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The Theory, the Practice

Reading Classics Together

Putting sin to death is at once so simple and so excruciatingly difficult. The theory of it is simple enough, but the practice takes a lifetime. It is fascinating to me that in John Owen’s Overcoming Sin and Temptation he dedicates thirteen chapters to the preparatory work of putting sin to death, but just one chapter to the actual practice of it. That fact alone is worth pondering.

As he comes to that one chapter, Owen has only two broad instructions: Put your faith in Christ, and rely on the power of the Holy Spirit.

Put Your Faith in Christ

Owen’s first instruction is simple: Set your 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 conquerer; you will, through the good providence of God, live to see your [sin] dead at your feet.”

Owen is not speaking about saving faith here, since at this point he already assumes that. Rather, he is talking about exercising your existing faith to believe that Christ has died not only for your salvation, but also for your sanctification. To practice this kind of faith you need to:

  • Raise up your heart by faith to an expectation of relief from Christ. “Though it may seem somewhat long to you, while you are under your trouble and perplexity, yet it shall surely come in the appointed time of the Lord Jesus; which is the best season.”
  • Consider his mercifulness, tenderness, and kindness, as he is our great High Priest at the right hand of God. “Assuredly he pities you in your distress. … He is able, having suffered and been tempted, to break through all dissuasions to the contrary, to relieve poor and tempted souls.”
  • Consider the faithfulness of him who has made the promise. “He has promised to relieve in such cases, and he will fulfill his word to the utmost.”
  • Act faith particularly upon the death, blood, and cross of Christ. “Mortification of sin is peculiarly from the death of Christ. … Whatever came upon our natures by [Satan’s] first temptation, whatever receives strength in our persons by his daily suggestions, Christ died to destroy it all.”
  • Act faith upon the death of Christ in expectation of power and in endeavors for conformity. “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. Do this daily.”

Rely on the Power of the Holy Spirit

As the section draws to a close, Owen wants the reader to remember all he has already said about the Holy Spirit and how true mortification is only ever carried out by the power of the Spirit.

  • The Spirit alone clearly and fully convinces the heart of the evil and guilt and danger of the sin to be put to death. “Without this conviction, or while it is so faint that the heart can wrestle with it or digest it, there will be no thorough work made.”
  • The Spirit alone reveals unto us the fullness of Christ for our relief. “[This] is the consideration that stays the heart from false ways and from despairing despondency.”
  • The Spirit alone establishes the heart in expectation of relief from Christ.
  • The Spirit alone brings the cross of Christ into our hearts with its sin-killing power.
  • The Spirit is the author and finisher of our sanctification.
  • In all the soul’s addresses to God in this condition, it has support from the Spirit.

This makes a fitting conclusion to Owen’s instructions on putting sin to death. With all the instructions made, we have now only to look to Christ, to trust in Christ, and to rely on his Holy Spirit. So simple. Yet it is the Christian’s lifetime work.

Reading Classics Together

Thanks to all who read this book with me. It was a joy to read it with you and to read your many, excellent comments and summaries. Do consider reading the other parts of the book, as there is so much more to learn from John Owen. And stay tuned; at some point I’ll suggest another classic we can read together.


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