How much poison should we tolerate in our food? Sounds like a silly question, doesn’t it? None, of course. And yet when it comes to the poison of sin, often we take a very utilitarian approach: how much sin should I tolerate in my soul?
In a letter to her son John Wesley, Susanna Wesley wrote:
Take this rule: whatever weakens your reason, impairs the tenderness of your conscience, obscures your sense of God, or takes off your relish of spiritual things; in short, whatever increases the strength and authority of your body over your mind, that thing is sin to you, however innocent it may be in itself.
Reading these words I am cut to the heart. As I think about giving up things, even “good” things, for the sake of keeping my appetite for the eternal, I immediately say, “Yes, but…”
Of course, I’m not advocating a monastic life. We must live in a world of work and play. We must train our minds and hearts to hold firmly to Christ even when the world seeks to distract us. But often I find my enjoyment of this world reflects an attitude that says, “A little sin is okay.”
Over the last several months we’ve been exploring John Owen’s timeless classic, Of the Mortification of Sin in Believers. In this book he aims to give biblical principles for slaying sin.
In chapter 11 of Owen’s book, he offers five more specific directions about slaying sin. These five directions are, in a word, all about attitude. What is our attitude toward sin itself? How does a proper attitude toward sin practically express itself in the everyday battle with sin?
Direction #5: Impress your conscience with the guilt of your sin.
In Owen’s last chapter, he spent time teachin his readers about the guilt, danger, and evil of sin itself. These are theological concerns: they deal mostly with how to think rightly about sin. He ended his chapter saying that the reader should “keep alive” these things on his or her heart. How do we do this?
Owen recommends we start by meditating on general concepts and then move on to matters particular to our own situation.
1. God’s general methods for revealing our guilt:
a. The Law
The law of God was written in order to awaken us to the guilt of our sin. It does this by striking the fear of the Lord into us and by demonstrating the righteousness of God’s judgment. “Bring the holy law of God into your conscience, lay your corruption to it, pray that you may be affected with it,” writes Owen, “Consider the holiness, spirituality, fiery severity, inwardness, absoluteness of the law, and see how you can stand before it.”
Many Christians will object at this point: Aren’t we no longer under condemnation (Romans 8:1)? Is it right to allow ourselves to feel the weight of the law’s condemning power?
Owen answers this objection: We cannot claim to be no longer under the law’s condemnation if we are still under the power of habitual sin. Yes, those adopted by the Father and united to Christ are no longer under condemnation. But only those in the process of mortifying sin by the Spirit’s power can be assured they are united to Christ (Romans 8:9-13).
Some falsely believe, “I’ve been set free from the old law, so I no longer have to pay any attention to how it defines sin.” The gospel has not changed the definition of sin or made our sin excusable before God. God does not “excuse” sin. He pardons it. He forgives it. The gospel reveals how our sin has been atoned for in the cross of Christ.
God uses His law, says Owen, “to seize upon transgressors wherever it find them, and so bring them before his throne, where they are to plead for themselves.” He says if you pay close attention to what the law says about your specific sin, “it will speak with a voice what shall make you tremble, that shall cast you to the ground and fill you with astonishment.”
b. The Gospel
The gospel of the cross is good news, but it is also a means of further conviction of our guilt. Owen tells his readers to speak to their soul:
What have I done? What love, what mercy, what blood, what grace, have I despised and trampled on! Is this the return I make to the Father for his love, to the Son for his blood, to the Holy Ghost for his grace? Do I thus requite [repay] the Lord? Have I defiled the heart that Christ died to wash, which the blessed Spirit hath chosen to dwell in? And can I keep myself out of the dust? What can I say to the dear Lord Jesus? How shall I hold up my head with any boldness before him? Do I account communion with him of so little value that for this vile lust’s sake I have scarce left him any room in my heart? How shall I escape, if I neglect so great salvation? In the mean time, what shall I say to the Lord? Love, mercy, grace, goodness, peace, joy, consolation—I have despised them all, and esteemed them as a thing of naught, that I might harbor a lust in my heart. Have I obtained a view of God’s fatherly countenance, that I might behold his face and provoke him to his face? Was my soul washed that room might be made for new defilements? Shall I endeavor to disappoint the end of the death of Christ? Shall I daily grieve the Spirit whereby I am sealed to the day of redemption?
When God pours out a spirit of grace on us, we look at the one who was pierced for us and mourn (Zechariah 12:10).
2. Consider your particular situation:
Consider first God’s immense patience with you. How many times have you have broken your promises to Him? How many times have you sinned in a particular way, gambling with God’s patience? How many times could God have exposed your sin what what it really is, but He has not done it?
Consider also all of God’s undeserved mercies given to you: all of the good seasons of your life, all the troubles He’s delivered you from, all the afflictions that have shaped your character, all the joys and pleasures of life. None of these things are deserved, and yet God continues to pour them out.
Owen asks the reader, “load your conscience” by thinking about these things, “and leave it not until it be thoroughly affected with the guilt of your indwelling corruption, until it be sensible of its wound, and lie in the dust before the Lord.”
Direction #6: Constantly long for deliverance from the sin’s power.
Next—as we have loaded our conscience with thoughts of our guilt before His perfect Law, in light of His love seen in the Gospel, and in light of all of God’s mercies—we constantly long for deliverance from sin.
Paul writes that godly grief over sin produces an earnestness, an indignation, a longing, and a zeal (2 Corinthians 7:11) in us. In Paul’s own experience, faced with knowledge of his indwelling sin, he cries out, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24). This is the longing that Owen desires his readers to have.
He says this longing for deliverance is a gift of God’s grace and has “a mighty power to conform the soul into the likeness of the thing longed after.” When we long for deliverance, it is a fuel that propels a life of constant prayer and focuses our faith and hope on the work God wants us to do.
Direction #7: Take practical disciplines when your sin is fueled by your personality.
All the while, as we are loading our conscience with guilt and stirring up a longing for holiness, we also need to use practical disciplines of prayer and fasting.
We all have different personalities and temperaments. Some of us, by virtue of our personal weaknesses, are drawn to one sin or another. While all of us are equally drawn to sin, not all of us are equally drawn to the same kind of sins.
Owen is very clear on this matter: “Personality” is not an excuse for sin. Owen lived in a time before Carl Jung or Myers and Briggs. Today, we have the labeling of personalities down to a science. We can identify our attitudes of introversion and extroversion with a simple questionnaire. We can identify and classify our dominant functions of thinking, feeling, sensing, and intuition. However accurate or revealing these psychological observations are, they do not change the fact that all of us were born in sin (Psalm 51:5). “That you are peculiarly inclined unto any sinful distemper,” Owen comments, “is but a peculiar breaking out of original lust in your nature.”
If your habitual sin is fueled by your personality, Owen counsels his readers to do what the apostle Paul did: “I discipline my body and keep it under control” (1 Corinthians 9:27). At times the natural wiring or our brains and bodies is like a fertile soil in which our sin can grow. Mental and bodily discipline through habits of fasting and vigils of prayer can be very helpful in this regard.
Owen does counsel, however, that we should not see things like fasting and prayer vigils as good in and of themselves. These things are not the essence of mortifying sin. Nonetheless, when we know our sin is being fueled by our personal weaknesses, we should be diligent to use spiritual disciplines in training our body, mind, and temperament for obedience. This, again, expresses an attitude of diligence.
Direction #8: Be watchful over any area where sin easily gets a foothold and set yourself against it.
Practically speaking, we can often see patterns in our disobedience: there may be specific occasions, persons, times, and pursuits that give opportunity for sin to erupt. Owen writes, “set yourself heedfully against them all.” This is the discipline of “watching.” Jesus warned, “Watch yourselves” (Luke 21:34) lest your heart be weighed down with the trappings of this world.
Owen gets at a fundamental principle about temptation here: “Know that he that dares to dally with occasions of sin will dare to sin.” When we know a specific situation will be tempting for us, to intentionally walk into that situation indicates we are dabbling with sin, not trying to kill it. If we know we are sick, we will intentionally avoid places and diets that wear on our immune systems. The same should be true of our souls: we must have an attitude of despising sin, not tolerating it.
Direction #9: Set yourself against the first signs of sin as if it was full-blown wickedness.
Give sin an inch and it will take a mile. If our attitude is that we can stomach a taste of sin, then we are not seeking to slay sin. “Each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death” (James 1:14-15). As James indicates here: sin begins at the stage of enticement.
Owen says we should set ourselves against this enticement stage “with no less vigor than if it had utterly debased you in wickedness.” The first stage of sin happens not in our actions but in our desires. It is there the battle must be fought first.
Questions for Personal or Group Reflection:
1. Look through the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) and see if there is a specific statement from the lips of Jesus that speaks to your habitual sin. Have you ever taken these statements to heart? Have you ever meditated on these things until it made you “tremble” or filled you with “astonishment”?
2. Read through the Gospel accounts of the the crucifixion. Make a study of the physical, emotional, and spiritual agonies of Jesus on the cross. Consider what incredible blessings his suffering has given to us. Have you ever been truly cut to the heart about how your sin tramples on God’s grace?
3. Have you ever considered fasting as a discipline to help train your body and mind for holiness?
4. On what occasions have you dabbled with temptation and been burned?
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