A Summary-Review by Jenny-Lyn de Klerk
John Owen is often known as the author of The Mortification of Sin. This written masterpiece (originally spoken sermons) puts the common characteristics of Puritan devotion on display: the primacy of God’s Word, the centrality of Christ, and the necessity of the Holy Spirit for communing with God on a practical and personal level, which is the sum of life’s purpose and joy. Owen exposits Romans 8:13, sets forth three foundational principles of mortification, poses the main question he seeks to answer in this book (how can a believer mortify indwelling sin?), summarizes mortification in three parts, explains two general rules of mortification, and breaks these down into nine particular directions of preparatory work and the general direction of mortification (faith in Christ). Overall, this book has the strengths of 1) a Scriptural foundation, 2) Christ-centeredness, 3) theological accuracy, 4) a pastoral tone, 5) persuasive arguments, and 6) a balance between the mystical and practical. However, since Owen’s writing style can be convoluted, it will be more realistic for some to read the abridged version.
This edition is prefaced by evangelical theologian, J. I. Packer. Many know Packer as one whose personal experience with a Keswick view of sanctification caused him to despair of his inability to reach the “higher life,” which led to his eventual repudiation of this perspective in favour of a Reformed view. However, not many know that it was Owen’s Mortification that brought about this change. Thus, Packer’s preface is not only informative (explaining Owen’s life and this book) but also intimate. Packer’s scathing critique of his earlier pietistic view (calling it as elitist, vague, unattainable, ineffective, based on incorrect biblical interpretation, and a cancer to his soul) alerts the reader to the serious dangers of such a theology, and his reflection on how Owen brought him to a Reformed perspective shows the beauty of this alternative view (calling it undiscriminatory, insightful, realistic, effective, based on correct biblical interpretation, and the chemo that cured his soul cancer).
In chapter one, Owen explains each part of Romans 8:13: the duty, persons, cause, promise, and condition. The duty is mortification and the persons to perform this duty are believers. The efficient cause is the Holy Spirit, who is Christ’s Spirit, the Spirit of God who indwells, quickens, and intercedes for believers. The body in this passage is the flesh, or the corrupted part of human nature. The deeds of the body are what the flesh wants to do. To kill the body that wants to perform these deeds is to take away its strength so that it cannot perform such deeds. The promise is life—not only eternal life, but comfort and vigour in this life, which are the main motives for mortification. The condition is “if you mortify, you will live” not in a formal cause and effect way, but in a means and end way since God ordained it as a means of grace. Owen uses this passage to construct the thesis of his book: “the choicest believers, who are assuredly freed from the condemning power of sin, ought yet to make it their business, all their days, to mortify the indwelling power of sin” (p. 21).
In chapters two to four, Owen explains the three principles of mortification. The first principle (chapter two) is that mortification is a necessary daily work for all believers because of indwelling sin. Since sin always abides in our hearts, it is necessary to constantly mortify it. Sin not only abides, but also acts on our hearts to bring us into sin. If we leave sin alone, it will only get worse. Every lust aims at the worst sin of its kind. Because it does not stop but gradually grows, it can become difficult to detect (i.e., it deceives), so it is most effective to cut it off at its root right away.
The second principle (chapter three) is that the Spirit is the only means of mortification. His work is necessary and sufficient. The Roman Catholic Church has perverted this principle by using means that are not appointed by God (i.e., rough garments, vows, penance, and aspects of the monastic lifestyle), and not using means that are appointed by God (i.e., fasting, watching, and meditating). They try to mortify the natural man, which is the dead man. They ignore the Spirit, who is the only one who can help us do the work of mortification because it “is a work that requires so many concurrent actings in it, as no self-endeavour can reach unto; and is of such a kind that an almighty energy is necessary for its accomplishment” (p. 42). The mortification we have is from Christ, whose gifts we receive through the Spirit. The Spirit helps us mortify by making God’s grace abound in our hearts, giving us energy to kill sin, making us look to the cross, and enabling us to share in Jesus’s sufferings and death. The Spirit’s work is connected to our work in that the Spirit works in us and according to how much we are able to be worked in, not apart from or against us. Thus, we are told to do the work and are given the Spirit to do it.
The third principle (chapter four) is that mortification is useful for our peace with God, not absolutely or as an immediate cause, but as a means. Though adoption is the immediate cause of our peace with God, the peace we feel in our daily walk with God (something we all desire) depends on mortification. Every unmortified sin weakens and darkens our souls. It weakens our souls in that it “untunes and unframes the heart itself, by entangling its affections,” thus distracting our emotions and taking over our thoughts (p. 49). It darkens our souls by acting like “a cloud, a thick cloud, that spreads itself over the face of the soul, and intercepts all the beams of God’s love and favour. It takes away all sense of the privilege of our adoption; and if the soul begins to gather up thoughts of consolation, sin quickly scatters them” (p. 50). On the other hand, mortification makes room for the grace of God to grow and flourish in our hearts.
In chapter five, Owen returns to his thesis in the form of a question to be answered: “if a true believer is struggling with indwelling sin, what should he do?” Negatively, mortification is not total destruction, concealment, diversion, or occasional conquests of sin, or the improvement of the natural man. Though the total destruction of sin is our goal, it cannot be accomplished in this life. However, we can still have almost constant success by the power of the Spirit. Mortification is not the outward concealment of sin or outward growth in intellect, but the inward growth of holiness in our heart. It is not the diversion of sin; though people change over time, they just move from struggling with one sin to another. It is not an occasional conquest of sin when we see how bad our sin is or fear that difficult circumstances may be brought about by. . .[To continue reading this summary, please see below....]
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