The deadliest snake in the world is Australia’s inland taipan. The venom from one bite can kill 100 full-grown humans. Imagine you came home to find this venomous killer coiled up in your living room. What would you do? You wouldn’t encourage your kids to play with it. You wouldn’t keep it around as a pet. No, you’d grab a shovel and aim for its head!
We have something far more dangerous in our homes and hearts. Sin. Sadly, too many people play with sin instead of putting it to death.
Too many people play with sin instead of putting it to death.
John Owen famously warns Christians, “Be killing sin or it will be killing you.” His book The Mortification of Sin is an exposition of Romans 8:13: “For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” Though Christians cannot eliminate sin in this life, Owen encourages us to diligently fight sinful desires and put them to death.
What is the shovel we use to attack our sin? Owen gives us nine practical directives:
1. Diagnose sin’s severity.
When a person has struggled with a sin for a long time, it’ll be more difficult to kill. This is especially the case if there have been long seasons when that person has indulged the sin rather than actively trying to kill it. Making excuses, justifying sinful behavior, or too quickly applying grace and mercy to a sin also contribute to the sin’s severity and lead to a hardened heart and conscience. Consider such factors when diagnosing a sin’s severity, because a more severe struggle calls for more focused effort in mortification.
2. Grasp sin’s serious consequences.
Even for the Christian, who has been declared righteous positionally, sin remains dangerous. Owen outlines four dangers sin poses for the believer: being hardened by sin’s deceitfulness, God’s temporal discipline, losing peace and strength, and, finally, the danger of eternal destruction—that by continuing in sin, one may prove he was never truly converted. A Christian’s sin grieves the Holy Spirit (Eph. 4:25–30), wounds the Lord Jesus (Heb. 6:6), and can cause a Christian to lose his or her usefulness for ministry.
3. Be convinced of your guilt.
We understand guilt through the law and the gospel. “Bring the holy law of God into thy conscience,” Owen writes, “lay thy corruption to it, pray that thou mayst be affected with it.” Meditate on biblical commands that speak to sin’s sinfulness then also consider your sin in light of the cross. Ask yourself, “Why have I gone on sinning when I’ve been shown such grace and mercy? How can I show such contempt?”
4. Earnestly desire deliverance.
Knowing your great guilt, you can long for deliverance from sin. Why is this important? Because “longing, breathing, and panting after deliverance is a grace in itself, that hath a mighty power to conform the soul into the likeness of the thing longed after.” Indeed, according to Owen, “unless thou longest for deliverance thou shalt not have it.”
5. Consider the relationship between your sins and your natural temperament.
Each person has a unique temperament and nature that makes certain sins harder to kill. Owen reminds us, “A proneness to some sins may doubtless lie in the natural temper and disposition of men.” We are not less guilty for committing the sins to which we’re prone, but when we know ourselves, we know the areas of our lives where greater self-discipline is necessary (1 Cor. 9:27).
6. Avoid occasions that incite sin.
Consider the circumstances that attend your falling into sin, and guard yourself from them. “Know that he that dares to dally with occasions of sin will dare to sin,” says Owen. If we want to stop sinning, we must avoid the slippery places that occasion our falls.
7. Address sin’s first signs.
We’ll be most effective in putting sin to death when we “rise mightily against the first actings” of our sinful desires. It’s hard to stop water once it bursts into a flood. So too it’s hard to stop sin if we allow our desire for it to grow.
8. Meditate on God’s glory.
We must not let it gain ground. Instead, we must turn from our sin to “the excellency of the majesty of God.” When we see God’s glory, we’ll see our sin’s ugliness in contrast. Owen says it’s especially helpful to consider how much of God’s greatness we don’t know: “It is but a little portion we know of him.” It’s hard for sin to flourish in a heart filled with a sense of God’s majesty.
9. Don’t rush to comfort yourself.
Owen’s final instruction comes in the form of a caution. Though we may experience guilt and conviction over sin, we shouldn’t assume the sin is defeated. Sin is deceitful, and it can trick us into thinking we’ve dealt with it decisively when we have not. Owen warns us not to speak peace to ourselves before God speaks it (Jer. 6:14), but rather to “examine [ourselves], to see whether [we] are in the faith” (2 Cor. 13:5). He warns we may console ourselves falsely if we treat the process of repentance lightly, don’t show concern for other sins, or if our consolation “is not attended with the greatest detestation imaginable of that sin in reference.”
Sin is like an aggressive snake. If we don’t proactively attack sin, it will prove deadly. Thankfully, we aren’t alone in the fight. The power to kill sin comes from Christ through the Holy Spirit. As we focus on snuffing out sin, we must also draw near to the throne of grace. It’s there we’ll find grace to help in our time of need (Heb. 4:16). Effort is necessary, but as Owen says, “Mortification of any sin must be by a supply of grace. Of our selves we cannot do it.”