Reviewed by Justin Powell
Named a Puritan Giant by J. I. Packer and the “prince of divines” by C. H. Spurgeon, John Owen stands among the theological greats throughout church history, but especially among the Reformers. In his introduction, Packer also calls him “the weightiest Puritan theologian…bracket[ed] with John Calvin and Jonathan Edwards as one of the three greatest Reformed theologians of all time.” (12) Unfortunately, many in the church today have little knowledge of this giant, because as Packer accurately diagnoses, his writing is difficult to stomach. Even Spurgeon recognized the weight of Owen while still encouraging his readers to “not begrudge” the work needed to study Owen. As with most things in life, the student who perseveres through the difficulty of The Mortification of Sin will discover a treasure which cannot be bought through cheap shortcuts.
Owen’s central argument is explained in Chapter 1 which revolves around the promise in Romans 8:13, “For if ye live after the flesh, ye shall die: but if ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live” (emphasis added) The natural course for sinful man is to live according to the flesh which will ultimately lead to our death. However, through the work of Christ on the cross and the Holy Spirit in the regenerated heart, the Christian can put to death (mortify) these deeds of the body which are sin. The rest of the book then expounds on the theology and practicality of how to mortify sin.
For Owen the practice of mortifying sin is no mere chore, nor is it a task for only a select few. Owen spends considerable time in the first few chapters to explain the necessity of mortifying sin for even the “best” Christians, even noting the possibility (perhaps probability) of sin simply taking a new form in growing Christians rather than an actual death. “A sin is not mortified when it is only diverted.” (56) Likewise, sin is not mortified because the temperament of the person may have changed. People will mature and change naturally as time passes, however the sin is mortified when the fruit of the Spirit takes over, not when the sin simply morphs into another sin. Owen warns of the hedonist who may simply turn into a Pharisee with an outward appearance of mortifying sin yet holds to other sins which are just as destructive to the soul. Everyone must tackle whichever lust or passion drives their sin, but thankfully the Christian is not alone. Though a man must be a believer to mortify sin, Owen’s first general rule, every believer is enabled through the Holy Spirit to take on the task.
Where the first half discusses the theology behind the task of mortifying sin, Owen uses the second half to discuss the practicalities. He offers two general rules to begin: the first, mentioned above, a man must be a believer and the second, “without sincerity and diligence in the universality of obedience, there is no mortification”. (81) Though a man may begin with just one sin that vexes him, that one sin cannot be mortified unless the man is sincere and diligent to mortify all sin in his life. This phenomenon has been noted in other disciplines, such as Dave Ramsey who mentions periodically that when a person chooses to discipline their finances, they may also discipline their diet or family relationships. Discipline in one area promotes discipline in others. Owen applies the same principle to disciplining and mortifying sin centuries before today’s observers. His first particular direction is to consider the dangerous symptoms of a living sin which manifest in habits and self-consolations. Owen encourages Christians to find the root sin to focus on its mortification which will then destroy the branches and leaves of the sinful habits and denial of sin’s hold on the person. In this way, one life discipline, inward reflection and sin-mortification, promotes another, outward life changes.
The second direction is for the Christian to fully understand the weight and depravity of the sin. Perhaps the most important direction for the 21st century, the Christian who cannot fathom the guilt, danger and evil of any one sin will not only fail to mortify that sin, but will fail to mortify any sin. The guilt of the sin is often dismissed because the sin may not appear as bad as another sin. “I’ve never killed anyone” or “I’m not as bad as so-in-so” is the typical attitude of the stubborn sinner. Owen reminds his readers that all sin is equally as destructive even if it does not appear outwardly to be so. In fact, God desires the inward heart to be pure not just the outward appearance. Likewise, the danger of sin is it leads to a hardening of the heart against both the sin and the grace given for that sin. “Is it not enough to make any heart to tremble, to thin of being brought into that state wherein slight thoughts of sin, slight thoughts of grace, of mercy, of the blood of Christ, of the law, heaven and hell, should come all in at the same season?” (102) The danger of sin is not just the consequences of the sin, but also the lack of care for the consequences.
Owen dedicates a whole chapter for each of these first two directions as they serve as the foundation for the next chapter which summarizes several together. Each direction leads the reader further into specific circumstances of the sin until number seven which directs the reader to “rise mightily against the first actings of thy distemper.” (118) Sin will not stay in the confines of a personal boundary, therefore the Christian must begin at the first step toward sin and mortify the sin there. Once the starting point for mortification has been identified, Owen then provides the tool for mortification which is a meditation with self-abasement on the glory and majesty of God. The Christian does not need a distraction from the sin, he needs the cure for that sin which is Christ Jesus. Reflecting on the glory of God brings about a desire for more knowledge and experience with God. God’s grace will then abound in the person and remove the sin that destroys the soul.
The last chapter outlines the final direction which is also a summary of his initial argument. If the believer sets out to mortify sin, then he must walk in the Spirit which is the lifestyle of meditation and experiencing the grace of God through fellowship with the Holy Spirit. The Sunday School lessons from childhood do not change regardless the age of the Christian. Prayer, Scripture reading and a daily desire to mortify sin and grow the fruit of the Spirit will shape the believer into God’s original design.
Hopefully, the previous summary helps illuminate a strength and weakness of Owen’s The Mortification of Sin. The strength is the simplicity of Owen’s teaching. The Puritan Giant does not provide a new and complex task. It is the same task described within the New Testament that has been passed down through church history. This task can be found in any Christ honoring local congregation. However, the depth that Owen describes and directs this task may overshadow its simplicity. Likewise the Latinized English J. I. Packer warns of in his introduction can make the childhood Sunday School lesson feel like an upper level seminary course. As stated above, the diligent student will find a treasure after the trial, though the truth Owen gives could be found elsewhere, possibly in an easier to digest form. Readers must decide if the task of sitting at Owen’s feet is worth the treasure of becoming a better student of Scripture and church history.
Additionally, the last three and a half centuries since its initial publication has built a contextual bridge modern readers will need to cross in order to fully grasp Owen’s little book. Not only does 17th century grammar and style abound, but also presuppositions concerning spiritual disciplines have changed. For example, many Christians today see the local church as a means of spiritual growth and a place for like-minded spiritual pursuits. Owen puts no worth in these means of grace found in fellowship with a local body. In contrast, Owen warns against believers looking toward one another for help in mortification lest they fall into the trap of comparing one another’s sin or simply hide internal sin by changing outward habits. The mortification of sin is an individual need that calls for individual effort prompted and empowered by the Holy Spirit.
Though John Owen may be dated in terms of style, his message still resounds to today’s Christians, and any who would take on the task of digesting his elephantine writing will be stronger for it, both spiritually and academically. Although the average Sunday School class may feel apprehensive using the old classics, they would be better for it, especially a work such as The Mortification of Sin. John Owen’s classic would serve very well for Christian schools and colleges who wish to expose their students to the classics, as well as providing devotional readings to facilitate spiritual growth.
Justin Powell is a PhD student at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Buy the books
The Mortification of Sin: Dealing with Sin in Your Life