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Reading Classics Together

June 04, 2015

We forget. Often we forget because we fail to deliberately remember—to remember and recount the goodness and mercy of God. In his work The Mystery of Providence, John Flavel gives a series of cautions to Christians who may be prone to this temptation to forget.

Do not forget God’s care and kindness. All throughout your life you have been the beneficiary of God’s kind providence. Yet is it possible that God could charge you in the same way he charged Israel: “But they soon forgot his works” (Psalm 106:13)? The human memory tends to be both faulty and slippery when it comes to remembering God’s mercy. But there is a high cost: Forgetting God’s past faithfulness deprives you of the comfort you want and God of the glory he deserves.

Do not distrust God in future times of need. God has been faithful in the past, so why doubt his provision in the future? Yet this was exactly the temptation that Israel faced: “He struck the rock so that water gushed out and streams overflowed. Can he also give bread or provide meat for his people” (Psalm 78:20)? It is both unreasonable and absurd to distrust God for the future when his care has been so clear throughout your life.

Do not grumble when your circumstances change. We are all tempted to grumble when our circumstances change from favorable to unfavorable. But grumbling is not made any less sinful simply because it is so common. If we acknowledge the sheer evil of the sin of grumbling we will be quick to identify and admire God’s bounty in every circumstance. We will be equally slow to complain when we perceive that they have become unfavorable.

Do not show any discontentment. Do not show even slightest discontentment with the situation in which God places you. Instead, choose to be pleased and satisfied with all that God gives you. Choose to say, with David, “The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; indeed, I have a beautiful inheritance” (Psalm 16:6). You can have confidence that the circumstance you experience now is the one God has determined is best for you, and equal confidence that some day you will judge it so.

Do not neglect God in your times of desperation. If you truly believe that it is God’s providence that dispenses all circumstances, then it is your responsibility to continue to pursue and worship God in every one of them. Remember God’s command: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (Philippians 4:6). Remember God and he will not forget you.

Do not distract yourself with sinful worries. Jesus told us that when we are concerned about provision we simply need to look at the birds. Yet he did not tell us to look at the pet birds that are fed by hand every day, but to the wild birds who do not know where their next meal will come from. After all, God provides even for these. Won’t he then also provide for you? Do not allow sinful worries to distract you from living and rejoicing.

Through it all, remember who you are in Christ, remember his promises, and work those promises into your heart until you are satisfied and content with all that God’s providence has given you.

Next Week

We will continue our reading next week with chapter 6: “God’s Providence in Our Preservation.” Read it by next Thursday and check in to see what I (and others) have to say about it.

Your Turn

The purpose of this project is to read classics together. So do feel free to leave a comment if you have something you would like to say. Alternatively, you may leave a link to your blog or Facebook or anywhere else you have reflected on what you have read.

If you would like to read along with us, we have only just begun, so there is lots of time to get caught up. Simply get a copy of the book and start reading…

May 28, 2015

I have so much and give thanks so little. God has blessed me tremendously in all areas of life, and I return thanks to him so sparsely and so half-heartedly. This is my conclusion as I continue reading through John Flavel’s classic work The Mystery of Providence. In chapter 4 Flavel instructs the reader to acknowledge the hand of God in and behind our daily work. Along the way he offers every Christian 4 cautions related to vocation:

Do Not Be Lazy. Do not be slothful or idle in your vocation, whatever it is. This is true of those who work in an office environment, those who are workers in the home, and even those who are students. People who are negligent in their main vocational responsibility are almost invariably guilty of sin elsewhere. Looking to 2 Thessalonians 3:11, Flavel says, “He that lives idly cannot live honestly.” (We could also quote Spurgeon who says, “Idle people tempt the devil to tempt them.”)

Do Not Be Idolatrous. While laziness lies at one end of a spectrum, idolatry lies at the other. Flavel distinguishes between a particular calling, which is your day-to-day vocation at this time, and your general calling, which is the one we all share as humans and as Christians—the pursuit and enjoyment of God. His warning is this: Do not be so intent upon your particular calling that it begins to interfere with your general calling. “Beware you lose not your God in the crowd and hurry of earthly business.” He quotes Seneca who offers this wisdom: “I do not give, but lend myself to business.” Do not allow your vocation to displace or replace your God.

Do Not Be Proud. As sinful people, pride is our near-constant companion in this world, and it is never so near to us as when we experience success. Flavel wants you to remember that any success you experience in your calling and your earthly employment comes primarily by the blessing of God rather than through your diligence. Yes, diligence is important, but it is God who then blesses and rewards your hard work. Humbly commit all of your work to the Lord and thank him for every bit of the prosperity you enjoy.

Do Not Be Discontent. Finally, be satisfied with the circumstances and status you have now, and be content with the employment God has given you. You may be tempted to waste your days wishing that your life was better, but you need to acknowledge the sovereignty of God and his calling upon you to succeed and excel right where you are. “Providence is wiser than you, and you may be confident hath suited all things better to your eternal good than you could do, had you been left to your own option.” I don’t see this as a call to apathy or a call away from ambition, but a call to Christian contentment. When we acknowledge God, we acknowledge the good in our circumstances, even if they are not the ones we would have chosen.

Next Week

We will continue our reading next week with chapter 5: “God’s Providence in Our Family.” Read it by next Thursday and check in to see what I (and others) have to say about it.

Your Turn

The purpose of this project is to read classics together. So do feel free to leave a comment if you have something you would like to say. Alternatively, you may leave a link to your blog or Facebook or anywhere else you have reflected on what you have read.

If you would like to read along with us, we have only just begun, so there is lots of time to get caught up. Simply get a copy of the book and start reading…

May 21, 2015

Testimony is a good Christian word, isn’t it? It is a word we use to describe a person’s account of their conversion. At Grace Fellowship Church we ask people to share their testimony aloud before they are baptized, and to send it in printed form to the members of the church as they apply for church membership. Sometimes at an evening service we will invite someone to come to the front and to tell us how the Lord saved her. We even keep a big binder full of these testimonies for anyone who would like to read through them—an amazing collection of stories that are so very different and yet all tell the same story.

Do you talk about your conversion? Do you find yourself thinking back to it and recounting its circumstances? Do you remember and share your testimony? John Flavel considers this one of the great joys and responsibilities of the Christian life saying, “This is a subject which every gracious heart loves to steep its thoughts in. It is certainly the sweetest history that ever they repeated; they love to think and talk of it.” Do you?

In chapter 3 of Flavel’s book The Mystery of Providence, Flavel instructs his reader in the importance of considering and recounting God’s providence in our salvation.

In nothing does Providence shine forth more gloriously in this world than in ordering the occasions, instruments and means of conversion of the people of God. However skilfully its hand had moulded your bodies, however tenderly it had preserved them and however bountifully it had provided for them; if it had not also ordered some means or other for your conversion, all the former favours and benefits it had done for you had meant little. This, O this, is the most excellent benefit you ever received from its hand. You are more indebted to it for this, than for all your other mercies. And in explaining this performance of Providence, I cannot but think your hearts must be deeply affected.

But with all the emphasis we place on testimony, there is one kind of person that can sometimes feel a little bit inadequate—the person who grew up in a Christian home, who put his faith in Christ at a very young age and through circumstances that may have long since been lost to the mists of time.

Flavel acknowledges this person, stating that not every Christian can recount the circumstances of their salvation in quite the same way. While for some people salvation was “wrought in person of riper years, who in their youthful days were more profane and vile,” for others salvation came to “persons in their tender years, into whose hearts grace was more imperceptibly and indiscernibly instilled by God’s blessing upon pious education.”

In the former sort, the distinct acts of the Spirit, illuminating, convincing, humbling, drawing them to Christ and sealing them are more evident and discernible. In the latter, these are more obscure and confused. They can remember that God gave them an esteem and liking of godly persons, care of duty and conscience of sin; but as to the time, place, instruments and manner of the work, they can give but a slender account of them.

There is a clear difference between these people, but it is not the difference between genuine and false salvation. Rather, God has simply chosen to bring about the miracle of conversion in a different way.

However, if the work is savingly wrought in them, there is no reason they should be troubled because the circumstances of it are not so evident to them as they are to others. Let the substance and reality of the work appear and there is no reason to afflict yourselves because of the lack of evidence of such circumstance.

In other words, salvation is no more genuine to those who can clearly remember and recount the circumstances that led to their conversion. And I would go so far as to say that the “boring” testimonies of childhood conversions are the most blessed of all. After all, aren’t these exactly the testimonies we wish for our children?

Next Week

We will continue our reading next week with chapter 4: “God’s Providence in Our Work.” Read it by next Thursday and check in to see what I (and others) have to say about it.

Your Turn

The purpose of this project is to read classics together. So do feel free to leave a comment if you have something you would like to say. Alternatively, you may leave a link to your blog or Facebook or anywhere else you have reflected on what you have read.

If you would like to read along with us, we have only just begun, so there is lots of time to get caught up. Simply get a copy of the book and start reading…

Image credit: Shutterstock

May 14, 2015

The other day, the old Puritan John Flavel took me out back and slapped me around for a while (metaphorically, of course). I have been reading his classic work The Mystery of Providence and he dedicates the second chapter to an explanation of why we need to worship God for his kind providence in our childhood. He wants his readers to acknowledge the privileges that were theirs simply because of the time and place in which they were born.

Along the way he includes a brief but powerful section in which he exhorts parents in the duties they have in raising their children. He wants you, the parent, to seriously consider the responsibility that God has entrusted to you for each one of your children. And, at least for me, each of them felt like a gut-punch. He offers these 8 considerations, asking that you would ponder each one and allow them to motivate you to call your children to respond to the gospel.

  1. Consider the intimacy of the relationship between you and your children, and, therefore, how much their happiness or misery is your concern. Our children mean so much us. You gain joy by them, you place high value on them, you express hopes and longings for them, you sympathize with them in their troubles, and you grieve from the depths of your soul if they precede you into death. Why would you long to have children, and assign such value to them, and find so much joy in them, if, in the meantime, you give little thought to their eternal souls?
  2. Consider that God has charged you to tend not only to their bodies, but also to their souls. You can know this by the clear commands God has given parents (see Deuteronomy 6:6-7; Ephesians 6:4), and also by the commands he has given children since these commands imply the duty of the parents (e.g. Ephesians 6:1).
  3. Consider what could possibly comfort you at the time of your children’s death if, through your neglect, they die in a Christless condition. The most heartbreaking cry is that of the parent who has to honestly admit, “My child is in hell and I did nothing to prevent it! My child is in hell and I helped him go there!”
  4. Consider this question: If you neglect to instruct your children in the way of holiness, will the devil neglect to instruct them in the way of wickedness? No, of course not. If you will not teach them to pray, he will teach them to curse, swear, and lie. Where the ground is uncultivated, weeds will inevitably spring up.
  5. Consider that if the years of your children’s youth are neglected, there is little probability of any good fruit afterwards. You have to make the best use of their most formative years. Flavel uses this brilliant little illustration: “How few are converted in old age! A twig is brought to any form, but grown trees will not bow.”
  6. Consider that you are the instrumental cause of all your children’s spiritual misery, both by generation and imitation, by birth and by example. They are in a state of spiritual death because of the plague of sin which they contracted from you. As David says, “Behold, I was shapen in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Psalm 51:5). This further increases your responsibility to see them healed from that plague.
  7. Consider that there is no one in the world more likely than you to be instruments of their eternal good. You have advantages that no others have, such as the insights you gain into their hearts. Because you are with them every day, and because you have so much knowledge of their weaknesses, you have unique opportunities to instill the knowledge of Christ into them. If you are neglectful, who shall help them? No one else can or will take your place in their lives.
  8. Consider the great day of judgment and be moved with pity for your children. Remember that text, “I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God” (Revelation 20:12). What a sad thing it would be to see your dear children at Christ’s left hand. Friends, do your utmost to prevent this misery! “Knowing the terrors of the Lord, we persuade men” (2 Corinthians 5:11).

Now, the purpose of these 8 considerations is not to make parents despair, but to help them see their responsibility. Flavel acknowledges, of course, that God is the only one who can bring a child to salvation and that God’s purposes are his own. And yet the Scriptures make it plain that the parents are to raise their children in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. Every parent would do well to ponder these 8 items.

Next Week

We will continue our reading next week with chapter 3: “God’s Providence in Our Salvation.” Read it by next Thursday and check in to see what I (and others) have to say about it.

Your Turn

The purpose of this project is to read classics together. So do feel free to leave a comment if you have something you would like to say. Alternatively, you may leave a link to your blog or Facebook or anywhere else you have reflected on what you have read.

If you would like to read along with us, we have only just begun, so there is lots of time to get caught up. Simply get a copy of the book and start reading…

Image credit: Shutterstock

May 07, 2015

I have invited you, and others, to read a classic book with me as part of my ongoing Reading Classics Together effort. This time around we are reading John Flavel’s The Mystery of Providence. As you may have surmised from the title, this is a book about providence—about God’s care for his people. In Meet the Puritans Joel Beeke and Randall Pederson tell us what we can expect as we read through the book’s three sections and thirteen chapters.

In the first, Flavel explains the evidence of providence in the birth and upbringing of believers, in their conversion and employment, in their family affairs, and in their sanctification and preservation from evil. In the second, he instructs believers on the art of meditating on the providence of God, explaining the duty of such meditation, how to do it, and the benefits of doing it. … Finally, Flavel applies the doctrine of providence by showing its practical implications for believers and the problems of wrestling with it. The book concludes with a chapter titled “The Advantages of Recording our Experiences of Providence.”

But before all of that, Flavel has to lay some groundwork, and this is exactly what he does in chapter one, “God’s Providence in General.” In this opening chapter he means to prove the existence of providence, and does so by asking eight rhetorical questions.

  1. How comes it to pass that so many signal mercies and deliverances have befallen the people of God, above the power and against the course of natural causes; to make way for which there has been an obvious suspension and stop put to the course of nature? That’s a mouthful of a sentence, and I take it to mean that there are times when events in the world simply cannot be explained according to natural causes precisely because things behave in a way contrary to nature. Instead of remaining within its normal boundaries, the Red Sea divides and allows God’s people to pass; even people have been bent on one course of action and suddenly found themselves doing the very opposite. How can this be explained apart from the providence of God?
  2. How is it, if the saints’ affairs are not ordered by a special divine Providence, that natural causes unite and associate themselves for their relief and benefit in so strange a manner as they are found to do? Sometimes events work together so neatly and so obviously that we can only conclude that God has been behind them. Simeon and Anna were both brought to the temple when the young Jesus was there. Was that mere coincidence? An entire series of coincidences brought Joseph to power in Egypt so that he could save God’s people. Coincidence? No, it can only be providence.
  3. If the concerns of God’s people are not governed by a special Providence, how is it that the most apt and powerful means employed to destroy them are rendered ineffectual, while weak, contemptible means employed for their defence and comfort are crowned with success? If nature ruled, men would carry out their terrible designs. But time and again God’s providences interrupt those plans and deliver his people.
  4. If all things are governed by the course of nature and force of natural causes, how then comes it to pass that, like a bowl when it strikes another, men are turned out of the way of evil, along which they were driving at full speed? People have been determined on a course of action, even an evil course of action, but God has worked from behind-the-scenes to deliver them from it. Laban came at Jacob in order to harm him but God restrained him; Balaam came to curse Israel, but found himself utterly unable. God turns people away from their intended course.
  5. If there is not an over-ruling Providence ordering all things for the good of God’s people, how comes it to pass that the good and evil which is done to them in this world is accordingly repaid into the bosoms of them that are instrumental therein? God rewards those who do good to his people, even when those who do good are unbelievers. Not only that, but God repays the evil of unjust men with even greater evil. Just think of the Egyptian midwives who were blessed by God for the good they did to the Hebrews, and think of Pharaoh who was cursed by God for the evil he did to the Hebrews. Providential justice and mercy are both on display in this world.
  6. If these things are merely accidental, how is it that they square and agree so exactly with the Scriptures in all particulars? What God says in his Word is inevitably proven in his world. From the simple proverbs to the promises of the gospel, God’s Word proves true. This must be more than mere coincidence.
  7. If these things are contingent, how is it that they fall out so remarkably in the nick of time, which makes them so greatly observable to all that consider them? Many of God’s providences are perfectly timed so we can only agree that they are meant to further God’s purposes. For example, God shows Abraham a substitute sacrifice just when his hand is about to strike Isaac.
  8. Lastly, were these things accidental and contingent, how can it be that they should fall out so immediately upon and consonantly to the prayers of the saints? So that in many providences they are able to discern a very clear answer to their prayers, and are sure they have the petitions they asked (1 John 5:15). God answers prayer, and so many of his providences are directly tied to the prayers of his people. Peter was delivered from his prison cell while the church prayed; each of us knows how our prayers have been answered by God in clear and specific ways.

Now I will be honest: I found this chapter a little bit difficult to read—more so than most other Puritan works. I don’t know if the fault is mine or Flavel’s, but I am inclined to think it is mine. Not only that, but while I found his examples and illustrations compelling, I am not sure they would do a whole lot to convince someone who did not already believe in providence. They are a helpful in assuring me, but perhaps not in convincing the skeptic. Then again, that may not be his purpose here.

Overall, I found it an intriguing start and I look forward to diving in deeper. I love the premise for the book and was taken by this statement from the introduction: “O how ravishing and delectable a sight will it be to behold at one view the whole design of Providence, and the proper place and use of every single act, which we could not understand in this world!” Some day, I trust, we will. And we will rejoice.

Next Week

We will continue our reading next week with chapter 2: “God’s Providence in Our Childhood.” Read it by next Thursday and check in to see what I (and others) have to say about it.

Your Turn

The purpose of this project is to read classics together. So do feel free to leave a comment if you have something you would like to say. Alternatively, you may leave a link to your blog or Facebook or anywhere else you have reflected on what you have read.

If you would like to read along with us, we have only just begun, so there is lots of time to get caught up. Simply get a copy of the book and start reading…

April 23, 2015

Many times over the years I have invited readers of this blog to join me in a reading project, mostly as part of a program I’ve called Reading Classics Together. We’ve read some incredible books together—Holiness by J.C. Ryle, Christianity & Liberalism by Gresham Machen, The Religious Affections by Jonathan Edwards, The Cross of Christ by John Stott, Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices by Thomas Brooks, and a whole lot more. Most recently we read through John Owen’s Overcoming Sin and Temptation (for the second time!). I think it is time to read another classic.

This time around I would like to look back to the Puritan era and to read a work by John Flavel: The Mystery of Providence. While I have never read this one before, it comes highly recommended by many people I know and trust. When considering Puritan works there is no better source to turn to than Meet the Puritans by Joel Beeke and Randall Pederson, and here is what they say about it:

The [Banner of Truth] edition divides this book into three sections. In the first, Flavel explains the evidence of providence in the birth and upbringing of believers, in their conversion and employment, in their family affairs, and in their sanctification and preservation from evil. In the second, he instructs believers on the art of meditating on the providence of God, explaining the duty of such meditation, how to do it, and the benefits of doing it. … Finally, Flavel applies the doctrine of providence by showing its practical implications for believers and the problems of wrestling with it. The book concludes with a chapter titled “The Advantages of Recording our Experiences of Providence.”

Flavel’s book is rich with illustrations. For example, when dealing with the difference between what Flavel calls “our time” and “God’s time,” Flavel concludes that our time is not the proper season for us to receive our mercies, since God’s delay “is nothing else but the time of His preparation of mercies for you, and your heart for mercy, so that you may have it with the greatest advantage of comfort. The foolish child would pluck the apple while it is green; but when it is ripe it drops of its own accord and is more pleasant and wholesome” (p. 139).

This excellent book on providence opens avenues of spiritual knowledge and experience that few believers have probed. It is invaluable for understanding God’s purposes for our lives. Flavel teaches us how to find delight in discerning how God works all things in the world for His glory and our good.

That sounds like a book that will benefit me tremendously. My guess is that it will do the same for you. So why don’t you plan to read it with me?

How It Works

Here is how the program works: Each week we will read one chapter. Then, on Thursdays, visit my site and I will have an article on that chapter along with a place for you to add your comments or a place for you to link to your own blog (or Facebook or any other place you have been discussing it). The idea is to read the book together, so we can benefit from one another’s insights and have mutual accountability as we press on in our reading.

How do you participate? Simply by getting a copy of the book and reading along. You don’t need to register, you don’t need to comment, you don’t need to do anything other than read one chapter per week.

Buying the Book

The Mystery of Providence is widely available. However, I have worked out a couple of good deals for you:

  • If you would like to read the paperback version from Banner of Truth, you can order it from Banner’s site and use the coupon code CHALLIES30OFF to get a 30% discount. That will take the price down to $5.60. If you shop at Westminster Books, they have it in stock as well ($6.50).
  • If you prefer electronic books, GLH Publishing was kind enough to hurry their version of the book, and to price it at just $0.99. It is available at Amazon.
  • If you prefer to read it online, Google will find you some free versions.

Let’s Get Started

I plan to post an article on chapter one on May 7, and continue every Thursday after that. There are 13 chapters, meaning the program will last for 13 weeks. All you need to do is obtain a copy of the book and read chapter one prior to May 7.

Why don’t you leave a comment below if you plan to join the program (or if you’ve got any questions).

December 04, 2014

Putting sin to death is at once so simple and so excruciatingly difficult. The theory of it is simple enough, but the practice takes a lifetime. It is fascinating to me that in John Owen’s Overcoming Sin and Temptation he dedicates thirteen chapters to the preparatory work of putting sin to death, but just one chapter to the actual practice of it. That fact alone is worth pondering.

As he comes to that one chapter, Owen has only two broad instructions: Put your faith in Christ, and rely on the power of the Holy Spirit.

Put Your Faith in Christ

Owen’s first instruction is simple: Set your faith at work on Christ for the killing of your sin. “His blood is the great sovereign remedy for sin-sick souls. Live in this, and you will die a conquerer; you will, through the good providence of God, live to see your [sin] dead at your feet.”

Owen is not speaking about saving faith here, since at this point he already assumes that. Rather, he is talking about exercising your existing faith to believe that Christ has died not only for your salvation, but also for your sanctification. To practice this kind of faith you need to:

  • Raise up your heart by faith to an expectation of relief from Christ. “Though it may seem somewhat long to you, while you are under your trouble and perplexity, yet it shall surely come in the appointed time of the Lord Jesus; which is the best season.”
  • Consider his mercifulness, tenderness, and kindness, as he is our great High Priest at the right hand of God. “Assuredly he pities you in your distress. … He is able, having suffered and been tempted, to break through all dissuasions to the contrary, to relieve poor and tempted souls.”
  • Consider the faithfulness of him who has made the promise. “He has promised to relieve in such cases, and he will fulfill his word to the utmost.”
  • Act faith particularly upon the death, blood, and cross of Christ. “Mortification of sin is peculiarly from the death of Christ. … Whatever came upon our natures by [Satan’s] first temptation, whatever receives strength in our persons by his daily suggestions, Christ died to destroy it all.”
  • Act faith upon the death of Christ in expectation of power and in endeavors for conformity. “Let faith look on Christ in the gospel as he is set forth dying and crucified for us. Look on him under the weight of our sins, praying, bleeding, dying; bring him in that condition into your heart by faith; apply his blood so shed to your corruptions. Do this daily.”

Rely on the Power of the Holy Spirit

As the section draws to a close, Owen wants the reader to remember all he has already said about the Holy Spirit and how true mortification is only ever carried out by the power of the Spirit.

  • The Spirit alone clearly and fully convinces the heart of the evil and guilt and danger of the sin to be put to death. “Without this conviction, or while it is so faint that the heart can wrestle with it or digest it, there will be no thorough work made.”
  • The Spirit alone reveals unto us the fullness of Christ for our relief. “[This] is the consideration that stays the heart from false ways and from despairing despondency.”
  • The Spirit alone establishes the heart in expectation of relief from Christ.
  • The Spirit alone brings the cross of Christ into our hearts with its sin-killing power.
  • The Spirit is the author and finisher of our sanctification.
  • In all the soul’s addresses to God in this condition, it has support from the Spirit.

This makes a fitting conclusion to Owen’s instructions on putting sin to death. With all the instructions made, we have now only to look to Christ, to trust in Christ, and to rely on his Holy Spirit. So simple. Yet it is the Christian’s lifetime work.

Reading Classics Together

Thanks to all who read this book with me. It was a joy to read it with you and to read your many, excellent comments and summaries. Do consider reading the other parts of the book, as there is so much more to learn from John Owen. And stay tuned; at some point I’ll suggest another classic we can read together.

November 27, 2014

We all long for peace. We all want to be at peace with God and men. The problem is that we usually want that peace to be on our terms. So we strive against men and battle against God until we feel that we have achieved what feels to us like peace.

John Owen knows this temptation and in his great book Overcoming Sin and Temptation he includes an entire chapter on the theme. He gives his reader this charge: “Do not speak peace to yourself before God speaks it, but hearken to what God says to your soul.” For many pages and through many chapters he has been instructing the reader on battling against sin. He has given specific instructions on how to put sin to death. And he concludes with care: Expect to hear God speak peace to your soul, but be very careful you do not speak that peace to yourself until he does.

Here is the slow march of his argument:

  1. God reserves the privilege to speak peace to whom, and in what degree, he pleases
  2. It is the prerogative of Christ to speak peace to the conscience
    • Men speak peace to themselves without the detestation of sin and the abhorrence of themselves for it
    • Men speak false peace to themselves when they rely upon convictions and rational principles to carry them
  3. We speak peace to ourselves when we do it slightly
  4. If one speaks peace to himself upon any one account of sin, and at the same time has another evil of no less importance lying upon his spirit, without dealing with God, that man cries “Peace” when there is none
  5. When men of themselves speak peace to their consciences, it is seldom that God speaks humiliation to their souls

We are so eager for peace that we will make only slight attempts at overcoming sin, and then try to convince ourselves we have done what honors God. We will turn from a sin for a time but without actually hating it and without actually intending to put it to death forever, and then tell our souls to be at peace. We will turn from one sin but continue to love and coddle another serious sin, and through it all insist that we are now at peace with God.

It’s not that we cannot know peace. It’s not that God does not want us to be at peace. Far from it. It’s that we must only find peace on God’s terms. He is the offended party, he is the Sovereign, and so he must take the lead. It is the right of God, not man, to declare the terms of peace and to declare the existence of peace.

God delights to put our sin to death, when we labor in the power of the Holy Spirit. When we do that we can expect peace, and we can know true peace. When God speaks peace through his Word or through his people we need to listen and believe. But we cannot and must not speak it to ourselves too soon, lest we delude ourselves and soon return to those very sins.

As you battle sin, listen for God’s affirming voice and look for success. God is for you and loves to help you put your sin to death. It is his delight. He will speak peace to your soul.

Next Time

For those reading Overcoming Sin and Temptation with me, we are nearing the end! Next Thursday we will continue with the final chapter of the book (or this section of the book, at least).

Your Turn

I would like to know what you gained from this chapter. Feel free to post 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 anything shocking or profound. Just share what stirred your heart or what gave you pause or what confused you. Let’s make sure we’re reading this book together.

Image credit: Shutterstock

November 20, 2014

I would pay good money to watch a debate between John Owen and Joel Osteen. Wouldn’t you? I have read John Owen’s Overcoming Sin and Temptation many times now, and have benefited with every reading. It just never gets old and it just never stops sounding so counter-cultural, countering both the wider culture and even the going Christian culture.

This week I read a chapter that teaches the value of self-examination and self-abasement. I was immediately struck by the difference between the heart of Owen’s understanding of the Christian life and what passes for Christian living today. I don’t mean to pick on an easy target, but it makes a fascinating contrast to compare Owen’s books with, say, Joel Osteen’s. I am not exaggerating when I say that they really are polar opposites in just about every way. Though both pass as Christian books, they could hardly be more different.

Where Joel Osteen writes about how we are to accept the unfortunate reality that we have made mistakes, his solution is that we should just press on and determine that we will not do bad things again. Owen, though, calls our mistakes “sin” and assures us that this sin has eternally distanced us from God. He allows sin no quarter and would never stoop to calling it a mere mistake. Where Osteen teaches that we are fundamentally good and that we should think highly of ourselves, Owen teaches that we are fundamentally sinners and need to fill our minds with self-abasement and thoughts of our own vileness.

Yet these low thoughts of ourselves have an important purpose and an important qualification. We are not to think low thoughts about ourselves in isolation. Instead, such thoughts are to be the natural consequence of pondering the majesty and the “otherness” of God. Do you want to see yourself accurately? Then see God accurately first. As we ponder God we are led to see the inconceivable distance between him and us. Once we see that distance, all we can really do is accept and ponder his greatness and our comparable vileness. I am sure there are those who read this and quickly picture dour Puritans who enjoy thinking of how awful they are, as if beating up on themselves is a form of holiness. But this is not what Owen says at all. Instead he teaches that proper thoughts of God and of humanity are of critical importance because only through abasement of ourselves before God can we experience humility of spirit. It is like a balance. As our thoughts of God increase, our view of ourselves naturally decreases accordingly. As that view of ourselves decreases, our love for God swells.

Osteen and so many of today’s other popular authors could never arrive at such conclusions because there is too little difference between their view of humanity and their view of God. In their way of thinking, we are not so far removed from him. They think of God too seldom and themselves too much; with every great thought of themselves, they lower God.

Here are a few of Owen’s best quotes from this chapter:

  • “Our further progress consists more in knowing what he is not, than what he is.”
  • “The intention of all gospel revelation is not to unveil God’s essential glory that we should see him as he is, but merely to declare so much of him as he knows sufficient to be a [foundation] of our faith, love, obedience, and coming to him—that is, of the faith which here he expects from us; such services as beseem poor creatures in the midst of temptations.”
  • “Know that your very nature is too narrow to bear apprehensions suitable to his glory.”

Next Time

For those reading Overcoming Sin and Temptation with me, well, I know that I took some liberties this week by looking beyond the one chapter. I couldn’t help myself! Next Thursday we will continue with the thirteenth chapter of the book—we are nearing the end! You can still get the book and read along if that is of interest to you.

Your Turn

I would like to know what you gained from this chapter. Feel free to post 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 anything shocking or profound. Just share what stirred your heart or what gave you pause or what confused you. Let’s make sure we’re reading this book together.

November 13, 2014

It’s a battle we all must fight. It’s a battle we all must fight from this moment until the moment we die. It’s a battle fraught with discouragement and setbacks, yet a battle we all can and must win. It’s the battle against sin.

All throughout the New Testament we are told to put our sin to death. For example, in Colossians 3 Paul says, “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.” How do you do that? How do you stop a sin, and how do you stop an especially stubborn and deep-rooted sin? Is there any hope? I want to track with John Owen here (via his great work Overcoming Sin and Temptation) and give a list of 9 things you need to do to overcome sin. Consider that sin that is prevalent in your life and then consider each of these 9 steps.

#1. Evaluate

Evaluate whether your sin is especially serious and deep-rooted. You have heard it said that “all sin is the same,” and there is a sense in which this is true—every single sin alienates you from God. However, some sins are more serious than others because they bring more serious consequences. The most serious sins are the ones that have gone so deep that they are now habitual; your subconscious habits now lead you to sin again and again. Consider your sin. Is it manifested in your habits? Do you sin almost an auto-pilot? Is it easier to sin than to do what is right? If it is, your sin is especially deep and you will need an extra measure of God’s help to battle it and overcome it.

#2. Fill

Fill your mind and conscience with the guilt, the weight, and the evil of your sin. Sin always tries to convince you that it isn’t very serious and that it is not worth worrying about. “Come on. Others have sinned worse. This is just a little sin. You deserve this.” But God wants you to know that your sin is eternally serious and absolutely worth worrying about. You need to consider just how dangerous your sin is, how it dishonors God, how it calls upon God to discipline you, how it makes you less useful in the Lord’s work, and even how it may show that you are not saved at all. Let that sin sit heavy in your mind and soul. Never succumb to the temptation to minimize it.

#3. Load

Load your conscience with the guilt of your sin. Compare your sin to God’s law, to what he demands of you and promises you can have if only you take hold of righteousness. Feel the guilt that you have incurred. Consider how patient and kind God has been with you in allowing you to go on without striking you down for your sin. Consider all the ways he has been gracious to you. Look to the gospel, not for forgiveness yet, but for the ultimate picture of the cost of your sin. See Christ suffering for your sin and don’t turn away your gaze. Feel all of that. Feel the weight, the guilt of it.

#4. Long

Long for deliverance from the sin. Now you are in the right frame of heart and frame of mind to desire deliverance from that sin. When you know and feel the weight of your sin, you will want to put that sin to death for the best reasons. You will no longer hate that sin merely out of fear of consequences or fear of shame or embarrassment. Now you will rightly see the cost and guilt of your sin, and you will long to be delivered from it so God can be glorified in you. Long for it. Pant for it. Cry out for it. 

#5. Consider

Consider how this sin is amplified by your nature or constitution. You need to consider whether there is something in your makeup that makes you especially prone to this sin. Some people come from whole families of alcoholics and it may be that there is some kind of predisposition to addiction within them. Or perhaps you were sinned against earlier in life and the sins that were committed against you seem to make you especially prone to a sin of your own. Though these things may be true, you cannot allow them to excuse your sin. Instead, allow them to further convince you of your weakness and your desperate need for God’s strength. Being predisposed toward a certain sin puts the burden on you to fight even harder against it, to destroy it even more completely, and to be especially vigilant in watching out for its reappearance.

#6. Contemplate

Contemplate the occasions in which this sin breaks out and guard against them. Now think about the times when you fall into this sin. What are the occasions? What happens right before you sin? What are the habits or patterns that lead to it? Think about these things, know what you do before you actually commit the sin, and stop the downward spiral long before it gets to the point of sinning. You never commit a big sin without first sliding down a long and slippery slope of little sins. So consider those little sins, identify the patterns, and learn to stop the little sins.

#7. Battle

Battle hard against the first awakenings of that sin. Never, ever allow yourself to play with sin. Never think you will sin this far, but no farther. Do not toy with sin. Do not think you can control your sin and allow only so much of it. If you do that, sin will win every time. The very second you feel that sin awakening within you, slam it down with all your force and all your strength. Cry out to God in that very moment. Call for help from other Christians in that very moment. Sin is like water held back by a dam; the moment there is even a small crack in that dam, the weight of the water pushing against it will blow a hole right through it, and the entire structure will collapse. 

#8. Meditate

Meditate on God to see his glory and your desperate inability. Think about God. Read his Word and meditate on it. Especially search out the glory of God and think about the massive distance between you and him. Think of how great he is and how little you know of him. Humble yourself by thinking great thoughts of God. God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble; if you want his grace in battling sin, humble yourself by considering God and by meeting with God. You cannot think high thoughts of God without being overwhelmed by sorrow for your sin and your sinfulness.

#9. Expect

Expect to hear God speak peace to your soul (but do not speak it to yourself until he does). As you do all of this, expect that God will help you put your sin to death, and expect that he will give you peace. You will feel peace because you will be at peace. But here’s an important thing to consider: Do not speak peace to yourself until God does. It is God who has the right to speak freedom and peace to your conscience, to your heart, to your mind. Let God speak it through his Word or through his people. When he does, listen. But do not speak it to yourself too soon or you will be deluding yourself, and will go straight back into your sin. Listen for God’s affirming voice and look for success. God is for you and loves to help you put your sin to death. It is his delight.

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