The ABYSS Project: Owen on Mortification

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I approach this review with trepidation. John Owen (1616-1683) is the sort of writer who needs no recommendation, certainly not from the likes of me. In fact, I feel like my reviewing of one of his works can’t help but detract from the greatness of his thought, so I will keep my comments to a minimum.

The Mortification of Sin in Believers, first published in 1656, is an old book. Remarkably – and this applies to Owen’s work on many subjects – one can reasonably contend that, on the topic addressed in the title, nothing equal to it has been written since. Like many other Puritan pastors and theologians, Owen treats his subject matter exhaustively. This habit in Puritan exposition often led to lengthy books, but in this particular case one is struck by how concise the book is. The edition I have at home (Christian Heritage, 2003) weighs in at 176 small pages, and that includes a substantial introduction by J.I. Packer. If you are interested at all in John Owen, for the sake of your mind (which will be challenged, but not overwhelmed as with other works of his) and your devotional life (which will certainly be improved) and your daily struggle against besetting sins (which ought to be invigorated) I recommend beginning with this book.

If you have no interest in John Owen and your eyes glazed over when I said ‘Puritan’, but you want to know how to fight the ‘sin that so easily entangles’, I still recommend this book.

Owen’s thesis, based on Romans 8:13 and dependent on the rest of scripture, is as follows: The choicest believers, who are assuredly free from the condemning power of sin, ought yet to make it their business, all their days, to mortify the indwelling power of sin. He maintains that there is an ‘infallible connection between mortification and eternal life.’ I hear his arguments echo in J.C. Ryle’s Holiness, which we are studying right now at RBC, in Ryle’s emphasis on the sobering word from Hebrews that ‘without holiness no one shall see the Lord.’ Owen further maintains that the vigor, power and comfort of our spiritual life depend on the mortification of the flesh.

It is important to note that when Owen says ‘to mortify’, he doesn’t mean it in the modern sense (to embarrass), but in the sense more closely connected with the Latin root of that word – ‘to kill.’ He famously writes in this book, ‘Be killing sin, or sin will be killing you.’

The general outline of the book is as follows: Owen argues for the necessity of fighting and killing sin as long as we live in the body; for the necessity of the Holy Spirit’s acting in this work; and for the dependence of our spiritual strength and peace on mortification. He then proceeds to define mortification, lays out preliminaries for undertaking the work, and then gives specific directions for a proper start. Along the way Owen shows tremendous insight into the progress of both sin and grace in the soul. He manages to present an exquisitely balanced position, taking into account the depravity of the heart, the principle of grace at work in the converted soul and the assistance of the Spirit, our incapability of perfect obedience on earth and the obligation upon us to be holy if we would see the Lord – and he maintains this balance without letting anyone off the hook.

Among the striking statements in Owen’s Mortification are these: ‘Sin always aims at the utmost… every unclean thought or glance would be adultery, if it could’; ‘Let not that man think he makes any progress in holiness, who walks not over the neck of his lusts’; ‘When a man, on some outward respects, forsakes the practice of any sin, men perhaps may look on him as a changed man; God knows that to his former iniquity he hath added cursed hypocrisy, and is got into a safer path to hell than he was in before’; ‘The rage and predominancy of a particular lust is commonly the fruit and issue of a careless, negligent course in general’; ‘To apply mercy, then, to a sin not vigorously mortified is to fulfill the end of the flesh upon the gospel’. He would not have us pacify our consciences with self-esteem talks, but rather suggests that we ‘load our conscience’ with the guilt of our sin; that the path to mortification leads us through a carrying of our sin to the gospel, not (at first) for relief, but for a proper view of our guilt: ‘Was my soul washed that room might be made for new defilements? Shall I endeavour to disappoint the end of the death of Christ? Shall I daily grieve that Spirit whereby I am sealed to the day of redemption?’ He would have us move, not toward self-approval, but toward self-abasement; we know incredibly little of the being and nature of God, and yet we know enough to condemn us for not loving, seeking, and serving Him more than we do at present. Owen would not have us speak peace to our hearts, but labor in fighting against our indwelling corruption until we are sensible of God speaking peace to our souls.

Though his words are often bitterly convicting, his practical direction for obedience to God in these matters is simple and hopeful. ‘Set faith at work on Christ for the killing of your sin… Live in this, and thou wilt die a conqueror.’ The final chapter of the book is an exposition of that statement, detailing the ways we ought to ‘act faith upon Christ,’ live in hopeful expectation of the help we are promised to receive from Him, and look to the Spirit to carry this work to completion as we work toward holiness in the body.

I wish that I could say that I have implemented and tried all of the courses prescribed by Owen for the disabling and destruction of the sin in my own life, but I have hardly made a beginning. But having begun, and barely tasted, I have confidence that the road Owen would set the believer upon in the pursuit of Christ through mortification is the only safe road – that is to say, the biblical road – to holiness and happiness, and ultimately, to glory.

Read On the Mortification of Sin for free here.

Listen to the book read aloud for free on Youtube here.

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