John Owen on the Mortification of Sin

John Owen (1616-83), in his work Of the Mortification of Sin in Believers, was pastorally concerned about the many professors of religion who demonstrated little or no victory over sin. Although it is not my purpose here to summarize the content of his work on Mortification, it is my objective to demonstrate Owen’s coherence between mortification and salvation. Owen believed that there is an infallible certain connection between true mortification of sin and eternal life because a Christian, by the power of the Holy Spirit, applies himself to the ways and means that God has appointed for salvation. Owen believed that the mortification of sin was vital for the well being of the Christian.

Owen maintained the Reformation doctrine of the double benefit (duplex beneficium). Salvation consists of the double benefit of justification and sanctification. The benefits that flow from the cross of Christ are inseparably connected. The believer not only receives justifying grace through the imputation of Christ’s righteousness; but through his participation in Christ’s death, the old man is utterly mortified and slain with his passions and lusts.[1] Owen wrote, “The apostle having made a recapitulation of his doctrine of justification by faith, and the blessed estate and condition of them who are made grace partakers thereof…proceeds to improve it to the holiness and consolation of believers.”[2] Owen speaks of holiness and consolation as belonging to those who have already become partakers of the blessed estate. The command to mortify belongs properly to those who are in union with Christ. In speaking to this duty, Owen asked, “Whom speaks he to? Such as were “risen with Christ,”…such as were “dead” with him…such as whose life Christ was, and who should “appear with him in glory.” By virtue of his union with Christ, the believer has been washed, purged, and “cleansed in conscience from dead works to serve the living God.”[3] These categorical distinctions are important in his treatment of mortification. There is an inseparable connection between the status and the walk of a believer--a believer who has been justified, will inevitably be sanctified.

Owen’s treatise is an exposition of Romans 8:13, “If you through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body you shall live.” For the believer, there is a certainty to the achievement of this end because mortification belongs to the process of sanctification. The conditional particle, eiv de. (“But if”), indicates the certainty of the event. There is a certain connection between mortifying the deeds of the body and eternal life.[4] Owen provides an analogy of a sick man, “If you [the sick man] will take such a potion, or use such a remedy, you will be well.”[5] There is a certainty to the man’s health if he will take the potion. There is a similar coherence between the mortification of sin and eternal life. If a man mortifies the deeds of the flesh, he will have eternal life. This, of course, is not a cause and effect relationship properly; eternal life properly belongs to the free gift that comes through the work of Jesus Christ. There is, however, an infallible connection between mortification and eternal life because God has appointed this relationship as a way and means by which the end is achieved. Owen writes, “…if you use this means, you shall obtain that end; if you do mortify, you shall live.”

Owen does not suggest that the believer stands alone to fulfill the command to mortify the deeds of the flesh. The mortification of sin as a benefit that accrues from Christ’s substitutionary atonement. Owen wrote, “Mortification of sin is peculiarly from the death of Christ.[6] Christ’s aim through the cross is that the believer might be freed from the power of sin and purified from all defiling lusts. Christ died not only to destroy the works of the devil but also to “redeem us from all iniquity, and purify unto himself a peculiar people, zealous for good works…”[7] It is by virtue of Christ’s death that the believer is washed, and “purged in conscience from dead works to serve the living God.”[8] Union with Christ, therefore, is an essential doctrine for understanding mortification. A Christian is “dead to sin by union and interest in Christ…”[9] He not only has been implanted into Christ, but the old man has been crucified with Christ so that sin no longer has dominion.[10] A Christian is called to rest upon the death of Christ with the “expectation of power” because the old man has been crucified.

The death of Christ, however, does not abrogate the responsibility of believers to mortify the deeds of the flesh. “The choicest believer, who are assuredly freed from the condemning power of sin, ought yet to make it their business all their days to mortify the indwelling power of sin.”[11] Owen understood mortification as a Christian duty, an active responsibility on the part of the believer to put to death the deeds of the body. The “condemning” power of sin has been abolished for believers through the cross, but the “indwelling” power of sin remains. This distinction is extremely important in Owen. A Christian has been crucified with Christ and freed from sin’s dominion, and yet the presence of sin still abides in him, and is still acting and “laboring to bring forth the deeds of the flesh.”[12] Thus, as Sinclair Ferguson states, Owen believed that the “Christian should be clear in his mind about the nature of sin’s dominion, and learn to distinguish between the rebellion of sin and the dominion of sin.”[13] Owen observed that this was the whole of Paul’s argument in Rom. 6:14, “That sin which is in you shall not have dominion over you.”[14] The dominion of sin has been broken through the cross and no longer has a reign over the life of the believer.[15] But the presence, influence, and rebellion of sin cannot be abolished in this life.[16] “The nature of sin does not change in sanctification, but its status in us is radically altered.”[17] Sin has a relentless nature, it is “always pressing forward because it has no bounds but utter relinquishment of God and opposition to him…”[18] Since sin is always acting, conceiving, seducing, and tempting, the Christian has a solemn lifelong duty to extirpate the relentless uprisings of sin.
Owen characterized the mortification of sin as a putting to death the deeds of the body. The body is to be understood as the corruption and depravity of our natures, the “seat and instrument” by which indwelling sin is brought to fruition.[19] Although the deeds of the body are manifested by outward actions, the chief intention belongs to the inward causes.[20] Indwelling sin remains in our mortal bodies, and is the mainspring by which the sinful deeds are manifested.[21] If sin is not mortified, the soul will be weakened, darkened, and deprived it of its comfort and peace.[22] Thus every believer has a lifelong solemn duty to mortify the deeds of the body.

[1] John Owen, The Works of John Owen, VI. (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2000), 8.
[2] VI.5.
[3] VI. 84.
[4] VI. 6.
[5] Ibid.
[6] VI. 83.
[7] VI. 84.
[8] VI. 84.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Ibid.
[11] VI. 7.
[12] VI.11.
[13] Sinclair Ferguson, John Owen on the Christian Life. (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth), 130.
[14] Ibid.
[15] VI. 85.
[16] Owen wrote, “Indwelling sin always abides whilst we are in this world; therefore it is always to be mortified. The vain, foolish, and ignorant disputes of men about perfect keeping the commands of God, of perfection in this life, to being wholly and perfectly dead to sin, I meddle not now with.” VI. 10.
[17] Ibid.
[18] VI.12.
[19] VI.7.
[20] VI. 8.
[21] Ibid.
[22] IV.22.


  1. In short isn't it the "mortifying " that is the continual process of dying unto self that is the prime point - is nt it the running process not crossing the finish line only - isn't it the working out our salvation with fear and trembling? the fact that we have sins and fleshly desires which will continue to crop up means that we will never be entirely free from sin as long as we tread this mortal coil - but isnt Owen stating that we must fight and when fighting we will have the victory if we will but resist the devil - running fighting , resisting - is this mortification ?

  2. Hi Mike, yes, but read the other sections I have posted. Owen addresses what you are after. Thanks