Category Archives: Devotions

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.

Standing on the Promises of God

 

Hebrews chapter 11 has long been considered the Hall of Faith for saints, particularly those who were in the Old Testament, but there is much more going on.  Yes, attention is drawn to the lives of saints as examples in our day (see also Heb. 13:7), and yes this chapter is collectively a model of encouragement for the perseverance of the saints, but perhaps more than all of this is that the central figure in this Hall of Faith is not Abraham or Moses, but God Himself, most notably through His faithfulness to His promises in the lives of His children.

The concept of promise is not new to Hebrews as we reach this 11th chapter, rather it has been an underlying theme throughout the book, particularly since the 6th chapter where the promise and oath of God was rooted and grounded in His inability to lie and His own justice (see also Heb. 4:1).  Promises emerge in Hebrews 11 out of two statements made in chapter 10, “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful” and “For you have need of endurance, so that when you have done the will of God you may receive what is promised” from 10:23 and 10:36 respectively, each of which serve as an introduction to our chapter under discussion.

Building on this, chapter 11 picks up the promise motif in 11:9 with the mention of Abraham – and the land of promise, Isaac and Jacob – the heirs of the promises, and the promise of God to Abraham and Sarah for the blessed seed.  With is in mind, four additional mentions of promises in this chapter serve to highlight the foundation of God’s faithfulness.

The first occurs in Heb. 11:13, “These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth.”

The second occurs in Heb. 11:17, “By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son…”

The third occurs in Heb. 11:33, “who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises”

The fourth occurs in Heb. 11:39-40 And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, 40 since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.”

In over-viewing the promises above, we find a bit of a conflict, a dichotomy of sorts.  On the one hand, in verse 13 we read a summary statement of the saints listed up to this point who died having NOT received the things promised.  Instead, they saw them and greeted them from afar.  Next we read that Abraham DID receive the promises, followed by another summary statement in verse 33 that these obtained promises.  Finally, we read the section summary which states that all of these did NOT receive what was promised.  So which is it?  Did they receive the promises or not?  And what are the promises?

In order to solve this mystery we need to remember that the major theme of Hebrews is to highlight the lesser, of the Old Covenant, over against the greater, of the New Covenant.  Simply put, those described in this chapter did receive the promises of God by faith, each in their individual contexts, as we read.  But these promises were only shadows, not the substance.  While they were very real promises and very real exercises of faith that received these promises, nevertheless there was a greater promise to come through the person and work of Jesus Christ.  By means of His incarnation, life, death, resurrection, and now intercession at the right hand of the Father as the King-Priest after the order of Melchizedek, our Lord has instituted His New Covenant, not creating division between the saints of old and saints of new, but unifying them as one people, one flock, with One Shepherd.  Therefore, while the saints of old, those highlighted in chapter 11 of Hebrews, did indeed receive the promises of God, there was a greater fulfillment of these promises to come, in Christ, that they did not receive in their lifetime.

In Hebrews 11 not only do we see the faith of the saints on display, with no mention of their failures we might add, and not only do we see their perseverance unto death, but we find a magnificent display of the faithfulness of God in the lives of His children.  With the evidence of His faithfulness held up in fulfilling the lesser promises, we can be sure that He will continue to be faithful with the greater promises that have now come through His Son Jesus Christ.  Let us then, as our brothers and sisters before us, by faith, stand firm on the promises of God.

 

Standing on the promises of Christ my King
Through eternal ages let his praises ring
Glory in the highest, I will shout and sing
Standing on the promises of God
Standing, standing
Standing on the promises of God my Savior
Standing, standing
I’m standing on the promises of God
Standing on the promises, I cannot fall
Listening every moment to the Spirit’s call
Resting in my Savior as my all in all
Standing on the promises of God
Standing, standing
Standing on the promises of Christ my Savior
Standing, standing
I’m standing on the promises of God
– Russell Kelso Carter 1886

Boiling Over

 

In the midst of the practical applications flowing out of the doctrine that was so clearly lain out in the book, Romans 12:11 presents us with a command in the form of an exhortation,

“Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord.”

Slothful

There are four key terms that should catch our attention from this passage and examining those will be the purpose of this post.  First, we see the command to not be slothful.  This word conveys the idea of being sluggish or as the NASB translates it, lagging behind.  We might think of it as not keeping up with or neglect of.  It only occurs 2 other times in Scripture, once in Philippians 3:1, translated there as trouble, and the other in Matthew 25:26, which has a nearer use to ours found here in Romans.

In that passage, we find ourselves in the midst of what is often referred to as The Parable of the Talents.  A man going on a journey calls his servants (doulas – slaves/bondservants) and gives talents or money to each.  To one he gives 5 talents, to another 2, and to another 1, “each according to his ability.”  The first servant traded with the talents and made 5 more.  The second made two talents more, while the third buried his single talent.  At the master’s return, each reported what they had done with their money.  The first two reported doubling their talents and were rewarded with commendations and the familiar, “enter the joy of your master.”  The third servant reported to the master saying, ‘Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed, so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here, you have what is yours.’”  Which leads us to the use of our word, slothful, in the response from the master “You wicked and slothful servant!”  The servant that failed to use or invest the talents that he had been given was rebuked for being slothful, i.e. failing to utilize or make profit from what he had been given.  That is the idea behind slothful in our passage.

Zeal

The command not to be slothful is specifically applied to zeal, our next word under consideration. A slightly more commonly used word in the Greek New Testament, can also mean, “in diligence” or we might say earnestness and it implies effort.  Interestingly, one of it’s uses occurs at the end of the third warning passage in the book of Hebrews and is contrasted with sluggishness (though a different word than ours above), And we desire each one of you to show the same earnestness to have the full assurance of hope until the end, 12 so that you may not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.” Hebrews 6:11-12

Prior to this use in Romans 12:11, zeal was referenced in verse 8, “the one who leads [or gives aid], with zeal”.  Combining our two words thus far and we find that our exhortation is to not be sluggish or lazy in our efforts.  What exactly these efforts are, we will get to shortly.

Fervent

Moving from the prohibition, do not, to the positively stated contrast, do, we are told to be fervent in spirit.  Another infrequently used word primarily means to be hot to the point of boiling over, as with water in a pan or a hot spring bubbling over.  It’s only other use is a reference to Apollos from Acts 17, who was fervent in spirit, teaching “accurately the things concerning Jesus.”  With this, it may even help us to conclude that the opposite of fervency would be lukewarmness, even cold, which may lead us to better understand the idea of slothful used above.

So then we have “do not lag behind or be slothful in your efforts, rather be boiling over in spirit.”

Serve

In case we would be left wondering how one expresses such a boiling over, the mystery is resolved by the final statement of our passage, serve the Lord.  The same word used here for serve is the verb form of the word servant used above in the Parable of the Talents.  More appropriately, it can be translated as a slave or bond-servant, though synonymous, it is different from diakonos, from which we have (incorrectly) transliterated deacon.

As should go without saying, the servant is to yield in submission and obedience to their Master, this is service.  Elsewhere, we know that we are not our own and have been bought with a price, placing us in a joyful servant-hood of our Master Jesus Christ.  But we may ask, how are we to serve?  Certainly it would be inferred to serve, boiling over with effort, but what would that look like on a practical level?

Service, in this sense, would imply obedience to the commands of the Master, but we mustn’t stare blankly at lists of do’s and don’ts.  Simply put, it is love, flowing from a love for Christ, that works towards the spiritual and physical well-being of others, prioritizing believers, with the goal of entering the joy of the Master.

Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord.