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Reading Classics Together

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.

November 06, 2014

Sin promises so much but delivers so little. Sin always amplifies its benefits and minimizes its cost. Sin always aims at the uttermost, always nudging toward utter death and destruction. And yet we love our sin, and secretly harbor it, and grieve to turn aside from it.

John Owen has a challenge for you. Before that next big sin you are pondering, he wants you to simply consider three things.

Consider the Guilt of It

Before that next sin, consider the guilt of it. Your sin will always try to convince you that it isn’t very serious and 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.” I know you can identify with this! Sin always amplifies its benefits and minimizes its guilt. Says Owen, “This is the proper issue of lust in the heart—it darkens the mind that it shall not judge aright of its own guilt.”

The Christian who sins does so in spite of the grace of God in his life, and the presence of the Holy Spirit warning him against sin. Reflecting on Romans 6:1-2 Owen asks, “How shall we do it, who, have received grace from Christ to the contrary? We, doubtless, are more evil than any, if we do it.” Indeed, we are. 

Consider the Danger of It

Before that next sin, consider the danger of it—the future consequences to your life and soul.

The Danger of Being Hardened by Sin’s Deceitfulness. The ultimate aim of your sin is to fully harden you against God. Owen reflects on Hebrews 3:12-13 and says, “’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.” Every sin nudges you toward a complete and utter hardness of heart.

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 discipline 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). God, as a loving Father, sometimes disciplines us for our own good.

The Danger of Loss of Peace and Strength All a Man’s Days. Your sin may even bring about 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.” While sin—even serious sin—does not necessarily prove that we are unsaved, continuing in sin without any progress against it, should stand as a serious warning.

Consider the Evils of It

Before that next sin, consider the evils of it—the present consequences to your life and soul.

It Grieves the Holy and Blessed Spirit. There should be no greater incentive to the Christian 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. “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. “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!”

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.

Next Time

Next Thursday we will continue with the eleventh 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.

Image credit: Shutterstock

October 30, 2014

Not all sin is the same. While every sin places you under the wrath of God, and while any sin is sufficient to create an eternal chasm between God and man, not every sin is identical. In chapter 9 of his work Overcoming Sin and Temptation, John Owen wants you to think about that besetting sin in your life to consider if it is an “ordinary” sin, or if it is one that is particularly deadly and that, therefore, requires something more than the usual pattern of putting sin to death. The deadliness of a sin is not related so much to the category of that sin, but to how deeply-rooted it is in your life, and to how you have responded to God as he has revealed it to you.

Here are seven marks of a deeply deadly sin.

1. Your sin is deep-rooted and habitual. There may be some sins that have been in your life so long and with such prevalence that you no longer find them shocking or particularly bothersome. Your mind and conscience have grown hard to the sin and it is now deeply ingrained in your thoughts and habits. You, my friend, are in a dangerous place when you have grown ambivalent to that sin. “Unless some extraordinary course be taken, such a person has no ground in the world to expect that his latter end shall be peace.”

2. You proclaim God’s approval, but without battling sin. You know that a certain sin is prevalent in your life, and yet you continue to proclaim that you are accepted in Christ. Even though God has revealed that sin to you, and even though you have made no real attempt to put it to death, still you recount God’s grace to you in the gospel and still you take comfort in the peace of the gospel. Owen wants you to know that you cannot preach God’s peace to yourself while you embrace that one great sin. The gospel offers no comfort to those who slow-dance with their favorite sin.

3. You apply grace and mercy to a sin you do not intend to put to death. You cannot proclaim that the gospel has covered your sin if you do not intend to battle that sin. “To apply mercy to a sin not vigorously mortified is to fulfill the end of the flesh upon the gospel.” Sometimes your heart longs for peace with God, but at the same time it longs for the satisfaction of that sin. In these cases you may rashly look to the gospel to assuage your conscience even though you have no intention of stopping your sin. But the gospel does not allow you to apply God’s mercy and grace to a sin you love and intend to cling to.

4. Sin is frequently successful in seducing your desires. There are times when your heart takes delight in a sin, even though you do not actually commit that sin outwardly. If a sin becomes your delight and has a great hold upon your soul, it is a dangerous sign of a particularly deadly sin. This is true even if you do not commit that sin. If your delight is in sin, not God, your soul is being drawn away from your Savior.

5. You argue against sin only out of fear of impending punishment. It is a sign that sin has taken significant possession of your will when you argue against sin or fail to commit sin only because you fear punishment. In this case you do not delight to do God’s will, but only fear the consequences of disobedience. A true Christian battles sin out of a desire to please God and to find his delight in God.

6. You realize that God is allowing one sin in your life to make you aware of another sin. There are times when God allows you to battle one sin in order to expose a deeper sin. “A new sin may be permitted, as well as a new affliction sent, to bring an old sin to remembrance.” In such a case God is exercising fatherly discipline. If God is disciplining you by allowing another sin or by bringing some kind of affliction, he is sending a message about the hardness or your heart and the depth of your sin. Heed the warning!

7. You have hardened your heart against God as he has exposed your sin before you. God graciously reveals your sin through his Word, through conscience, through other Christians, and through many other means. When he reveals your sin, he also prompts you to take action against it. If you continually reject his help and harden your heart against that sin, you are in a dangerous, dangerous state. “Unspeakable are the evils which attend such a frame of heart. Every particular warning to a man in such an estate is an inestimable mercy; how then does he despise God in them who holds out against them! And what infinite patience is this in God, that he does not cast off such a one, and swear in his wrath that he shall never enter his rest!”

Christian, evaluate your sin, and battle hard against it. It is God’s grace that he reveals your sin, and it is God’s grace that he gives you everything you need to put it to death.

Next Time

Next Thursday we will continue with the tenth chapter of the book. 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.

October 23, 2014

It is an experience every Christian knows. You become aware of a sin and come to fear and hate it. You focus all kinds of attention on that sin and on putting it to death. You ask friends to pray for you, and you cry out to God for deliverence. Well and good, right? Well, not necessarily. John Owen has something to say to you: You will not be delivered from this sin until you pursue a much deeper and wider obedience.

Here is how Owen describes it in chapter eight of his great work Overcoming Sin and Temptation:

A man finds any lust to bring him into the condition formerly described; it is powerful, strong, tumultuating, leads captive, vexes, disquiets, takes away peace; he is not able to bear it; wherefore he sets himself against it, prays against it, groans under it, sighs to be delivered, but in the meantime, perhaps, in other duties—in constant communion with God—in reading, prayer, and meditation—in other ways that are not of the same kind with the lust wherewith he is troubled—he is loose and negligent. Let not that man think that ever he shall arrive to the mortification of the lust he is perplexed with. This is a condition that not seldom befalls men in their pilgrimage.

This is what Owen wants you to know: Even while you focus so much attention on that one sin that torments you, you may still be living a fast and loose life in other areas. You may battle hard against that one sin, even while allowing yourself to slip in other ways. You cry out to God to be delivered from lust or addiction, but all the while you neglect the simple disciplines of reading and praying, or you continue to have a fiery temper and to make excuses for it. If that is you, you should not expect that God will deliver you from that one sin. Your tendency will be to battle hardest against the sins you find most alarming. However, you ought to look to your entire life and to battle sins that God finds alarming. “These are no less sins and evils than those under which you groan. Jesus Christ bled for them also. Why do you not set yourself against them also?” 

As he loves to do, Owen draws a medical metaphor. “He that has a ‘running sore’ upon him, arising from an ill habit of body, contracted by intemperance and ill diet, let him apply himself with what diligence and skill he can to the cure of his sore, if he leave the general habit of his body under distempers, his labor and travail will be in vain.” In other words, if you live a life of drunken indulgence which causes your body to break out in some kind of sore, you can apply all the medical attention you want to the sore, but you haven’t cured the greater problem. And in the same way we like to go to battle against the most disturbing outward manifestations of our sin, rather than the far deeper root causes. It is far easier to put a bandaid over the sore than to stop the addictive behavior that causes it. It is far more likely that we will battle the sin that most disturbs us than the sin that most disturbs God.

Owen says it well: “Let not any man think to do his own work that will not do God’s. God’s work consists in universal obedience. … If we will do anything, we must do all things.” So battle that sin you hate by battling all the sins God hates.

Next Time

Next Thursday we will continue with the ninth chapter of the book. 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.

October 16, 2014

It is something I see again and again, and something that baffles me every time: People who expect unbelievers to act like believers. So often I see Christians acting surprised that their non-Christian friends or family members are acting like non-Christians. John Owen addresses this in his great work Overcoming Sin and Temptation. The book deals with the subject of mortification, of putting sin to death, and Owen dedicates one chapter to explaining why only Christians can behave like Christians.

He begins by insisting that only Christians have the ability to put sin to death. Unbelievers may suppress sin, but they cannot kill it. “Unless a man be a believer—that is, one that is truly ingrafted into Christ—he can never mortify any one sin; I do not say, unless he know himself to be so, but unless indeed he be so. … There is no death of sin without the death of Christ.”

And again, “A man may easier see without eyes, speak without a tongue, than truly mortify one sin without the Spirit.”

If it is, indeed, the case that unbelievers cannot put sin to death, then they have a higher priority: conversion. “Mortification is not the present business of unregenerate men. God calls them not to it as yet; conversion is their work—the conversion of the whole soul—not the mortification of this or that particular lust. … Let the soul be first thoroughly converted, and then, ‘looking on him whom they had pierced,’ humiliation and mortification will ensue.” There is a proper order to these things. First be saved, then put sin to death.

In reality, unbelievers who attempt to put sin to death actually go deeper into their sin. “This is the usual issue with persons attempting the mortification of sin without an interest in Christ first obtained. It deludes them, hardens them—destroys them.” And again, “To kill sin is the work of living men; where mean are dead (as all unbelievers, the best of them, are dead), sin is alive, and will live.”

Owen anticipates the following objection: “Shall [unregenerate men] cease striving against sin, live dissolutely, give their lusts their swing, and be as bad as the worst of men?” If unbelievers cannot put sin to death, would it be wrong of us to tell them to stop sinning or even expect them to?

He answers the objection this way: “God forbid! It is to be looked on as a great issue of wisdom, goodness, and love of God, that by manifold ways and means he is pleased to restrain the sons of men from running forth into that compass of excess and riot which the depravity of their nature would carry them out unto with violence.” God dispenses his common grace to all men, and this grace keeps them from being as sinful as they otherwise would be. Sometimes God does convict unbelievers of sin and causes them to restrain that sin, yet without actually converting them.

So it becomes a matter of right priorities both for the person calling upon the unbelievers, and for the unbelievers themselves: “Let men know [that putting sin to death] is their duty, but in its proper place; I take not men from mortification, but put them upon conversion. He that shall call a man from mending a hole in the wall of his house, to quench a fire that is consuming the whole building, is not his enemy! Poor soul! It is not your sore finger but your hectic fever that you are to apply yourself to the consideration of. You set yourself against a particular sin and do not consider that you are nothing but sin.” Don’t call upon unbelievers to stop sinning until you first call them to turn to Christ in repentance and faith. Even if they do not turn to Christ they may still suppress a sin, but do not make it your main purpose to convince unbelievers not to sin; instead, make it your purpose to call upon them to become Christians. And do not be surprised when, as unbelievers, they continue to behave like unbelievers.

Next Time

Next Thursday we will continue with the eighth chapter of the book. There is still plenty of time for you to get the book and to 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.

October 09, 2014

To become a Christian is to accept the lifelong challenge of becoming who you are — of putting sin to death and growing in holiness. Today I want to channel a little John Owen and tell you three things you ought to expect when battling sin.

Expect that the Battle Will Be Long

Owen says that putting sin to death consists of “a habitual weakening of sin,” and I take this to mean that over time and through our habits we chip away at our sin bit-by-bit and day-by-day. Rather than expecting sin to be destroyed in a moment, we expect that it will take time and focused effort. In this way putting sin to death is relative to our maturity as Christians and to the amount of time we have dedicated to battling a particular sin. He says, “The first thing in mortification is the weakening of this habit of sin or lust, that it shall not, with that violence, earnestness, frequency, rise up, conceive, tumultuate, provoke, entice, disquiet as naturally as it is apt to do.”

He has this amazing quote that is quite an indictment of humanity: “The reason why a natural man is not always perpetually in the pursuit of some one lust, night and day, is because he has many to serve, every one crying to be satisfied; thence he is carried on with great variety, but still in general he lies toward the satisfaction of self.”

He also makes a very helpful comparison between putting sin to death and a man being executed on a cross:

As a man nailed to the cross he first struggles and strives and cries out with great strength and might, but, as his blood and spirits waste, his strivings are faint and seldom, his cries low and hoarse, scarce to be heard; when a man first sets on a lust or distemper, to deal with it, it struggles with great violence to break loose; it cries with earnestness and impatience to be satisfied and relieved; but when by mortification the blood and spirits of it are let out, it moves seldom and faintly, cries sparingly, and is scarce heard in the heart; it may have sometimes a dying pang, that makes an appearance of great vigor and strength, but it is quickly over, especially if it be kept from considerable success.

Expect that the Battle Will Be Hard

Putting sin to death is a long and violent struggle against a deadly enemy that is absolutely devoted to our destruction. In this way we should not expect that putting sin to death will be easy, and we should not expect that sin will go quietly. “When sin is strong and vigorous, the soul is scarce able to make any head against it; it sighs, and groans, and mourns, and is troubled, as David speaks of himself, but seldom has sin in the pursuit.” This will be a lifelong battle and one that requires constant attention.

To fight against sin you need to know that…

  • “… a man has such an enemy to deal with it, to take notice of it, to consider it as an enemy indeed, and one that is to be destroyed by all means possible.” Always remember that sin exists, and always know that you are called to battle it.
  • “… to labor to be acquainted with the ways, wiles, methods, advantages, and occasions of its success is the beginning of this warfare.” Always remember that God gives us instructions in dealing with it, and we are to know our sin so we can better attack our sin.
  • “… to load it daily with all the things which shall after be mentioned, that are grevious, killing, and destructive to it is the height of this contest.” Always remember that you are to follow God’s instructions in dealing with it.

Expect to See Frequent Success

While the battle is long and fierce, “He who is in us is greater than he who is in the world.” Therefore we should expect to see frequent successes shown in significant and measurable victories over our sin. “Frequent success against any lust is another part and evidence of mortification. By success I understand not a mere disappointment of sin, that it be not brought forth nor accomplished, but a victory over it and pursuit of it to a complete conquest. For instance, when the heart finds sin at any time at work, seducing, forming imaginations to make provision for the flesh, to fulfill the lusts thereof, it instantly apprehends sin and brings it to the law of God and love of Christ, condemns it, follows it with execution to the uttermost.” While we do battle against our sin, we know that God has given us both the desire and the power to see victory.

Next Time

Next Thursday we will continue with the sixth chapter of the book. There is still plenty of time for you to get the book and to 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.

October 02, 2014

The heart is deceitful and desperately wicked. One of the ways such deceit manifests itself is through convincing us that we have battled a sin and put that sin to death when really we have done nothing of the sort. John Owen is a steady guide in the battle against sin, and in chapter 5 of his great work Overcoming Sin and Temptation he deals with misconceptions about what it means to put sin to death.

Here are 5 ways to lose the battle against sin.

Expect the Utter Death and Destruction of the Sin

Though we target the utter death and destruction of the sin, we cannot expect that we will ever so destroy a sin that there is no hope of it ever returning in this life. “It is true this is that which is aimed at; but this is not in this life to be accomplished.” Even though we can have a great degree of victory over sin and genuine success in battling it, we cannot expect perfection in this life. Even while the sin may be suppressed, we need to continue to call out for God’s grace until the day we die and are finally immune to all sin.

Will Yourself to Stop the Sin

Putting sin to death is not simply masking over a sin or even just stopping that sin for a time. This does not put the sin to death any more than putting a band-aid over a sore makes the sore go away. Here is how Owen says it: “When a man on some outward respects forsakes the practice of any sin, men perhaps may look on him as a changed man. God knows that to his former iniquity he has added cursed hypocrisy, and is now on a safer path to hell than he was before. He has got another heart than he had, that is more cunning; not a new heart, that is more holy.”

Rely on a Respectable Disposition

Putting sin to death is not just displaying respectable patterns and behavior. Some people have the advantage of a quiet nature, a reserved personality, a respectable disposition, and in their quietness can seem to have put sins to death. Owen says it well: “Let now these men cultivate and improve their natural frame and temper by discipline, consideration, and prudence, and they may seem to themselves and others very mortified men, when, perhaps, their hearts are a standing sink of all abominations. Some man is never so much troubled all his life, perhaps, with anger and passion, nor does trouble others, as another is almost every day; and yet the latter has done more to the mortification of the sin than the former.”

Divert the Sin

Putting sin to death is not only diverting a sin. All of our sins are first sins of the heart and have many ways of manifesting themselves in outward ways. It is easy enough to divert the outward manifestation of sin, but unless that sin is actually put to death, it will only manifest itself in a different way. “A man may be sensible of a lust, set himself against the eruptions of it, take care that it shall not break forth as it has done, but in the meantime suffer the same corrupted habit to vent itself some other way. … He that changes pride for worldliness, sensuality for Pharisaism, vanity in himself to the contempt of others, let him not think that he has mortified the sin that he seems to have left. He has changed his master, but is a servant still.”

Rely on “Occasional” Triumphs

Putting sin to death is not merely occasional triumphs over that sin (and in this case occasional does not mean “seldom” but “at particular occasions”). Owen gives two examples of ways that we can seem to put sin to death, only to later realize that we have not. The first case happens when a person commits a sin and feels great shame and remorse over it. In those times he promises he will never commit this sin again, and for a time his shame and guilt keep him from falling back into old patterns. However, he has not truly put that sin to death, but has only suppressed it for a time. When the shame and guilt have dissipated, the sin awakens from its slumber and comes roaring back. The second case happens in those times a person is convinced that his sin has brought about some divine punishment. Now he seeks peace with God and believes he can broker that peace by promising to never commit the sin again. But, again, he has not put that sin to death, so it only takes some time before the sin makes its presence known once again.

These are only 5 of the ways in which people deceive themselves into thinking they have put sin to death when, in reality, that sin remains alive and well. In other ways, these are 5 ways to lose the battle against sin. Next week we’ll see the positive side of putting sin to death.

Next Time

Next Thursday we will continue with the sixth chapter of the book. There is still plenty of time for you to get the book and to 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.

September 25, 2014

We do not sin with impunity. We cannot sin without consequence. Once the Holy Spirit reveals sin within us, we cannot simply ignore that sin and expect that our spiritual lives will continue to grow and thrive. In his great work Overcoming Sin and Temptation, John Owen lists six evil effects of sin—sin that we identify but refuse to destroy.

In chapter four of his book, Owen wants the reader to think about this: A God-honoring life is one in which we constantly wage war against sin. He says it like this: “The life, vigor and comfort of our spiritual life depend much upon our mortification of sin.” I take life to be the existence of spiritual life, vigor to be the extent of it, and comfort to be the Holy Spirit’s assurance of its existence. All of these are imperiled by the existence of sin. He will give six consequences of sin in our lives, but first he has a couple of foundational points to make.

The first foundation point Owen makes is that putting sin to death is necessary for a secure and comfortable Christian life, and yet they are not a guarantee of it. I find this important as a Christian and as a pastor: “A man may be carried on in a constant course of mortification all his days; and yet perhaps never enjoy a good day of peace and consolation. The use of means for the obtaining of peace is ours; the bestowing of it is God’s prerogative.” In other words, God does not owe us anything for putting sin to death; it is our duty and we must do it out of love and loyalty to him. However, under ordinary circumstances, he rewards such action with life, vigor and comfort.

The second foundational point is that we must not confuse mortification of sin with the gospel. “In the ways instituted by God to give us life, vigor, courage, and consolation, mortification is not one of the immediate causes of it. … Adoption and justification … are the immediate causes.” Spiritual life, comfort, and vigor are not ultimately the fruit of mortification, but of justification.

With those matters aside, he now offers a series of six evil effects of refusing to do battle with sin:

  1. Sin deprives us of spiritual strength and comfort. “Every unmortified sin will do two things: it will weaken the soul and deprive it of its vigor. It will darken the soul and deprive it of its comfort and peace.”
  2. Sin weakens the soul and deprives it of its strength. “An unmortified lust will drink up the spirit and all the vigor of the soul, and weaken it for all duties.” When he speaks of duties, he speaks of the ordinary means of grace, and particularly reading Scripture, praying and gaining the spiritual benefit that comes from doing these things.
  3. Sin becomes the delight of the heart. “It diverts the heart from the spiritual frame that is required for vigorous communion with God; it lays hold on the affections, rendering its object beloved and desirable, so expelling the love of the Father.” Unmortified sin becomes our delight, and we come to love it and rejoice in it.
  4. Sin becomes the meditation of our minds. “Thoughts are the great purveyors of the soul to bring in provision to satisfy its affections; and if sin remain unmortified in the heart, they must ever and anon be making provision for the flesh, to fulfill the lusts thereof.” When sin goes untouched, it becomes the meditation of our heart, taking the place that should be filled with the Lord.
  5. Sin hinders our spiritual walk. “The ambitious man much be studying, and the worldling must be working or contriving, and the sensual, vain person providing himself for vanity, when they should be engaged in the worship of God.” Sin steals the time, attention and affection that we need to maintain our communion with God.
  6. Sin darkens the soul. “It is a cloud, a thick cloud, that spreads itself over the face of the soul, and intercepts all the beams of God’s love and favor. It takes away all sense of the privilege of our adoption; and if the soul begins to gather up thoughts of consolation, sin quickly scatters them.” When we continually choose sin over godliness, sin destroys the comfort that the Holy Spirit seeks to provide. Our souls become darkened to his goodness and to the privileges of our adoption.

The solution to all of this is to put sin to death. Here is how Owen says it: “Mortification prunes all the graces of God and makes room for them in our hearts to grow. The life and vigor of our spiritual lives consists in the vigor and flourishing of the plants of grace in our hearts.” 

As we continue read Overcoming Sin and Temptation, we will soon come to instructions on actually putting sin to death.

Next Time

Next Thursday we will continue with the fifth chapter of the book. We have only just begun so there is still plenty of time for you to get the book and to read along.

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.

September 18, 2014

We are sinful people. We are sinful, forgiven people, who long to live in a way that pleases God. And there are few better tools for battling and overcoming sin than a close reading and application of John Owen’s classic work Overcoming Sin and Temptation. I have been reading through the book and came this week to a chapter on the critical importance of the Holy Spirit. 

Owen’s purpose in this chapter is both simple and clear: He wants his reader to know that sin is put to death only by the power of the Holy Spirit. There may be other ways we suppress sinful behavior, but true mortification always depends upon the Holy Spirit.

Here is a brief outline of his argument:

  1. Other remedies are sought in vain
    1. Because they use means God has not appointed for the work
    2. Because they do not properly use the means God actually has appointed for the work
  2. Why mortification is the work of the Spirit
    1. God promises us that Spirit for this very purpose
    2. All mortification is from the gift of Christ, and all the gifts of Christ are communicated to us and given us by the Spirit of Christ
  3. How the Spirit mortifies sin
    1. By causing our hearts to abound in grace and the fruits that are contrary to the flesh
    2. By a real physical efficiency on the root and habit of sin
    3. By bringing the cross of Christ into the heart of a sinner by faith
  4. If the Spirit alone mortifies sin, why are we are exhorted to put sin to death?
    1. Because all graces and good works which are in us are his
    2. Becase it is still an act of our obedience

Those who read the chapter with me will have seen that much of what Owen writes here is meant to oppose Roman Catholicism, the chief enemy of true faith in his day. But the main points of the chapter remain easily applicable. While I may not be Catholic, I still feel the temptation to allow my man-centered desires to interfere with God’s gracious work. Maybe this is what Owen means when he writes of “the natural popery in man.” I may not wear rough garments or take vows and orders as an attempt to destroy sin, but I may still look to myself and my homespun remedies rather than to God and his remedies. Just as Catholicism has invented ways of putting sin to death, I may also invent ways and means, and find them just as powerless to bring about true and lasting change.

I was struck by what Owen taught about attempting to put sin to death by means God has not appointed for that purpose, and then what he taught about misusing or ignoring the means God actually has appointed. Here is the challenge: I may ignore the means that has appointed for the purpose of putting sin to death. When I do this, I appear to put sin to death, but do not actually do it. He says, “They have sundry means to mortify the natural man, as to the natural life here we lead; none to mortify lust or corruption.” This is the mistake of men ignorant of the gospel, and too often it is the mistake I make. As Owen says, “Duties are excellent food for an unhealthy soul; they are no [remedy] for a sick soul. He that turns his meat into his medicine must expect no great operation.” There is a lot to think about in those words. Do I misuse the means of grace God has given, thinking that they can mortify my sin when really they are meant to feed me, but not to cure me? Am I trying to “sweat out a distemper with working?”

Let me leave you with this fascinating and thought-provoking quote: “He does not so work our mortification in us as not to keep it still an act of our obedience. The Holy Ghost works in us and upon us, as we are fit to be wrought in and upon; that is, so as to preserve our own liberty and free obedience. He works upon our understandings, wills, consciences, and affections, agreeably to their own natures; he works in us and with us, not against us or without us; so that his assistance is an encouragement as to the facilitating of the work, and no occasion of neglect as to the work itself.”

Next Time

Next Thursday we will continue with the fourth chapter of the book. We have only just begun so there is still plenty of time for you to get the book and to read along.

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.

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