Ministry Theology

John Owen, Killing Sin, and the Need for Conversion

“Be killing sin or sin will be killing you,” says John Owen in his famous work, The Mortification of Sin in BelieversSin is ferocious and relentless and unless we are actively seeking to kill it, before too long we will be devoured.

Killing sin doesn’t mean we completely destroy it (that’s Jesus’ job, not ours). It doesn’t mean we stop one wicked thing and replace it with another. It doesn’t mean we just occasionally overcome a sin.

Killing sin does mean that, over time, sin will weaken and it won’t be as attractive to us. Killing sin means that we fight sin by fighting to believe and live as if Jesus is more satisfying and delightful. Killing sin means we frequently see obedience in our life.

Owen writes about all this in more in his important book on sin. But one thing that particularly struck me this week as I’m re-reading Owen is the question of who. Who can kill sin? So often in popular Christian commentary or books, sermons or conversations, non-Christians are called to wise up, shape up, and clean up their act. Owen’s response? Ridiculous (my word, not his). Here are his words:

You would laugh at a man that you should see setting up a great fabric, and never take any care for a foundation; especially if you should see him so foolish as that, having a thousand experiences that what he built one day fell down another, he would yet continue in the same course…When the Jews, upon their conviction of their sin, were cut to the heart and cried out, “What shall we do?” (Acts 2:37), what does Peter direct them to do? Does he bid them go and mortify their pride, wrath, malice, cruelty, and the like? No; he knew that was not their present work, but he calls them to conversion and faith in Christ in general (v. 38).

Owen acknowledges that God has provided many means to restrain sin, otherwise the world would be hell, as it were. But, ultimately, it is of no use, there is no power, and there is no eternal value if sin is not overcome by and through Christ. Owen writes, “Be sure to get an interest in Christ–if you intend to mortify any sin without it, it will never be done.” In other words, if you are not converted to Jesus–if you are not born again by the Spirit–you will never be able to kill sin in general or even particular sins. You may replace a sinful behavior with other less noticeable sins. You may modify your behavior so you don’t appear as sinful. But you will never kill sin. And Jesus will never be your all-consuming treasure.

Unfortunately, we Christians do much harm to non-Christians precisely because of this issue. We have made Christianity appear to be a religion of morality, as if this whole Jesus-thing about simply stopping a few bad habits here and there. It’s all too easy to say to someone, “Stop this sin or that sin because sin is your problem!” A particular sin may certainly be ruining someone’s life. That is true. But any particular sin is only a symptom of not being alive in Christ. The bigger problem is that apart from Christ, people are dead and at enmity with God.

Only conversion to Christ can change this. We don’t need a new strategy that will help us changes our behaviors. We need a new Master. We need a complete transformation. We need a new heart. Once this conversion happens a person goes from death to life. Then, and only then, let the sin-killing begin, because, as Owen concludes, “To kill sin is the work of living men; where men are dead (as all unbelievers, the best of them, are dead), sin is alive, and will live.”