We live in an age that tends to be down on guilt. Popular literature tells us to think positive thoughts about ourselves, and then gives us tips on handling acute guilt and shame. Psychological literature does a somewhat better job handling the subject, making room for idea that at least some guilt is healthy. We should feel guilt when we have genuinely wronged another person, but we should also beware of “neurotic guilt”: that inescapable sense of responsibility for the pain of others that cannot be resolved. At least this is what the psychologists say.
In some ways psychologists are correct about guilt, but their picture of guilt often very incomplete.Psychology offers advice about how to handle guilt, but it cannot tell us why we have a conscience to begin with. Psychology majors on how our guilt points to wrongs done to fellow human beings, but it does not tell us how we atone for our sins before our Maker.
When was the last time you walked into a Christian counselor’s office troubled by a particular sin and he or she said, “What you need to do is load your conscience down with more guilt”? People typically don’t like to pay for that kind of advice. And yet this is exactly what the 17th century pastor, John Owen, said.
Over the last several weeks we’ve been exploring Owen’s classic work Of the Mortification of Sin in Believers. This week we look at chapter 10 of this book, where Owen explains yet another direction for believers about attacking sin at the root.
Direction #4: Constantly remind yourself about the guilt, danger, and evil of sin
Often we do not mortify sin because we have ignored the guilt, danger, and evil of our sin over time. However, if we want to find victory over our sinful habits, Owen tells his readers they need to “be much in meditation” about these things “until they begin to have a powerful influence upon your soul—until they make it to tremble.”
1. The Guilt of Sin
Sin often whispers deceptive thoughts to us, enabling us to gloss over our guilt. “My sins may be bad, but not as bad as _____.” This is one of the ways sin clouds the mind: we offer up excuses, diversions, and empty promises so we do not feel the full weight of our guilt. This is what happens when we cherish our sin: it robs us of a clear mind (Hosea 4:10-11).
Consider King David: he was guilty of adultery and murder, and yet he was able to pacify his conscience for a time. Finally the prophet Nathan came to him, and armed with a cunning parable he was able to pierce all of David’s pretenses and excuses (2 Samuel 12).
How do we keep the utter guilt of our sin before our minds? Owen offers a couple thoughts for our consideration.
First, think long and hard about how God has released us from the dominion of sin, and yet we continue to sin. We, of all people, have God’s renewing grace enabling us to obey Him, and yet we still allow sin overpower us. “We, doubtless, are more evil than any, if we do it,” Owen writes.
Second, consider how fervently God opposes the sin found in the hearts of His own people. Owen reminds us, God has renewed the hearts of His people: our hearts now flow with “the desires and pantings of grace.” God now sees an “abundance of beauty and excellency in the desires of the hearts of his servants.” This makes the presence of sin in the heart all the more abominable. If we harbor sin in our hearts, and yet profess the name of Christ, God opposes this hypocrisy more than the notorious sins of wicked men (Revelation 3:15-17).
2. The Danger of Sin
We also should meditate on the danger of sin. Owen mentions four chief dangers of unmortified sin.
a. We could be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.
Remember how our spiritual forefathers rebelled in the wilderness. This rebellion did not come out of the blue. It was a result of the slow, steady, heart-hardening effects of sin. “Exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today,’ that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” (Hebrews 3:13).
Owen reminds his readers, every lust, every sinful disposition moves us one step closer to a complete and total hardness of heart unless there is genuine repentance. Read here his pastoral words describing this hardening process:
You that were tender, and used to melt under the word, under afflictions, will grow as some have profanely spoken, ‘sermon-proof and sickness-proof.’ You that did tremble at the presence of God, thoughts of death, and appearance before him, when you had more assurance of his love than now you have, shall have a stoutness upon your spirit not to be moved by these things…Sin will grow a light thing to you; you will pass it by as a thing of naught; this it will grow to. And what will be the end of such a condition? Can a sadder thing befall you? Is it not enough to make any heart tremble, to think of being brought into that estate where he should have slight thoughts of sin? Slight thoughts of grace, of mercy, of the blood of Christ, of the law, heaven, and hell…Take heed, this is that [which] your lust is working toward—the hardening of the heart, searing of the conscience, blinding of the mind, stupifying of the affections, and deceiving of the whole soul.
b. We could be disciplined by God.
The psalmist Ethan writes:
If his children forsake my law
and do not walk according to my rules,
if they violate my statutes
and do not keep my commandments,
then I will punish their transgression with the rod
and their iniquity with stripes,
but I will not remove from him my steadfast love
or be false to my faithfulness.
God surely forgives our sin, but He also disciplines us. And His discipline is no light matter. Think of the discipline He measured out in King David’s life. Owen writes, “Is it nothing to you that God should kill your child in anger, ruin your estate in anger, break your bones in anger, suffer you to be a scandal and reproach in anger, kill you, destroy you, make you lie down in darkness, in anger?” Not that these things are always a sign of judgment. Far from it. But they are nonetheless difficult experiences, and fear of these things should be sobering to us.
c. We could lose our sense of peace with God .
The greatest benefit we have this side of heaven is peace with God. Those in His covenant of grace can live their lives experiencing God smiling face. But when we do not mortify sin, God will hide is face from us (Isaiah 57:17). God says of Israel, “I will return again to my place, until they acknowledge their guilt and seek my face, and in their distress earnestly seek me” (Hosea 5:15).
It is perhaps but a little while and you shall see the face of God in peace no more. Perhaps by tomorrow you shall not be able to pray, read, hear, or perform any duties with the least cheerfulness, life, or vigor; and possibly you may never see a quiet hour while you live—that you may carry about you broken bones, full of pain and terror, all the days of your life. Yea, perhaps God will shoot arrows at you, and fill you with anguish and disquietness, with fears and complexities; make you a terror and astonishment to yourself and others; show you hell and wrath every moment; frighten and scare you with sad apprehensions of his hatred; so that your sore shall run in the night season, and you soul shall refuse comfort; so that you shall wish death rather than life, yea, your soul may choose strangling. Consider this a little—though God should not utterly destroy you, yet he might cast you into this condition, wherein you shall have quick and living apprehensions of your destruction.
d. We are in danger of Hell.
Talk of Hell may be an uncomfortable topic—but that is the point, isn’t it? God’s children are warned in Hebrews 10 if we go on sinning habitually and deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, we have nothing but the fearful expectation of judgment, the fury of fire that will consume God’s enemies (10:26-27). “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (10:31). If we “shrink back” in unbelief, God has no pleasure in us (10:38).
But doesn’t Paul writes in Romans 8:1, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus”? Shouldn’t we comfort ourselves with this promise rather than living under fear of Hell? Yes, but Owen reminds us, this promise can only be assumed by those who are led by the Spirit, those who put to sin to death by the Spirit (8:5-14).
It might be helpful to remind readers that Owen, in the tradition of Augustine and Calvin, thought all true believers could not ultimately fall away from God’s grace. But this belief did not negate the power of these Biblical warnings. Far from it. They still held, for Owen, all their original potency.
His fear was there were many in the church who professed faith but did not possess Christ. Sinclair Ferguson comments about this: “Owen regarded the ‘christianising’ of the western world as a spiritual catastrophe. It permanently confused the difference between the church and the world, and buried the doctrine of the gospel.”
3. The evil of sin
Lastly, Owen says believers struggling under the burden of sin should meditate about the evil of their sin.
a. Sin grieves the Holy Spirit.
“Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption” (Ephesians 4:30). This was Paul’s great motivation to the church at Ephesus to put off falsehood, sinful anger, theft, laziness, greed, lust, corrupt talk, bitterness, and slander. These things vex the Spirit of God: the same Spirit who has chosen our hearts as his home and has united us to the living Christ.
We are a temple of the Spirit. As we meditate on who the Holy Spirit is and all He has done for us, we should be ashamed when we think about Him being grieved by our sin. “Among those who walk with God,” Owen writes, “there is no greater motive and incentive unto universal holiness, and the preserving of their hearts and spirits in all purity and cleanness.”
b. Christ is freshly wounded by our sin.
The author of Hebrews tells us that some in the church, because of the deceitfulness of sin, can altogether fall away from God and totally relinquish Him. When they do this “they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt” (Hebrews 6:6). Owen says just as Christ is wounded by those who fall away, “so every harboring of sin that he came to destroy wounds and grieves him.”
c. It makes a person ineffective in his ministry.
When we allow sin to reign in our lives, God may not bless our ministry efforts. Commenting on the church his own day, Owen believed the church was full of professing Christians whose ministries were poor, withering, and barren. While there may be other reasons for this, he feared many ministers and laymen were harboring “spirit-devouring lusts” in their hearts.
Questions for Personal or Group Reflection:
1. When you experience guilt over some habitual sin, do you find yourself trying to avoid it? If a particular sin has gripped you for a while, has your experience of guilt over that sin increased or lessened over time?
2. When Owen writes of the dangers of sin, which one catches your attention the most?
3. Spend a few minutes meditating on the idea of the Holy Spirit being “grieved” over your sin. Think first about who the Spirit is. Then, think about Him being grieved over some sinful desire or action that you entertain. How does your heart react to these thoughts?
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