Temptation and Sin: On the Mortification of Sin in Believers Book ReviewSeptember 9, 2021 Book Review
Puritan pastor, theologian, and writer John Owen was born in 1616 into a godly Christian family. His grandparents lived during the Reformation, and his father was a Puritan pastor who loved Christ and labored faithfully for God’s church. Owen grew up during a time when many Puritans were leaving England for lands where they could worship God freely as the Bible teaches. As an adult, he lived through tumultuous political times that saw the first English Civil War in 1642, the second English Civil War in 1648, and ultimately the beheading of English King Charles I by Parliament on January 30, 1649.
To give you an idea of John Owen’s significance at this time in history, Owen preached in front of Parliament on Jeremiah 15:19–20 the day after King Charles I’s public execution. Although he served his country in this prominent way, Owen had no political ambitions. He diligently worked as a country pastor and military chaplain, preaching God’s Word, shepherding God’s people, and equipping them for a life of fruitfulness in God’s kingdom.
In 1651, at the request of Parliament, Owen was appointed dean of Christ Church College at Oxford University, and in the following year, he was appointed vice chancellor of the entire Oxford University. While in these administrative roles, Owen was frequently called to London to give counsel on public affairs and to preach before Parliament. In addition to those duties, he preached on alternate Lord’s Days to the teenage students at Oxford. From these series of sermons to his students, he drew the content for his book On the Mortification of Sin in Believers.
Even though John Owen possessed prodigious intellect and ability, moved in the circles of the politically powerful, and had connections with the rich and famous of his day, he remained a humble servant of God who called himself “a poor under-rower” in the kingdom of God. Charles Spurgeon, the well-respected preacher from the 1800s, called John Owen “the Prince of the Puritans.” And J. I. Packer stated that reading On the Mortification of Sin in Believers “made him a biblical realist when it came to the struggle against indwelling sin.”[i]
Why do pastors and theologians praise Owen so effusively? When studying his works, it becomes immediately clear that he desires the Christian reader to not just have cognitive knowledge of God but to have biblical truth penetrate the heart. It is not enough that God be studied; for Owen, the purpose of the study is to illumine the heart and mind to worship, serve, and adore the triune God of Scripture. He created these theological works not for their own sake, but instead he wrote to advance the holiness of God’s people and to help them “find the maturity that was theirs in Christ.”[ii]
Owen’s works are arranged in twenty-four volumes that amount to more than thirteen thousand pages of material. Volumes 1–16 of his works are divided into three categories: Doctrinal, Practical, and Controversial (polemical). Volume 6: Temptation and Sin marks the first work in the Practical category and includes four separate books:
- On the Mortification of Sin in Believers
- On Temptation
- On Indwelling Sin in Believers
- Exposition of Psalm 130
In this four-part book review series on Volume 6, I will review each of these books separately but will show how the content of these works are related. Together we will investigate why John Owen is named the Prince of the Puritans, the foremost Puritan writer.
Part 1 of 4: On the Mortification of Sin in Believers
When John Owen arrived at Oxford University in 1651 to fulfill his appointment as dean of Christ Church College, he found the university, where he had attended and received his BA and MA as a youth, to be in disarray. The English Civil War had just ended two years earlier, and during the war years, Oxford University had been a Royalist institution led by Archbishop William Laud, who had opposed the Puritans and disagreed on the most important points of salvation. In addition, the university suffered financial problems, disagreements, intrigues, and the moral atmosphere and discipline of the students had declined. With pastoral solicitude for the students’ spiritual health, John Owen and Thomas Goodwin set to preaching on alternate Lord’s Days to these teenagers. From these sermons, Owen based the content for his book On the Mortification of Sin in Believers (from here on called Mortification), and at the request of friends who insisted the treatise contained valuable biblical exposition for the Christian on how to fight and kill indwelling sin, published it in 1656.
The term mortification sounds old-fashioned to our modern twenty-first century ears. It is an uncommon word in our everyday speech; however, the biblical command to mortify (i.e., to destroy the strength, vitality, or functioning of; to subdue or deaden)[iii] sin is a timeless concept to be practiced by every follower and lover of Christ. In this eighty-six-page work, Owen dissects Romans 8:13 and unpacks the riches of God’s wisdom to his children for the daily battle against sin: “For if you are living according to the flesh, you must die, but if by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body, you will live.”
Many consider Owen’s writings on how to kill indwelling sin in the life of the believer to be the finest ever written on the subject. His exposition of Scripture is doctrinally rich, profoundly deep, and thoroughly comprehensive so that no stone is left unturned. Moreover, Owen communicates biblical truth with great pastoral care and understanding of how the wandering human heart must be shepherded in God's ways. To convey the value of this important work, I will focus on three key points Owen shares: (1) true mortification of sin can only be accomplished by the work of the Holy Spirit, (2) “be killing sin or it will be killing you,”[iv] and (3) the cross of Christ is the only cross upon which the believer can mortify sin.
True Mortification of Sin—A Work of the Holy Spirit
First, Owen reminds us that while the believer is free from the condemnation of sin and the dominion of sin, indwelling sin still remains in the Christian in some measure and degree. We should not underestimate the power of this indwelling sin. Owen points out how the Apostle Paul wrote so vividly of his battle with sin: “For that which I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate” (Romans 7:15). Furthermore, recall King David’s fall with Bathsheba. When analyzing the following portion of Romans 8:13, “For if you are living according to the flesh, you must die,” Owen warns us of the danger of indwelling sin by metaphorically comparing it to a living person. He writes, “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, says the apostle, must be killed, put to death, mortified—that is, have its power, life, vigor, and strength, to produce its effects, taken away by the Spirit.”[v]
After establishing the danger that indwelling sin poses in the life of the Christian, Owen further demonstrates from Romans 8:13 that true mortification of sin can only be done by the work of the Holy Spirit: “but if by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body….” He pastorally reminds us that the Holy Spirit is a Spirit of judgment and burning (see Isaiah 4:4) who, like a refiner’s fire (see Malachi 3:2–3), can destroy our lusts and extinguish the roots of wicked desire in us. Only by the strength that the Holy Spirit supplies can the believer put to death sin in his life. All other methods of man-made mortification are vain from “self-strength” and “self-invention.”[vi] In Owen’s time, some dangerous mistakes on the mortification of sin included the use of Roman Catholic penances and vows as a means to kill sin. Another error was the misuse of means appointed by God, such as prayer and fasting, and using those means as ends in themselves instead of vehicles to study and consider the work of Christ on the sinner’s behalf.
If mortification of sin is a work of the Holy Spirt, what is the Christian’s responsibility? To answer this question, Owen draws our attention to Philippians 2:13: “For it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” God works faith in us and daily helps us as we make use of the means of grace (Word and prayer). Owen explains, “He works in us and with us, not against us or without us.”[vii] The Holy Spirit causes the believer to thrive in grace and abound in the fruit of the Spirit that destroys the deeds of the flesh. The Spirit’s assistance encourages us in our labors against sin; his help never causes us to neglect this work or excuses us from acts of obedience.
Be Killing Sin or It Will Be Killing You
Upon demonstrating that genuine mortification of sin is a work of the Holy Spirit and not man-made, Owen issues the following challenge to the Christian reader, “Be killing sin or it will be killing you.”[viii] When I first read these words, I wondered, “Is this biblical? How can sin kill the Christian? If I am no longer under the condemning power of sin and have died with Christ (see Colossians 3:3), then how can sin kill me?”
This challenge from Owen is often quoted as a summary of Mortification. In the brief directive, “Be killing sin or it will be killing you,” Owen sums up a wealth of biblical instruction. For starters, he demonstrates that Scripture teaches that believers have the duty to put to death the indwelling power of sin daily. This duty of mortifying sin is an essential part of our sanctification and pursuit of holiness. For our inner man to be renewed day by day in God’s thoughts and ways, the inclination towards sin, the love of sin, and the desire for the things of the flesh must be killed daily in us (see 2 Corinthians 4:16).
Again, Owen cautions against not underestimating the power of indwelling sin with the words, “Sin doth not only still abide in us, but is still acting, still laboring to bring forth the deeds of the flesh”[ix] (see Romans 7:19; Galatians 5:17). If we are not active in killing indwelling sin (i.e., the lust of our flesh), it gains ground and eventually erupts into the deeds of the flesh (envy, enmity, strife, sensuality, greed, outbursts of anger, and so on). To neglect the duty of putting to death sin is to backslide in the journey of sanctification. To ignore this responsibility also causes the inward man to decay instead of to be renewed.
In Psalm 31:10, King David revealed how his strength had failed because of his iniquity, and in Psalm 38:3–5, he testified to having no health in his bones because of his sin. When we live according to the flesh, we become earthly and cold to the things of God. In this way, sin kills us by dampening our affections for God and spreading a thick cloud of indifference over our souls. Zeal for God and love towards our neighbor suffer if we are not actively fighting against indwelling sin.
Next, from Mortification we learn that “the life, vigor, and comfort of our spiritual life depend much on our mortification of sin.”[x] In this assertion, Owen is careful to first point out that the life, vigor, and comfort we enjoy flow forth from the privileges of our adoption into God’s family. It is the Holy Spirit who bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and this knowledge grants us great hope and joy, life and vigor (see Romans 8:16). Yet, what Owen also seeks to convey is that in the ordinary course of everyday life, mortification of sin has an influence, an effect on the vigor and comfort of our spiritual life, on our closeness with God. Scripture is replete with examples of how unconfessed sin weakens the soul and hinders communion with God.
To further illustrate this point, Owen likens the graces of God (love, faith, zeal, etc.) in our hearts to plants in a garden. Mortification is the act of pruning the weeds of lust from this garden so that the graces of God have good space and proper breadth to grow fruitfully in our hearts. As we put to death the deeds of the flesh, we increasingly experience God’s promise of strength, comfort, and vigor in our walk with him.
The Cross of Christ
After presenting a thorough argument from Scripture on the necessity of mortifying sin daily, Owen provides directions for this work. He points the Christian reader to the cross of Christ as the only cross upon which every lust, every sin, every evil thought can be nailed onto for destruction. In Owen’s day, many errors abounded on the subject of mortification. To kill sin, Roman Catholics practiced self-inflicted maceration and even Protestants engaged in hollow asceticism, some selling all their worldly belongings and retiring from the world to escape sin. Yet, Owen unequivocally demonstrates from Scripture that these self-wrought mortifications only produce “superstition, self-righteousness, and anxiety of conscience.”[xi] The only true biblical remedy for mortifying sin is found in the efficacious death of Christ.
First of all, Owen instructs the believer to “set faith at work on Christ for the killing of thy sin. His blood is the great sovereign remedy for sin-sick souls.”[xii] He reminds us that all treasure, strength, might, and fulness for relief resides in Christ (see John 1:16; Colossians 1:15–19). Jesus, our great High Priest, is able and willing to give strength and aid in time of need (see Hebrews 4:16). He is the only one who has the eternal words of life (see John 6:68) and surely pities and cares for us as we strive against sin (see Hebrews 2:17–18). Christ is the vine, and we must abide in him to obtain purging grace to kill sin (see John 15:1–5). By exercising faith in the person and work of Christ, we are to expect relief from him.
Secondly, Owen urges the Christian reader to “act faith peculiarly upon the death, blood, and cross of Christ; that is, on Christ as crucified and slain.”[xiii] In this directive, Owen asserts that mortification of sin is linked directly to the death of Christ. In dying on the cross, Christ destroyed the works of the devil and conquered death. Titus 2:14 explains: “He gave himself for us that he might redeem us from every lawless deed and purify for himself a people for his own possession, zealous for good deeds.” We are to exercise faith in these promises that we read. Christ died to redeem us from every iniquity and transgression. This was his intent and aim as he shed his blood on the cross and purchased us. From God’s infallible Word, we know by faith that Christ achieved this goal, and we are to exert faith daily that his death freed us from the power of our sins and daily purifies us from the remaining indwelling sin that we strive against. By practicing faith daily, we experience the efficacy of Christ’s death on our behalf in the on-going battle against sin.
A final thought Owen shares is that this work of mortifying sin is an incremental work carried on in degrees throughout the Christian’s life. We will always struggle against sin this side of heaven; however, progress and growth in grace are the promised and pleasant realities the Bible pledges as we abide in Christ. The Holy Spirit is our great strength in this war and aids us to exercise faith daily in the One who shed his blood for our sins. In the death of Christ, we find the further death of the remaining sin in our lives.
Preparing to Read Owen
John Owen was born in 1616, the same year that William Shakespeare died.[xiv] This consideration indicates that the works of Puritan writers, such as Owen, are written in what many regard to be archaic English. Banner of Truth has provided an abridged version of Mortification in the Puritan Paperback series. This modern English version is available in the church library. Alternatively, Owen’s original Volume 6 edited by Scottish Presbyterian William H. Goold can be purchased on Amazon and Banneroftruth.org.
In Mortification, Owen helps us understand the balance that Scripture teaches between the Christian’s responsibility to mortify sin and the great help God provides by the Holy Spirit for this undertaking. John Owen is not light reading and his exegesis of Scripture requires concentrated study. In this intense study, the Christian reader will find at the heart of Owen’s work is the glory of Christ seen in the mystery of the gospel. The immeasurable payoff in reading Mortification is exploring and applying the riches of God’s wisdom to us for the daily fight against sin.
[i] Matthew Barret and Michael A. G. Haykin, Owen on the Christian Life (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2015).
[ii] Barret and Haykin, 23.
[iii] Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary, 7th ed. (Springfield, MA: G. & C. Merriam, 1972), s.v. “mortify.”
[iv] John Owen, The Works of John Owen Volume VI (Johnstone & Hunter, 1850–1853; repr., Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1967), 9.
[v] Owen, 8.
[vi] Owen, 7.
[vii] Owen, 20.
[viii] Owen, 9.
[ix] Owen, 11.
[x] Owen, 21.
[xi] Owen, 3.
[xii] Owen, 79.
[xiii] Owen, 83.
[xiv] Barrett and Haykin, Owen on the Christian, 24.