Fellowship in Reading: The Mortification of Sin by John Owen (Chapter 3)

Chapter 3

Over the past three weeks, Tim Challies has been reading through The Mortification of Sin by John Owen. A book written centuries ago, the relevance today transcends through time, across today’s cultures and touches on the seriousness of sin that we fail to address today. He has invited others to read along with them and post their own thoughts and comments. I have decided to do the same and invite you to join me in this process as well. You can read more about the project by clicking here.

 “He (the Holy Spirit) only is sufficient for this work; all ways and means without him are as a thing of nought; and he is the great efficient of it, – he works in us as he pleases.” ~ John Owen[1]

Recitation: After reading chapter 3 in John Owen’s book The Mortification of Sin, the conclusion that John Owen makes it quite clear: The mortification of sin can only take place by the work of the Holy Spirit. Above is his general principle stated within chapter three. As he makes his case, Owen follows a logical flow of information within the following outline:

  1. The Mortification of Sin: A Work Not By Human Spirit
  2. The Mortification of Sin: A Work by the Holy Spirit
  • The Mortification of Sin: The Work of the Holy Spirit

Owen first establishes that try as any of us may, humans cannot mortify sin. He lists two reason why people cannot. The first is because a person does not use the means that God prescribed to mortify the sin. Second, the means that are prescribed by God are not used correctly.

The means by which God has prescribed for the mortification of sin is of course, through the Holy Spirit. According to Ezekiel 11:19 and 36:26, God promised the Holy Spirit. Furthermore, John Owen notes that it was a gift of Christ (to mortify sin) which is given in the spirit.

That logically leads a person to question of how this mortification actually happens. Owen writes of three reasons of how the Spirit works in the life of a believer to destroy the sin that one is enslaved by:

  • By leading people in a heart attitude in which their hearts abound in grace and the fruit of the spirit (instead of the fruit of the flesh).
  • By working at the root and habit of sin in order to weaken it, destroy it, and take it away.
  • By bringing the cross of Christ into the heart of a sinner, bringing one to communion with Christ in his death and fellowship in his sufferings.

Rightly understood, the mortification of sin occurs only in the Spirit by working individually in the lives of believers in a personal and effective way of grace. A good summation comes from Owen himself in the following statement:

Such outside endeavors…without the least mention of Christ or his Spirit are varnished over with swelling words of vanity, for the only means and expedients for the mortification of sin, as discover a deep-rooted unacquaintedness with the power of God and the mystery of the Gospel.[2]

Response: Because the mortification of sin requires the Holy Spirit, it is understood that only those who are disciples of Jesus Christ can find freedom from sin. This requires that one also be filled with the Spirit (as stated in Ephesians 5:18). This is a continuous process that requires constant submission on behalf of the believer. We are not to grieve the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 4:30) but instead must allow the Holy Spirit to work within one’s life.

The enslavement of sin is just that, enslavement. It grips one tightly and does not release its grip without being forced to do so. Try as people may, they are not able to break sin under their own strength. Too often, we try to rely on human programs and means in order to break free of something. You see this in our Godless society as they institute step-by-step programs devoid of God and His Word. These fail to work because they fail to use God. Therefore, the work of getting rid of sin must be one of the Spirit. “He works in us and upon us….so as to preserve our own liberty and free obedience.”[3]


For a link to read Tim Challies’ post on Chapter 3, click here.

[1] John Owen, The Mortification of Sin (Louisville: GLH Publishing, 2014), 23.

[2] John Owen, The Mortification of Sin (Louisville: GLH Publishing, 2014), 24.

[3] John Owen, The Mortification of Sin (Louisville: GLH Publishing, 2014), 27.

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