Book Review: The Mortification of Sin by John Owen

by Jason Barker

John Owen is largely regarded as being one of the most influential reformed theologians of all time, in the company of giants such as John Calvin and Jonathan Edwards. Unfortunately, many Christians are not familiar with him or his literary works, possibly due to the fact that reading them presents quite a challenge because of their notorious difficulty. Reading Owen requires a certain steadfastness and patience – the same that would be required of on who attempted to scale a smooth mountain surface or patiently sift the waters of a stream in the search for gold.

Nevertheless, new heights of spiritual understanding and gold nuggets of wisdom are what await the Christian who perseveres and completes Owens most well-known work: The Mortification of Sin. Thankfully, Richard Rushing has made the task easier by abridging and updating Owen’s work for the sake of readability. The poignant and timeless lessons remain unaltered, however, and any believer, especially pastors who are called to lead in matters of personal holiness, would benefit from investing the time and effort required to take them to heart.

The Mortification of Sin

In this abridgment of a classic work, the famous Puritan John Owen shows the need for Christians to engage in a life-long battle against the sinful tendencies that remain in them, despite their having been brought to faith and new life in Christ.

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The Mortification of Sin is essentially an examination of Romans 8:13 – “For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” People naturally lean towards sin, which will ultimately lead to death and eternal separation from God. God has freed Christians from the eternal penalty of sin through the substitutionary death of Jesus, but the individual Christian must take up the task of killing sin in his life so that he can pursue holiness. Accordingly, the bulk of Owen’s work explores the theology and practice of mortifying sin.

Key Points of the Book

  1. The Holy Spirit alone is the source of power to overcome and kill sin: We would agree that salvation is the work of God applied to us by the Holy Spirit. After that point, though, we usually are not certain how the Holy Spirit works in our lives for our good, and especially for our growth as believers seeking to rid ourselves of sin. While we may be tempted to take matters into our own hands, Owen argues that killing sin cannot be accomplished through empty prayers, fasting, or any other human discipline. Rather, like salvation, mortification of sin is accomplished by the Holy Spirit.
  1. Complete removal of sin will not be accomplished in this life, so mortification should be understood as success in the ongoing battle against sin: Human existence is marked by sin, and even those who have been saved and made spiritually new still wear fallen flesh that only and always wants to sin. We should understand that we are mortifying sin when we “weaken lust’s presence and enticements” (38)
  1. Our part in the work of mortification is to place our faith in Christ and to expect Him to provide relief: Owen indicates that most of his writing in The Mortification of Sin was done to prepare the heart for the actual work of trusting God to do the work (116). Jesus is a merciful priest who is acquainted with our struggles. We can trust that He wants to deliver us from them and that He is able. His death and resurrection purchased victory that He applies to us over the entire course of our lives. He will mortify sin in us.

Powerful Quotes From the Book

  • “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.” (14)
  • “To mortify sin is not to utterly root it out and destroy it . . . There may be doubtless times of wonderful success by the Spirit and grace of Christ, and such a great victory that a man may have almost constant triumph over it; but the utter killing and destruction of it, we cannot expect in this life.”26-27)
  • “It is the duty of preachers to plead with men about their sins, but we must always remember to speak in such a way as to lead them to the discovery of their state and condition. Otherwise, we may lead men to formality and hypocrisy and not accomplish the true end of preaching the gospel. It will not avail to beat a man off from his drunkenness into a sober formality. We must lay the axe at the root. To deal with sin without the root is like beating and enemy in the open field and chasing him into an impregnable castle where he cannot be touched. Drive the conviction to the heart, not just particular sins.” (47)
  • “[Sin] will take away a man’s usefulness in his generation. His works, his endeavors, his labours, will seldom receive blessing from God. He labours as though in the fire, without any success in his work. The world is full of poor professors without reality. How few are there that walk in beauty and glory! How barren, and how useless are they for the most part! Among the many reasons that may be assigned for this sad state is the harbouring of spirit-devouring lusts in one’s bosom. Sin lies as a worm at the root of obedience and corrodes and weakens it day by day.” (75)
  • “Mortification is based particularly upon the death of Christ. This is one of the main purposes of the death of Christ and shall assuredly be accomplished by it. He died to destroy the works of the devil. Both our fallen nature, as a result of Satan’s temptation in the Garden of Eden, and the strength of his continued suggestions in daily life, were destroyed by the work of Christ! He died to destroy it all.” (125)

Application in the Local Church

Your church is full of sinners, and you are one of them. As a pastor or leader in your congregation, you have the responsibility to model Christ-likeness to those you lead. But like salvation, achieving personal holiness through the killing of sin is not something you can accomplish on your own. Free yourself from the expectation that you can do anything but resist temptation, flee Satan, and seek out and submit to the mortification of sin that the Holy Spirit will carry out in your life. Also, teach others to do the same so they can experience the freedom of fully trusting God while pursuing holiness in word and deed.

Citation: Owen, John, and Richard Rushing. The Mortification of Sin. Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2009. 130 Pages.

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(DMin, New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary) Jason is an experienced pastor and theological educator seeking to encourage and equip the next generation of church planters. Jason serves at Colorado Christian University and consults with a variety of church leadership organizations. He and his wife live in Southern California with their four children.

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