Death By Duty?: Assessing John Owen's Theology of Mortification
It has been the pervasive view concerning the Puritans, and Puritanism, since nearly the end of the nineteenth century that those heirs of the Protestant Reformation turned the Biblical spirituality of their eminent predecessors into a legalistic, “do-it-yourself” religion. Among those accused of such distortions is none other than the towering Puritan theologian John Owen. One of his hallmark works The Mortification of Sin in Believers might understandably be identified as evidence for this charge. For, in the work Owen lays out a strong and hard plan for the fight against sin, and in so doing clearly indicates that it is a duty of man. The last five decades have, however, shed new light on the Puritans as “people,” and opened up much discussion about their theology that is still continuing to produce new ground. It is with this in mind that the question, “Was John Owen a legalist,” becomes significant for understanding better the Puritans. The following paper is an examination of this major work on sin and an assessment of the author’s so-called “legalism” within it. Owen’s work is rich with the gospel, and the misunderstandings of it are simply poor readings of the work.
Before examining the work of this significant representative of the Puritans, however, we must understand who John Owen was. If it is true that a knowledge of a man’s writing will reveal the man himself, then it is equally true that a knowledge of the man himself helps us to interpret correctly his writing.
John Owen was born in 1616 at Stadham, England, near Oxford. He was the son of a Puritan vicar, Henry Owen, and so it was only natural for him to grow up into a Puritan himself. J.I. Packer says of Owen that he “embodied all that was noblest in Puritan devotion.” In fact at his funeral service Owen’s colleague David Clarkson said of him, “Holiness gave a divine lustre to his other accomplishments.” Owen had understood what Clarkson believed was “most needed to humble the souls of men”: (1) Knowledge of God and (2) Knowledge of Self. “The man that understands the evil of his own heart, how vile it is, is the only useful, fruitful, and solidly believing and obedient person.” This certainly described Owen. But he had not come to this knowledge of self merely through academia, but through painful periods of spiritual depression in his own life.
After graduating from Queens College with his M.A. in 1635 Owen delved into more hard and serious study. Even pushing himself to study eighteen to twenty hours a day. But ambitions of greatness were displaced when in his mid-twenties he experienced such a conviction for sin that for the next three months he was academically frozen. It was a period, not uncommon to Christians of his day, where he wrestled with his own sinfulness before a holy God. The results were both steps towards his conversion, and, unlike most Christians of his day, the beginning stages of a thorough and expansive theology of sin.
Greater knowledge of his heart did not, however, lead to a stagnant life and satisfied mind, and Owen once again threw himself, whole-heartedly, into his studies, sleeping only four hours a night. But by 1630 the landscape of Puritan England was changing. Archbishop William Laud was appointed Chancellor of Oxford in 1630 and was highly involved in University life. His new statutes for the Church of England were to be enforced and each student was bound to agree to them. It was this pressure which drove Owen to finally leave Oxford in 1637. Laud had Catholic tendencies and his new statutes reeked of that popish religion which the Puritans were so strongly resistant to. John Spurr describes the changes as follows:
Clergy were instructed to conform to the letter of the Prayer Book, to read the services as and when prescribed, without addition or omission, and to wear the stipulated clerical dress and vestments. Parishioners were to stand for the creed and the gospels and to bow at the name of Jesus. In 1633 the Privy Council instructed the parish churches to follow the lead of cathedrals and to keep the communion table permanently against the east wall, in the position of an altar, and surrounded by rails; the laity should receive communion on their knees at these rails. Preaching was regulated and discussion of predestination especially discouraged.
For Owen these statutes were the teaching as doctrine what were the commandments of men. He saw them as an imposition on the Scriptures and could not abide by them in good conscience. It seems, then, that from an early stage Owen had accepted the old Puritan principle of regulative worship.
After leaving Oxford Owen found himself soon involved in the English Civil war. The war was engulfing the continent at large and lines were being drawn and sides chosen. Owen, naturally, felt compelled to side with Parliament, who was largely Puritan. Throughout the 1640s he served as chaplain to Oliver Cromwell. Cromwell was the leading figure in the English revolution, leading the rebel Puritan army into victory against King Charles I. It was during this period of chaplainry that Owen again felt the consuming depression of conviction for sin. He wrestled and studied and found little consolation until in 1642 God gave him assurance.
He and a friend were going to hear the great preacher Edmund Calamy at Aldermanbury Chapel. Calamy, however, was not there and in his place was a preacher of relative obscurity. The text of his sermon was Matthew 8:26, “Why are you fearful, O you of little faith?” The words grabbed Owen’s attention and held it firmly. Andrew Thompson says of the event, “Immediately it arrested the thoughts of Owen as appropriate to his present state of mind, and he breathed an inward prayer that God would be pleased by that minister to speak to his condition. The prayer was heard, for the preacher stated and answered the very doubts that had long perplexed Owen’s mind.” Finally, he was converted. It was out of this life, in this world, and on the authority of God’s word that Owen’s theology developed.
These were full years for Owen. His popularity spread through his writings and his preaching. His studies too produced both several works (A Display of Arminianism, 1643) and his public transition from Presbyterianism to Congregationalism. The period saw as well the marriage of Owen to Mary Rooke, of Fordham. Together they had eleven children, though, sadly, only one survived. It was the 1650s, however, that would prove to be the most productive years of his life.
After serving as both a state preacher and, again, chaplain to Cromwell, Owen took the job as vice-chancellor of Oxford University. The sermons he preached during these days at both Christ’s Church, Oxford and St. Mary’s were theological seeds that later blossomed into the work we are now here to consider: The Mortification of Sin. There were other works during this period too. Joel Beeke and Randall Pederson list, coming out this period, works on “perseverance of the saints, Christ’s satisfaction, mortification of sin, communion with the Trinity, schism, temptation, and the authority of Scripture.” Writing was the major contribution of John Owen to greater Christendom.
This period of peace, however, did not last. For, a man of Owen’s uncompromising nature is never far from distressing those in authority. The 1660s found Owen out of favor with Cromwell, then protectorate of England, and thrust from his positions in academia. Though continuing to write throughout the 70s Owen had, by 1673, settled into the pastorate of a joint church in London, that he and several other Puritans oversaw. He died as the “Prince of the Puritans” in 1683.
Turning now to consider The Mortification of Sin we must remember the context in which it developed. The work was first published in 1656, but it stemmed from the lectures Owen gave as Dean of Christ Church, Oxford. This has bearing on the content of the work. The discourse developed out of those tumultuous years of the 1750s and was originally composed for an audience of young men. Kelly Kapic explains the significance of this information:
One consequence of addressing this youthful audience seems to be that his reflections tend toward the concrete and practical, emphasizing the particular rather than lingering too long on the abstract. Here were young people who were beginning to experience the complexity of sin and self, and Owen was compelled to help.
It seems probable that as Owen watched his students wrestle with sin he recalled his own internal conflict from years before. As these young men now came face to face with that spiritual depression, that he knew all too well, Owen sought to give them the help that he had most needed during his days of struggling. He used his lectures to stress the practical steps that they could take to fight sin. It is most likely this stress on the practical that leads some readers to conclude that Owen is nothing more than a legalist. This reaction, though understandable, is not necessarily warranted. When readers take into consideration this context it can correct the assumptions they have about the practical emphasis of the discourse.
The context aside, however, the text itself, when closely examined, reveals a gospel-rich theology. Those two great theological foundations underpin the entirety of the work: (1) Know yourself, and (2) Know God. Though Owen spends a great amount of space instructing his hearers on self-examination, he never forgets to remind them of the importance of that second principle. Kapic comments, “Affirming the importance of honest introspection does not blind Owen to the fact that this exercise will lead a person to despair if it is not also paralleled with a study of the grace of God.”
Owen does indeed teach, as the Bible does, that mortification of sin is a duty of man. So he writes, “The mortification of indwelling sin remaining in our mortal bodies, that it may not have life and power to bring forth the works or deeds of the flesh, is the constant duty of believers.” The battle against sin in the flesh is not a suggestion; it is a required fight for every Christian. Furthermore, this battle must be waged daily, constantly. There is real obligation. The foundation of this statement, however, is found in God’s Holy Word. Owen is expositing Scripture, not waxing legalistically on the duty of man. The whole work is built off of Romans 8:13, “If you through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body you shall live.” Expounding on the text Owen says:
Indwelling sin is compared to a person, a living person, called, the “old man,” with his faculties and properties, his wisdom, craft, subtlety, strength; this, says the apostle, must be killed, put to death, mortified- that is, have its power, life, vigor, and strength to produce its effects taken away by the Spirit. It is, indeed, meritoriously, and by way of example, utterly mortified and slain by the cross of Christ; and the “old man” is thence said to be “crucified with Christ” (Rom. 6:6), and ourselves to be “dead” with him (Rom 6:8), and really initially in regeneration (Rom. 6:3-5), when a principle contrary to it and destructive to it (Gal. 5:17) is planted in our hearts; but the whole work is by degrees to be carried on toward perfection all our days.
To suggest that Owen is being legalistic here is to misunderstand the nature of Biblical commands. Paul clearly said, “Put to death the deeds of the flesh,” as an imperative. But Owen does not merely leave mortification at “duty,” he continues, as his Scriptural support does, to testify that the Spirit does the work through us. “The principal efficient cause of the performance of this duty is the Spirit…All other ways of mortification are vain, all helps leave us helpless; it must be done by the Spirit.” Man cannot do this work, only the believer and only by the Spirit. “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.”
In chapter three of his work Owen delineates the great fault of Roman Catholics in the pursuit of mortifying sin, it reveals the author’s intent to convey grace and not legalism in the discourse. He states that the Catholic Church fails to mortify sin because they use “ways and means…invented by them” and “were never appointed of God for that purpose.” “Now, there is nothing in religion that has any efficacy for compassing an end, but it has it from God’s appointment of it to that purpose.” It appears that he is criticizing those attempts at self-mortification that are without the Spirit, and as such are in vain. And even when the Catholic does use the right means he again does so without the Spirit. He uses prayer, fasting, watching, and meditation, but “subordinate to the Spirit and faith, they look on them to do it by virtue of the work wrought.” The discourse, however, is not a treatise against Roman Catholics; it is a discourse on the defeat of sin by the gospel, and there is to be found the central argument against those who insist on a legalistic interpretation of the text. Owen’s means for mortification is not “duty,” but “gospel grace.”
At the root of legalism is confusion over the doctrine of sanctification. It fails to grasp, what Owen did, that God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility are Biblically compatible. So he writes, “[The Holy Spirit] 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.” Those who would accuse Owen of being legalistic in his presentation of man’s duty, miss the numerous comments he makes throughout the work that remind his readers that God must do the work of mortification through them. This “reminder” comes particularly in two ways: (1) Through references to the Spirit as the means, and (2) Through the Gospel. It is these “reminders” that make The Mortification of Sin a balanced teaching of the doctrine of sanctification.
Speaking of Owen’s contribution to the study of sanctification Kelly Kapic writes:
There are two extremes often found in the church when dealing with [questions concerning sanctification]. On the one hand, there are those who seem to believe that we are saved by grace and sanctified by works: here grace is problematically reduced to the initial work of salvation. On the other hand, in an effort to avoid “works righteousness,” others tend to collapse justification and sanctification; the danger here is that the biblical call to active, faithful obedience by the believer can be nullified, and inappropriate passivity can set in. Rather than these two extremes, Owen follows the more traditional Reformed perspective that upholds another model of sanctification. True and lasting resistance to sin comes not through will power and self-improvement but through the Spirit who empowers believers with a knowledge and love of God.
Owen’s theology is not legalism, it is, in fact, the Biblical, balanced, view of the Christian life that expects man to do his duty, and anticipates fruit from the Spirit’s work through him. Some of the way in which Owen speaks of the Spirit was discussed above, but here we zero in slightly more on his pneumatology.
Owen made great contributions to the protestant understanding of the Holy Spirit, not all of which we can consider here, but he was particularly helpful in expounding upon the role of the Spirit in sanctification. In The Mortification of Sin Owen offers two justifications for his assertion that the Spirit is the one who mortifies sin. (1) The Father promised to believers the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit for their sanctification. Owen finds scriptural support for this conviction as well, he writes:
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).
(2) Sanctification is a gift from Christ that is communicated through the Spirit. Owen states, “All communications of supplies and relief, in the beginnings, increasings, actings of any grace whatsoever, from [Christ], are by the Spirit, by whom he alone works in and upon believers.” In view of this pneumatology it seems unreasonable to credit legalism to Owen. There is duty in Owen’s theology, just as there is in Scripture, but it is a duty motivated by grace and accomplished by the Holy Spirit. Dr. Michael Haykin agrees when he writes:
For Owen…the believer has a duty to be constantly mortifying, or “putting to death,” the sin that still indwells his mortal frame. But equally important for Owen was the fact that such a duty is only possible in the strength that the Holy Spirit supplies, for he alone is “sufficient for this work.”
The Biblical view of sanctification, that is of the mortification of sin, includes both duty and grace. To attempt to mortify sin without one or the other is to fail at the task. And Holy Spirit-empowered-duty avoids the pitfalls of both passivity and legalism.
Through references to the Spirit, like the ones listed above, Owen reminds his readers of the gospel-rich theology he holds. But it is in the second means of reminding them, that readers will find the greatest defense against critics: Owen’s use of the Gospel, itself. If the concept of Spirit-empowered-duty does not sway his accusers then perhaps the amazing manner in which Owen speaks of the cross will.
The gospel is the centerpiece of Owen’s theology of mortification. The death of Christ, not the duty of man, is the immediate cause of our sanctified hearts and lives. Owen expresses this truth mostly at the end of the book, but he sprinkles the gospel message throughout the whole of the content. Readers can see it if the presumed legalism of the author does not blind them. So Owen writes in chapter 4:
Adoption and justification, not mortification, are the immediate causes of life, vigor, and comfort. In the ways instituted by God to give us life, vigor, courage, and consolation, mortification is not one of the immediate causes of it. They are privileges of our adoption made known to our souls that give us immediately these things.
The blessings of sanctification, those blessings of a healthy spiritual life, are not results of mortifying sin, but of being justified by Christ. It is these kinds of caveats that demonstrate Owen’s resistance to “work’s righteousness” and self-preservation in the faith. It seems likely that Owen knew some would be prone to take these practical principles and run fast, feeling secure in their salvation, all the way to hell. Again, he qualifies this practical advice with continued reminders of the gospel: “There is no death of sin without the death of Christ.”
The author continues this work with a rather specific and lengthy list of practical guides to the mortification of sin. He says we should meditate on the guilt of sin, think of its danger and evil, that we should wait on God, and that we should consider our natural tempers. But all these steps are “preparatory to the work aimed at…[and not]…such as will effect it.” When Owen finally approaches, in the last chapter, directions for the work o mortification itself he has only one: set faith at work on Christ for the killing of your sin. Here the richness of the gospel is brought forth from his pen.
What is the source of our mortification? Is it Self-improvement or personal striving? Not according to Owen:
How shall faith act itself on Christ for [the killing of your sin]…By faith fill your soul with a due consideration of that provision which is laid up in Jesus Christ for this end and purpose, that all your lusts, this very lust wherewith you are entangled, may be mortified.
It is Jesus Christ’s provision as “Prince and Savior,” not man’s work, that is the end of our sinning. Anyone, by this point, still clinging to the interpretation of The Mortification of Sin as legalism need only read a few lines further to be hit with another blow of John Owen’s gospel-rich theology. Continuing his discussion of how faith acts itself on Christ for the mortifying of sin Owen says:
Let, then, your soul by faith be exercised with such thoughts and apprehensions as these: I am a poor, weak creature; unstable as water, I cannot excel. This corruption is too hard for me, and is at the very door of ruining my soul; and what to do I know not. My soul is becoming as parched ground and an habitation of dragons. I have made promises and broken them; vows and engagements have been as a thing of naught. Many persuasions have I had that I had got the victory and should be delivered, but I am deceived; so that I plainly see, that without some eminent succor and assistance, I am lost, and shall be prevailed on to an utter relinquishment of god. But yet, though this be my state and condition, let the hands that hang down be lifted up, and the feeble knees be strengthened. Behold, the Lord Christ, that has all fullness of grace in his heart [John 1:16], all fullness of power in his hand [Matt 28:18], he is able to slay all these his enemies. There is sufficient provision in him for my relief and assistance. He can take my drooping, dying soul and make me more than a conqueror [Rom. 8:37].
Owen would lay waste to all boasts of self-promotion and prideful work’s righteousness. The poor weak creature has nothing to offer God and is indeed desolate and on the brink of ruin. Only Christ’s provision is his salvation. This is pure gospel teaching that Owen advocates. The mortification of sin is the work of the Spirit, accessible only through the death and resurrection of Christ. Legalism leaves man with the weight of his sin still bearing down upon him, but Owen declares that the gospel of Jesus frees us from that burden:
Let faith look on Christ in the gospel as he is set forth dying and crucified for us. Look on him under the weight of our sins, praying, bleeding, dying; bring him in that condition into your heart by faith; apply his blood so shed to your corruptions. Do this daily. 
Owen would have his audience know themselves. Know their hearts, their weaknesses and distempers. He would urge them to know their sins and their guilt because of sin. Yet amidst this duty Owen would urge his audience to know God. Know his mercy and grace, know his precious Son crucified. Yes mortification is required of the Christian. And yes we are responsible to work out our salvation. But if we do so with the gospel, then the Spirit of Christ works in us and through us for our sanctification. This gospel-rich theology is the foundation of all mortification and with that knowledge readers are free to read The Mortification of Sin with hope for their own sanctification.
The significance of this discussion certainly has manifold benefits. For starters it preserves the honest interpretation of Owen’s classic work on sin. Beyond this point it reveals to us more of who this great Puritan theologian was. He was not the hard, bitter, stoic, prude, who as Dean of Christ Church, Oxford made strict rules for the performance of religion. Rather John Owen is the brilliant, sensitive, and pastoral theologian who writes comfort his audience with the gospel of grace in Christ Jesus. And, furthermore, he writes out of the storehouse of his own depression and his own victory through this gospel. At the larger level this discussion reveals fresh evidence that the Puritans were not the killjoys of the seventeenth century. They were pastors, theologians, Christians, and men who struggled with the very same issues that men struggle with today, and they found hope and, yes even, joy in the gospel.
 See Joel Beeke & Randal J. Pederson, Meet The Puritans. Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage, 2006. xiv.
 See R.T. Kendall, Calvin and English Calvinism to 1649. United Kingdom: Paternoster, 1997.
 John Owen, Sin & Temptation. ed. James M. Houston. Portland: Multnomah, 1983. xviii.
 John Spurr, English Puritanism 1603-1689. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998. 87.
 Owen would later in life try to discover the identity of this man, but to no avail.
 Andrew Thompson, The Life of Dr. Owen. In The Works of John Owen. Vol. 1. 7th Printing. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2000. xxx-xxxi
 Meet the Puritans. 458-459.
 Kelly Kapic and Justin Taylor, Overcoming Sin & Temptation: Three Classic Works of John Owen. Wheaton: Crossway, 2006. 25.
 The “readers” to whom I refer as sensing legalism in this work are both general and specific. This paper aims to prevent others from making the same mistakes that I initially made, when first considering this work in early 2002. I refer to them and myself with that word “readers.” I am also seeking here to correct the mistakes of 19th century critics who assed the Puritans as prudes and legalists, though I am not less acquainted with their works.
 Ibid. 31.
 John Owen, The Mortification of Sin. In Justin Taylor & Kelly Kapic, Overcoming Sin & Temptation: Three Classic Works by John Owen. Wheaton: Crossway, 2006. 49.
 Quoted in the text. 45.
 Ibid. 48-49.
 Readers would do well to note the amount of Scripture that Owen references throughout the work.
 Ibid. 47.
 Ibid. 58-59.
 Ibid. 59.
 The quote continues, “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 without 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.” Ibid. 62.
 For more concerning Owen on sanctification see Sinclair Ferguson, John Owen on the Christian Life. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1987.
 Ibid. 32-33.
 Ibid. 60.
I am indebted to Michael Haykin, for this analysis. See, Haykin, Michael A.G., “Spirituality: John Owen on the Holy Spirit and the Mortification of Sin.” Evangelical Times (Nov. 1999), [journal on-line], accessed 14 April 2007; available from http://www.evangelicaltimes.org/articles/nov%2099/nov99a06.htm; Internet.
Kapic and Taylor, 60.
 Michael Haykin, “Spirituality: John Owen on the Holy Spirit and the Mortification of Sin.”
 Kapic and Taylor, 64.
 Ibid. 79.
 Owen shows sensitivity here in noting that sin will look different for each man, owing to their own natural tendencies and character.
 Ibid. 131.
 Ibid. 138.