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A Book Review of "The Mortification of Sin" by John Owen

In his classic work, The Mortification of Sin, John Owen articulates nine means by which the believer mortifies sin. Owen’s work is a buttress that stands in stark contrast to currents of self-deception and antinomian thought. Behind this classic is a desires to see “mortification and universal holiness . . . be promoted” that the gospel “may be adorned in all things” (7).


Owen begins this work by laying Romans 8:13 as his foundation: “If ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body ye shall life.” He extracts five key components from this verse: (1) a duty (to “mortify”) that is (2) prescribed to a person (“ye”) that (3) contains a promise (“shall live”) that is (4) brought about by a cause (the Holy Spirit) that is (5) conditional (“if”; 8-9). Building on this foundation, Owen contends that believers who are free from the condemning power of sin will mortify the indwelling power of sin (14). The Holy Spirit is the only person sufficient to accomplish this work (23). The Spirit “works in us and with us, not against us or without us” (28). Whether one finds the Christian life a duty or a delight largely depends on the mortification of sin (29). Unmortified sin weakens the soul by depriving it of its life and darkens the soul by depriving it of its comfort and peace (30). Owen gives practical cases on the mortification of sin. He defines the mortification of sin in three general ways: (1) a habitual weakening of sin, a (2) constant fighting and contention against sin, and (3), to see the guilt, danger, and destructive wickedness of sin while endeavoring to “give it new wounds, new blows every day” (44). Owen argues that sin must be put to death specifically with the utmost “sincerity and diligence” for three reasons: (1) it grieves the Holy Spirit, (2) it hurts Jesus once again, and (3) it will “take away a man’s usefulness” (46, 55, 74, 75).

Owen outlines nine elements as “preparatory to the work” of mortifying sin (107). First, one must analyze the symptoms to better understand what measures are necessary to kill it (59). Second, one must bring the weightiness of the “guilt, danger, and evil” of this sin into full view. Third, the believer must “load thy conscience with the guilt of it [sin]” by viewing it through the holiness of God’s law and by looking upon “Him whom thou hast pieced” (77-78). Fourth, the Christian must long for the breath of deliverance from this sin. Fifth, understanding one’s temperament in relation (sixth) the circumstances that enflame the proclivity to fall into this sin will help to better define the parameters for avoiding the temptation. Eighth, one must fix their mind on the excellency of God to see “thine own vileness” (86). Ninth, the believer must not speak “peace to thyself before God speaks it” (96). Owen warns that unless one’s peace is “attended with the detestation and abhorrency of that sin which was the wound and caused the disquietment, this is no peace of God’s creating, but of our own purchasing” (99).

While the nine steps above are preparatory, Owen gives two steps for the actual work of mortifying sin within the heart. First, faith in the shed blood of Christ is the “great sovereign remedy for sin-sick souls” (107). Second, one must act on this faith in expectation of power and endeavors for conformity (114).

Owen ends his work by noting that the duty of this entire work is “effected, carried on, and accomplished by the power of the Spirit, in all the parts and degrees” (114). He defines five ways that the Spirit works: (1) He brings sin under conviction in the heart, (2) He reveals the “fulness of Christ for our relief”, (3) He “establishes the heart in expectation of relief from Christ”, (4) He kills sin by bringing the cross into one’s heart, and (5) He will finish the work of sanctification that He began by providing “new supplies and influences of grace”, and (6) by supporting and enabling believers to “look on him whom they have pierced” (Zech 12:10; 115-17).


The Mortification of Sin is an excellent resource for pursuing holiness and the mortification of sin for several reasons. First, Owen gives clarity to the particular work of the Holy Spirit that is so often left vague. The six aforementioned aspects of this work provide a noticeable handle of what the Spirit is speaking to the soul. Recognizing the subtle whisperings of the Spirit allows believers to heed the promptings of God and experience His power.

Second, Owen’s vivid illustrations give a tangibleness to his argument that is particularly persuasive. He warns that “prayer, fasting, meditation, and the like” are “streams” rather than “the fountain” (25). He describes sin as a thick cloud that “spreads itself over the face of the soul, and intercepts all the beams of God’s love and favour” (31). Crucifixion is the graphic metaphor Owen uses to illustrate the three stages of war against sin: (1) the “great violence” of the initial struggle; (2) the faint cries that follow the initial struggle; (3) the “dying pang” that shouts out with its last breath. The law is “a glass to represent sin in its colours” (78). The illustrations that permeate this work bring vibrant color to a weighty subject.

Third, the dangers associated with too small a view of sin are gripping. Owen warns that those who “talk spiritually, and live vainly; mention communion with God, and are every way conformed to the world; boasting of forgiveness of sin, and never forgiving others,” are being hardened in “their hearts in their unregeneracy” (22, emphasis mine). He corrects the dangerous notion that one can be a believer and not be concerned about sin. Likewise, he cautions against presuming upon God’s grace and notes, “In all other things I will walk with God, but in this thin, God be merciful unto me” (62). While such notions are clear on an intellectual, Owen presses deep into the thoughts of the heart to test one’s true spiritual condition.

While Owen’s work is clear, persuasive, and practical, his rebuttal to the soft-pedaling view of sin moves from one ditch to another in two ways. Using guilt as one of the main drivers to the practice of killing sin is questionable when it stands against the plumb line of Scripture. Owen describes sin in the life of a believer as a means of “crucifying him [Jesus] afresh” (75). He promotes “affecting thy conscience with the terror of the Lord in the law, and how righteous it is that every one of thy transgressions should receive a recompense of reward” (77). Admonitions such as these have a hard time squaring with “there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom 8:1).

In a similar manner, the picture of God that Owen gives lacks nuance. Owen quips, “perhaps God will shoot his arrows at thee . . . make thee a terror and an astonishment to thyself and others . . . frighten and scare thee . . . so that thou shalt wish death rather than life, yea, thy soul may choose strangling” (72). While there are notions of God’s mercy and grace that Owen touches on, such statements paint God as a vindictive Father that wants to punish His children rather than one who disciplines them out of a love for their good.

Personal Reflections

While this lack of nuance and heavy weight on guilt would give me serious pause in recommending this book to anyone besides a mature believer, this work is a powerful instrument for one who is desperate to mortify sin. It stands directly against the currents of our day and has been effective in mighty ways throughout the centuries. The Mortification of Sin has brought about specific conviction regarding my own life and ministry in several ways.

First, this work had an effect of my posture towards what I would previously call the “slightest” of sins. Owen asserts “God will justify us from our sins, but he will not justify the least sin in us: ‘He is a God of purer eyes than to behold iniquity’” (104). He warns that an unclean thought has its end “rolling thyself in folly and filth,” while envy aims at “murder and destruction” (84). He also warns that one who is “standing still” will suffer “double blows” and will “undoubtedly be conquered in the issue” (17). The concept of killing sin at its root—rather than its branches—before it breaks out, is another excellent illustration.

Likewise, I appreciated the warnings of trading one sin for another. Owen quips, “A sin is not mortified when it is only diverted . . . He hath changed his master, but is a servant still” (36-37). Much like C. S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters, Owen carefully outlines the danger of one sin dying while another takes its place, while also noting that the Holy Spirit is sufficient for this difficult work.

Third, besides the impact of the illustrations above, the pictures of the glory of God that Owen paints moved me. He writes, “The light of the gospel whereby now God is revealed is glorious; not a star, but the sun in his beauty is risen upon us, and the veil is taken from our faces” (92). This being the case, he comments on Isaiah 35, “He can make the dry, parched ground of my soul to become a pool . . . my thirsty, barren heart as springs of water . . . this heart, so full of abominable lusts and fiery temptations, to be a place for ‘grass’ and fruit to himself” (108). The takeaway here is simple: God is worthy of all worship and glory and honor.

Finally, my biggest takeaway from this book was a better grasp of the work of the Spirit. Owen provides a grid to differentiate the subconscious intimations of my own thoughts and the voice of God’s Spirit. Knowing the difference, I hope to better heed the Spirit’s whisperings as those of God and not my own. In addition, I appreciated Owen’s explanation that believers are free from the condemning power of sin because of the meritorious work of Christ on the cross. This work of Christ also provides believers with the Spirit that convicts me and enables me to mortify the indwelling power of sin within my own heart (10). Owen stresses, “Not to be daily mortifying sin, is to sin against the goodness, kindness, wisdom, grace, and love of God, who hath furnished us with a principle of doing it” (19). I thank God for this provision.


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