We all know of the importance of the mortification of sin, but sometimes the concept floats off like a balloon up in the skies of abstraction. This is an attempt to put some particularization into a non-negotiable of the Christian life.
In my own words:
1. Faith in Christ in the efficacy of His death on the cross.
2. Relentless prayer.
3. Humility and broken sobriety.
In John Owen's words:
I shall now name some of those graces and duties upon whose omission and neglect sin may prevail, as unto an application of them unto the mortification of any sin:--
The first is, the daily exercise of faith on Christ as crucified. This is the great fundamental means of the mortification of sin in general, and which we ought to apply unto every particular instance of it. This the apostle discourseth at large, Rom. vi. 6-13. "Our old man," saith he, "is crucified with Christ, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin." Our "old man," or the body of sin, is the power and reign of sin in us. These are to be destroyed; that is, so mortified that "henceforth we should not serve sin," that we should be delivered from the power and rule of it. This, saith the apostle, is done in Christ: "Crucified with him." It is so meritoriously, in his actual dying or being crucified for us; it is so virtually, because of the certain provision that is made therein for the mortification of all sin; but it is so actually, by the exercise of faith on him as crucified, dead, and buried, which is the means of the actual communication of the virtue of his death unto us for that end. Herein are we said to be dead and buried with him; whereof baptism is the pledge. So by the cross of Christ the world is crucified unto us, and we are so to the world, Gal. vi. 14; which is the substance of the mortification of all sin. There are several ways whereby the exercise of faith on Christ crucified is effectual unto this end:--
[1.] Looking unto him as such will beget holy mourning in us: Zech. xii. 10, "They shall look on me whom they have pierced, and mourn." It is a promise of gospel times and gospel grace. A view of Christ as pierced will cause mourning in them that have received the promise of the Spirit of grace and supplication there mentioned. And this mourning is the foundation of mortification. It is that "godly sorrow which worketh repentance to salvation not to be repented of," 2 Cor. vii. 10. And mortification of sin is of the essence of repentance. The more believers are exercised in this view of Christ, the more humble they are, the more they are kept in that mourning frame which is universally opposite unto all the interests of sin, and which keeps the soul watchful against all its attempts. Sin never reigned in an humble, mourning soul.
[2.] It is effectual unto the same end by the way of a powerful motive, as that which calls and leads unto conformity to him. This is pressed by the apostle, Rom. vi. 8-11. Our conformity unto Christ as crucified and dead consists in our being dead unto sin, and thereby overthrowing the reign of it in our mortal bodies. This conformity, saith he, we ought to reckon on as our duty: "Reckon ye yourselves to be dead indeed unto sin;" that is, that you ought so to be, in that conformity which you ought to aim at unto Christ crucified. Can any spiritual eye behold Christ dying for sin, and continue to live in sin? Shall we keep that alive in us which he died for, that it might not eternally destroy us? Can we behold him bleeding for our sins, and not endeavour to give them their death-wound? The efficacy of the exercise of faith herein unto the mortification of sin is known unto all believers by experience.
[3.] Faith herein gives us communion with him in his death, and unites the soul unto it in its efficacy. Hence we are said to be "buried with him into death," and to be "planted together in the likeness of his death," Rom. vi. 4, 5. Our "old man is crucified with him," verse 6. We have by faith communion with him in his death, unto the death of sin.
This, therefore, is the first grace and duty which we ought to attend unto for the mortification of sin. But where sin hath that interest and power in the mind as to take it off from this exercise of faith, to prevent or obstruct it, as it will do, so as that it shall not dare to think or meditate on Christ crucified, because of the inconsistency of such thoughts with an indulgence unto any lust, it is to be feared that sin is in the throne.
If it be thus with any; if they have not yet made use of this way and means for the mortification of sin; or if, being convinced of it, they have been for any season driven or withheld from the exercise of faith herein, -- I have nothing to offer to free them from this evidence of the reign of sin, but only that they would speedily and carefully address themselves unto their duty herein; and if they prevail on themselves unto it, it will bring in its own evidence of their freedom.
Some, it may be, will say that indeed they are "unskilful" in this "word of righteousness," as some are, Heb. v. 13. They know not how to make use of Christ crucified unto this end, nor how to set themselves about it. Other ways of mortification they can understand. The discipline and penances assigned by the Papists unto this end are sensible; so are our own vows and resolutions, with other duties that are prescribed; but as for this way of deriving virtue from the death of Christ unto the death of sin, they can understand nothing of it.
I easily believe that some may say so, yea, ought to say so, if they would speak their minds; for the spiritual wisdom of faith is required hereunto, but "all men have not faith." On the loss of this wisdom, the Papists have invented another way to supply the whole exercise of faith herein. They will make crucifixes, -- images of Christ crucified, then they will adore, embrace, mourn over, and expect great virtue from them. Without these images they know no way of addressing unto Christ for the communication of any virtue from his death or life. Others may be at the same loss; but they may do well to consider the cause of it: for, is it not from ignorance of the mystery of the gospel, and of the communication of supplies of spiritual things from Christ thereby, -- of the efficacy of his life and death unto our sanctification and mortification of sin? Or is it not because indeed they have never been thoroughly distressed in their minds and consciences by the power of sin, and so have never in good earnest looked for relief? Light, general convictions, either of the guilt or power of sin, will drive none to Christ. When their consciences are reduced unto real straits, and they know not what to do, they will learn better how to "look unto Him whom they have pierced." Their condition, whoever they are, is dangerous, who find not a necessity every day of applying themselves by faith unto Christ for help and succour. Or is it not because they have other reliefs to betake themselves unto? Such are their own promises and resolutions; which, for the most part, serve only to cheat and quiet conscience for an hour or a day, and then vanish into nothing. But whatever be the cause of this neglect, those in whom it is will pine away in their sins; for nothing but the death of Christ for us will be the death of sin in us.
Secondly, Another duty necessary unto this end is continual prayer, and this is to be considered as unto its application to the prevalency of any particular lust wherein sin doth in a peculiar manner exert its power. This is the great ordinance of God for its mortification; for, --
[1.] Hereby we obtain spiritual aids and supplies of strength against it. We are not more necessarily and fervently to pray that sin may be pardoned as to its guilt, than we are that it may be subdued as to its power. He who is negligent in the latter is never in good earnest in the former. The pressures and troubles which we receive from the power of sin are as pungent on the mind as those from its guilt are on the conscience. Mere pardon of sin will never give peace unto a soul, though it can have none without it. It must be mortified also, or we can have no spiritual rest. Now, this is the work of prayer, -- namely, to seek and obtain such supplies of mortifying, sanctifying grace, as whereby the power of sin may be broken, its strength abated, its root withered, its life destroyed, and so the whole old man crucified. That which was the apostle's request for the Thessalonians is the daily prayer of all believers for themselves, 1 Thess. v. 23.
[2.] A constant attendance unto this duty in a due manner will preserve the soul in such a frame as wherein sin cannot habitually prevail in it. He that can live in sin and abide in the ordinary duties of prayer doth never once pray as he ought. Formality, or some secret reserve or other, vitiates the whole. A truly gracious, praying frame (wherein we pray always) is utterly inconsistent with the love of or reserve for any sin. To pray well is to pray always, -- that is, to keep the heart always in that frame which is required in prayer; and where this is, sin can have no rule, no, nor quiet harbour, in the soul.
[3.] It is the soul's immediate conflict against the power of sin. Sin in it is formally considered as the soul's enemy, which fights against it. In prayer the soul sets itself to grapple with it, to wound, kill, and destroy. It is that whereby it applies all its spiritual engines unto its utter ruin; herein it exerciseth a gracious abhorrency of it, a clear self-condemnation on the account of it; and engageth faith on all the promises of God for its conquest and destruction.
It is hence evident that if sin hath prevailed in the mind unto a negligence of this duty, either in general or as unto the effectual application of it unto any especial case where it exerts its power, it is an ill symptom of the dominion of sin in the soul.
It is certain that unmortified sin, sin indulged unto, will gradually work out all due regard unto this duty of prayer, and alienate the mind from it, either as unto the matter or manner of its performance. We see this exemplified every day in apostate professors. They have had a gift of prayer, and were constant in the exercise of it; but the love of sin and living in it hath devoured their gift, and wholly taken off their minds from the duty itself: which is the proper character of hypocrites "Will he delight himself in the Almighty? will he always call upon God?" Job xxvii. 10. He may do so for a season, but, falling under the power of sin, he will not continue so to do.
Now, because sin useth great deceit herein, in a gradual progress for attaining its end, and thereby securing its dominion, we may, in a way of warning or caution, take notice of some of its steps, that the entrance of it may be opposed: for as the "entrance of God's word giveth light," Ps. cxix. 130, -- the first putting forth of its power on the soul gives spiritual light unto the mind, which is to be improved, -- so the entrance of sin, the first actings of it on the mind, towards the neglect of this duty, brings a deceiving darkness with them, which is to be opposed:--
1st. It will produce in the mind an unreadiness unto this duty in its proper seasons. The heart should always rejoice in the approach of such seasons, because of the delight in God which it hath in them. To rejoice and be glad in all our approaches unto God is every way required of us; and therefore, with the thoughts of and on the approach of such seasons, we ought to groan in ourselves for such a preparedness of mind as may render us meet for that converse with God which we are called unto. But where sin begins to prevail, all things will be unready and out of order. Strange tergiversations will rise in the mind, either as unto the duty itself or as unto the manner of its performance. Customariness and formality are the principles which act themselves in this case. The body seems to carry the mind to the duty whether it will or no, rather than the mind to lead the body in its part of it; and it will employ itself in any thing rather than in the work and duty that lies before it.
Herein, then, lies a great part of our wisdom in obviating the power of sin in us: Let us keep our hearts continually in a gracious disposition and readiness for this duty, in all its proper seasons. If you lose this ground, you will yet go more backwards continually. Know, therefore, that there is no more effectual preservative of the soul from the power of sin than a gracious readiness for and disposition unto this duty in private and public, according to its proper seasons.
2dly. In its progress, unto unreadiness it will add unwillingness; for the mind prepossessed by sin finds it directly contrary unto its present interest, disposition, and inclination. There is nothing in it but what troubles and disquiets them; as he said of the prophet who was not willing to hear him any more, it speaks not good but evil of them continually. Hence a secret unwillingness prevails in the mind, and an aversation from a serious engagement in it; and the attendance of such persons to it is as if they were under a force, in a compliance with custom and convictions.
3dly. Sin will at length prevail unto a total neglect of this duty. This is an observation confirmed by long experience: If prayer do not constantly endeavour the ruin of sin, sin will ruin prayer, and utterly alienate the soul from it. This is the way of backsliders in heart; as they grow in sin they decay in prayer, until they are weary of it and utterly relinquish it. So they speak, Mal. i. 13, "Behold, what a weariness is it!" and, "Ye have snuffed at it." They look on it as a task, as a burden, and are weary in attending unto it.
Now, when I place this as an effect of the prevalency of sin, -- namely, a relinquishment of the duty of prayer, -- I do not intend that persons do wholly and absolutely, or as to all ways of it, public and private, and all seasons or occasions of it, give it over utterly. Few rise to that profligacy in sin, unto such desperate resolution against God. It may be they will still attend unto the stated seasons of prayer in families or public assemblies, at least drawing near to God with their lips; and they will, on surprisals and dangers, personally cry unto God, as the Scripture everywhere testifieth of them. But this only I intend, -- namely, that they will no more sincerely, immediately, and directly, apply prayer to the mortification and ruin of that lust or corruption wherein sin puts forth its power and rule in them; and where it is so, it seems to have the dominion. Of such an one saith the psalmist, "He hath left off to be wise, and to do good. He setteth himself in a way that is not good; he abhorreth not evil," Ps. xxxvi. 3, 4.
But such a relinquishment of this duty, as unto the end mentioned, as is habitual, and renders the soul secure under it, is intended; for there may, through the power of temptation, be a prevalency of this evil in believers for a season. So God complains of his people, Isa. xliii. 22, "Thou hast not called upon me, O Jacob; but thou hast been weary of me, O Israel;" that is, comparatively, as unto the fervency and sincerity of the duty required of them. Now, when it is thus with believers for a season, through the power of sin and temptation, -- (1st.) They do not approve of themselves therein. They will ever and anon call things to consideration, and say, "It is not with us as it should be, or as it was in former days. This thing is not good that we do, nor will it be peace in the latter end." (2dly.) They will have secret resolutions of shaking themselves out of the dust of this evil state. They say in themselves, "We will go and return unto our first husband, for then was it better with us than now;" as the church did, Hosea ii. 7. (3dly.) Every thing that peculiarly befalls them, in a way of mercy or affliction, they look on as calls from God to deliver and recover them from their backsliding frame. (4thly.) They will receive in the warnings which are given them by the word preached, especially if their particular case be touched on or laid open. (5thly.) They will have no quiet, rest, or self-approbation, until they come thoroughly off unto a healing and recovery, such as that described, Hosea xiv. 1-4.
Thus it may be with some over whom sin hath not the dominion; yet ought the first entrance of it to be diligently watched against, as that which tends unto the danger and ruin of the soul.
Thirdly, Constant self-abasement, condemnation, and abhorrency, is another duty that is directly opposed unto the interest and rule of sin in the soul. No frame of mind is a better antidote against the poison of sin. "He that walketh humbly walketh surely."  God hath a continual regard unto mourners, those that are of a "broken heart and a contrite spirit." It is the soil where all grace will thrive and flourish. A constant due sense of sin as sin, of our interest therein by nature and in the course of our lives, with a continual afflictive remembrance of some such instances of it as have had peculiar aggravations, issuing in a gracious self-abasement, is the soul's best posture in watching against all the deceits and incursions of sin. And this is a duty which we ought with all diligence to attend unto. To keep our souls in a constant frame of mourning and self-abasement is the most necessary part of our wisdom with reference unto all the ends of the life of God; and it is so far from having any inconsistency with those consolations and joys which the gospel tenders unto us in believing, as that it is the only way to let them into the soul in a due manner. It is such mourners, and those alone, unto whom evangelical comforts are administered, Isa. lvii. 18.
One of the first things that sin doth when it aims at dominion is the destruction of this frame of mind; and when it actually hath the rule, it will not suffer it to enter. It makes men careless and regardless of this matter, yea, bold, presumptuous, and fearless; it will obstruct all the entrance into the mind of such self-reflections and considerations as lead unto this frame; it will represent them either as needless or unseasonable, or make the mind afraid of them, as things which tend unto its disquietment and disturbance without any advantage. If it prevail herein, it makes way for the security of its own dominion. Nothing is more watched against than a proud, regardless, senseless, secure frame of heart, by them who are under the rule of grace.
(Chapter III. The second inquiry spoken to, Whether sin hath dominion in us or not -- In answer to which it is showed that some wear sin's livery, and they are the professed servants thereof -- There are many in which the case is dubious, where sin's service is not so discernible -- Several exceptions are put in against its dominion where it seems to prevail -- Some certain signs of its dominion -- Graces and duties to be exercised for its mortification., A Treatise of the Dominion of Sin and Grace, The Essential Works Of John Owen)