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Reading Notes: John Owen on The Mortification of Sin (Part 5)

Continuing with his careful clarifications (one of the great strengths of Puritan writers is their attention to precision and clarity in theology), Owen next discusses "What Mortification is Not." He says five things:

1. Mortification is not the total removal of indwelling sin. While this is what we ultimately desire and press toward, it is not possible to completely rid ourselves of indwelling sin and the flesh in this life. Owen says, "To mortify a sin is not to utterly root it out and destroy it, that it should have no more hold at all nor residence in our hearts. It is true that this is what we aim at, but we will not be able to accomplish it in this life" (p. 26-27). We are not perfect yet, and will not attain sinless perfection this side of heaven (Philip. 3:12).

2. Mortification is not behavioral modification. To mortify sin will bring about behavioral change to be sure, but there can be apparent changes in one's behavior and sin still not be mortified. "Mortification is not just the changing of some outward aspects of a sin," writes Owen (p. 27). "Someone may change an obvious sin for a hidden one. Mortification is not just the substitution of one sin for another. He may simply have changed from one road to hell to a safer path than he was on before. He may have a different heart than he had, one which is more cunning; not a new heart, which is more holy!" (p. 27). For example, a man might "overcome" the behavioral sin of looking at pornographic web-sites on the company computer, because he is afraid of being caught and losing his high-paying job. But that is not the mortification of the lust, it is the substitution of the sin of pornography with the sin of pride and material self-interest.

3. Mortification is not personal self-improvement, or in Owen's words "the improvement of our natural constitution" (p. 28). A person can become self-disciplined through diet and exercise and thus conquer the sins of sloth and gluttony - but that does not mean that sin has been mortified. Someone else might not be prone to anger or vindictive behavior, but that could be due to his specific temperament, not any workings of grace in the heart. Such a person should not suppose that sin is mortified simply because he doesn't fall into certain kinds of sin patterns. "Our natural tempers are not a good test for true mortification," writes Owen. "Let those with gentle natural temperaments consider the need for self-denial, or such spiritual sins as unbelief and envy, to get a better view of their true selves" (p. 28).

4. Along the same lines as #2 above, Owen also says, "A sin is not mortified when it is only diverted" (p. 28).

5. "Occasional victories over sin are not mortification" (p. 29). Owen says that there are two seasons in which we may seem to have mortified our sins, when we really haven't done so at all. (i) When we sin so seriously that our consciences are greatly disturbed and we experience a temporary awakening of self-discipline and striving against sin and even seem to win the victory over it. But all the while the sin in question is just playing dead, like a fallen enemy that seems to be mortally wounded, but is just pretending, waiting for a fresh opportunity to strike back. (ii) When we find ourselves in great trials and afflictions and so greatly desire to escape the trial that we freshly resolve to relinquish sin so as to gain peace with God. When the affliction passes, we might suppose that the sin is conquered. But when we no longer fear the affliction, our vigilance will wane and sin will return again with all of its strength. In these two cases, the sin is still unmortified.So, what is mortification, then? We'll find out tomorrow!

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