Spirituality: John Owen on the Holy Spirit and the mortification of sin

Spirituality: John Owen on the Holy Spirit and the mortification of sin
john owen
Michael Haykin
Michael Haykin Born in England of Irish and Kurdish parents, Michael Haykin is professor of church history and biblical spirituality, holding a Th.D. in Church History from Wycliffe College / University of Toronto.
01 November, 1999 8 min read

In the providence of God, the last few decades have witnessed a massive resurgence of interest in the Puritans. Central in this resurgence have been the works of John Owen (1616-1683) who was described by some in his own day as the ‘Calvin of England’.

J. I. Packer says that he was ‘England’s foremost bastion and champion of Reformed evangelical orthodoxy’, and ‘one of the all-time masters’ when it comes to theology and evangelical spirituality. There is no doubt that Owen is to be placed alongside such theological giants as Augustine and Martin Luther, John Calvin and Jonathan Edwards.

Mortifying sin

We want to consider what Owen had to say about one area of the Christian life: the Holy Spirit’s work of the ‘mortification’ of sin in the believer. Owen wrote three major books on this topic of the believer’s struggle against sin.

The first of these, Of Temptation, was published in 1658 and consists of sermon material preached during the 1650s. It is essentially an exposition of Matthew 26:41 (‘Watch and pray, that ye enter not into temptation’).

Owen enumerates four ‘seasons’ during which believers must exercise special care that temptation does not lead them away into sin. These ‘seasons’ are: times of outward prosperity; times of spiritual coldness and formality; times when one has enjoyed rich fellowship with God; and times of self-confidence, as when Peter promised Christ, ‘I will not deny thee’.

The remedy that Owen emphasises is prayer. Typical of Puritan pithiness is his remark, ‘If we do not abide in prayer, we shall abide in cursed temptations’.

Indwelling sin

In The Nature, Power, Deceit, and Prevalency of the Remainders of Indwelling Sin in Believers, which appeared in 1667, Owen bases his discussion on Romans 7:21 (‘I find then a law, that, when I would do good, evil is present with me’). Owen shows how sin lies at the heart of even believers’ lives and, if not resisted by prayer and meditation, will slowly but surely eat away zeal and delight in the things of God.

The final work, Of the Mortification of Sin in Believers, is in some ways the richest of the three. This treatise was based on a series of sermons on Romans 8:13, which Owen delivered at Oxford and subsequently published in 1656. In what follows we look more closely at this important work. The late D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones described Romans 8:12-13 as, ‘vital and crucial to a true understanding of the New Testament doctrine of sanctification’. Owen would have heartily concurred.

Romans 8:13 states: ‘For if ye live after the flesh, ye shall die; but if ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live’. For Owen, this made it abundantly clear that the believer has a duty to be constantly mortifying, or ‘putting to death’, the sin that still indwells his mortal frame. But equally important for Owen was the fact that such a duty is only possible in the strength that the Holy Spirit supplies, for he alone is ‘sufficient for this work’.

If either of these aspects of the work of mortification is neglected, the doctrine of sanctification cannot fail to suffer. In our day, the first aspect, the obligation which Romans 8:13 places upon the believer, has often been overlooked. In its stead there has been substituted an exhortation to give up all of one’s known sins, to stop struggling against sin, and (as the phrase goes) ‘let go and let God’.

The Spirit of Christ

At the beginning of his treatise on mortification, Owen notes that the ‘Spirit’ of Romans 8:13 is none other than the Spirit of Christ and of God. The Spirit indwells believers, gives them life, and makes intercession for them (Romans 8:9, 11, 26). And just as regeneration and true intercession are impossible without the Spirit, so mortification of sin can only be performed by the Spirit.

Owen gives two reasons for this assertion that the Spirit alone can mortify sin. First, according to a number of Old Testament texts such as Ezekiel 11:19 and 36:26, God the Father promised the gift of the Holy Spirit for the removal of ‘stubborn, proud, rebellious, unbelieving’ hearts. Owen sees this as a description of the work of mortification.

Second, the mortification of sin within the believer comes as a gift from Christ. But, it is only through the Spirit of Christ that any of Christ’s gifts can be actually communicated to believers. As Owen writes: ‘All communications of supplies and relief, in the beginnings, increasings, actings of any grace whatever, from him [i.e. Christ], are by the Spirit, by whom he alone works in and upon believers’.

How can sin be mortified?

But exactly how does the Spirit effect the mortification of sin? Near the beginning of his treatise on mortification, Owen enumerates three general ways.

First, there is what may be described as ‘spiritual strangling’. The sinful nature, like a weed in a well-tended garden, is strangled by that which is good and beautiful. The Spirit causes the believer to thrive in grace and produce the fruit of the Spirit, which are ‘destructive to all the fruits of the flesh’.

Second, Owen observes that it is not without reason that the Spirit is described in Isaiah 4:4 as a ‘Spirit of judgement and burning’. For ‘he is the fire which burns up the very root’ and habit of sin.

Third, the Spirit brings the believer into communion with the crucified Christ. ‘He brings the cross of Christ into the heart of a sinner by faith, and gives us communion with Christ in his death, and fellowship in his sufferings’. As Sinclair Ferguson notes, ‘it is in the death of Christ that we find the death of sin’.

Positive acts

But at the end of this work on the mortification of sin, Owen expands the list to include the following. The Spirit reveals Christ’s power over sin. Though believers may fall and lose various skirmishes against sin, ultimate victory is assured because of their union with Christ, which gives them hope and sustenance in the fight against sin.

Then, the Spirit constantly provides believers with the grace to undertake positive acts and duties of holiness. Finally, the Spirit as the ‘Spirit of supplications’ (Zechariah 12:10; see also Romans 8:26) inspires the believer to pray and, in prayer, to find strength to overcome temptations. We looked at this topic last month.

For Owen, the fact that the Spirit operates in these various ways is a clear demonstration that the work of mortification is ‘effected, carried on, and accomplished by the power of the Spirit, in all the parts and degrees of it’.

The fact that only the Spirit is sufficient for the work of mortification, however, does not mean that Owen thought that the believer should be entirely passive with regard to mortification, ‘expecting the operation of the Spirit only’. Owen took very seriously the exhortation ‘if ye…do mortify the deeds of the body’.

In his exposition he was careful to maintain that a duty is laid upon every believer to make it his daily business to ‘put to death’ indwelling sin. The truth of the matter, Owen says, is that the Holy Spirit ‘doth not so work our mortification in us as not to keep it still an act of our obedience’. He continues, ‘The Holy Ghost works in us and upon us, as we are fit to be wrought in and upon; that is, so as to preserve our own liberty and free obedience. He works upon our understandings, wills, consciences, and affections, agreeably to their own natures; he works in us and with us, not against us or without us; so that his assistance is an encouragement as to the facilitating of the work, and no occasion of neglect as to the work itself’.

Thus, Owen can later assert (in his work on the Holy Spirit) that the ‘Holy Spirit is the author of this work [mortification] in us, so that although it is our duty, it is his grace and strength whereby it is performed’.


Owen then provides his readers with a concrete series of nine ‘directions’ on how exactly he believes Christians can best fight sin. Note especially that the believer should fight sin out of an abhorrence to sin as sin and a conviction that communion with God is too precious a treasure to be lost. In other words, we are ‘to cultivate the same hatred of sin that God possesses’.

Owen recommends that the believer get ‘a clear and abiding sense upon [the] mind of the guilt, danger, and evil’ of the particular sin that is being fought. For example, Owen urges Christians to think seriously about some of the evils entailed by allowing unmortified sin to exist in their lives. Christ is wounded afresh when believers harbour sin that he came to destroy. His ‘tender and loving Spirit, who hath chosen our hearts for a habitation to dwell in’ is also grieved and deeply wounded ‘by our harbouring his enemies, and those whom he is to destroy, in our hearts with him’. Such harbouring of ‘spirit-devouring lusts’ will cause God to ‘take away a man’s usefulness in his generation’.

Dealing with temptation

Owen urges believers to be on guard for those occasions and situations that are conducive to giving in to temptation. And if we do fall into temptation, Owen emphasises that we should ‘rise mightily against the first actings’ of the sin: ‘suffer it not to get the least ground’, he counsels. If one allows it one step, it will certainly take another for, Owen points out, it is ‘impossible to fix bounds to sin. It is like water in a channel — if it once break out, it will have its course’.

Christians should meditate regularly on the ‘inconceivable greatness of God’ and his omnipresence, as a way of fighting sin. ‘Will not a due apprehension of … that infinite distance wherein we stand from him’, he asks, ‘fill the soul with a holy and awful fear of him, so as to keep it in a frame unsuited to the thriving or flourishing of any lust whatever?’

The spirituality taught by Owen, like that of the Puritans in general, is one of balance, as we see clearly in his exposition of Romans 8:13. On the basis of this Pauline text, Owen expounded the biblical truth that mortification is both a duty and a gift. As the believer undertakes this duty, the Spirit enables him, from start to finish, to carry it out to the glory of God. It was not without reason that Owen could lovingly describe the Holy Spirit as ‘the great beautifier of souls’.

Michael Haykin
Born in England of Irish and Kurdish parents, Michael Haykin is professor of church history and biblical spirituality, holding a Th.D. in Church History from Wycliffe College / University of Toronto.
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