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"The Mortification of Sin" by John Owen is a profound and timeless Christian work that explores the necessity of recognizing, understanding, and actively combating the sinful nature within oneself. We have updated this timeless classic into modern, updated English so you can understand exactly what John Owen wrote nearly 400 years ago!
Drawing from scriptural teachings, Owen guides readers through the process of identifying and mortifying their sins, emphasizing the importance of self-examination and reliance on the Holy Spirit to achieve victory over sin and grow in their relationship with God.
In this insightful treatise, Owen not only presents the theological foundations for mortification, but also offers practical advice on how believers can cultivate the discipline and self-awareness required to fight against sin and temptation in their daily lives. Throughout the book, readers are encouraged to seek God's grace and mercy while acknowledging their own weaknesses, ultimately leading to a deeper, more authentic relationship with the Creator and a life marked by spiritual growth and transformation.
The Mortification of Sin
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I'd like to quickly explain the reasons that led me to publish the following discussion. The primary reason is the current state of the majority of those who believe in Christ. Their actions and attitudes reveal a significant struggle to deal with temptations that arise from the peace they enjoy in the world and the divisions among themselves. I'm convinced that if I can encourage others to more effectively urge people to examine their lives and provide clearer guidance on overcoming sin, this effort will be worthwhile.
The second reason for publishing this is to address the dangerous mistakes made by some individuals who have recently given advice on overcoming sin. Unfamiliar with the gospel's mystery and the power of Christ's death, they have imposed a self-made burden of overcoming sin on their followers, a burden that neither they nor their ancestors could bear (Acts 15:10). The way they present and promote overcoming sin doesn't align with the gospel in terms of its nature, subject, causes, means, or effects. This approach often leads to superstition, self-righteousness, and anxiety in those who take on this heavy burden.
I humbly hope that what I've shared here, despite my limitations, aligns with the spirit and message of the gospel, reflecting the experiences of those who know what it means to walk with God according to the Covenant of Grace. Whether it's this writing or something similar, I believe it is crucial at this time to promote and advance the gospel's work of overcoming sin in the hearts of believers and guiding them on a path where they can find rest for their souls.
As for my personal motivation, after preaching on this topic and seeing some positive results due to God's grace, I was encouraged by various individuals who care deeply about God's ways to publish what I had shared, with any necessary changes and additions. In response to their requests, I recalled a longstanding debt I owe to several noble and worthy Christian friends for a treatise on communion with God, which I had promised some time ago. I thought that if I couldn't address the larger debt at the moment, I could at least offer this discussion on overcoming internal struggles as a form of interest, while they continue to wait for the other work on peace and communion with God.
Additionally, I realized that I had been involved in public debates on various religious controversies, which might require me to contribute something more widely useful, by choice rather than necessity. For these reasons, I present this brief discussion to the public and to you. I sincerely believe that my heart's desire and the primary goal of my life, in the position that God's good providence has placed me, is to promote the overcoming of sin and universal holiness in both my own heart and in the hearts and ways of others, for God's glory. In doing so, I hope to honor the gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ in all aspects.
If this short text (and this is the only explanation I'll give for its publication) can be even slightly helpful to the least of the saints in achieving this goal, it will be seen as a response to the humble prayers offered by its unworthy author.
John Owen, a servant of Jesus Christ in the work of the gospel
Chapter 1: An Exposition of Romans 8:13
“For if you live after the flesh, you shall die: but if you through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, you shall live.” - Romans 8:13
1. Foundation in Romans 8:13
To make my guidance on overcoming sin in believers organized and clear, I'll base it on the Apostle's words: "If you, through the Spirit, put to death the deeds of the body, you will live" (Rom 8:13). I'll concentrate on the profound evangelical truth and mystery found in these words.
After reiterating the doctrine of justification by faith and the blessed state of those who experience it through grace (vv. 1-3), the Apostle goes on to encourage holiness and comfort for believers.
Among his arguments and motivations for holiness, the verse mentioned offers one by contrasting the outcomes of holiness and sin: "If you live according to the flesh, you will die." I won't delve into the meanings of "living after the flesh" and "to die" beyond how they relate to the latter part of the verse, since that's not my current focus.
In the words specifically intended as the foundation for the upcoming discussion, we find:
First, a duty prescribed: "Put to death the deeds of the body."
Second, the individuals to whom the duty is prescribed: "You" - "if you put to death."
Third, a promise attached to the duty: "You will live."
Fourth, the means or cause of performing the duty is the Spirit: "If you, through the Spirit."
Fifth, the condition of the whole proposition, which includes duty, means, and promise: "If you, through the Spirit, put to death the deeds of the body, you will live."
2. Connection between True Overcoming Sin and Salvation
The first thing we notice in the words, as they appear in the entire proposition, is the conditional note: "but if." Conditionals in such propositions can signify one of two things:
a. The uncertainty of the outcome or the thing promised concerning those to whom the duty is prescribed. This happens when the condition is absolutely necessary to bring about the result and doesn't depend on any specific cause known to the person it's prescribed to. We might say, "If we live, we will do such a thing." This can't be the intent of the conditional expression here. For the people these words are spoken to, it is said, "There is no condemnation for them" (Rom 8:1).
b. The certainty of the connection between the things mentioned, as when we say to a sick person, "If you take this medicine or use this remedy, you will get better." The only thing we intend to express is the certainty of the connection between the medicine or remedy and health. That's how it's used here. The certain connection between overcoming the deeds of the body and living is hinted at in this conditional particle.
Since the possible connections between things can be numerous, such as cause and effect or means and end, this connection between overcoming sin and life isn't precisely cause and effect, for "the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ" (Rom 6:23). The connection is more of means and end. God has appointed this means for achieving the end He has freely promised. Means, though necessary, have a proper subordination to a result that's freely promised. A gift and something in the recipient that causes them to receive it are incompatible. The intention, then, of this conditional proposition is that there's a certain infallible connection between true overcoming sin and eternal life: if you use this means, you will achieve that result; if you overcome sin, you will live. The main motivation for and enforcement of the duty of overcoming sin lies in this.
3. Overcoming Sin: The Work of Believers
The next thing we encounter in the words is the people to whom this duty is prescribed, which is expressed in the word "you." In the original Greek verb "thanatoute," "if you put to death"; that is, you believers - you who are "not under condemnation" (8:1); you who are "not in the flesh, but in the Spirit" (8:9); who are "made alive by His Spirit," the Spirit of Christ (8:10-11) - to you is this duty prescribed. Pressing this duty directly on others is a significant result of the superstition and self-righteousness the world is full of; it's the great work and design of devout people who are ignorant of the gospel (Rom 10:3-4; John 15:5).
Now, this description of the individuals, combined with the prescription of the duty, is the main foundation of the following discussion as it lies in this thesis or proposition:
The most devoted believers, who are undoubtedly freed from the condemning power of sin, should still make it their business throughout their lives to overcome the indwelling power of sin.
4. The Spirit: The Main Effective Cause
The main effective cause of performing this duty is the Spirit: "If by the Spirit." The Spirit mentioned here is the one in Romans 8:11 - the Spirit of Christ, the "Spirit of God" (v. 14), who dwells in us (v. 9), who brings us to life (v. 11), the "Spirit of adoption" (v. 15), the Spirit that "makes intercession for us" (v. 26). All other methods of overcoming sin are useless; all help leaves us helpless. It must be done by the Spirit. As the apostle demonstrates, people may try this work based on other principles, using means and advantages provided for other reasons, as they always have and still do (Rom 9:30-32). But, he says, this is the work of the Spirit; it is to be accomplished by Him alone and by no other power. Overcoming sin using our own strength, carried out by self-invented ways, aiming for self-righteousness, is the heart and substance of all false religion in the world. And this is a second principle of my upcoming discussion.
5. "Overcome the Deeds of the Body"
The duty itself, "Overcome the deeds of the body," is to be considered next. Three things need to be examined here: a) What is meant by "the body"; b) What is meant by "the deeds of the body"; c) What is meant by overcoming them.
a. "The body"
The "body" at the end of the verse is the same as the "flesh" at the beginning: "If you live according to the flesh, you will die: but if you...overcome the deeds of the body," that is, the flesh. It is what the apostle has meant all along by the "flesh," which is clear from his emphasis on the contrast between the Spirit and the flesh, both before and after. The body, then, refers to the corruption and depravity of our nature, where the body, to a large extent, is the seat and instrument - the very members of the body being made servants to unrighteousness by such corruption (Rom 6:19). It is indwelling sin, the corrupted flesh or desire, that is intended.
Many reasons might be given for this expression, which I will not go into now. The "body" here is the same as the "old man" and the "body of sin" (Rom 6:6); or it may, by synecdoche, express the whole person considered as corrupted, being the seat of desires and disordered emotions.
b. "The deeds of the body"
The Greek word for "deeds of the body" is praxeis, which primarily refers to outward actions, "the works of the flesh," as mentioned in Galatians 5:19. These actions are said to be "obvious" and are listed there. Although only the outward deeds are mentioned here, the inner causes are primarily intended. The axe should be "laid to the root of the trees" (Matt 3:10). The deeds of the flesh should be overcome at the source from which they arise.
The apostle refers to them as "deeds" because every desire aims to lead to them. Even if a desire only starts to develop and doesn't fully manifest, it still aims to produce a complete sin.
In both the seventh chapter and the beginning of this chapter, the apostle has discussed indwelling lust and sin as the source and principle of all sinful actions. Having done so, he now speaks of their destruction under the name of the effects they produce. "The deeds of the body" are as much the "wisdom of the flesh" as the "carnal mind" (Rom 8:6), using a similar expression as before; or as the "passions and desires" of the flesh (Gal 5:24), from which the deeds and consequences arise. "The body" is used in this sense in Romans 8:10, "The body is dead because of sin."
c. To "mortify"
"If you mortify" (or "put to death") is a metaphorical expression taken from putting any living thing to death. To kill a person or any other living thing means taking away the source of all their strength, vitality, and power, so they can no longer act or exert any of their abilities. The same idea applies here. Indwelling sin is compared to a living person called "the old man," with his faculties and properties, wisdom, cunning, subtlety, and strength. The apostle says this must be killed, put to death, and overcome—that is, have its power, life, vitality, and strength to produce its effects removed by the Spirit. In truth, it has already been utterly overcome and destroyed, both by example and merit, through Christ's crucifixion. Hence, the "old man" is said to be "crucified with" Christ (Rom 6:6), and we are considered "dead" with Him (6:8). And it is genuinely overcome initially in regeneration when a principle opposite to and destructive of it is planted in our hearts (Rom 6:3-5; Gal 5:17). However, the entire work should be gradually carried out towards perfection throughout our lives. We will discuss this further in the course of our conversation. The apostle's intention in prescribing the mentioned duty is that overcoming the indwelling sin remaining in our mortal bodies is the constant responsibility of believers, so that it may not have life and power to produce the works or deeds of the flesh.
d. "You shall live"
The promise associated with this duty is life: "You shall live." The life promised is contrasted with the death threatened in the previous statement, "If you live according to the flesh, you will die"—which the same apostle describes as "he... shall of the flesh reap corruption" (Gal 6:8), or destruction from God. Now, perhaps the word may not only refer to eternal life but also to the spiritual life in Christ that we have here in this life; not in terms of its essence and existence, which is already enjoyed by believers, but in terms of its joy, comfort, and energy. This is similar to what the apostle says in another situation: "Now we live if you stand firm" (1 Thess 3:8)—that is, now my life will benefit me; I will have joy and comfort in my life. "You shall live"—that is, you will lead a good, energetic, comfortable, spiritual life while you are here, and obtain eternal life in the future.
Assuming what was mentioned before about the connection between mortification and eternal life, as means and end, I will add—as a second motivation for the prescribed duty—only that the vigor, strength, and comfort of our spiritual life depend on the mortification of the deeds of the flesh.
Chapter 2: Continuous Activity of Indwelling Sin
1. The First Principle for Mortification: It Must Be Continuous
Having laid this foundation, let's briefly confirm the previously mentioned principal deductions, which will lead me to the main point:
Principle I: The most devout believers, who are certainly free from the condemning power of sin, should still make it their priority all their days to mortify the indwelling power of sin.
The apostle says, "Mortify therefore your members which are upon the earth" (Col 3:5). To whom is he speaking? Those who were "risen with Christ" (3:1); those who were "dead" with Him (v. 3); those who have Christ as their "life," and shall "appear with him in glory" (v. 4). Mortify! Make it your daily work. Be always at it while you live; never take a day off from this work. Be killing sin, or it will be killing you! Your being dead with Christ by identification and your being revived with Him won't excuse you from this work (Rom 6:3-4).
Our Savior tells us how His Father deals with every branch in Him that bears fruit, every true and living branch: "He purges it, that it may bring forth more fruit" (John 15:2). He prunes it, and that not for a day or two, but all the while it's a branch in this world. And the apostle tells you what was his practice: "I discipline my body and bring it into subjection" (1 Cor 9:27). "I do it," he says, "daily. It's the work of my life. I never skip it. This is my business." And if this was the work and business of Paul—who was so incredibly exalted in grace, revelations, enjoyments, privileges, and consolations, far beyond the average believer—how can we possibly defend an exemption from this work and duty while we're in this world? Mortification must continue throughout the believer's life on earth. Some brief account of the reasons for this can be given.
2. Reasons Mortification Must Be Continuous
a. Indwelling sin always abides
Indwelling sin always remains while we're in this world; therefore, it always needs to be mortified. I'm not going to get into the pointless, foolish, and ignorant disputes of people about perfectly obeying God's commands, about perfection in this life, or about being completely and utterly dead to sin. It's more than likely that those who advocate these false ideas never knew what it means to obey any of God's commands, and are so far from perfection that they've never attained even sincere obedience in all aspects of their lives.
Many people these days talk about perfection, and they often say that it means not knowing the difference between good and evil. They're not claiming to be perfect in what we consider good, but rather that everything is the same to them. To them, the pinnacle of wickedness is their idea of perfection.
Some others have come up with a new path to perfection by denying the existence of inherent, indwelling sin and by adapting the spiritual nature of God's Law to suit people's worldly desires. These people have clearly demonstrated their lack of understanding of Christ's life and his influence on believers. As a result, they've created a new form of righteousness that the gospel doesn't recognize, all because they're puffed up with pride from their worldly thinking.
As for us, we don't dare to claim wisdom beyond what's written in the scriptures, nor do we brag about what God has done for others if he hasn't done it for us. We admit that indwelling sin still exists within us to some extent while we live in this world. We don't claim to have "already attained, either were already perfect" (Philippians 3:12). Our "inner self is [to be] renewed day by day" while we live on this earth (2 Corinthians 4:16). As the new self grows, the old self weakens and decays. While we are here, we "know [only] in part" (1 Corinthians 13:12), with lingering darkness gradually removed as we grow "in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ" (2 Peter 3:18). "The flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit... so you do not do what you want" (Galatians 5:17). Thus, we are imperfect in both our understanding and obedience (1 John 1:8). We have a "body of... death" (Romans 7:24), and we will only be freed from it through the death of our physical bodies (Philippians 3:21).
Knowing that it's our duty to overcome sin while it still exists within us, we must take action. If someone is assigned to defeat an enemy, stopping their attack before the enemy is defeated means they've only done half the job (Galatians 6:9; Hebrews 12:1; 2 Corinthians 7:1).
b. Activity of indwelling sin
Sin not only remains within us, but it's also constantly acting, striving to produce deeds of the flesh. We could leave sin alone if it ever left us alone, but sin is never more active than when it appears to be quiet. Its influence is often strongest when it's not obvious, so our efforts against sin should be vigorous at all times and in every situation, even when we least suspect its presence. Sin doesn't just linger within us, but the "law in my members [is] warring against the law of my mind" (Romans 7:23), and "the spirit that lives in us desires to envy" (James 4:5). It's always working: "The flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit" (Galatians 5:17); lust is constantly tempting and creating sin (James 1:14).
In every moral action, sin is either inclining us towards evil, hindering us from doing good, or disrupting our connection with God. It pushes us towards evil: "The evil I don't want to do, I end up doing," says the apostle (Romans 7:19). Why does this happen? Because "in me (that is, in my flesh) dwells no good thing" (7:18). Sin also prevents us from doing good: "The good I want to do, I don't do" (7:19)—this means either I don't do the good I want to, or I don't do it as I should, since all my holy actions are tainted by sin. "The flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit... so you do not do what you want" (Galatians 5:17). Additionally, sin disturbs our spirit, which is why it's called "the sin that so easily entangles us" (Hebrews 12:1). This is the cause of the apostle's deep frustration with sin (Romans 7). So, sin is always acting, always creating, always seducing, and tempting.
2. Continuous Activity of Indwelling Sin
Who can claim that they've ever done anything with or for God, in which indwelling sin didn't play a part in corrupting their actions? Sin will continue this practice, to a greater or lesser extent, for as long as we live. If sin is always acting, and we don't consistently work to kill it, we'll end up losing ourselves. A person who stands still and allows their enemies to land blow after blow without resistance will undoubtedly be defeated in the end. If sin is cunning, vigilant, powerful, and always trying to destroy our souls, and we're lazy, careless, and foolish in our attempts to prevent it, how can we expect a positive outcome? Every day, sin either triumphs or is defeated, and this will continue for as long as we live in this world.
I'll let someone off the hook from this duty if they can bring sin to a ceasefire in this ongoing battle. If sin would spare them even for just one day, in any one duty (assuming they're a person who understands the spiritual nature of obedience and the cunning of sin), then they can tell their soul to rest. The saints, who long for freedom from sin's troubling rebellion, know that the only way to protect themselves is through constant warfare.
c. Results of sin
If left unchecked and not consistently fought against, sin won't just strive, act, rebel, trouble, or disquiet; it will produce significant, cursed, scandalous, soul-destroying sins. The apostle tells us what the works and fruits of sin are: "The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions, and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like" (Galatians 5:19-21). We know what it did to David and many others. Sin always aims for the worst: each time it tempts or entices, if left unchecked, it would lead to the most extreme sin of that type. Every impure thought or glance would become adultery if it could; every greedy desire would turn into oppression; every doubt would become atheism if sin were allowed to fully develop. People might reach a point where they no longer hear sin urging them to commit scandalous acts, but every rise of lust, if left unchecked, would escalate to the worst kind of wickedness. It's like the grave that's never satisfied (Proverbs 30:15-16).
A significant part of sin's deceitfulness, through which it leads people to harden their hearts and ultimately to their ruin (Hebrews 3:13), is that it appears modest at first. But once sin gains a foothold in the heart, it constantly strengthens its position and pushes for further advances in the same direction. This new activity and forward movement causes the soul to pay little attention to how far it has already drifted from God. The soul thinks everything is fine as long as it doesn't get worse. To the extent that the soul becomes unaware of any sin (at least in the sense that the gospel requires), it becomes hardened. Yet sin keeps pushing forward, aiming for its ultimate goal: total abandonment of God and opposition to Him. The fact that sin moves toward its peak gradually, hardening the heart along the way, is not due to its nature but to its deceitfulness.
Nothing but mortification can prevent this; it weakens the root and strikes at the core of sin every hour, countering sin in whatever it tries to achieve. Even the best saint in the world would fall into numerous cursed sins if they were to abandon this duty.
d. The Spirit given to contend against sin
One of the main reasons the Spirit and our new nature are given to us is so that we have an internal force to oppose sin and lust. "The flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit." Well, and what then? Well, "The Spirit [also desires what is contrary] to the flesh" (Galatians 5:17). The Spirit and the new spiritual nature have a tendency to act against the flesh, just as the flesh acts against the Spirit. It's our participation in the divine nature that helps us escape the corruption in the world caused by lust (2 Peter 1:4-5). There's a law of the mind, as well as a law of the body (Romans 7:23).
First, it's extremely unfair and unreasonable to bind one combatant and let the other one attack freely. Second, it's foolish to restrict the one who fights for our eternal well-being while allowing the one who seeks our everlasting ruin to roam free. The battle is for our lives and souls. Not using the Spirit and our new nature daily for the mortification of sin means we're neglecting the incredible help God has provided against our greatest enemy. If we fail to use what we've received, God may justifiably withhold more from us. His graces, like his gifts, are given to us to use, practice, and engage with. Not mortifying sin daily is to sin against the goodness, kindness, wisdom, grace, and love of God, who has equipped us with the means to do so.
e. Negligence of mortification
Neglecting this duty puts the soul in a completely opposite state to what the apostle Paul describes: "Though our outer self is wasting away, yet our inner self is being renewed day by day" (2 Corinthians 4:16). In such neglect, the inner self withers, and the outer self is rejuvenated day by day. Sin grows stronger like the house of David, while grace weakens like the house of Saul. Exercise and success are crucial in nurturing grace in the heart. When left dormant, it withers and decays. The aspects of grace are close to dying (Revelation 3:2), and sin gains ground, leading to the hardening of the heart (Hebrews 3:13).
What I mean is that by neglecting this duty, grace withers, lust thrives, and the condition of the heart worsens. The Lord knows the disastrous and terrifying outcomes this has had for many people. When sin achieves a significant victory due to the neglect of mortification, it breaks the soul's bones (Psalms 31:10; 51:8) and makes a person weak, sick, and near death (Psalms 38:3-5) to the point where they can't even look up (Psalms 40:12; Isaiah 33:24). If someone keeps taking hit after hit, wound after wound, defeat after defeat, without putting up a strong resistance, can they expect anything other than to be "hardened by sin's deceitfulness" (Hebrews 3:13) and for their souls to bleed to death (2 John 1:8)?
Indeed, it's heartbreaking to consider the terrible consequences of this neglect that we see every day. Don't we see people who we once knew as humble, compassionate, broken-hearted Christians—sensitive and afraid to offend, passionate for God and all His ways, His Sabbaths and ordinances—becoming, through neglect of this duty, worldly, materialistic, cold, angry, and conforming to worldly people and things, to the disgrace of religion and the dangerous temptation of those who know them? The truth is, between having mortification associated with a rigid, stubborn mindset—which is often worldly, legalistic, judgmental, biased, and filled with anger, envy, malice, and pride—on one hand, and using excuses of freedom, grace, and who knows what on the other, true evangelical mortification has almost disappeared among us. We'll discuss this more later.
f. The first principle of mortification
It's our duty to be "perfecting holiness in the fear of God" (2 Corinthians 7:1), to be growing in grace every day (1 Peter 2:2; 2 Peter 3:18), and to be renewing our "inner self...day by day" (2 Corinthians 4:16). This can't be done without daily mortifying sin. Sin opposes every act of holiness and every degree of growth. A person shouldn't think they're making progress in holiness if they don't confront their lusts. If someone doesn't actively kill sin, they aren't moving toward their destination. Anyone who doesn't face opposition from sin and doesn't focus on its mortification in every aspect is at peace with sin, not dying to it.
This, then, is the first general principle of our upcoming discussion: Despite the meritorious mortification (if I may use that term) of all sins through Christ's sacrifice on the cross and the real foundation of universal mortification laid during our initial conversion—by recognizing our sin, feeling humbled by it, and embracing a new principle that opposes and destroys it—sin still remains, acts, and works in even the best believers while they live in this world. Consequently, the constant daily mortification of sin is required throughout their lives.
3. The Sad Absence of Mortification
Before moving on to the next principle, I can't help but express my disappointment with many people who claim to be religious these days. Instead of demonstrating significant and evident results of mortification, they barely show any signs of it. There's no denying that this generation has received abundant spiritual knowledge and gifts, which, along with other factors, has greatly increased the number of people who claim to be religious. As a result, there's a surge of religious activity and preaching everywhere, and it's not superficial or trivial like before, but often displays genuine spiritual gifts. So, if we measure the number of believers based on knowledge, gifts, and profession, the church might wonder, "Who has brought me all these?" (Isaiah 49:21).
Now, if you measure people by this significant characteristic of Christians—namely, the mortification of sin—you might find their numbers not so large. Where can you find that person who attributes their conversion to this period of enlightenment, who talks and professes spirituality at a level that few in the past could even comprehend (I won't judge them, but maybe they're bragging about what the Lord has done in them), but doesn't show signs of a painfully unmortified heart? If wasting time, idleness, being unproductive, envy, strife, conflict, jealousy, anger, pride, worldliness, and selfishness (1 Corinthians 1) are signs of Christians, then we have plenty of those among us. And if this is the case for those with great knowledge (which we hope is saving), what can we say about those who claim to be religious, yet despise gospel light, and only understand the duty of mortification in terms of occasionally denying themselves outward pleasures (which is just one aspect of it), and even then rarely practice it? May the good Lord send a spirit of mortification to heal our ailments, or else we're in a terrible situation!
There are two evils that definitely affect every unmortified professing Christian: one within themselves and the other concerning others.
a. The evil of lacking mortification in a professing Christian
Regardless of what they claim, a professing Christian without mortification has only shallow thoughts about sin, especially sins of daily weakness. The core of an unmortified lifestyle is the tolerance of sin without any inner disgust. When someone can conceive of grace and mercy in such a way that they can easily tolerate and accept daily sins without any bitterness, that person is on the brink of turning God's grace into an excuse for sinful behavior and becoming hardened by sin's deceitfulness (Jude 1:4; Hebrews 3:13). There is no greater evidence of a false and corrupt heart in the world than to live in such a state. To use the blood of Christ, which is meant to cleanse us (1 John 1:7; Titus 2:14); to use Christ's exaltation, which is intended to bring us repentance (Acts 5:31); to use the doctrine of grace, which teaches us to reject all ungodliness (Titus 2:11-12)—all to support sin is a rebellion that will ultimately break us. Many professing Christians who have abandoned their faith in recent times have followed this path. At this door, we've seen many professors lose their faith in our current times. For a while, they were motivated by their convictions to do their duties and profess their beliefs. They even "escaped the pollutions of the world through the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ" (2 Peter 2:20). But after becoming familiar with the gospel's teachings and growing tired of their duties (which they didn't truly believe in), they started to justify their neglect of these duties because of the doctrine of grace. Once this happened, they quickly fell into ruin.
b. The negative impact of a lack of self-discipline on unbelievers
The absence of self-discipline negatively affects unbelievers in two ways.
1.) It convinces them that they're just as good as the best experts. Whatever they see in such a person is tainted because of the lack of self-discipline, making it worthless to the observer. They are passionate about religion, but it comes with a lack of patience and overall goodness. They may reject excessive indulgence but still live worldly lives; or they might "separate" from the world but only live for themselves, not bothering to show kindness to others; or they might talk about spiritual matters but live superficially; or they mention having a connection with God but still completely conform to society's standards; or they claim to have been forgiven for their sins but never forgive others. And with such thoughts, people continue to harden their hearts in their unregenerate state.
2.) The person who lacks self-discipline ends up deceiving non-believers, making them think that if they can reach the same level as this person, everything will be fine. This can easily tempt non-believers to aim for a good reputation in religion, even going far beyond such people in outward religious practices, but still not achieving eternal life. We'll discuss these issues and other problems that come from living an undisciplined life later on.
Chapter 3: The Holy Spirit’s Work in Mortification
1. The Second Principle for Mortification:
The Spirit Is the Effective Cause
The next principle for mortification is about the main cause of mortification, which, according to the foundation of this discussion, is the Holy Spirit, as proven earlier.
Principle II: Only the Holy Spirit is sufficient for the mortification of sin. All other ways and means without Him are useless. He is the main cause of it, working in us as He pleases.
a. Other remedies useless
People seeking other remedies in vain will not find healing through them. The other methods prescribed for sin to be mortified are known.
1). Roman Catholicism. A large part of the Roman Catholic religion, especially the aspects that seem most religious, consists of mistaken ways and means of mortification. This is the basis of their rough clothing, which deceives people. Their vows, orders, fastings, and penances all aim to mortify sin. Their preaching, sermons, and devotional books all point in this direction. Some people think that the locusts mentioned in Revelation 9:3, which came out of the bottomless pit and tormented people so much that they wanted to die (9:6), represent the friars of the Roman Catholic Church. These friars supposedly tormented people with their stinging sermons, convicting them of sin but not offering the true remedy for healing and mortifying sin. This, I say, is the essence and glory of their religion. But such glory is actually their shame (Philippians 3:19), as they try to bring mortification to dead creatures, ignorant of the nature and purpose of the work. They also mix poison into their teachings by claiming that mortification has merit and even "supererogation" (as they call their unnecessary merit with a proud, barbarous title). I will discuss more about them and their mortification in chapter seven.
2). Professing Protestants. It is known that some people who claim to have more light and knowledge of the gospel still use and recommend the ways and means invented by Roman Catholics for the mortification of sin. Some have recently given such directions for this purpose, and others who call themselves Protestants have eagerly adopted them. These people might have been Roman Catholic devotees three or four hundred years ago. They rely on external efforts, bodily exercises, self-performances, and legal duties without mentioning Christ or His Spirit, and they claim that these are the only means and helps for the mortification of sin. This reveals a deep-rooted unfamiliarity with the power of God and the mystery of the gospel. This consideration was one reason for publishing this straightforward discussion.
b. Reasons they are useless
Some reasons why the Roman Catholics and these others can never truly mortify any sin with all their efforts include the following.
1). Many of the ways and means they use and insist on for this purpose were never appointed by God for that purpose. Nothing in religion is effective for achieving a goal unless God has appointed it for that purpose. Examples of such unappointed methods are their rough clothing, vows, penances, disciplines, monastic lifestyles, and similar practices. God will ask them, "Who has required this at your hand?" (Isaiah 1:12) and say, "In vain they do worship me, teaching for doctrines the traditions of men" (Matthew 15:9). Various self-vexations insisted on by others are of the same nature.
2) Because people don't use the means God has appointed in the right order, like praying, fasting, watching, meditation, and such. These things have their use in dealing with our issues if we see them as streams, but they often view them as the fountain. These things help achieve the goal only as means, under the control of the Spirit and faith; but they think these actions will do it by the work itself. If they fast and pray a certain amount, and stick to their schedule, then the job is done! As the apostle says in another case, they are "ever learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth" (2 Timothy 3:7); so they are always trying to kill their sinful nature but never actually succeed. In short, they have various ways to kill the natural man regarding the natural life we live here, but none to kill the root of lust or corruption.
This is a common mistake made by people who don't understand the gospel, and it's the basis for much of the superstition and self-worship that has spread throughout the world. What horrible self-torture was practiced by some of the early founders of monastic devotion! What violence did they do to their own nature! What extreme suffering did they inflict upon themselves! Look into their ways and principles, and you'll find that it all comes from this mistake: they tried to kill the natural man instead of the corrupt old man, the physical body we live in instead of the "body of death."
3) The natural tendency to rely on one's own efforts won't work either. People feel guilty about a sin that has overcome them, so they immediately promise themselves and God that they won't sin like that again. They watch over themselves and pray for a while, until their zeal cools down and their sense of guilt fades—and then the effort to kill sin fades too, and sin takes over once more. Duties may be good for an unhealthy soul, but they don't cure a sick soul. If you turn your food into medicine, don't expect great results. Spiritually sick people can't sweat out their illness by working harder. But that's what people do when they deceive themselves, as we'll see later.
The fact that none of these methods work is clear from the nature of the task itself. It's a job that requires so many different actions that no self-effort can accomplish it. It's the kind of work that needs God's almighty power for its completion, as will be explained later.
2. Mortification: The Work of the Spirit
Mortification of sin is, then, the work of the Spirit. Because:
a. God promises to give us the Spirit to do this work. Taking away the stubborn, proud, rebellious, unbelieving heart is generally the work of mortification we're talking about. And this is always promised to be done by the Spirit: God puts His Spirit in us and takes "the stony heart out of [our] flesh" (Ezekiel 11:19; 36:26). By the Spirit of God, this work is done when all other means fail (Isaiah 57:17-18).
b. We receive all our mortification from the gift of Christ, and all Christ's gifts are given to us by the Spirit of Christ: "Without me, you can do nothing" (John 15:5). All supplies and relief—in the beginnings, growth, and actions of any grace—come from Him alone, through the Spirit, by which He works in and upon believers. From Him, we get our mortification: He is exalted and made "a Prince and a Savior, to give repentance to [us]" (Acts 5:31); and our mortification is a significant part of our repentance. How does He do it? Having "received...the promise of the Holy Ghost," He sends Him out for that purpose (Acts 2:33). We know the many promises He made about sending the Spirit to do the works He planned to accomplish in us (John 14:16, and so on).
3. How the Spirit Mortifies Sin
Answering one or two questions will now bring me closer to my main point.
a. How does the Spirit mortify sin? In general, there are three ways.
1) By causing our hearts to abound in grace and the fruits that are contrary to the flesh and its works and principles. The apostle contrasts the works of the flesh with the fruits of the Spirit: "The works of the flesh," he says, "are [such and such]" (Galatians 5:19-21); "but," he says, "the fruit of the Spirit" is entirely different (5:22-23). But what if both are in us and both are abundant? He says, "They that are Christ's have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires" (v. 24). But how? "We live in the Spirit [and] also walk in the Spirit" (v. 25)—that is, through the abundance of the Spirit's graces in us and walking according to them. The apostle says, "These are contrary to each other" (v. 17), so they can't both be in the same person in any intense or high degree.
This "renewing [of us] by the Holy Ghost," as it's called (Ti 3:5), is one great way of mortification. The Holy Spirit helps us grow, thrive, flourish, and abound in those qualities that are opposite to and destructive of all the negative aspects of our nature, and to the peace or thriving of our inner sin.
2). The Holy Spirit has a real physical effect on the root of sin, weakening, destroying, and removing it. That's why the Spirit is called a "spirit of judgment and...burning" (Isa 4:4), truly consuming and destroying our negative desires. The Holy Spirit takes away our stubbornness by an almighty effectiveness; starting this work and carrying it on in its progressive stages. The Spirit is like a fire that burns up the very root of our negative desires.
3). The Holy Spirit brings the cross of Christ into the hearts of sinners through faith, giving us communion with Christ in His death and sharing in His sufferings. We'll discuss more about this later.
b. Our part in mortifying
Secondly, if this is the work of the Holy Spirit alone, why are we encouraged to do it? Since only the Spirit of God can do it, shouldn't the work be left entirely to the Spirit?
1). The Spirit's work. The work of the Holy Spirit in mortification is no different from all the other positive qualities and good deeds within us, which are also the Spirit's doing. The Spirit "worketh in you both to will and to do of his [own] good pleasure" (Phi 2:13). The Spirit works "all our works in us" (Isa 26:12): "the work of faith with power" (2Th 1:11; Col 2:12); the Spirit helps us pray and is a Spirit of supplication (Eph 6:18; Rom 8:26; Zec 12:10). And yet we are encouraged and should be encouraged to do all these things.
2). Our obedience. The Holy Spirit does not work in us in such a way as to take away our freedom and obedience. The Holy Spirit works in us and on us as we are fit to be worked in and on, preserving our own liberty and free obedience. The Spirit works on our understanding, will, conscience, and emotions in harmony with their own natures. The Holy Spirit works in us and with us, not against us or without us, so the Spirit's help is an encouragement to enable the work, not an excuse to neglect the work itself.
Indeed, I might here lament the endless, foolish efforts of poor souls who, being convinced of sin and unable to stand against the power of their convictions, try to suppress sin through countless confusing ways and duties; but all in vain, being strangers to the Holy Spirit. They fight without victory, experience war without peace, and live in slavery all their days. They spend their energy for things that don't satisfy and work hard for things that don't benefit (Isa 55:2).
This is the saddest battle any poor creature can be involved in. A soul under the power of conviction from the Law is forced to fight against sin but has no strength for the fight. They have no choice but to fight, but they can never win. They are like people thrown into the path of their enemies' swords to be killed on purpose. The Law drives them on, and sin pushes them back.
Sometimes they think they have defeated sin, but they have only raised a dust cloud that prevents them from seeing it. In other words, they stir up their natural emotions of fear, sorrow, and anguish, which make them believe that sin has been conquered when it hasn't even been touched. By the time they have calmed down, they must start the battle again, and the sinful desire they thought had been killed appears to have never been wounded.
And if the situation is so sad for those who do try and struggle yet don't enter the kingdom, what about those who despise all this, who are always under the power and control of sin and love it that way, who are bothered by nothing but their inability to provide enough "for the flesh, to fulfill the lusts thereof" (Rom 13:14)?
1. The Third Principle for Mortification: Life and Comfort Depend on It
The last principle I'll discuss (omitting, first, the necessity of mortification for life and, secondly, the certainty of life upon mortification) is:
Principle 3: The life, vigor, and comfort of our spiritual life depend a lot on our mortification of sin.
Strength, comfort, power, and peace in our relationship with God are what we desire. If any of us were asked seriously what bothers us, we'd have to refer it to one of these categories: either we lack strength, power, vigor, and life in our obedience and relationship with God, or we lack peace, comfort, and consolation in that relationship. Whatever might happen to a believer that doesn't belong to one of these two categories doesn't deserve to be mentioned in the days of our complaints.
Now, all these things depend a lot on a constant practice of mortification, which we'll now discuss.
2. Why Life and Comfort Depend on Mortification
a. Mortification alone keeps sin from depriving us
Mortification is the only thing that keeps sin from taking away our blessings. Every unmortified sin will definitely do two things: a) It will weaken the soul and take away its energy. b) It will darken the soul and take away its comfort and peace.
1) Unmortified sin weakens the soul and takes away its strength.
Unmortified sin weakens the soul and takes away its strength. When David had an unmortified lust in his heart for a while, it broke all his bones and left him with no spiritual strength; that's why he complained that he was sick, weak, wounded, and faint. He says, "There is no soundness in my flesh" (Psalm 38:3); "I am feeble and sore broken" (v. 8), "so that I am not able to look up" (Psalm 40:12). An unmortified lust will drain the spirit and all the energy of the soul, and weaken it for all duties. This happens because:
1st. Unmortified sin messes with the heart itself by getting its affections tangled up. It distracts the heart from the spiritual mindset needed for strong communion with God; it grabs hold of the affections, making its object beloved and desirable, and in doing so, pushes out the love of the Father (1 John 2:15; 3:17). This means the soul can't honestly and truly say to God, "You are my portion" (Psalm 119:57), because it has something else that it loves instead. Fear, desire, and hope, which are the main emotions of the soul and should be full of God, will somehow get tangled up with the unmortified sin.
2nd. Unmortified sin fills the thoughts with plans about it. Thoughts are the great suppliers of the soul, bringing in provisions to satisfy its affections; and if sin stays unmortified in the heart, those thoughts will constantly be making "provision for the flesh, to fulfill its lusts" (Romans 13:14). They must show off, decorate, and dress up the objects of the flesh, and bring them home to give satisfaction. They are incredibly good at doing this, especially when serving a dirty imagination.
3rd. Unmortified sin breaks out and actually gets in the way of duty. The ambitious person must be studying, the materialistic person must be working or planning, and the sensual, vain person must be getting ready for vanity, when they should be engaged in worshiping God.
If I were to go into detail about the damage, devastation, weakness, and destruction that just one unmortified lust can bring upon a soul, this conversation would be much longer than I intend.
2) As sin weakens the soul, it also darkens the soul.
As sin weakens the soul, it also darkens the soul. It's like a cloud, a thick cloud, that covers the face of the soul and blocks out all the rays of God's love and favor. It takes away any sense of the privilege of being adopted by God. And if the soul starts to gather comforting thoughts, sin quickly scatters them—I'll say more about that later.
Now, in this regard, the strength and power of our spiritual life depends on our mortification. It's the only way to get rid of the unmortified sin that won't allow us to have any strength or power. People who are sick and wounded under the power of lust try many things for help. They cry to God when their thoughts get too overwhelming, but they're not freed. It's pointless for them to use many remedies; they "shall not be healed" (Ezekiel 47:11). So, "Ephraim saw his sickness, and Judah saw his wound" (Hosea 5:13), and they tried various remedies. Nothing will work until they come to "acknowledge their offense" (5:15). People might see their sickness and wounds, but if they don't make the right efforts, they won't be healed.
b. Mortification trims all of God's graces
Mortification trims all of God's graces and makes room for them to grow in our hearts. The life and energy of our spiritual lives come from the strength and growth of the graces of God in our hearts. It's like in a garden, where a precious herb is planted but the ground isn't taken care of and weeds grow around it. The herb might still live, but it'll be a poor, withering, useless thing. You have to look and search for it, and sometimes you can barely find it; and when you do, you can hardly tell if it's the plant you're looking for or not—and even if it is, you can't make any use of it. But let another of the same kind be planted in the ground, which is naturally just as barren and bad as the other; let it be well weeded, and everything harmful and hurtful removed from it. It'll grow and thrive. You can see it as soon as you look into the garden, and have it for your use whenever you want.
That's how it is with the graces of the Spirit planted in our hearts. It's true that they're still there; they stay in a heart where mortification is somewhat neglected. But they're about to die; they're withering and decaying (Revelation 3:2). The heart is like the lazy person's field, so overgrown with weeds that you can barely see the good crop. Such a person might search for faith, love, and zeal, and barely be able to find any. And if they do find that these graces are still alive and sincere, they're so weak and weighed down by lusts that they're not very useful. They're still there, but they're about to die. But when the heart is cleaned by mortification, and the weeds of lust are constantly and daily pulled up (since they grow daily, with nature being their proper soil), then there's room for grace to thrive and flourish. Every grace will play its part and be ready for every use and purpose!
c. Our peace
As for our peace, there's nothing that shows sincerity without mortification, and I don't know anything that has as much evidence of sincerity in it as mortification does—which is a big foundation for our peace. Mortification is the soul's strong opposition to itself, and in that opposition, sincerity is most obvious.
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