Category Archives: Christian Living

When is Sin Habitually Prevalent?

One of the many challenges in the Christian walk is the due diligence necessary to recognize the prevalence of sin in our lives.  For some, this takes the form of unhealthy introspection, while for others it is a neglected duty altogether.  To this cause, there is much wisdom in the infamous quote of John Owen, “be killing sin or it will be killing you.”  As Owen’s pithy statement alludes to, there really is no gray area when it comes to the presence and activity of indwelling sin.  In other words, there’s no neutrality, there is simply making war and progress against it, or there is considerable and regular defeat.

The danger here is not simply that sin wins on a regular basis, rather it is the cumulative effect that the ongoing and active power of sin has in one’s life.  In this way, sin is much more than a deed one commits and then confesses, sin is a power, an operative force.  It’s primary goal is not to get you to sin today or tomorrow, but to collectively numb you towards its presence and then to spread like a cancer until it hardens the heart completely,  leading to a shipwreck of faith.

Writing in his first epistle, the Apostle John intimates as much when he says,

Everyone who makes a practice of sinning also practices lawlessness; sin is lawlessness. You know that he appeared in order to take away sins, and in him there is no sin. No one who abides in him keeps on sinning; no one who keeps on sinning has either seen him or known him. Little children, let no one deceive you. Whoever practices righteousness is righteous, as he is righteous. Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil. No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him; and he cannot keep on sinning, because he has been born of God. 10 By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother.”

In this enlightening passage, John confirms there is no gray area in the Christian life.  For him, as a divinely inspired author, there is either the practice, i.e. regular pattern, of sinning or their is the practice of righteousness.  To engage in both is inconsistent, in fact it’s an impossibility and leads to a rather schizophrenic condition.  The challenge, for us then, is to determine whether one’s life is marked by a regular pattern of habitual sinning or whether one’s life is marked by bad habits that lead to temptation and sin.  Said another way, the Author of Hebrews exhorts us to lay aside every besetting sin, or the one that so easily entangles.  There is a snare that appeals to each of our flesh, a proclivity we might say, towards a particular sin.  Of this, we need to be alert and aware, not allowing it as an excuse to sin.  We need to know the ways and means, the pattern or principle, as it were, that these particular sins like to maneuver and operate in our lives.  However, this is not to say that a particular besettting sin is to be equivocated with a regular pattern of sin, which the apostle exhorts against above.  How then are we to know the difference?

In a discourse, sharing the same title as this post, John Owen addresses this very topic.  Writing in volume 9 of his works, Owen lends a hand towards untangling this particular knot when he says,

“Brethren, I take it for granted the vilest of those lusts which our Saviour and his apostles warn us against, to mortify and crucify, may be working in the hearts and minds of the best of us; and that a particular lust may be habitually prevalent, where, for particular reasons, it never brings forth outward effects: therefore, look to yourselves.  I say, then, when the mind and soul is frequently and greatly, as there are occasions, urged upon and pressed with a particular lust and corruption, this doth not prove that particular lust and corruption are habitually prevalent; for it may be a temptation.  This may all proceed from the conjunction of temptation with indwelling sin; which will make it fight and war, and use force, and lead captive.”

Owen has summarized the situation that we presented above.  There is a distinction to be made in our lives with regards to sin, whether we are under the influence of temptation of our flesh to sin, or whether there is within us the habitual prevalence to sin.  How then are we able to distinguish whether we are subject to a particular sin which so easily entangles, perhaps taking advantage of bad habits, and when a particular sin has become habitual and prevalent in our lives?

Turning to Owen again, he deduces three ways in which we may see that our sin is NOT from its habitual prevalence in our lives:

  1. If the soul be more grieved with it than defiled by it, it is a temptation, and not a lust habitually prevalent.
  2. It is so, when the soul can truly, and doth, look upon that particular corruption as the greatest and most mortal enemy.
  3. It is so, also, when a man maintains his warfare and his conflict with it constantly, especially in those two great duties of private prayer and meditation.

If these things be true of us, that we be grieved over the sin, a mortal enemy of the sin, and maintaining war against it through prayer and meditation, then, at least according to Owen, it is not a habitual sin, rather it is the effect of temptation with indwelling sin.

He then lists four ways which show that a habitual sin IS present:

  1. When a man doth choose, or willingly embrace, known occasions of his sin, that sin is habitually prevalent.
  2. Let a man fear it is so, when he finds arguments against it to lose their force.
  3. When a man, upon conviction, is turned out of his course, but not turned aside from his design.
  4. When the soul, if it will examine itself, will find it is gone from under the conduct of renewing grace, and is, at the best but under the evidence [influence?] of restraining grace.
  5. Lastly, when there is a predominant will in sinning, then lust is habitually prevalent.  Sin may entangle the mind and disorder the affections, and yet not be prevalent; but when it hath laid hold upon the will, it hath the mastery.

Owen’s words here are sobering.  Generally speaking, when we willingly choose and embrace sin, make arguments to support our sin, can be convicted, but not to change the direction of our sin, are completely reliant upon God’s restraining grace, and have our wills mastered by sin, then it may be said that we are under the habitual prevalence of sin.

If this be the case, we are in dangerous waters.  If this be the case, we have much to be in fear of.  If this be the case, we need to reassess, as per the exhortation of the Apostle above as to whether or not we abide in God as one of His children.  If sin be habitually prevalent in our lives, we lose all assurance and are indeed in danger of making a shipwreck of our profession.  Therefore, we ought to seek God in repentance and faith, turning from our sins with a desire to kill them; turning towards God asking for mercy for how we have grieved Him and neglected the grace of salvation through His Son Jesus.

Give glory to God. Repent and Return.

The Gateway to Apostasy

 

Recently, in working again through the controversial warning passage from Hebrews 6, I was struck with the reality that this passage is less a matter concerning salvation for those who may have a false conversion, but simply do not realize it and more about those who have made a willful rejection of Christ, thereby apostatizing.  The difference is this:  Those from Matthew 7:21-23  claim to have a relationship with Christ, but actually don’t vs. Judas, who we may assume claimed, even evidenced, to have a relationship with Christ but willfully rejected Him.  Even less in view are those who have weak faith or lack assurance.  For example, Peter may have at one point lacked faith (sinking in the water and temporarily denying his relationship with Christ), but Judas willfully rejected Christ unto death.

With this clarification in mind, how then does one drift from the point of professing salvation and Christ as Savior to completely denying Him and rejecting anything having to do with salvation?

Let’s look again at the passage:

For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt. Hebrews 6:4-6

Here we see a list of the positive experiences that this particular case of apostates have participated in, but not really anything explaining how something like a falling away could happen.

Previously, we’ve seen how Hebrews warns against the danger of sluggishness, which opens this warning in Hebrews 5:11 and closes it in Hebrews 6:12.  This could give us some insight into how apostasy occurs.  Working from this earlier post on  sluggishness, and combining what we know from the other four warnings in Hebrews (chap. 2, 4, 10, 12), the pattern towards apostasy might best be described as sluggishness, which lulls a person to sleep,  creates an opportunity for temptation leading to sin, which proceeds to harden the heart, blinding the mind unto apostasy. Sluggishness, temptation, sin, apostasy.  Sluggishness assumes a neutrality in one’s profession, it’s a coasting, a drifting, a lack of concern for advancement, a failure to recognize the essentiality and necessity of Christ.

The author of Hebrews has already warned against drifting, which is akin to sluggishness.  However, as a genuine believer may know all too well, there can be no neutrality or coasting in the Christian walk.  Any such resignation to a position of drifting will inevitably result in at best a backslidden state or at worst a falling away, or what Hebrews describes as drifting past the destination port, missing your harbor.  Temptation thrives on opportunity and sluggishness creates the greatest opportunity for temptation to lead to sin.  Over time, continued sluggishness, a lowered guard, repeated assaults from temptation, and advancing into the depths of sin leads to hardness of heart. Hardening of the heart comes by degrees and drifting into sluggishness is the first sign.  Perhaps this is why Hebrews frames the most severe warning around the concept of sluggishness.

Often when we witness such a departure from fervor and passion in one’s walk with Christ, or even when we examine our own hearts, we are apt to label it as backsliding.  While it is true that such a temporary condition may mark the Christian life from time to time, that is not the condition being described in Hebrews 6, which has likely led to some of the confusion on interpreting the passage.  The condition of Hebrews 6 is willful apostasy, but it too has the similar starting point as backslidding, namely sluggishness.  The apostate does not simply wake up one morning and deny Christ as Savior, rejecting Him as Lord and retracting their profession of faith.  It is a process, and while it may be unwise to place a time constraint on that process, it nevertheless happens over time, whether that be a short period or years.

Commenting on this passage in Vol. 7 of his works, an addendum to his massive commentary on Hebrews, John Owen makes the following observations on this process of apostasy

“For the first I shall offer but one or two texts of Scripture.  Luke viii. 13, “They on the rock are they, which, when they hear, receive the word with joy, and have no root, but for a while believe.”  Well!  how long do they believe?  They are affected with the preaching of the word, and believe thereon, make profession, bring forth some fruits; but until when do they abide?  Says he, “In the time of temptation they fall away.”  When once they enter into temptation they are gone forever.  Temptation withers all their profession, and slays their souls.  We see this accomplished every day.  Men who have attended on the preaching of the gospel, been affected and delighted with it, that have made profession of it, and have been looked on, it may be, as believers, and thus have continued for some years; no sooner doth temptation befall them that hath vigour and permanency in it, but they are turned out of the way, and are gone forever.  They fall to hate the word they have delighted in, despise the professors of it, and are hardened by sin.” pg. 102-103

As we are suggesting here, drifting or coasting, i.e. sluggishness, in ones profession creates opportunity for temptation to strike a fatal blow.  The relationship between temptation and apostasy is precisely what Owen is drawing on in the comment above.  In another volume he makes the connection even more explicit, “Entrance into temptation is…an entrance into apostasy, more or less, in part or in whole; it faileth not.” (Owen Vol. 6 pg 103)  Simply stated, temptation is the gateway to apostasy and entrance into it is a terrible malady.  However, make no mistake, sluggishness is the road that leads to this gateway.

It should be noted that apostates are not genuine believers who suddenly wake up one day willfully rejecting Christ, spitting upon Him and His work on the cross, and utterly denying the satisfactory atonement of His death.  They are indeed lost, unbelievers from the start made manifest by descent into worldliness, collapse under trials, or as we are noting here, falling into temptations.  Each or any of these will ultimately reveal the person’s true identity.  Conversely a genuine believer WILL NOT love the world, WILL, by God’s grace, persevere through trials coming out refined, and WILL, through the Spirit, shun temptations.

It is then clear why our Lord teaches His disciples to pray, “lead us not into temptation.”  As Martin Luther famously quipped, “You can’t stop the birds from flying over your head, but only let them fly. Don’t let them nest in your hair.”  Sluggishness allows the nests to be built.  Temptation then has a place to rest when it flies by.  It is far too dangerous to assume backsliding instead of apostasy, so don’t assume.  Make every effort to recognize sluggishness and kill it.  But pray against temptation and avoid it.