What is the Purpose of the Book?
In the preface Owen says he wants to do two things: First, give believers clear directions on how to kill sin. Second, help those who have misunderstood the gospel and “have imposed a system of self-wrought mortification.”
Outline and Summary of the Book
The book is divided into 14 chapters and I would divide the book into 4 sections.
Section 1: The Introduction (Ch. 1)
The key verse of the book is Romans 8:13, “If by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.”
Owen points out 5 things about this passage.
1. Mortification is for believers.
2. Notice how this verse is conditional. “If you” mortify sin “you will live.” If we kill sin it will lead to eternal life and this should be our main motivation.
3. The verse says we mortify sin “by the Spirit.” Mortification only happens by the Spirit.
4. The verse defines mortification as “putting to death the deeds of the body.”
5. The verse gives a promise of “life.” This promise likely refers to both eternal life and “also the spiritual life in Christ which we have here.”
Section 2: Mortification Foundations (Ch. 2-8)
In chapter 2, Owen gives us six reasons why we must mortify the flesh. I want you to consider two of the reasons he gives. Oh, may they encourage you to see how vital mortification is. First, indwelling sin always abides in us while we are in this world; therefore there is always a need for it to be mortified. This means mortification is for all Christians at all times. Shouldn’t our pursuit of holiness constantly be at the center of all our days on earth? Second, we must mortify sin because failure to do so will bring forth great, cursed, scandalous, and soul-destroying sins. Brothers and sisters, this is our daily duty as Christians.
In chapter 3, Owen turns to the work of the Spirit in mortifying sin. His first point is a list of methods of mortification that are absent of the Spirit of God. He explains that we can pray, fast, and meditate all we want, but these things are only the means that Holy Spirit uses to kill sin and they are subordinate to the Spirit and faith. Our external actions should never be confused with the actual heart purifying work of the Spirit. Thus, Owen’s second point is simple. Only the Holy Spirit can actually kill any sin in our lives. How does the Spirit do that? This is what he explains next in the third point. There are three ways the Spirit mortifies sin:
1. By causing our hearts to abound in grace and the fruit of the Spirit that are contrary to the works of the flesh (Gal. 5:19-21).
2. By destroying the root and habit of sin, to weaken, to destroy, and take it away.
3. By bringing the cross of Christ into the heart of a sinner through their faith. It is through the Spirit that we can abide and commune with Christ in his death, and fellowship in His sufferings.
The last thing Owen says we must know about the Holy Spirit is that although the Spirit does a great work in our hearts, we also have a responsibility. He works in us and with us, not against us or without us. The Spirit assists, empowers, and encourages the accomplishing of the work.
In chapter four Owen shows us that in order to have joy in our spiritual life we must mortify our sin. If we do not mortify sin then it will weaken our souls and deprive us of life and spiritual joy and vigor.
In chapter 5, Owen gets at the heart of his definition of mortification by first describing what it is not. Mortifying sin is not to utterly root it out and destroy it that it should have no more hold at all nor residence in our hearts. It is not just the changing of some outward aspect of sin. It is not the improvement of our natural temperaments. It is not diverting our sin. It is not occasional victories over sin. If this is what it is not, then what is it?
Chapter 6 is all about what mortification is. Mortification is the habitual weakening of the lust. It is the constant fight and contention against sin. It is a degree of success in the battle.
The last two chapters in this section, 7 and 8, focus on two more issues that must be understood before moving on to directions to prepare oneself for mortification. The first is that we must realize that only believers can mortify sin. “Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.” (Romans 8:8) God calls non-believers to conversion of their whole soul first, before they work on this or that particular lust. The second general rule is that you cannot mortify a specific lust that is troubling you, unless you are seeking to obey the Lord from the heart in all areas. “Our need is not only an intense opposition to this or that particular lust, but a universal humble frame and temper of heart that watches over every evil, and seeks the performance of every duty that is pleasing to God.” (Pg. 51)
Section 3: 9 Preparation Directions (Ch. 9-13)
The following chapters include 9 directions of preparation for mortification. Owen makes it clear that these directions are not actually mortification but directions for the soul that seeks to gain victory and kill their sin. In the final chapter he speaks of two directions that deal with mortification. I will simply lay out the outline that Owen gives in chapters 9-13.
Preparatory Direction # 1: Consider the symptoms that accompany a lust.
Preparatory Direction # 2: Get a clear and abiding sense upon your mind and conscience of the guilt, danger, and evil of the sin with which you are troubled.
Preparatory Direction # 3: Change your conscience with the guilt of indwelling sin.
Preparatory Direction # 4: Seek a constant longing and thirsting to be delivered from the power of sin.
Preparatory Direction # 5: Consider whether the trouble that you are perplexed with is related to your particular make-up or nature.
Preparatory Direction # 6: Consider what occasions your sin has taken advantage of to exert itself in the past, and watch carefully at such times.
Preparatory Direction # 7: Rise mightily against the first sign of sin.
Preparatory Direction # 8: We need to be exercised with such meditations as will fill us at all times with self-abasement and thoughts of our own vileness.
Preparatory Direction # 9: When God stirs your heart about the guilt of your sin, concerning either its root and indwelling sin, or its breaking out, be careful you do not speak peace to yourself before God speaks it. Listen closely to what he says to your soul.
Section 4: How We Actually Mortify Sin (Ch. 14)
The final chapter is the grand conclusion of the entire book. Owen himself opens the final chapter with this statement:
“The things we have considered so far have been in preparation for the work of mortification, rather than to effect it. They are necessary to prepare the heart, and without them this work cannot be accomplished. The directions for the work itself are only two.” (Pg. 116)
In other words, all that Owen has written (13 chapters and 115 pages) has all been preparation and not until this final chapter does he get to answering the question of “How do we mortify sin?” Not only that, but he says there are only two ways to kill sin. What are they?
Direction # 1: Set your faith upon Christ for the killing of your sin.
He then gives several considerations for how we are to go about looking to Christ by faith so that it would kill our sin:
a. By faith fill your heart with a right consideration of the provision that God has made in the work of Christ for the mortification of your sin.
b. Raise up your heart in faith with an expectation of relief from Christ.
c. Consider His mercy, tenderness, and kindness as He represents us as our great High Priest at the right hand of God.
d. Consider also the faithfulness of Him who has promised.
e. Place your faith particularly upon the death, blood, and cross of Christ; that is, on Christ as crucified and slain.
f. When you meditate upon the death of Christ, keep in mind the power available to us, and your desire to be conformed to Christ.
Direction 2: Consider the part that the Holy Spirit plays in mortification and the effects that are particularly ascribed to Him.
a. He alone clearly and fully convinces the heart of the evil, guilt, and danger of the corruption, lust or sin that is to be mortified.
b. The Spirit alone reveals to us the fullness of Christ for our relief.
c. The Spirit alone establishes the heart in the expectation of relief from Christ.
d. The Spirit alone brings the cross of Christ into our hearts with its sin-killing power.
e. The Spirit is the author and Finisher of our sanctification.
f. All of our soul’s prayers to God in our need are supported by the Spirit.