Posted On August 4, 2021

A Glance at John Owen’s Theology of Sin

by | Aug 4, 2021 | Featured, The Gospel and the Christian Life

The present-day is a day where two extremities straddle the life of Christian churches. The first extremity is an overbearing focus on sin. Living in Romania, I have seen countless cases where sin has been the heaviest focus in a church (primarily in Pentecostal circles) to the point where little else is talked about in the pulpit. Some more “Puritanical” thinkers might think this is wonderful; however, the hard focus on sin goes so deep that it forgets about the grace which can and does cover human sinfulness in God’s people. This sad and legalistic focus on sin seems to be more about controlling people rather than seeing them glorify God through holiness.

That is truly a shame; however, there is the complete opposite extreme where a church fails to think about sin at all. Actually, in many of these cases, the word “sin” is unspoken and almost a forbidden word because “we do not want to scare people away.” The question which this brings to us is, “Which view is right?”

Looking from one extreme to the other, neither is satisfying, and neither seems to be biblical. We need a focus on sin, but we also need a focus on grace which forgives us of our sin and leads us into better holiness. In order to do this, I want to take you back in history about four hundred years to the time of the English Puritans. In this period, we find a theologically dedicated man named John Owen who had many excellent things to say about sin. This first article will look at what Owen taught about sin, and the following article will help build on Owen’s practical framework. Starting with Owen, we will see why we need teaching on sin and the grace of God that covers sin and leads to holiness.

Mortification of Sin

The first thing we must understand about Owen’s theology of sin can be found in his excellent work: The Mortification of Sin in Believers. The word mortification comes from Latin and means to “kill off.” When we speak about the “mortification” of sin, we mean that we are to kill off that which is unpleasant to God from within our souls. Immediately we see a difference from the above two extremities of sin in today’s churches. In Owen, we see a man who was willing to address the subject of sin, but not merely in a condemnatory way, but rather by helping people deal with their sin.

At the very outset of his work on mortification, Owen (correctly) shows that mortification is only possible by grace, “All other ways of mortification are vain, and all help leaves us helpless. Mortification must be done by the Holy Spirit.”[1] It is important that we keep this in mind before we make any progress, as the work of mortification and sanctification (growth in holiness) is only possible with the help of the Holy Spirit, and because of our union with Jesus (Gal. 5:16-25). If you want to do something about your sin, then you are helpless without the Holy Spirit. Your first point of call in killing off your sin is to pray and ask God to help you through His Holy Spirit to show you grace.

This approach does not ignore the reality of sin, but neither does it make sin the entire focus of your life. Instead, bringing the Holy Spirit into the equation helps take the focus off us and our sinfulness and helps us remember that God is with us, willing to help us stand against sin. If you pray to God, then it must be because you know that Jesus Christ has lived a perfect life on your behalf and made a way for you to reach the Father with this request through His finished and sufficient work. That being the case, you can ask according to the merits of Christ for the Holy Spirit to aid you in this life to conform to Christ’s own image (Rom. 8:29).

Keeping the Holy Spirit in focus, Owen also asserts that it is our human responsibility to mortify sin: “Sin will always be at work, and if we do not continue to work at mortification, then we are lost creatures.”[2] At this point, the reader of this article might think that such a constant and exhausting battle against sin is exhausting and surely cannot be what God expects of us. If you are tempted to think this way, then the Bible has plenty to say about this. We are expected to put the works of the flesh (sin) to death (Gal. 5:18); we cannot get to Heaven without striving for holiness (Heb. 12:14), and it is our Savior’s expectation of us as His people (Jn. 14:15). Sin is serious, and it is our responsibility to fight against it. We do not do so alone because the Holy Spirit works with us, but, according to Owen, we must remain diligent, prayerful, and stand firm in the battle for holiness.

This means we must fight and drain sin to its final capacity in this life. That, however, might seem to assume that we will get over our sinfulness in this life.

How could that be when even Apostles sinned? Peter forsook fellowship with his Christian brothers (Gal. 2:11-14), Paul fought a daily fight with his sin (Rom. 7), and you know that you sin every day as well. What shall we say? Owen comes to the rescue by stating: “To mortify a sin is not utterly to kill, root it out, and destroy it so that it no longer has a hold or residence over our hearts. It is true this is what we aim for, but this is not to be accomplished in this life.”[3] We have seen that we must mortify our sin, yet we have also seen that sin remains in every believer. Owen harmonizes these two ideas with the above quote and leaves us with encouragement. We know that we are like every other Christian: striving to be like Jesus, desiring to love Him more than sin, but constantly slipping and falling as our flesh throws up obstacles to that perfect mirror image of Christ’s likeness. Take heart if you are struggling with sin; we are all in the same boat with the same Savior as our Captain (Heb. 12:2). He can and will help you. That is why He sent the Holy Spirit to help guide us through this difficult life of temptation and sin.

Indwelling Sin

Considering the reality that we will constantly strive to kill off sin while sin remains a heavy influence in our lives, Owen has another treatise named Indwelling Sin in Believers. This book looks at how sin manifests itself, develops patterns in our lives, and seeks to take our hearts back to our old natures.

Owen realized that sin was tricky. He realized that simply writing about mortification was not enough; there had to be further discussion on how to mortify and the need to mortify. Because of this, Owen wrote that other treatise as a practical work to help believers learn about their sin so that they could better fight.

The first thing to note is that Owen wrote: “Grace changes the nature of man, but nothing can change the nature of sin.”[4] This truth shows that reforming our sin is not the goal because nothing can change the very essence of sin. We must, instead, do all we can to avoid, prevent ourselves, and remove sin from our lives wherever possible. Owen goes through his whole treatise with that in mind. At this point, I would encourage you to read Indwelling Sin for yourself as I cannot possibly cover everything Owen says in this short article. Know that his practical insights will be very helpful to you. The Banner of Truth has a modernized version of this book as a single volume, available in a shorter paperback.

Some headings of Owen’s notes help us to get a general picture of the depth and gravity of his work: “labor to prevent the beginnings of sin” (pg. 186), “never let sin proceed to a conquest” (pg. 186), “sin is deceitful and attempts to pull the mind away from the discharge of its duty” (pg. 217), and “sin makes frequent solicitations to the soul” (pg. 257). This is in no way everything that Owen states as sinful inclinations. Still, this very brief sketch shows that Owen was both well experienced and highly aware of the sinful patterns and subtle caresses that sin and temptation make on our souls.

Owen knew that we couldn’t do anything to change the reality that sin will constantly rub shoulders with our souls. Knowing this, he sought to aid his readers by explaining as much as possible how sin will try to manifest itself in their lives. Experience in the Christian life will show that Owen was correct about these things, and, in reading what he wrote, we can better equip ourselves for the fight against indwelling sin. Sin will never change, but by the grace of the Holy Spirit, you can change.

John Owen had some deep insights on sin, temptation, and the mortification of sin. We would do very well to heed the things that he has to say. Unfortunately, it is hard to come by people who take sin as seriously as the Puritans. However, we can reclaim the lost territory by taking up works such as Sin and Temptation and various others that can help us understand sin and work to begin a deeper fight against all its ways and conduits into our lives.

I conclude by saying that sin is a destructive force, dishonoring to God, which must be addressed. It is something which we must mortify and resist with all our might and all of our strength. Sin is not the essence of Christian living, grace is, but neither is it something we should never talk about in our churches. Owen understood this and wrote to encourage his readers to fight against sin. Imagine if the entire Church would take up Owen’s works on sin, read them, and put into practice what he wrote. We would have a multitude of sinful yet sanctified witnesses of the grace of God in this world. Imagine what a testimony that would have on the world around us and how God would be glorified.

This begins with you and me. Are you prepared to start by reading Owen and dedicating yourself to the fight against sin? The following article will offer you some additional help to that fight and additional resources about sin and holiness, but you have to commit here and now. Tell yourself that you will stand firm in the fight and ask the Lord to help you.

If you need any further encouragement, then let Owen move you with the following devastatingly beautiful words: “Fill your affections with the cross of Christ, that there may be no room for sin. The world once put him out of the house into a stable when He came to save us; let Him now turn the world out of His doors when He comes to sanctify us.”[5] Do those words not shock you into a holy and fervent desire to live all out for your Savior? Jesus died on the cross so that sin could lose its power and hold over you (Rom. 6:6-7). Will you take that precious sacrifice and live in a way that is pleasing to Him so that all around you can see His glory reflected in your life? 

[1] Owen. J. The Mortification of Sin in The Works of John Owen (6.16). The Banner of Truth Trust. Edinburgh: Scotland. (2009).

[2] IBID. 11

[3] IBID. 25.

[4] Owen. J. The Nature and Power of Indwelling Sin in The Works of John Owen. (6.16). The Banner of Truth Trust. Scotland: Edinburgh. (2009). 177

[5] IBID. 251

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