Chapter four is a short one. With it concludes Part I of John Owen’s book, Overcoming Sin and Temptation.
Part One has been all about establishing how important it is that we be putting to death (‘mortifying’) the sin that dwells in us. Chapter Four underlines this necessity in terms of how it affects the present ‘life, vigor and comfort of our spiritual life’. What follows is my loose paraphrase of Owen’s writing, including my own notes (in black italics) along the way.
What do we want?
What are our greatest desires as believers? Owen begins with a most telling observation. He assumes that our desires will fall under one of two categories: Either 1) we want strength to obey God as we walk with Him, or 2) we want peace and comfort in the process of that obedience. Nothing else ‘deserve(s) to be mentioned in the days of our complaints’. Wow. He has not lived in the 21st century church. We want so much more these days. But this wise perspective should bring us back to what really matters in our walk with Christ. Strength and peace to serve Him all our days, this is what we need. And whether or not we have these, Owen says, is largely dependent on whether or not we are dealing with sin in our lives.
Then to clarify, he observes that peace and comfort may not necessarily result from our diligence in dealing with sin. Sometimes God allows a person to suffer even though they are faithful. And he cites Psalm 88.
Job would be another example, though not mentioned here. His point is that bestowing peace is God’s prerogative, though there are things we may do to make way for it. I am reminded of Philippians 4:6,7. We make our requests known to God in the face of our anxieties, and He grants peace that passes understanding. Personally, I would assume the distressed condition of the righteous psalmist in Psalm 88 to be a temporary condition. God will come to his rescue and deliver him and grant him peace in His timing.
A Birthright to be guarded.
Of course the securing of peace with God and the spiritual life and vigor that comes with it, are the privilege of every child of God, our birthright so to speak. They are immediate results of our justification, made real to us by God’s Spirit. But for the sense of these to be maintained experientially in the believer’s life, sin must be dealt with. Our daily walk with God must include mortification of sin, Owen says. Otherwise, sin will deprive us of both strength and peace.
Sin does two things in the believer’s life:
1) Sin weakens the soul.
The example given is of David and his unmortified lust in the case of Bathsheba. Ps.38 and 40 are cited. “An unmortified lust will drink up the spirit and all the vigor of the soul, and weaken it for all duties.” It does this by diverting our hearts affections from God to other desires. Love of the world and of the Father cannot coexist. (I Jn.2:15; 3:17). Fears, desires and hopes that should be set on God become entangled with other objects. Then our thoughts are drawn away to how we can satisfy these desires, instead of being turned toward what God desires. Sin will always short-circuit our desires and draw them to carnal ends instead of godly ones. And then it will preoccupy us with doing things other than worshiping God with our life energies.
2) Sin darkens the soul.
“It is a cloud, a thick cloud, that spreads itself over the face of the soul, and intercepts all the beams of God’s love and favor. It takes away all sense of the privilege of our adoption; and if the soul begins to gather up thoughts of consolation, sin quickly scatters them”. Only through mortification can vigor and power be restored to our spiritual life.
Here it is not completely clear to me what Owen intends by the mortifying of sin. His examples are of men who have already sinned and are in need of repentance and restoration. They must ‘acknowledge their offense’ (Hosea 5:13-15) But up until this point in Owen’s writing I assumed mortification was about resisting temptation, or not allowing sin to happen in the first place. Here it includes confession of sin, which is a refreshing inclusion. At last, here is a specific handle for dealing with sin; acknowledge it! We are not lost if we have failed to ‘mortify’ sin and it crops up in our lives! Nor do we have to pretend we have mortified sin and are hereby sinless saints in good standing with God and men. I am surprised Psalm 51 wasn’t quoted as it is a classic picture of the effects of sin and the relief of confessing it. There is clearly here a correlation between our spiritual vigor and our confession of sin, as David acknowledges his sin and pleads: “Restore to me the joy of your salvation”
Weed your Garden!
Owen commends mortification as being like the pruning of God’s graces in our heart to make them even more fruitful. He likens sin to the weeds that choke the herbs planted in a garden. God plants faith, love and zeal in our hearts by His Spirit but these things may be almost so indiscernible as to be useless when sin is allowed to thrive in our lives.
“But now let the heart be cleansed by mortification, the weeds of lust constantly and daily rooted up,… let room be made for grace to thrive and flourish–how will every grace act its part, and be ready for every use and purpose!”
Mortification brings Peace
Owen closes with a rather obscure comment on peace. I think what he is saying is that peace will be the overflow of having addressed sin in our lives. The presence or absence of it will indicate whether we have mortified sin in our lives. And abruptly he closes this chapter and Part One with this defining statement: “Mortification is the soul’s vigorous opposition to self, wherein sincerity is most evident.”
And it feels as though he’s introduced a whole new thought. We’re not just talking about mortifying ‘sin’ as a vague principle distinct from our own persons. We are talking about opposing our very selves, and vigorously! This runs quite counter to everything our culture embraces. Loving ourselves, taking care of ourselves, expressing ourselves, defending ourselves…What if our selves is our biggest problem?! I’ve gotten in trouble with friends over the semantics of this issue. What exactly do we mean by the ‘self’. But that is an issue for another day. I look forward to what Owen will add to this bombshell he has dropped in his closing statement!