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Overcoming Sin and Temptation (Chapter 7)

After an unplanned holiday hiatus, we continue today with reading through John Owen’s Overcoming Sin and Temptation. I should have known that I’d be unable to carve time out of my busy holiday schedule to give the book the time it deserves. Lesson learned. But we continue today with the seventh chapter. If you’d like to know more about this project, you can read about it right here: Reading Classics Together.

For the past three chapters we have been in the book’s second section—a section that turns the focus from introductory materials to “the nature of mortification.” In this portion of the book Owen is turning to this question: “Suppose a man to be a true believer, and yet finds in himself a powerful indwelling sin, leading him captive to the law of it, consuming his heart with trouble, perplexing his thoughts, weakening his soul as to duties of communion with God, disquieting him as to peace, and perhaps defiling his conscience, and exposing him to hardening through the deceitfulness of sin, what shall he do? What course shall he take and insist on for the mortification of this sin, lust, distemper, or corruption, to such a degree as that, though it be not utterly destroyed, yet, in his contest with it, he may be enabled to keep up power, strength, and peace in communion with God?”

In the past two chapters and those to come he approaches the subject this way:

  1. Show what it is to mortify any sin, and that both negatively and positively, that we be not mistaken in the foundation (the fifth chapter provided the negative and this week we look at the positive aspect).
  2. Give general directions for such things as without which it will be utterly impossible for anyone to get any sin truly and spiritually mortified.
  3. Draw out the particulars whereby this is to be done.

He has already shown both negatively and positively what it is to mortify a sin and this week he turns to one of the two general directions, without which it will be impossible for anyone to truly mortify sin.

Summary

The summary for this chapter is as simple as it gets. Owen simply addresses one area: “There will be no mortification of any sin unless one be a believer.” He also provides an objection that may arise and answers this objection.

Discussion

This is one of those chapters that really should not even be necessary, for its point is obvious. Yet the history of the church shows that we cannot take it for granted. It is clear to those of us who believe that sin can only rightly be mortified if one is indwelt by the Holy Spirit; thus only those who are true believers can truly put sin to death. There can be no mortification unless one believes. Owen makes this point time and again:

  • Unless a man be a believer…he can never mortify any one sin.
  • There is no death of sin without the death of Christ.
  • A man may easier see without eyes, speak without a tongue, than truly mortify one sin without the Spirit.
  • Men must be gold and silver in the bottom, or else refining will do them no good.
  • Mortification is not the present business of unregenerate men.
  • Let the soul first be thoroughly converted, and then, “looking on him whom they had pierced,” humiliation and mortification will ensue.
  • To kill sin is the work of living men; where men are dead (as all unbelievers, the best of them, are dead), sin is alive, and will live.
  • Be sure to get an interest in Christ—if you intend to mortify any sin without it, it will never be done.

That is but a sampling. Clearly Owen wishes to make this point crystal clear. As one who believes I am certain that no true mortification can happen in those who forsake the Spirit—the one who is the active agent of mortification. I could well end there and close the cover on this chapter. But I’m glad I did not. Owen has things to say, even to those of us who already believe and who already know the truth that without believing upon the death of Christ there can be no death of sin. He cautions us against attempting to persuade unbelievers that they should be about the business of life change even before they have sought and found true heart change. “Unless a man be regenerate, unless he be a believer, all attempts that he can make for mortification, be they ever so specious and promising—all means he can use, let him follow them with never so much diligence, earnestness, watchfulness, and intention of mind and spirit—are to no purpose. In vain shall he use many remedies; he shall not be healed.” He goes on to say, “I wish that some whose trade it is to daub with untempered mortar in the things of God did not teach this deceit and cause the people to err by their ignorance.” Those who pursue supposed mortification but who do so without first turning to Christ, they are deluded and destroyed by their inability to overcome sin.

Christians, I think, are prone to demanding of unbelievers what they cannot supply. Too many Christians seem eager to demand change of unbelievers even before they demand or expect that these people come to Christ. What a tragedy it is if we demand what unbelievers cannot provide even while forsaking the call to the gospel—the only true remedy for their sin. In the “Objection” section Owen deals with those who would then say that unregenerate men are to never attempt to “better” themselves but are to let sin run amok. Through God’s common grace He restrains sin and we rejoice in this. But are primary call for unbelievers is not for men to kill sin, but to turn to Christ. The first things must come first.

Next Week

Next Thursday we will continue with the eighth chapter of the book. Though we are now well into our study, it is not too late for you to join in the fun!

Your Turn

As always, I would like to know what you gained from this chapter. Please post your comments below or to write about this on your own blog (and then post a comment linking us to your thoughts). Do not feel that you need to say something exceedingly clever or profound. Simply share what stirred your heart or what gave you pause. You can also post any questions that came up. Let’s be certain that we are reading this book together. The comments on previous chapters have been great and have aided my enjoyment of the chapter. I trust this week will prove the same.