Thursday, December 1, 2011

John Owen on the Mortification of Sin

In his foreword to John Owen's classic, and now republished work, "Mortification of Sin", John Piper writes,

"As I look across the Christian landscape, I think it is safe to say concerning sin, "They have healed the wound of my people lightly" (Jer. 6:14; 8:11, ESV).  I take this to refer to leaders who should be helping the church know and feel the seriousness of indwelling sin (Rom. 7:20), and how to fight it and kill it (Rom. 8:13).  Instead the depth and complexity and ugliness and danger of sin in professing Christians is either minimized - since we are already justified - or psychologized as a symptom of woundedness rather than corruption."

As Kelly Kapic writes in the introduction, "Christians are called to war against sin."  Why? Owens tells us: "Your enemy is not only upon you...but is in you also."

Owens calls this warfare "mortification", which he defines as "a habitual, successful weakening of sin that involves constant warfare and contention against the flesh."  Following his definition, he gives his proposition to the reader:

The choicest of believers,
who are assuredly freed from the condemning power of sin,
ought yet to make it their business all their days
to mortify the indwelling power of sin.
What I love about Owens' application in the book is that is thoroughly gospel centered.  Putting the deeds of the flesh - that is, indwelling sin - to death is an impossibility to accomplish in the flesh.  As Paul writes, we are to mortify, or kill, the deeds of the flesh "by the Spirit" (Rom. 8:13).

As we recall that the primary "ministration" of the Holy Spirit in the New Covenant is to apply to the elect the benefits of the gospel which Christ has purchased for them, we come to realize that Owen is certainly correct in his diagnosis that "the flesh profits nothing" in this venture of mortifying indwelling sin.  Indeed, "Mortification from a self-strength, carried on by ways of self-invention, unto the end of a self-righteousness, is the soul and substance of all false religion in the world."

The true way to mortify sin: communion with God. Kapic writes, "The believer is not working to secure these realities [i.e. the benefits of the gospel], but seeking to live in light of them.  It is through this ever-growing communion with the Father, Son and Spirit that the believer is most able to resist sin and temptation."  

True and lasting resistance to sin comes not through willpower and self-improvement but through the Spirit who empowers believers with a knowledge and love of God.  Not only does the Spirit of God bring life to those who are dead in sin (regeneration/new birth), but He also continues the work of God in the renewing of that person into the image of Christ, as we gaze upon Him through the gospel (2 Cor. 3:18-4:6).  Indeed, as Owens writes, "Mortification is the gift of Christ to believers, and this is given by the Spirit of the Son."
And though our sanctification is wholly a divine work of God, we are not passive bystanders in this process. Surely referencing Phil. 2:12-13, Owens writes, "God's working in us is not suspended because we work, nor our working suspended because God works [as if God were to do His 'part' and we our 'part']. God works in us and we also work. But the relation is that because God works we work."

Jonathan Edwards, when articulating what true conversion "looked like", summed it up this way: a true believers have religious affections for Christ, which manifest themselves in holiness of life.
In God's grace, He has been burdening me to "pursue the holiness without which no one will see the Lord" (Heb. 12:14). 

In light of Ephesians 1:4, may we remember that God has "elected us in Christ" to be "holy and blameless before Him."  May we revel that we were also "in love predestined unto adoption as a sons through Jesus Christ, for Him" (1:5).  God has saved us to be holy and blameless, and He has saved us to be His adopted son.  They are not in opposition, but the very grammar of the Greek shows us that the two concepts are parallel and complimentary.  Election and holiness are not enemies but friends; predestination and blameless living are not in opposition to each other.  Thus those who call themselves "sons of God" by the Spirit must also pursue holiness.  God's adopted children are to love what their Father loves, and hate what their Fathers hates, since they have been recreated in His image through Christ.  

For the glory of God my prayer is that I would through the Spirit applying the gospel of Christ to my heart put to death all those deplorable deeds that bring shame and disgrace to the One who loved me and gave Himself for me (the premise of Ephesians 4-6).

Oh that we might in engage in what Owens calls "gospel mortification"! Fill me O Spirit, and conform me into the image of Christ, the very thing for which I was predestined for! (Rom. 8:29).

In Christ, and for His supreme glory to the ends of the earth,
Pastor Ryan

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