“Set faith at work on Christ for the killing of your sin. His blood is the great sovereign remedy for sin-sick souls. Live in this, and you will die a conqueror; yea, you will, through the good providence of God, live to see your lust dead at your feet.”
– John Owen*
The Bible calls Christians to “put to death the deeds of the body” (Romans 8:13, cf. Colossians 3:5). But how do we do this? What does it mean to put sin to death? For Christians who struggle with sexual lust, these questions are of utmost importance.
In my opinion, no one tackles these questions better than the 17th century pastor John Owen, who was one of the most sought pastors of his day and one of the most influential theologians since the Reformation.
Our Goal: Over the next several weeks and months, I will be exploring Owen’s classic work, Of the Mortification of Sin in Believers, offering commentary and explanation, with a view to help those who are struggling with sexual sin.
Why Read Owen?
It is fair to ask whether this project will be worthwhile. After all, Owen’s been dead and gone over 300 years and a lot has changed since then. What could he possibly have to offer modern readers?
C.S. Lewis counseled Christians not to assume the only worthwhile reading can be found in the “New Releases” section of the bookstore. He advised Christians, if you don’t have a lot of time to read, make sure you use the time you do have to read older books, those that have stood the test of time. “It is a good rule,” Lewis writes, “after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones.”
Of the Mortification of Sin in Believers is one of the most celebrated books by John Owen. Author Jerry Bridges names it among “the most helpful writings on personal holiness ever written.” Theologian J.I. Packer said he owes more to this little book than to anything else Owen wrote.
1. Owen writes to make men holy.
Steve Griffiths writes in Redeem the Time, “Owen was a pastor. Of fundamental importance to him was the spiritual growth of those amongst whom he ministered. His primary motivation was the growth in holiness of his flock. Everything else stems from that truth.” Owen was a true pastor-theologian: for him, all theology was practical and had direct implications for how Christians lived.
2. Owen’s writings are not merely for “intellectuals.”
No doubt, Owen is difficult to read. J.I. Packer notes his “lumbering literary gait” and the “clumsy dignity” of his writings. Packer explains that Owen wrote “didactic rhetoric” in the Latinized spoken style (Packer, The Quest for Godliness). Essentially, Owen wrote his works to be read aloud. When the reader does this, it becomes much easier to follow him.
That beings said, reading Owen does require readers to think. Packer explains, “Owen did not write for superficial readers. He wrote, rather, for those who, once they take up a subject, cannot rest till they see to the bottom of it, and who find exhaustiveness not exhausting, but satisfying and refreshing.”
Sinclair Ferguson notes in John Owen on the Christian Life, the material for Mortification was probably first preached, at least in embryo form, not to ivory-tower theologians, but to teenagers. In 1651, five years before he published Mortification, Owen regularly preached to the young students at Oxford. Clearly, the marrow of theology was something Owen believed was not reserved for older church members, but was something meant to be given to the young as well.
3. Owen’s goal is the image of Christ.
Richard Daniels says that if there is one focal point to Owen’s theology, it is this: “in the gospel we behold, by the Christ-given Holy Spirit, the glory of God ‘in the face of Christ’ and are thereby changed into his image” (The Christology of John Owen).
Owen offers his readers the big picture. It isn’t merely the stopping of this sin or that sin Owen is after. Nor is it merely the modification of outward behavior. Owen is uniquely Christ-centric. For him, the whole goal of the Christian life was Christlikeness. The way this happens is by intimately knowing Christ Himself as He is revealed in the gospel.
Join us over the next several months to explore this timeless book.
*Quotations taken from Overcoming Sin and Temptation: Three Class Works by John Owen. This book is an excellent resource for first-time Owen readers. Editors Justin Taylor and Kelly Kapic present three unabridged works by Owen, updating his work for modern readers. Highly recommended.
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