Mortification of Sin and Obscene Talk: Introduction & Chapter 1

When I was pastoring, I went through John Owen’s the Mortification of Sin with the midweek Bible study and prayer group. This month, I had occasion to fill in for our pastor who was vacationing. I preached a sermon on mortification from Romans 8 and gave a Sunday school lesson on the subject from Colossians 2-3.

I’ve decided I should probably actually try to apply Owen rather than simply telling people he wrote a really good book on mortification. I’m not perfect; I’ve got sin to kill.

One of the sins listed in Colossians 3 that believers are to put to death is “obscene talk” (Col. 3:9). When I am alone, or think no one can hear me, I swear. When I am driving and traffic irritates me I swear. When I am riding my bike and encounter an inconsiderate driver or pedestrian (like the 10 Amish who decided to simply stop and block the entire 20 ft. wide path with their bikes this morning) I swear. When I am at work and have to deal with incompetence, I swear. When I was moving things around to type this, two pens fell off my table, “damn.” I don’t yell and cuss to people’s face. I don’t swear when I am with others, or know others can hear me. But often, my initial response to anything remotely inconvenient is a swear word. Or several.

It is obscene talk. It is sin. If I don’t do anything about it, it will kill me (Rom. 8:13). It is killing me.

So I am going to start working through Owen- not to teach- but to live. Is The Mortification of Sin a book that truly offers help to a 21st century believer? I am sure obscene talk is not my biggest sin. But I don’t think it is a minor sin either. It is a sin I feel comfortable working with in a “public” manner though. To whatever extent the three people who read this blog are public.

Onward to chapter 1.

Chapter 1 introduces the subject of mortification in broad strokes. Owen presents the book as an exposition of the second half of Romans 8:13, “…if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” He briefly summarizes the five main parts of the phrase.

We begin with hope! If by the Spirit…you will live. “There is a certain infallible connection and coherence between true mortification and eternal life.” God, in Christ, by His Spirit, has given me all that I need for putting my filthy mouth to death. If I carry out this work by His Spirit, I will certainly succeed to eternal life.

I find more hope in his second point. If…you…you will. This promise is for believers: believers who have already been freed from the condemnation of sin (Rom. 8:1)! I find hope in knowing that God has already released me from the guilt of my sin. But I also find hope in the necessary admission that believers sin. Believers are to put sin to death by the Spirit. This is “their business, all their days, to mortify the indwelling power of sin.” I don’t have to live behind a mask or behind a charade of piety. I need to face the fact that I will always have sin to fight. This isn’t embarrassing.

Third, I must put obscene talk to death by the Spirit. “All other…helps leave us helpless.” I am to do it. But I am to do it by the Holy Spirit. I suppose here is something of Paul’s “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth” dynamic here. I am not going to stop swearing by simply asking the Holy Spirit to erase swear words from my mind. The Holy Spirit is not God’s lightning-bolt-zap of sanctification. But neither am I going to stop cussing by merely being more disciplined, following more rules, or following better rules. I have to put it to death. The Holy Spirit has to kill it. “Mortification from a self-strength, carried on by ways of self-invention, unto the end of a self-righteousness, is the soul and substance of all false religion in the world.”

Fourth, I have to recognize my swearing as one of the deeds of the body. My outbursts of profanity are the work of the sinful flesh that I reside with. “Though the outward deeds are here only expressed, yet the inward and nearest causes are chiefly intended.” In other words, I could stop swearing entirely tomorrow, and the sin could still be as healthy as ever. I see that even now. Why am I so easily able to not swear directly to my coworkers? Why do I not swear when my wife and kids are in the car with me? Am I more holy when other people are around? Should I just make sure someone is always within earshot of me so I never swear again? Swearing is a problem, and it needs to be put to death. But profanity is not the problem. To stop swearing I need “to take away the principle of all [its] strength, vigor, and power.” All of the “strength to produce its effects” must be taken away by the Spirit.

Finally, the promise you shall live. My obscene talk is killing me. It will continue to kill me unless I kill it. But God promises I will live. I will “lead a good, vigorous, comfortable, spiritual life…here, and obtain eternal life hereafter.” In fact, “the vigor, and power, and comfort” of my spiritual life depends on it.

So how will I try to practice this chapter this coming week? For my work, I am going to try to carefully monitor my speech. I am going to try to discover just how often I practice obscene talk. I will be praying that the Holy Spirit opens my eyes to begin to see the depth and breadth of my sin. In the Lord’s providence, I am reading through Psalm 119 at the moment. What better medicine to address my words than the Psalm so full of love for God’s words? By the Spirit, I will meditate on Psalm 119 and ask the Counselor to convict and cleanse me by it.

Have you fought the fight against obscene talk? What advice would you share with me?