John Owen’s work on “The Mortification of Sin” is a classic that should be read by every Christian in their struggle against indwelling sin. In what follows, I provide a description of Owen’s nine ways of mortification to provide a short, clear summary for the reader to apply in his sanctification.
Owen’s Case Study: Suppose a man to be a true believer, and yet finds 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 the 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, thought 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?
Owen offers nine particulars by which mortification may be accomplished:
(1) He should first consider the accompanying symptoms of the particular lust. If the symptoms of the sin are great, and the sin has resided in the heart for a long period of time, an extraordinary course will be needed. “Old wounds are often mortal, always dangerous.” The heart should always be examined, and the symptoms carefully considered.
(2) He must have a clear and abiding sense upon his mind and conscience of the guilt, danger, and evil of the sin that is unmortified. Since the objective of lust is to darken the mind, and divert it from a proper apprehension of its condition, a believer must fix himself upon the guilt in his mind. Sin is aggravated and heightened by a neglect of addressing guilt.
(3) The conscience must be loaded with the guilt of the sin. This is accomplished by bringing the holiness of the law into the conscience so that sin might be discovered. The law has a “commission from God to seize upon transgressors wherever it finds them, and so bring them before his throne where they are to plead for themselves.”Mortifying corruption is accomplished by binding the conscience to the law. Furthermore, the lust should be brought to the gospel in order that the believer might look upon his pierced savior and become ashamed “for defiling the heart that Christ died to wash.”
(4) Having become convicted by the law, he should long for deliverance. There should not be a moment in which the heart does not long to be freed from the misery of sin. The desire for deliverance is a grace in itself, and without such a desire, mortification cannot be achieved.
(5) He must consider whether the indwelling lust is a result of his nature and disposition. Some men are prone to certain sins due to a their natural tempers. “David reckons his being shapen in iniquity and conception in sin as an aggravation of his following sin, not a lessening or extenuation of it.” Thus he must bring the body into subjection in order that the natural root of the distemper may be weakened.
(6) He ought to consider and what occasions and advantages have been given to the distemper to extirpate the relentless uprisings of sin. The soul must be carefully watched.
(7) There must be a mighty rising “against the first actings of thy distemper…” The particular lust should not get the least ground, nor be allowed one step in the wrong direction. If sin is given one step, it will always take another.
(8) He must frequently meditate upon his own self-abasement and entertain thoughts of his own vileness. Humiliation is achieved when a sinner ponders his vileness in light of the supreme majesty of God. Meditations that promote self-abasement move the believer to consider the greatness of God, and how little he knows of him.
(9) He must take heed that he does not speak peace to himself unless God has spoken peace to his soul. The provision of peace is a prerogative of God in his sovereignty. God creates peace for whom he pleases, thus to speak peace when God has not spoken is to create something false. Owen appeals to the promises of God. It is Christ’s prerogative to voice it [peace] through his word and spirit.” God has promised that “the meek he will guide in judgment and teach them his way.” ‘When God speaks peace, it guides and keeps the soul that it ‘turn not again to folly.’” When the voice of peace in the promise proceeds from God, there is a sweetness and discovery of love so that the soul will no longer deal perversely. But the man must exercise extreme caution not to presume upon the promises of God. The promise must be mixed with faith.
These nine particulars demonstrate the direction that Owen would provide for the man who is struggling to mortify a particular indwelling lust. Owen viewed these particulars as the “ways and means whereby a soul may proved to the mortification of any particular lust and sin…” Since none of these particulars can be accomplished without the Spirit, Owen viewed them as the means by which the Spirit works upon the heart of the believer to accomplish mortification.