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,
“4 Everyone who makes a practice of sinning also practices lawlessness; sin is lawlessness. 5 You know that he appeared in order to take away sins, and in him there is no sin. 6 No one who abides in him keeps on sinning; no one who keeps on sinning has either seen him or known him. 7 Little children, let no one deceive you. Whoever practices righteousness is righteous, as he is righteous. 8 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. 9 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:
- If the soul be more grieved with it than defiled by it, it is a temptation, and not a lust habitually prevalent.
- It is so, when the soul can truly, and doth, look upon that particular corruption as the greatest and most mortal enemy.
- 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:
- When a man doth choose, or willingly embrace, known occasions of his sin, that sin is habitually prevalent.
- Let a man fear it is so, when he finds arguments against it to lose their force.
- When a man, upon conviction, is turned out of his course, but not turned aside from his design.
- 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.
- 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.