The Mortification of Sin

Today we continue our study 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 four chapter, but if not, we’re not too far along for you to catch up or simply join in. 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)

Chapter 3, The Work of the Spirit in Mortification, begins with this great reminder:

The Holy Spirit is our only sufficiency for the work of mortification. All ways and means apart from Him have no true effect. He only is the great power behind it, and He works in us as He pleases.

He then begins by discussing vain methods of mortification, which can be man-made means that were never appointed by God for this purpose, or even God-given methods that are not used in the proper place or order. Owen says in the latter case many consider them as the fountain and not the stream coming from the fountain. He also believes we often seek to accomplish our own victory and that we may fight against sin for a time, but as the pain of conviction wears off we give up the fight and then sin returns to its former dominion. His conclusion: These ways are not sufficient. There is no self-endeavour that can accomplish mortification. Almighty energy is necessary for its accomplishment.

Some questions for you to consider:

  1. In what ways do you attempt to destroy the sins that trouble you?

  2. What are you trusting in to change you?

  3. What are the reasons such things do not work?

  4. How do you often use the right things - such as reading the Bible, prayer, fasting, etc. - in the wrong way to accomplish mortification?

In the second half of chapter three Owen focuses on the Spirit’s work in mortification and says that God promised His Spirit to be given to us for this very work. He lays out three ways the Spirit mortifies sin in the lives of believers:

  1. He causes our hearts to abound in grace and the fruits that are contrary to the works of the flesh (See Galatians 5:19-24). If you have just finished a delicious, healthy meal prepared for you by your spouse, you will be too satisfied and full to even consider then eating at Cactus Willies or Old Country Buffet (and if you would choose one of those buffets over a home-cooked meal, you need to come eat at our house sometime!). Perhaps not the best analogy, but something kind of like that.

  2. By the effective destruction of the root and habit of sin, to weaken, destroy, and take it away. Praise God the Spirit does this in our lives. He takes away our stony heart and burns the very root of our lusts.

  3. He brings the cross of Christ into the heart of a sinner by faith, and gives communion with Christ in his death, and fellowship in his suffering.

Some are concerned that all this focus on mortification and fighting against sin will move us away from the gospel of grace, but notice how often and careful Owen is to ground this mortification, not only in the work of the Spirit, but in our communion with Christ!

So how does our role line up with the work of the Spirit? (Jerry Bridges has a great book on this, The Discipline of Grace: God’s Role & Our Role in the Pursuit of Holiness). Owen contends that the Spirit does not so work in us that it is not still an act of our obedience.

The Holy Spirit works in us and with us, not against us or without us, so that His assistance is an encouragement as to the accomplishing of the work.

Philippians 2:12-13

Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

God provides the way of escape, he gives us the desire to escape, he inclines our heart to turn from the temptation, we turn by his grace and enablement, and he removes the temptation.

In Chapter 4 Owen seeks to show the joy of our spiritual life depends greatly upon the mortification of sin.

He wants to make clear he is not saying this joy proceeds from our success, as if it were tied to it. Yes, the use of means for the obtaining of peace is ours, but the bestowing of it is God’s prerogative.

Mortification is not the immediate means that God has instituted to give us life, vigour, courage, and consolation. The immediate cause of these privileges is our adoption...Our spiritual life, vigour, courage and consolation, then, come at the hand of the Spirit as we sense and understand our adoption and justification.

So here’s a big question: What is the relationship between justification, adoption, and mortification?

And here is a huge truth about the deceitfulness and deadly danger of sin:

Sin untunes and unframes the heart itself, by entangling its affections. It diverts the heart from the spiritual frame that is required for vigorous communion with God. It lays hold on the affections, rendering its object beloved and desirable, so expelling the love of the Father (1 John 2:15; 3:17). The umortified soul cannot say uprightly and truly that God is its portion, having something else that it loves. The soul and its affections, that should be full of God, cannot be full of Him, since it is entangled in worldly pursuits.

Owen ends chapter four with a helpful gardening illustration on pages 24-25, another reminder of the need for daily mortification and daily fixing our eyes on Jesus!


Read chapters 5-6 by next Wednesday. We have only just begun so there is still plenty of time for you to get the book and to 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.


Posted on November 4, 2015 and filed under Teaching.