Chapter three of Owen’s book is on the work of the Spirit in mortification. Owen contends that “the Holy Spirit is our only sufficiency for the work of mortification. All ways and means apart from Him have no true effect” (p. 14). His thinking is developed under four headings.
1. Vain methods of mortification. First, he discusses the vain methods used by some to put sin to death, the chief culprit in Owen’s mind being the “popish religion” (Roman Catholicism). “They arouse the conviction of sin, but use poison as their cure,” says Owen (p. 14). “Their vows, orders, fastings, penances, and rough garments all have the goal of mortification, but they seek to mortify dead creatures” (p. 14-15). Why are these methods insufficient? (i) Because they were not appointed by God for this purpose. (ii) Because even some of the things which are appointed by God are used in the wrong ways. Prayer and fasting have their place, but they are only means which are made effectual through the Spirit and faith. They have no power in and of themselves. When the Spirit and the gospel are neglected, true mortification is impossible.
I find this a needed and helpful warning for us in a day where the lines between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism are blurring, if not disappearing altogether. In our hunger for a deeper and more authentic spirituality, we are susceptible to the old errors of asceticism and monasticism. But Owen warns us to steer clear of such paths and find our refuge in the gospel alone. “There is no self-endeavor that can accomplish mortification. Almighty energy is necessary for its accomplishment” (p. 17).
2. Mortification is accomplished by the Spirit. This is why God has promised and given to us the Spirit – to take away the heart of stone (Ezek. 11:19; 36:26). And the Spirit is given to us by Christ.
3. How does the Spirit mortify sin? Owen suggests three ways.
(i) By causing our hearts to abound in grace and in the fruits that are contrary to the works of the flesh (Gal. 5:19-21). When we live in the Spirit and walk in the Spirit, we abound in the graces of the Spirit and bear the fruit of the Spirit, and “the fruit of the Spirit restricts the fruits of the flesh” (p. 18). “This renewing of us by the Holy Spirit . . . is one great way of mortification. He causes us to grow, thrive, flourish, and abound in the graces which are contrary, opposite, and destructive to all the works of the flesh, and contrary to the thriving of indwelling sin itself” (p. 18).
(ii) By the effective destruction of the root and habit of sin, to weaken, destroy, and take it away. The Holy Spirit “is the fire that burns up the very root of lust” (p. 18, see Isa. 4:4).
(iii) The Spirit brings the cross of Christ into the heart of a sinner by faith, and gives communion with Christ in His death, and fellowship in His sufferings.
4. The work of the Spirit and our responsibility. “If mortification is the work of the Holy Spirit alone, how is it that we are exhorted to accomplish it?” (p. 19) This is perhaps the most important question we can ever ask about living the Christian life. How does my personal responsibility mesh with the work of the Spirit? Owen points us to texts such as Phil. 2:13, Isa. 26:12, 2 Thess. 1:11, Col. 2:12 (look them up!), which teach that God works within us, producing faith and supplying us with power. And “He does not so work in us that it is not still an act of our obedience” (p. 19). That sentence has to be read twice. “He does not so work in us that it is not still an act of our obedience.” If you take the “nots” out, it makes more sense. “He does so work in us that it is still an act of our obedience.” Here is the mystery of the Christian life. God works in us, yet it is still our own responsibility to obey. “The Holy Spirit so works in us and upon us, as we are able to be wrought upon, and ye He preserves our own liberty and free obedience. He works upon our understandings, wills, consciences, and affections, agreeably to their own natures. He works in us and with us, not against us or without us, so that His assistance is an encouragement as to the accomplishing of the work” (p. 19).