John Owen wrote this book because he saw so many Christians struggling and failing in their battle with personal sin. The entire book is an explanation of Romans 8:13
For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.
In chapter 1 he lays out the groundwork and goes through the verse word by word explaining it’s meaning, as follows:
- “IF…”: Owen takes the word “if” and explains that this isn’t a conditional clause bringing in uncertainty. Ie, ‘If you mortify …then you will live. If you don’t then, watch out, you will lose your salvation’. He says no – Paul has already said that his readers are now under no condemnation. The word ‘if’ is here to show that there’s an unbreakable bond – eg: if the sun comes up it will be daytime. There is an unbreakable connection that if the believer puts sin to death they will live.
- “..you..” To who is it addressed? Owen answers – to Christians, those under no condemnation, those not in the flesh but in the spirit. He says it is folly to press this duty on the unsaved. Yet he says: “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.
- “…but if by the Spirit…” The efficient cause (ie, the thing which does the mortifying/ killing of sin) – he marks this as the Holy Spirit – he does the mortifying. In reality it is the Holy Spirit who really does the work.
- “…mortify the deeds of the body…”
4.1. What is meant by “the body”? Owen equates the phrases Paul uses elsewhere – the flesh, old man, body of sin. He says this is speaking of the residual sin remaining in our natures and it is called body, flesh etc because the physical body is the main instrument of it.
4.2. What is meant by the “deeds of the body?” Even though Owen says that the deeds refers to the outward actions of the body he argues that what is really intended is the inward heart and intent – the flesh always “aims to bring forth a perfect sin”
4.3. What is meant by “mortify”? This is the old fashioned word – to kill. He says that Paul is using the picture of a ‘a man’ – as if your sinful nature was a person- and the only way to deal with him is to kill him. A body cannot work if it is dead. Therefore, to mortify the deeds of the body you are laying an axe to the root – you are chopping at its power, strength, life and vigour. It seems that there is a contradiction (which he promises to explain further later on ) when Romans says that we are “crucified with Christ”. Owen explains that this is speaking about the merit of the cross (meritorious – a completed work) and the example also. In other words we stand in the victory of a sure thing, we have the merit of it – “but the whole work is by degrees to be carried on to perfection all our days”
5. “…you shall live…” – Owen suggests this is firstly speaking of eternal life in Christ – it is placed in contrast to “If you live after the flesh, you shall die”. But he further suggests the possibility that this is also speaking of “the joy, comfort and vigour of it”. As he says “Now I live, if you stand fast” 1 Thess 3:8. In other words – “the vigour, power and comfort of our spiritual life depends on the mortification of the deeds of the flesh”
The flow of Owens thinking on this verse is that it is speaking to forgiven, redeemed Christians. The intention of the verse is not to cast doubt on the security of the believer; “once truly saved, always truly saved” applies here as it does everywhere. The “if” here is to show an absolute definite logical certainty – it is a “self evident” logical thing:
2 + 2 = 4
If you mortify… = you will live.
He explains that what we are mortifying is the corruption we still carry with us. The Old man is described as crucified, this means that it is a “done deal”, it is speaking meritoriously of the work of Christ, a victory that we can finally and perfectly claim when we meet him. In the here and now before we get to heaven – we have to fight for every inch of progress.
Finally and most wonderfully – as we do this – the reality is that it is the Holy Spirit who really does the work; in Owen’s vocab – the Holy Spirit is the efficient cause. We are called to obey – he does the work. This will expanded on in later chapters.