RCT: The Nature of Mortification (Ch. 5)


Chapter 5 begins the second section of Owen’s book, Overcoming Sin and Temptation. The first four chapters detailed that it is the Christian’s duty to “be killing sin or it will be killing you.” Now Owen is going to explain what it means to mortify (kill) sin. I am really hoping for more practical help from Owen. He’s convinced me to get serious, now I want to know what that looks like.

See if you can relate:

Suppose a man to be a true believer, and yet finds in himself a powerful indwelling sin, leading him captive to the law of it, consuming his heart with trouble, perplexing his thoughts, weakening his soul as to duties of communion with God, disquieting him as to peace, and perhaps defiling his conscience, and exposing him to hardening through the deceitfulness of sin, what shall he do? What course shall he take and insist on for the mortification of this sin, lust, distemper, or corruption, to such a degree as that, though it be not utterly destroyed, yet, in his contest with it, he may be enabled to keep up power, strength, and peace in communion with God?

Though Owen uses more words than I would, I can relate to this description of life and struggle with sin.

I was hoping that Owen would jump right in to explaining more about how to mortify sin, but instead he starts to explain what mortification is not. Oftentimes, understanding what a thing is not aids in understanding what it really is.

What Mortification is Not

  1. Mortification is not the utter destruction and death of sin. The utter destruction of sin will not occur in this life. We must aim at and desire its utter destruction, but must realize that the best we can achieve in this life is sin’s not-being.

    Now, though, doubtless there may, by the Spirit and grace of Christ, a wonderful success and eminency of victory against any sin be attained, so that a man may have almost constant triumph over it, yet an utter killing and destruction of it, that it should not be, is not in this life to be expected. This Paul assures us of: “Not as though I had already attained, either were already perfect” (Phil. 3:12). He was a choice saint, a pattern for believers, who, in faith and love, and all the fruits of the Spirit, had not his fellow in the world, and on that account ascribes perfection to himself in comparison of others (v.15); yet he had not “attained,” he was not “perfect,” but was “following after” (v.12): still a vile body he had, and we have, that must be changed by the great power of Christ at last (v.21). This we would have; but God sees it best for us that we should be complete in nothing in ourselves, that in all things we must be “complete in Christ,” which is best for us (Col. 2:10).

    I love that last part about it being best for me to be complete in Christ. If I licked sin on my own, then I wouldn’t love Christ. I’d probably just love myself and be a great Pharisee.

  2. Mortification is not the dissimulation of sin. This little bit Owen wrote is powerful and sharp, so I’m just going to quote the whole thing.

    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.

  3. Mortification is not the improvement of a quiet, sedate nature. I used to think this! I used to think that to be godly, I had to be quiet and serene. I was always a little envious of those people who were naturally quiet. I am a loud, passionate, easily excited kind of person. I tend to dominate situations and can take over if I don’t hold back. Everyone will know my opinion in a millisecond if I don’t keep my mouth shut. I have spent many prayer times just asking God to help me have more of an even personality, to help me be quiet and reserved, to help me be controlled in my excitement, to be patient, maintain a cool head. Oftentimes, on the way to meetings or social get-togethers, I will pray for God’s help to be quiet, be a good listener, and to contribute something rather than just seek attention with all my loudness. Even though Owen says that improving on a quiet, sedate nature doesn’t mean sin is mortified, it is still good for us loud, sanguine people to work at growing in prudence and discipline.
  4. Mortification is not the diversion of sin. Okay, let me try to understand this one. Owen says, “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.” So, I can do all within my power to stop some sinful activity only to see the root of that sin manifest itself in some other sin. Here’s an easy example: let’s say the root of a sin is lust. It shows itself as sexual immorality. So, I fight and fight to stop living an immoral life, think I am no longer lust’s slave, only to see it come forth in another way, perhaps as a Pharisee lusting for a seat at the head table.
  5. Mortification is not just occasional conquests over sin. Have you ever gotten caught doing some evil and swore that you would never do it again? Turned back to God with many promises to never do that again? Have you ever gotten yourself into so much trouble and, knowing that it was because of your sin, you decided that you would be rid of it once and for all? And for a time you did really well? Then, something happens and you go right back to your sin?

    In spite of all this, they still sinned;
    despite his wonders, they did not believe.
    So he made their days vanish like a breath,
    and their years in terror.
    When he killed them, they sought him;
    they repented and sought God earnestly.
    They remembered that God was their rock,
    the Most High God their redeemer.
    But they flattered him with their mouths;
    they lied to him with their tongues.
    Their heart was not steadfast toward him;
    they were not faithful to his covenant.
    Psalm 78:32-37

    We can return to God with full purpose of heart to give up our sins, yet still our sin can remain unmortified.

Well, that’s it for chapter 5. It is interesting that much of what passes these days for the killing of sin is not actually the real thing. We devise so many tricks and diversions, to use Owen’s word, to keep our behavior in check without ever bothering to go after the spring of sin in our hearts. We deceive ourselves when we do that and think we have victory over our sin. Chapter 6 is on what mortification IS. I can’t wait!

I don’t mean to harp on Beth Moore (because she is definitely not the only one), but I’ve read her book, Get Out of That Pit, and it is coming to mind right now. If you’re reading that book with the hope that it will help you overcome sin and temptation in your life, please put it down. Her advice will not help. According to Owen, you’ll just be jumping from one pit to another.

Click over to read Tim Challies’ discussion of this chapter.

2 Comments on “RCT: The Nature of Mortification (Ch. 5)

  1. I could relate only too well to that first passage you quoted, and was by the list of what mortification is not. I really want to know what it is!!! Can’t wait to see you tomorrow!

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  2. So funny…..after reading that first quote I was so sure your where going to change my life forever LOL!…..by telling me how to mortify my sin.More seriously….I resemble that quote way too much!

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