To Mortify

There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit.
~ Romans 8:1

That the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit. For they that are after the flesh do mind the things of the flesh; but they that are after the Spirit the things of the Spirit. For to be carnally minded is death; but to be spiritually minded is life and peace.
~ Romans 8:4-6

But every man is tempted, when he is drawn away of his own lust, and enticed. Then when lust hath conceived, it bringeth forth sin: and sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death.
~ James 1:14-15

Dearly beloved, I beseech you as strangers and pilgrims, abstain from fleshly lusts, which war against the soul;
~ 1 Peter 2:11

And be not drunk with wine, wherein is excess; but be filled with the Spirit;
~ Ephesians 5:18

What Mortification Is Not, and What It Is, by John Owen. The following contains Chapters Five and Six of his work, “The Mortification of Sin in Believers”.

Chapter 5


These things being premised, I come to my principal intention: handling some questions or practical cases that present themselves in this business of mortification of sin in believers.

The first, which is the head of all the rest, and whereunto they are reduced, may be considered as lying under the following proposal.

Suppose a man to be a true believer, and yet finds in himself a powerful indwelling sin, leading him captive to the law of it, consuming his heart with trouble, perplexing his thoughts, weakening his soul as to duties of communion with God, disquieting him as to peace and perhaps defiling his conscience, and exposing him to hardening through the deceitfulness of sin. What shall he do? What course shall he take and insist on for the mortification of this sin, lust, distemper, or corruption—to such a degree that, though it be not utterly destroyed, yet in his contest with it, he may be enabled to keep up power, strength, and peace in communion with God?

In answer to this important inquiry, I shall do these things:

I. Show what it is to mortify any sin, and that both negatively and positively, that we be not mistaken in the foundation.37

II. Give general directions for such things as without which it will be utterly impossible for anyone to get any sin truly and spiritually mortified.38

III. Draw out the particulars whereby this is to be done, in the whole carrying on this consideration, that it is not of the doctrine of mortification in general, but only in reference to the particular case before proposed, that I am treating.

We begin, then, with the first head: I. What Mortification Is, and deal with the foundational question in this first section: What Mortification Is Not.

1. Not to Utterly Destroy Sin

To mortify a sin is not utterly to kill, root it out, and destroy it, so that it has no more hold at all nor residence in our hearts. It is true this is that which is aimed at, but this is not in this life to be accomplished. There is no man that truly sets himself to mortify any sin, but he aims at, intends, and desires its utter destruction so that it leaves neither root nor fruit in the heart or life. He would so kill it that it should never move nor stir any more, cry or call, seduce or tempt, to eternity. Its “not-being” is the thing aimed at.
37 This head (I.) includes What Mortification Is Not, which comprises Chapter 5; and What Mortification Is, which comprises Chapter 6.
38 This head (II.) includes Owen’s two general rules for mortification, Chapters 7 and 8.

Now, though doubtless there may be attained, by the Spirit and grace of Christ, a wonderful success and eminency of victory against any sin—so that a man may have almost constant triumph over it—yet an utter killing and destruction of it, that it should not exist at all, is not in this life to be expected. This Paul assures us of: “Not as though I had already attained, either were already perfect” (Phi 3:12). He was a choice saint, a pattern for believers, who had not his equal in the world in faith and love and all the fruits of the Spirit, and on that account ascribes perfection to himself in comparison to others, as shown by his statement: “Let us…as many as be perfect” (Phi 3:15);39 yet he had not “attained,” he was not “perfect,” but was “following after.” He still had a vile body, as do we, that must be changed by the great power of Christ at last (3:21). This we desire to have; but God sees it best for us that we should be complete in nothing in ourselves, so that in all things we must be “complete in Christ”—which is best for us (Col 2:10).

2. Not to Conceal a Sin

I think I do not need to say it is not the dissimulation40 of a sin. When a man on some outward respects forsakes the practice of any sin, men perhaps may look on him as a changed man. But God knows that to his former iniquity he has added cursed hypocrisy and is got in a more sure path to hell than he was in before. He has got another heart than he had that is more cunning, not a new heart that is more holy.

3. Not to Improve a Quiet Nature

The mortification of sin consists not in the improvement41 of a quiet, sedate nature. Some men have an advantage by their natural constitution so far as that they are not exposed to such violence of unruly passions and tumultuous affections as many others are. Let now these men cultivate and improve their natural frame and temper by discipline, consideration, and prudence, and they may seem to themselves and others very mortified men, when perhaps their hearts are a standing cesspool of all abominations. Perhaps some man is never so much troubled all his life with anger and passion, nor troubles others, as another is almost every day; and yet the latter has done more to the mortification of the sin than the former. Let not such persons try their mortification by things which their natural disposition does not tend toward. Let them attempt to deny self or to mortify unbelief, envy, or some such spiritual sin, and they will have a better view of themselves.

4. Not to Divert a Sin

A sin is not mortified when it is only diverted. Simon Magus42 for a season left his sorceries; but his covetousness and ambition, which had set him on his work, remained still, and would have been acting another way. Therefore Peter tells him, “I perceive that thou art in the gall of bitterness” (Act 8:23)—that is, notwithstanding the profession you have made, notwithstanding
39 Many conservative scholars understand “perfect” to mean “spiritually mature,” not sinless perfection. 40 dissimulation – deceitful concealment.
41 improvement – advantageous use of what is already in man’s nature.
42 Simon Magus – the sorcerer of Acts 8:9-24 (magus is Latin for “magician”).

your relinquishment of your sorceries, your lust is as powerful as ever. It is the same lust; only the streams of it are diverted. It now exerts and puts forth itself another way, but it is the old gall of bitterness still.

A man may be sensible of a lust, set himself against the eruptions of it, take care that it shall not break forth as it has done, but in the meantime suffer the same corrupted habit to vent itself some other way. This is as he who heals and skins a running sore thinks himself cured, but in the meantime his flesh festers underneath by the corruption of the same infection and breaks out in another place. And this diversion, with the alterations that attend it, often befalls men for reasons wholly foreign to grace.
Change of the course of life that a man was in—of relations, interests, designs—may effect43 it; yea, the very alterations in men’s constitutions, occasioned by a natural progress in the course of their lives, may produce such changes as these. Men in age do not usually persist in the pursuit of youthful lusts, although they have never mortified any of them.

And the same is the case of trading lusts: a man’s leaving off from serving one so that he may serve another. He that changes pride for worldliness, sensuality for Pharisaism, vanity in himself to the contempt of others, let him not think that he has mortified the sin that he seems to have left. He has changed his master but is a servant still.

5. Not to Conquer Sin Occasionally

Occasional conquests of sin do not amount to a mortifying of it. There are two occasions or seasons wherein a man who is contending with any sin may seem to himself to have mortified it.

a. When sin erupts suddenly

A man may consider a sin mortified when it has had some sad eruption to the disturbance of his peace, terror of his conscience, dread of scandal, and evident provocation of God. This awakens and stirs up all that is in the man and amazes him, fills him with abhorrence of sin and himself (for doing it), sends him to God, makes him cry out as for life, to abhor his lust as hell, and to set himself against it. The whole man, spiritual and natural, being now awaked, sin shrinks in its head, appears not, but lies before him as if dead.

This is just as one who has drawn near to an army in the night and has killed a highranking person. Instantly the guards awake, men are roused up, and strict inquiry is made after the enemy, who hides himself or lies like one that is dead in the meantime until the noise and tumult be over, yet with firm resolution to do the like mischief again upon the like opportunity. Upon the sin among the Corinthians, see how they muster up themselves for the surprise and destruction of it (2Co 7:11).

So it is in a person when a breach has been made upon his conscience, peace, or reputation by his lust in some eruption of actual sin. Carefulness, indignation, desire, fear, and revenge are all set at work about it and against it; and lust is quiet for a season, being run down before them. But when the hurry is over and the inquest44 past, the thief appears again alive and is as busy as ever at his work.
43 effect – cause.
44 inquest – investigation of the situation.

b. When in some affliction

In a time of some judgment, calamity, or pressing affliction, the heart is taken up with thoughts and contrivances of flying from the present troubles, fears, and dangers. This, as a convinced45 person concludes, is to be done only by relinquishing sin, which gains peace with God. It is the anger of God in every affliction that galls46 a convinced person. To be relieved of this, men resolve at such times to fight against their sins. Sin never again shall have any place in them; they will never again give up themselves to the service of it. Accordingly, sin is quiet, stirs not, and seems to be mortified; not indeed that it has received any wound, but merely because the soul has possessed its faculties,47 whereby it should exert itself with thoughts against the motions of that sin—which, when they are laid aside, sin returns again to its former life and vigor.

Those described in Psalm 78 are a full instance and description of this frame of spirit whereof I speak:

For all this they sinned still, and believed not for his wondrous works. Therefore their days did he consume in vanity, and their years in trouble. When he slew them, then they sought him: and they returned and enquired early after God. And they remembered that God was their rock, and the high God their redeemer. Nevertheless they did flatter him with their mouth, and they lied unto him with their tongues. For their heart was not right with him, neither were they stedfast in his covenant (Psa 78:32-37).

I no way doubt but that when they sought, returned, and inquired early after God, they did it with full purpose of heart as to the relinquishing of their sins; it is expressed in the word returned. To turn or return to the Lord is by a forsaking of sin. This they did “early,” with earnestness and diligence; but yet their sin was unmortified for all this (vv. 36-37). This is the state of many humiliations in the days of affliction. A great deceit in the hearts of believers themselves often lies here.

These and many other ways there are whereby poor souls deceive themselves and suppose they have mortified their lusts when [their lusts] live and are mighty, and on every occasion break forth to their disturbance and disquiet.
45 convinced – brought to a state of conviction; firmly persuaded.
46 galls – irritates and unsettles.
47 faculties – powers or properties of one’s mind.

Chapter 6


What it is to mortify a sin in general, which will make further way for particular directions, is next to be considered.48

The mortification of a lust consists in three things. The first thing in mortification is the weakening of this habit of sin or lust. The second thing in mortification is a constant fighting and contending against sin. The third part of mortification is a frequent success against any lust.

1. Habitual Weakening of Sin

The first thing in mortification is the weakening of this habit of sin. Every lust is a depraved habit or disposition, continually inclining the heart to evil. Thence is that description of him who has no lust truly mortified: “Every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Gen 6:5). He is always under the power of a strong bent and inclination to sin. And the reason why a natural man is not always perpetually in the pursuit of one lust, night and day, is because he has many to serve, every one crying to be satisfied. Thence he is carried on with great variety, but still in general he lies towards the satisfaction of self.

We will suppose, then, the lust or distemper whose mortification is inquired after to be in itself a strong, deeply-rooted, habitual inclination and bent of will and affections to some actual sin as to the matter of it—though not, under that formal consideration, always stirring up imaginations, thoughts, and contrivances about the object of it. Hence, men are said to have their “hearts…fully set in them to do evil” (Ecc 8:11), that is, the bent of their spirits lies towards it, to make “provision for the flesh” (Rom 13:14).

A sinful, depraved habit—as in many other things, so in this—differs from all natural or moral habits whatever. Whereas moral habits incline the soul gently and suitably to itself, sinful habits drive with violence and impetuousness.49 From this, lusts are said to fight or wage “war against the soul” (1Pe 2:11), that is, to rebel or rise up in war with that conduct and opposition which is usual therein (Rom 7:23), to lead captive, or effectively capturing upon success in battle—all works of great violence and impetuousness.50
48 This chapter is a continuation of the first head (I.) describing mortification, begun in Chapter 5 with section 1 detailing what mortification is not. This chapter is section 2 of that same head.
49 impetuousness – strong emotion.
50 I might manifest fully, from that description we have of it in Romans 7, how it will darken the mind, extinguish convictions, dethrone reason, interrupt the power and influence of any considerations that may be brought to hamper it, and break through all into a flame. But this is not my present business.—from the original

Now, the first thing in mortification is the weakening of this habit of sin or lust, that it shall not—with that violence, earnestness, and frequency—rise up, conceive, disturb, provoke, entice, or disquiet as naturally it is apt to do (Jam 1:14-15).

a. Limitations to this truth

I shall desire to give one caution or rule by the way, and it is this: though every lust does in its own nature, equally and universally, incline and impel to sin, yet this must be granted with these two limitations.

1). The strength of lusts varies

One lust, or a lust in one man, may receive many accidental improvements, heightenings, and strengthenings, which may give it life, power, and vigor exceedingly above what another lust has, or above the same kind of lust in another man. When a lust falls in with the natural constitutions and temper, with a suitable course of life, with occasions, or when Satan has got a fit handle to it to manage it—as he has a thousand ways so to do—that lust grows violent and impulsive above others, or more than the same lust in another man. Then the steams of it darken the mind, so that though a man knows the same things as formerly, yet they have no power nor influence on the will, but corrupt affections and passions are set at liberty by it.

But especially, lust gets strength by temptation. When a suitable temptation falls in with a lust, it gives it a new life, vigor, power, violence, and rage, which before it seemed not to have or to be capable of. Instances to this purpose might be multiplied, but it is the design of some part of another treatise to prove this observation.

2). Some lusts more discernible

Some lusts are far more sensible and discernible in their violent actings than others. Paul puts a difference between uncleanness51 and all other sins: “Flee fornication. Every sin that a man doeth is without the body; but he that committeth fornication sinneth against his own body” (1Co 6:18). Hence, the motions of that sin are more sensible, more discernible than of others. When perhaps the love of the world, or the like, is in a person no less habitually predominant than uncleanness, yet it makes not so great a combustion in the whole man.

And on this account some men may go for mortified men in their own thoughts and in the eyes of the world, who yet have in them no less predominance of lust than those who cry out with astonishment upon the account of its perplexing disturbances—yea, than those who have by the power of it been hurried into scandalous sins. However, it is only that their lusts are in and about things which raise not such a tumult in the soul, about which they are exercised with a calmer frame of spirit, their very temperament being not so nearly concerned in them as in some other.

b. Crucifying the flesh

I say, then, that the first thing in mortification is the weakening of this habit so that it shall not impel and disturb as formerly—that it shall not entice and draw aside; that it shall not disquiet and perplex the killing of its life, vigor, promptness, and readiness to be stirring. This is called crucifying “the flesh with the affections and lusts” (Gal 5:24); that is, taking away its
51 uncleanness – unlawful indulgence of sexual desire.

blood and spirits that give it strength and power, the wasting of the body of death “day by day” (2Co 4:16).

A man nailed to the cross first struggles, strives, and cries out with great strength and might; but, as his blood and spirits waste, his strivings are faint and seldom, his cries low and hoarse, scarce to be heard. Similarly, when a man first sets on a lust or distemper to deal with it, it struggles with great violence to break loose; it cries with earnestness and impatience to be satisfied and relieved. But when by mortification the blood and spirits of it are let out, it moves seldom and faintly, cries sparingly, and is scarce heard in the heart. It may have sometimes a dying pang that makes an appearance of great vigor and strength, but it is quickly over, especially if it be kept from considerable success.

This the apostle describes, as in the whole chapter, so especially in Romans 6:6, the “old man is crucified with” Christ. Sin, he says, is crucified; it is fastened to the cross. To what end? “That the body of sin might be destroyed,” the power of sin weakened and abolished little by little, that “henceforth we should not serve sin”; that is, that sin might not incline us, drive us, with such effectiveness as to make us servants to it as it has done up until now.

And this is spoken not only with respect to carnal and sensual affections, or desires of worldly things—not only in respect of the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life (1Jo 2:16)—but also as to the flesh, that is, in the mind and will, in that opposition unto God which is in us by nature. Of whatever nature the troubling corruption is, by whatever ways it makes itself out, either by driving to evil or hindering from that which is good, the rule is the same. Unless this mortification be done effectively, all after-contention will not reach the goal aimed at. A man may beat down the bitter fruit from an evil tree until he is weary while the root abides in strength and vigor. The beating down of the present fruit will not hinder it from bringing forth more. This is the folly of some men: they set themselves with all earnestness and diligence against the appearing eruption of lust; but, leaving the principle and root untouched, perhaps unsearched out, they make but little or no progress in this work of mortification.

2. Constant Fighting and Contending against Sin

To be able always to be laying load on sin is no small degree of mortification. When sin is strong and vigorous the soul is scarce able to make any head against it. It sighs, groans, mourns, and is troubled, but seldom has sin in the pursuit. David speaks of himself, complaining that his sin had “taken fast hold upon me, so that I am not able to look up” (Psa 40:12). How little then was he able to fight against it!
Now, various things are required for and involved in this fighting against sin.

a. Recognize the battle

To know that a man has such an enemy to deal with, to take notice of it, to consider it as an enemy indeed, and one that is to be destroyed by all means possible, is required hereunto. As I said before, the contest is vigorous and hazardous: it is about the things of eternity. When therefore men have slight and transient thoughts of their lusts, it is no great sign that they are mortified or that they are in a way for their mortification. This is every man’s knowing “the plague of his own heart” (1Ki 8:38), without which no other work can be done. It is to be feared that very many have little knowledge of the main enemy that they carry about with 29 them in their bosoms. This makes them ready to justify themselves and to be impatient with reproof or admonition, not knowing that they are in any danger (2Ch 16:10).

b. Know the enemy

To labor to be acquainted with the ways, wiles, methods, advantages, and occasions of sin’s success is the beginning of this warfare. This is the way men deal with enemies. They inquire about their counsels and designs, ponder their goals, consider how and by what means they have formerly prevailed, so that they may be prevented. In this consists the greatest skill in conduct. Take this away, and all waging of war would be brutish, even where there is the greatest use of human wisdom and industry.

Indeed, men who mortify lust deal with it in this way. Not only when lust is actually vexing, enticing, and seducing, but in their quiet moments they consider, “This is our enemy; this is his way and progress, these are his advantages, thus has he prevailed, and thus he will do, if not prevented.” So it was with David: “My sin is ever before me” (Psa 51:3). Indeed, one of the choicest and most eminent parts of spiritual wisdom, practically applied, consists in finding out the subtleties, policies, and depths of any indwelling sin. A good part of our warfare is to consider and know wherein its greatest strength lies; what advantage it takes of occasions, opportunities, and temptations; what are its pleas, pretenses, and reasonings; and what are its strategies, colors,52 and excuses.

A good part of our warfare is to set the wisdom of the Spirit against the craft of the old man; to trace this serpent in all its turnings and windings; to be able to say, at its most secret and (to a common frame of heart) imperceptible53 actings: “This is your old way and course; I know what you aim at”; and so to be always in readiness.

c. Attack daily

The height of this contest is to load sin daily with all the things that are grievous, killing, and destructive to sin, which shall be mentioned later. Such a one never thinks his lust dead because it is quiet, but labors still to give it new wounds, new blows every day. So the apostle says in Colossians 3:5, “Mortify therefore your members…” etc.

Now, while the soul is thus dealing in this condition, it certainly has the upper hand: sin is under the sword and dying.

3. Success against Sin

Frequent success against any lust is another part and evidence of mortification. By “success” I do not mean a mere disappointment of sin, so that it is not brought forth nor accomplished, but a victory over it and pursuit of it, resulting in a complete conquest. For instance, when the heart finds sin at work at any time—seducing, forming imaginations to make
52 colors – disguises; pretenses.
53 imperceptible – so slight as not to be detected.

provision for the flesh, to fulfil the lusts thereof—it instantly apprehends sin, brings it to the Law of God and love of Christ, condemns it, and follows it with execution to the uttermost.

Now, I say, sin is mortified in some considerable measure when a man comes to this state and condition: that lust is weakened in the root and principle, that its motions and actions are fewer and weaker than formerly, so that they are not able to hinder his duty nor interrupt his peace. Sin is mortified in some considerable measure when he can, in a quiet, sedate frame of spirit, discover and fight against sin, and have success against it. Then, notwithstanding all sin’s opposition, a man may have peace with God all his days.

4. Summary

Unto these heads, then, I refer the mortification aimed at—the mortification, that is, of any one perplexing distemper, whereby the general depravity and corruption of our nature attempts to exert itself.

First, the foundation of mortification is the weakening of sin’s indwelling disposition— whereby it inclines, entices, impels to evil, rebels, opposes, and fights against God—by the implanting, habitual residence, and cherishing of a principle of grace that stands in direct opposition to sin and is destructive of it. So pride is weakened by the implanting and growth of humility, passion is weakened by patience, uncleanness is weakened by purity of mind and conscience, love of this world is weakened by heavenly-mindedness. These latter are graces of the Holy Spirit, or the same habitual grace variously acting itself by the Spirit according to the variety or diversity of the objects about which it is exercised. The former are various lusts, or the same natural corruption variously acting itself according to the various advantages and occasions that it meets with.

A second thing required for mortification is the promptness, eagerness, and vigor of the Spirit, or new man (Col 3:10), in contending with, cheerfully fighting against, the lust spoken of, by all the ways and with all the means that are appointed thereunto, constantly using the support provided against its motions and actings.

Success unto several degrees attends these two.
If the distemper has not an unconquerable advantage from its natural situation, this may possibly be to such a universal conquest as the soul may never again sensibly feel its opposition. The soul shall assuredly arise to an allowance of peace to the conscience according to the tenor of the Covenant of Grace.54
54 tenor of the Covenant of Grace – nature and character of what God has provided in Christ by the Covenant.