Thursday, June 10, 2010

On John Owen's "The Mortification of Sin in Believers", Part 4

Time for my last post on John Owen's treatise on killing sin. I leave for Milwaukee bright and early tomorrow morning--it's hard to believe! I'm excited to do something with my summer, particularly glorify God by serving the needy, and nervous at the same time--this is going to be on intense mission trip. But God had brought me this far, and if He helped Paul become the greatest missionary ever He can certainly help me for eight weeks. Anyway, continuing with particular directions on mortifying sin:

  • Once you have a "clear and abiding sense" of the guilt, danger, and evil of sin, load your conscience with it. "Before this faith came, we were held prisoners by the law, locked up until faith should be revealed. So the law was put in charge to lead us to Christ that we might be justified by faith." (Galatians 3:23-24) The purpose of the law isn't for us to obey it and earn our salvation; if it were, we could be justified by the law, as Paul says in verse 21. Instead its purpose is to show us how sinful we are, how short we fall of God's standards, to lead us to justifying faith in Christ. Accordingly, Owen recommends using the law to load your conscience with the guilt and conviction of sin.
  • "Constantly long and breathe after deliverance from the power of sin"--if you did the last two steps right, this one should be easy! Basically we need to pray that God would change our hearts from longing for satisfaction in sin to longing for satisfaction in freedom from sin and knowing Him.
  • Know your innate weaknesses to sin. Obviously not everyone is equally susceptible to every sin; your background, personality, experiences, and nature can predispose you to committing certain sins and make you less likely to be tempted by others. Know yourself!
  • Know when and where you are vulnerable to certain sins. For example, my willpower tends to decline late at night as my brain gets tired, so I try to get to bed at a reasonable hour and have a time of prayer before I do so. Know your enemy!
  • Fight your sin with the Spirit! Don't let it gain an inch of ground in your heart; the instant it begins to rise up, fight it! This means never compromising with sin, letting it have part of your heart. At the risk of running afoul of Godwin's Law, this is comparable to Chamberlain's strategy of appeasement in 1938. It's doomed to failure.
  • Don't try to appeal to your own righteousness or "goodness" as an excuse for sin. Instead, Owen says to "use and exercise yourself to such meditations as may serve to fill you at all times with self-abasement and thoughts of your own vileness". Ouch! The examples he gives are considering how great God is and how far your sin separates you from Him, and how awesome and great God is, greater than any human. It may not be fun to think about yourself as a bug compared to the majesty of God, but it's important to get perspective on how serious our sin is and how much greater He is.
  • "Do not speak peace to yourself before God speaks it, but harken to what God says to your soul". If God is trying to convict you of a sin by stirring up your soul and conscience, don't be complacent and try to preserve your peaceful, sinful life--listen to Him! If the sin He's convicting you of is one that destroys your peace of mind, don't let regaining that peace be your number one reason for killing it--God is the "God of all comfort" (2 Corinthians 1:3) and will give peace to His children as He wills. Trying to "speaks peace" to ourselves when God is trying to stir us up against some sin is like Jonah sleeping on a sinking ship in the middle of a storm; it won't help. The analogy my pastor used to sum up this point, and indeed to sum up the whole sermon series, was the Whack-a-Mole! game. Don't get complacent; every time sin pops up, whack it!
In the final chapter, Owen gets to the good stuff: the actual means of mortification. There is no magic trick for making sin disappear; the actual process of mortification shouldn't be too surprising. Owen says to "set faith at work on Christ for the killing of your sin." What does this look like? He gives several examples:
  • Fill your soul with faith in God's provision to sustain you through temptation and mortify your sin. When Paul is struggling with what I take to be a temptation of some kind, God tells him, "My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is made perfect in weakness." (2 Corinthians 12:9) God has promised that if we trust and obey Him, He is able and willing to destroy our sin.
  • Then, by faith come to expect relief from Christ. It's by this faith that He heals us, and is encourages us to, as Owen puts it, "attend diligently to all the ways and means whereby Christ is wont [likely] to communicate Himself to the soul, and so takes in the real assistance of all graces and ordinances whatsoever." Be diligent and abide in Christ through prayer and the Bible to keep open the channels by which He can work in you. Owen has the example of a beggar: "The beggar that expects an alms lies at his door or in his way from whom he does expect it."
  • The death and resurrection of Christ are key. The reason Christ came was to "destroy the devil's work" (1 John 3:8) and "purify for himself a people who are his very own, eager to to what is good." (Titus 2:14) Central in our faith should be the significance of the cross. When we accept Christ and identify with His death, we die to sin (Romans 6:2); it may still have some sway over us, but the cross destroyed its power and authority over our souls.
Owen's last point is that the whole work of mortification is "effected, carried on, and accomplished by the power of the Spirit." The Spirit is the one who convicts us of sin (John 16:8), gives us strength to "stand firm in Christ" (2 Corinthians 1:21), baptizes us into the body of Christ and brings the cross to bear against sin (1 Corinthians 12:13), and produces the good fruit of faith that are fatal to sin (Galatians 5:22-25). In all the stages of mortification, being filled with the Spirit is the key to it all.

I hope this extremely brief summary of John Owen captures at least some of his faith and wisdom. I felt like a theologian writing this--only most theologians don't just paraphrase other theologians, I suppose. Once again, I can't recommend reading the book and/or listening to my church's sermons on it to get the whole story. Stay tuned for updates from Milwaukee!

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