Yesterday I began an examination of John Owen’s classic The Mortification of Sin. I had only just begun to look at chapter one when I had to step away from the computer, so I will be picking up where I left off.
Owen begins a more in depth look at the verse by starting with the conditional statement. “But if.” There are two things, according to Owen that such conditionals can actually mean. One conditional is uncertain. Owen describes it thusly: “the uncertainty of the event of the event promised, in respect to them to whom the duty is prescribed.” It is not as though, on this sort of conditional, that the desired outcome is certain when the duty is performed. One does not necessarily follow from the other. For instance, if I say, “if I get to St. Louis I will attend seminary” I do not mean that going to St. Louis secures my position in Seminary.
Owen denies that this is the conditional Paul has in mind in 8:13. If we look at 8:13 this way we will discover why. “If you mortify the deeds of the body you will live.” If there is uncertainty between these two then it is possible, even if the person in question mortifies the deeds of the body, for that person to die and miss out on eternal life. Owen, however, points out that verse 1 of that same chapter of Romans says Christians face no condemnation. We are set free from the law of sin and death.
What sort of conditional do we have? This conditional is one of certainty. “If I get all the answers right I will pass the test.” This ‘life’ is the guaranteed result of mortification, though not through strict cause and effect. God promises the end (life) and he ordains a means (mortification) to get us there. The promise of life is the motivation for mortification.
To some this may sound dangerously close to salvation by works. It is not because eternal life is not earned through mortification. Rather the life is granted by God, but mortification will be exemplified in the actions of he who has been given life. If you do not mortify, you will die because you did not receive life.
Next Owen focuses on the people to whom the duty of mortification is given. A quick glance through Romans 8 will reveal that Paul’s audience is a Christian one. The chapter begins, as we saw above, by telling us how we no longer face condemnation when we are in Christ. “For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death.” This is certainly written to the Christian, and there is nothing between this verse and verse 13 to indicate Paul is referring to anyone else. We must not try to push this duty onto non-Christians. It’s foolish and they lack the power of the Spirit that is necessary. It is, as Owen indicates, the beginning of superstition and a perversion of the gospel.
I will wrap up this post for now. It is taking me longer to sort this chapter out than I thought, and I can only assume it will continue on this path. I could blog on this 176 page book for the next year and a half. It seems likely, since I am preaching on June 25, that I will shift my focus next week and write about the text of my sermon, which is the book of Habakkuk. Thanks for reading, and I’ll see you next week.