Posted by: William | February 28, 2008

Of The Mortification of Sin in Believers

Today, I finished reading what I think might be one of the most important extra-biblical books ever written. The book is Of the Mortification of Sin in Believers by John Owen, as found in the collected works book, Overcoming Sin and Temptation. This book has taken me fifteen weeks (to the day) to read and challenged me more than probably any other book I’ve ever read (again, with the exception of the bible).


Mortification deals with the topic of sin with a startling sobriety. At times it’s like a splash of cold water in the face, other times like a warming blanket on a cold night. There were times while reading this book that I felt so unbelievably encouraged and inspired that I was immediately re-energized to move toward holiness—then of course there were other times where Owen’s words cut to the heart and reading it just made me angry; conviction is a funny thing.


I began reading this book originally along with; one chapter a week, followed by an online discussion. I found after not too many chapters that the discussion that followed was beginning to commandeer my reading and so some of what should have profoundly affected me simply became intellectual junk food. So, I stopped participating with the group at Challies .com and started reading the book on my own.


We live in a theologically shallow time in the church. Comparatively few people really understand what they mean when they talk about their freedom in Christ, the call to holiness, or the command to go and preach the Gospel. Quite naturally, even fewer people know what to make of the mortification of the flesh. To most the idea sounds like an antiquated, useless, concept in light of Christ’s sacrifice—ironically, they are thoroughly and necessarily in close tandem.


I don’t want to go completely off into left field here (I’ll save left field for some other day), but I would like to touch on something. The trend today would be to minimize theology. To say that there needs to be less theology and more love, or less theology and more service, or less theology and more experiencing the Holy Spirit. The problem is, theology isn’t a bunch of useless intellectual hoo-ha (although some may use it that way). Theology is the study of God, learning about God, learning who he is and what he feels. I’d say that theology is pretty damn important (that’s right, I’m so passionate I used as wear word).


Okay, back on track. In a church environment where theology is minimized and self-expression, individuality and prosperity are emphasized people are bound eventually to end up as humanists, forgetting that people aren’t “essentially good,” they’re essentially bad and as a fallen men and women redeemed by the blood of Christ, it is our responsibility to no longer live “according to the flesh” and so to always “put to death the deeds of the body”. That is precisely what Owen’s text is concerned with.


The first twelve or thirteen chapters deal with preparatory matters of mortification and general thoughts surrounding the action. Then, in the final chapters he moves onto the work itself. Interestingly enough, everything leading up to the actual work of mortification is very practical, but once he moves onto the work itself, he has little practical words for it, because it is in itself a work of the Spirit that is done by faith.


Owen’s literature is not easy to read. The chapters are short (sometimes just two or three pages), but even a good reader can easily take twenty to thirty minutes to really grasp what’s said. For the average reader I would recommend a version published by Banner of Truth that has been abridged and edited for easy reading. This book should be read, and the ideas and concepts should be carefully thought about and prayed about and in most instances, I believe, applied.


There is a punch that’s packed in these puritan’s words that you likely won’t find in modern Christian literature, so I do recommend this book to everyone; particularly the abridged version. I would also highly recommend this reading to groups looking to go through a book together; accountability partners, couples, friends, churches, nations—whatever. Just do it.




  1. you’re right. It is so important that we our grounded in our theology. Because it is the basis for how we live.

  2. I’m not sure if it’s still in print or not, but when I was younger I found “The Pursuit of Holiness” by Jerry Bridges to be a very helpful book. You also really, really need to read “Inside Out”. I’ve got both available for loaning (and a study guide for Inside Out too).

    I’m not sure I agree with your assertion that we live in theologically ‘weak’ times. Perhaps that’s a subject for another blog. I do believe in the importance of studying about God, but at some point you need to put your studies into practice. I spent the better part of a year contemplating Hebrews 5 – 6 where the author talked about needing solid food vs. milk. What disturbed me the most was that the ‘milk’ was identified as “the foundation of repentance from acts that lead to death, and of faith in God, instruction about baptisms, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment.”

    My thought was – “these are the things that we [the church] have been arguing about for millenia – if that’s the milk, what the heck are we missing?”

    It took me awhile but I found the answer. Jesus said, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work.”

    So I say you should study hard; get a good working knowledge of the Gospel; then go to work spreading the Gospel and let the world be your classroom.



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