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