“Be killing sin, or sin will be killing you”. A stark pair of alternatives. What could be more urgent? Yet how much do we think, hear or read about putting sin to death? This is one of John Owen’s most famous quotes. He stresses that it is a constant and daily imperative. “Be always at it while you live. Cease not a day from this work”. The biblical reasons he gives can be summarised as follows. Indwelling sin never goes away or stops its activity. It is always seeking our destruction. It is also our duty to grow in grace and holiness every day. Our spiritual life depends on putting sin to death.
Before Owen uttered these famous words they were earlier declared by Hugh Binning. It is not necessarily likely that Owen would have been aware of this. Still, it shows that the Scottish writers and ministers equalled the great puritan preachers. They shared a deep understanding of Scripture and spiritual experience. The following is an updated extract from the sermons Binning preached on Romans 8:13.
Killing Sin is Spiritual Self-defence
Binning appeals to the natural law of self-defence. We ought to be afraid of “the infinite danger” involved in indulging sin. Sin is our enemy. The life of sin will be your death and vice versa. It only embraces us to strangle us. We are deadened by its effects. When it gets us in its stranglehold our spiritual life is starved of breath. It wants to squeeze the life out of us. We must, therefore, be engaging in killing it. He says:
your sins and lusts to which you are inclined and accustomed, will certainly kill you, if you entertain [accommodate] them
Self-love at least, should motivate us to this duty. Even if we are not persuaded (as we ought to be) by love to God.
nature itself would teach you the law of self-defence, – to kill, ere you be killed, to kill sin, ere it kill you, – to mortify the deeds and lusts of the body, which abound among you, or they will certainly mortify you, that is, make you die.
It remains true, and always will that “the wages of sin is death”. Just like it was for Adam and Eve in the garden. In their unbelief, they believed attractive promises about the forbidden fruit. “Every way you choose to fulfil the lusts of your flesh, and to make provision for it, neglecting the eternal welfare of your souls, will certainly prove to be to you” the same. It will not yield its promises, instead it “will bring forth death, – the eternal separation of the soul from God”. If we understood all this as well as we should we would think that we owe sin nothing but “enmity and hatred and mortification [putting to death]”. We cannot make spiritual progress without it. Echoing Romans 8:13, Binning says.
If you mortify the deeds of the body, you will live. As sin decays, you increase and grow, as sins die, your souls live, and it will be a sure pledge of eternal life to you.
Killing Sin is Painful
Binning acknowledges that there is nothing easy about putting sin to death. It sounds harsh at first. The hearts of men say, “It is a hard saying, who can hear it?” It is indeed harsh to our corrupt nature. Scripture describes it as great effort and pain, great torment and labour.
It is painful. But so is amputating a part of the body with gangrene to avoid the infection spreading. You will never be a loser by putting sin to death. You will never regret it. To die to ourselves and the world, to kill sin within…makes way to a life hid from the world. Even “one hour” of such spiritual life is better than thousands of years in sinful pleasure.
in so far as sin is nearer expiring, and nearer the grave, your souls are nearer that endless life.
Crucifying sin means a painful, lingering death (Galatians 5:24). Putting sin to death is “great pain, but it is short pain”. The pleasure that results from it is greater. It also continues longer than the pleasure that sin offers. By being negligent in putting sin to death Christians only make the pain last longer. They allow “the Canaanites to live, and these are thorns and briers in their sides continually”.
Killing Sin is Impossible on Our Own
It is interesting that Binning emphasises many of the same principles Owen later asserted. Owen would urges “universal sincerity”. This means that the believer must be prepared to resist and put to death any and every sin. Not merely those to which they are not particularly prone, or those that trouble them most. “Set yourself impartially against all known” sins, Binning counsels. Certainly, we also need to identify “the chief idols and predominant inclinations of” the heart. We must be “particularly against the most beloved sin, because it interrupts” communion with God most. It separates you from your Beloved. The dearer the sin is to us, the more dangerous it is to us.
We must identify “the chief idols and predominant inclinations of” the heart. We must be “particularly against the most beloved sin, because it interrupts” communion with God most. It separates you from your Beloved. The dearer the sin is to us, the more dangerous it is to us.
John Owen emphasises the following as the two main means for putting sin to death. Acting faith on the death of Christ and relying on the power of the Holy Spirit. These are likewise emphasised by Hugh Binning. He says: look back to the Christ has gained the victory in our name and look around now for the help of the Holy Spirit. Binning uses a memorable play on words. He says that putting sin to death “will be a dead business” if we are not enlivened by these considerations.
(1) Look to the Death of Christ by Faith
Christ died to sin and lived to God in his resurrection. In this He was representing believers. Thus, you may conclude with Paul: “I am crucified with Christ” (Galatians. 2:20). “We are buried with him by baptism into his death” (Romans 6:4). Consider that union with Christ crucified, and life shall spring out of his cross, out of his grave, to kill sin in you. Consider that the great business is done already, and victory gained in our Head, “This is our victory, even faith.” Believe, and then you have overcome before you overcome, and this will help you to overcome personally.
(2) Look for the Help of the Holy Spirit
Look around to the strong helper you have, the Spirit. We can only “mortify the deeds of the body” “through the Spirit” (Romans 8:13). There is one engaged in the warfare with us who will never leave us nor forsake us. He only withdraws His help now and again to expose our weakness to ourselves and cleave faster to him. He leads us through weaknesses, infirmities, faintings and wrestlings. His strength is perfected in weakness. That when we are weak, then we may be strongest in him (2 Corinthians 12:9).
Our duty is to follow this Spirit wherever he leads us. A Christian must be dependent on and subordinate to the Spirit of God. Pay careful attention to your leader. Whenever the Spirit pulls you by the heart or draws your conscience to drive you to prayer or other duties, do not resist that pull. Do not quench the Spirit. If you neglect such warnings, then you may grieve him, and this cannot but be bitterness to you in the end.
Certainly, many Christians are guilty in this. They rob themselves of the benefit of this leading. They follow so slowly and need so much pressure and persuasion to engage in any duty. We should be ready to obey at the slightest impulse.
We often resist the Holy Ghost. This is worse. He draws and we hold onto beloved sins. He pulls, and we pull back from the most spiritual duties. But there is comfort if you have truly surrendered yourself to the guidance of this Spirit and sincerely endeavour to follow it. Be encouraged, if you lament being carried back or away or hindered by temptation and sin. You “are the sons of God”. God gives this guide to no one but his own children. “As many as are led by the Spirit of God, are the sons of God.” Even though you do not follow all his promptings perfectly. Though you are often driven away or turned back, yet does the Spirit not have hold of your heart?
This is a large but vital subject. A great deal more could be said. But we need the practice and not just the theory. Have you begun to put sin to death? Will you begin to do this? Will it be a daily priority for you?
If you would like to read more about putting sin to death or the mortification of sin here are some good places to start. You may wish to read Hugh Binning’s sermons on Romans 8:13. They are part of a collection of sermons on Romans 8 called The Sinner’s Sanctuary. These are often found in his collected works. In many ways, this is probably easier reading than John Owen. Yet Owen’s writing on the mortification of sin is not that difficult. It was originally delivered as lectures to teenage boys.
John Owen, On the Mortification of Sin. You will find this in various formats on the internet by searching for it. Many people have commented on it and sought to explain it as well as update its language. It belongs to Volume 6 of his printed Works.
John Owen, Mortification Of Sin, The Nature And Causes Of It. This is a different more concise treatment of the subject. But it is at least as helpful and is like a summary of the above. It belongs to Volume 3 of his printed Works within a larger piece of writing about the Holy Spirit.
John Flavel, The Method of Grace contains a good section on the subject also.