Packer on Owen on Mortification
The following is taken from Puritan Portraits by J. I. Packer, published by Christian Focus (192pp, paperback, ISBN 9781845507008). There are seven Puritan leaders who are evaluated and commended by Dr. Packer in this fine book. The notes have been added.
I owe more, I think, to John Owen than to any other theologian, ancient or modern, and I am sure I owe more to his little book on mortification1
than to anything else he wrote. Let me explain.
I was converted – that is, I came to the Lord Jesus Christ in a decisive commitment, needing and seeking God’s pardon and acceptance, conscious of Christ’s redeeming love for me and his personal call to me – in my first university term, a little more than half a century ago. The group nurturing me was heavily pietistic in style, and left me in no doubt that the most important thing for me as a Christian was the quality of my walk with God: in which, of course, they were entirely right. They were also, however, somewhat elitist in spirit, holding that only Bible-believing evangelicals could say anything worth hearing about the Christian life, and the leaders encouraged the rest of us to assume that anyone thought sound enough to address the group on this theme was sure to be good. I listened with great expectation and excitement to the preachers and teachers whom the group brought in week by week, not doubting that they were the top devotional instructors in Britain, perhaps in the world. And I came a cropper.
Whether what I thought I heard was what was really being said may be left an open question, but it seemed to me that what I was being told was this. There are two sorts of Christians, first-class and second-class, ‘spiritual’ and ‘carnal’ (a distinction drawn from the King James rendering of 1 Cor. 3:1-3). The former know sustained peace and joy, constant inner confidence, and regular victory over temptation and sin, in a way that the latter do not. Those who hope to be of use to God must become ‘spiritual’ in the stated sense. As a lonely, nervy, adolescent introvert whose new-found assurance had not changed his temperament overnight, I had to conclude that I was not ‘spiritual’ yet. But I wanted to be useful to God. So what was I to do?
‘LET GO, AND LET GOD’
There is a secret, I was told, of rising from carnality to spirituality, a secret mirrored in the maxim: ‘Let go, and let God’. I vividly recall a radiant clergyman in an Oxford pulpit enforcing this. The secret had to do with being Spirit-filled. The Spirit-filled person, it was said, is taken out of the second half of Romans 7, understood (misunderstood, I would now maintain) as an analysis of constant moral defeat through self-reliance, into Romans 8, where he walks confidently in the Spirit and is not so defeated. The way to be Spirit-filled, so I gathered, was as follows.
First, one must deny self. Did not Jesus require self-denial from his disciples (Luke 9:23)? Yes, but clearly what he meant was the negating of carnal self — that is to say self-will, self-assertion, self-centredness and self-worship, the Adamic syndrome in human nature, the egocentric behaviour pattern, rooted in anti-God aspirations and attitudes, for which the common name is original sin. What I seemed to be hearing, however, was a call to deny personal self, so that I could be taken over by Jesus Christ in such a way that my present experience of thinking and willing would become something different, an experience of Christ himself living in he, animating me and doing the thinking and willing for me. Put like that, it sounds more like the formula of demon-possession than the ministry of the indwelling Christ according to the New Testament. But in those days I knew nothing about demon-possession, and what I have just put into words seemed to be the plain meaning of ‘I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me’ (Gal. 2:20, KJV) as expounded by the approved speakers. We used to sing this chorus:
O to be saved from myself, dear Lord,
O to be lost in thee;
O that it may be no more I
But Christ who lives in me!
Whatever its author may have meant, I sang it whole-heartedly in the sense spelled out above.
The rest of the secret was bound up in the double-barrelled phrase consecration and faith. Consecration meant total self-surrender, laying one’s all on the altar, handing over every part of one’s life to the lordship of Jesus. Through consecration one would be emptied of self, and the empty vessel would then automatically be filled with the Spirit so that Christ’s power within one would be ready for use. With consecration was to go faith, which was explained as looking to the indwelling Christ moment by moment, not only to do one’s thinking and choosing in and for one, but also to do one’s fighting and resisting of temptation. Rather than meet temptation directly (which would be fighting in one’s own strength), one should hand it over to Christ to deal with, and look to him to banish it. Such was the consecration-and-faith technique as I understood it – heap powerful magic, as I took it to be, the precious secret of what was called victorious living.
But what happened? I scraped my inside, figuratively speaking, to ensure that my consecration was complete, and laboured to ‘let go and let God’ when temptation made its presence felt. At that time I did not know that Harry Ironside, sometime pastor of Moody Memorial Church, Chicago, once drove himself into a full-scale mental breakdown through trying to get into the higher life as I was trying to get into it; and I would not have dared to conclude, as I have concluded since, that this higher life as described is a will-o’-the-wisp, an unreality that no one has ever laid hold of at all, and that those who testify to their experience in these terms really, if unwittingly, distort what has happened to them. All I knew was that the expected experience was not coming. The technique was not working. Why not? Well, since the teaching declared that everything depends on consecration being total, the fault had to lie in me. So I must scrape my inside again to find whatever maggots of unconsecrated selfhood still lurked there. I became fairly frantic.
And then (thank God) the group was given an old clergyman’s library, and in it was an uncut set of Owen, and I cut the pages of volume VI2
more or less at random, and read Owen on mortification – and God used what the old Puritan had written three centuries before to sort me out. Here was God’s chemo for my cancered soul.
Reaching across those three centuries, Owen showed me my inside – my heart – as no one had ever done before. Sin, he told me, is a blind, anti-God, egocentric energy in the fallen human spiritual system, ever fomenting self-centred and self-deceiving desires, ambitions, purposes, plans, attitudes, and behaviours. Now that I was a regenerate believer, born again, a new creation in Christ, sin that formerly dominated me had been de-throned but was not yet destroyed. It was marauding within me all the time, bringing back sinful desires that I hoped I had seen the last of, and twisting my new desires for God and godliness out of shape so that they became pride-perverted too. Lifelong conflict with the besetting sins that besetting sin generates was what I must expect.
What to do? Here was Owen’s answer, in essence: Have the holiness of God clear in your mind. Remember that sin desensitises you to itself. Watch – that is, prepare to recognise it, and search it out within you by disciplined, Bible-based, Spirit-led self- examination. Focus on the living Christ and his love for you on the cross. Pray, asking for strength to say ‘no’ to sin’s suggestions and to fortify yourself against bad habits by forming good ones contrary to them. And ask Christ to kill the sinful urge you are fighting, as the theophanic angel in C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce tells the man with the lizard to do.
Does it work? Yes. Nearly seventy years on, I can testify to that.
Does Owen’s book minister to others as it ministered to me? Yes. From prison just recently came the following:
I found this book … near a toilet on the floor …. Immediately after I finished reading Owen’s Mortification of Sin I got on my knees on the floor of my cell and begged for Jesus to come into my miserable life and redeem me … and for the first time in my entire life I meant every single word that I professed …. Thank you, Jesus!
Owen is one of the dead who still speak.
- John Owen, The Mortification of Sin, Abridged and made easy to read by Richard Rushing, 144pp, paperback in the Trust’s Puritan paperbacks series. A fine Study Guide by Rob Edwards is now also available.
- Volume VI of The Works of John Owen, Temptation and Sin, is available from the Trust.
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