“Be killing sin or it will be killing you”
As believers in Jesus Christ, we are freed from condemnation for our sins. Jesus paid for them in His death and we are declared crucified with Him and resurrected with Him to new life. But Owen builds a strong case in this chapter for our need still to be continuously, all the days of our lives, contending with the sin that still lives in us.
He compared it to the needful pruning of a fruitful branch. So we must be pruned of sin. He cites Paul’s example: He buffeted his body to make it his slave lest after preaching to others he himself would be disqualified from running the race.
Owen lays out five points to do with this daily duty of mortifying sin.
#1 Indwelling Sin lives in us
“We have a “body of death” from whence we are not delivered but by the death of our bodies.”
Owen refutes the ‘vain, foolish, and ignorant disputes’ of those who claim it’s possible to perfectly keep God’s commands in this lifetime, by saying they likely have no idea what it actually means to keep even one of His commands perfectly. To others who claim perfection by denying the reality of original sin he says they have merely created their own conceited form of righteousness and know nothing of the life of Christ and its power for the believer. He supports his point from multiple Scriptures, including Paul’s own witness: “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on…” Phil.3:12
#2 Indwelling Sin is not only a part of us but it is actively at work to lure us to act according to the flesh
“When sin lets us alone we may let sin alone; but as sin is never less quiet than when it seems to be most quiet, and its waters are for the most part deep when they are still, so ought our contrivances against it to be vigorous at all times and in all conditions, even where there is least suspicion”
We can never let down our guard in this lifetime because sin “in every moral action [it] is always either inclining to evil, or hindering from that which is good, or disframing the spirit from communion with God.”
#3 Indwelling sin will produce soul-destroying sins if we don’t put it to death
Sin will not stay under wraps in its disquieting rebellion. If given free reign (not mortified) scandalous sins such as those listed in Galatians 5 will result: “sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these.”(19-21) Though sin may start subtly with a thought or glance it will not end there. Sin is deceitful. It hardens the heart of the one who entertains it, gradually taking more and more ground, seeking to drive the soul into ‘utter relinquishment of God and opposition to him’. The only answer is constant mortification to the root of sin in us. Owen concludes this point with a sobering thought:
“There is not the best saint in the world but, if he should give over this duty,
would fall into as many cursed sins as ever any did of his kind.”
#4 The Spirit and the New Nature are our aids in opposing Indwelling Sin
God has given us means to fight sin in our lives. The Spirit and the flesh are natural enemies. The Spirit and the new nature are given to us as ‘a principle within us whereby to oppose sin and lust.’ Owen uses the analogy of two combatants, one bound the other free, to picture what it is like when we neglect to mortify sin and let it fight us unfettered rather than resisting it in the power of the Spirit. “[It is] the most foolish thing in the world to bind him who fights for our eternal condition and to let him alone who seeks and violently attempts our everlasting ruin.”
#5 The Results of Neglecting the Mortification of Indwelling Sin
If we are negligent in confronting our sin, grace begins to wither and the heart to harden. Drawing from David’s testimony in the Psalms, Owen says that when sin gets a victory ‘it breaks the bones of the soul (Ps.31:10; 51:8), and makes a man weak, sick and ready to die (Ps.38:3-5), so that he cannot look up (Ps.40:12)’. This happens. Haven’t we seen it in real life? Meanwhile there is a legalistic prideful version of what is called mortification, on the one hand, and another version that claims to allow for liberty and grace, but ‘true evangelical mortification is almost lost among us’.
#6 Perfecting Holiness in the fear of God and Growing daily in Grace is our Duty
This cannot be done without mortifying sin because sin will oppose every bit of growth. If we aren’t experiencing sin’s opposition and intentionally putting it to death, Owen suggests we are likely at peace with sin rather than dying to it!
In summary Owen reiterates that even though Christ has died for our sins and we have been given a new nature in opposition to our sin nature, ‘yet sin does so remain, so act and work in the best of believers, while they live in this world, that the constant daily mortification of it is all their days incumbent on them.’
Here Owen diverges from principles of indwelling sin to describe the great quantity of people in his day that profess to be saved but show little evidence of mortifying sin. They have spiritual gifts; they are busy with religious duties; there is gifted preaching happening, but there are few who seem to be mortifying their sins.
“If vain spending of time, idleness,unprofitableness in men’s places, envy, strife, variance, emulations, wrath, pride, worldliness, selfishness be badges of Christians, we have them on us and among us in abundance.” And if this is the case with those who ‘have much light’ and hopefully saving faith, what do we do with those who are merely religious and think that mortification is about denying themselves the occasional outward enjoyment?
He identifies two evils that accompany everyone who professes to believe in Christ but fails to mortify their flesh.
The first affects himself, the other those around him.
- The ‘unmortified profess-or’ doesn’t think much about his sin, at least he doesn’t see it as a daily weakness. He imagines grace and mercy covers all his sins to such an extent that he is able to ‘swallow and digest daily sins’ with no bitterness of heart. This man is ‘at the very brink of turning the grace of God into lasciviousness and being hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.’ There is no greater evidence of ‘a false and rotten heart in the world’ than this. The blood of Christ is for our cleansing. His exaltation to bring us to repentance. The doctrine of grace is to teach us to deny ungodliness. To use these instead as an excuse to sin is a rebellion that will ‘break the bones’. These profess-ors are apt to fall away from faith when they weary of duty because they haven’t understood the gospel and the doctrine of grace.
- Secondly, their example has a negative influence on those around them who then view themselves as doing pretty good in comparison to these profess-ors. These aren’t prodigals exacty; they do seem to separate themselves from the world but then ‘live wholly to themselves, taking not care to exercise lovingkindness in the earth’. They sound spiritual but live carnally. They talk about fellowship with God but are completely conformed to the world. They boast of having their sins forgiven but never forgive others. And by comparing their progress with these ‘unmortified profess-ors’ their hardened hearts deceive them into thinking they are saved when they are not. In appearances they may even out-do those who profess Christ, and yet they come short of eternal life. They merely have a powerless form of religion.
And on that sobering note the chapter ends with a promise to elaborate on the ‘evils of unmortified walking’ in later chapters.
MY PERSONAL TAKE-AWAY:
Well, I said something last week about being on the oblivious side of things when it comes to seeing my own sin. Well, this week has changed all that. It’s pretty obvious, just ask my family, I sin daily. Some sins are the sort you don’t see coming. They side-swipe you and you don’t recognize what’s happening till you have more than entered the fray! Others come sliding in on the heels of physical weariness or a disappointment or some emotional upheaval. Sad to say, these get past because they don’t bear the label of ‘sin’. I tend to justify my feelings and want to spend a little time in the pity party department hoping for empathetic company…
This is a challenging call to action, though I find myself hoping for practical ‘what-does-this-look-like’ advice soon! I’m challenged by Owen’s continuous pointing to the deceitfulness of sin.
“..sin is never less quiet than when it seems to be most quiet.”,
“If we aren’t experiencing sin’s opposition and intentionally putting it to death, Owen suggests we are likely at peace with sin rather than dying to it!”
This reminds me that just because I don’t recognize my sinfulness, doesn’t mean sin is not present. For instance, earlier today, I should have recognized sooner what Proverbs states to be true: “In the multitude of words sin is not lacking, but he who restrains his lips is wise. (Prov.10:19) Instead I kept ranting in a self-righteous defense of my own position. Sin was not absent. Owen’s reference to the ‘scandalous’ sins that result when we fail to put our sin nature to death includes not just sexual immorality and sorcery but things I pretend are less sinful: strife and fits of anger. They are all works of the flesh we are tasked with mortifying by the power of the Spirit.
Another thing I’m realizing as I read is that though I don’t like to acknowledge my sinful self, this is a far better course of action than allowing my heart to be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. Recognizing sin is the first step in repenting of it and learning to glory not in my own good track record, but in God’s perfect righteousness paid to my account. This is good medicine, or to use Scripture’s metaphor, good pruning. Speaking of good medicine, am I able to ‘swallow and digest daily sins’ with no bitterness of heart, taking for granted grace and mercy without acknowledging my genuine desperation for it? Or do I live in a lax way, wholly to myself, thinking that I’m OK because others who profess Christ are also lax about mortifying sin and ‘exercising lovingkindness in the earth’? Reading Owen is good for the soul. I look forward to next week’s chapter where the work of the Holy Spirit is introduced. We are lost without His enabling in all this!