Overcoming Sin and Temptation contains three books by the 17th century puritan theologian John Owen, and the first is “On the Mortification of Sin in Believers.” Owen introduces the topic by talking about how important it is, and then he expounds on “the nature of mortification.” (Mortification is mentioned in Romans 8:13 and means to kill sin in our lives…before it kills us, as Owen likes to say). In this section on the nature of mortification, I found several passages very interesting and helpful.
First, Owen discusses a passage on “false repentance” I have never noticed before, even though I have taught for many years on the topic. It is found in Psalm 78:32-27: "In spite of all this they still sinned, and did not believe in His wonderful works. So He brought their days to an end in futility, and their years in sudden terror. When He killed them, then they sought Him, and returned and searched diligently for God; and they remembered that God was their rock, and the Most High God their Redeemer. But they deceived Him with their mouth, and lied to Him with their tongue. For their heart was not steadfast toward Him, nor were they faithful in His covenant."
Owen points out how the repentance of these people, like that of Esau’s mentioned in Hebrews 12:16-17, was energetic and emotional, but failed to bring about the forgiveness of God because it was motivated more by the consequences suffered than the suffering of the Savior. This reminded me how dependent we are upon God’s grace in our lives, not only for the forgiveness that only He can grant, but also for the true Spirit-caused repentance that only He can create in us. Truly we must rely on Him to create in us a clean heart (Psalm 51)!
On the next few pages Owen gives us some deep insights into the doctrine of total depravity, first explaining why even unbelievers may not seem to be “always doing evil” as Genesis 6:5 says, but they really are in the sight of God: “The reason why a natural man is not always perpetually in the pursuit of some one lust, night and day, is because he has so many to serve, every one crying to be satisfied; thence he is carried on with great variety, but still in general he lies toward the satisfaction of self” (page 73).
Then he explains how even those with more “respectable sins” are still totally depraved and in need of grace and forgiveness: “Some men may go in their own thoughts and in the eyes of the world for mortified men, who yet have in them no less predominancy of lust than those who cry out with astonishment upon the account of its perplexing tumultuatings, yea, than those who have by the power of it been hurried into scandalous sins; only 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, the very fabric of nature being not so nearly concerned in them as in some other” (page 75). In other words, just because someone is not visibly “torn apart” by their sin doesn’t mean they have less; the more subtle and unnoticeable sins can be worse because they adhere harder to the soul while leaving the impression of less need for change. I’ve noticed this in my own life, that I’ve often been worse off when I’m having “victory” over the “big sins” of action while the hidden ones of the heart are still festering there, perhaps unknown to anyone else. May God grant me the grace to mortify the sins of the heart as well as those of the body!