We had fun talking with Dr. Sinclair Ferguson about John Owen. It’s not lost on me that it was Fourth of July week, and we were talking to Dr. Ferguson from Scotland—and he was extolling the virtues of American ice cream. Well, let’s get to Owen.
Banner of Truth’s five-volume John Owen boxed set comes with a handy introductory booklet written by Dr. Ferguson. The last paragraph of that booklet says, “But now the doors of your John Owen library are open. Choose a volume. You can start anywhere. You will find biblical insight, wisdom, and personal help everywhere. And perhaps this little box set of the treasures of John Owen will one day be part of your own spiritual heirloom.”
Let’s look at Owen’s book The Mortification of Sin. This book was published in 1656. Owen was born in 1616, and he died in 1683. At the ripe age of forty, he published The Mortification of Sin. Mortification means to put to death. Owen saw the Christian life as mortification; that is, the putting to death of sin. He also saw it as vivication, the being brought to newness of life by the work of the Holy Spirit.
In this book he takes on that first half, mortification. He begins the book by pointing out that we have to navigate two dangers. One danger is being too much at peace in this world to not take seriously enough the biblical injunction to mortify sin, to put it to death. The other danger that we have to navigate is that of not understanding the gospel. This is the approach where we simply white-knuckle it, where we just look within ourselves to overcome sin. But that doesn’t work, either. Owen wants us to have the right path to mortify sin. He asks at the beginning of this book, Why mortify sin? He says the answer is simple. We belong to a holy God, and we are called to holiness.
Early on, Owen tells us what the mortification of sin is not. He says it is not perfection. This will not happen in this lifetime. A fellow Puritan from the colonies, Jonathan Edwards, tells us that in this life we are clogged by sin. Only in heaven will we be unclogged. Owen reminds us of that, as well. Second, mortification is not simply self-improvement. We’re not talking about just putting paint on the old barn. It’s taking the old barn down plank by plank and building a new one in its place. Third, mortification is not about simply one aspect that we mortify. It’s our entire lives. We can’t focus on one area of sin and neglect all of the others.
Then what is mortification? He says mortification is new habits. We must weaken the habit of lust and cultivate the habit of holiness. He says mortification is a constant fight. He adds that we are in a war of three fronts. It’s a war against the world. It’s a war against our own flesh. And it’s the war against Satan and the principalities. While we will never eradicate sin, we do make progress. Owen says we should let that progress, that victory that we do get over sin, be an encouragement to us.
Then, in the middle of this book is the great chapter “Seeing Sin for What It Is,” where Owen reminds us how easily we can be led astray by cultural pressures. Instead, we need to take our cue from Scripture. Then, on the very last page, Owen ends by pointing us to the work of the Holy Spirit, and the work of Christ, to help us mortify sin. He says, “Enjoy this help.”