Earlier this fall, Tim Challies went through John Owen’s Mortification of Sin, one of three works collected together in Overcoming Sin & Temptation recently updated and published by Crossway. If you missed out, here’s his list of posts:
Owen says that Christians—the choicest Christians—hate sin and pursue it to its death. Could there be a conclusion that is farther from the world around us? The world, the flesh, and the devil tell us to pursue our sin, to enjoy our sin, to go deeper and deeper into our sin, to identify ourselves by our sin, to become our sin. God’s Word tells us to identify our sin, to hate our sin, to destroy our sin. And by God’s grace we can do that very thing. He can give us a revulsion toward our sin, and then empower us to kill it. Praise God!
Here is Owen’s thesis for the chapter: “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 [“kill” or “put to death”] the indwelling power of sin.” In other words, Christians battle sin and put it to death. They battle sin every day until the day they die. They never stop. They never let up.
Owen’s purpose in this chapter is both simple and clear: He wants his reader to know that sin is put to death only by the power of the Holy Spirit. There may be other ways we suppress sinful behavior, but true mortification always depends upon the Holy Spirit.
In chapter four of his book, Owen wants the reader to think about this: A God-honoring life is one in which we constantly wage war against sin. He says it like this: “The life, vigor and comfort of our spiritual life depend much upon our mortification of sin.” I take life to be the existence of spiritual life, vigor to be the extent of it, and comfort to be the Holy Spirit’s assurance of its existence. All of these are imperiled by the existence of sin. He will give six consequences of sin in our lives, but first he has a couple of foundational points to make.
The heart is deceitful and desperately wicked. One of the ways such deceit manifests itself is through convincing us that we have battled a sin and put that sin to death when really we have done nothing of the sort. John Owen is a steady guide in the battle against sin, and in chapter 5 of his great work Overcoming Sin and Temptation he deals with misconceptions about what it means to put sin to death.
Owen says that putting sin to death consists of “a habitual weakening of sin,” and I take this to mean that over time and through our habits we chip away at our sin bit-by-bit and day-by-day. Rather than expecting sin to be destroyed in a moment, we expect that it will take time and focused effort. In this way putting sin to death is relative to our maturity as Christians and to the amount of time we have dedicated to battling a particular sin.
So often I see Christians acting surprised that their non-Christian friends or family members are acting like non-Christians. John Owen addresses this in his great work Overcoming Sin and Temptation. The book deals with the subject of mortification, of putting sin to death, and Owen dedicates one chapter to explaining why only Christians can behave like Christians.
It is an experience every Christian knows. You become aware of a sin and come to fear and hate it. You focus all kinds of attention on that sin and on putting it to death. You ask friends to pray for you, and you cry out to God for deliverance. Well and good, right? Well, not necessarily. John Owen has something to say to you: You will not be delivered from this sin until you pursue a much deeper and wider obedience.
In chapter 9 of his work Overcoming Sin and Temptation, John Owen wants you to think about that besetting sin in your life to consider if it is an “ordinary” sin, or if it is one that is particularly deadly and that, therefore, requires something more than the usual pattern of putting sin to death. The deadliness of a sin is not related so much to the category of that sin, but to how deeply-rooted it is in your life, and to how you have responded to God as he has revealed it to you.
Sin promises so much but delivers so little. Sin always amplifies its benefits and minimizes its cost. Sin always aims at the uttermost, always nudging toward utter death and destruction. And yet we love our sin, and secretly harbor it, and grieve to turn aside from it.
John Owen has a challenge for you. Before that next big sin you are pondering, he wants you to simply consider three things.
All throughout the New Testament we are told to put our sin to death. For example, in Colossians 3 Paul says, “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.” How do you do that? How do you stop a sin, and how do you stop an especially stubborn and deep-rooted sin? Is there any hope? I want to track with John Owen here (via his great work Overcoming Sin and Temptation) and give a list of 9 things you need to do to overcome sin. Consider that sin that is prevalent in your life and then consider each of these 9 steps.
I would pay good money to watch a debate between John Owen and Joel Osteen. Wouldn’t you? I have read John Owen’s Overcoming Sin and Temptation many times now, and have benefited with every reading. It just never gets old and it just never stops sounding so counter-cultural, countering both the wider culture and even the going Christian culture.
This week I read a chapter that teaches the value of self-examination and self-abasement. I was immediately struck by the difference between the heart of Owen’s understanding of the Christian life and what passes for Christian living today. I don’t mean to pick on an easy target, but it makes a fascinating contrast to compare Owen’s books with, say, Joel Osteen’s. I am not exaggerating when I say that they really are polar opposites in just about every way. Though both pass as Christian books, they could hardly be more different.
We all long for peace. We all want to be at peace with God and men. The problem is that we usually want that peace to be on our terms. So we strive against men and battle against God until we feel that we have achieved what feels to us like peace.
John Owen knows this temptation and in his great book Overcoming Sin and Temptation he includes an entire chapter on the theme. He gives his reader this charge: “Do not speak peace to yourself before God speaks it, but hearken to what God says to your soul.”
Putting sin to death is at once so simple and so excruciatingly difficult. The theory of it is simple enough, but the practice takes a lifetime. It is fascinating to me that in John Owen’s Overcoming Sin and Temptation he dedicates thirteen chapters to the preparatory work of putting sin to death, but just one chapter to the actual practice of it. That fact alone is worth pondering.
As he comes to that one chapter, Owen has only two broad instructions: Put your faith in Christ, and rely on the power of the Holy Spirit.
A resource that will prove helpful if you’d like to apply some of the wisdom from Owen’s work to your life is this Battle Plan chart.