All sins are not the same. I know that statement runs contrary to what we typically hear in preaching, but it’s true. Many times preachers say, “All sins are the same in God’s eyes” to make the dramatic point about not minimizing the sins we tend to overlook. But this is actually an oversimplification: of course, every sin is hell-worthy (James 2:10; Romans 3:23), but not every sin has the same ramifications. Some sins are clearly greater than others (Exodus 32:30; Matthew 5:19; Mark 3:29; Luke 20:47; John 19:11).
In our discussion about killing sin, there are some sinful dispositions that should really catch our attention. This is John Owen’s primary concern in chapter 9 of his book, Of the Mortification of Sin in Believers.
Up until now, Owen has been giving general rules about mortification. First, he says you must be a believer to mortify sin. God must unite us to Christ before we can truly slay the power of sin. Second, truly killing sin stems from hating it as sin, not just because it disturbs our own hearts. When we are choosy about the sins we try to rid ourselves of, we show we are more concerned about how sin grieves us, not how it grieves God.
In chapter 9 Owen gives his first particular direction for killing sin. He calls this direction preparatory, but nonetheless important.
Direction #3: Ask yourself if your lust has these dangerous symptoms accompanying it
Owen mentions seven symptoms, and each should serve as a grave warning to us. Is your sin accompanied by any of these symptoms?
1. Habitual Sin
“Old neglected wounds are often mortal, always dangerous,” Owen writes. The longer we have allowed a sin to fester, the more dangerous it is. The longer we entertain a sin, the more it subtly sinks into our soul, the more it makes itself at home among our affections and thoughts, we come to a place where it doesn’t even startle us anymore.
We read about this in the life of King David who wrote, “There is no soundness in my flesh because of your indignation; there is no health in my bones because of my sin. For my iniquities have gone over my head; like a heavy burden, they are too heavy for me. My wounds stink and fester because of my foolishness” (Psalm 38:3-5).
When sin becomes deeply-rooted, habitual, and addictive, it robs us of peace. Owen says, an addictive sin in a born-again believer cannot be distinguished from the total domination of sin experienced by a non-believer. How can a believer in this state be assured of his salvation? An addictive sin has a way of breeding hopelessness in us. If you leave a sin unmortified after hearing countless sermons and after countless signs of God’s discipline and mercy, it is very easy to lose hope that you will ever be rid of it.
2. Cheap Peace
Sometimes, even though we know a particular sin seems to have a grip on us, we search our souls for reasons why we should still feel at peace. For example, some people, when they feel the weight of guilt because they are harboring sin, instead of fighting the sin, they call to mind their previous experiences with God so they can feel a sense of peace. Those who do this are concerned mostly about appeasing their troubled conscience than they are killing sin. Owen calls this “a desperate device of a heart in love with sin.”
Wanting to be clear, Owen believes Christians should meditate on the great things God has done for them in the past. He points readers to Psalm 77, where the psalmist meditates in his heart about “the years when the Most High stretched out his right hand,” and remembers God’s miracles of long ago (Psalm 77:10-11, NIV). When we are tempted or under trial, it is fitting for us to fixate our minds on God’s covenant love and promises.
But it is another thing to do this in order to pacify a guilty conscience. When the conscience is upset by sin, it is God’s way of rebuking us. If we do not run to the cross of Christ to seek pardon and to the Spirit of Christ for power, but instead we fabricate a sense of peace based on yesterday’s graces, it is as if we are removing the yoke God Himself is placing on us. When someone does this, it shows their primary concern is knowing they are saved from hell, but they forget they have been saved for God. “What can be expected from such a heart?” Owen asks, “[H]is condition is very dangerous, his wound hardly curable.”
3. Cheap Grace
Similar to the last symptom, some feel the weight of conviction, but instead of setting a course to kill the sin, they preach grace to themselves. This is the ungodly attitude of perverting the grace of God into a license for immorality (Jude 4; Romans 6:1-2). “The flesh would fain be indulged unto upon account of grace,” Owen writes, “and every word that is spoken of mercy, it stands ready to catch at and pervert it, to its own corrupt aims and purposes.”
Instead of welcoming God’s burning conviction against our sinful desires, we claim grace for ourselves and secretly cling to our desire for the sin. If this is our practice, it is not God’s grace we are experiencing, but a self-delusion. The only conduit through which we receive true grace is the blood of Christ, and that same blood carries with it a power and desire to be rid of sin.
4. Love of Sin
Some outward sins are easier to commit than others. There are many circumstances that can keep us from carrying sin through to the end. But this does not stop us from harboring the enjoyment of the idea.
Owen says sin is successful even when it seduces us to delight in it, regardless of whether we take any physical action. He is aware many Christians are not watchful in this area, and as a result we let sin steal a piece of our hearts from us.
It is helpful to remember what Owen means by “mortifying” sin. In chapters 3 and 6, Owen explained real mortification means the weakening of sinful habits and desires over time, not just some kind of outward behavioral change. The Spirit of God actually burns at the root of sin in our affections and causes Christlike desires to flow from our hearts.
If we reduce mortification to placing up external blockades in our life so that we do not “act out,” but we still delight in the sin in our hearts, then we do not understand the heart of real obedience.
5. Right Actions, Wrong Motives
What is your first line of defense against a temptation? Owen asks his readers to listen to the internal monologue in their hearts when temptation arises. What do you tell yourself? How do you motivate yourself towards holiness? Do you think, “No, I shouldn’t do this. Someone might catch me”? Do you avoid sin out of fear of punishment or consequences? Do you avoid sin because of the shame you might experience from others? Do you push sin away by reminding yourself there might be hell to pay (literally)?
Owen says if these are your primary modes of defense, it is “a sign that sin has taken great possession of the will.” To fight temptation by reminding yourself of the potential consequences, temporal or eternal, is using Law to quench sin’s power. You are using legal principles and motives. But Christians are no longer under Law, but under grace (Romans 6:14). Law has never proven an effective way to quench sinful desires (Colossians 2:23). Owen says God’s Law is only His “restraining grace,” but not His “renewing grace.”
Those who are Christ’s, and are acted [activated] in their obedience upon gospel principles, have the death of Christ, the love of God, the detestable nature of sin, the preciousness of communion with God, a deep-ground abhorrency of sin as sin, to oppose to any seduction of sin, to all the workings, strivings, rightings of lust in their hearts.
Owen believes sin is only truly mortified at the root when it is opposed by these “gospel principles.” But if our habit is to always fight temptation through legal principles, it shows the root of sin is still thriving.
A loving father will discipline his children. The same is true for our heavenly Father. He chastens everyone He accepts as a son (Hebrews 12:6). But we are in a dangerous place when God’s discipline actually brings about hardness of heart in us.
Isaiah prayed, “O Lord, why do you make us wander from your ways and harden our heart, so that we fear you not?” (Isaiah 63:17). Perhaps God has been chastening you over a long stretch of time, but you have ignored His warnings. Perhaps you’ve become desensitized to God’s discipline. Ask yourself these questions: Have you experienced any recent deliverance from sin that did not result in great change? Have you experienced any affliction that did not result in greater godliness? Have you noticed fewer and fewer opportunities to glorify God to those around you? Have you neglected some important Christian duties? Do you generally live for yourself? Have you neglected repentance of a particular sin? Have you been conforming more and more to the world and culture around you?
“If you find this to have been your state, awake, call upon God,” Owen exhorts, “you are fast asleep in a storm of anger round about you.”
7. Divine Discipline
Most Christians have felt the sting of conviction when something brings them face to face with God’s standard. At times this happens when we read the Bible or when we hear it preached or when a fellow believer confronts us in our sin. But if we ignore this sting over and over, it may become dull to us.
God often hews men by the sword of his word in that ordinance [of preaching], strikes directly on their bosom-beloved lust, startles the sinner, makes him engage unto the mortification and relinquishment of the evil of his heart. Now, if his lust has taken such hold on him as to enforce him to break these bands of the Lord and to case these cords from him—if it overcomes these convictions and gets unto its old posture; if it can cure the wounds it so receives—that soul is in a sad condition.
If you are a believer…
Owen cautions his readers to consider whether their particular sin is accompanied by these dangerous symptoms. Some sins are truly worse than others: not because they are more hell-worthy than other sins, but because they have what Owen calls a “deadly mark” on them. Without deliverance from sins accompanied by these symptoms, Owen says, we are “at the door of death.”
Owen cautions his readers to search their hearts to see whether they are truly of the faith. While a true believer may have these symptoms, “he that has these things in himself may safely conclude, ‘If I am a believer, I am a most miserable one.’”
Questions for Personal or Group Reflection:
1. Think about the differences between law-oriented and grace-oriented motivations.
- “The wages of sin is death” vs. “Christ died for sins”
- “I fear punishment” vs. “I love God”
- “Sin disturbs my conscience” vs. “Sin is detestable”
- “If others see my sin, I will lose their respect” vs. “I love communing with and pleasing God”
2. Have you noticed any of these seven symptoms in your life?
3. What do you think Owen might say is the difference between chronic guilt that does not trust in God’s promise of forgiveness and God-given guilt that is meant to move us toward holiness?
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