The Mortification of Sin is divided into three sections. Part 1 deals with the necessity of mortification, in which Owen stresses the seriousness of the battle. “There is not a day but sin foils or is foiled, prevails or is prevailed on; and it will be so while we live in this world.” In fact, “not to be daily mortifying sin is to sin against the goodness, kindness, wisdom, grace, and love of God, who has furnished us with a principle of doing it.” One cannot think he is growing in the Lord if he is not seeking to kill the sin in his life: “Let not that man think he makes any progress in holiness who walks not over the bellies of his lusts. He who does not kill sin in his way takes no steps toward his journey’s end.” Owen basically says the same thing over and over again in several different ways, which helps the reader fully ingest just how serious the battle with indwelling sin really is.
Another concern Owen has is that mortification be sought only by the power of the Holy Spirit. There are several means appointed by God to assist the believer in mortification, such as “praying, fasting, watching, meditation, and the like. These have their use in the business at hand; but whereas they are all to be looked on as streams, [some] look on them as the fountain.” Legalism—a self-wrought mortification that depends on fleshly effort—is not the answer. (Owen refers to it as “will-worship.”) Instead, Owen wants us to fight sin with what he calls “a vigorous gospel attempt for its mortification.”
Part 2 begins by clarifying what mortification is not, then moves on to explain what mortification is. After describing some applicable principles, Owen takes his time in exploring the dangers of having a hard heart. He does not quickly rush in to speak peace to a soul that is not properly and thoroughly convicted of its sin, for he recognizes that only godly sorrow leads to genuine repentance (see 2 Corinthians 7:10). Mere human remedies cannot conquer sin, and Owen lingers on the despair that is necessary for breaking one’s hardness of heart.
For example, we must (by God’s grace) develop a heart of universal obedience. Seeking to mortify one sin while leaving other sins untouched is self-destructive and dishonoring to God.
“Cleanse yourselves from all pollution of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God” (2 Cor. 7:1). If we will do anything, we must do all things. So, then, it is not only an intense opposition to this or that peculiar lust, but a universal humble frame and temper of heart, with watchfulness over every evil and for the performance of every duty, that is accepted.
This point I found especially poignant. As I read, the Holy Spirit began to reveal to me areas of hardheartedness of which I had become completely unaware. I had wondered why I was struggling to experience genuine sorrow over certain sins and the Lord began showing me where the fallow ground of my heart had been neglected and unplowed.
It is worth noting that there are four chapters on the necessity of mortification (Part 1), nine chapters on the nature of mortification (Part 2), and only one chapter on the means of mortification (Part 3). Owen knows that we are prone to approach sin with a self-sufficient mindset: “what are the steps I need to take in order to overcome this problem?” Overcoming sin and temptation, however, is not a twelve-step program. In fact, the answer to sin is not a program—it is a Person. And only one act leads to victory over sin: an act accomplished by God Himself, namely, the sacrifice of His Son on the cross. The death of sin can only be found in the death of Christ. “Live in this,” says Owen, “and you will die a conqueror.”
Admittedly, John Owen is not always the easiest person to follow. But thanks to Kelly Kapic and Justin Taylor, these three classic works are made much more accessible to the modern reader. (And there is an overview of each of the three books that alone is almost worth the price of the entire volume.) You’ll still have to concentrate hard as you read, but Owen’s material is well worth digging into. After all, when was treasure ever easy to find? Real treasure with real value requires real work to obtain. With the aid of great men like Owen, may we persistently and passionately pursue the mortification of sin—for the glory of God and the well-being of our souls.