We live in an age where there is no shortage of so-called experts looking to explain the human condition. “Why am I the way I am?” and “How can I change?” These two questions have plagued humanity for millennia. Religion used to be the sole authority in the West for helping people answer these questions, but over the last hundred years or so, we’ve seen that role largely pass to the counselor or therapist.
When one sees the credence psychotherapy is given in pop culture and media, it’s not hard to come to the conclusion that counselors and psychoanalysts are, as Sigmund Freud said, the “secular pastoral workers” of the day. Therapists are not merely neutral or “objectively scientific” observers. They constantly make value judgments deciding what is best for their patients.
When a Christian feels the constant struggle with sin, to whom or what does he run for help?
Who Do You Trust?
Psychologist and historian Perry London believed counselors often act like a “secular priests.”
Are not therapeutic relationships always structured by therapists, even when they seek to justify them in patients’ personal needs, or in their social ones? Suppose they make virtue of necessity and ask themselves how, since their technical capacities imply a moral role anyway, they could exercise that role most wisely. Then they would fill a role more like that of a priest than of any other profession. But unless they are already operating from a normative creedal stand…they would be secular priests, whose justifications are not a theodicy revealed from heaven, but in a code discovered or inspired in a clinic, laboratory, and other earthly premises. The genesis of their consideration would be human nature, and their gospel the fulfillment of that nature, its decalogue the medium of behavior—all preached from the altar of science.*
For every Christian who wants to overcome sin, the big question he must ask (after “Why am I the way I am?” and “How can I change?”) is “Who or what will help me answer these questions?” What source of knowledge will shed light on my problems? Will it come from the revelation of Scripture or will it come from conclusions drawn by modern psychologists? The answer for the Christian should be a simple one: the Bible alone contains the answers for our aching souls.
Of course these two authorities—sacred revelation and secular psychology—do not always compete in every respect. Secular researchers and Christian counselors alike are reading from the same book of “natural revelation” when they study the human psyche, so they are bound to come up with similar observations. But no one reads this book with neutral eyes. We bring to the table our own preconceived ideas.
As a result there is often a clash of authorities when it comes to counseling human beings in their deepest struggles. In trying to answer the questions “Why am I the way I am?” and “How can I change?” counselors have given many different answers.
So, in order to interpret human struggles rightly, we need to be able to see things through God’s perspective. The Holy Spirit alone knows and communicates God’s thoughts, and He reveals them through the inspired authors of the Bible. We need an illuminated mind (enlightened by the Holy Spirit), looking through the lens of special revelation (the Bible), to interpret natural revelation (the human soul and all its problems).
God’s Remedy to Sin
In the 17th century, pastor-theologian John Owen was dealing with a similar clash of authorities. For him the clash was not with the authority of secular psychology but with the authority of centuries of church tradition. Owen thought most of the church’s ways of helping people deal with sin were fruitless and worthless. Owen believed God alone reveals the solution to how we can change and God alone is the source of change.
This week we continue our look at Owen’s famous work, Of the Mortification of Sin in Believers.
- Two weeks ago we examined what God commands concerning mortifying sin.
- Last week we looked at the urgent reasons why mortifying sin should be a daily practice in our lives.
- Today we are looking at chapter 3 of Owen’s book, examining how the Holy Spirit works in killing our sin.
The Sin-Killing Spirit
The apostle Paul writes, “For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live” (Romans 8:13). Owen spends this chapter explaining why the Spirit is the only means of killing sin and how the Spirit does this.
1. No other solutions to killing sin will work.
John Owen has many negative things to say about the churches in his day. He likens some of the preachers in his day to the locusts from the bottomless pit in Revelation 9, scorpion-like and armed with “stinging sermons” used to convince people of their sin, “but being not able to discover the remedy for the healing and mortification of [sin], they kept them in such perpetual anguish and terror, and such trouble in their consciences, that they desired to die.”
Owen points out some of the ineffective means of killing sin the church has historically promoted: taking special vows, living a monastic life, practicing penance, and extreme asceticism. He calls these things “superstition” and “traditions of men” (Matthew 15:9), means never appointed by God to mortify sin, and therefore totally worthless.
Owen also mentions divinely appointed means that are often used in the wrong way: things like praying, meditation, devotions, and fasting. These too are worthless unless they are subordinate to the Holy Spirit and faith. These means are only the streams; the Spirit is the fountain.
When men and women rely on human means to slay sin, Owen calls this “will-worship,” i.e. the worship of our own willpower. Overwhelmed with the guilt of our sin we fervently promise ourselves and God that we will stop sinning. Fueled by this initial conviction, we are watchful for a season and engage in Christian duties, but then the sense of sin wears off, and we are again ensnared by our lusts.
Owen says these duties (like prayer and fasting) are a Christian’s meat, not his medicine. A sin-sick soul is likely to choke on these duties if they are fueled merely by willpower.
2. The Holy Spirit is the only solution to killing sin.
We know the Spirit is the only means of mortification because, first, God has specifically given the Spirit to His people for this very purpose. One of the great promises of the New Covenant is that God would remove the stony hearts of His people and give them His Spirit (Ezekiel 11:19; 36:26). The salvation promised in the New Covenant is not merely the forgiveness of our sins, but the healing of our stubborn, proud, rebellious, and unbelieving hearts.
Second, we know the Spirit is the only means of mortification because the death of our sin is the gift of Christ, and like all of His gifts, it is given through His Spirit. How do we live a life of repentance? Where does the power to repent come from? Acts 5:31 tells us Christ was exalted to the right hand of the Father in heaven so that he might give repentance to us. As Prince and Savior, He received from His Father the promised Holy Spirit who is then sent by Christ to perform His work in us (Acts 2:33).
3. There are three ways the Spirit mortifies sin.
a. By causing our hearts to abound in the fruit of the Spirit which counters the lusts of the flesh – Owen explains Paul’s words in Galatians 5:16-25. Those who truly belong to Christ have “crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (v.24). How? When we keep in step with the Holy Spirit (v.16,25), and thus manifest a character of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (v.22-23). These Christlike graces displace the works of the flesh.
b. By physically burning at the root of sin, thus weakening it and destroying it – God promised the Messiah would to come an purify His people “by a spirit of judgment and by a spirit of burning” (Isaiah 4:4). The Spirit’s fiery presence actually takes up residence in us and burns up the root of sin itself.
So first, the Spirit mortifies sin is by displacing its effects with the fruit of godly character. And second, the Spirit mortifies sin by destroying its power over us, weakening the grip sin has on our souls throughout our lives.
c. By bringing the cross of Christ into the heart by faith, giving communion with Christ in his death – Owen develops this theme later in the book.
4. If the Spirit alone mortifies sin, why are we told to do it?
Many in the church have been perplexed by questions of divine empowerment and human responsibility. Paul clearly says, “you put to death the deeds of the body,” but says this must happen “by the Spirit” (Romans 8:13). How does this work?
It works much the same way other Christian duties work. For instance, we are called to pray, but it is the Spirit who causes us to do it (Romans 8:26; Zechariah 12:10). “It is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13).
When the Spirit works in us, He does not work in such a way as to nullify our humanity. Owen writes, “He works upon our understandings, wills, consciences, and affections, agreeably to our own natures; he works in us and with us, not against us or without us.” The is the true cause of any and all transformation, but He works through our human faculties.
* Perry London, The Modes and Morals of Psychotherapy. Taylor & Francis, Inc. October 1986. p.152-153
Questions for Personal or Group Reflection:
1. Have you ever approached your struggle against sin with a “recipe” mentality (i.e. a little more Bible reading, a little more prayer, a little more Christian fellowship, and I can beat this sin)?
2. What human traditions or philosophies have you relied on to help you understand how to change? Are these philosophies based on Biblical ideas, secular ideas, or a mixture of both?
3. Is it comforting knowing that repentance is a gift from God?
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