Owen’s entire thesis regarding the “mortification” or “putting to death” of sin in the believer is taken principally from Romans 8:13, the second half of the verse. We will therefore cite this text in both Greek and English (NET Bible). We must keep this passage before our minds if we are to follow Owen’s argument. Indeed, we would do well to memorize it. If you know Greek, you may find it quite easy to memorize it in that language as well.
eij deV pneuvmati taV" pravxei" tou` swvmato" qanatou`te, zhvsesqe.
but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body you will live. NET Bible
That this text is central to Owen’s exposition is made clear in his opening words:
That what I have of direction to contribute to the carrying on of the work of mortification in believers may receive order and perspicuity [i.e., clarity], I shall lay the foundation of it in those words of the apostle, Rom viii. 13.6
Owen suggests that Romans 8:13 has five key points that need to be considered—points he will develop at greater length in the following chapters of his work.7 The five points are as follows: First, Paul’s term mortify is a verb in the imperative mood; it is a command and thus there is, in Owen’s words, “a duty prescribed.” Second the people to whom the command is addressed are referred to; “ye” in Owen’s version and “you” in most modern translations today. Third, says Owen, there is a promise added to that command, namely, “if you put to death…you will live.” Fourth, there is a cause or means associated with the performance of the duty, namely, it is done by the Spirit. Fifth, and final, Owen observes that there is a condition which governs the outcome of Paul’s proposition here. The condition is expressed by the little word, “if.” In order to really follow the rest of Owen’s argument, you would do well, having memorized the verse, to run through these points in your mind’s eye to make sure they are clear to you.
We will begin now to summarize Owen’s arguments on these five points—at least as they are found in the rest of chapter one. Remember that the rest of the thirteen chapters will elaborate in one way or another on these ideas.
Owen begins his more detailed discussion of Romans 8:13 with the meaning and function of the conditional particle “if” (eij deV). He says that the “if” can be taken in one of two ways, either to express: (1) uncertainty as to whether the believer will perform the duty of mortifying the flesh, or (2) certainty with respect to the fact that when the believer does mortify the flesh, he will certainly live. It cannot be the first of these options, says Owen, since Paul has already said that believers are no longer under condemnation; they will mortify the deeds of the flesh; they have a new principle in them that wants to please God, not the flesh. Therefore, it must be the second of these options. In short, Paul is claiming that the believer who mortifies the flesh will most certainly live. Owen expresses the connection using the analogy of a sick man who is offered medicine:
…as we say to a sick man, ‘If you will take such a potion, or use such a remedy, you will be well’ The thing we solely intend to express is the certainty of the connection between the…remedy and health.8
From another angle, the meaning of the “if” could be simple cause-effect: mortification is the ultimate cause for the effect of new life. But, since spiritual life is freely given as God’s gracious gift (Rom 8:30), the “if” must indicate the means by which God has ordained that we reach the proper end (not the ultimate cause of it), that is, the means by which we increase our participation in that life which was already freely given to us as believers, i.e., by mortifying the deeds of the flesh.9 The “if” expresses the certainty of the promise of life, not the uncertainty of whether a believer will mortify the deeds of the flesh.
Owen next discusses the “you” as it appears in the text, i.e., “if you put to death….” He makes two very important points about the people to whom Paul addresses this command. First, they are Christians. They are those for whom “there is no condemnation” (8:1), those “who are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit” (8:9), and who are “quickened by the Spirit of Christ” (8:10-11). This is important for it relates the command to mortify to (1) a work already achieved by God himself, and (2) the present indwelling and sanctifying ministry of the Spirit. We would do well to note Owen’s connections here lest we think that in mortifying the flesh we are in some way gaining merit with God or are able in ourselves to do such a thing. We are not working for grace, but from and with grace.
Second, this command, by contrast, is not given to unbelievers who, no matter how pious and churchgoing they may be, are completely unable to fulfill it. In fact, they do not even know the presence of the One who sanctifies, let alone the power of indwelling sin (Rom 10:3-4; John 15:5). Owen says it this way:
The pressing of this duty immediately on any other is a notable fruit of that superstition and self-righteousness that the world is full of—the great work and design of devout men ignorant of the gospel.10
At the end of this section Owen formulates a thesis which will reappear later on. We simply state it here and elaborate on its meaning at that later time.
The choicest believers, who are assuredly freed from the condemning power of sin, ought yet to make their business all their days to mortify the indwelling power of sin.11
Owen’s comments on this important element in the verse can be readily understood. Therefore we will cite them, in part, here:
The principle efficient cause of this duty is the Spirit…”If by the Spirit.” The Spirit here is the Spirit mentioned [in] verse 11, the Spirit of Christ, the Spirit of God, that “dwells in us,” verse 9, that “quickens us,” verse 11; “the holy Ghost,”12 verse 14; the “Spirit of adoption,” verse 15; the Spirit that maketh intercession for us,” verse 26. All other ways of mortification are vain, all helps leave us helpless; it must be done by the Spirit…Mortification from 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.13
Owen is not here arguing that all other religions in the world are conscious of committing this mistake, per se, but only that in reality this is what they’re attempting to do, whether they’re conscious of it or not. They are attempting to overcome (perhaps “transcend,” in certain cases) their fallenness by their own abilities, spiritual prowess, and strength without the help of the Spirit and the cross of Christ. This, Owen says (and so should every informed Christian) is futile. It is futile, if for no other reason, than the holiness of God himself is the standard at which we aim. This is not to mention the derogatory implications it heaps on the necessity and value of the cross work of Christ.
But we too, as those who have come to know God through Christ, must also take to heart what Owen is saying. We too are just as unable to overcome the flesh by relying upon it as is the unregenerate. The flesh is powerless and unable to keep the law of God (Rom 8:7). The Christian knows what God thinks of the flesh: the Scripture says that “nothing good lives in it (Rom 7: 18); that it produces what amounts to spiritual dung (Phil 3:8), and that the only remedy for it, is to crucify it (Rom 6:6; Col 3:9). Owen himself will have more to say on this later.
NOTE: Is it any wonder that so many Christians today are shallow, lethargic, and disillusioned with their experience of the spiritual life? Since they spend so little time reading Scripture or listening and meditating on good teaching, they are unacquainted with these truths; they try to live the Christian life by instinct alone—not a good plan, and one that puts them practically in not much better stead than an unbeliever. Such a posture either degenerates into emotionalism with no solid ethic or into hardness of heart, with little love for God and fellow man.
Again, Owen reminds his readers that Paul’s language is in the form of a command: “mortify the deeds of the flesh.” For this reason, Owen refers to it as a duty—a word that does not sit well with many Christians today in the third millennium who have turned grace into a reason to rest when they should be zealous.14 But for those who are pursuing God (cf. Phil 3:10-11), this duty remains a logical and necessary result flowing from a gracious salvation. There is no room for antinomian tendencies in Pauline Christianity and Owen would have none of it.
In order to explain the apostle’s meaning with respect to “mortifying the deeds of the flesh,” Owen deals individually with three important elements in the text. First, he discusses the meaning of “the body.” Second, he explains “the deeds of the body.” Third, he takes a close look at the meaning of the verb, “mortify” (qanatou`te, thanatoute).
A. First, the question arises as to what exactly Paul means by “the body.” Owen argues, given the “antithesis between the Spirit and the flesh before and after” this verse, that “the body” refers to the flesh. He says:
The body, then, here is taken for that corruption and depravity of our natures whereof the body, in a great part, is the seat and instrument, the very members of the body being made servants unto unrighteousness thereby, Rom 6:19. It is indwelling sin, the corrupted flesh or lust, that is intended.15
Owen recognizes that the expression is most likely a metonymy or synecdoche. If a metonymy he suggests that the “body” here is to be taken as equivalent to “the old man” (Rom 6:6) or “the body of sin” (Rom 6:6). If a synecdoche, then the whole person is envisioned as corrupt including the seat of his “lusts and distempered affections.”
B. Second, Owen deals with the meaning of the term “deeds” (pravxei", praxeis). He recognizes that the Greek word is used to refer to outward actions primarily and not so much inward causes. But here, in this context, he is correct to point out that while the term generally refers to actual deeds, such as we have listed in Galatians 5:19 (a text Owen cites),16 Paul’s point is also taken up with the cause of such things, the fountain as it were. This is true because of the collocation of “deeds” with “body” where “the body” is pictured by Paul as a vehicle for sin. Owen says:
The apostle calls them deeds, as that which every lust tends unto; though it do conceive and prove abortive, it aims to bring forth a perfect sin.
Having, both in the seventh and beginning of this chapter, treated of indwelling lust and sin as the fountain and principle of all sinful actions, he here mentions its destruction under the name of the effects which it doth produce (italics mine).17
By “perfect sin” Owen appears to mean a sin that actually takes place in one’s life and not just in their thought process; “perfect”—meaning they actually carried out with their body the lust their flesh desired.
C. Third, the term “mortify” is not used much anymore in the English language, except occasionally to express embarrassment: “she was mortified when they stared at the curlers still in her hair.” Nothing could be further from the Biblical meaning of the term. In Biblical language it is an important word, crucial to understanding the spiritual life, and one which Owen takes pains to introduce here and clarify throughout the remainder of this treatise.
Owen rightly notes that the term mortify means to kill, to put to death, such as in the case of a living animal or the like. Thus Paul is using the expression metaphorically as if the flesh were a living person who needed to be killed:
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, vigour [sic], and strength, to produce its effects, taken away by the Spirit.18
Owen, as a wise pastoral theologian, is quick to once again relate the process of mortification to the cross work of Christ, following, of course, the teaching of Paul himself. Thus, we do not put to death anything that God has not already crucified with Christ on the tree. Not only has God dealt with the sin nature in us, that is, the flesh, he has also implanted a new disposition in us through regeneration. All of our lives as Christians is given over to pleasing God by putting to death the deeds of the flesh and walking in the newness of the regenerate life. Speaking of these realities, Owen says:
It [the flesh] 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. vi. 6, and ourselves to be “dead” with him, verse 8, and really initially in regeneration, Rom vi. 3-5, when a principle contrary to it, and destructive of it, Gal v. 17, is planted in our hearts; but the whole work is by degrees to be carried on toward perfection all our days.19
Owen notes that there is a promise which attends this duty of mortifying the flesh. It is the promise of life; “you will live.” But what does Paul mean by “you will live”? We hinted at it above in our discussion of the meaning of the conditional, “if.”
Owen argues that the term “life” in 8:13 is used in contrast to “death” in the immediately forgoing clause. “Death” there means the experience of killing sinful lusts and actions; it is a present reality for the believer. Therefore, when Paul says “you will live,” he is not talking about entering into spiritual life for the first time, but about enjoying the power of spiritual life for those who have already been justified and possess the Spirit. As believers already we put to death in our experience those things that are of the flesh and we enjoy the power, joy and vigour of the Christian life:
Now perhaps the word [i.e., “life”] may intend not only eternal life, but also the spiritual life in Christ, which here we have; not as to the essence and being of it, which is already enjoyed by believers, but as to the joy, comfort, and vigour of it… ‘Ye shall live, lead a good, vigorous, comfortable, spiritual life whilst you are here, and obtain eternal life hereafter.’20
There can be little doubt that this is indeed the meaning of the apostle Paul. He has already discussed justification, both its need and realization, in Romans 1:18-5:21 and the foundation of sanctification in Romans 6 (co-crucifixion with Christ). In Romans 7 he discusses the relationship of the Law to sanctification and argues that while the law is holy, righteous, and good, we are not. It, therefore, by itself is impotent to help. Enter Romans 8, not as a vision of a higher life, per se, but as Owen remarks, Paul’s teaching on how we keep the demands of the law, namely through a Spirit-wrought mortification (8:3-4). Therefore, the “life” spoken of in 8:13 is the believers present possession of spiritual vitality through the mortification of the deeds of the flesh.
By way of conclusion, we will summarize Owen’s interpretation of the verse and restate his two main theses that follow from Paul’s teaching here. First, the interpretation of the verse. There are several key points: (1) the conditional “if” communicates the certainty of enjoying a vigorous spiritual life when we put to death the deeds of the flesh; (2) the command to mortify applies only to Christians, i.e., those who possess the Spirit; (3) the efficient means of accomplishing our duty is the Spirit and him alone; (4) to mortify the deeds of the flesh is the duty of all Christians and means “to put to death,” “to kill,” “to remove the principle of life from someone or something”; (5) the term “body” refers either to the physical body as an instrument for sinful desires and actions or to the person as a whole, corrupt and in sin; (6) the term “deeds,” while having an outward focus, also includes, in this context, the inward fountain of sin—the flesh; (7) the promise of life is not first time entrance into spiritual life, but greater participation and enjoyment of the spiritual life God has already given us in Christ.
For Owen, two main theses arise out of Paul’s words in Romans 8:13:
The choicest believers, who are assuredly freed from the condemning power of sin, ought yet to make it their business all their days to mortify the indwelling power of sin.
The vigour, and power, and comfort of our spiritual life depends on the mortification of the deeds of the flesh.
7 (There are fourteen chapters in all, about 80 pages in the Banner of Truth edition [from pp. 5-86]).
9 For further discussion regarding the relationship of protasis to apodosis in statements using eij + the indicative, as we have here in Romans 8:13, see Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics: An Exegetical Syntax of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 762. You can order a copy of this excellent resource on CD at www. Bible.org/homepage.
12 As Goold points out this must have been an oversight on Owen’s part since the expression “Holy Ghost” does not occur in verse 14.
14 By this I do not mean mere activism, as if that were anything but a vain treadmill. I refer rather to a vigilant attitude toward sin, righteousness, and good works keeping Christ at the center of one’s thoughts.
16 The Text of Galatians 5:19-21, to which Owen alludes, reads as follows: 5:19 Now the works of the flesh (taV e[rga th~" sarkov") are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity, depravity, 5:21 idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish rivalries, dissensions, factions, 5:22 envyings, murders, drunkenness, carousings, and similar things.—NET Bible