If John Owen’s book, The Mortification of Sin, seems theoretical and heavily theological, Chapters 9, 10 and 11 turn the tide by putting in the believer’s tool-belt practical and efficient tools for carrying out Romans 8:13 ( . . . by the Spirit, put to death the deeds of the body). He refers to his advice for killing sin as “directions.” First, in Chapter 9 he urged us to consider the danger signs that mark particular sins as being more resilient.
Second, Chapter 10 exhorted the believer to “get a clear sense of the guilt, dangers and evil of sin” and to let our hearts tremble in response.
In Chapter 11, Owen forges ahead with directions 3-7 which begin with darkness and guilt, but move through the murky gray and into the marvelous light of decisive Spirit-led action.
Third, “load your conscience with guilt.” Although this sounds contrary to Romans 8:1, Owen clears up any notion of a contradiction with this: “Charge your conscience with that guilt which appears in it for the rectitude and holiness of the law.” This is not condemnation, but reality therapy, and if this was necessary in Owen’s day, how much more do 21st century believers need to line up our wavery consciences against the straight line of the law? He recommends a conversation with our conscience in which we inform ourselves that we cannot produce evidence of freedom from sin and condemnation if there is unmortified sin in our lives. Warning: The Law has a case against you!
This prescribed conversation with the conscience is the law’s “proper work”; i.e. “to discover sin in the guilt of it, to awaken and humble the soul for it, to be a glass to represent sin in its colors.” This conscience-training work of the law should have the end result of “persuad[ing] your conscience to hearken diligently to what the Law speaks about your corruption.”
Like King David, we need to learn the language of lament when it comes to our sin. “My iniquity is ever before me!” Is this an Old Testament only concept? Not according to Owen who says, “To mortify sin, tie your conscience to the law.” We are to “bring our lust to the gospel, not for relief, but for further conviction of guilt.” How can we bear to “trample His grace” when God has provided so great a salvation? Consider this piercing inquiry: “Was my soul washed that room might be made for new defilements?”
Having laid out these Big Picture Truths of justification and redemption, Owen moves on to list the “particulars” of:
(1) “God’s infinite patience and forbearance toward you;” (Am I really asking God to forgive this sin again? Really?)
(2) “Restored communion with God;” (Oh, Lord, thank you that my sin is removed as far as the east is from the west!)
(3) “All God’s gracious dealings.” (Forgiven sin, healed diseases, redemption from destruction, loving kindness, tender mercies, satisfaction — Psalm 103 is a cornucopia of God’s gifts.)
With these spread before our hearts, Owen reiterates his beginning exhortation to “load your conscience with the guilt of your corruption,” not because there is no hope, but because of this shining reality:
“If your conscience can alleviate the guilt of sin, the soul will never vigorously attempt its mortification.”
Fourth, having “loaded up” the conscience with guilt, “get a constant longing, breathing after deliverance from the power of it.” This longing, expressed best by Paul in Romans 7, will make the heart watchful for all “opportunities of advantage against the enemy.” One never arrives at a final destination called “holiness”:
“Suffer not thy heart one moment to be content with thy present frame and condition.”
This “deliverance” that Owen mentions must be none other than forgiveness. “The only sin that can be defeated by the Spirit is a forgiven sin,” according to John Piper. This is our path out of guilt and into life in Christ.
Fifth, if you find that you are subject to a sin that is “rooted in your nature”; i.e. “heightened by your constitution,” this is not an excuse to go on sinning. Gregarious types do not get a free pass to gossip or offend people with their jabbering tongues, and, likewise, introverts cannot selfishly stare at their phones instead of drawing out or investing in other people. For these besetting sins, Owen prescribes the means of grace designed to bring the body “into subjection,” (I Corinthians 9:27). While fasting, prayer, silence and other spiritual disciplines are given to “cut short the natural appetite,” Owen cautions about their becoming an end in themselves. They will not produce mortification of sin apart from the work of the Spirit of God. For more on the spiritual disciplines, Nathan Foster has written a delightful follow up to his father’s classic work. My review is available here: https://michelemorin.wordpress.com/2014/11/07/going-saint/
Sixth, Owen’s words can be summed up in two imperatives: Watch! (Mark 13:37) Take heed! (Luke 21:32)
He likens this caution to physical conditions or allergies that are set off by the wrong kind of food or seasonal air quality and conditions. The degree of caution exercised to avoid these pitfalls should be applied to our own personal sin triggers.
“Consider what ways, what companies, what opportunities, what studies, what businesses, what conditions, have at any time given, or do usually give, advantages to thy distempers, and set thyself heedfully against them all.”
Here is the truth: “He that dares to dally with occasions of sin will dare to sin.”
Seventh, and most powerfully, declare war. Do not cede any ground to sin. Citing James 1:14,15, Owen uses powerful imagery to describe the slippery slope of one toe over the line:
“If it have allowance for one step, it will take another.”
“It is like water in a channel — if it once break out, it will have its course. Its not acting is easier to be compassed than its bounding.”
Sin would have nothing less than all of its victim, and Owen is adamant that his reader should not be deceived. “Do not say, ‘Thus far it shall go, and no farther.'” The vilest of sins had their beginnings in a thought.
Yes, you are guilty. All the squirm-worthy, heart-hardening sins in your portfolio are attesting to your unworthiness before a holy God. However, because of the gospel, you can look this truth squarely in the face and let the anguish of it turn your heart toward the only solution. Allow God’s love to breathe fire into your soul for making war on everything that is the opposite of God’s love. This exertion of the will in declaring war on sin is as much a part of the gospel as the verdict of “No Condemnation” rendered in Romans 8:1, and both are ours only because of the great victory that Jesus has won on the cross.
For further reading, these are links to my summaries and ponderings on Chapters 9 and 10 of The Mortification of Sin: