Help understanding mortification of the "old man"

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Puritan Board Sophomore
I have a "dumb question." I've been reading John Owen's book on the mortification of sin, and in the first chapter, he said the following:

"It (the old man) 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 towards perfection all our days."

My question is in understanding the nature of the "old man." If the old man has been utterly mortified and slain by the cross of Christ, why is it that we still have to mortify it on to perfection all our days? (Obviously I practically know what he means, but I need help understanding the doctrine of the "old man")


Puritan Board Doctor
I think of it in terms of our propensity for sinning. Whereas we used to be slaves to sin and it was our master, Christ has freed us from this master and He is now our master. This does not mean we no longer sin, but that we no longer have to sin. We change from slaves to sin to slaves of righteousness. I understand this to deal with our heart and it's affections. The old man loved sin. The new man in Christ loves Christ and desires to live for Him. Of course, until we are glorified, we will still struggle with sin, but even this shows a difference because it is a struggle and not embraced.


Staff member
We are fully justified; we are fully sanctified. Our hope is in this accomplished fact. With Jesus' resurrection and ascension, we live as part of His kingdom and our focus is on the world to come. But we are in a "not yet" stage as well, as long as we are living in this fallen world. We lament with Paul "sinful man that I am." As we live in this world, we want to become more and more like Christ, and we do all we can to put to death the sin that still mars that image. It means only a small amount that we are commanded to do so: wanting to become like the one we chiefly love and serve is the delight of our lives.


Pilgrim, Alien, Stranger
Staff member
As for the quote, note the two main parts, that deal respectively 1) with the old man's death "meritoriously" and 2) with his death "really."

He is "utterly mortified (put to death) and slain by the cross" meritoriously, that is to say the man that the believer once was has, in effect, received his comeuppance (in Christ).

He is really slain, both initially and by degrees. First, regeneration (if you will) "cuts the nerve." You might liken it to receiving a mortal blow, one that really does kill the beast. But the thing is huge, and its force takes time to drain away. Or it thrashes and flails. Or it moves like a chicken with its head cut off. A "destructive principle" has been implanted in place of the old heart. There's no going back, the old life can never be revived.

But the new life moves forward. It overcomes the limbs, appendages, and functions of the old. It pushes forward, and cuts and eliminates as it goes. The habits of the old man remain, the corpse is still hanging around. And IF it was not mortified, and abolished, it would (if it could) kill the new life that now resides and replaces it. This is why mortification MUST happen. It shall happen by the will of God, it is able to happen by the Spirit of God, and it MUST happen for a truly "new birth" to take place. We (as new men) are "taking out the garbage" as we deal with the relics of the old man. And sometimes, that filth trips us, even drags us down. We lie face down in the putrescent pool of decomposition.

Well, the Christian can't stay there in the muck. He must live! He must get up, and wash that gunk off, brush himself down, pick up the fresh bag of garbage that the Spirit has handed him, and toss it. Like the child he is, he gets the mop as directed, and he slops his own way alongside his Father, until that cesspool has been redone. And then on to more areas, his whole earthly life. The house is never spick and span in this world (are our homes ever "finished-clean" in this world?). The war is never over in this world. We "rest" when we get to our home with Christ. We are refreshed for our labor on the Lord's Day, where we receive a foretaste of the eternal blessing. And then, its back to work on Monday.
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