends to lead us into sin – people, places, situations, activities – and AVOID them when possible!
3) Take action at the first notice of sin arising. If you give sin and inch, it will take a mile. Make every effort to stop sin in its tracks and nip it in the bud as soon as it rears its ugly head. “It is impossible to fix bounds to sin. It is like water in a channel; it if once break out, it will have its course.” The smallest sin can and will develop into a monster if left unchecked.
4) Continually encourage and stimulate the desire for deliverance from sin’s power. We can become accepting and tolerant of a particular sin, especially if it’s part of our natural temperament. However our natural tendency towards certain sins is evidence of the sinful nature that dwells within us, and we need to give extra vigilant attention to these sins.
5) Read and contemplate often on the greatness, majesty, and holiness of God. This will always help to give you a right view of your sinfulness. “There is nothing that will create in you a great indisposition to be imposed on by the deceits of sin, than such a frame of mind.”
In the last chapter, Owen reminds us of the roles of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, whom we have helping and sanctifying us. As our great High Priest, Christ suffered and died to destroy sin and to present us holy and blameless (Col. 1:22), and He continues to intercede for us before the Father. We have also been given the Spirit, “who alone clearly and fully convinces the heart of the evil, and guilt, and danger of the corruption, lust or sin to be mortified; without this conviction, there will be no thorough work made.” The Spirit also assists, empowers, and encourages us, and intercedes for us when we pray. When you are in the midst of the struggle, remember,
In thy greatest distress and anguish, consider that fullness of grace, those riches, those treasures of strength, might and help, that are laid up in [Christ] for our support.
Note: The Mortification of Sin is a book I’ve included on my list of non-fiction works I believe every Christian should read.
- Biography of John Owen (www.ccel.org)
- Overcoming Sin and Temptation (www.johnowen.org)
- The Essential Owen (theessentialowen.com)
- Packer on Owen on Mortification (banneroftruth.org)
- Tim Challies’ series (www.challies.com)
- Mortification of Sin Cheat Sheet (fallenflawed.com)
- Danger Signs (michelemorin.wordpress.com)