What is Mortification

Here we are, back to our good friend John Owen. Coming back to this book is always good. It’s a soul-bracing activity actually. How easily do I give myself to the superficial, transient things of the world.

Owen is deep into the process of mortification and it’s good stuff. However, I think it would be helpful to remind ourselves of the truth of our union with Christ in regard to sin. We have been crucified with Christ and sin has no dominion over us (Romans 6). The decisive battle has been won and we are clothed with the righteousness of Christ. But until the consummation, we are still in this flesh, and we’re still engaged in skirmishing with this enemy. But be encouraged because we fight not for victory but from victory.

“Every lust is a depraved habit or disposition, continually inclining the heart to evil.”

Owen is not talking about sexual lust. He is talking about any sin. Any sin is distorted desire. Do we think this way? Probably not. And I know I don’t think of sin as continually inclining my heart to evil. Continually. The battle is ever ongoing.

“When, therefore, men have slight and transient thoughts of their lusts, it is no great sign that they are mortified….It is to be feared that very many have little knowledge of the main enemy that they carry about with them in their bosoms…To labor to be acquainted with the ways, wiles, methods, advantages, and occasions of its success is the beginning of this warfare.”

The beginning of this warfare, this struggle, is to have a knowledge of our enemy. College football coaches labor constantly to understand their opponent. They watch film, they draw up plays, they instruct their players. How much more should we understand the enemy that desires to lay waste to our souls? Do we understand our own weaknesses and how the world, the flesh and the devil scheme to destroy us?

Owen describes mortification as a continual weakening of sin. I think of it as trying to kill kudzu. Kudzu keeps coming back, and sin keeps rearing its ugly head. So how do we actually do this? Owen describes the foundation like this:

“the weakening of its indwelling disposition…by the implanting, habitual residence, and cherishing of a principle of grace that stands in direct opposition to it and is destructive of it, is the foundation of it.”

In other words, we must fight a particular sin with the opposite grace. Paul describes the process in Colossians 3. We must put off the deeds of the flesh, and put on the deeds of the Spirit. Put off pride, put on humility; put off anger, put on kindness; put off wrath, put on love.

The key for Owen is doing this by the Spirit. The temptation for me is to read these imperatives and to think I can go out all American-like and tackle this enemy in my own strength. No, no, no. Remember Romans 8:13 – “but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body you will live.”

An unbeliever has no hope of succeeding in this battle, but the believer is in the same boat if they try to fight with the arm of the flesh. The instrument in the battle is faith. Faith in Christ, faith in His promises.




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