John Owen: On the Mortification of Sin

In our preaching through the book of Colossians, we have come to Colossians 3:5: Put to death, therefore, whatever is earthly in you…” Precious little is written or taught these days on how to put sin to death. But thankfully, our forebears spent some ink on this issue – the most notable work being John Owen’s marvelous treatise On the Mortification of Sin.

Even the most educated scholars find Owen’s writing style dense. J.I. Packer avers that Owen is “heavy and hard to read;” an earlier biographer observed that he “travels through [his subject] with an elephant’s grace.” I pray that some of the more daring Coram Deo attenders will read Owen’s work firsthand, because despite its cumbersome nature, it is some of the finest theological writing in the English language. But for those who don’t wish to do so, I am posting below my summary outline of Owen’s treatise. This outline was organized for preaching, so it is not exactly correlative to Owen’s layout. However, it does preserve the general logical flow of the original. For those who prefer a more thorough and analytical outline, including some of the more memorable quotes from Owen’s pen, you can download my 12-page reading summary in PDF format.

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Why Must We Mortify Sin?

  • Because sin is always active
  • Because unmortified sin weakens and darkens the soul
  • Because unmortified sin hardens others to the gospel

What Does It Mean to Mortify Sin?

  • To mortify sin is not to utterly destroy it. (That’s Jesus’ job, not your job.)
  • To mortify sin is not to forsake the practice of it outwardly. Those who do this are just “more cunning; not … more holy.”
  • To mortify sin is not to have a quiet, sedate nature. “Some men have an advantage by their natural constitution… they are not exposed to unruly passions and tumultuous affections as many others are.” This does not mean they have mortified sin.
  • To mortify sin is not to divert it. “He that trades sensuality for Pharisaism has not mortified sin… He has changed his master, but he is a servant still.”
  • To mortify sin is not to experience “occasional conquests” against it.

Positively, to mortify sin is:

  • A habitual weakening of it.
  • A constant fighting against it.
  • Success. Victory over sin!

How Do We Mortify Sin?

Four General Principles –

  • You must set faith on Christ. (Fill your soul with the consideration of who Jesus is and what he’s done for you)
  • You must rely on the Holy Spirit. “A man may easier see without eyes and speak without a tongue, than mortify a sin without the Spirit.”
  • You must be truly converted.
  • You must intend universal obedience. If you don’t intend to obey God in every area, You don’t hate sin; you hate the particular sin that is bothering you. Which means you don’t love Christ; you love yourself. A particularly strong, besetting sin commonly issues from a careless, negligent spiritual life in general.

Nine Specific Directives –

  1. Get a clear and abiding sense upon your mind of the guilt, danger, and evil of your sin.
  2. Load your conscience with the guilt of your besetting sin.
  3. Long for deliverance from the power of sin. “Longing, breathing, and panting after deliverance is a grace in itself, that has a mighty power to conform the soul into the likeness of the thing longed after… unless you long for deliverance you shall not have it.”
  4. Consider whether you are prone toward a particular sin because of your personality or disposition. This should awaken your zeal. “So great an advantage is given to sin and Satan by your temper and disposition, that without extraordinary watchfulness, care, and diligence, they [sin and Satan] will prevail against your soul.”
  5. Consider what occasions your sin uses to exert itself, and watch against them all.
  6. Fight strongly against the first actings of your lust. “Sin is like water in a channel – once it breaks out, it will have its course.”
  7. Dwell on thoughts that humble you and remind you of your sinfulness.
  8. Know the warning signs of particularly dangerous sin patterns: persistent, habitual sin; secret pleas of the heart to leave sin alone; giving into sin without struggle; ignoring the conviction of the Holy Spirit; avoiding sin because you fear punishment. If a lust has any of these symptoms, it cannot be dealt with by an ordinary course of mortification; it requires extraordinary measures.
  9. Do not speak peace to yourself before God speaks peace to you.

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May these principles be useful and helpful to you in your fight against sin.

BE KILLING SIN, OR IT WILL BE KILLING YOU.

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  1. Bobby T, this is too much for one sermon. Any chance of a John Owen Biography sermon in the near future? We haven’t had one of those bio sermons for a while…

  2. Load your conscience with the guilt of your besetting sin.

    But Jesus freed me from guilt. Why load my conscience down with something that He has paid for in full?

  3. May my focus today not be on “loading my conscience with guilt,” but rather that the Holy Spirit breathe into my heart today all pure and heavenly desires and that the Father’s truth inform and transform my mind.

  4. Heb. 10:22 says,

    “Let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water.”

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