Have you ever been around someone and sensed you were in the presence of greatness? Someone around whom you felt intimidated or unworthy? Such is the case when reading the works of 17th Century Puritan theologian, John Owen. Owen, considered primarily for his writings, is widely held in regard as the greatest British theologian of all time and arguably in this writer’s opinion, the greatest of all time period. I share the sentiment of Pastor Sinclair Ferguson’s assessment of Owen as he states, “To read John Owen is to enter a rare world. Whenever I return to one of his works I find myself asking “Why do I spend time reading lesser literature?””
“Owen was by common consent the weightiest Puritan theologian, and many would bracket him with Jonathan Edwards as one of the greatest Reformed theologians of all time. Born in 1616, he entered Queen’s College, Oxford, at the age of twelve and secured his M.A. in 1635, when he was nineteen. In his early twenties, conviction of sin threw him into such turmoil that for three months he could scarcely utter a coherent word on anything; but slowly he learned to trust Christ, and so found peace. In 1637 he became a pastor; in the 1640s he was chaplain to Oliver Cromwell, and in 1651 he was made Dean of Christ Church, Oxford’s largest college. In 1652 he was given the additional post of Vice-Chancellor of the University, which he then reorganized with conspicuous success. After 1660 he led the Independents through the bitter years of persecution till his death in 1683. (by J.I. Packer)”
The Mortification of Sin is one of Owen’s most famed works and is a brief (90 page) series of addresses on Romans 8:13 KJV, “For if ye live after the flesh, ye shall die: but if ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live.” It provides teaching in a vital but neglected aspect of Christian living, namely the battle against sin through the practice of mortification. There are several reprints of Owen’s text, many of which have been updated from Old English to Modern English. I preferred to read the unaltered version and chose the original, as found in The Works of John Owen: Volume 6 Temptation and Sin published by Banner of Truth. From the text under his name, “A servant of Jesus Christ in the Work of the Gospel,” to the Prefatory Note to the opening Preface and into the start of main text, Owen’s tone is clear, he is a pious man humbly dealing with a subject in which his prayer is to promote holiness in the readers. He states in the opening Preface:
“I hope I may own in sincerity, that my heart’s desire unto God, and the chief design of my life in the station wherein the good providence of God hath placed me, are, that mortification and universal holiness may be promoted in my own and in the hearts and ways of others, to the glory of God; that so the gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ may be adorned in all things: for the compassing of which end, if this little discourse (of the publishing whereof this is the sum of the account I shall give) may in any thing be useful to the least of the saints, it will be looked on as a return of the weak prayers wherewith it is attended by its unworthy author.”
Author and theologian J.I. Packer states, “I owe more to John Owen than to any other theologian, ancient or modern; and I owe more to [The Mortification of Sin] than to anything else he wrote.” Certainly this has been the case for me as I labored through the mind of Owen and his treatise of the Apostle Paul’s exhortation to believers. Owen offers such quotable sentiments as, “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.” Owen is quick to point out that the believers battle with sin does not come from internal strength, but instead from the power of the Holy Spirit. Another gem is perhaps his most notable quote, “Do you mortify; do you make it your daily work; be always at it whilst you live; cease not a day from this work; be killing sin or it will be killing you.”
To say that John Owen offers a thorough examination of Romans 8:13 would be an understatement. His exegesis of the passage is unparalleled and his knowledge of the Bible to include supporting texts easily rivals the most notable theologians of all time. In order to provide a clear understanding of the original meaning of the passages, he does include a fair dose of Greek and I’m unsure if this was included in the more modern versions. If you’re looking to deepen your knowledge of the Bible, there is no better theologian to study under, but I do offer this caveat: Owen’s writings are weighty and it does take quite a bit of “re-reading” to fully understand. I suppose the updated modern text may be more easily read, but I feared the edits may detract from Owens original thoughts. Plus, the original Old English helps place the reader in a time when piety not popularity was common.
In conclusion, I commend John Owen’s The Mortification of Sin to you and for that matter any of his other works. If you enjoy being challenged to think weighty thoughts of God’s Word, then be sure to include Owen in your library.