Tag Archives: Mortification of Sin

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.

Sin, Dominion, and Grace

 

In 2011 I was leading a youth group at a local church.  Over the course of a year or two, we addressed topical passages of Scripture,  followed by an in-depth examination of discipleship, followed finally by an exposition through the book of 1 John.  One particular evening, at the conclusion of what I would have thought was a sound, doctrinal exposition of a particular passage, a wise, thought-provoking student asked if I could give an application for the passage.  To my surprise, I hadn’t really considered the application, only the doctrinal propositions.  My focus was on accuracy, not application, as though the two were mutually exclusive.  After that humbling experience, I’ve since learned to think more about application, but not necessarily to the extent of providing it on a spoon, as I still believe the Holy Spirit is the one who makes the individual, and needed, application of Scripture.  A faithful teacher should be the conduit through which the truth flows in such a way that allows the application to be easily made, not hindered.

In Romans chapter 6, we needn’t worry about how to apply the doctrinal propositions laid out by the Apostle in verses 1-11 because it is followed up by a strong application in verses 12-14.  As is common with Paul, there is a logical consistency with his writings.  Chapter 6 is not isolated from chapter 5 (as would be expected because chapter divisions were a much later insert), but is indeed a continuation of the thought.  In the fifth chapter, Paul concludes with the familiar statement that where sin abounded, grace abounded all the more. This naturally leads to the question, “Shouldn’t we sin more so that grace would abound more?”  In the strongest possible language the Apostle replies, “By No Means!”  From this exclamation, chapter 6 proceeds to be a defense of why believers cannot continue in sin on the basis of grace, a defense that is centered on no longer allowing sin to reign in our lives because we are dead to it, therefore no longer slaves to it.

Doctrinally, the focus of Romans 6:1-11 is union with Christ, defined in terms of both His death and resurrection and symbolized by our baptism.  Through the union with Christ in His death, our old self or old man, was crucified with Christ such that our body of sin, literally our flesh, would be brought to nothing for the purpose of severing our slavery to sin.  Further, union with Christ in His resurrection, though already past, has a future implication of resurrection from the dead.  Because of this union, and these transactions, we are exhorted to consider ourselves “dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.”

Out of this doctrinal proposition, we find an application with at least three parts: an exhortation, a command, and a promise.

The Exhortation

“Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions.”

Our application is expressly linked to the doctrinal proposition by the use of therefore, though in this particular translation it does not lead the sentence, it is nonetheless linking the sentence with what has already been said.  The first order of business in this application is a strong appeal to refuse to allow the rule of sin in our mortal bodies.  Literally, this is exhortation says “Do not let sin be king!”  There is an implied possibility here, that sin could indeed gain the upper hand and exert mastery over us, not in actuality, but in practice.  This is what we are warned against, because as king, sin rules as a taskmaster making us obey its passions, desires, and lusts in our mortal bodies.

This phrase mortal bodies is a reference to our actual, physical bodies, though historically there has been some disagreement on this matter.  It includes our hands, feet, eyes, ears, tongues, mouths, sexual organs all of those members that constitute a body that will eventually die.  As we will be exhorted later, these members are not to be instruments for unrighteousness.  However, collectively they are here called our mortal body in which we are to refuse the kingship of sin.  Summarily, there is a king: sin; a subject: our mortal bodies; an obligation: obedience; the command: (sinful) lust or desire.  If we allow sin to reign, we are obliged to obey.

The Command

Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness.

Working out of the previous exhortation, we are carried into a command.  In order to combat the obligated obedience to sin, should it be allowed the reign, the Apostle provides a divine command in familiar Do Not language.  This mortal body, in which sin desires to set up kingship, consists of members – those which we briefly addressed above – and here we are told not to present them to the service of sin.  Our members, if in submission to sin, can become instruments for wickedness, literally weapons for war.  Which brings up a question, weapons for what and against whom?  As if it were not obvious, they become instruments of sin acting against God.  We should consider this more deeply in our war on sin.

As king, sin sounds a call to duty.  When it has set up its kingdom, it’s trumpet heralds a call for our members to report to duty, whether they be our eyes, ears, hands or otherwise, to be used as weapons of war for unrighteousness.  The heart of the Apostle’s command here is to not allow our members to answer that call, i.e., refuse an “at your service” response to sin.  This can only be accomplished if sin is not allowed to rule.

Conversely, we are to answer, “at your service” to God, commending our whole selves to Him.  Sin has the power to only bring death, whereas here we see that God not only has the power to bring from death unto life, but He has actually done it, first with Christ and then to those of us who have been united to Christ, in both a death like His and a resurrection like His, all of which is symbolized by our baptism.  This simple phrase, those who have been brought from life to death, joins our command here in the application to the doctrinal proposition from the earlier verses (6:1-11), rightly placing the command in subordination to the Gospel.  We are commanded not to answer the reveille of sin because of the Gospel, namely the death and resurrection of Christ, but more than that, because of our union with Christ.  Instead, we are to present our members as weapons of war for righteousness.  Notice here that there is not an implied change of the weapons – still our members, nor of the use – still war, but there is a change of purpose – for righteousness.

The Promise

For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.

We now arrive at the promise, linked to the previous statements by the little word, for, followed by a declaration that “sin will have no dominion over you,” which itself is followed by the justification, “you are not under law but under grace.”  This particular promise brings up a couple of questions, or at least should.  What makes this a promise?  How can it be guaranteed?  Is it dependent upon some personal action?  Why is the law brought into view?

The first observation that needs to be made is the declaration that sin will have no dominion over you.  Clearly this statement is issuing a promise.  Given the context of the exhortation, do not let sin be king, and the command, do not answer sin’s call to duty with your weapons of war, it would appear that a promise like this is unfounded or at least disjointed.  In the previous verses we are presented with the reality that sin actually could reign, therefore the call to action not to let that happen.  Why would that action, command or exhortation, even be necessary if sin won’t have dominion over you?  In other words, why tell us not to let sin reign if there is a promise that it will not reign anyway?  It is seemingly a paradoxical statement.

Practically speaking, verses 12-13 are the working out of our salvation, with fear and trembling.  There is an exhortation and a command.  These are part and parcel of our sanctification, an ongoing and progressive, divinely-wrought, purification from sin to conform us more to the image of Christ.  In this sanctification process, we are prone to sin and could be prone to extended periods of falling into sin.  But this is not a reality based on our justification in Christ.  In other words, the preceding discourse on the gospel, by the Apostle, going back into chapter 5 (and earlier for that matter) is the grounds for the promise that sin will not have dominion.  Sin cannot have dominion because it’s rule has been broken by the death of Christ on the cross and His subsequent resurrection.  Our union with Him, by faith alone, ensures that sin’s dominion is broken.

Furthermore, in this promise we see a return to the discussion on law and grace joining us to the previous statement from Romans 5:20-21 that led to this entire discourse in the first place.  In essence, the Apostle is saying that if we were still under law, it would magnify sin in our lives thereby establishing the rule and reign of sin, not because the law was bad, but because our flesh would be stirred up by the law to sin, a point that he will elaborate on in the remainder of chapter 6 and all of chapter 7.

In essence the application of Romans 6:12-14 goes like this: Don’t let sin be king and capture your members as weapons for war.  Why?  Because it’s not an actual king anyway, nor can it be – it’s a pretender to the throne – so stop living like you’re under its rule!  The believer’s practical day-to-day sanctification is grounded in the reality of our justification – made right with God by means of our union with Christ in His death and resurrection, no longer under law, but under grace.  That is the application of the doctrinal proposition.  One without the other is insufficient.  It is in this application that we must live daily in our pursuit of holiness, realizing that it is grounded on the reality of having been crucified with Christ, united with Him by faith.