“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.” John Owen from The Mortification of Sin.
John Owen (1616 – 1683) was one of the Westminster Divines, Dean of Christ Church of Oxford, Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University, and chaplain to English Puritan Oliver Cromwell. His treatise on The Mortification of Sin was written in 1656, approximately 150 years after Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the Wittenberg Chapel. It was 100 years after the slaughter of the Hugenots in France, and just 45 years after the King James Bible was published (1611).
Owen explains what it means to kill sin in our lives. He maintains that killing sin is a path that believers in Christ must take toward personal holiness. It is how believers maintain intimate fellowship with God by honoring Him with their obedience. This is accomplished in cooperation with, and under the power of, the indwelling Holy Spirit.
Owen explains that holiness is not simply a list of do’s and don’ts. How many of us were taught that we shouldn’t go to movies or listen to any type of secular music and that by doing so we would become holy? Rather, holiness occurs when we renounce our lifestyle of sin, and devote ourselves to God. It is an attitude toward God more than perfect behavior. We are commanded to “be holy” so that we will be like our Father in heaven (Lev. 11:44, Lev. 19:2, Lev. 20:26, 1Cor. 1:2, Eph. 1:4, Heb. 12:14, 1 Pet. 1:14-16). That means our attitude toward sin needs to be centered on God, not on ourselves.
Author Jerry Bridges explains that, “Mortification of sin (or pursuing holiness) is not what we are against (sin), but what we are for (God) that counts. Joseph understood this idea when tempted by Potiphar’s wife (Gen. 39:9). David said, “Against you only have I sinned” (Ps. 51:4). We sin against God, not other people. Because sin separates us from God, we want to kill it to draw closer to Him. If that is our motive and our purpose, then we can succeed in killing it. Too often we attack sin because we worry about what others think of us, or how we feel about ourselves. That is not what holiness is about. That would be self-centered.
A key principle Owen teaches is that sin is more a reflection of our heart than our behavior. It is the inward desire, and not just the outward action, that must be killed. As one commentator says, “The sins we commit are just symptoms of an underlying deadly disease. Sin kills, and so we need to kill it before it kills us. It destroys relationships; it shames us; and it ruins our full enjoyment of life. But with faith in Christ, and by the power of His Spirit, we can overcome sin so that it no longer rules us.”
Owen explains that sin never leaves us, and it never stops trying to control us. He calls it “residing sin.” All our lives, we either let sin control us, or we let the Spirit of Christ control us. Owen writes about what happens to believers in Christ when we let sin control us, or when we let one particular desire rule us. He is not talking about sin’s presence in our lives, but rather its power.
Owen provides the tools and the perspective we need to master sin. He writes about a mind controlled by the Spirit. Consequently, our sinful desires become so weak that they cannot produce the deeds of sin. Or as one pastor explains, “Using Owen’s analogy of disease and symptoms, the disease is so controlled that the visible outbreaks of infection disappear.”
There are several categories Owen’s uses for sin which will assist the reader. These include:
- Categorical“sin” or “lust” refers to the overall desire (the sinful nature or lust of the flesh)
- Singular“sin” or “lust” refers to our specific desire for something
- The word “deed” refers to acting on the desire (committing the sin).
- The word “wound” refers to the effect of the deed on our conscience and on those around us.
A downloadable eBook of John Owen’s The Mortification of Sin, updated in modern English, is available at monergism.com. It may be assessed by searching either for The Mortification of Sin or John Owen.
May the Lord’s truth and grace be found here.
Soli deo Gloria!