Today we begin working our way through John Owen’s book, The Mortification of Sin. The idea is we read this together and that we read the corresponding chapters prior to the blog post each week. So hopefully if you are joining us you have already read the first two chapters. Each Wednesday I hope to post a blog that will contain thoughts, quotes, and questions related to the previous week’s reading.
As we read, may we keep in mind Owen’s goal in writing this book as stated in the preface: “to promote the work of gospel mortification in the hearts of believers and direct them into safe paths where they will find rest for their souls.” (viii)
How does the gospel inform and empower and direct our fight against sin?
In the opening chapter Owen examines the second half of Romans 8:13, “if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live”, and comes to this thesis:
The choicest believers, who are assuredly freed from the condemning power of sin, should also make it their business all of their days to mortify the indwelling power of sin. (2)
Owen claimed that the fight against sin is a necessary and central part of the Christian life, and that “there is a clear connection between the mortifying of the deeds of the body and living” (2). Does this mean that our salvation - ‘life’ - depends on our work of mortifying sin? No. Eternal life is the gift of God (Romans 6:21), so Owen points out the connection is not a cause and effect connection, but rather a means and end.
It is very important that in our fight against sin we recognize that “our strength in the performance of this duty comes through the Spirit” (2). This is Owen’s third point in chapter one and he reminds us that all other ways of mortification are in vain. Owen writes, “Mortification from a self-strength, carried on by ways of self-invention, to the end of a self-righteousness, is the soul and substance of all false religion in the world” (3). A strong statement to be sure and one to keep in mind as we carry on the fight.
Our fight is against indwelling sin, the corrupted flesh that can give birth to evil desires. We are to fight against or mortify indwelling sin. To mortify is to put to death. Owen says it is “the constant duty of believers to render a death blow to the deeds of the flesh, that they may not have life and strength to bring forth their destructive influence” (4). Perhaps he has in mind James 1:13-15.
Owen begins chapter two by reminding us of Colossians 3:5:
Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.
And then he asks:
Do you mortify?
Do you make it your daily work?
You must always be at it while you live;
do not take a day off from this work;
Always be killing sin or it will be killing you.
He then gives six reasons for why we must be at this important work.
1. Indwelling sin always abides while we are in this world, therefore, there is always a need for it to be mortified.
He that is appointed to kill an enemy, has only done half his work if he quits before the enemy is dead.
2. Sin is still acting and laboring to bring forth the deeds of the flesh.
This may have been the point that hit me hardest in the first two chapters. Listen to the warnings Owen gives:
When sin lets us alone, we may let sin alone; but sin is always active when it seems to be the most quiet, and its waters are often deep when they are calm… Sin is always acting, always conceiving, and always seducing and tempting...If sin is always of killing our souls, and we are slothful, negligent, and foolish in this batter, can we expect a favorable outcome? There is not a day but sin foils or is foiled, prevails or is prevailed upon. It will always be so while we live in this world. Sin will not spare for one day.
This is where it is important to remember that our fight must be driven by the gospel. It must be empowered by the Holy Spirit. If we are not careful we can read that warning and be driven to despair! How can I defeat so great an enemy? Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through Jesus Christ! God will complete the work He has begun in us. Greater is he that is in us than he that is in the world. If we walk by the Spirit we will not gratify the desires of the flesh.
3. Sin, if not continually mortified, will bring forth great, cursed, scandalous, and soul-destroying sins.
Every time sin rises to tempt or entice, it always seeks to express itself in the extreme.
Think about that! Don’t be deceived by sin or think you can tame it.
4. The Holy Spirit and our new nature are given to us to oppose sin and lust.
His graces and gifts are bestowed on us to use, exercise, and get benefit from. If we do not seek daily to mortify sin, we sin against the goodness, kindness, wisdom, grace, and love of God, Who has given us the weapons of our warfare.
5. Neglect of this duty makes the inner man decay instead of renewing him.
6. Our spiritual growth is our daily duty.
This cannot be accomplished without the daily mortifying of sin… We will not be making progress in holiness without walking over the bellies of our lusts.
Gotta love Owen’s use of imagery!
Owen’s main point so far:
Even while we claim the meritorious mortification of our sin through the work of the cross of Christ, and though the implantation of our new life in Christ is in opposition to and destructive of the expression of sin, sin remains, acts, and works in the best of believers while we are yet in this world. It must be our daily duty to mortify it.
And one closing thought from Owen: Let a man pretend what he will, little concern over sin is a serious offense to the grace and mercy of God! Or, as Charles Spurgeon put it, “I cannot trifle with the evil which slew my best Friend.”
Read chapters 3-4 by next Wednesday. We have only just begun so there is still plenty of time for you to get the book and read along.
It would be great to hear what you gained from these opening chapters. Feel free to post comments below or talk with one another about what you are reading. Do not feel that you need to say anything shocking or profound. Just share what stirred your heart or what gave you pause or what confused you. Let’s make sure we’re reading this book together.