On the Mortification of Sin

A Reader’s Guide to a Christian Classic

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Professor, Covenant College

John Owen (1616–1683) agreed with the ancient idea that happiness is a good and worthy goal, although what he had in mind is far different from what we tend to assume about happiness. We often link happiness to entertainment or comedy, and thus to distraction from the frustrations of everyday life. The ancients, in contrast, equated happiness with virtue and being as fully human as possible. Aristotle, for example, encouraged his readers to instill good habits in their children, to give them a depth of character that would equip them for life and for contributing to the polis (their society). Owen, working within his distinctly Christian tradition, naturally envisioned happiness against a much more God-oriented background.

Like Aristotle, Owen derived his understanding of happiness from his view of the world and our place in it, but, of course, his starting point was very different from Aristotle’s. Owen knew that God himself is the source and goal of our happiness. As Owen puts it, “It was from eternity that [God] laid in his own bosom a design for our happiness” (Works of John Owen, 2:33), which is nothing less than communion with God. Communion, for Owen, constituted true, deep, and life-giving happiness.

The triune God of life and love made us to enjoy fellowship with him, to love our neighbors, and to live in harmony with the earth. Communion, as interpersonal activity, is our mode of engaging God and the world as we were designed to do. We will need to understand this construct of happiness if we are going to rightly understand why Owen, in perhaps his most recognized book, would emphasize an exercise that sounds so negative — mortification! Sin is that which disorders, disrupts, and destroys our communion, so learning to deal with this threat is a necessary component of happiness.

Mortification and Communion

Owen’s little book On the Mortification of Sin grew out of a series of sermons he preached while serving as Dean of Christ Church and Vice-Chancellor of Oxford. His preface mentions that he was also working on his volume Communion with God, but because that was unfinished, he hoped this smaller contribution would satisfy readers in the meantime. I point this out because readers too often detach Owen’s writing on “putting sin to death” from the larger theme of communion with God, and that produces all kinds of problems, like reading the book as an exercise in moralism — not at all Owen’s intention!

The theme of mortification animated Owen’s pastoral heart because killing sin is a necessary tool in our pursuit of communion with God. Owen’s approach does not imply any sort of legalism or negative self-concept, although some have read him that way. On the contrary, he knew that, while God’s love for us, his people, is never contingent upon our faithfulness, our experience of communion with God can be helped or hindered by how we deal with our sins.

Ignoring or downplaying our sins tends to harden our hearts and deaden our awareness of God’s presence, activity, and comforts. We must, therefore, constantly remind ourselves that mortification matters, not to keep an abstract law, but to pursue our very life in God and with our neighbors.

Start with the Spirit

“To mortify” means “to put to death,” which is what we must do with sin. Even here, however, a careful reading of Owen shows that he begins not with a principle of death, but of life — what John Calvin and others called “vivification,” making alive. Although this particular book of Owen’s concentrates on the problem of sin, it constantly presupposes and points back to the presence and power of the Holy Spirit, who makes us alive. Only through the Spirit can “the deeds of the body” be mortified (Romans 8:13; Works, 6:5).

Consider the difference between Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography and John Owen’s volume Mortification. Franklin wanted to cultivate virtue, show self-control, and live in an upright manner. He even created a list of virtues and decided to take one at a time: his plan was to concentrate on one virtue, master it, and then acquire the next. In this simplistic vision, he expected to end up truly virtuous, having conquered the weaknesses in his character. It’s no surprise that Franklin found this plan far more difficult than he originally anticipated.

Like Franklin, Owen was concerned with cultivating virtues and self-control, but the Puritan’s vision is fundamentally different: instead of merely relying on willpower, Owen looks to the presence and power of God’s Spirit. Owen doesn’t disregard human agency — as we will see, he takes our actions fully seriously — but he knows we need God’s activity in giving us eyes to see, ears to hear, wills to stir, and energy to move forward. Owen rejects false dichotomies between divine and human agency: by definition, communion is mutual, with God working and us responding. This experience of communion differs from his view of union (which God alone establishes and which doesn’t waver), but that is a discussion for a different time.

How the Spirit Works

How does the Spirit work in us? Positively, he fills our hearts with life, light, and love. Only by God’s power can Christians kill sin and grow in obedience. Without these gifts, our efforts quickly devolve into self-righteousness or legalism or mere failure. Negatively, the Spirit attacks our sin, like a fire that burns the roots of a tree and kills it utterly.

The Spirit convicts us of sin, not because he hates us, but because he loves us: he wants to free us from sin’s destructive entanglements that would enslave or suffocate us and destroy our communion with God, our neighbors, and the earth. In this way, the Spirit of creation is also active in this work of re-creation. Further, the Spirit constantly points us away from our own sin and back to Christ, thus fostering communion with our crucified and risen Lord (Works, 6:19).

When the only book people read by John Owen is his little volume on Mortification, they can easily miss this larger background. But he wrote far more on the glory of Christ and on the person and work of the Spirit than he did on sin. If we forget this, we will miss Owen’s deeper themes, which provide the basis for us to fight sin with all our strength and passion. He was not interested in promoting obsessive levels of meticulous self-criticism, but a burgeoning communion with God.

Renewed, Deeper Humanity

Owen’s teaching about the work of the Spirit and of Christ does not undermine our agency, but rather establishes it. In Owen’s words, the Spirit “works in us and with us, not against us or without us” (Works, 6:20; emphasis original). Our actions have consequences, not because they make God love us more or less, but because they either promote or hinder the liveliness of our communion with the living Lord.

Nor does being spiritual mean we stop being human — on the contrary, as Owen shows, the Spirit renews and deepens our humanity by redirecting us to its source, God himself (see his Discourses on the Holy Spirit). Thus the Spirit works in and through our wills, our affections, our minds, and even our bodies. When we respond to and participate in what God’s Spirit is doing with us, we mortify sin and deepen the quality of our humanity. Divine sovereignty and human agency are not at odds.

Our era avidly pursues shortcuts, efficiency, and instantaneous growth. That, however, is not how most of the world works. Growth happens slowly, and the formation of human character takes effort, patience, and perspective. Those who read Owen on mortification often feel exhausted by it because, this side of glory, the threat and attack of sin never stops. Thus we must never stop. He famously provides believers with an either-or admonition: “Be killing sin or it will be killing you” (Works, 6:9). There is no other option. Left alone, sin will grow like mold, and the damage quickly becomes very difficult to repair. You are no longer cleaning surfaces, but having to rip out walls — far more painful than if you had noticed and dealt with it earlier.

Or, to use an analogy from Owen, sin is like weeds growing in a garden — unattended, they will take over and choke out the beautiful flowers and fruits. A good gardener always pulls out the weeds even while cultivating the good fruit. The Spirit plants and produces fruit in our hearts, and he also gives us the power to pull out the invasive weeds attacking the garden of our hearts and lives. We are invited to participate in this work of the Spirit.

Exposed and Healed

Dietrich Bonhoeffer once made a distinction between the “psychologist” and the “Christian.” While I would never want this quote to be taken as grounds for belittling the field of psychology (we all owe a great debt to scholars in this discipline), Bonhoeffer’s comment illustrates why we need Owen’s book on mortification. He writes,

The greatest psychological insight, ability, and experience cannot comprehend this one thing: what sin is. [Secular] psychological wisdom knows what need and weakness and failure are, but it does not know the ungodliness of the human being. . . . In the presence of a psychologist I am only sick; in the presence of another Christian I can be a sinner. (Life Together, 94–95)

Owen is a trained Christian physician of the soul. When we sit on the couch in his presence, he will tell us the truth about our condition. If you are like me, you may find you are more manipulative than you realized, more arrogant than you wanted to admit, more greedy and self-absorbed than you would ever want anyone to know. But Owen exposes these sins in us, not that we might wallow in our guilt, but to show us forgiveness, to show us our liberation in Christ to a happier way of life — a life of freedom before God as we confess our sins, resist them in the power of the Spirit, and rest secure in the Father’s love.

Owen’s exposition of mortification, read carefully, will not ultimately make you sad, but profoundly and durably happy. It gives us tools for honest, energized, and relationally oriented Christian living. It fosters communion. So I recommend this book to you, dear reader, in the hope that you will learn from this Puritan master — not because the process will be easy, but because it can be healing in all the best ways.