John Owen was a 17th century Puritan. He wrote a whole treatise on The Mortification of Sin in Believers. He identified deceitfulness as the chief characteristic of sin such that you can think you have so understood grace that you tolerate and even love sin. Thus in order to mortify it, “diligent attention” must be given to the evil of sin if it is to be rooted out. He gives eleven steps; nine of which are preparatory and the last two being where the work is contained:
- Examine the symptoms of sin in order to determine how dangerous they are and what they require.
- View the consequences of sin in both the present and the future.
- Load your conscience with guilt for the sin.
- Sustain a constant longing to be delivered from sin’s power.
- Determine if a particular sin is rooted in your natural temperament and disposition.
- Watch out for particular occasions that provide an advantage for indwelling sin to exert itself.
- Rise up with all your strength at the first stirring of a sin.
- Strive for self-abasement through meditating on the great disparity between the majesty and infinite perfections of God and our limited knowledge of him.
- Do not accept peace regarding your sinfulness until God speaks it.
- Place your faith upon the sufficiency of Christ to kill your sin.
- Rely on the work of the Holy Spirit in mortification.
One of the great strengths of this approach is its view of sin. You could call it the “Know your enemy!” approach. The assumption is that denying the presence of sin is counter-productive to being set free from it. Similarly, one of the prayers I pray each day, which I picked up from Peter Adam, is, “Alert me to the deep sins in my life that are currently invisible to me, and help to repent of them and change the way I live.” Owen reminds us that there is no place for complacency in the war against sin.
To the charge that such a focus on sin is not victorious enough, JI Packer gives a very moving account of his own discovery of Owen. His experience was that glossing over sin proved false in his Christian life but that reading Owen fortified him against the sin with which he struggled. Therein was true victory because it was victory in trusting Christ. The believer is entirely dependent on Christ to kill sin in his life.
However, there are difficulties in Owen’s approach as well. Of particular concern is the notion of loading one’s conscience with guilt. Certainly godly sorrow is part of repentance but Owen appears to mean more than this. He suggests to “tell thy conscience that it cannot manage any evidence to the purpose that thou art free from the condemning power of sin whilst thy unmortified lust lies in thy heart.” Perhaps he is drawing on James’ language of faith without deeds being dead (2:26) or the need to obey the whole law (2:10). Perhaps, it is merely an unfortunate use of language to speak of loading one’s conscience with guilt when ‘accepting responsibility’ is more palatable to modern ears. Nevertheless, he appears to downplay the ‘already’ of justification, or at least the relationship of justification to mortification is unclear.
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.