Mortification of Sin – Chapter 3

Note: The Banner of Truth Edition splits up the book into chapters – however, Owen is giving three big principles: chapter 2 = principle 1. Chapter 3 = principle 2.


Principle 2:  It is the Holy Spirit who is the only efficient cause (the one who actually does the work) of this mortification; it is only the Holy Spirit who is sufficient for the work. The Holy Spirit works in us as he pleases.

  1. One of Owen’s major concerns was Roman Catholicism (as it was with all the Reformers and Puritans). If the Holy Spirit is really the cause underneath the killing off of sin in the Christian then it is a waste of time to try any other means to mortify sin and grow in grace. Here the efforts of the Roman Catholic Church are exposed as without any power. He gives a couple of reasons: a. because the means prescribed are empty – wearing of hair shirts, beating of the body etc. b. The people who are called to do this are spiritually dead and need life first before any attempts at mortification will be of any worth.

1.1.    He goes on to outline why these various methods of mortification proposed by the Roman Catholic Church are ineffective

1.1.1. God has not prescribed many of these methods as a way to mortification: rough clothing, vows, penances, monastic life etc. This is just not biblical methodology.

1.1.2. The things that God does prescribe are looked on, by the RC church, as fountains rather than streams or channels of Grace. Ie, the source of help is God himself, the power is all his – the means we use are mere streams. So they (the Roman Catholic Church) puts great stock in the more they fast, pray etc the more power garnered. Ie, their eyes are on the means rather than Christ himself. This is the fundamental mistake: they attack the physical body (as if this was the source of the problem) rather than the “old man” which is the sinful nature.

2. Now he gives the positive reason why this is a work of the Holy Spirit alone:

2.1.    God specifically promised that he would come to “take out the stony heart and put in a heart of flesh”. He takes away stubbornness, pride and unbelief.

2.2.    The bible tells us that all conquering of sin is a gift to us from Christ and all gifts are mediated to us through the Holy Spirit. So the point is made that without him we can do nothing. Also, he quotes Tertullion that he sent the Spirit to “do the works that he had to accomplish in us”, ie, it is Christ working in us and through us.

In summery Owen rounds up with answering two concluding practical questions:

  1. How does the Holy Spirit mortify sin?

1.1.    By causing grace and the fruits of the Holy Spirit to abound. This is a point emphasised by Tim Keller in recent years. That there is an expulsive power in the work of the Holy Spirit. Owen picks up in Galatians 5 where he shows that the fruit of the Spirit is contrary in nature and so will work against the flesh.

1.2.    By “real physical efficiency” – that is, he directly goes to work chopping at the roots of these sins in our lives.

1.3.    By Faith he brings the cross of Christ to us and facilitates real communion


If this is all the work of the Holy Spirit – then why does the bible teach us to do the work. Shouldn’t we just ‘let go and let God?

2.1.    Firstly Owen quotes a number of verses which show that we ought not to make such a sharp division between our working and the Spirit’s working. He “works in us to will and to do of his own good pleasure” Phil 2:13. So our working and the Spirit’s working are in some ways inseparable.

2.2.    This is really interesting. Owen argues that the way that the Holy Spirit works is not to keep prodding us to fight sin when we don’t really want to – creating conflict within. No, he rather he “works upon our understandings, wills, consciences and affections, agreeably to their own natures; he works in us and with us, not against us and without us”. Her works in us creating genuine Love for God, understanding and a desire to fight sin. Armed with this and the continuing strength of the Spirit – we get victory.

Owen concludes that the most miserable person in the world is the one who feels the convicting weight of the law but has no power to deal with sin. The paragraph is well worth the read.


About daveneald

Pastor of Waterford Baptist Church
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