The first 4 chapters of John Owen’s The Mortification of Sin cover the “why” of mortification. If this were a how-to book, the first 4 chapters would be why-to. Chapter 5 begins the how-to of mortification…in a manner of speaking. Owen states the tri-fold outline for the rest of the book: 1) to state what mortification is and is not; 2) to give general directions that make mortification possible; 3) to give particular directions for how mortification is to be carried out.
Chapter 5 continues to form the first half of the first point: what mortification is not. I am trying to mortify sinful speech habits. This chapter valuably teaches me not to be deceived by false healings.
Mortification is not a complete eradication of a sin. This is a warning with some encouragement to it. I had to spend some time on this point to make sure I understood Owen correctly. Very few believers would disagree with the statement that “sin is never dead” in a believer. Most Christians recognize the battle against the old sinful nature; the flesh; continues until death. But the point Owen makes is “a sin,” not “sin.” I stumbled at this at first, but I think I’ve come around to his argument. There will always be something within me that wants to impulsively with a sinful word. I will always be putting that to death.
Mortification is not the dissimulation of sin. Don’t worry, I had to look it up too. Mortification is not the hiding of sin under a false appearance. Yeah, I’ve got no problem understanding this one, because this is what I have been doing for most of my life. I know how not to swear around other people. And I know it is a charade.
Sin is not mortified by just making what is already good about you better. This is a really good one. Everyone has sins they are more inclined to by their own nature. I don’t think I’ve ever been tempted to vanity because I’ve seen a mirror: I know it would be folly. I haven’t mortified vanity. Just because I hate broccoli, doesn’t mean I have mortified the sin of being a gluttonous broccoli eater. I can’t look to those areas in my life where I am not really tempted, and consider those battles won against sin.
Sin is not mortified when it is just channeled another direction. Taking up a combat sport so you stop beating your wife isn’t solving your violent rage. (And yes, I think involvement in a combat sport is sinful.) Giving up porn but dishonoring your wife’s body isn’t solving your lust problem. While we are mortifying the “deeds of the body,” we recognize deeds come from the overflow of the heart.
Mortification is not occasional victories over sin. There are at least 2 common periods of time when people are able to stop sinning for a while: when their sin gets them in trouble or when their life is otherwise in crisis. There is no hand in the cookie jar mortification. And there is no foxhole mortification. God can certainly use such occasions to set a person on the path of true mortification. Man, however, wrongly tends to think he is on that right path because of a momentary surge of sin-fighting adrenaline. Shame, fear, and embarrassment are not the affections that drive mortification.
Mortification must be motivated by love for God because of his loveliness and hatred of sin for its wickedness.