Overcoming Sin and Temptation by John Owen
THE HOLY SPIRIT IS THE GREAT SOVEREIGN CAUSE OF
THE MORTIFICATION OF INDWELLING SIN
The next principle relates to the great sovereign cause of the mortification
treated of; which, in the words laid for the foundation of this discourse [Rom.
8:13], is said to be the Spirit—that is, the Holy Ghost, as was evinced.33
He only is sufficient for this work; all ways and means without him are
THE NECESSITY OF MORTIFICATION 57
30 ruin, damnation, destruction
32 reckless extravagance, especially with money
33 proven, evidenced, made manifest
as a thing of naught; and he is the great efficient34 of it—he works in us as
Other Remedies Are Sought in Vain
In vain do men seek other remedies; they shall not be healed by them. What
several ways have been prescribed for this, to have sin mortified, is known.
The greatest part of popish35 religion, of that which looks most like religion
in their profession, consists in mistaken ways and means of mortification.
This is the pretense of their rough garments, whereby they deceive.36 Their
vows, orders, fastings, penances, are all built on this ground; they are all for
the mortifying of sin. Their preachings, sermons, and books of devotion, they
look all this way. Hence, those who interpret the locusts that came out of the
bottomless pit (Rev. 9:3), who are said to torment men so “that they should
seek death and not find it” (Rev. 9:6), to be the friars of the Romish37 church,
think that they did it by their stinging sermons, whereby they convinced them
of sin, but being not able to discover the remedy for the healing and mortifying
of it, they kept them in such perpetual anguish and terror, and such trouble
in their consciences, that they desired to die. This, I say, is the substance
and glory of their religion; but what with their laboring to mortify dead creatures,
ignorant of the nature and end of the work—what with the poison they
mixed with it, in their persuasion of its merit, yea, supererogation38 (as they
style their unnecessary merit, with a proud, barbarous39 title)—their glory is
their shame [cf. Phil. 3:19]: but of them and their mortification more afterward
That the ways and means to be used for the mortification of sin invented
by them are still insisted on and prescribed, for the same end, by some who
should have more light and knowledge of the gospel, is known. Such directions
to this purpose have of late been given by some, and are greedily catched
at40 by others professing themselves Protestants, as might have become popish
devotionists three or four hundred years ago. Such outside endeavors, such
58 OF THE MORTIFICATION OF SIN IN BELIEVERS
34 i.e., efficient cause (see note 6, above)
35 negative label for Roman Catholicism, relating to belief in papal supremacy
36 an allusion to Zechariah 13:4, where rough garments, or hairy cloaks, were deceptively used by false
prophets in order to fool the people into thinking they were true prophets
37 of or relating to the Roman Catholic Church
38 According to the Roman Catholic doctrine of opera supererogationis, supererogatory acts—that is,
actions that go beyond the call of duty and the requirements for salvation—produce a superabundance of
merit that is deposited in a spiritual treasury of the Church and can be used by ordinary sinners for the
remission of their sins.
40 grasped, sought
bodily exercises, such self-performances, such merely legal duties, without the
least mention of Christ or his Spirit, are varnished over with swelling words
of vanity, for the only means and expedients for the mortification of sin, as
discover41 a deep-rooted unacquaintedness with the power of God and mystery
of the gospel. The consideration hereof was one motive to the publishing
of this plain discourse.
Now, the reasons why the papists42 can never, with all their endeavors,
truly mortify any one sin, among others, are:
Because many of the ways and means they use and insist upon for this
end were never appointed of God for that purpose. (Now, there is nothing in
religion that has any efficacy for compassing43 an end, but it has it from God’s
appointment of it to that purpose.) Such as these are their rough garments,
their vows, penances, disciplines, their course of monastical life, and the like;
concerning all which God will say, “Who has required these things at your
hand?” [Isa. 1:12] and, “In vain do you worship me, teaching for doctrines
the traditions of men” [Matt. 15:9]. Of the same nature are sundry selfvexations44
insisted on by others.
Because those things that are appointed of God as means are not used
by them in their due place and order—such as are praying, fasting, watching,
meditation, and the like. These have their use in the business at hand; but
whereas they are all to be looked on as streams, they look on them as the
fountain. Whereas they effect and accomplish the end as means only, subordinate
to the Spirit and faith, they look on them to do it by virtue of the work
wrought. If they fast so much, and pray so much, and keep their hours and
times, the work is done. As the apostle says of some in another case, “They
are always learning, never coming to the knowledge of the truth” [2 Tim.
3:7]; so they are always mortifying, but never come to any sound mortification.
In a word, they have sundry means to mortify the natural man, as to the
natural life here we lead; none to mortify lust or corruption.
This is the general mistake of men ignorant of the gospel about this thing;
and it lies at the bottom of very much of that superstition and will-worship
that has been brought into the world. What horrible self-macerations45 were
practiced by some of the ancient authors of monastical devotion! What violence
did they offer to nature! What extremity of sufferings did they put them-
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41 uncover, reveal, demonstrate
42 negative label for Roman Catholics, relating to belief in papal supremacy; from the Latin papa (“pope”)
43 attaining, achieving
45 self-inflicted starvation, emaciation
selves upon! Search their ways and principles to the bottom, and you will find
that it had no other root but this mistake, namely, that attempting rigid mortification,
they fell upon the natural man instead of the corrupt old man—
upon the body wherein we live instead of the body of death.
Neither will the natural popery that is in others do it. Men are galled with
the guilt of a sin that has prevailed over them; they instantly46 promise to
themselves and God that they will do so no more; they watch over themselves
and pray for a season until this heat waxes47 cold and the sense of sin is worn
off—and so mortification goes also, and sin returns to its former dominion.
Duties are excellent food for an unhealthy soul; they are no physic48 for a sick
soul. He that turns his meat into his medicine must expect no great operation.
Spiritually sick men cannot sweat out their distemper with working. But
this is the way of men who deceive their own souls; as we shall see afterward.
That none of these ways are sufficient is evident from the nature of the
work itself that is to be done; it is a work that requires so many concurrent
actings in it as no self-endeavor can reach unto, and is of that kind that an
almighty energy is necessary for its accomplishment; as shall be afterward
Why Mortification Is the Work of the Spirit
It is, then, the work of the Spirit. For—
He is promised of God to be given unto us to do this work. The taking
away of the stony heart—that is, the stubborn, proud, rebellious, unbelieving
heart—is in general the work of mortification that we treat of. Now this
is still promised to be done by the Spirit, “I will give my Spirit, and take away
the stony heart” (Ezek. 11:19; 36:26), and by the Spirit of God is this work
wrought when all means fail (Isa. 57:17-18).
We have all our mortification from the gift of Christ, and all the gifts of
Christ are communicated to us and given us by the Spirit of Christ:“Without
Christ we can do nothing” (John 15:5). All communications of supplies and
relief, in the beginnings, increasings, actings of any grace whatsoever, from
him, are by the Spirit, by whom he alone works in and upon believers. From
him we have our mortification: “He is exalted and made a Prince and a Savior,
to give repentance unto us” (Acts 5:31); and of our repentance our mortification
is no small portion. How does he do it? Having “received . . . the
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46 insistently, constantly, faithfully
47 grows, becomes
48 remedy, relief, medicine
promise of the Holy Ghost,” he sends him abroad for that end (Acts 2:33).
You know the manifold promises he made of sending the Spirit, as Tertullian
speaks, “Vicariam navare operam,”49 to do the works that he had to accomplish
The resolution of one or two questions will now lead me nearer to what
I principally intend.
How the Spirit Mortifies Sin
The first [question] is: How does the Spirit mortify sin? I answer, in general,
By causing our hearts to abound in grace and the fruits that are contrary
to the flesh, and the fruits thereof and principles of them. So the apostle
opposes the fruits of the flesh and of the Spirit: “The fruits of the flesh,” says
he, “are so and so” (Gal. 5:19-21); “but,” says he, “the fruits of the Spirit are
quite contrary, quite of another sort” (vv. 22-23). Yea; but what if these are
in us and do abound, may not the other abound also? No, says he, “They
that are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts” (v. 24).
But how? Why, “by living in the Spirit and walking after the Spirit” (v. 25)—
that is, by the abounding of these graces of the Spirit in us and walking
according to them. For, says the apostle, “these are contrary one to another”
(v. 17); so that they cannot both be in the same subject in any intense or high
degree. This “renewing of us by the Holy Ghost,” as it is called (Titus 3:5),
is one great way of mortification; he causes us to grow, thrive, flourish, and
abound in those graces which are contrary, opposite, and destructive to all
the fruits of the flesh, and to the quiet or thriving of indwelling sin itself.
By a real physical efficiency on the root and habit of sin, for the weakening,
destroying, and taking it away. Hence he is called a “spirit of judgment
and . . . burning” (Isa. 4:4), really consuming and destroying our lusts. He
takes away the stony heart by an almighty efficiency; for as he begins the
work as to its kind, so he carries it on as to its degrees. He is the fire which
burns up the very root of lust.
He brings the cross of Christ into the heart of a sinner by faith, and gives
us communion with Christ in his death and fellowship in his sufferings: of
the manner whereof more afterward.
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49 May be translated: “to perform the work on his behalf.” This quote is also found in Owen’s Communion
with God (Works, 2:148). Owen may be quoting Tertullian’s “De Praescriptionibus Haereticos (On
Prescription Against Heretics),” found in Anti-Nicene Fathers: Volume 3 (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson,
2004), 249. For similar uses of the “vicariam” in connection with Tertullian and the Holy Spirit see Richard
Baxter’s The Practical Works of Richard Baxter (London, 1838), 2:266; and Thomas Manton’s Eighteen
Sermons on the Second Chapter of the Second Epistle to the Thessalonians (Achill, 1842 ), 49.
If the Spirit Alone Mortifies Sin, Why Are We Exhorted to
Secondly, if this be the work of the Spirit alone, how is it that we are exhorted
to it?—seeing the Spirit of God only can do it, let the work be left wholly to
It is no otherwise the work of the Spirit but as all graces and good works
which are in us are his. He “works in us to will and to do of his own good
pleasure” (Phil. 2:13); he works “all our works in us” (Isa. 26:12)—“the
work of faith with power” (2 Thess. 1:11; Col. 2:12); he causes us to pray,
and is a “spirit of supplication” (Rom. 8:26; Zech. 12:10); and yet we are
exhorted, and are to be exhorted, to all these.
He does not so work our mortification in us as not to keep it still an act
of our obedience. The Holy Ghost works in us and upon us, as we are fit to
be wrought in and upon; that is, so as to preserve our own liberty and free
obedience. He works upon our understandings, wills, consciences, and affections,
agreeably to their own natures; he works in us and with us, not against
us or without50 us; so that his assistance is an encouragement as to the facilitating
of the work, and no occasion of neglect as to the work itself. And,
indeed, I might here bewail the endless, foolish labor of poor souls, who,
being convinced of sin and not able to stand against the power of their convictions,
do set themselves, by innumerable perplexing ways and duties, to
keep down sin, but, being strangers to the Spirit of God, all in vain. They combat
without victory, have war without peace, and are in slavery all their days.
They spend their strength for that which is not bread, and their labor for that
which profits not [Isa. 55:2].
This is the saddest warfare that any poor creature can be engaged in. A
soul under the power of conviction from the law is pressed to fight against
sin, but has no strength for the combat. They cannot but fight, and they can
never conquer; they are like men thrust on the sword of enemies on purpose
to be slain. The law drives them on, and sin beats them back. Sometimes they
think, indeed, that they have foiled sin, when they have only raised a dust that
they see it not; that is, they distemper their natural affections of fear, sorrow,
and anguish, which makes them believe that sin is conquered when it is not
touched. By that time they are cold, they must go to the battle again; and the
lust which they thought to be slain appears to have had no wound.
And if the case be so sad with them who do labor and strive, and yet enter
not into the kingdom, what is their condition who despise all this; who are
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50 outside of
perpetually under the power and dominion of sin and love to have it so; and
are troubled at nothing, but that they cannot make sufficient provision for
the flesh, to fulfill the lusts thereof [cf. Rom. 13:14]?