In chapter 5 we now move into the second section of the book which covers the nature of mortification. In this chapter John Owen gives us five descriptions of what mortification is not:
Mortification Is Not the Utter Destruction and Death of Sin
“To mortify a sin is not utterly to kill, root it out, and destroy it, that it should have no more hold at all nor residence in our hearts. It is true this is that which is aimed at; but this is not in this life to be accomplished.”
When I first read the above quote I initially disagreed with it. I thought that it was possible to see a particular sin utterly destroyed whilst we are in this life. To support his argument Owen quotes Paul’s letter to the Philippians when the apostle says “Not as though I had already attained, either were already perfect” (Phil. 3:12). After looking at that verse in context I understand the point that Owen is making and would agree that this is what Paul is saying to the Philippians.
Mortification Is Not the Dissimulation of Sin
“When a man on some outward respects forsakes the practice of any sin, men perhaps may look on him as a changed man. God knows that to his former iniquity he has added cursed hypocrisy, and is now on a safer path to hell than he was before. He has got another heart than he had, that is more cunning; not a new heart, that is more holy.”
So often we humans look at outwards appearances. However God looks at the heart, for example in the calling of David as a future king of Israel. We need to remember that it is the heart that is important not outward appearances.
Mortification Is Not the Improvement of a Quiet, Sedate Nature
“Some men have an advantage by their natural constitution so far as that they are not exposed to such violence of unruly passions and tumultuous affections as many others are. Let now these men cultivate and improve their natural frame and temper by discipline, consideration, and prudence, and they may seem to themselves and others very mortified men, when, perhaps, their hearts are a standing sink of all abominations. Some man is never so much troubled all his life, perhaps, with anger and passion, nor does trouble others, as another is almost every day; and yet the latter has done more to the mortification of the sin than the former.”
I do sometimes envy those who are of a quiet, sedate nature. On many occasions, especially at work, I’ve wished I could be more like that. However as Owen says we do not know what is happening in their hearts and the state of them.
Mortification Is Not the Diversion of Sin
“A man may be sensible of a lust, set himself against the eruptions of it, take care that it shall not break forth as it has done, but in the meantime suffer the same corrupted habit to vent itself some other way; as he who heals and skins a running sore thinks himself cured, but in the meantime his flesh festers by the corruption of the same humour, and breaks out in another place………… Men in [old] age do not usually persist in the pursuit of youthful lusts, although they have never mortified any one of them. And the same is the case of bartering of lusts, and leaving to serve one that a man may serve another. He that changes pride for worldliness, sensuality for Pharisaism, vanity in himself to the contempt of others, let him not think that he has mortified the sin that he seems to have left. He has changed his master, but is a servant still.”
Mortification Is Not Just Occasional Conquests Over Sin
Owen here speaks of two occasions or seasons where a man may believe that he has mortified a particular sin. Although this is a long quote it’s worth reading in full:
“When it has had some sad eruption, to the disturbance of his peace, terror of his conscience, dread of scandal, and evident provocation of God. This awakens and stirs up all that is in the man, and amazes him, fills him with abhorrency of sin and himself for it; sends him to God, makes him cry out as for life, to abhor his lust as hell and to set himself against it. The whole man, spiritual and natural, being now awakened, sin shrinks in its head, appears not, but lies as dead before him: as when one that has drawn nigh to an army in the night, and has killed a principal person—instantly the guards awake, men are roused up, and strict inquiry is made after the enemy, who, in the meantime, until the noise and tumult be over, hides himself, or lies like one that is dead, yet with firm resolution to do the like mischief again upon the like opportunity. Upon the sin among the Corinthians, see how they muster up themselves for the surprise and destruction of it (2 Cor. 7:11). So it is in a person when a breach has been made upon his conscience, quiet, perhaps credit, by his lust, in some eruption of actual sin—carefulness, indignation, desire, fear, revenge, are all set on work about it and against it, and lust is quiet for a season, being run down before them; but when the hurry is over and the inquest past, the thief appears again alive, and is as busy as ever at his work.
In a time of some judgment, calamity, or pressing affliction, the heart is then taken up with thoughts and contrivances of flying from the present troubles, fears, and dangers. This, as a convinced person concludes, is to be done only by relinquishment of sin, which gains peace with God. It is the anger of
God in every affliction that galls a convinced person. To be quit of this, men resolve at such times against their sins. Sin shall never more have any place in them; they will never again give up themselves to the service of it. Accordingly, sin is quiet, stirs not, seems to be mortified; not, indeed, that it has received any one wound, but merely because the soul has possessed its faculties, whereby it should exert itself, with thoughts inconsistent with the motions thereof; which, when they are laid aside, sin returns again to its former life and vigour. So they are a full instance and description of this frame of spirit whereof I speak:
For all this they sinned still, and believed not for his wondrous works. Therefore their days did he consume in vanity, and their years in trouble. When he slew them, then they sought him: and they returned and inquired early after God. And they remembered that God was their rock, and the high God their redeemer. Nevertheless they did flatter him with their mouth, and they lied unto him with their tongues. For their heart was not right with him, neither were they steadfast in his covenant. (Ps. 78:32-37)
I no way doubt but that when they sought, and returned, and inquired early after God, they did it with full purpose of heart as to the relinquishment of their sins; it is expressed in the word “returned.” To turn or return to the Lord is by a relinquishment of sin. This they did “early”—with earnestness and diligence—but yet their sin was unmortified for all this (vv. 36-37). And this
is the state of many humiliations in the days of affliction, and a great deceit in the hearts of believers themselves lies oftentimes herein.
These and many other ways there are whereby poor souls deceive themselves, and suppose they have mortified their lusts, when they live and are mighty, and on every occasion break forth, to their disturbance and disquietness.”
Deeply challenging words!