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The Mortification of Sin (Part 5 of 15)

Last Updated: June 12, 2014

Luke Gilkerson
Luke Gilkerson

Luke Gilkerson has a BA in Philosophy and Religious Studies and an MA in Religion. He is the author of Coming Clean: Overcoming Lust Through Biblical Accountability and The Talk: 7 Lessons to Introduce Your Child to Biblical Sexuality. Luke and his wife Trisha blog at IntoxicatedOnLife.com

“Life is short. Pray hard.” You may have seen this bumper sticker once or twice in your life—or maybe on a t-shirt or a cheesy inspirational poster in the youth pastor’s office. But it is more than a Christian slogan. For some, it is the primary means they use to slay the power of sin in their lives.

When sinful impulses rise up in us, the church has rightly taught that we should turn to the Lord for aid. The question is: After we hit our knees, what do we do next? Is the answer merely asking God to take away our sinful impulses? According to John Owen, the 17th century Puritan pastor, this is not the complete answer:

Men that are sick and wounded under the power of lust make many applications for help; they cry to God when the perplexity of their thoughts overwhelms them, even to God do they cry, but are not delivered; in vain do they use many remedies…Men may see their sickness and wounds, but yet, if they make not due applications, their cure will not be affected.

As we learned in last week’s post, depending on the power of the Holy Spirit is the only way to slay sin. But as we cry out to God for mercy, we must rise up in faith, believing God’s promises and using God’s provision for the killing of our sin. Our dependence on God is not a passive dependence; it is alive with faith and repentance.

This week we are looking at chapter 4 of John Owen’s book, Of the Mortification of Sin in Believers.

  • Two weeks ago we looked at one reason why mortifying sin is so important. This week we examine another critical reason.

Our Spiritual Vitality Depends on the Mortification of Sin

Owen firmly believed that, as Christians, our typical spiritual complaints all boil down to two basic desires: (1) to have greater “strength or power, vigor and life” in our obedience, or (2) to have more “peace, comfort, and consolation” in our daily walk with God. Both, he said, depend on sin being progressively mortified.

1. Mortification does not create or cause peace.

Owen wants his readers to be very clear on this point: we use divinely appointed means of obtaining spiritual peace, but it is God who sovereignly bestows that peace. It does not come, as it were, automatically, like cause and effect. God is the one who gives peace and comfort (Isaiah 57:18) by creating praise on our lips (v.19).

2. Knowing we are adopted is the primary cause of spiritual peace and vigor.

Our success in mortifying sin is not the immediate cause God uses to give vitality to our spiritual lives. Rather, the first and primary cause of peace in our souls is having assurance of our salvation. The Holy Spirit bears witness to our spirits that we are children of God (Romans 8:16). When the Spirit imparts knowledge to us that we are adopted into God’s family, that we are justified in God’s sight, this brings about “life, vigor, courage, and consolation.”

3. Unmortified sin robs the soul of vigor, comfort, and peace.

Even though our spiritual vitality comes primarily from taking pleasure in our adoption, unmortified sin will weaken our soul’s ability to enjoy this peace and will darken the eyes of our soul so that we cannot perceive the Spirit’s internal witness.

a. Unmortified sin weakens the soul and deprives it of its strength – King David was a primary example of the weakening effects of sin on the soul. “There is no soundness in my flesh because of your indignation,” he writes in Psalm 38. “There is no health in my bones because of my sin. For my iniquities have gone over my head; like a heavy burden, they are too heavy for me…I am feeble and crushed; I groan because of the tumult of my heart” (v.3-4,8). Lust that is not killed will, as Owen put it, “drink up the spirit and all the vigor of the soul” in three ways:

1.) Unmortified sin untunes and unframes the heart by entangling its affections. The human heart is meant for “vigorous communion with God,” so that He is the object of our desires. But when the affections of the heart are drawn toward sin we can no longer say, “You are my portion.” The “choice affections” of fear, hope, and desire should be channeled in God’s direction, but unmortified sin intercepts them and they become entangled.

2.) Unmortified sin fills the mind with defiled thoughts. For Owen, the mind is the great storehouse of the soul, supplying the necessary provisions to satisfy our affections. A holy imagination supplies the fuel for holy affections. Likewise, sin does all it can to fill our imaginations with unholy thoughts to make provision for the flesh. Sinful thoughts will “glaze, adorn, and dress the objects of the flesh, and bring them home to give satisfaction; and this they are able to do, in the service of a defiled imagination, beyond all expression.”

3.) Unmortified sin eventually leads to sinful actions and thus hinders Christian duties. As the affections of the heart are unframed by sin, and as the imaginations of the mind are turned toward sin, this necessarily leads to sinful action. Instead of being engaged in the worship of God, we are engaged in other ambitions, worldly pursuits, or vanities.

b. Unmortified sin darkens the soul – Owen masterfully states, “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.”

4. Mortification is what makes room for the graces of God to grow.

Owen likens the life and vigor of our spiritual lives to a garden plant. The seed of this plant is our peace with God through the blood of Christ. If allowed to bloom, this plant will produce great joy and comfort as we take pleasure in the God with whom we are reconciled. But when this plant grows in weed-infested soil, it may still be alive, but it will be poor, withered, and useless. As the weeds become entangled around the plant, over time it will become so difficult to even find it, and if you do, it will be ready to die. Such is the case with unmortified sin: they clog our lives with lusts so much that we can scarcely see the faith, love, and zeal our salvation is meant to bring us.

Questions for Personal or Group Reflection:

1. Do you have or have you ever had a vibrant and joyful sense of assurance of your salvation? Describe what this is/was like.

2. In your struggle with lust, how have lustful thoughts consumed more and more of your imagination over time? What might your spiritual life look like if you had more of your mental energy devoted to thoughts of God and the gospel?

3. Have you ever been so weighed down by your sin that you found it hard to take pleasure in the knowledge of God’s forgiveness?

. . . .

Read all the posts in this series:

Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8, Part 9, Part 10, Part 11, Part 12, Part 13, Part 14, and Part 15