Quotable Church History: “Be killing sin…”
This is the seventh in a series on famous quotes from church history. We’re looking at who said these famous words, in what context, and whether it’s biblical.
Today’s quote comes from the post-Reformation period. It’s probably the most well-known quote by any Puritan: “Be killing sin, or sin will be killing you.” It comes from John Owen (1616-1683).
Himself born into a Puritan family, God raised up Owen to become one of Puritanism’s greatest theologians. As a young man he already showed signs of precociousness — he was known to study for 18+ hours each day. By the age of 19 he had earned a Master of Arts degree from Oxford. He served later as a pastor, but eventually returned to Oxford to teach theology. Owen was a prolific writer — the Banner of Truth reprint of his collected writings runs to 16 volumes of about 9,000 pages. In Owen’s case, prolific equals profound but not always plain. Owen often expects a lot from his readers. Some modern editions of his books have rendered him more readable, but those wanting to begin digging into the Puritans ought to look elsewhere (I recommend Thomas Watson).
In 1656 Owen published an exposition of Romans 8 entitled Of the Mortification of Sin. You can find this book available for free online. In this book Owen shows at length how Christians are to wage war on sin and do violence to it in their hearts and lives. You could think of it as an extended explanation of how to apply Heidelberg Catechism QA 89. In older editions of the HC this question reads: “What is the mortification of the old man?” Answer: “It is a sincere sorrow of heart that we have provoked God by our sins, and more and more to hate and flee from them.” “Mortification” is an antiquated word for killing. So, at a certain point in his book, Owen says it: “Be killing sin, or sin will be killing you.”
This is speaking about the life of a redeemed Christian. A Christian who has been saved by God’s free gift of grace in Jesus Christ needs to set himself or herself to the task of sanctification — the process of growing in holiness. While we are passive in things like our election, regeneration, and justification, we are empowered by the Holy Spirit to be active in our sanctification. God calls us to be active in this. Thus Owen gives Christians this imperative or command: be killing sin. It is something to which we need to apply ourselves. We must strangle sin in our lives. If we are not constantly murdering our wickedness, it will rise up and murder us. It will destroy our lives. Why? Because it is the very nature of sin to kill and destroy.
By now you might recognize this quote as self-evidently biblical. However, if it isn’t, consider one of the verses Owen was expositing. Romans 8:13 says it most clearly: “For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” Putting to death the deeds of the body equals “be killing sin.” Not killing sin and having sin kill you equals “if you live according to the flesh you will die.” Colossians 3:5 also urges Christians to plunge the knife into sin, “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.” We’re to do that, the Holy Spirit goes on to say, because on account of these the wrath of God is coming. If you don’t slay sin, your sins will slay you in the end.
Often when I’m tempted to sin I recall these pithy words of John Owen, based on God’s Word. They’ve often been a help in seeing sin for what it is. Sin presents itself to us in deceitful ways. It promises what it will never deliver. It promises to enrich your life, but this is a deadly lie. Faced with sin, tell yourself the truth: “Be killing sin or sin will be killing you.” That’s reality and we ignore it to our detriment.
Now if you want to learn how to murder your wickedness, you could turn to Owen. Sadly, as I mentioned, Owen is not going to be digestible spiritual food for everyone today. Let me then recommend a readable summary of Owen’s teaching on this. You’ll find it in section three of Visual Theology by Tim Challies and Josh Byers. The clear prose of Challies is complemented by the effective infographics of Josh Byers. It’s hard to beat on this topic.