I should do a book review on my blog. I must admit that I didn’t expect much from John Owen’s book ‘the Mortification of Sin’. I had read one or two Puritans and almost fell asleep. So being the labeller that I tend to be, I labelled John Owen as boring. Now, generalizations are a lazy way of arguing, and should not necessarily determine whether or not we should read a book. When I launched into reading this book by John Owen, I ended up being quite surprised and impressed and even a little shocked.
John Owen enters into a discussion of the Christian’s battle with sin, and he does this with zest and vigor. He uses military imagery, and casts all namby-pamby talk to the wind as he discusses the destruction and killing of sin. His vivid pictures and direct challenges, are pointed in such a way to make any man consider his pathetic attempts at killing sin, no matter what sin he is struggling with.
There are a lot of big words and some old English to work with, so the book might better be read between a father and a son, a young man and a mentor, or with a theological dictionary on the table. John Owen has a solid grasp of the Reformed understanding of theology. He also makes the good news quite clear as he reasons to the Christian’s warfare from the saving blood of Jesus Christ and the renewing power of the Holy Spirit.
John Owen does not settle for an externalized and legalistic Christianity. He goes to the very heart of sin: pride, self-love, self-righteousness. Of course, he doesn’t deny that when internal sins are attacked and defeated, these actions will then have external manifestations. But he brings out an important point: sin will only be defeated when it is taken out at its root.
The author talks about starving sin, putting it to the sword, and perseverance in these actions. In fact, this work brings in the psychological effects of sin, and the way that sin seeks to deceive us. Owen warns about our sin “playing dead”, and how it can raise its head at the worst times. But his responses are quite practical and Christ-centered, without forgetting the work and power of the Holy Spirit.
My only critique is one of emphasis, because Owen does discuss driving out old desires with new desires. And from what I hear about him, he does discuss this more in other books. I would emphasize that while we can’t underestimate the power of sin, we also cannot underestimate the power of setting our mind on things that are lovely and noble (Phillipians 4:8). Only Christ and the Holy Spirit can change us. Building on this most firm foundation, I have also found good literature, good music, good conversation, good friendships of crucial importance in destroying the power of sin. Of course, Christ must be in all these things, and when He is, we can go out and create a culture for others to live in. This is a Christ-centered culture. I would definitely highlight this in a book on the mortification of sin.
In other words. Read your Bible first and foremost. Read John Owen on the mortification of sin. But go on to read and listen to audio books of Lewis and Tolkien, Dostoevsky and Augustine, etc. Listen to good podcasts, and good music. Sing Psalms. Go to Church. Have a beer with somebody who knows how to treat it well. Play a game of rugby, find a good board-game to play. Meet up at a classy brewery or coffee shop. Find out what a dusty old book smells like. And then go out and tell everybody why Jesus is the only hope of the world.
To conclude, here are a few quotes from John Owen:
“He that changes pride for worldliness, sensuality for pharisaism, vanity in himself to the contempt of others: let him not think that he hath mortified the sin that he seems to have left. He hath changed his master, but is a servant still.” p. 59
“So, when a man first sets on a lust or distemper to deal with it, it struggles with great violence to break loose, it cries with earnestness and impatience to be satisfied and relieved; but when, by mortification, the blood and spirits of it are let out, it moves seldom and faintly, cries sparingly, and is scarce heard in the heart: it may have sometimes a dying pang, that makes an appearance of great vigour and strength, but it is quickly over, especially if it be kept from considerable success.” p. 67
“This is the folly of some men. They set themselves with all earnestness and diligence against the appearing eruption of lust; but leaving the principle and root untouched, perhaps unsearched out, they make but little or no progress in this work of mortification.” p. 68
“Such a one never thinks his lust dead because it is quiet; but labours still to give it new wounds, new blows, every day.” p. 70
“Mortification consists in success: frequent success against any lust is another part and evidence of mortification. By success, I understand not a mere disappointment of sin that it be not brought forth nor accomplished, but a victory over it and pursuit of it to a complete conquest: for instance, when finding sin at any time at work, seducing, forming imaginations to make provision for the flesh to fulfil the lusts thereof, the heart instantly apprehends sin, and brings it to the law of God and love of Christ, condemns it, follows it with execution to the uttermost.” p. 70
“Secondly, the promptness, alacrity, vigour of the Spirit, or new man, in contending with, cheerfully fighting against, the lust spoken of, by all the ways and with all the means that are appointed thereto.” p. 72
“How shall he, then, mortify sin, who hath not the Spirit? A man may easier see without eyes, speak without a tongue, than truly mortify one sin without the Spirit.” p. 75
“I say, then, mortification is not the present business of unregenerate men. God calls them not to it as yet. Conversion is their work; the conversion of the whole soul, not the mortification of this or that particular lust.” p. 77
“No, he knew that was not their present work; but he calls them to conversion, and faith in Christ in general (v. 38). Let their souls be first thoroughly converted, and then, looking on him whom they have pierced, humiliation and mortification will ensue. Thus when John came to preach repentance and conversion, he said, ‘the axe is now laid unto the root of the tree’ (Matt. 3:10). p. 78
“To break men off from particular sins, and not to break their hearts, is to deprive ourselves of advantages of dealing with them.” p. 84
“Lust is such an inmate as, if it can plead time and some prescription, will not easily be ejected. As it never dies of itself, so, if it be not daily killed, it will always gather strength.” p. 95