The Mortification of Sin

Eric Lui shares with us some of the lessons learnt as he reads John Owen's "The Mortification of Sin — Dealing with sin in your life" which centers on Romans 8:13. 

John Owen’s The Mortification of Sin: Dealing with sin in your life centers on Romans 8:13: “For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” In particular, the author focuses on the second part, “but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” He emphasises that: 

  1. “but if” is not a cause and effect, but a coherence of things of one following on to the other, because eternal life is the gift of God through Jesus Christ. 
  1. “you” refers to Christians who are true believers and have the Holy Spirit in them. 
  1. “by the Spirit” clearly tells us that we on our own cannot put to death the deeds of the body, but by the work of the Spirit. 
  1. The duty itself, which is to put to death the deeds of the body. The body refers to the flesh, which is the seat and instrument for lust, corruption and depravity of our fallen nature. The deeds refer not only to the outward action of our corruption and depravity, but also to the inner thoughts and fantasies associated with them. Put to death, or to mortify, is to kill by taking away its strength, vigour and power. So indwelling sin is likened to a living person with his faculties of wisdom, craft, subtlety and strength who must be killed. 
  1. Finally, the promise of life if we perform this duty refers not only to eternal life, but also joy, comfort and vigour in our present. 


the-mortification-of-sin-coverOur duty to mortify indwelling sin.

The author categorically states that “Your being dead with Christ virtually, your being raised with him will not excuse you from this work of mortification.” Christ explains in John 15:2 that the pruning by the Father is the continual work of the Holy Spirit to rid us of residual sin. Sin not only still abides in us, but is always active to bring forth the deeds of the flesh.

“Who can say that he had ever done anything with God or for God that indwelling sin had not a hand in corrupting what he did?” asks John Owen. If sin is so subtle, watchful, strong and always at work in the business of killing our souls, can we be slothful, negligent and foolish to allow our souls to be abandoned to its ruin? It will result in the opposite of what Apostle Paul says in 2 Cor 4:16: “Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day.” If we are not daily employing the Spirit and our new nature to mortify sin, it is to neglect the excellent gifts which God has given us against our greatest enemy. God may justly withhold His hand from giving us more grace. It is also to sin against the goodness, kindness, wisdom, grace and love of God. 

It is therefore our duty to be perfecting holiness in the fear of the Lord (2 Cor 7:1); to be growing in grace every day (1 Pet 2:2; 2 Pet 3:18); and to be renewing our inner man day by day (2 Cor 4:16). 

The Holy Spirit only is sufficient for this work.

Here, John Owen criticises the Roman Catholic Church of ritualism in the ways they mortify sin. They ask their devotees to fast much, to pray much, to keep their hours and times of devotion, and even to lead a monastic life in order to purge their sins. He calls this the means to mortify the natural man as to the natural life that we here lead, but not the means to mortify lust and corruption in our hearts. 

This is also the general mistake of men, ignorant of the gospel, practising self-macerations in order to mortify sin and purify their souls. These men fell upon the natural man instead of the corrupt old man; upon the body wherein we live, instead of the body of death. 

Why is mortification of sin not possible by human means? It is because the nature of the work requires so many concurrent operations in us that only an almighty and sustaining energy outside us can accomplish it. 

How does the Holy Spirit mortify sin?

  1. By causing our hearts to abound in grace, the fruit of which are “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Gal 5:22-23). 
  1. By weakening, destroying and taking the root of sin away. That is why the Holy Spirit is called the “spirit of judgment and burning” in Isa 4:4. He begins by taking away the stony heart with mighty power and follow up with fire to burn up the very root of lust. 
  1. By bringing the cross of Christ into the heart of a sinner by faith, and giving us communion with Christ in His death and fellowship in His sufferings. Mortification of sin is essentially the purpose for the death of Christ. Christ died to destroy the works of the devil, “He gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.” (Tit 2:14) This was His aim and intention, wherein He will not fail.


Warning: When the heart is disquieted by sin, speak no peace to it, until God speaks to it.

The author went on to explain that for us who have the Holy Spirit, it is God who disquiets our hearts to indwelling sin, as He did to the Laodicean church: “I am the Amen, the faithful witness,” (Rev 3:14) and telling them of their sin and wretchedness, which they failed to see. We should not be like them by speaking to our hearts “peace” when there is still unmortified sin in our hearts. The author gives us some helpful rules as to whether God speaks peace to our hearts, or whether we speak peace to ourselves:

  1. We are speaking peace to ourselves if we observe certain sin in us and do not detest it to the greatest degree. We simply look to God for mercy through the blood of Christ to remove this sin, after which we quieten our hearts with confidence that it shall be done. According to the author, “this is but a great and strong whirlwind that the Lord is near, but the Lord is not in the whirlwind.” When we truly look upon Christ whom we have pierced on the cross because of our sin, we should mourn with the greatest detestation of our sin that pierced him, and our hearts be filled with remorse. When God comes home to speak peace in His covenant faithfulness, it should fill our souls with shame for all the ways we have been alienated from Him. 
  1. We may have a conviction of sin, but instead of appealing to the Holy Spirit, we search for God’s promises in the Scriptures and find one that is suitable to apply to our condition of sin. It is like finding a plaster that is long and broad enough to cover our sin. So, we bring the word of the promise to our condition, and sets ourselves down in peace. It may go well for a short while, but the sin will erupt again and we will start to do the same searching for an appropriate promise. It is one way of leading us to backslide in our faith. 
  1. We speak peace to our hearts if we do not “mix the promise of Christ for the healing with faith” (Heb 4:2). Either we do not fully trust the efficacy of His promise, or we do not wait upon the Holy Spirit to finish His work and declare peace to our hearts too hastily. 
  1. Another possibility is that we may have identified one particular sin in our heart that causes disquiet but neglect to notice another that is still lurking there. We ask the Holy Spirit to eradicate the first sin and thought that is enough and speak peace to our heart. But we speak peace too soon, without a thorough searching of our hearts. 
  1. Finally, when we speak peace to ourselves, it is seldom that God speaks humiliation to our souls. God’s peace is humbling peace, melting peace, as was the case of David, expressed in his psalm of contrition (Ps 51). 

I strongly encourage you to pick up this book which has an introduction by JI Packer. I hope it will help you better understand Romans 8 which some of us are currently studying in our caregroups.


"Let, then, your soul by faith be exercised with such thoughts and apprehensions as these: 'I am a poor, weak creature; unstable as water, I cannot excel. This corruption is too hard for me, and is at the very door of ruining my soul; and what to do I know not. My soul is become as parched ground, and an habitation of dragons. I have made promises and broken them; vows and engagements have been as a thing of nought. Many persuasions have I had that I had got the victory and should be delivered, but I am deceived; so that I plainly see, that without some eminent succour and assistance, I am lost, and shall be prevailed on to an utter relinquishment of God. But yet, though this be my state and condition, let the hands that hang down be lifted up, and the feeble knees be strengthened. Behold, the Lord Christ, that has all fullness of grace in his heart, all fullness of power in his hand, he is able to slay all these his enemies (Jn 1:16). There is sufficient provision in him for my relief and assistance. He can take my drooping, dying soul and make me more than a conqueror (Rom 8:38).'"

John Owen, The Mortification of Sin