John Owen in the 3rd chapter of The Mortification of Sin writes “The Holy Spirit is the great sovereign cause of the mortification of indwelling sin.”
I think many of us can agree that any other remedies simply do not work. It does not matter how much we try ourselves we cannot do it. We can pray, fast and make countless resolutions but that will not kill the sin in our lives. Only the Holy Spirit can do this.
So why is mortification the work of the Spirit? Owen gives two reasons:
He is promised of God to be given unto us to do this work.
“The taking away of the stony heart—that is, the stubborn, proud, rebellious, unbelieving heart—is in general the work of mortification that we treat of. Now this is still promised to be done by the Spirit, “I will give my Spirit, and take away the stony heart” (Ezek. 11:19; 36:26), and by the Spirit of God is this work wrought when all means fail (Isa. 57:17-18).”
We have all our mortification from the gift of Christ, and all the gifts of Christ are communicated to us and given us by the Spirit of Christ:
“Without Christ we can do nothing” (John 15:5). All communications of supplies and relief, in the beginnings, increasings, actings of any grace whatsoever, from him, are by the Spirit, by whom he alone works in and upon believers. From him we have our mortification…….”
Owen then provides three answers to the question of how the Spirit Mortifies Sin:
By causing our hearts to abound in grace and the fruits that are contrary to the flesh, and the fruits thereof and principles of them.
The author reminds us that the fruits of the flesh (Gal 5:19-21) oppose the fruits of the Spirit (Gal 5: 22-23). It is not possible to abound in both the fruits of the flesh and the fruits of the Spirit at the same time. Christ’s followers are told to crucify the flesh, with its desires, and instead live and walk in the Spirit.
Owen goes onto say “This “renewing of us by the Holy Ghost,” as it is called (Titus 3:5), is one great way of mortification; he causes us to grow, thrive, flourish, and abound in those graces which are contrary, opposite, and destructive to all the fruits of the flesh, and to the quiet or thriving of indwelling sin itself.”
By a real physical efficiency on the root and habit of sin, for the weakening, destroying, and taking it away.
The Holy Spirit is the one who “burns up the very root of lust.” This is a deep work that only the Holy Spirit can do.
He brings the cross of Christ into the heart of a sinner by faith, and gives us communion with Christ in his death and fellowship in his sufferings.
Owen now asks two very valid questions:
- If the Spirit Alone Mortifies Sin, Why Are We Exhorted to Mortify It?
- If this be the work of the Spirit alone, how is it that we are exhorted to it?—seeing the Spirit of God only can do it, let the work be left wholly to him.
He addresses these questions as follows:
It is no otherwise the work of the Spirit but as all graces and good works which are in us are his.
He “works in us to will and to do of his own good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13); he works “all our works in us” (Isa. 26:12)—“the work of faith with power” (2 Thess. 1:11; Col. 2:12); he causes us to pray, and is a “spirit of supplication” (Rom. 8:26; Zech. 12:10); and yet we are exhorted, and are to be exhorted, to all these.
He does not so work our mortification in us as not to keep it still an act of our obedience.
The Holy Ghost works in us and upon us, as we are fit to be wrought in and upon; that is, so as to preserve our own liberty and free obedience. He works upon our understandings, wills, consciences, and affections, agreeably to their own natures; he works in us and with us, not against us or without us; so that his assistance is an encouragement as to the facilitating of the work, and no occasion of neglect as to the work itself.
Owen concludes this chapter by looking at those who after being convicted of sin attempt to defeat it without the Holy Spirit and describes them as being involved in “the saddest warfare that any poor creature can be engaged in”.