Overcoming Sin and Temptation by John Owen
THE FOUNDATION OF MORTIFICATION: ROMANS 8:13
[So] that what I have of direction to contribute to the carrying on of the work
of mortification in believers may receive order and perspicuity,1 I shall lay the
foundation of it in those words of the apostle, “If you through the Spirit do
mortify the deeds of the body you shall live” (Rom. 8:13), and reduce the
whole to an improvement2 of the great evangelical truth and mystery contained
The apostle having made a recapitulation of his doctrine of justification
by faith, and the blessed estate and condition of them who are made by grace
partakers thereof, verses 1-3 of this chapter proceed to improve it to the holiness
and consolation of believers.
Among his arguments and motives unto holiness, the verse mentioned
contains one from the contrary events and effects of holiness and sin: “If you
live after the flesh, you shall die.” What it is to “live after the flesh,” and what
it is to “die,” that being not my present aim and business, I shall not otherwise
explain than as they will fall in with the sense of the latter words of the
verse, as before proposed.
In the words peculiarly3 designed for the foundation of the ensuing discourse,
1. A duty prescribed: “Mortify the deeds of the body.”
2. The persons denoted to whom it is prescribed: “You”—“if you
3. A promise annexed to that duty: “You shall live.”
4. The cause or means of the performance of this duty—the Spirit: “If
you through the Spirit.”
5. The conditionality of the whole proposition, wherein duty, means,
and promise are contained: “If you,” etc.
The Conditionality: A Certain Connection
The first thing occurring in the words as they lie in the entire proposition is
the conditional note, ei de: “but if.” Conditionals in such propositions may
denote two things—
2 exposition, application
3 particularly, characteristically
The uncertainty of the event or thing promised, in respect of them to
whom the duty is prescribed. And this takes place where the condition is
absolutely necessary unto the issue,4 and depends not itself on any determinate5
cause known to him to whom it is prescribed. So we say, “If we live, we
will do such a thing.” This cannot be the intention of the conditional expression
in this place. Of the persons to whom these words are spoken, it is said
(verse 1 of the same chapter), “There is no condemnation to them.”
The certainty of the coherence and connection that is between the things
spoken of; as we say to a sick man, “If you will take such a potion, or use such
a remedy, you will be well.” The thing we solely intend to express is the certainty
of the connection that is between the potion or remedy and health. And
this is the use of it here. The certain connection that is between the mortifying
of the deeds of the body and living is intimated in this conditional particle.
Now, the connection and coherence of things being manifold, as of cause
and effect, of way and means and the end, this between mortification and life
is not of cause and effect properly and strictly—for “eternal life is the gift of
God through Jesus Christ” (Rom. 6:23)—but of means and end. God has
appointed this means for the attaining of that end, which he has freely
promised. Means, though necessary, have a fair subordination to all end of
free promise. A gift, and procuring cause in him to whom it is given, are
inconsistent. The intention, then, of this proposition as conditional is that
there is a certain infallible connection and coherence between true mortification
and eternal life: if you use this means, you shall obtain that end; if you
do mortify, you shall live. And herein lies the main motive unto and enforcement
of the duty prescribed.
The Persons: Believers
The next thing we meet with in the words [of Rom. 8:13] is the persons to
whom this duty is prescribed, and that is expressed in the word “you,” in the
original included in the verb, thanatoute, “if you mortify”—that is, you
believers; you to whom “there is no condemnation” (v. 1); you that are “not
in the flesh, but in the Spirit” (v. 9); who are “quickened by the Spirit of
Christ” (vv. 10-11); to you is this duty prescribed. The pressing of this duty
immediately on any other is a notable fruit of that superstition and selfrighteousness
that the world is full of—the great work and design of devout
men ignorant of the gospel (Rom. 10:3-4; John 15:5). Now, this description
4 result, outcome
5 resolved, settled
of the persons, in conjunction with the prescription of the duty, is the main
foundation of the ensuing discourse, as it lies in this thesis or proposition:
The choicest believers,
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.
The Cause and Means: The Holy Spirit
The principal efficient cause6 of the performance of this duty is the Spirit: ei
de pneumati—“if by the Spirit.” The Spirit here is the Spirit mentioned [in
Rom. 8] verse 11, the Spirit of Christ, the Spirit of God, that “dwells in us”
(v. 9), that “quickens us” (v. 11); “the Holy Ghost” (v. 14); the “Spirit of adoption”
(v. 15); the Spirit “that makes intercession for us” (v. 26). All other ways
of mortification are vain, all helps leave us helpless; it must be done by the
Spirit. Men, as the apostle intimates (Rom. 9:30-32), may attempt this work
on other principles, by means and advantages administered on other accounts,
as they always have done, and do; but, says he, “This is the work of the Spirit;
by him alone is it to be wrought,7 and by no other power is it to be brought
about.” Mortification from a self-strength, carried on by ways of self-invention,
unto the end of a self-righteousness, is the soul and substance of all false
religion in the world. And this is a second principle of my ensuing discourse.
The Duty: Mortify the Deeds of the Body
The duty itself, “Mortify the deeds of the body,” is next to be remarked upon.
Three things are here to be inquired into: (1) What is meant by the body?
(2) What by the deeds of the body? (3) What by mortifying of them?
The body. “The body” at the close of the verse is the same with “the
flesh” in the beginning: “If you live after the flesh you shall die; but if you . . .
mortify the deeds of the body”—that is, of the flesh. It is that which the apostle
has all along discoursed of under the name of “the flesh,” which is evident
from the prosecution8 of the antithesis between the Spirit and the flesh, before
and after. “The body,” then, here is taken for that corruption and depravity
of our natures whereof the body, in a great part, is the seat and instrument,
6 Aristotle (384–322 B.C.) classified four distinct types of causes, each of which answers a different question:
(1) material cause (What is it made from?); (2) formal cause (What is its form or essence?); (3) efficient
cause (Who made it?); (4) final cause (For what purpose?).
7 shaped, molded, fashioned
8 carrying out, execution
the very members of the body being made servants unto unrighteousness
thereby (Rom. 6:19). It is indwelling sin, the corrupted flesh or lust, that is
intended. Many reasons might be given of this metonymical expression9 that
I shall not now insist on. The “body” here is the same with palaios anthrøpos
and søma t·s hamartias, the “old man” and the “body of sin” (Rom. 6:6);
or it may synecdochically10 express the whole person considered as corrupted,
and the seat of lusts and distempered affections.
The deeds of the body. The word is praxeis, which, indeed, denotes the
outward actions chiefly, “the works of the flesh,” as they are called, ta erga
t·s sarkos (Gal. 5:19); which are there said to be “manifest” and are enumerated.
Now, though the outward deeds are here only expressed, yet the
inward and next causes are chiefly intended; the “axe is to be laid to the root
of the tree” [Matt. 3:10]—the deeds of the flesh are to be mortified in their
causes, from whence they spring. The apostle calls them deeds, as that which
every lust tends unto; though they do but conceive and prove abortive, they
aim to bring forth a perfect sin.
Having, both in the seventh and the beginning of this chapter, treated
indwelling lust and sin as the fountain and principle of all sinful actions, he
here mentions its destruction under the name of the effects which it does produce.
Praxeis tou sømatos [works of the body] are, as much as phron·ma t·s
sarkos [mind of the flesh] (Rom. 8:6), the “wisdom of the flesh,” by a
metonymy of the same nature with the former; or as the path·mata and
epithumiai, the “passions and lusts of the flesh” (Gal. 5:24), whence the deeds
and fruits of it do arise; and in this sense is “the body” used: “The body is
dead because of sin” (Rom. 8:10).
To mortify. Ei thanatoute—“if you put to death”—[is] a metaphorical
expression, taken from the putting of any living thing to death. To kill a man,
or any other living thing, is to take away the principle of all his strength, vigor,
and power, so that he cannot act or exert or put forth any proper actings of
his own; so it is in this case. Indwelling sin is compared to a person, a living
person, called “the old man,” with his faculties and properties, his wisdom,
craft, subtlety, strength; this, says the apostle, must be killed, put to death,
mortified—that is, have its power, life, vigor, and strength to produce its
effects taken away by the Spirit. It is, indeed, meritoriously, and by way of
9 A metonymical expression is a figure of speech in which one term is substituted for another term closely
associated with it. For example, we might say “wheels” to refer to an automobile, “crown” to refer to a
monarchy, or “Washington” to refer to the U.S. government.
10 Similar to a metonymical expression, a synecdoche is a figure of speech in which—among other uses—
the part stands for the whole or the whole stands for the part. In this case, Owen is suggesting that “body”
stands for the whole person.
example, utterly mortified and slain by the cross of Christ; and the “old man”
is thence said to be “crucified with Christ” (Rom. 6:6), and ourselves to be
“dead” with him (Rom. 6:8), and really initially in regeneration (Rom. 6:3-
5), when a principle contrary to it and destructive of it (Gal. 5:17) is planted
in our hearts; but the whole work is by degrees to be carried on toward perfection
all our days. Of this more in the process of our discourse. The intention
of the apostle in this prescription of the duty mentioned is that:
The mortification of indwelling sin remaining in our mortal bodies,
that it may not have life and power
to bring forth the works or deeds of the flesh,
is the constant duty of believers.
The Promise: You Shall Live
The promise unto this duty is life: “you shall live.” The life promised is opposed
to the death threatened in the clause foregoing, “If you live after the flesh, you
shall die”; which the same apostle expresses, “You shall of the flesh reap corruption”
(Gal. 6:8), or destruction from God. Now, perhaps the word may not
only intend eternal life, but also the spiritual life in Christ, which here we have;
not as to the essence and being of it, which is already enjoyed by believers, but
as to the joy, comfort, and vigor of it: as the apostle says in another case, “now
we live, if you stand fast” (1 Thess. 3:8)—“Now my life will do me good; I shall
have joy and comfort with my life”—“You shall live, lead a good, vigorous,
comfortable, spiritual life while you are here, and obtain eternal life hereafter.”
Supposing what was said before of the connection between mortification
and eternal life, as of means and end, I shall add only, as a second motive to
the duty prescribed, that:
The vigor, and power, and comfort of our spiritual life
depends on the mortification of the deeds of the flesh.