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John Owen is the great Puritan teacher. Some of his most significant works concern his practical guidance for dealing with sin in the Christian life. I often wondered why his suggestion seemed so powerful compared to many other writings on the subject. I have often wondered if part of it is the context of instructing adolescent boys at Oxford—they often entered at age twelve in those days. The kind of advice he offers provides the kind of sensible approach which can help a young person. The insights, however, are exceptionally relevant to anyone who will take the time to consider them.
The following outline is my own adaptation condensation of Owen’s great treatise on the mortification of the flesh. The full text is worth reading (book) (free online).
Copyright © 1993, 2010
“If you live according to your sinfulness you will die,
but if by the Spirit you kill the deeds of the body you will live.”
The Apostle Paul
THE NATURE OF MURDERING SIN
A. Text expounded.
1. The Spirit is the only source of mortification––“If by 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 self-righteousness, is the soul and substance of all false religion in the world.” “The body” here is taken as synonymous to “flesh” (Paul’s ethical usage) as opposed to Spirit. It refers to the depravity or corruption or sinfulness one possess inherently.
2. The real goal of mortification is to root out the principle of sin. “Though the outward deeds are here only expresses, yet the inward and next causes are chiefly intended; the ‘axe is laid to the root of the tree,’––the deeds of the flesh are to be mortified in their causes, from whence they spring.”
3. The meaning of mortification. “If you put to death” (i.e., mortify, kill)––this is a metaphorical expression meaning putting to death a living thing. Hence, sin is somewhat personified here as in chap. 6 of the same epistle. Sin is utterly mortified at the cross of Christ. Yet in the life of an individual, initial and ultimate victory begin at regeneration when a new principle contrary to our sinfulness is planted in us. The work of mortification is carried on by degrees toward completion during all our days.
B. Mortification is the perpetual duty of the believer.
Since indwelling sin always abides in us
while we are in the world, it is always to be mortified. “When sin lets us
alone we may let sin alone.”
But sin “is like the grave that is never satisfied.”
If sin ever becomes acceptable, that one should fear for his or her soul. “the root of an unmortified course is the digestion of sin without bitterness in the heart. When a man hath confirmed his imagination to such an apprehension of grace and mercy as to be able, without bitterness, to swallow and digest daily sins, that man is at the very brink of turning the grace of God into lasciviousness, and being hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. Neither is there greater evidence of a false and rotten heart in the world than to drive such a trade.”
C. Mortification is only possible by the Spirit.
“Praying, fasting, watching, meditating, etc., are all means which the Holy Spirit uses in the mortification of sin. However, if he is not the source of the means they are hollow gestures. Mortification is a work “that he had to accomplish in us.” His mortification attacks both the root and habit of sin.
D. Mortification of sin is necessary for life and will certainly produce life. Without mortification we will quickly be overtaken like an untended field is overgrown with weeds.
ESSENTIAL COMPONENTS OF MURDERING SIN
A. What mortification is not.
1. To totally kill sin––this is what is aimed at, but cannot be accomplished in this life.
2. Not merely the changing of behavior.
3. Not merely diverting sinfulness, that is, a changing of physiology, etc. “The very alterations in men’s constitutions, occasioned by natural progress in the course of their lives, may produce such changes as these. men in age do not usually persist in the pursuit of youthful lusts, although they have never mortified one of them . . . . He that changes pride for worldliness, sensuality for Pharisaism, vanity in himself to the contempt of others, let him not think that he hath mortified the sin that he seems to have left. He hat changed his master, but is servant still.” We need to become a student of ourselves at each stage of our lives to know when and how we are most susceptible to sinfulness.
4. Not a occasional conquest of sin.
B. What mortification is.
1. A habitual weakening of sin––both in habit and inclination.
2. Constant fighting and contending against sin.
3. Frequent successes against sin.
C. General means of mortification.
1. Must be a believer to mortify even one sin. “There is no death of sin without the death of Christ.” “Be sure to get an interest in Christ; if you intend to mortify any sin without it, it will never be done.”
2. Mortification of sin can only be sustained with sincerity and diligence in a universality of obedience. “Hatred of sin as sin . . . [and] a sense of the love of Christ in the cross, lie at the bottom of all true spiritual mortification.”
PRACTICAL ASPECTS OF MURDERING SIN
A. Consider what dangerous symptoms your lust has attending or accompanying it. Often one is prone to learn to live with a small sin. It seems easy to distance oneself or focus on some other aspect of one’s life. Unfortunately, and unmortified sin will fester and eventually corrupt our walk with God.
B. “Get a clear and abiding sense upon your mind and conscience of the guilt, danger, and evil of the sin by which you are perplexed.”
C. Load your conscience with the guilt of sin. This can first be accomplished generally. Then, particularly realize that this specific sin is being enjoyed and practiced against God personally (cf. Ps. 51:4).
D. Acquire “a constant longing, breathing after deliverance from the power of it.”  “Suffer not thy heart one moment to be contented with thy present frame or condition . . . . Longing, breathing, and panting after deliverance is a grace in itself, that hath a mighty power to conform the soul into the likeness of the thing longed after.” “Assure thyself, unless thou longest for deliverance thou shalt not have it.”
E. Consider whether the distemper with which we are perplexed is not rooted in our nature, and cherished, fermented, and heightened from our constitution.
1. This is not in the least an extenuation of the guilt of thy sin.”
2. “Thousands have been on this account hurried headlong to hell, who otherwise, at least, might have gone at a more gentle, less provoking, less mischievous rate.”
3. “The bringing of the body into subjection in the case insisted on, by cutting short the natural appetite, by fasting, watching, and the like, is doubtless acceptable to God, so it be done with the ensuing limitations:––(1) that the outward weakening and impairing of the body be not looked upon as a thing good in itself, or that any mortification doth consist therein . . . . (2) that the means whereby this is done,––namely, by fasting and watching and the like,––be not looked on as things that in themselves, and by virtue of their own power, can produce true mortification of any sin; for if they would, sin might be mortified without any help from the Spirit in any unregenerate person in the world.”
F. Consider what occasions and what advantages our temperament uses to exert itself, and watch against them all. “Know that he that dares to dally with occasions of sin will dare to sin. He that will venture upon temptations unto wickedness will venture upon wickedness . . . . If he will venture on temptations unto cruelty, he will be cruel.” When we realize that given the opportunity to sin, we will sin, we have little ground left for self-confidence.
G. “Rise mightily against the first actings of our distemper, its first conceptions; suffer it not to get the least ground. Do not say, ‘This far it will go, and no farther.’ If it have allowance for one step, it will take another. It is impossible to fix bounds to sin.” 
H. At all times keep our minds aware of our own sinfulness.
1. “Be much in thoughtfulness of the excellency of the majesty of God and thine infinite, inconceivable distance from him . . . . There is nothing will render thee a greater indisposition to be imposed on by the deceits of sin than such a frame of heart. Think greatly of the greatness of God.”
2. “Think much on thine own unacquaintedness with him . . . yet how little a portion is it that thou knowest of him . . . . What dost thou know of God? How little a portion is it! How immense is he in his nature! Canst thou look without terror into the abyss of eternity? Thou canst not bear the rays of his glorious being.”
“We know so little of God, because it is God who is thus to be known,––that is, he who hath described himself to us very much by this, that we cannot know him. What else doth he intend where he calls himself invisible, incomprehensible, and the like?––that is, he whom we do not, cannot, know as he is.”
Conversely, “The truth is, we all of us know enough of him to love him more than we do, to delight in him and serve him, believe him, obey him, put our trust in him, above all that we have hitherto attained . . . . We must all acknowledge that we were never thoroughly transformed into the image of that knowledge which we have had. And had we used our talents well, we might have trusted with more.”
“The difference between believers and unbelievers as to knowledge is not so much in the matter of their knowledge as in the manner of their knowing. Unbelievers, some of them, may know more and be able to say more of God, his perfections, and his will, than many believers; but they know nothing as they ought, nothing in a right manner, nothing spiritually and savingly, nothing with a holy heavenly light. The excellency of a believer is, not that he hath a large apprehension of things, but that he doth apprehend, which perhaps may be very little, he sees it in the light of the Spirit of God, in a saving, soul-transforming light; and this is that which gives us communion with God, and not prying thought or curious-raised notions.”
I. Relative to guilt for sin, be sure that we do not speak peace to ourselves before God speaks it.
1. “That is the great prerogative and sovereignty of God to give grace to whom he pleases.”
2. How to know the peace is from oneself rather than God.
a. We often speak peace to ourselves without appreciating the gravity of the sin.3. When should we be satisfied with peace for a past sin? When it received from God and perceived by faith.
b. When one bases the peace upon rationalization it will not abide. “This course is commonly taken without waiting.”
c. Often individuals speak peace to themselves when indeed there is none.
THE PRACTICE OF MURDERING SIN IN DIVINE PERSPECTIVE
We are responsible to kill sin, but we lack the ability. Hence, our responsibility is preparation for the work of mortification which is not ours.
A. “Set faith at work on Christ for the killing of our sin.”
1. “How will faith set itself on Christ for this end and purpose?”
a. By faith fill thy soul with a due consideration of that provision which is laid up in Jesus Christ for this end and purpose, that . . . [our sins] may be mortified.”2. Advantages which attend this expectation from Jesus Christ.
b. “Raise up thy heart by faith to an expectation of relief from Christ.”
c. “Consider his mercifulness, tenderness, and kindness, as he is our great High Priest at the right hand of God [Heb. , 18].”
a. It brings full and speedy assistance.3. The nature of our faith in Christ.
b. The individual pursues Christ through meditation, Scripture, and the Lord’s Supper.
a. “Act faith peculiarly upon the death, blood, and cross of Christ; that is, on Christ as crucified and slain. Mortification of sin is peculiarly from the death of Christ . . . . Christ died to destroy it all.”
“We are crucified with him meritoriously, in that he procured the Spirit for us to mortify sin; efficiently, in that from his death virtue comes forth for our crucifying; in the way of a representationexemplar we shall assuredly be crucified unto sin, as he was for our sin . . . . Christ by his death destroying the works of the devil, procuring the Spirit for us, hath so killed sin, as to its reign in believers, that it shall not obtain its end and dominion.”
b. For power and 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 thy heart by faith; apply his blood so shed to thy corruptions: do this daily.”
B. This whole work of mortification is accomplished by the Spirit.
1. “He alone clearly and fully convinces the heart of the evil and guilt and danger of the corruption, lust, or sin to be mortified. Without this conviction, there will be no thorough work made.”
“This is the first thing that the Spirit doth in order to the mortification of any lust whatever,––it convinces the soul of all evil of it, cuts off all its pleas, discovers all its deceits, stops all its evasions, answers its pretences, makes the soul own its abomination, and lie down under the sense of it. Unless this be done all that follows is in vain.”
2. The Spirit alone reveals to us the fullness of Christ for our relief from sinfulness.
3. The Spirit establishes the heart in expectation of relief from Christ.
4. The Spirit alone brings the cross of Christ into our hearts with its sin-killing power; for by the Spirit we are baptized into the death of Christ.
5. The Spirit is the author and finisher of our sanctification. He gives new supplies and influences of grace for holiness, and weakens the contrary principle of sinfulness.
6. In all the soul’s addresses to God for mortification, we have the support of the Spirit.
 Rom. (translation mine).
This outline is adapted from John Owen, “The Mortification of the Flesh,” Works of John Owen, vol. 6: 1-86.
 Ibid., 6: 7.
 Ibid., 6: 8.
 Ibid., .
 Ibid., .
 Ibid., .
 Ibid., .
 Ibid., .
 Ibid., .
 Ibid., .
 Ibid., .
 Ibid., .
 Ibid., .
 Ibid., 6: 60.
 Ibid., 6: 61.
 Ibid., 6: 62.
 Ibid., 6: 63.
 Ibid., 6: 66.
 Ibid., 6: 68.
 Ibid., 6: 69.
 Ibid., 6: 70.
 Ibid., 6: 75.
 Ibid., 6: 79.
 Ibid., 6: 80.
 Ibid., 6: 81.
 Ibid., 6: 83.
 Ibid., 6: 85.
 Ibid., 6: 86.
Copyright © 1993, 2010