By Andrew Davis, Senior Pastor
I love to read the Puritans, and few books have had a more practical effect on my Christian life than John Owen’s little book, On the Mortification of Sin in Believers. That doesn’t mean that Owen is easy to read—he’s not. But his rich thought on the importance of Christians battling with their sin is worth the work it takes to understand his style.
We’re commanded in Scripture to holiness. “You shall be holy, for I am holy” (1 Pet 1:16; Lev 11:44, 19:2). It should be our desire as Christians to grow in holiness, and for this reason, there are few battles more bitterly fought than the battle with indwelling sin. It is absolutely essential to our Christian joy and fruitfulness that we be about putting sin to death; and even more significantly, it is absolutely essential for us to put sin to death if we are going to glorify God in this life.
So, back to Owen. When I preached on Colossians 3:5–9 in 2007, I gave a list of twelve practical insights on the mortification of sin from Owen, and I have found that list to be helpful in my own life and the lives of others in our church body. Below is that list with a few brief comments:
1. Believe in Christ and repent of your sins. The fight against sin is a fight for Christians. Non-Christians can’t fight this battle, and trying to do so might cause one to misunderstand salvation—that salvation can someone be earned by works.
2. Determine to fight this vicious battle daily. Owen: “There is not a day but sin foils or is foiled, prevails or is prevailed upon; and it will be whilst we live in the world.”
3. Rely on the Holy Spirit, not your own ability or strength. It’s clear according to Romans 8:13 that it is only “by the Spirit” that we can put sin to death. The Spirit equips us for this battle, leads us to the battle, and empowers us to kill sin at the moment of temptation.
4. Be cross-centered. The cross has power to make the world look as spiritually dead as it really is. Sin cannot be killed all at one; rather it is crucified and bleeds to death over the remainder of your life. Fertile meditation on Christ’s blood shed on the cross has permanent sin-killing power.
5. Understand what mortification is—and what it’s not. It is a habitual weakening of sin’s root, as how a victim dies on the cross—gradually, slowly losing power. It is a constant fighting against all indwelling sin with no rest—both offensive and defensive. Offensive by doing what most frustrates sin; defensive by preparing for sin’s sudden lunges at us. It is not to kill a particular sin completely, for that is impossible in this life. It is not to allow sin to conceal itself and then reappear in a different guise.
6. Resolve to fight sin on all fronts. Learn to hate sin—all sin, any sin, sin itself—as the vile virus of evil that it is. Learn to see sin in the light of the glory of God and what an affront it is to him.
7. Study the lusts that are attacking you: Learn to discern particularly dangerous lusts or sin habits that trouble you. Study how those sin habits gain control over you when they do, then ask God for help in doing battle.
8. Labor on your heart. Increase a sense of the shame you will feel on judgment day in giving Christ an account. Increase a sense of the vileness of sin and of its sheer ugliness. See it in light of eternity. Get a constant longing and breathing after freedom from this sin.
9. Crush sin early in the battle. Fight hard against the first risings of temptation in your heart.
10. Deal thoroughly with sin in confession and repentance. When the Spirit convicts you of sin, do you feel the pain and deal with the cause, or do you block it with painkillers? Don’t be too quick in confession. Pause and hear the Spirit speaking his grief into your spiritual ears.
11. Be filled with the Spirit and all of his graces. The Spirit fights sin mostly by making righteousness and holiness so beautifully attractive. The fruit of the Spirit flow from a heart filled with the Spirit. Be filled with the Spirit and sin will appear more and more repulsive to you.
12. Be optimistic in Christ: Owen: “Christ’s blood is the great sovereign remedy for sin-sick souls. Live in this and you will die a conqueror; yes, you will, through the good providence of God, live to see your lust dead at your feet!”