Sunday, January 03, 2010

On Mortification

I just began teaching an adult Sunday School class on John Owen's classic work The Mortification of Sin in Believers, and this morning we looked at chapter 1 in which Owen lays out some opening remarks about the discourse. The whole treatise is an exposition of Romans 8:13b: "If you mortify the deeds of the body, you will live."

One point that gave rise to some helpful discussion focused on how Owen deals with the conditional nature of this promise. He says that we mustn't take Paul's statement as a condition that bespeaks uncertainty, as if this passage were a universally-applicable formula according to which if a person does Y, X will necessarily follow (but who knows if the person will ever get around to doing X in the first place?). The context rules out such an approach, since the passage is addressed to those for whom "there is no condemnation" because they have been "justified by faith" and "have peace with God" (8:1; 5:1).

Rather, Owen argues, the conditional promise highlights "a certain connection or coherence" between the duty (mortifying the deeds of the body) and the reward (life). Though Owen doesn't say it explicitly, the relationship of eternal life to mortification seems to me to be very much akin to that of faith to justification. Can one be justified without faith? No. But is one's justification earned by his faith? No. The meritorious cause of one's justification is the work of Christ, the benefits of which are received through the instrumental cause of faith. Our mortification, therefore, issues forth in eternal life, but eternal life is in no sense earned by said mortification.

In fact, Owen says that:

The pressing of this duty [of mortification] immediately on any other [than believers] is a notable fruit of that superstition and self-righteousness that the world is full of--the great work and design of devout men ignorant of the gospel.... Mortification from a self-strength, carried on by ways of self-invention, unto the end of self-righteousness, is the soul and substance of all false religion in the world.
I am curious to know your thoughts on Owen's treatment of Paul's conditional promise here, as well as whether or not you agree with his assessment of those who disagree with him (and I think we all know who it is that he has in mind).