We have come to the final chapter of Of the Mortification of Sin in Believers, the classic work by Puritan author John Owen. This 350-year-old text has been celebrated by countless people as the definitive guide to help Christians overcome the power of sin.
All that Owen has written up to this point has simply been the way the heart prepares to mortify sin. All the previous chapters have instructed the reader how to simply grasp the hilt of the blade; in this final chapter he shares with us how to deliver the mortal blow.
Let’s briefly review some of Owen’s directions. First Owen gave two general principles about mortifying sin:
- Mortifying sin is something only done by believers. “To kill sin is the work of living men; where men are dead (as all unbelievers, the best of them, are dead) sin is alive, and will live.”
- Often we are selective about which sins we hate because of how they disturb our personal lives. But we should not be choosy about which sins we want to slay. We should hate sin because it grieves God, not primarily because it grieves us. Real mortification stems from hating sin as sin, not just because it disquiets and disturbs our own conscience.
Next, Owen offered a number of meditations to humble our hearts and increase our awareness and hatred of sin:
- We should constantly remind ourselves about the guilt, danger, and evil of sin. Meditate on how much God opposes the presence of sin in the hearts of those he has made His own, how much our sin grieves His Spirit and wounds Christ, how God hides his face from unrepentant sinners, how God disciplines His children, how sin can harden our hearts and sear our consciences, and how God warns us about the fires of hell.
- Meditate on the specific laws of God, the love of Christ seen in the cross, and all the wonderful mercies God has shown us in our lives until thoughts of our specific sins make our hearts tremble and mourn in the light of these things.
- Take a long, hard look at our sinful attitudes and actions to see if they have any deadly symptoms. Is your sin deeply rooted or habitual? Do you try to soothe your guilty conscience without dealing with your sin? Do you still delight in tempting thoughts even if you don’t act on your desires? Have you become desensitized to conviction of sin over time? If these symptoms are present, we should be very concerned about the state of our heart.
- Fueled by our growing sense of guilt, we should stir up a constant longing in our hearts to be delivered from the power of sin.
- We ought to meditate often about the greatness, holiness, and majesty of God, and how little we really know of His infinite being. Doing this we put our hearts in a frame unfit for sin to thrive.
- Under this burden of guilt we should refuse to speak peace to ourselves before God does. Instead we choose to wait on God in faith for His humbling, melting peace that is accompanied by a thorough hatred of sin.
Owen also offered us a few practical directions. While these practical things are not mortification in themselves, they reflect attitudes of the heart that are necessary to kill sin.
- Stand guard over any specific occasions, times, persons, or pursuits that give opportunity for temptations to surface and choose not to dabble with those things.
- Oppose even the first signs of enticement and temptations as if they were full-blown wickedness.
- Practice the disciplines of fasting and prayer to bring our natural appetites and temperament under control so as not to give sin a foothold.
Mortifying Sin: Set Your Faith on Christ
“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.”
Owen says the real work of mortification is a work of our faith. Everything said up to this point has been teaching the believer how to prepare and humble his heart for this work of faith. Now Owen tells us the true secret of mortification: it is a supernatural work Christ does in us, and it happens as we firmly trust Christ to do it.
What does Owen mean by this? How do we exercise faith this way?
1. Faith is a work of the Spirit.
Owen returns to an old theme he developed in chapter 3 of his book: the Holy Spirit alone is the sovereign power behind both our preparation and our faith to kill sin. The Spirit alone is the author and finisher of our sanctification. The Spirit alone convinces the heart of the evil and guilt and danger of sin. The Spirit alone reveals to us the fullness of Christ’s power and grace available to transform us. The Spirit alone plants faith and hope in our hearts. “The Spirit alone,” says Owen, “brings the cross of Christ into our hearts with its sin-killing power.”
While it is a work empowered entirely by the Spirit, it is nonetheless something we are commanded to do. Paul writes, “Put to death the deeds of the body,” (Romans 8:13) and, “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you” (Colossians 3:5). Faith is given by God but is something we possess.
2. Faith is the active expectation of relief from Christ.
Owen identified this mortifying faith as “a settled expectation” that Christ will, at the right time, deliver us from the power of sin and slay our lust. Faith is the eyes of the heart looking to Christ “as the eyes of servants look to the hand of their master” (Psalm 123:2). Though our hearts may be troubled about our sin and though we long to be rid of it, our faith grounds us in the peace of knowing Christ will deliver us.
“Our Lord Jesus has raised our hearts,” writes Owen, “by his kindness, care, and promises, to this expectation.” Certainly this disposition of expectation and trust is the very thing we are called to do, the very thing that engages Christ to come to our aid. The psalmist writes that those who know the character of their God put their trust wholeheartedly in Him, saying, “for you, O Lord, have not forsaken those who seek you” (Psalm 9:10). God has inspired this faith in us for the very purpose of coming to our aid.
Owen argues, this kind of faith is far from passive: it engages God. When a heart has this kind of expectation and hope, it actively looks to the very channels Christ promises to use to supply us with His strength. Someone with mortifying faith goes often to prayer, to meditation, and to the sacrament of communion because he knows these are the regular channels Christ uses to deliver on His promises. And rather than treating these means of grace as the sources of strength, he sees through these means to the One his faith truly rests in.
3. Faith comes as we consider the strength Christ promises to kill sin.
Though the prodigal son was weary from hunger, he was sustained in his journey home because he believed there was enough food in his father’s house (Luke 15:17). So we are promised over and over again in Scripture about the provisions God has to attack the root of sin in us.
- “I can do all things”—even mortify my most pressing sins—“through him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13).
- To those who are weary from fighting sin God “gives power to the faint, and to him who has no might he increases strength.” Those who “wait for the Lord” are promised renewed strength: “They shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint” (Isaiah 40:29-31).
- In Christ “the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority” (Colossians 2:9-10).
- Jesus promised we would bear “much fruit” if we would abide in Him (John 15:5) as a branch abides in the vine. Our connection to Christ as the vine is because we “stand fast through faith” (Romans 11:20).
Knowing the strength and grace available from Christ and the promise of provision, we anchor our faith firmly in Him, knowing He will act. Owen gives an example of how we can pray in this confident faith:
I am a poor, weak, creature; unstable as water, I cannot excel. This corruption is too hard for me, and is at the very door of ruining my soul; and what to do I know not. My soul is becomes as parched ground, and a habitation of dragons. I have made promises and broken them; vows and engagements have been as a thing of naught. Many persuasions have I had that I had got the victory and should be delivered, but I am deceived; so that I plainly see, that without some eminent succor and assistance, I am lost, and shall be prevailed on to an utter relinquishment of God. But yet, though this be my state and condition, let the hands that hang down be lifted up, and the feeble knees be strengthened. Behold, the Lord Jesus Christ, that has all fullness of grace in his heart, all fullness of power in his hand, he is able to slay all these his enemies. There is sufficient provision in him for my relief and assistance. He can take my drooping, dying soul and make me more than a conqueror.
“Why do you say, O my soul, My way is hid from the Lord, and my judgment is passed over from my God? Have you not known, have you not heard, that the everlasting God, the Lord, the Creator of the ends of the earth, faints not, neither is weary? There is no searching of his understanding. He gives power to the faint; and to them that have no might he increases strength. Even the youths shall faint and be weary, and the young men shall utterly fall: but they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; they shall walk, and not faint” (Isa. 40:27-31).
He can make the “dry, parched ground of my soul to become a pool, and my thirsty, barren heart as springs of water”; yea, he can make this “habitation of dragons,” this heart, so full of abominable lusts and fiery temptations, to be a place for “grass” and fruit to himself (Isa. 35:7).
4. Faith comes as we consider God’s faithfulness.
When God gave us His New Covenant promises (Jeremiah 31:31-34), He said these promises are to Him like the fixed order of the sun, moon, stars, and churning oceans (v.35-36). Just as sure as we can trust in the rising of the sun, the phases of the moon, the motions of the stars, and the rising and falling of tides, so we can trust in God’s faithfulness. David said his soul waited for the Lord, “more than watchmen for the morning” (Psalm 130:6), because he knew God was as faithful as the rising sun.
“So will be your relief from Christ,” writes Owen. “It will come in its season, as dew and rain upon parched ground; for faithful is he who has promised.” We are to “furnish” our soul with His promises, encouraged by our belief in God’s ruthless loyalty.
5. Faith comes as we consider Christ as our tender and merciful High Priest.
In his incarnation Christ was made like us in every respect, “so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God.” Christ knows what it is like to be tempted, so “he is able to help those who are being tempted” (Hebrews 2:17-18). As a man He is able “to sympathize with our weaknesses” because he was tempted in every way we were but without sin (Hebrews 4:15). Christ is full of tender sympathy for the tempted and tried.
Owen points his readers to the promise stemming from this gospel truth: “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:16). It is the “time of need” that should catch our attention. When someone feels as if they are drowning in sin, when someone is longing for deliverance from a real and present temptation, they do not just want a general promise of grace, but a promise of timely grace. They want to know grace is available to them when it counts the most, when they feel as if they are hanging by the thread.
This is exactly what our merciful high priest promises us: timely grace when we draw near to Him with “confidence”—the expectation of relief.
6. Faith should be in the crucified Christ.
In chapter 3 of his book, Owen said one of the primary ways the Holy Spirit mortifies sin in us is by bringing the cross of Christ into the heart of a sinner by faith, giving us communion with Christ in his death. In this final chapter Owen explains what he means by this.
One of the primary purposes for the Father sending His Son to the cross was so that we might be transformed. It was one of the primary reasons for His death.
- Christ “gave himself for us” on the cross with the intention “to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works” (Titus 2:14).
- Christ loved the church as His bride “and gave himself up for her” on the cross in order “that he might sanctify her…that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Ephesians 5:25-27).
- The author of Hebrews tells us the blood of Christ will “purify our conscience from dead works” so we can serve the living God (Hebrews 9:14).
The death of Christ was not merely designed to grant us forgiveness, but also to purify our hearts and make us new. “Hence,” says Owen, “our washing, purging, and cleansing is everywhere ascribed to his blood.”
How does the death of Christ actually accomplish this cleansing in us? Owen turns to Romans 6:1-11:
What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.
For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.
Owen explains from this text how Christ’s death makes us “dead to sin.”
First, His death is the very focus of our faith because it is the grounds for our confidence in Him that we can expect power to slay sin:
- We are crucified with Him meritoriously: We are dead to sin because Christ’s death obtained for us the gift of the Spirit, who slays sin in us. When Christ completed the work He was sent to do, He ascended to the right hand of the Father and received from Him the promised Holy Spirit (Acts 2:33). Christ then poured our the Spirit on His people (Acts 2:1-4). Christ went to the cross knowing His act would purchase for His people the life-transforming, sin-killing Spirit.
- We are crucified with Him efficiently: We are dead to sin because we are united to the risen Christ who is dead to sin. Christ “died to sin” (Romans 6:10) and was resurrected from the grave. Just as Christ enjoys the life of the age to come in His resurrection glory, free from the presence and power of this sinful age, so united to Him we enjoy a taste of that same resurrection life. Though we are not free from the presence of sin (because we still live in the fallen world), we are free from sin’s ruling power.
- We are crucified with Him as our exemplar: We are dead to sin because Christ’s death serves for us an ultimate example. Knowing Christ’s death was total and complete, we know it is in God’s design that death to sin will also be complete. In this way Paul’s only boast was the cross of Christ, “by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Galatians 6:14).
Second, we make the death of Christ the focus of our faith by allowing ourselves to be moved by the drama of the cross itself. Paul wrote, “It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified” (Galatians 3:1). Similarly, Owen writes, “Let faith look on Christ in the gospel as he is set forth dying and crucified for us. Look on him under the weight of our sins, praying, bleeding, dying; bring him in that condition into your heart by faith; apply his blood so shed to your corruptions.”
Questions for Personal or Group Reflection:
1. Throughout this chapter Owen describes faith as “a settled expectation,” a disposition of trust and hope. Do you have this disposition in your battle against sin?
2. Owen says our faith blossoms as we consider (1) Christ’s promises to give us strength, (2) His faithfulness to those promises, and (3) His sympathy as the perfect and compassionate High Priest. In your fight against sin, have you given priority to meditating on these truths?
3. In your own words, explain why the cross should be the crucial focus of our faith.
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