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Putting Sin to Death

This is my once-monthly post on the Puritan John Owen. In this series of posts I am sharing some of what John Owen says about putting sin to death, or what he calls mortification. I have been going through John Owen’s book Overcoming Sin and Temptation and trying to distill each chapter to its essence—to a few choice quotes that capture the flavor of what Owen is trying to communicate.

So far we’ve looked at The Foundation of Mortification, we’ve been encouraged to Daily Put Sin to Death, to understand that It Is the Holy Spirit Who Puts Sin to Death and to acknowledge that Your Spiritual Life Depends Upon Killing Sin. Last month we saw What It Is Not to Put Sin to Death. Today we look to the flip-side of last month’s teaching and see what it is to put sin to death.

Here are the three things Owen teaches…

Mortification Consists of a Habitual Weakening of Sin

Though this quote serves as introduction rather than the main point, I thought it was too good not to share:

The reason why a natural man is not always perpetually in the pursuit of some one lust, night and day, is because he has many to serve, every one crying to be satisfied; thence he is carried on with great variety, but still in general he lies toward the satisfaction of self.

Owen is a straight-shooter! He says that the only reason you are not absolutely consumed with any one sin is that you have many other sins to serve. And then he goes on to share the first thing you need to know about putting sin to death.

The first thing in mortification is the weakening of this habit of sin or lust, that it shall not, with that violence, earnestness, frequency, rise up, conceive, tumultuate, provoke, entice, disquiet as naturally as it is apt to do.

The first thing to observe as you begin to put sin to death is that sin becomes progressively weaker so that over time it does not rise up with the same violence, frequency or force. This means that success against sin is not only in destroying it entirely, but in weakening its grasp on us.

Owen goes on to draw an amazing parallel between the cruficixion of a man and the mortification of a sin:

As a man nailed to the cross he first struggles and strives and cries out with great strength and might, but, as his blood and spirits waste, his strivings are faint and seldom, his cries low and hoarse, scarce to be heard; when a man first sets on a lust or distemper, to deal with it, it struggles with great violence to break loose; it cries with earnestness and impatience to be satisfied and relieved; but when by mortification the blood and spirits of it are let out, it moves seldom and faintly, cries sparingly, and is scarce heard in the heart; it may have sometimes a dying pang, that makes an appearance of great vigor and strength, but it is quickly over, especially if it be kept from considerable success.

Mortification Consists in Constant Fighting and Contending Against Sin

Putting sin to death requires constantly fighting and contending against it. It is not a one-time pursuit but a life-long battle. 

When sin is strong and vigorous, the soul is scarce able to make any head against it; it sighs, and groans, and mourns, and is troubled, as David speaks of himself, but seldom has sin in the pursuit.

Owen goes on to show that to fight against sin you need to know that…

  • … a man has such an enemy to deal with it, to take notice of it, to consider it as an enemy indeed, and one that is to be destroyed by all means possible.
  • … to labor to be acquainted with the ways, wiles, methods, advantages, and occasions of its success is the beginning of this warfare.
  • … to load it daily with all the things which shall after be mentioned, that are grevious, killing, and destructive to it is the height of this contest.

In that final bullet point he hints at what he will soon teach—the long-awaited method of actually putting sin to death. For now, though, he offers only this teaser, saying that putting sin to death will require daily discipline. In the second bullet point he says that we need to know our sin, to understand how any particular sin tends to manifest itself in our lives and what occasions tend to bring it about. And in the first point he tells us that in order to fight against sin we must understand and acknowledge that sin is a great enemy and one that needs to be dealt with. In other words, admit your sin, know your sin, and then do battle with it.

Mortification Consists in Frequent Success

He closes with a note of encouragement:

Frequent success against any lust is another part and evidence of mortification. By success I understand not a mere disappointment of sin, that it be not brought forth nor accomplished, but a victory over it and pursuit of it to a complete conquest. For instance, when the heart finds sin at any time at work, seducing, forming imaginations to make provision for the flesh, to fulfill the lusts thereof, it instantly apprehends sin and brings it to the law of God and love of Christ, condemns it, follows it with execution to the uttermost.

He has already told us to understand that we will never completely and absolutely eradicate any one sin in this lifetime. We aim at the utter destruction of sin and genuinely expect to see particular sins weakened and nearly destroyed. Yet we know that the final destruction of sin will come only when we die or when the Lord returns. In the meantime we battle against sin, seeing frequent success and glorifying God for victory in every battle.

Don’t miss that as we discover sin in our lives, we need to “bring it to the law of God and love of Christ.” Here is the law as the revealer of sin and the love of Christ, the gospel, as God’s power of forgiveness. Owen was gospel-centered long before it was cool to be!