RPM, Volume 14, Number 47, November 18 to November 24, 2012

On the Mortification of Sin in Believers

The Necessity, Nature, And Means of it:
With a Resolution of Sundry Cases of Conscience Thereunto Belonging.


By John Owen

A Servant of Jesus Christ in the Work of the Gospel

Table of Contents

  • Preface
  • Chapter I - the foundation of the whole ensuing discourse laid in Romans 8:13
  • Chapter II - the principal assertion concerning the necessity of mortification proposed.
  • Chapter III - The Spirit the only author of this work
  • Chapter IV - The vigour and comfort of our spiritual lives depend on our mortification.
  • Chapter V - The principal intendment of the whole discourse proposed
  • Chapter VI - The mortification of sin in particular described
  • Chapter VII - General rules, without which no lust will be mortified
  • Chapter VIII - Universal sincerity
  • Chapter IX - Consider the dangerous symptoms of any lust
  • Chapter X - The guilt, the danger, and the evil of sin.
  • Chapter XI - Five directions
  • Chapter XII - Thoughtfulness of the excellency of the majesty of God.
  • Chapter XIII - Precautions against false peace
  • Chapter XIV - The necessity of faith on Christ.


NINTHLY, In case God disquiet the heart about the guilt of its distempers, either in respect of its root and indwelling, or in respect of any eruptions of it, take heed thou speakest not peace to thyself before God speaks it; but hearken what he says to thy soul. This is our next direction, without the observation whereof the heart will be exceedingly exposed to the deceitfulness of sin.

This is a business of great importance. It is a sad thing for a man to deceive his own soul herein. All the warnings God gives us, in tenderness to our souls, to try and examine ourselves, do tend to the preventing of this great evil of speaking peace groundlessly to ourselves; which is upon the issue to bless ourselves, in an opposition to God. It is not my business to insist upon the danger of it, but to help believers to prevent it, and to let them know when they do so.

To manage this direction aright observe, --

1. That as it is the great prerogative and sovereignty of God to give grace to whom he pleases ($#34He hath mercy on whom he will,$#34 Rom. 9:18; and among all the sons of men, he calls whom he will, and sanctifies whom he will), so among those so called and justified, and whom he will save, he yet reserves this privilege to himself, to speak peace to whom he pleaseth, and in what degree he pleaseth, even amongst them on whom he hath bestowed grace. He is the $#34God of all consolation,$#34 in an especial manner in his dealing with believers; that is, of the good things that he keeps locked up in his family, and gives out of it to all his children at his pleasure. This the Lord insists on, Isa. 57:16-18. It is the case under consideration that is there insisted on. When God says he will heal their breaches and disconsolations, he assumes this privilege to himself in an especial manner: $#34I create it,$#34 verse 19; -- $#34Even in respect of these poor wounded creatures I create it, and according to my sovereignty make it out as I please.$#34

Hence, as it is with the collation of grace in reference to them that are in the state of nature, -- God doth it in great curiosity, and his proceedings therein taking and leaving, as to outward appearances, quite besides and contrary ofttimes to all probable expectations; so is it in his communications of peace and joy in reference unto them that are in the state of grace, -- he gives them out ofttimes quite besides our expectation, as to any appearing grounds of his dispensations.

2. As God creates it for whom he pleaseth, so it is the prerogative of Christ to speak it home to the conscience. Speaking to the church of Laodicea, who had healed her wounds falsely, and spoke peace to herself when she ought not, he takes to himself that title, $#34I am the Amen, the faithful Witness,$#34 Rev 3:14. He bears testimony concerning our condition as it is indeed. We may possibly mistake, and trouble ourselves in vain, or flatter ourselves upon false grounds, but he is the $#34Amen, the faithful Witness;$#34 and what he speaks of our state and condition, that it is indeed. Isa. 11:3, He is said not to $#34judge after the sight of his eyes,$#34 -- not according to any outward appearance, or any thing that may be subject to a mistake, as we are apt to do; but he shall judge and determine every cause as it is indeed.

Take these two previous observations, and I shall give some rules whereby men may know whether God speaks peace to them, or whether they speak peace to themselves only:--

1. Men certainly speak peace to themselves when their so doing is not attended with the greatest detestation imaginable of that sin in reference whereunto they do speak peace to themselves, and abhorrency of themselves for it. When men are wounded by sin, disquieted and perplexed, and knowing that there is no remedy for them but only in the mercies of God, through the blood of Christ, do therefore look to him, and to the promises of the covenant in him, and thereupon quiet their hearts that it shall be well with them, and that God will be exalted, that he may be gracious to them, and, yet their souls are not wrought to the greatest detestation of the sin or sins upon the account whereof they are disquieted, -- this is to heal themselves, and not to be healed of God. This is but a great and strong wind, that the Lord is nigh unto, but the Lord is not in the wind. When men do truly $#34look upon Christ whom they have pierced,$#34 without which there is no healing or peace, they will $#34mourn$#34, Zech. 12:10; they will mourn for him, even upon this account, and detest the sin that pierced him. When we go to Christ for healing, faith eyes him peculiarly as one pierced. Faith takes several views of Christ, according to the occasions of address to him and communion with him that it hath. Sometimes it views his holiness, sometimes his power, sometimes his love, [sometimes] his favour with his Father. And when it goes for healing, his strips are to be eyed, -- not in the outward story of them, which is the course of popish devotionists, but in the love, kindness, mystery, and design of the cross; and when we look for peace, his chastisements must be in our eye. Now this, I say, if it be done according to the mind of God, and in the strength of that Spirit which is poured out on believers, it will beget a detestation of that sin or sins for which healing and peace is sought. So Ezek. 16:60,61, $#34Nevertheless I will remember my covenant with thee in the days of thy youth, and I will establish unto thee an everlasting covenant.$#34

And what then? $#34Then thou shalt remember thy ways, and be ashamed.$#34 When God comes home to speak peace in a sure covenant of it, it fills the soul with shame for all the ways whereby it hath been alienated from him. And one of the things that the apostle mentions as attending that godly sorrow which is accompanied with repentance unto salvation, never to be repented of, is revenge: $#34Yea, what revenge!$#34 2 Cor. 7:11. They reflected on their miscarriages with indignation and revenge, for their folly in them. When Job comes up to a thorough healing, he cries, $#34Now I abhor myself,$#34 Job 42:6; and until he did so, he had no abiding peace. He might perhaps have made up himself with that doctrine of free grace which was so excellently preached by Elihu, chapter 33 from verse 14 unto 30; but he had then but skinned his wounds: he must come to self-abhorrency if he come to healing. So was it with those in Ps. 78:33-35, in their great trouble and perplexity, for and upon the account of sin. I doubt not but upon the address they made to God in Christ (for that so they did is evident from the titles they gave him; they call him their Rock and their Redeemer, two words everywhere pointing out the Lord Christ), they spake peace to themselves; but was it sound and abiding? No; it passed away as the early dew. God speaks not one of peace to their souls. But why had they not peace? Why, because in their address to God, they flattered him. But how doth that appear? Verse 37: $#34Their heart was not right with him, neither were they steadfast;$#34 they had not a detestation nor relinquishment of the sin in reference whereunto they spake peace to themselves.

Let a man make what application he will for healing and peace, let him do it to the true Physician, let him do it the right way, let him quiet his heart in the promises of the covenant; yet, when peace is spoken, if it be not attended with the detestation and abhorrency of that sin which was the wound and caused the disquietment, this is no peace of God$#39s creating, but of our own purchasing. It is but a skinning over the wound, whilst the core lies at the bottom, which will putrefy, and corrupt, and corrode, until it break out again with noisomeness, vexation, and danger. Let not poor souls that walk in such a path as this, who are more sensible of who address themselves for mercy, yea, to the Lord in Christ they address themselves for mercy, but yet will keep the sweet morsel of their sin under their tongue; -- let them, I say, never think to have true and solid peace. For instance, thou findest thy heart running out after the world, and it disturbs thee in thy communion with God; the Spirit speaks expressly to thee, -- $#34He that loveth the world, the love of the Father is not in him.$#34 This puts thee on dealing with God in Christ for the healing of thy soul, the quieting of thy conscience; but yet, withal, a thorough detestation of the evil itself abides not upon thee; yea, perhaps that is liked well enough, but only in respect of the consequences of it. Perhaps thou mayst be saved, yet as through fire, and God will have some work with thee before he hath done; but thou wilt have little peace in this life, -- thou wilt be sick and fainting all thy days, Isa. 57:17. This is a deceit that lies at the root of the peace of many professors and wastes it. They deal with all their strength about mercy and pardon, and seem to have great communion with God in their so doing; they lie before him, bewail their sins and follies, that any one would think, yea, they think themselves, that surely they and their sins are now parted; and so receive in mercy that satisfies their hearts for a little season. But secret reserve for the folly or follies treated about, -- at least, there hath not been that thorough abhorrency of it which is necessary; and their whole peace is quickly discovered to be weak and rotten, scarce abiding any longer than the words of begging it are in their mouths.

2. When men measure out peace to themselves upon the conclusions that their convictions and rational principles will carry them out unto, this is a false peace, and will not abide. I shall a little explain what I mean hereby. A man hath got a wound by sin; he hath a conviction of some sin upon his conscience; he hath not walked uprightly as becometh the gospel; all is not well and right between God and his soul. He considers now what is to be done. Light he hath, and knows what path he must take, and how his soul hath been formerly healed. Considering that the promises of God are the outward means of application for the healing of his sores and quieting of the heart, he goes to them, searches them out, finds out some one or more of them whose literal expressions are directly suited to his condition. Says he to himself, $#34God speaks in this promise; here I will take myself a plaster as long and broad as my wound;$#34 and so brings the word of the promise to his condition, and sets him down in peace. This is another appearance upon the mount; the Lord is near, but the Lord is not in it. It hath not been the work of the Spirit, who alone can $#34convince us of sin, and righteousness, and judgement,$#34 but the mere actings of the intelligent, rational soul. As there are three sorts of lives, we say, -- the vegetative, the sensitive, and the rational or intelligent, -- some things have only the vegetative; some the sensitive also, and that includes the former; some have the rational, which takes in and supposes both the other.

Now, he that hath the rational doth not only act suitably to that principle, but also to both the others, -- he grows and is sensible. It is so with men in the things of God. Some are mere natural and rational men; some have a superadded conviction with illumination; and some are truly regenerate. Now, he that hath the latter hath also both the former; and therefore he acts sometimes upon the principles of the rational, sometimes upon the principles of the enlightened man. His true spiritual life is not the principle of all his fruits from that root. In this case that I speak of, he acts merely upon the principle of conviction and illumination, whereby his first naturals are heightened; but the Spirit breathes not at all upon all these waters. Take an instance: Suppose the wound and disquiet of the soul to be upon the account of relapses, -- which, whatever the evil or folly be, though for the matter of it never so small, yet there are no wounds deeper than those that are given the soul on that account, nor disquietments greater; -- in the perturbation of his mind, he finds out that promise, Isa. 55:7, $#34The Lord will have mercy, and our God will abundantly pardon,$#34 -- he will multiply or add to pardon, he will do it again and again; or that in Hos. 14:4, $#34I will heal their backsliding, I will love them freely.$#34 This the man considers, and thereupon concludes peace to himself; whether the Spirit of God make the application or no, whether that gives life and power to the letter or no, that he regards not. He doth not hearken whether God the Lord speak peace. He doth not wait upon God, who perhaps yet hides his face, and sees the poor creature stealing peace and running away with it, knowing that the time will come when he will deal with him again, and call him to a new reckoning; when he shall see that it is in vain to go one step where God doth not take him by the hand.

I see here, indeed, sundry other questions upon this arising and interposing themselves. I cannot apply myself to them all: one I shall a little speak to.

It may be said, then, $#34Seeing that this seems to be the path that the Holy Spirit leads us in for the healing of our wounds and quieting of our hearts, how shall we know when we go alone ourselves, and when the Spirit also doth accompany us?$#34

Ans. (1.) If any of you are out of the way upon this account, God will speedily let you know it; for besides that you have his promise, that the $#34meek he will guide in judgement and teach them his way,$#34 Ps. 25:9, he will not let you always err. He will, I say, not suffer your nakedness to be covered with fig-leaves, but take them away and all the peace you have in them, and will not suffer you to settle on such lees. You shall quickly know your wound is not healed; that is, you shall speedily know whether or no it be thus with you by the event. The peace you thus get and obtain will not abide. Whilst the mind is overpowered by its own convictions, there is no hold for disquietments to fix upon. Stay a little, and all these reasonings will grow cold and vanish before the face of the first temptation that arises. But, --

(2.) This course is commonly taken without waiting; which is the grace, and that peculiar acting of faith which God calls for, to be exercised in such a condition. I know God doth sometimes come in upon the soul instantly, in a moment, as it were, wounding and healing it, -- as I am persuaded it was in the case of David, when he cut off the lap of Saul$#39s garment; but ordinarily, in such a case, God calls for waiting and labouring, attending as the eye of a servant upon his master. Says the prophet Isaiah, 8:17, $#34I will wait upon the Lord, who hideth his face from the house of Jacob.$#34 God will have his children lie a while at his door when they have run from his house, and not instantly rush in upon him; unless he take them by the hand and pluck them in, when they are so ashamed that they dare not come to him. Now, self-healers, or men that speak peace to themselves, do commonly make haste; they will not tarry; they do not hearken what God speaks, but on they will go to be healed.

(3.) Such a course, thought it may quiet the conscience and the mind, the rational concluding part of the soul, yet it doth not sweeten the heart with rest and gracious contentation. The answer it receives is much like that Elisha have Naaman, $#34Go in peace;$#34 it quieted his mind, but I much question whether it sweetened his heart, or have him any joy in believing, other than the natural joy that was then stirred in him upon his healing. $#34Do not my words do good?$#34 saith the Lord, Micah 2:7. When God speaks, there is not only truth in his words, that may answer the conviction of our understandings, but also they do good; they bring that which is sweet, and good, and desirable to the will and affections; by them the $#34soul returns unto its rest,$#34 Ps. 116:7.

(4.) Which is worst of all, it amends not the life, it heals not the evil, it cures not the distemper. When God speaks peace, it guides and keeps the soul that it $#34turn not again to folly.$#34 When we speak it ourselves, the heart is not taken off the evil; nay, it is the readiest course in the world to bring a soul into a trade of backsliding. If, upon thy plastering thyself, thou findest thyself rather animated to the battle again than utterly weaned from it, it is too palpable that thou hast been at work with thine own soul, but Jesus Christ and his Spirit were not there. Yea, and oftentimes nature having done its work, will, ere a few days are over, come for its reward; and, having been active in the work of healing, will be ready to reason for a new wounding. In God$#39s speaking peace there comes along so much sweetness, and such a discovery of his love, as is a strong obligation on the soul no more to deal perversely.

3. We speak peace to ourselves when we do it slightly. This the prophet complains of in some teachers: Jer. 6:14, $#34They have healed the wound of the daughter of my people slightly.$#34 And it is so with some persons: they make the healing of their wounds a slight work; a look, a glance of faith to the promises does it, and so the matter is ended. The apostle tells us that $#34the word did not profit$#34 some, because $#34it was not well tempered$#34 and mingled with faith. It is not a mere look to the word of mercy in the promise, but it must be mingled with faith until it is incorporated into the very nature of it; and then, indeed, it doth good unto the soul. If thou hast had a wound upon thy conscience, which was attended with weakness and disquietness, which now thou art freed of, how camest thou so? $#34I looked to the promises of pardon and healing, and so found peace.$#34 Yea, but perhaps thou hast made too much haste, thou hast done it overtly, thou hast not fed upon the promise so as to mix it with faith, to have got all the virtue of it diffused into thy soul; only thou hast done it slightly. Thou wilt find thy wound, ere it be long, breaking out again; and thou shalt know that thou art not cured.

4. Whoever speaks peace to himself upon any one account, and at the same time hath another evil of no less importance lying upon his spirit, about which he hath had no dealing with God, that man cries $#34Peace$#34 when there is none. A little to explain my meaning: A man hath neglected a duty again and again, perhaps, when in all righteousness it was due from him; his conscience is perplexed, his soul wounded, he hath no quiet in his bones by reason of his sin; he applies himself for healing, and finds peace. Yet, in the meantime, perhaps, worldliness, or pride, or some other folly, wherewith the Spirit of God is exceedingly grieved, may lie in the bosom of that man, and they neither disturb him nor he them. Let not that man think that any of his peace is from God. Then shall it be well with men, when they have an equal respect to all God$#39s commandments. God will justify us from our sins, but he will not justify the least sin in us: $#34He is a God of purer eyes than to behold iniquity.$#34

5. When men of themselves speak peace to their consciences, it is seldom that God speaks humiliation to their souls. God$#39s peace is humbling peace, melting peace, as it was in the case of David; never such deep humiliation as when Nathan brought him the tidings of his pardon.

But you will say, $#34When may we take the comfort of a promise as our own, in relation to some peculiar wound, for the quieting the heart?$#34

First, In general, when God speaks it, be it when it will, sooner of later. I told you before, he may do it in the very instant of the sin itself, and that with such irresistible power that the soul must needs receive his mind in it; sometimes he will make us wait longer: but when he speaks, be it sooner or later, be it when we are sinning or repenting, be the condition of our souls what they please, if God speak, he must be received. There is not any thing that, in our communion with him, the Lord is more troubled with us for, if I may so say, than our unbelieving fears, that keep us off from receiving that strong consolation which he is so willing to give to us.

But you will say, $#34We are where we were. When God speaks it, we must receive it, that is true; but how shall we know when he speaks?$#34

(1.) I would we could all practically come up to this, to receive peace when we are convinced that God speaks it, and that it is our duty to receive it. But, --

(2.) There is, if I may so say, a secret instinct in faith, whereby it knows the voice of Christ when he speaks indeed; as the babe leaped in the womb when the blessed Virgin came to Elisabeth, faith leaps in the heart when Christ indeed draws nigh to it. $#34My sheep,$#34 says Christ, $#34know my voice,$#34 John 10:4; -- $#34They know my voice; they are used to the sound of it;$#34 and they know when his lips are opened to them and are full of grace. The spouse was in a sad condition, Cant. 5:2, -- asleep in security; but yet as soon as Christ speaks, she cries, $#34It is the voice of my beloved that speaks!$#34 She knew his voice, and was so acquainted with communion with him, that instantly she discovers him; and so will you also. If you exercise yourselves to acquaintance and communion with him, you will easily discern between his voice and the voice of a stranger. When he doth speak, he speaks as never man spake; he speaks with power, and one way or other will make your $#34hearts burn within you,$#34 as he did to the disciples, Luke 24. He doth it by $#34putting in his hand at the hole of the door,$#34 Cant. 5:4, -- his Spirit into your hearts to seize on you.

He that hath his senses exercised to discern good or evil, being increased in judgement and experience by a constant observation of the ways of Christ$#39s intercourse, the manner of the operations of the Spirit, and the effects it usually produceth, is the best judge for himself in this case.

Secondly, If the word of the Lord doth good to your souls, he speaks it; if it humble, if it cleanse, and be useful to those ends for which promises are given, -- namely, to endear, to cleanse, to melt and bind to obedience, to self-emptiness, etc. But this is not my business; nor shall I farther divert in the pursuit of this direction. Without the observation of it, sin will have great advantages towards the hardening of the heart.

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