The Mortification of Sin by John Owen“The choicest believers, who are assuredly freed from the condemning power of sin, ought yet to make it their business, all their days, to mortify the indwelling power of sin.”
A new year often inspires people to start fresh by making resolutions and setting goals for themselves – things they want to experience or accomplish, and often changes they determine to make for the better, such as breaking bad habits. In the past, I have challenged readers to consider reading through the entire Bible in the coming year, and I encourage you to do so again. This year I’d like to encourage you to consider developing another habit, if you haven’t done so: killing sin in your life. With that in mind, let me commend to you John Owen’s masterful, convicting, and helpful work, The Mortification of Sin.
Puritan pastor and theologian John Owen lived from 1616-1683. The Mortification of Sin, published in book form in 1656, originated as a series of sermons Owen preached in Oxford. Owen is not the easiest to read, but if you’re comfortable reading the King James Version, you should be able to handle Owen. If the language proves to be a challenge, a slightly modernized (but unabridged) version of this book has been published under the title Overcoming Sin and Temptation, which also includes two companion works, Of Temptation (1658) and Of Indwelling Sin in Believers (1667) (available as a free pdf here). Also be aware that there Banner of Truth has also published an abridged version as part of the Puritan Paperback series, in which not only has the language been modernized, but parts have been left out.
As you read the book, you should be aware that Owen uses a few terms for sin that we may be unaccustomed to. When he uses the word “lust,” he uses it in the Biblical sense to mean any natural, sinful desire (not necessarily sex-related, as we are used to thinking of it). He also uses the term “distemper,” which typically refers to an illness or disease, but in this case it refers to spiritual illness, ie. sin. Of course, like all good Puritan theologians, Owen makes good use of the Scriptures and includes many references throughout the book to support his statements.
In his introduction to the book, J. I. Packer remarks that he believes many of today’s readers will find it difficult to relate to and to take to heart what Owen has to say for four reasons; today’s churches don’t emphasize enough: 1) God’s holiness, 2) The significance of motivating desires within, 3) the need for self-scrutiny, and 4) the life-changing power of God. Owen believes that mortifying sin – putting sin to death – is essential to the life and spiritual health of every believer. He uses Romans 8:13 as his key verse: “For if you live according to the flesh you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death (mortify) the deeds of the body, you will live” (New King James). In this verse we see the what, who, why, how, and condition of mortifying sin. Owen says, “The vigor, power, and comfort of our spiritual life depend on the mortification of the deeds of the flesh,” and he goes on to define mortification of sin, explaining the duty and importance of this, followed by the dangers of neglecting this duty, and finally offers some instruction and directions for specifically addressing sin in one’s life.
Owen explains what it means to mortify sin and why it’s important to every believer:
Indwelling sin is compared to a person, a living person, called the old man, with his faculties and properties, his wisdom, craft, subtlety, strength; this must be killed, put to death, mortified, that is, have its power, life, vigour and strength to produce its effects, taken away by the Spirit.
While it’s true that every believer has been forgiven of his sins, the price having been paid and peace with God obtained by Christ, the fact is that we still reside in this life in a “body of death” from which we will not be delivered until the end of life here on earth.
Now, though doubtless there may be attained by the Spirit and grace of Christ, a wonderful success and eminency of victory against any sin, so that a man may have almost constant triumph over it; yet an utter killing and destruction of it, that it should not be, is not in this life to be expected…Do you mortify; do you make it your daily work; be always at it whilst you live; cease not a day from this work; be killing sin, or it will be killing you. Your being dead with Christ virtually, your being quickened (alive) with him, will not excuse you from this work.
Sin will not only be striving, acting, rebelling, troubling, disquieting, but if let alone, if not continually mortified, it will bring forth great, cursed, scandalous, soul-destroying sins.
Sin not only dwells in our mortal bodies, it is actively rebelling against the Spirit, and is always ready to strike. We must be on the alert, armed for battle, and ready to strike back. And God has not left us unequipped to deal with this, for He has given us His Holy Spirit and His Word, the Sword of the Spirit, along with a new nature that is freed from the bondage of sin and loves the things of God. Not to make use of these gifts is to neglect the very means God has graciously provided us to defeat our enemy.
If we neglect to make use of what we have received, God may justly hold his hand from giving us more. His graces, as well as his gifts, are bestowed on us to use, exercise and trade with. Not to be daily mortifying sin is to sin against the goodness, kindness, wisdom, grace and love of God, who hath furnished us with a principle of doing it.
Owen puts forth two principles that govern the process of the mortifying of sin. First, he clarifies that only true believers in Christ can begin to mortify sin. If a person is an unbeliever, repentance and conversion must come first, for the work of putting sin to death can only be done with the help of the Holy Spirit, and “how shall he mortify sin who has not the Spirit?” Owen remarks.
Not only is it unprofitable and pointless for an unconverted person to try to rid himself of sin, it can actually be very dangerous. Rather than looking to and trusting Christ, he is trusting in his own efforts, which may result in giving him a sense of self-righteousness and a false assurance of salvation. On the other hand, when his attempts fail (which they inevitably will), he may give up all his efforts, never having come to Christ at all.
“Mortification from a self-strength, carried on by ways of self-invention, unto the end of a self-righteousness, is the soul and substance of all false religion in the world,” says Owen. Thus, putting sin to death must be done God’s way, in the strength of the Holy Spirit. Benjamin Franklin developed a checklist of virtues for himself to work on, and strove to improve in these areas of his life, but he was an unconverted man and sought to do this by his own will and in his own strength. (He even admitted that pride was probably the most difficult vice to defeat, because as soon as he believed he had conquered it, he would find himself proud of his humility!) Any such attempts merely focus on externals and result in self-righteousness, which can never be acceptable to God. Religious rituals, disciplines, vows, or activities, if not appointed by God, cannot achieve holiness and will never get rid of sin. Owen explains,
Duties are excellent food for a healthy soul; they are no physic for a sick soul. He that turns his meat into his medicine must expect no great operation. Spiritually sick men cannot sweat out their distemper with working. But this is the way of men who deceive their own souls.
Secondly, Owen observes that “without sincerity and diligence in the universality of obedience, there is no mortification of any one perplexing lust to be obtained.” In other words, we don’t get to just pick and choose certain sins to address simply because they are inconvenient, bothersome or uncomfortable to us, while neglecting other sins. “Hatred of sin as sin, not only as galling or disquieting; a sense of the love of Christ in the cross; lie at the bottom of all true spiritual mortification.” I should hate all sin because it grieves God, not just particular sins which grieve myself, and “know that every lust, every omission of duty, is burdensome to God, though but one is so to [me].”
Owen goes on to offer practical ways of dealing with sin in one’s life. He suggests several danger signs which may indicate that serious and prompt action needs to be taken against sin. He then offers further advice and direction for addressing specific sin. The Mortification of Sin is packed full with such meaty, helpful instruction for putting sin to death that I just couldn’t keep my discussion brief enough for one post, so I will continue this discussion next time with Part Two: The How of Mortification. In the meantime, I leave with you this encouraging reminder from Owen:
Christ, by his death, destroying the works of the devil, procuring the Spirit for us, hath so killed sin as to its reign in believers, that it shall not obtain its end and dominion.
So keep fighting the good fight!
Other books on dealing with sin and sanctification:
- The Pursuit of Holiness by Jerry Bridges
- Respectable Sins by Jerry Bridges
- The Doctrine of Sanctification by A. W. Pink
- Holiness by J. C. Ryle
- A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life by William Law