It’s the most important book you’ll never want to read.
In 1656, English puritan minister John Owen published, Of the Mortification of Sin in Believers, which contains perhaps the best biblical advice on forever sinking the sins in our lives. Two years later Owen wrote, Of Temptation and in 1667, he penned Indwelling Sin in Believers, with these three works being, in my opinion, the definitive biblical guide to achieving personal holiness.
The problem with them is, well, Owen himself. In his preface essay to Owen’s, The Death of Death in the Death of Christ, J. I. Packer says: “There is no denying that Owen is heavy and hard to read.”
Owen’s intellect, like other theological giants such as Jonathan Edwards, is intimidating and his skill at wielding God’s two-edged sword (Heb. 4:12) is evidenced by how deep he cuts into your conscience and soul with his biblical insights. But it’s those things that work to make a permanent change in how we view sin. It also provides us with a better understanding of the damage it causes both in us and in our relationship with God.
Stating the obvious, there is no way I can do justice to what Owen says in total about defeating sin in an article this short. But what I can do is give you the high-level framework he builds for the subject, which will hopefully inspire you to dig in and go further in your pursuit of “mortifying” (when was the last time you used that word in a sentence?) the sin in your life.
We pause this article for a short announcement
In case you’re wondering, yes, since I have gone through Owen’s works with a fine-tooth comb and practice his concepts, I don’t sin anymore. Anger issues? Not me. Lust? Get outta here.
And if you believe that, I’ve got bridges and swamp lands to sell you.
Although Owen believes we can get the upper hand on sin in many respects, he is also realistic and knows what the Bible says about our old nature, admitting: “Now, though doubtless there may, by the Spirit and grace of Christ, a wonderful success and eminency of victory against any sin be attained, 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.”
With that said, let’s look at Owen’s key points on wrestling our sin to the ground.
Realize its end goals
Before you enter into a battle, it’s smart to know why you’re fighting. Owen says the primary aim of sin is two-fold: 1. to dishonor God; 2. to destroy our soul.
Owen pens, “To fear sin is to fear [love] the Lord; so the holy man tells us that they are the same: Job 28:28, “The fear of the Lord, that is wisdom; and to depart from evil, that is understanding.” Doing the opposite casts disgrace on God, Owen says.
When it comes to us, Owen states what any believer who agonizingly struggles with sin already knows deep down: “Every unmortified sin will certainly do two things: — 1. It will weaken the soul and deprive it of its vigor. 2. It will darken the soul and deprive it of its comfort and peace.”
This is why we fight. Owen says, “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.”
Love the right things
Overcoming sin requires that we acknowledge our primary problem: we have misdirected loves. Therefore, Owen says, a key to beating sin is loving something good more than we love our sin.
For example, the married person tempted with adultery or porn must love their spouse more than their lust and get to the point where they look on those sins in the way that Owen describes: “That which was before a sweet morsel under the tongue shall neither have taste or relish in it unto thee.”
The ultimate, though, is a love directed towards God and the work Christ has accomplished for us. Comparing that to sin, Owen says: “If the heart be filled with the cross of Christ, it casts death and undesirableness upon them all; it leaves no seeming beauty, no appearing pleasure or comeliness, in them.”
Rely on the Spirit
Owen spills a lot of ink to hammer home the reality that, in and of ourselves, we are unable to beat back the power of sin. In fact, the cornerstone verse Owen uses for Of the Mortification of Sin in Believers is Rom. 8:13: “… if by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body…”
Owen says, “Mortification of any sin must be by a supply of grace. Of ourselves we cannot do it”, and he goes on to discuss three ways in which the Spirit works to remove sin in our life: 1. by producing godly fruit (Gal. 5:19-21) that overpowers the sins of the old nature; 2. by acting on our consciences in a convicting way and bringing sin to judgment (Is. 4:4); 3. by generating true affections for Christ and His work, along with a genuine love for God that, when pursued, puts sin in the rear view mirror.
Using prayer with the Spirit
I’ll make a confession that may upset some of you: I’m not usually a fan of the “pray about it” response we hear so much from Christians when problems arise. However, Owen makes a strong biblical case for prayer in this circumstance when he links it to the Spirit and cites Eph. 6:18 where Paul discusses the armor of God: “With all prayer and petition pray at all times in the Spirit …”
Owen then contrasts the Christian’s approach to moral purity with all others when he says, “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.” In other words, without prayer and the Spirit, you are setting yourself up for failure.
The end result
These four pieces of scaffolding are what Owen puts forth as the way to defeat sin and bring about personal holiness. When it is carried out on a consistent basis, Owen believes we can realize a glorious end result:
“Now, I say, when a man comes to this state and condition, that lust is weakened in the root and principle, that its motions and actions are fewer and weaker than formerly, so that they are not able to hinder his duty nor interrupt his peace, — when he can, in a quiet, sedate frame of spirit, find out and fight against sin, and have success against it, — then sin is mortified in some considerable measure, and, notwithstanding all its opposition, a man may have peace with God all his days.”
Sounds good to me.
Robin Schumacher is an accomplished software executive and Christian apologist who has written many articles, authored and contributed to several Christian books, appeared on nationally syndicated radio programs, and presented at apologetic events. He holds a BS in Business, Master's in Christian apologetics and a Ph.D. in New Testament. His latest book is, A Confident Faith: Winning people to Christ with the apologetics of the Apostle Paul.