John Owen on Killing Sin
This morning Josh called on us to embrace personal holiness. It was an excellent sermon; thank you, Josh, for serving us so well with that sermon this morning. If you missed it, I strongly urge you to get the podcast when it becomes available.
In the sermon, Josh quoted from 17th-century Puritan John Owen: “Be killing sin, or it will be killing you.” Owen has written more insightfully on the idea of putting sin to death than perhaps anyone in the history of the church. I thought it might be helpful to add some more quotes by Owen on this topic. (Note: When Owen speaks of “mortification,” he is simply talking about the process of progressively putting sin to death in our lives.) First, a fuller version of the above quote:
(T)he choicest believers, who are assuredly freed from the condemning power of sin, ought yet to make it their business all their days to mortify the indwelling power of sin… Do you mortify? Do you make it your daily work? Be always at it whilst you live; cease not a day from this work; be killing sin or it will be killing you. Your being dead with Christ virtually, your being quickened with him, will not excuse you from this work.”
One of the things I appreciated most when I read Owen on killing sin was the helpful way he pointed out that we as believers have an enemy within—it is called “indwelling sin” (See Romans 7:17-23). It’s the original “resident evil”. Here’s how Owen described it:
This is the folly of some men; they set themselves with all earnestness and diligence against the appearing eruption of lust, but leaving the principle and root untouched, perhaps unsearched out, they make but little or no progress in this work of mortification… This is every man’s ‘knowing the plague of his own heart’ (I Kings 8.38), without which no other work can be done. It is to be feared that very many have little knowledge of the main enemy that they carry about with them in their bosoms.”
Here are some other quotes; I pray that meditating on these will help you in your own battle to slay the enemy within:
“The mortification of indwelling sin remaining in our mortal bodies, that it may not have life and power to bring forth the works or deeds of the flesh, is the constant duty of believers.”
“The vigor and power and comfort of our spiritual life depends on our mortification of deeds of the flesh.”
“Let no man think to kill sin with few, easy, or gentle strokes. He who hath once smitten a serpent, if he follow not on his blow until it be slain, may repent that ever he began the quarrel. And so he who undertakes to deal with sin, and pursues it not constantly to the death.”
“Let no man pretend to fear sin that does not fear temptation also!These two are too closely united to be separated. He does not truly hate the fruit who delights in the root.”
“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.”
“Sin is never less quiet than when it seems to be most quiet, and its waters are for the most part deep when they are still, so ought our contrivances against it to be vigorous at all times and in all conditions, even where there is least suspicion.”
“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. He who finds not opposition from it, and who sets not himself in every particular to its mortification, is at peace with it, not dying to it.”
“Is it not enough to make any heart to tremble, to think of being brought into that estate wherein he should have slight thoughts of sin? Slight thoughts of grace, of mercy, of the blood of Christ, of the law, heaven, and hell, come all in at the same season. Take heed, this is that which your lust is working toward—the hardening of the heart, searing of the conscience, blinding of the mind, stupefying of the affections, and deceiving of the whole soul.”
Owen hits the nail on the head when he describes the most devastating effect of sin:
“[Sin] untunes and unframes the heart itself by entangling its affections. It diverts the heart from the spiritual frame that is required for vigorous communion with God; it lays hold on the affections, rendering its object beloved and desirable, so expelling the love of the Father (I John 2.15. 3.17).”
For those interested in reading more from Owen on mortification, the best place is the edition edited by Taylor and Kapic titled, “Overcoming Sin and Temptation”. Banner of Truth also has “The Mortification of Sin” by Owen. The fullest (and probably most difficult to read) is in Vol. VI of “The Works of John Owen” (also by Banner of Truth). Finally, Kris Lundegaard has put together a modern book on fighting sin which borrows from Owens’ principles. It’s called “The Enemy Within”.
One final quote: Owen, in describing the importance of the gospel in the fight against sin, says,“Live in the light of Christ’s great work, and you will die a conqueror.” Amen.