I’m reading an edited/abridged version of The Mortification of Sin by John Owen right now along with a group of guys at the church. To be honest, I wanted to quit after the first couple of chapters. There were some good takeaways, but it seemed to be heading in the direction of saying that God commands more of us than we can actually achieve–which is actually a true statement, but not exactly the direction that Owen ends up going. One quote from the early pages really hits home for me, “Always be killing sin or it will be killing you.” Wow. So simple, so irrefutably true.
I struggle with sin. Is it okay for me as a licensed minister of the gospel to say that? I was born into sin, and I haven’t ceased being a sinner at any point since then. Being the incessant sinner that I am, as I read through Owen I want to stop him in his discourse and say, “So what do I do? What hope is there for me? I have been engaging in spiritual combat for years, and this is as far as I’ve gotten. Do you know something that I don’t know, John Owen?” And then I encounter perhaps the most brutal chapter of any book I have ever read, called “God Requires Universal Obedience.” By this, he does not mean that God requires every creature in every place and time to obey (although He does require that); instead, He requires the obedience of the whole man.
You cannot mortify [kill] a specific lust [sinful desire] that is troubling you, unless you are seeking to obey the Lord from the heart in all areas! (Mortification, 49.)
Did you catch what he just said? John Owen just took my lifelong go-to excuse and smashed it underfoot. Look, I try to fight temptation in the areas of lust, greed, pride, jealousy, selfishness, laziness, anger, pettiness (I could go on)… But here’s the deal: You and I can both even combat sin out of selfish motives, not out of love for God and desire for His honor. “To seek mortification only because a sin troubles us proceeds from self love (50).” “Do you think God will help you in such a hypocritical effort (51)?” “God’s work is to have full victory, and universal obedience, not just the victory over the sins which trouble our soul (51).” Mortification, putting our sinful tendencies to death, must be done on God’s terms, or not at all.
Check this out from 2 Chronicles 16:9: “For the eyes of the LORD move to and fro throughout the earth that He may strongly support those whose heart is completely His.” God backs completely those who belong completely to Him. His Spirit groans on our behalf. The Son intercedes perpetually for us. God is for us. But God will not stand idly by and play the fool as we continue on in our unmortified, undisciplined, ungodly, self-seeking lives. One more quote from Owen to drive this home: “God often suffers a particular lust to chasten our other negligences (52).” Have you ever prayed that God would free you from a specific sin or take away a sinful desire? I have. Many times. Do you know why many times God does not answer that request? Because of exactly what Owen just said. God will not simply give us freedom from the sins that really bother us. All sin bothers Him. And until we seek to combat sin on God’s terms–out of love for Him and unblemished hatred of evil–He may neglect to free us from those singular, most bothersome sins. He may “suffer a particular lust” so that we would not be free from understanding the pain and destruction that proceeds from sins of all stripes. He seeks those whose hearts are completely His, and He fights on their behalf. God, let me be one of those men.