[This entry follows a sermon titled "Up from the Grave He Arose". Click on the title to listen to the audio.]
The title of this week's entry is a quote from John Owen, who wrote a magnificent work on spiritual growth titled Of the Mortification of Sin in Believers. It's included in an edition of Owen's works called Overcoming Sin and Temptation, edited by Kelly M. Kapic and Justin Taylor. Now, John Owen was a Puritan pastor who lived and wrote in the 17th century, so the language can be laborious to read. When I was reading it, I had to move slowly and deliberately, and I made lots of notes in the margin. (A good, modernized version of the teachings in Owen's work can be found in Kris Lundgaard's The Enemy Within.)
I mention this work because in this past Sunday's message, I mentioned the implications of the resurrection on our progressive sanctification. Specifically, Romans 8:11-13 says that if we believe in Christ, the Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead dwells in us and gives us life. Based on that fact, we should not live according to the flesh, which only leads to death. Rather, we must seek life by putting to death the deeds of the flesh by the power of the Spirit. Did you catch the connection between the resurrection and our sanctification? The power of the Spirit, displayed in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, lives within us and enables us to put to death sin in our lives. It is this last part...the putting to death the deeds of the flesh...that is the basis of Owen's writing.
Owen rightly states that "The choicest 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." In other words, the battle against condemning sin was won on the cross for all who believe, but the battle against the power of indwelling sin rages within us each day. Christ has secured the victory over sin, and Christ calls us to fight against sin. How can this be? We live in a world where sin remains...its influence, its power, and its presence are near to us. Just as with Cain in Genesis 4, sin is crouching at our door, ready to have us. Until we are delivered from these bodies, this will remain true. So, we must take up arms each day against sin and its craftiness.
What is our end game in battling the power of sin? Kill it! "Be killing sin or it will be killing you," as Owen puts it. He writes, "To kill a man, or any living thing, is to take away the principle of all his strength, vigor, and power, so that he cannot act or exert or put forth any proper actings of his own; so it is in this case. Indwelling sin is compared to a person, a living person, called 'the old man,' with his faculties and properties, his wisdom, craft, subtlety, strength; this, says the apostle, must be killed, put to death, mortified - that is, have its power, life, vigor, and strength to produce its effects taken away by the Spirit...The mortification of indwelling sin remaining in our mortal bodies, that it may not have life or power to bring forth the words or deeds of the flesh, is the constant duty of believers?"
How are we to do this? Answer: in the power of the resurrection...in the power of the Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead. We are not meant to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and fight. Rather, we are to fight in complete dependence on the Holy Spirit and His power. To do otherwise is to determine to win a nuclear war in the strength of a bow and arrow. Owen writes, "Mortification [i.e.- putting to death the deeds of the body] from a self-strength, carried on by ways of self-invention, unto the end of self-righteousness, is the soul and substance of all false religion in the world."
Now, we are right to think this way...(1) I must put to death the deeds of the body, and (2) I must do this by the power of the Spirit. But, how does that work? All this is wonderful, but how does one kill sin by the power of the spirit? How does Joe Christian take up arms against the power of sin in the power of the Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead? That sounds impractical! Well, let me make four suggestions at this point. In order to fight the power of sin in the power of the Spirit...
1. I must listen to what the Spirit says. If we are going to fight in the power of the Spirit, then we must listen to what the Spirit says. In one of the Star Wars movies, Luke Skywalker is learning how to use the force. So, he takes up his light saber, puts on a blinding helmet, and gets ready. A floating robotic ball takes shots at him, and his goal is to deflect these shots with his saber. The better he gets at this intuitive defense against attacks, the more in tune with the force he is.
This is not what I mean when I say, "I must listen to what the Spirit says." It is not that mystical...it's actually quite practical. The Spirit has spoken a great deal on how we are to think, how we are to feel, how we are to speak, and how we are to act. He has spoken through the authors of Scripture, who "spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit" (2 Peter 1:21). There is no fighting in the power of the Spirit unless we heed the Word of the Spirit. As Jesus dictated to the apostle John, "He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches" (Rev. 2:29).
2. I must want what the Spirit wants. As we take the Scripture in, study it, meditate on it, and memorize it, the Spirit shapes what we want. This is absolutely an act of the Spirit! We can read a sentence and do what it says, but if we do it against our will, it is only hypocrisy...it is not powerful. For example, I may know that I should forgive others as Christ has forgiven me (Eph. 4:32). However, simply telling someone "I forgive you" has no real power...there must be a real desire to release that person from the debt of pain that owe you. The words "I forgive you" are not powerful in and of themselves...but the longing to forgive and reconcile amongst believers radiates with Spirit power. So, we must want what the Spirit wants.
What if I don't want what the Spirit wants? Well, it's time to evaluate our own soul at this point. If we come across the clear teaching of the Scripture and find that we don't want to do it, then we know the power of sin and rebellion is at work in us. If we are content to leave the power of sin at work in us unchallenged, then our hearts are hardening, and we must repent and call on the Lord for grace and mercy in our time of need.
3. I must act on what the Spirit says. This may go without saying, but it should not go unsaid. Wanting what the Spirit wants is not enough...we must act on what the Spirit says. We do what we want to do, so any desire to obey that does not find its way into our behavior is an incomplete desire. It is only a wish and not a real driving passion. This must not be said of us. Fighting the power of sin will have effects on our decisions, actions, and words...not just effects on our thoughts and desires.
4. I must seek the Spirit's help. Prayer is an expression of dependence on God. In the battle against sin's power is when we ought to feel our deepest need of God's Spirit. In Ephesians 6, the great weapon for the believer's stand against the devil is the Word, and the way in which we are to wield that sword of the Spirit is in the power of prayer. To paraphrase Samuel Gordon, we must do more than pray after we have prayed, but we cannot do more than pray until we have prayed.
In addition to prayer, the Spirit uses other believers to aid us in the fight...these other believers have the same Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead. They can join us in praying, they encourage our forward progress, and they confront us in the attempts to retreat or surrender. When you think about it, God's use of men like John Owen is a great example of this kind of Spirit help. He's not infallible, and his words are not inerrant...yet, throughout history, God has delighted to use men like him to empower believers in future generations. So, both prayer and the church are ways by which God's Spirit helps us in the fight against the power of sin.
Hear what the Spirit says, want what the Spirit wants, act on what the Spirit says, and seek the Spirit's help. As we do this, we can fight the power of sin by the power of the Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead. Finally, this battle is continual. Let me finish with one last quote from Owen: "...sin is always acting, always conceiving, always seducing and tempting...If, then, sin will be always acting, if we be not always mortifying, we are lost creatures. He that stands still and [allows] his enemies to double blows upon him without resistance will undoubtedly be conquered in the issue. If sin be subtle, watchful, strong, and always at work in the business of killing our souls, and we be slothful, negligent, foolish, in proceeding to the ruin thereof, can we expect a [good outcome]? There is not a day but sin foils or is foiled, prevails or is prevailed on; and it will be so while we live in this world."