Mortification of Sin – Part 1: John Owen

I have just recently finished John Owen’s Mortification of Sin. The work was not too lengthy, but goodness gracious was it heavy. Next to Jonathan Edwards’ Freedom of the Will, Owen’s Mortification was probably the most difficult read I have ever dug my way through. There is not a centimeter of margin space to spare; my notes are flooded around every paragraph. I highly suggest the book to everyone who can labor towards its application, and I know that I will certainly reread this book over and over again. That being said, I wanted to reproduce some of the most challenging and applicable thoughts of Owen in my own words (as this helps comprehension and maintainability, as well as benefits others).

Before I do so, I would like to note the notoriety and influence of John Owen today. This will possibly stir in you a desire to continue your study of this man’s work, as it did for me. Here are some remarkable references from noteworthy theologians concerning Owen: J. I. Packer calls Owen “the greatest among the Puritan theologians.”[1] Roger Nicole called him the greatest theologian who has ever written in the English language, even greater than Jonathan Edwards. Ambrose Barnes called Owen “the Calvin of England.” Charles Bridges, however, has the most stimulating quote about Owen:

“Indeed upon the whole—for luminous exposition, and powerful defence of Scriptural doctrine—for determined enforcement of practical obligation —for skillful anatomy of the self-deceitfulness of the heart—and for a detailed and wise treatment of the diversified exercises of the Christian’s heart, he stands probably unrivaled.”[2]

There is a reason that this man is still read 300 years after his death. John Owen was inspired by a special grace of God, and we ought to honor God’s gifts wrought in such a man. The Bible gives us this permission, and truly, this mandate: “Remember those who led you, who spoke the word of God to you; and considering the result of their conduct, imitate their faith” (Hebrews 13:7). This is the same call that Paul gives to the believers in Philippi: “Brethren, join in following my example, and observe those who walk according to the pattern you have in us” (Philippians 3:17). John Owen is certainly one who is worthy of our observation and imitation, simply because we can imitate him as he imitated Christ (cf. 1 Corinthians 11:1).

Regarding his writing, it is not an easy read. It is not for those who want an enjoyable read by the swimming pool. First, this is because his works demand labor, and Owen was fully aware of this. Listen to what he says in the Preface of his work The Death of Death: “READER … If thou art, as many in this pretending age, a sign or title gazer, and comest into books as Cato into the theater, to go out again,—thou hast had thy entertainment; farewell!”[3] He was not writing for the simple appeasement of the conscience. He was after elucidating the depth of Biblical truth, and he did this with boldness and profundity. Nevertheless, Packer assures us that “the reward to be reaped from studying Owen is worth all the labor involved.” Second, Owen is difficult because he is painful. He carries a unique gift to speak with shcolastically loving conviction. “If you are going to read this you will need to ‘prepare yourself for the knife.’ But that knife is the scalpel of one of the finest spiritual surgeons in the history of the church.”[4] Let us labor in this pain.

I am not going to provide an exhaustive response to Owen’s Mortification of Sin. It is simply uneeded: 1) in regards to my own thought, and 2) as to your benefit, being that this has been done by smarter and more notable scholars/pastors already. If you would like a simple and practical outline, Driscoll’s “Resurgence” has provided one here. If you would like a 12-page overview of the entire work with details, you can see Robert Thune’s work here. Now I can be relieved of having to provide such resources, and thus focus on those paragraphs by Owen that really twisted my heart and conquered my prayers.

[1] J. I. Packer, A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life, (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1990), 81.

[2] Charles Bridges, The Christian Ministry, (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth, 1967, originally published, 1830), 41.

[3] The Works of John Owen, ed. William Goold, 23 volumes (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1965, this edition originally published 1850-53), 149.

[4] Sinclair B. Ferguson, Comments in Overcoming Sin and Temptation, ed. Kelly Kapic and Justin Taylor (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2006).

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