Why do we struggle to overcome sin?
Do we hate sin because it is sin or merely because it causes us trouble?
In this chapter Owen targets our motives in wanting to be free of sin. He makes the case that: “There will be No Mortification of Any Sin without Sincerity and Diligence in a Universality of Obedience”.
At first glance it seems as though Owen is prescribing a weighty works-based, self-instituted ‘mortification’ when he says it must involve a “universality of Obedience”. I found it essential to go back and read his closing paragraphs from the last chapter:
“Can sin be killed without an interest in the death of Christ, or mortified without the Spirit? If such directions should prevail to change men’s lives, as seldom they do, yet they never reach to the change of their hearts or conditions. They may make men self-justiciaries or hypocrites, not Christians.”
He describes such ‘specious endeavors for mortification’ as being hard, burdensome, and “utterly ignorant of the righteousness of Christ and unacquainted[ness] with His Spirit.”
Whew! So this chapter is not saying we need to just work harder at obeying on every possible front if we expect to overcome sin. What Owen is doing is calling motives into consideration. Why do we want to be rid of a particular sin? Why might God not allow us to gain victory in the areas we most want it? Fascinating to consider!
Owen begins by giving the example of a man who is faced with a powerful and vexing lust from which he longs to be delivered. He prays and groans and sighs over it but pays little attention to continual communion with God or to prayer, Bible reading and meditation in general. He is not ‘equally careful of his universal spiritual temperature and constitution.’ He is fighting sin based on a ‘corrupt principle’. He does not hate sin as sin but only because it is causing him particular trouble. Owen suggests that his fight with sin springs from self-love rather than the love of Christ for His work on the Cross.
“It is evident that you contend against sin merely because of your own trouble by it.”
Then he asks the question, will God allow victory over this sin on such a hypocritical basis? His answer: ‘No. God says, “Here is one, if he could be rid of this lust I should never hear of him more; let him wrestle with this, or he is lost.”
God desires in us a humble frame of heart and mind contrite over every evil in us, not merely those that cause us obvious trouble. Owen goes on to suggest that perhaps God allows particular sins to torment a believer in order ‘to chasten you for your other negligences and common lukewarmness in walking before him; at least to awaken you to the consideration of your ways, that you may make a thorough work and change in your course of walking with him?’
He cites Romans 1:26 as an example of God giving up the wicked to a single sin in punishment for another sin. Then he suggests that ‘even with his own, He may, He does, leave them sometimes to some vexatious distempers, either to prevent or cure some other evil.’ Paul’s thorn in the flesh is cited as an example (II Cor.12:7), and Peter’s denial of Jesus.
Owen calls it ‘treachery in the heart’ to want to be delivered from just one particular sin without a concern for ‘universal obedience.’ Such treachery is evidence that the soul is weak in faith and selfish, “as considering more the trouble of sin than the filth and guilt of it”. Consequently Owen says such a person provokes God and should not expect any success in any ‘spiritual duty’ including the mortifying of his particular lusts. Another principle and ‘frame of spirit’ is required.
So end the general rules for mortification with the promise of ‘particular directions’ in Chapter nine.
I was a little uneasy with this chapter in that it seemed to put a load of guilt on the reader’s shoulders and an impossible burden of ‘universal obedience’ OR ELSE!
Whether believers in fact ‘provoke God’ by their short-sighted view of their own sinfulness is debatable. We are assured there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Rom.8:1) and that God will complete the sanctifying work He has begun in us. (I Th.5:23-24) I would suggest that though we are sometimes foolish in our efforts to be rid of sin, God is faithful to point us to the Cross and to a correct view of ourselves and of His holiness. He is slow to anger, merciful and gracious, not easily provoked (I Cor.13:5). Having said that, God clearly uses teachers in the Body to accomplish this purpose. (Consider Eph.4) Enter: John Owen! “Hatred of sin as sin, not only as galling or disquieting, a sense of the love of Christ in the cross, lies at the bottom of all true spiritual mortification.” This is a good ‘heads-up’ for those of us who struggle with sins that just don’t seem to be dying. Are we concerned with them merely for our own comfort or do we hate them, and all sin, out of love for God and His holiness? And who shall bring this about in us where we are lacking? It will have to be the work of God by His Spirit. May He give us hearts to love Him and to hate all sin. He is the one at work in us; He will accomplish it!
Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it. I Thess. 5:23,24
Here are the links to the previous chapters: