With this chapter John Owen commences to give ‘particular directions’ regarding how to put sin to death in ourselves. The first instruction is to identify the nature of your sin–how deeply rooted is it? He offers seven characteristics of sin that will require extraordinary measures in order to be eradicated.
Some sins will be harder to eradicate than others. Take stock and see if yours has these dangerous symptoms. If so, they will require extraordinary remedies!
1) Is yours a long-standing sin?
For example: Have you permitted…greediness of study to eat up other duties, the duties wherein you ought to hold constant communion with God, for some long season?
We grow accustomed to any sin we don’t oppose. It becomes a part of our soul and all the harder to uproot. It will require an extraordinary course of action to expel. When we let sin be at home in us, it becomes scarcely distinguishable from the ‘dominion of sin’ which is only possible for unbelievers.
“Old neglected wounds are often mortal, always dangerous. Indwelling distempers grow rusty and stubborn by continuance in ease and quiet. Lust is such an inmate as, if it can plead time and some prescription, will not easily be ejected. As it never dies of itself, so if it be not daily killed it will always gather strength.”
2) Is your heart sanctioning what it knows to be sin?
Instead of repenting of it you look for evidences that all is well with your soul in spite of your sin. While it is a valid and profitable exercise to meditate on God’s goodness and love and remember ways He has shown these to you, these are never to be used as a means to quiet one’s conscience about a specific sin. This only shows up a heart in love with sin! This is why the Jews protested: ‘We are Abraham’s children’ when Jesus confronted them with their sinfulness.
It is a dangerous thing to be convinced everything is fine while living in conscious sin. ‘I shall be safe, though I walk in the stubbornness of my heart.’ Deut.29:19
“Love of sin, undervaluation of peace and of all tastes of love from God, are enwrapped in such a frame. Such a one plainly shows that if he can but keep up hope of escaping the “wrath to come,” he can be well content to be unfruitful in the world, at any distance from God that is not final separation. What is to be expected from such a heart?”
3) Do you claim grace and mercy will cover unmortified sin?
‘This is a sign of a heart greatly entangled with the love of sin.’
A heart that indulges in known sin while assuming God will be merciful is inconsistent with Christian sincerity. This is the ‘badge of a hypocrite’, the ‘turning of the grace of God into wantonness’ (Jude1:4) “yet I doubt not but, through the craft of Satan and their own remaining unbelief, the children of God may themselves sometimes be ensnared with this deceit of sin, or else Paul would never have so cautioned them against it as he does (Rom. 6:1-2:… Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?)
And yet it the natural impulse of the flesh to reason that grace and mercy are available to allow us to live in sin rather than to put it to death. “To apply mercy, then, to a sin not vigorously mortified is to fulfill the end of the flesh upon the gospel”
Even if a man’s desires aren’t strong enough to lead to action, if he harbors a secret liking of sin in his heart rather than going to Christ for its pardon and mortification, it will destroy him.
4) Do you habitually give in to sin’s seduction?
Even if one doesn’t follow through completely with a sin, if he desires to do so that sin has succeeded.
It is insignificant whether this happens by a conscious act of the will or inadvertently as a sort of ‘surprise attack’. In either case, it results from neglect of watchfulness and carefulness regarding sin.
5) Do you avoid sin only because of its consequences?
To resolve not to sin only out of fear of the shame it will bring you or the fear of Hell is an indication that the sin has captured the will. Were it not for the consequences you would not resist it at all. This is not much different than living in the practice of sin. The believer’s rightful motive for avoiding sin is found in the Gospel–the death of Christ, the love of God, and the detestably abhorrent nature of sin itself as compared with the preciousness of communion with a holy God. “How shall I do this great evil, and sin against the LORD,” my good and gracious God? (Gen.39:9) Apart from the Gospel there is only the law’s threat of hell and judgment to wield against sin. This is an insufficient power. For this reason the believer has been set free from the law’s dominion and brought under grace. (Rom.6:14) “If your contendings against sin be all on legal accounts, from legal principles and motives, what assurance can you attain unto that sin shall not have dominion over you, which will be your ruin?”
“For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in the flesh..”.Rom8:3 It is the Gospel that is the power of God for salvation, not the law! (Rom.1:16)
“What gospel principles do not, legal motives cannot do.”
6) Are you in a hardened state of sinning due possibly to God’s judgment for other sin not repented of?
“Why have you hardened us from the fear of your name?” (Is.63:17) God does sometimes harden unregenerate hearts, and perhaps in his discipline of His children, he may allow us to come into sin’s bondage in order to waken us to our condition.
“A new sin may be permitted, as well as a new affliction sent, to bring an old sin to remembrance.” You may be fast asleep in a storm of God’s anger. Awake and call on God!
7) Have you already resisted God’s dealings with you about your sin?
God providentially uses danger, affliction, trouble and even sickness to move a man to reflect on his sin. He uses the reading and preaching of His Word also to convict, convert and to edify. The soul that has already resisted God’s dealings in these ways is in a sad condition, and a dangerous one.
Each of these seven conditions indicates a need for extraordinary means of mortification. So, says Owen, the first step is to “Consider whether the lust or sin you are contending with has any of these dangerous symptoms attending of it.”
To this he adds a word of caution. Though these types of conditions may ensnare a believer, they should not be viewed as the normal Christian life. One should not assure himself he is a believer when these things are true of him but should search for other evidence of his salvation before concluding he is even a believer.
And on that sober note the chapter ends.
It seems to me as I conclude this chapter that most sin falls into these categories. Or is it just me? I’m also convinced that it must be God’s Spirit that reveals to us the sin that dwells in us. It is so deceptive and lurks behind our best intentions. Just reading these chapters has made me more aware of my own sinfulness as I go throughout my days inclined to hear what the Spirit is teaching me.
It’s been helpful to me to recast sin with some word other than ‘lust’ as this for me always conjures up images of sexual sin, which aren’t at present my greatest temptations. When I think of ‘lust’ in this narrow way my heart can be deluded into ‘breathing easy’ as it isn’t particularly troubled here. But what of sins of unbelief as seen in prayerlessness? What of a disposition that revolves around itself as the center of the universe?! What of self-preoccupation and negligence of worship? Surely these are sins of the most desperate kind, though they live quietly in a ‘nice’ person.
Yes, it has been valuable to take stock and to recognize that I stand in dire need of God’s mercy and the Spirit’s leading to live a life worthy of my calling, even in the areas no man sees. I am encouraged today by Paul’s way of addressing the Corinthian church. I am in good company –“called to be a saint together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours.” [Do we ever outgrow the need to call on the Lord for mercy? I think not!] He is the one who will sustain us to the end, “guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.” (I Cor.1:2,8,9) It will in the final analysis not be our diligence and aptitude but God’s mercy and faithfulness that will make saints of us.
Notes and summaries of previous chapters can be accessed here: