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It sheds interesting light on the character and resources of Owen, if the circumstances in which the following treatise was composed are borne in mind. It was published in 1656, and its author was at the time Dean of Christ Church and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Oxford, restoring it, by a course of mingled kindliness and decision, from the ruinous condition into which it had lapsed during the civil wars, and raising it to such prosperity as to extort the praises of Clarendon. He was preaching, each alternate Sabbath, those sermons which lingered in the memory and strengthened the piety of Philip Henry. He was frequently summoned to London on momentous consultations respecting public affairs, and to preach before the Parliament. As if this amount of toil were not sufficient to occupy him, — toil so great that, in his noble address on resigning the vice-chancellorship of the University, he describes himself as having been “sæpius morti proximus” — the Council of State had imposed on him the task of replying to Biddle the Socinian; and he fulfilled it by the production of his elaborate and masterly work, “Vindiciæ Evangelicæ,” — a bulwark of the faith, so solid in its foundation, and so massy in its proportions, that the entire phalanx of Socinian authorship has shrunk from the attempt to assail it. In the next year, and but a few months after this great work had appeared, as if his secular labours in the management of the University, his own heavy share in the burden of public affairs, and the rough duties of controversy, could not arrest the progress of grace in his own soul, or deaden his zeal for the promotion of vital godliness around him, he gave to the world this treatise, “On the Mortification of Sin in Believers.”
We learn from the preface, that it embodies what he had preached with such acceptance that “sundry persons, in whose hearts are the ways of God,” pressed him to publish it. He had a desire also to correct certain “dangerous mistakes” into which some preachers or writers of that day had fallen, who recommended and enforced a process of mortifying sin which was not conducted on evangelical principles, and only tended to ensnare the conscience, and foster self-righteousness and superstition. The directions which our author gives in order to subdue the power of internal corruption are at the farthest remove from all the arts and practices of a hollow asceticism. There is no trace in this work of the morbid and dreamy tone of kindred treatises, which have emerged from a life of cloistered seclusion. Our author’s knowledge of human nature, in its real elements, and as it appears in the wide arena of life, is only surpassed by his acquaintance with the truths of the Word, and their bearing on the experience and workings of every heart. The reader is made to feel, above all things, that the only cross on which he can nail his every lust to its utter destruction, is, not the devices of a self-inflicted maceration, but the tree on which Christ hung, made a curse for us.
After an analysis and explanation of the passage in Scripture (Rom. viii. 13) on which the treatise is based, some general principles are deduced and expounded. What follows is designed — first, to show wherein the real mortification of sin consists; secondly, to assign general directions, without which no sin can be spiritually mortified; and, lastly, to unfold at length and in detail specific and particular directions for this important spiritual exercise.
The treatise has been so much a favourite, that it passed through several editions in the author’s lifetime. It is given here as corrected and enlarged in the second edition (1658), though by some oversight modern reprints of it have been always taken from the first. The estimate of its value indicated by the number of the early editions, is confirmed by the circumstance, that it has since obtained the especial recommendation of Mr. Wilberforce. (See his “Practical View,” etc. p. 392.) — Ed.
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