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 his 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 and then with dangerous sin symptoms.
Today he moves to the first of his practical instructions on putting sin to death and the first action you need to take when you identify a sin in your life. It is this: You need to ponder the guilt, the danger and the evil of that sin and let it rest in both your mind and heart. Or as he says it, “Get a clear and abiding sense upon your mind and conscience of the guilt, danger, and evil of your sin.” He will discuss each of these three things in turn.
The Guilt of It
First, you need to consider the guilt of your sin. Your sin will try to convince you that it isn’t very serious and that it is not worth worrying about. “It is one of the deceits of a prevailing lust to extenuate its own guilt. ‘Is it not a little one? Though this be bad, yet it is not so bad as such and such an evil; others of the people of God have had such a frame; yea, what dreadful actual sins have some of them fallen into!’ Innumerable ways there are whereby sin diverts the mind from a right and due apprehension of its guilt. … This is the proper issue of lust in the heart—it darkens the mind that it shall not judge aright of its own guilt.”
There is more. The Christian who sins needs to be aware that he does so in spite of God’s grace in his life. Reflecting on Romans 6:1-2 Owen says, “How shall we do it, who, as he afterward describes it, have received grace from Christ to the contrary? We, doubtless, are more evil than any, if we do it.”
The Danger of It
He now moves to the danger of sin, and note that he uses danger to refer to future consequences and evil to refer to current consequences. He lists several dangers.
The Danger of Being Hardened by Sin’s Deceitfulness. The ultimate aim of your sin is to fully harden you against God. Reflecting on Hebrews 3:12-13 he say, “’Take heed,’ says he, ‘use all means, consider your temptations, watch diligently; there is a treachery, a deceit in sin, that tends to the hardening of your hearts from the fear of God.’ The hardening here mentioned is to the utmost—utter obduration; sin tends to it, and every distemper and lust will make at least some progress toward it.”
You also need to be aware that your sin is always several steps ahead of you. Remember what Owen said earlier in the book, that sin is always aiming at the uttermost, always aiming at your death and destruction. “Is it not enough to make any heart tremble, to think of being brought into that estate wherein he should have slight thoughts of sin? Slight thoughts of grace, of mercy, of the blood of Christ, of the law, heaven, and hell, come all in at the same season. Take heed, this is that [which] your lust is working toward—the hardening of the heart, searing of the conscience, blinding of the mind, stupifying of the affections, and deceiving of the whole soul.”
The Danger of Some Great Temporal Correction. Think about the fact that your sin may lead God to punish you, even while he still forgives you. “Though God should not utterly cast you off for this abomination that lies in your heart, yet he will visit you with the rod; though he pardon and forgive, he will take vengeance of your inventions” (Ps. 89:30-33).
The Danger of Loss of Peace and Strength All a Man’s Days. Your sin may even bring about very long-term consequences that will extend through all of life. “It is perhaps but a little while and you shall see the face of God in peace no more. Perhaps by tomorrow you shall not be able to pray, read, hear or perform any duties with the least cheerfulness, life, or vigor; and possibly you may never see a quiet hour while you live…”
The Danger of Eternal Destruction. The greatest danger of all is that those who continue in sin may prove that they are not saved. “There is such a connection between a continuance in sin and eternal destruction that though God does resolve to deliver some from a continuance in sin that they may not be destroyed, yet he will deliver none from destruction that continue in sin; so that while anyone lies under an abiding power of sin, the threats of destruction and everlasting separation from God are to be held out to him.”
The Evils of It
And now he turns to the evils of sin, noting several.
It Grieves the Holy and Blessed Spirit. There should be no greater incentive than pleasing God by avoiding sin. “He is grieved by it. As a tender and loving friend is grieved at the unkindness of his friend, of whom he has well deserved, so is it with this tender and loving Spirit, who has chosen our hearts for a habitation to dwell in, and there to do for us all that our souls desire. … Among those who walk with God, there is no greater motive and incentive unto universal holiness, and the preserving of their hearts and spirits in all unity and cleanness, than this, that the blessed Spirit, who has undertaken to dwell in them, is continually considering what they give entertainment into their hearts unto, and rejoices when his temple is kept undefiled.”
The Lord Jesus Christ Is Wounded Afresh By It. Every sin also grieves Christ as a sin that he had to suffer for. “His new creature in the heart is wounded; his love is foiled; his adversary gratified. As a total relinquishment of him, by the deceitfulness of sin, is the ‘crucifying him afresh, and the putting of him to open shame’ (Heb. 6:6), so every harboring of sin that he came to destroy wounds and grieves him.”
It Will Take Away a Man’s Usefulness in His Generation. Your sin reduces your usefulness to God. He comments here especially about preachers, saying “His works, his endeavors, his labors seldom receive blessing from God. If he be a preacher, God commonly blows upon his ministry, that he shall labor in the fire, and not be honored with any success or doing any work for God; and the like may be spoken of other conditions. The world is at this day full of poor withering professors. How few are there that walk in any beauty or glory!”
He closes with something like a poem:
Keep alive upon your heart these or the like considerations of its guilt, danger, and evil;
be much in the meditation of these things;
cause your heart to dwell and abide upon them;
engage your thoughts into these considerations;
let them not go off nor wander from them
until they begin to have a powerful influence upon your soul—
until they make it to tremble.