Owen’s seminal work hinges on Colossians 3:5 “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you” (ESV) or as Owen states it, “always be killing sin or it will be killing you.”1 As Christians we are in the process of sanctification, becoming more like Christ who defeated sin ultimately on the cross.
The works we perform in life will reveal either a living faith or a dead faith that’s within us. (James 2:17) There is no third option, either we will be killing sin or sin will be killing us–one of these things will be taking place in our lives.
I have a two-year old boy, which basically means I have a little suicide machine that is constantly finding new fun ways to harm himself. So when Owen writes, “sin is always active when it seems to be the most quiet, and its waters are often deep when they are calm.”2 I know exactly what he means. When my son is running around making noise, I can see him and reign in the chaos because I’m aware of what he’s doing. But when a few minutes have gone by and my wife and I find ourselves with a little bit of piece and quiet, that’s when we know something bad is going on. The silence usually means my son has found some bit of mischief that requires his full concentration such as locking us out of our tablets or scooping water out of the toilet with his bare hands or spraying floor-cleaner everywhere. It’s the same with sin. When things seem “okay,” is when our spidey-sense should tingle because that means the sin in our lives is taking deep root or becoming so normal we don’t notice it. It’s right under our nose and we can’t smell it until it explodes. Carbon monoxide is more dangerous than a fire because it’s the silent killer. You don’t know you’re dying until you’re dead. Such can be the subtlety of sin.
The mortification of sin is an ongoing process. This is something Owen touches on often, the daily process of killing sin. “We will not be making progress in holiness without walking over the bellies of our lusts. He who does not kill sin along the way is making no progress in his journey.”3 Progress is the struggle of fighting and killing sin. We’ll go our whole lives doing this until Jesus returns and grants us his full glory in the redemption of the saints and this world.
Our zeal and hatred for sin can make it seem like we’ve conquered it when we really haven’t. We can see someone who rails against a sin like sexual immorality so much that he gets everyone else fired up about it and leads people, and gives compelling speeches and even counsels people through it but on the inside he’s struggling more than anyone with that sin. Owen sheds light on this smokescreen in the human condition.
“This is the saddest warfare that any poor creature can be engaged in. A soul under the power of conviction from the law is pressed to fight against sin, but he has no strength for the battle. He must fight, but he can never conquer. He is like a man who thrusts himself on the sword of the enemy on purpose to be slain. The law drives him on, and then sin beats him back. Sometimes he thinks he has foiled sin, but he has only raised a dust, so that he cannot see the sin. He stirs up his natural affections of fear, sorrow, and anguish and this makes him believe that sin is conquered when it is not even touched. He soon must be at the battle again, and the lust which he thought to be slain is seen to be not even wounded.”4
We look at an apparent champion of moral indignation and think, surely he has this taken care of. But he doesn’t. He just knows all the right answers to give at bible study.
But let’s say someone does remove a sin from their life and have shown real signs of truly mortifying the sin, they are still not exempt from merely exchanging one sin for another. If we’re looking for sin in someone’s life or in our own and do not find it, it could be that it has been traded for another that we’re not seeing. Owen writes, “God however knows the heart. Someone may change an obvious sin for a hidden one.”5 Once sin has been exposed, it’s good and right for there to be repentance and forgiveness. But we can’t allow for one publicly known iniquity to be exchanged for another hidden one. “Simon Magus left his sorceries for a while, but then he turned to covetousness and ambition.”6 (Acts 8:9-25) God dos not replace a heart of stone with a heart of granite or wood, but with a heart of flesh.
Speaking of the heart, John Owen is quick to point out that it is not a piece of spiritual, human anatomy to be trusted. “It is to be feared that too many do no realize the enemy that they carry about with them in their hearts.”7 Jeremiah 17:9 says, “The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (ESV) Our hearts are little idol factories that are constantly leading us to desires that are not Christ and not helpful. This is exactly the opposite advice you’ll receive from the world. Today’s culture is constantly saying to “follow your heart” or “be true to yourself.”
The mortification of sin is part of the process of sanctification. You have to know Christ before you can become like him. Sanctification is only for the saints. As Owen says, “Unless a man is a true believer and grafted into Christ, he can never mortify a single sin. Mortification is the work of believers: ‘If by the Spirit you…’(Romans 8:13).”8 Lost people can do nothing “by the Spirit” because they do not have the Spirit. People who are not Christians can stop a certain sin in their life like alcoholism or lust, but unless they know Christ, all the glory of the accomplishment will go to the god of self in some way. They kill sin for the sake of their own productivity, or their family or personal health. It’s certainly true that conquering sin will have positive effects in our temporal lives but it shouldn’t end there. We shouldn’t kill sin for merely pragmatic reasons like mental health or a “brighter lease on life” but rather because it pleases God. That is our ultimate goal. If we quit anger for the sake of a happy more harmonious home, that’s good but it should only be an added benefit in our faithfulness to God. Owen writes, “We must not be concerned only with that which troubles us, but with all that troubles God.”9
On the cross, Christ became sin and was put to death. He suffered not only the physical torture but also the ultimate wrath of being abandoned by God. God turned his back on Jesus when he was sin.
“There is no death of sin without the death of Christ. You realize how the Papists, in their vows and penances seek mortification according to the principles of the church, yet they are like Israel who, seeking for their own righteousness, have not attained it! Why? Because they seek it by works of the law and not by faith (Rom. 9:31-32).”10
Owen uses Roman Catholics as an example of a works based faith, which it is, but it’s not the only one. Many Christians from all denominations and creeds abide in their works instead of the grace of God. It’s one of the most sinful things we can do, to look at Jesus’ brutal, bloody sacrifice on the cross and say, “that’s not enough.” When we attempt in any way to save ourselves by the law, that’s exactly what we’re doing, belittling the work of Christ’s torture. We’re saying, “Jesus your death on the cross was not enough, I need to still perform in some way to help you out in this work of salvation of my soul.” What horrible arrogance.
“Such a person has cast off, in this respect, renewinggrace, and is kept from ruin only because of restraininggrace. He has fallen a great way from grace and returned under the power of the law. Must this not be a great provocation to Christ, that men should cast off His gentle yoke and rule, to cast themselves back under the iron yoke of the law, merely because of their lusts?”11
The law brings wrath (Rom. 4:15). The law is a mirror we look into to see our sinful selves. It is good and holy but it does not bring salvation. We are no longer under the power of the law but rather the power of the Gospel of Christ. We’ve been set free by the sacrifice of Jesus’ work on the cross, but we’ve been in our prison cells of sin so long that we’ve become comfortable there. We’re familiar with the hard concrete and bars. Our sin is home to us and there’s no place like home. When we fall back under the heavy burden of the law, we can only be condemned by it.
In C.S. Lewis timeless literary treasure, The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, when Susan sees Aslan for the first time, it’s one of my favorite exchanges in all of literature.
“’Aslan is a lion- the Lion, the great Lion.’
‘Ooh’ said Susan. ‘I’d thought he was a man. Is he-quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion…’
‘Safe?’ said Mr. Beaver… ‘Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.’”
In the same light of a proper fear and reverence for God, John Owen writes, “Allow the terror of the Lord as displayed in the law to affect you greatly.”12 Fear of God (or terror), of course, is talking about a healthy respect for God and his power. It’s the way we fear fire. We fear it because it can burn us but it is also crucial for the survival of humanity.
I have trouble with this next section of Owen’s book.
“If you are dealing with God in Christ for the healing of your soul and quieting of your conscience, but you do not have a thorough hatred of your sin, perhaps you may be saved, yet it will be as through fire. Perhaps you like the sin well enough, but only dislike the consequences of it. God will work further with you before he is done, but you will have little peace in this life; you will be sick and fainting all your days. (Isa. 57:17)”13
Here Owen seems to say that God will drag you kicking and screaming into His salvation “through fire.” If you love your sin then you can still be saved, but Owen makes it sound like this is a reluctant salvation. But we cannot love our sin and love God. Matthew 6:24 says, “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money” (ESV). You can also not serve God and sin without loving one and hating the other. Indeed, it is the mark of a true Christian that he has a “thorough hatred” of his sin. In Romans 7:15 Paul explains the battle every Christians has with his sin after he has been redeemed. “For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” Christians hate sin and hate tosin. This doesn’t mean we wont sin, but if we like sinning and don’t have a hatred for it then we love it, even slightly. I struggle with Owen’s words because while it is true that we cannot serve two masters, we do still sin and it is a struggle and feels very much like God is dragging us to Himself, battling not with sin but with him. Owen is right that we shall have “little peace in this life” but our contention must be with our own sin and accompanied with a desire to please God.
But, this passage also brings me hope for fellow Christians that I see struggling in a way described here by Owen. I see brothers and sisters in such turmoil with their faith I fear for their souls. But as John Piper writes in When I Don’t Desire God,
“In fact, the darkest experiences for the child of God is when his faith sinks out to of his own sight. Not out of God’s sight, but his. Yes, it is possible to be so overwhelmed with darkness that you do not know if you are a Christian—and yet still be one.”14
After Adam and Eve sinned for the first time in the garden they “sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths.” (Gen. 3:7). These plants were insufficient to cover their sin and shame of nakedness. The fig leaves didn’t bleed. The wages of sin is death. Blood must be spilled to atone for sin. God provides a sufficient sacrifice and covers their sin with skins of an animal. He provides this first sacrifice to cover sin. (Gen. 3:21). The fig leaves were the works of Adam and Eve’s hands, their hopeless attempts to cover their own sin. In light of this, John Owen says, “He will, I say, not allow your nakedness to be covered with fig leaves. He will take them away, together with all the peace you have from trusting in them, and will to let you settle in this condition.”15 From Adam and Eve’s first sin to the ram caught in thicket, to Christ on the cross, we are not saved by the works we sew together. God provides the sacrifice, he always has.
When we become Christians there is an exchange that takes place. Paul talks about putting off the old self and putting on the new (Eph. 4:22-24). In Matthew 5:29 Jesus says, “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away.” I believe this illustrates the seriousness of sin but there is another aspect that should be noted in this statement and that is, your eye doesn’t cause you to sin, your heart does and that’s what’s replaced. Ezekial 36:26 says, “And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.” Once this exchange takes place, then we’re able to please God, or as John Owen writes, “Yes, He can make this habitation of dragons, this heart, which is so full of abominable lusts and fiery temptations, to be a place of bounty and fruitfulness unto Himself.”16 As I mentioned above, this runs contrary to what the world tells us, to follow our heart. Following our heart implies some original purity from within that we must get back to. But the Bible speaks more in line with Owen, as in Psalm 58:4 “The wicked are estranged from the womb; they go astray from birth, speaking lies.” We are born with a sin nature, born condemned. That’s where we start. That’s why we need to be “born again” (John 3:3).
Killing sin can often feel like a hopeless endeavor. But our hope is not found in our own strength but in Christ’s. He died the death we could not die and he’s done the work we could not do. “In death, Christ destroyed the works of the devil, and secured the Holy Spirit for us, ensuring the destruction of sin, as to its reign in believers, that it should not obtain its end or its dominion.”17 Christ is our only hope in conquering sin in our lives. Don’t believe the lie that you will always have some certain secret sin in your life. It’s not true. In Romans, Paul says,
“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?…in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Rom. 8:35-39)
Our motivation for killing sin is not to better our lives or find some pragmatic success for ourselves. That may happen. But the purpose for killing sin is to please Christ and bring glory to God. If we are his, nothing can separate us from the love of God.
We won’t be done with this work before Christ’s return. As Owen writes, “Look upon Him under the weight of our sins, praying, bleeding, and dying (1 Cor. 15:3; 1 Pet. 1:18-19; 5:1-2; Col. 1:13-14). Bring Him in that condition into your heart by faith. Apply His blood so shed to your corruptions. Do this daily.”18 This is daily work. His mercies are new every morning (Lam. 3:22-23). Every day we battle against sin and every day is a blessing from God. While we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Rom. 5:8). While we are battling sin as redeemed believers, Chris died for us.
The Mortification of Sin is a fantastic book that every Christian should read. John Owen is a hero of the faith. He speaks truth in this work and always points to the bible. It’s worth the short read (abridged), and if you can, go through it with a sturdy group. A great work by a great Christian.
1.) Owen, John. The Mortification of Sin. p.5
14.) Piper, John. When I Don’t Desire Godp.216
15.) Owen, John. The Mortification of Sin p.109