English Puritan John Owen is regarded as one of the perennial theologians in church history, and had several areas of expertise. Perhaps the area of theology Owen is most consulted in is sin, and further, how we pursue holiness in mortifying sin. “Be killing sin, or it will be killing you,” Owen is known for saying. He devoted much of his writing to this subject, and in turn produced arguably his most influential work, Of The Mortification of Sin in Believers, a treatise centered on Romans 8:13 that mainly addresses the process we undergo in dealing with and putting an end to our sin.
John Owen is a favorite of mine. I am so immensely encouraged by his work and spending adequate time in his work has undoubtedly made me a better man. I think everyone should read Owen. Unfortunately, many grow tired in trying to read Owen’s lengthy, difficult prose. Sometimes Owen writes in a way that he tries to say something by saying three things, and for that, many people miss out on his writing because of this style. Rather than everyone miss out on Owen’s rich teachings, I thought a more “layman” translation of Owen’s work would be beneficial to those who may feel have experienced difficulty reading his material.
With that said, based off of the aforementioned Of The Mortification of Sin in Believers, and outlined nicely by Matthew Barrett and Michael A.G. Haykin in their recent book Owen on the Christian Life, here is John Owen’s 9 key steps to how Christians can be killing sin.
John Owen draws his understanding of mortification of sin from Romans 8:13: “For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” Owen holds up two pillars throughout his argument. First, if mortification is to happen, it is only by the power of the Spirit. We are frankly incapable of the task on our own, and only the Spirit can truly wash our sins white as snow. Second, this Spirit work does not negate our responsibility in killing sin. We do not “let go and let God.” Although God is perfectly capable of killing our sin for us, we are instead called to participate actively in making it his business to kill sin, but also passively in letting the Spirit operate. Owen summarizes:
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.
In other words, while we believe that it is the work of the Holy Spirit that works in us, we are not like puppets and animated by it, but rather still called to be obedient in pursuing killing sin. The Holy Spirit does not work against our willing or without our willing, but with our willing and, most importantly, gives us the will to put it to an end. Owen definitely does not prescribe a view of Arminianism that suggests free will has authority over God’s hand, but quite the opposite, that God works in us to produce a desire of obedience, and further, gives us the strength to actually obey.
With that said, here’s the nine steps:
Step 1: Consider The Symptoms.
This is often where we start with our physical health. When we give attention to our symptoms, we recognize what’s really wrong with us. In the same way, we should be evaluating and analyzing the symptoms our sin is causing. What is this sin’s frequency of success, for example? Are we only avoiding the sin because we fear punishment? Take time to do some diagnostics on what kind of symptoms this sin brings.
Step 2: Consider the Implications.
We do this with our physical health as well. Once we know the symptoms, we often familiarize ourselves with the threat posed to us, the consequences of not taking action. For example, if a particular earache will cure itself, we are more at ease. But if we recognize our symptoms are life-threatening, we rush to the hospital. Taking time to evaluate the evils and consequences of our sin, then, will quicken us to action.
Step 3: Consider the Punishments.
Now that we’ve spent time reflecting on the evils and the symptoms of our sin, we should be reminded of what kind of punishment is due to us for these sins. We cannot begin to kill sin if we don’t first understand how much it removes us from God’s holiness, and how displeased God is with sin. We must feel utterly convicted.
Step 4: Take Time to Pray.
Owen now encourages us to pursue “a constant longing, breathing after deliverance from the power of it.” This manifests itself mainly through acts of prayer, where we turn to Christ to be our Advocate toward the Father. We should spend a lot of time here. This is our way of fueling our tank and acquiring ammunition against the coming enemy.
Step 5: Take Time to Fast.
Now we must begin taking actionable steps towards killing sin. First, we should recognize if we are naturally inclined toward our sin. Take the sin of pornography as an example. Do we, by some natural of temperamental inclination, desire to sin in this way? Having a time of fasting would greatly help re-focus our attention on Christ through extended time of prayer and reflection.
Step 6: Flee The Occasion.
It is imperative that we stay proactive in minimizing temptation by seeing where and with who we are placing ourselves. Take the sin of alcoholism as an example. Are we surrounding ourselves in environments and stores that tempt us beyond control? If so, removing ourselves from visiting these places or avoiding these occasions will aid us.
Step 7: “Rise Mightily Against the First Actings.”
If we do fall into temptation, Owen begs us to not give our temptations or sins one more inch than they’ve already taken. It is “impossible to fix bounds to sin. It is like water in a channel, — if it once breaks out, it will have its course.” We must, then, persevere in the midst of temptation. Do not lose heart that we’ve already given in slightly, but rather hold our ground as much as we can. Resolving to sin because we’ve given fractionally into temptation is letting sin ravage our spiritual state. We must hold fast.
Step 8: Familiarize Ourselves With God’s Greatness.
There is nothing that will stir our heart and lift it more than meditating on the sweet, powerful, and glorious character of God. Growing in our reverent fear of him will help us grow in our desire to make much of him, and thereby fight harder against the sin that so threatens to displease God in us. There are many ways we can do this. Reading Scripture, prayer, reciting creeds and confessions, books on theology, worship music, conversations with other believers. Let us continually point to and look for His greatness.
Step 9: Let God Create Peace.
We may be tempted to succeed a time or two against our sin, and then convince ourselves we have overcome and have stood firm against sin, defeating it. The truth is, this is Satan’s way of manipulating us into rationalizing our decrease in dependance on God to deliver us. Instead of inventing peace in our hearts in overcoming sin, let us be obedient to what we’ve been entrusted with in killing sin, and let God take care of the reconciliation of the heart and conscience. Only He can, by His will, create in us a clean heart and renew in us a right spirit.