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Dangerous Sin Symptoms

This is my once-monthly post on the Puritan John Owen. In this series of posts I am sharing some of what John Owen says about putting sin to death, or what he calls mortification. I have been going through John Owen’s book Overcoming Sin and Temptation and trying to distill each chapter to its essence—to a few choice quotes that capture the flavor of what Owen is trying to communicate.

So far we’ve looked at The Foundation of Mortification, we’ve been encouraged to Daily Put Sin to Death, to understand that It Is the Holy Spirit Who Puts Sin to Death and to acknowledge that Your Spiritual Life Depends Upon Killing Sin. Then we saw What It Is Not to Put Sin to Death and What It Is to Put Sin to Death. He now moves on to the actual directions for how to put sin to death; first he deals with a couple of foundational issues (that was last month) and now he moves to specific directions.

The first thing to do when seeking to put a sin to death is this:

Consider Whether Your Lust Has These Dangerous Symptoms Accompanying It

He goes on to list several of those dangerous symptoms.

Inveterateness (hardened or deep-rooted). Here is what he says: “If it has lain long corrupting in your heart, if you have suffered it to abide in power and prevalency, without attempting vigorously the killing of it and the healing of the wounds you have received by it for some long season, your distemper is dangerous. … When a lust has lain long in the heart, corrupting, festering, cankering, it brings the soul to a woeful condition. In such a case an ordinary course of humiliation will not do the work: whatever it be, it will by this means insinuate itself more or less into all the faculties of the soul, and habituate the affections to its company and society; it grows familiar to the mind and conscience, that they do not startle at it as a strange thing, but are bold with it as that which they are wonted unto.”

Secret pleas of the heart for the countenancing of itself without a vigorous gospel attempt for its mortification. He offers two ways in which this may happen:

  • “When upon thoughts, perplexing thoughts about sin, instead of applying himself to the destruction of it, a man searches his heart to see what evidences he can find of a good condition, notwithstanding that sin and lust, so that it may go well with him. For a man to gather up his experiences of God, to call them to mind, to collect them, consider, try, improve them, is an excellent thing—a duty practiced by all the saints, commended in the Old Testament and the New. … But now to do it for this end, to satisfy conscience, which cries and calls for another purpose, is a desperate device of a heart in love with sin.”
  • By applying grace and mercy to an unmortified sin. “There is nothing more natural than for fleshly reasonings to grow high and strong upon this account. The flesh would fain be indulged unto upon the account of grace, and every word that is spoken of mercy, it stands ready to catch at and to pervert it, to its own corrupt aims and purposes. To apply mercy, then, to a sin not vigorously mortified is to fulfill the end of the flesh upon the gospel.”

When a man rights against his sin only with arguments from the issue or the punishment due unto it. “This is a sign that sin has taken great possession of the will, and that in the heart there is a superfluity of naughtiness [James 1:21]. Such a man as opposes nothing to the seduction of sin and lust in his heart but fear of shame among men or hell from God, is sufficiently resolved to do the sin if there were no punishment attending it; which, what it differs from living in the practice of sin, I know not. Those who are Christ’s, and are acted in their obedience upon gospel principles, have the death of Christ, the love of God, the detestable nature of sin, the preciousness of communion with God, a deep-grounded abhorrency of sin as sin, to oppose to any seduction of sin, to all the workings, strivings, rightings of lust in their hearts.”

Here’s a helpful explanation of what he means:

Try yourself by this also: When you are by sin driven to make a stand, so that you must either serve it and rush at the command of it into folly, like the horse into the battle, or make head against it to suppress it, what do you say to your soul? What do you expostulate with yourself? Is this all—’Hell will be the end of this course; vengeance will meet with me and find me out?’ It is time for you to look about you; evil lies at the door [Gen. 4:7]. Paul’s main argument to evince that sin shall not have dominion over believers is that they ‘are not under the law, but under grace’ (Rom. 6:14). If your contendings against sin be all on legal accounts, from legal principles and motives, what assurance can you attain unto that sin shall not have dominion over you, which will be your ruin?

When your lust has already withstood particular dealings from God against it. God oftentimes, in his providential dispensations, meets with a man, and speaks particularly to the evil of his heart, as he did to Joseph’s brethren in their selling of him into Egypt. This makes the man reflect on his sin, and judge himself in particular for it. God makes it to be the voice of the danger, affliction, trouble, sickness that he is in or under. Sometimes in reading of the word God makes a man stay on something that cuts him to the heart, and shakes him as to his present condition. More frequently in the hearing of the word preached—his great ordinance for conviction, conversion, and edification—does he meet with men. God often hews men by the sword of his word in that ordinance, strikes directly on their bosom-beloved lust, startles the sinner, makes him engage unto the mortification and relinquishment of the evil of his heart. Now, if his lust has taken such hold on him as to enforce him to break these bands of the Lord and to cast these cords from him—if it overcomes these convictions and gets again into its old posture; if it can cure the wounds it so receives—that soul is in a sad condition.”