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The Foundation of Mortification

Don’t run away from this blog post just because I’m quoting a Puritan. Yes, Puritans are scary with all their big words and frilly collars, but some of them had remarkable insights into God’s Word and into human hearts. Read on to see an example of that. I am confident that it will be a blessing to you.

Here is the context: Once a month our church has what we call Adult Fellowship. This is a time where we gather as adults and look at a particular topic, working toward application. Over the course of this year we’ll be looking at sanctified sins—sins that we commit but tend to give a pass to. We allow them to be respectable sins. As we do this, I’m offering a brief overview of John Owen’s Overcoming Sin and Temptation. What I am trying to do is take one chapter per month and distill it to its essence, while still allowing Owen to speak in his own words.

I’ve now summarized the first two chapters and, in doing so, have been reminded of just how powerful Owen’s book is. Let me share with you the essence of the first chapter which is titled “The Foundation of Mortification.” Mortification, of course, refers simply to killing or destroying or putting to death. When we mortify a sin, we put it to death by the power of the Holy Spirit. As this is only an opening chapter, it touches just briefly on subjects that will be dealt with in more detail a little bit later on.

Owen bases this chapter on Romans 8:13: “For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death [mortify] the deeds of the body, you will live.” He shows that this verse describes a condition, a means, a duty and a promise.

The Condition

“There is a certain infallible connection and coherence between true mortification and eternal life: if you use this means, you shall obtain that end; if you do mortify, you shall live.”

The People“The persons to whom this duty is prescribed … is you believers; you to whom ‘there is no condemnation’ (v. 1).”

“The 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.”

The Means

“The principle efficient cause of the performance of this duty is the Spirit … All other ways of mortification are vain, all helps leave us helpless; it must be done by the Spirit. … Mortification from a self-strength, carried on by ways of self-invention, unto the end of a self-righteousness, is the soul and substance of all false religion in the world.”

The Duty

The body. “The body … is taken for that corruption and depravity of our natures whereof the body, in a great part, is the seat and instrument … It is indwelling sin, the corrupted flesh or lust, that is intended.”

The deeds of the body. “The deeds of the flesh are to be mortified in their causes, from whence they spring. The apostle calls them deeds, as that which every lust tends unto; though they do but conceive and prove abortive, they aim to bring forth a perfect sin.”

To mortify. “To kill a man, or any other living thing, is to take away the principle of all his strength, vigor, and power, so that he cannot act or exert or put forth any proper actings of his own; so it is in this case. Indwelling sin is compared to a person, a living person, called ‘the old man,’ with his faculties and properties, his wisdom, craft, subtlety, strength; this, says the apostle, must be killed, put to death, mortified—that is, have its power, life, vigor, and strength to produce its effects taken away by the Spirit.”

“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 Promise

“Now, perhaps the word may not only intend eternal life; but also the spiritual life in Christ, which here we have; not as to the essence and being of it, which is already enjoyed by believers, but as to the joy, comfort, and vigor of it. … The promise unto this duty is life: ‘you shall live.’ … The vigor, and power, and comfort of our spiritual life depends on the mortification of the deeds of the flesh.”