I went to see the doctor of philosophy
with a poster of Rasputin and a beard down to his knee
he never did marry or see a b-grade movie
he graded my performance, he said he could see through me
I spent four years prostrate to the higher mind
got my paper and I was free
– Indigo Girls –
One of my majors in college was philosophy. I loved those years. Several of my classes had a dozen or so students meeting several times a week to debate the finer points of ethics and metaphysics. I’ll spare you the gory details.
I learned a lot in those years about different ethical theories: philosophers through the ages trying to answer the question, “How should we live?” How is right and wrong defined? Does have to do with character? Motives? Consequences to our actions? Should it be “every man for himself”? Should we try to achieve the greatest good for the greatest number of people? What really is “good” in the first place?
As invigorating as these discussions were for me, at the end of the day I needed to wash my hands of the whole thing. As a Christian, I was thankful that the human race was not left in the dark on the subject of morality, that a wise and powerful Creator has revealed Himself and His will to us.
Not only has God told us how to live, He has also told us why it is so hard—impossible, even—to live how He commands on our own. We don’t merely need an ethical theory to direct us: we need a powerful God to change us.
Over the last several weeks we have been looking at John Owen’s classic work, Of the Mortification of Sin in Believers. This week we are looking at chapter 7, examining Owen’s first general direction for killing our sin.
Direction #1: You must be a believer to mortify sin
Owen made very clear in chapter 1 of his book that the Bible commands believers to mortify their sin (Romans 8:13). In chapter 7 Owen explains that the first duty of those who do not believe in Christ is not mortification but conversion. We may try to kill sin without Christ, but it will not work. Owen writes, “There is no death of sin without the death of Christ.”
Properly speaking, God desires all people to mortify their sins, but He desires them to do it in His way. This means men and women must first be converted before sin can be mortified. Owen writes, “I say, then, mortification is not the present business of unregenerate men. God calls them not to it as yet; conversion is their work—the conversion of the whole soul—not the mortification of this or that particular lust.”
The apostle Paul believed people are lumped into two basic categories: those who have the Spirit of Christ and those who do not. “If Christ is in you,” Paul writes, “although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness” (Romans 8:10), and this Spirit gives life to our mortal bodies (v.11), enabling us to put sin to death (v.13), marking us as true children of God (v.14). On the other hand, “Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him” (v.9). Such a person is not “in Christ,” but “in the flesh” and cannot please God (v.8). Without the Spirit of God animating us from within, our minds are forever hostile to God and His law, unable and unwilling to submit to God (v.7). No matter our personal convictions or situations, we cannot reform what we are. We must be remade and renewed by God Himself.
There is a gigantic difference between true mortification and adopting a strict, but nonetheless secular, moral code. When God lays hold of souls through his written commandments or temporal judgments, convicting people of their sin, this creates unrest in their hearts. God desires men to see their true condition—desperate, lost, and dead—“that he might be brought home to God…go to the great Physician of souls, and get healing in his blood.” But instead, to pacify their consciences and find peace, they try to slay the sins that trouble them, making moral reforms in their lives. In other words, they seek change, but not a Godward change. Owen writes, “You set yourself against a particular sin and do not consider that you are nothing but sin.” Trying to slay a particular sin, they are only diverting their minds from what God truly wants from them.
Owen says of even the most eloquent and selfless ethical philosophers that “their maxims differed as much from true mortification as the sun painted on a sign-post from the sun in the firmament; they had neither light nor heat.”
Owen uses a number of analogies to make his point. He likens unbelievers who try to mortify sin to a blacksmith trying to refine brass and iron into gold and silver: “Men must be gold and silver in the bottom, or else refining will do them no good” (see Jeremiah 6:27-30). It is like a man trying to erect a tent, spending all his time on the fabric, but never building a foundation. It is like a man trying to gather grapes from thorn bushes (see Matthew 7:16), or trying to gather good fruit from a bad tree. As Jesus said: First make the tree good and then its fruit will be good (Matthew 12:33).
God must make a man live before the man can slay sin. “To kill sin is the work of living men,” Owen writes, “where men are dead (as all unbelievers, the best of them, are dead) sin is alive, and will live.”
Owen’s Word to Preachers
There is a peculiar convincing power in the word, which God is oftentimes pleased to put forth, to the wounding, amazing, and in some sort, humbling of sinners, though they are never converted. And the word is to be preached though it has this end, yet not with this end…
Let me add this to those who are preachers of the word, or intend, through the good hand of God, that employment: It is their duty to plead with men about their sins, to lay load on particular sins, but always remember that it be done with that which is the proper end of the law and gospel—that is, that they make use of the sin they speak against to the discovery of the state and condition wherein the sinner is; otherwise, haply, they may work men to formality and hypocrisy, but little of the true end of preaching the gospel will be brought about. It will not avail to beat a man off from his drunkenness into sober formality. A skillful master of assemblies lays his axe to the root, drives still at the heart.
In other words, Owen is saying it is right for preachers to speak out against specific sins, but to make clear that the hearers’ chief problem is not any particular sin but their own hearts. To be sure, some will walk away from the sermon resolved to rid themselves of a particular sin but will not be converted. This will likely bring about a sanctifying effect on society, keeping men from excessive depravity. But this is not the preachers ultimate aim. The aim is to help men and women see their need for salvation from both the guilt and power of sin and to call them to look to the one “whom they have pierced” (Zechariah 12:10), placing their faith in the crucified Christ.
Questions for Person or Group Reflection:
1. True mortification starts with a right view of sin. People who merely want to modify their behavior see particular sins as something worth killing because they disturb the conscience or hurt one’s fellow man—this is “horizontal” understanding of sin. The Bible, rather, presents sin as something that is Godward in orientation—it stresses the “vertical” relationship. The primary one offended by sin is God (Psalm 51:4). The essence of sin is choosing to worship and honor something or someone else over God (Exodus 20:3; Romans 8:21-23). Do you tend to emphasize a vertical or horizontal understanding of sin?
2. Have you ever sat under teaching or preaching that only convicted you of particular sins but did not make clear that the gospel is the only solution?
3. Have you tried to mortify sin before being converted to Christ?
. . . .