When I was first introduced to the book, Of the Mortification of Sin in Believers, written by the 17th-century English Puritan John Owen, I was intimidated. Now it may just be my lack of intellect, but I found him difficult to read, and I regularly found myself having to go through each paragraph slowly, and read it twice before I was able to process it (thankfully it’s a relatively short book). Like mining through other works of great Christian leaders, and through my determination to unpack Owen’s thoughts, I discovered truths which have nourished my soul.
To say the least, John Owen is a gold mine and well worth the effort. There is a lot I could say in praise of this book, but let me just share a few insights Owen provided, which have greatly encouraged me in my struggle against sin.
Dead in Sin
Owen holds nothing back in regards to the horrors and destruction of sin. He describes our flesh as that which corrupts “the whole body” and “breaks the bones of the soul, [making] a man weak, sick, and ready to die so that it cannot look up.” He further illustrates that “when poor creatures will take blow after blow, wound after wound, foil after foil, and never rouse up themselves to a vigorous opposition, can they expect anything but to be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin, and that their souls should bleed to death?”
Although striking, these illustrations rightly show that sin is no light matter. It is worse than a disease. It is death (Romans 8:10). Therefore, it is clearly something we cannot fight on our own; we need Jesus. Owen's emphasis is that “all other ways of mortification are vain, all helps leave us helpless; it must be done by the Spirit,” for “there is no way of deliverance from the state and condition of being in the flesh, but by the Spirit of Christ.”
Our Daily Fight Against Sin
In describing our struggles against sin by the power of the Holy Spirit, Owen often uses metaphors. Referencing Paul, he describes sin in human terms, or as “the old man” who continually fights against us. Owen first stresses that this man, or sin, can only be killed by the cross of Christ, which put to death “the old man,” and this is why Christians, if they want to even attempt to fight their sins, must embrace the cross. “There is no death of sin without the death of Christ.”
Yet Owen recognizes that this cross is not to be picked up once, but daily. He recognizes that this “constant enemy of the soul abides within us, what diligence and watchfulness we should have!” Even though Christ has severed the root of sin, sin will continue to spring up because we are still in our mortal bodies. We are still being sanctified. “To mortify a sin is not utterly to kill, root it out, and destroy it, that it should have no more hold at all nor residence in our hearts. It is true this is that which is aimed at; but this is not in this life to be accomplished.”
Along with this line, Owen uses another metaphor by illustrating sin as a weed which springs up constantly in the garden of our mind. If left untilled it will begin to choke the herbs which are the “graces of the Spirit.” Therefore, we must “let the heart be cleansed of mortification, the weeds of lust constantly and daily rooted up” (emphasis added).
Our fight with sin is a constant, tireless, grueling battle, in which we are to partake in as long as we are living on this earth and being sanctified by the Spirit of Christ. As Owen challenges us, “do you mortify; do you make it your daily work; be always at it whilst you live; cease not a day from this work; be killing sin or it will be killing you.”
Complete in Christ
One might come away from reading portions of his book and feel a bit overwhelmed by the constant fights and battles we must face as Christians. But I found it encouraging. For one, Owen illustrates what we genuinely experience. I cringe when I hear others (including Christians and pastors!) joke about sin or brush it off as if it is some trivial matter. As a Christian, there are times when my struggle against sin brings me into depression, feelings of unworthiness, doubt, and discouragement. There are times I find it hard to just stand up and continue throughout my day.
I hate sin, and yet it never stops coming after me.
Here is where I find Owen to be so encouraging. Not only does he deal with sin honestly, but in talking about our struggles against it, he forces us to look up, not down. After quoting Philippians 3:12 which reads, “not that I have already obtained this (glorification) or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own,” Owen states that Paul “was a choice saint, a pattern for believers… yet he had not ‘attained,’ he was not ‘perfect,’ but was ‘following after.’ Still a vile body he had, and we have, that must be changed by the great power of Christ at last. This we would have, but God sees it best for us that we should be complete in nothing in ourselves, that in all things we must be ‘complete in Christ;’ which is best for us, Col. 2:10” (emphasis added).
As I came across that paragraph I felt a great sense of relief. If it were up to us we would be glorified now and never struggle with sin again, but it seems God allows us to continue to struggle with our sins so that we are complete not in ourselves, but in Christ. Although Owen is adamant that God hates sin and is not the author of it, he makes the surprising claim that perhaps “God says, ‘Here is one, if he could be rid of this lust I should never hear of him more; let him wrestle with this, or he is lost.” Elsewhere, Owen suggests that “even with His own, He may, He doth, leave them sometimes to some vexatious distempers, either to prevent or cure some other evil.”
In other words, God may keep us in our struggles because they keep us from other evils, and likewise, they force us to rely on and pray to God so that our struggle with temptations is used by God to bring us closer to Himself! Therefore, our constant struggle against sin is not so much that we are not “good enough” Christians, but that God is making us more complete in Christ through those struggles. They bring us to rely on His grace, not our own false sense of self-righteousness.
Fellow Christians, glorification is promised to us, but God means to mold us into that by making us complete in Christ, not in ourselves. God is not okay with sin, but He is okay in allowing us to struggle with it, because, through that process, we are becoming more like Him in his death so that we may also attain the resurrection He had (c.f. Phil. 3:10; Heb. 2:20; 4:15). This is one of the beautiful ways in which God “works all things to the good, for those who love Him and are called according to His purpose” (Rm. 8:28) even our own temptations.