I have been reading the classic work, The Mortification of Sin, by John Owen. Owen famously challenges us to “be killing sin or sin will be killing you.” He strongly states, “The vigor, and power, and comfort of our spiritual life depends on the mortification of the deeds of the flesh.”
It is our duty, as believers, to “be perfecting holiness in the fear of God, to be growing in grace every day, to be renewing our inward man day by day, and this cannot be done without the daily mortifying of sin.” Owen also emphasizes that the killing of sin is a work of the Spirit, not something we can accomplish in our own merit or might. “The Spirit is the only author of this work.”
Only the Spirit is sufficient for the work of sanctification.
Because only the Spirit can mature us and empower us to be killing sin, Owen devotes a chapter to defining what mortification of sin is not. I find his thoughts extremely challenging and helpful so that we do not equate temporary behavior tweaking with true Spirit-induced transformation.
Mortification of sin is not:
1. Utterly destroying sin
We will struggle with sin as long as we live in this life, in this fallen world, and in these fallen bodies. “It is true this is that which is aimed at, but this is not in this life to be accomplished.”
2. Concealing sin
Mortification is much different than merely hiding or covering sin with a change in external behavior. Owen explained, “When a man on some outward respects forsakes the practice of any sin, men perhaps may look on him as a changed man. God knows that to his former iniquity, he hath added cursed hypocrisy… He hath got another heart than he had, that is more cunning; not a new heart, that is more holy.”
3. Improving our nature
We can appear to be mortified men by merely improving our quietness, our calmness, when in reality “our hearts are a standing sink of all abominations.”
4. Diverting sin
If we merely divert sin, divert our pursuit of something other than God from one god to another, we are merely transferring idolatry. A man may “change his master, but is a servant still.”
5. Occasionally beating sin
We must be careful that we do not view an occasional conquest of sin as mortifying it. When we view sin as silent, as beaten – that is when we are most susceptible to its deception. Owen earlier states, “Never think your sin is dead because it is quiet, but labor to give it new wounds, new blows every day.”
May God, though His Spirit, empower us to be killing sin. Because “every unmortified sin will certainly do two things: It will weaken the soul, and deprive it of its vigor. It will darken the soul, and deprive it of its comfort and peace.”