This morning we continue with our reading of John Owen’s classic Overcoming Sin and Temptation. If you’d like to know more about this reading project, you can read about it right here: Reading Classics Together. We’re in the heart of the book now and are looking at specific instructions on how to put sin to death.
In the past few chapters we have been in the book’s second section—a section that focuses on “the nature of mortification.” In the past chapters and those to come Owen approaches the subject this way:
- Show what it is to mortify any sin, and that both negatively and positively, that we be not mistaken in the foundation.
- Give general directions for such things as without which it will be utterly impossible for anyone to get any sin truly and spiritually mortified.
- Draw out the particulars whereby this is to be done.
He has already shown both negatively and positively what it is to mortify a sin and has given the general directions. He is now providing a list of instructions about how to actually do the business of mortifying sin.
This week Owen exhorts the reader to “use and exercise yourself to such meditations as may serve to fill you at all times with self-abasement and thoughts of your own vileness.” He covers this in just two main points:
- Think much of the excellency of the majesty of God and your infinite, inconceivable distance from him.
- Think much of your unacquaintedness with him.
This week’s chapter was interesting in that it quickly discussed the two main thrusts and then turned to long answers to questions Owen anticipated (and I’m not sure what it says about me that I arrived at neither of the questions on my own). It seemed to me that the questions were perhaps a little bit of a rabbit trail. I probably would have preferred if he had dedicated a bit more attention to both of the main points. But who am I to second guess Owen?
Regardless, I was immediately struck by the difference between this Puritan teaching and what passes for Christian teaching today. Not too long ago I read the two books written by Joel Osteen and really, there could hardly be a bigger contrast between the two. And I’m not exaggerating—they really are polar opposites in almost every way. Where Joel Osteen writes about how we are to accept that we’ve made mistakes and press on, attempting not to do bad things again, Owen calls this sin and writes of how this distances us from God. He allows sin no quarter and would never stoop to calling it mere “mistake.” Where Osteen teaches that we are fundamentally good and that we should think highly of ourselves, Owen teaches that we are to fill our minds with self-abasement and thoughts of our own vileness.
Yet we are not to think these things on their own, but rather, such thoughts are to be the natural consequence of pondering the majesty and the “otherness” of God. As we ponder God we are led to see the inconceivable distance between Him and us. And from there what can we do but ponder His greatness and our comparable vileness. Nowhere do Osteen or others of his ilk arrive at such conclusions because apparently there must be little difference between their view of humanity and their view of God. We are not so far removed from Him. 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 is usually the case, I also honed in on several of Owen’s more notable quotes.
“Our further progress consists more in knowing what he is not, than what he is.” So God is infinite (not finite) and immortal (not mortal). We, though, are finite and mortal. We know God based on what He is not.
“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 Thursday we will continue by reading chapter thirteen. We are just two chapters away from the end!
As always, I would like to know what you gained from this chapter. Please post your comments below or to write about this on your own blog (and then post a comment linking us to your thoughts). Do not feel that you need to say something exceedingly clever or profound. Simply share what stirred your heart or what gave you pause. You can also post any questions that came up. Let’s be certain that we are reading this book together. The comments on previous chapters have been very helpful and have aided my enjoyment of the book. I have every reason to believe that this week will prove the same.