This morning, I’ve been reviewing some of John Owen’s writings. I will paraphrase him since his English isn’t very kind to the average reader, but the message is so profound that I wanted to share what this great teacher had to say about the motivation we must have in killing our indwelling sin. Previously in the book, Owen sets up the notion that unless a person is converted, that is, becomes a Christian, the mortification of sin is useless and will prove frustrating and futile. While the killing of sin in one’s life is something which every man should do, it’s only the converted man who will have lasting success; all others are called first to receive the Gospel. From this framework, Owen proceeds to question his readers’ motivation:
Hatred of sin as sin, not only as frustrating or annoying, but having a sense of the love of Christ in the cross lies at the foundation of all true spiritual mortification. There is a mortification which proceeds from self-love. You set yourself, diligently and earnestly, to mortify such a lust or sin: but why? It makes you uncomfortable; it has taken away your peace; it fills your heart with sorrow, trouble and fear; you have no rest because of it. Yes, but friend: you have neglected prayer and the reading of Scripture! You are guilty of self-promotion and looseness in your conversation in other things which aren’t connected to the lust that you’re trying to mortify!
These are no less sins and evils than the lust under which you groan! Jesus Christ bled for them also; why don’t you set yourself against these sins also? If you do indeed hate sin as sin, then you would be no less watchful against everything that grieves the Spirit of God, rather than only dealing with those sins which rob you of your peace.
It is evident, therefore, that you contend against sin merely because of the trouble it causes you. If your conscience would leave you alone, you’d leave that sin alone. Do you dare to think that God will bring himself in line with your hypocritical approach to lusts in your life? Would he ever bear favorable witness to the treachery and falsehoods of your spirit? Will he ease the burden which affects you, only to free you up to do other things which do not bother you but are no less sin?
No! God says, “Here is a person who, if they could be rid of this lust, I should never hear from them again. Let them wrestle with this, or they will be lost.” No one should make the mistake of thinking about his own work who will not first submit to God’s work. God’s work consists in universal obedience; to be freed of their own frustration over their lust is their job only. This is why Paul says in 2 Corinthians 7:1, “Let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God.”
If we dare to mortify one area of sin, we must strive to mortify ALL areas of sin. Mortification is not simply an intense opposition to this or that particular lust, but a universal humble frame of mind and posture of the heart, accompanied by watchfulness of every evil and for the performance of every good work which is acceptable to God.
Paraphrased from John Owen’s On the Mortification of Sin in Believers, published by Banner of Truth in vol. 6 of The Complete Works of John Owen: Temptation and Sin, page 41-42.
This is a fascinating concept. Often, teaching on the fight against sin directs the hearer to think of one particular sin on which they can work that week. While there may be value in such self-consideration, I’d like to propose that if the Holy Spirit is indeed at work in the heart of the believer, He has already begun that work! This means our teaching and mutual exhortation as the Body of Christ should be with the result of purging all evil from amongst us in our lives.
And so we are met with a downfall in popular teaching in the Church today. Holiness has been given a black eye by many churches who equate holiness with legalism. This black eye is not entirely unwarranted in certain circles, but that method of holiness is not in line with Biblical holiness. Our desire should be to reflect Jesus accurately to a world which desperately needs good news and without holiness coming from Christ, this is an impossibility. Am I recommending the preaching of standards?
I am, but not in the way that most people who know of ‘holiness standards’ would tend to think of them. In my opinion, the clear proclamation of the Gospel makes evident, through the words of one preaching and the accompanying work of the Holy Spirit, convicts the person of sin, leads them to repentance and into obedience, which is really faith. This is why James says that faith without works is dead; without obedience, faith cannot be evidenced.
Allow me to use an example from my own life. As a red-blooded American male, sexual lust is no stranger to me. I have accountability partners who help me to ensure I don’t look at porn and who encourage me in keeping my thoughts pure. My motivation, initially, for wanting to rid myself of this lust was not viewing sin as sin; rather, it robbed me of my peace, so I sought to eliminate it. As we’ve just read in Owen, this is the wrong way to go about things! I have an equally appaling sin which bothers me a whole lot less: my temper. I tend to go off after literally nothing to those who are closest to me, and for what? To assert myself? Why should I not prefer to be wronged? But, as I’ve said, this sin tends to bother me a whole lot less than my lust.
This shouldn’t be. I must learn to hate sin as sin and not simply as something which makes me uncomfortable. It’s true that the Spirit will be the author of the disquieting of our souls, but if that doesn’t lead to the hating of all sin in one’s life, it’s a useless sensation.
Is anyone tracking with me?
I wept when I read your paraphrase of Owen’s words.
It brings up so many layers of where I continue to fall short, where my selfishness takes precident, and where I really need to be crying out to God even when I think that everything is okay. How anyone could think that it is possible to get this all right, even for a moment, is beyond me.
No truer thing was said: if I love God then I need to love what He loves and hate what He hates. Just because I do not feel guilty as a result of my sin, does not mean that it is okay. On the contrary, it shows me for the wretch that I am if I do not hate my sin the way God hates sin.
Our only consolation is that this is not the end of the story. I love to tell that story! 😀