“To sin is a human business, to justify sins is a devilish business.”
– Leo Tolstoy
The more aggressive, subversive, and harmful we know an enemy is, the more alert we are in stopping his villainy. The same is true with sin: the more we understand the real nature of sin, the more alert we are to put sin to death.
Over the last couple weeks we have been looking at the classic work by John Owen, Of the Mortification of Sin in Believers. C.J. Mahaney says, “No one has taught me more about the dynamics of the heart and the deceitfulness of sin than John Owen.”
Last week we looked at Owen’s explanation of Romans 8:13, the biblical command to kill sin. This week we are looking at chapter 2 of Owen’s work, addressing why mortifying sin should be a daily practice.
“Be killing sin or it will be killing you”
Why should a Christian be concerned with killing his or her propensity to sin? Owen’s answers this question by exposing the volatile and harmful nature of sin itself.
1. Sin still dwells within us.
Using Owen’s terminology, becoming a Christian means the dominion of sin is broken, but the presence of sin remains.
Sin is like an alien power that grips the soul. All are under its dominion from birth, meaning that sin rules the whole soul, the whole personality. But when someone becomes a Christian, though the nature of sin itself remains unchanged (it is still a rebellious force), the status of sin is drastically altered. It is no longer the reigning monarch in the heart. Christ is.
While the dominion of sin has ended, we should never think we have already been made perfect (Philippians 3:12). Rather, our inward man is being renewed day by day (2 Corinthians 4:16). We do not yet have perfect knowledge of God (1 Corinthians 13:12), but rather we are commanded to grow in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ (2 Peter 3:18). We still live in a “body of death” (Romans 7:24), awaiting the full redemption of our bodies at the resurrection (Philippians 3:20).
As a result, in this life we are defective in our obedience (1 John 1:8). Having God’s promises, we are to fight the presence of sin in our members and “cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God” (2 Corinthians 7:1).
2. Sin not only dwells within us, but it is active.
Indwelling sin can be described as a “law” in the very members of our bodies (Romans 7:23), a persuasive power. Much like the laws of the land, sin has a certain commanding presence to it by promising rewards and punishments to us—offering us “fleeting pleasures” (Hebrews 11:25). Sin exercises itself through “lusts of the flesh,” or strong cravings for what is evil (Galatians 5:17).
And the nature of sin is not just a drive to do wrong things; sin is in opposition to God Himself. Sin is a craving in the soul that pushes toward autonomy and rebellion. Owen understands this to mean that sin is always either inclining us to do evil, hindering us from doing what is good, or disconnecting our spirits from communion with God.
Owen vividly describes sin as a subtle, sly, and strong force, “always at work in the business of killing our souls.” Just when we think sin is most quiet, this is when it is most powerful. “[S]in is always acting, always conceiving, always seducing and tempting.” Even in our holiest moments, even in our most moral decisions, indwelling sin is seeking to corrupt what we think and do (Romans 7:19).
There is no truce that can be made with sin. Owen believes that when you truly understand the nature of real obedience and the subtlety of indwelling sin, you will also know there is no safety against sin’s rebellion but a “constant warfare.”
3. Sin is not only active, but it is always aiming at maximum sin.
As we glance through the pages of Scripture, we can see there are no limits to the extent of human evil. Owen writes:
Sin aims always at the utmost; every time it rises up to tempt or entice, might it have its own course, it would go to the utmost sin in that kind. Every unclean thought or glance would be adultery if it could; every covetous desire would be oppression, every thought of unbelief would be atheism, might it grow to its head.
If unhindered, sin will bring about “great, cursed, scandalous, soul-destroying sins.” Hebrews 3:13 warns us not to be “hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.” Owen likens sin to a master manipulator, which at first makes modest proposals for compromise, and then once it has a foothold in our hearts, presses in unnoticed, taking more and more ground. If unchallenged, sin moves us toward subtler sin and higher degrees of disobedience, and it will not stop until it has all of us. Sin “has no bounds but utter relinquishment of God and opposition to him.”
4. Sin brings forth death.
Unmortified sin leads ultimately to spiritual death. Grace is like a muscle that must be exercised and strengthened. If it lies still for too long it atrophies and withers (Revelation 3:2). Our heart is progressively hardened (Hebrews 3:13). The bones of the soul are broken (Psalm 31:10; 51:8). A man feels sick and weak (Psalm 48:3-5), unable to admit guilt (Isaiah 33:24). Blow after blow, if a man never rises up to battle with sin, his soul will finally bleed to death under its strain.
Owen’s great concern was that there were so many professing Christians in the church in his day who lacked any fruit of real conversion. Living in the light of cultural Christianity, he feared many simply did not have genuine faith. Would he say the same today?
[T]here is a noise of religion and religious duties in every corner, preaching in abundance…so that if you will measure the number of believers by light, gifts, and profession, the church may have cause to say, ‘Who has born me all these?’ But now if you will take the measure of them by this great discriminating grace of Christians [i.e. mortification], perhaps you will find their number not so multiplied…If vain spending of time, idleness, unprofitableness in men’s places, envy, strife, variance, emulations, wrath, pride, worldliness, selfishness (1 Corinthians 1) be badges of Christians, we have them on us and amongst us in abundance…The good Lord send out a spirit of mortification to cure our distempers, or we are in a sad condition!
The Spirit is Given to Battle with Sin
For Owen, real conversion means God places a real conviction of sin into our hearts. The Holy Spirit who opposes sin is given to us so we might kill sin. Because we have the Holy Spirit, because we “participate in the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4-5), we escape from the pollutions and lusts of the world. The Spirit “lusts” against the flesh (Galatians 5:17), thus giving us new spiritual cravings that rise up to counter the law of sin in our members (Romans 7:23).
For Owen, mortification of sin was not an option, but a necessary fruit of real conversation. A truly converted soul will fight sin to the end. “The contest is for our lives and souls…Not to be daily mortifying sin is to sin against the goodness, kindness, wisdom, grace, and love of God, who has furnished us with a principle of doing it.” Are we growing in holiness? Are we dying to our sin, or have we rather tried to make peace with it?
Questions for Personal or Group Reflection:
1. Often people do not detect destructive power of sin because it is so subtle. Have there ever been times in your life when you suddenly felt a great conviction over sin, only then realizing how far you had fallen from God’s standard through little unnoticed compromises over time?
2. Owen quotes from or alludes to Hebrews 3:13 a couple times in this chapter: “But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today,’ that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.” One of God’s great remedies for the deceitfulness of sin are members of the church community “exhorting” each other, coming alongside one another to instruct, correct, and comfort. Knowing the great deceitfulness of sin, how important should mutual exhortation be in the body of Christ? How can you regularly experience that kind of community?
3. In your struggle with sexual temptation, what were the first compromises you made? How has the downward spiral of sexual sin manifested itself in your life? Were there key moments of conviction when you tried to stop?
. . . .