August 2, 2016

Killing Sin Before it Kills Us

So, it’s been a while. I can’t remember the last time I wrote a book review on the site. It’s not down to a lack of reading, more a lack of time these days. But, I’m on holiday (in Toronto no less) and have a few minutes spare to put down some thoughts about my current reading material. So here goes. . . .

I thought I’d kick off by picking a cheeky little Puritan paperback. In this case, it is John Owen’s, ‘The Mortification of Sin’. My readers will fall into two camps here. Some will now be nodding in approval at my sage choice, and others of you will be wondering what a Puritan is, closely followed by googling the word ‘mortification’ (more on this later). This cheeky little number is only 130 pages long and is the abridged, easy to read (so they say) version by Richard Rushing and published by Banner of Truth. I have a confession when it comes to these old books. I find many of them very dense and difficult to read. I much prefer a new book. Truthfully, I just can’t be bothered trying to work out the Olde English. But, my wife was reading this on a recent break and she assured me it was pretty easy going. So, I thought I would give it a bash.

The book has 14 relatively short chapters and most of them are broken down into short subsections or what he calls, ‘Preparatory Directions’ which is just an old-fashioned way of saying, ‘Application’ (I think). So, it isn’t too difficult and actually might be quite helpful to be read slowly in a devotional manner over a couple of weeks. As it is, the whole thing can be read in a couple of hours max or in a couple of sittings (if you are a slower reader).

It’s easy to forget that this book is over 350 years old, because the subject matter is as relevant now as it has ever been. How do we wage war against sin in our lives? While, as Christians, we may be free from the punishment that our sins deserve, we are still engaged (or ought to be—the point of the book) in a lifelong battle to fight against the old man. Owen’s contention is that the only way we can win the war against sin in our lives is to mortify it. But what exactly does that word mean? It’s not exactly well known or fashionable, is it? Simply stated: “To mortify means to put any living thing to death” (p.3) For Owen, the duty of every Christian is to put to death the remaining sin in our lives, every single day of our lives. In his famous line (in educated churchy circles anyway): “Always be killing sin or it will be killing you.” (p.5)

The problem with sin is that it is always at work in us. It is alive, and it is seeking to kill us at every turn. Therefore, we must be active and working against it all of the time. If we give up, even for a moment, it will sweep in and take over our heart in deeper and deeper degrees. It will strangle our faith and leave us for dead if we do not take it seriously. Chapter 5, entitled: “What mortification is not,” is one of the most important in the book. Here, Owen looks at making sure we don’t engage in behaviourism or mere religion when seeking to change our behaviour. He warns against taking outward show as a sign of inward life, and it is a great warning to us all as we work in the schemes and difficult communities with people in great need. Often, our people want to please us and deceive us (and so themselves) in equal measure. They will take on the language of Zion and mimic the behaviour of ‘Christians’ (read: middle-class sensibilities and morals) but the reality is that their hearts have not been transformed by the Holy Spirit. But, new life must mean the whole inward soul of a person is being transformed by the power of God, and it mustn‘t be mistaken for ‘not swearing, drinking, drug-taking.’ If all the world truly is a stage, then often churches offer some of the finest shows in the land with Oscar-worthy performances being put in every week by deceivers and the deceived. We must be careful in our teaching, and modelling, that we are not telling people that justification means the war in our souls is over when, in fact, the lifelong war of attrition has just begun.

Owen reminds us that mortification is: (1) a habitual weakening of the lust (p.32) (2) a constant fighting and contention against sin (p.36) and (3) a degree of success in the battle (p.38). But none of this matters, he reminds us in chapter 7, if the people engaged in this battle are not truly converted. Herein lies the rub for me. Many of us are struggling with people in our congregations who are constantly in our offices or before our leaders with a constant flow of sin. They seem to be defeated at every turn. They seem to give in to temptation at every point. They do not seem able to find victory over the slightest sins in their lives. Even if they do, it is short-lived, and they are back to square one again. They despair, and so do we. Owen reminds us that, “Unless a man is a true believer, and grafted into Christ, he can never mortify a single sin.” (p.40) For Owen, “There is no death of sin without the death of Christ.” (p.41)

In other words, some of our people are in such a state because, quite simply, they are not saved. The advice we give them to do such and such or to avoid so and so is so often in vain because they are just spiritually incapable of producing any fruit. We wonder why they are just not changing, and the answer (that we often don’t want to face) is that they are unregenerate. We are casting our pearls before swine and wonder why they are trampling them into the dust. Maybe what people need in our counselling rooms, prayer sessions, and disciplinary meetings is to hear a clear call to conversion. Maybe instead of nurturing them like sheep, we need to do a bit more shearing to reveal the wolves underneath. Pastors would do well to read p.47 again and again and commit it to memory.

It is the duty of preachers to plead with men about their sins, but we must also remember to speak in such a way as to lead them to the discovery of their state and condition . . . we must lay the axe at the root. To deal with sin without the root is like beating an enemy in the open field and chasing him into an impregnable castle where he cannot be touched . . . we must not call men to mortification, but to believing.

We bear a heavy responsibility in our teaching of men, women, and children, and we dare not treat it lightly.

The rest of the book sets out how we can go about the acts of mortification, and Owen reminds us, again and again, that without the indwelling work of the Holy Spirit, all of our efforts will be in vain. We must remind ourselves and our people that in the war against sin, we have two clear directions.

  1. Set our hope and faith and affections constantly upon Jesus.
  2. Rely upon the convicting work of the Holy Spirit.

Definitely one to buy and read. It may take a bit of getting used to the style and language, but it is worth hanging in there for the gold beneath the surface. Deeply convicting and hugely helpful for pastors. Five stars for this baby!

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