Monday, June 29, 2015

Book Review: Of the Mortification of Sin in Believers

For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. - Romans 8:13

John Owen was a prolific Puritan author in the 1600's, producing over the course of his life a library of works that fill over 15 volumes. But out of all his writing, there is one that has risen to the top again and again, instructing new generations of Christians on the bloody subject of sin-killing. Even today this work remains just as needed and insightful as ever. Its full title for the 1656 publication was "Of the Mortification of Sin in Believers: The Necessity, Nature, and Means of it. With a resolution of sundry cases of conscience, thereunto belonging"

Of the Mortification of Sin in Believers is being highlighted here on The Relentless Fight because it is a classic text on WHY to kill sin, and HOW to kill sin. The book is a short treatise, roughly 100 pages, based on an exposition and meditation of Romans 8:13 which reads, "For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live."  In the language of 1656, to "mortify" meant to put to death. Therefore "mortification of sin" was the killing of sin.

Justin Taylor summarizes the structure of the book in the edited compilation of 3 of Owen's works called Overcoming Sin & Temptation. He identifies 3 parts:
  1. The Necessity of Mortification: believers must make it their daily work to mortify the fleshly sin in them, the Spirit is required for this work, and the life of the believer depends upon this work. 
  2. The Nature of Mortification: What it is NOT (i.e. the utter destruction of sin, or an occasional victory, or a surface-level change), but rather, "mortification consists in a habitual weakening of sin" which involves relentless fighting. He then offers 9 practical considerations. 
  3. The Means of Mortification: We set our faith on the work of Christ (in the cross), and we rely on the power of the Holy Spirit to accomplish the killing of sin. 

Here are a few highlights, quotes, and applications:
  • Mortification is by God's grace: We cannot successfully fight sin without God's help. "Mortification from a self-strength, carried on by ways of self-invention, unto the end of a self-righteousness, is the soul and substance of all false religion in the world." page 47 and "The use of means for the obtaining of peace is ours; the bestowing of it is God's prerogative." p 64 also "Mortification of any sin must be by a supply of grace. Of ourselves we cannot do it." p 133
  • Mortification is only for believers, and by the Spirit: Speaking of unbelievers, "Let men know it is their duty, but in its proper place; I take not men from mortification, but put them upon conversion. He that shall call a man from mending a hole in the wall of his house, to quench a fire that is consuming the whole building, is not his enemy. Poor soul! It is not your sore finger but your hectic fever that you are to apply yourself to the consideration of. You set yourself against a particular sin and do not consider that you are nothing but sin." p 84 and of the need for the Holy Spirit, "This whole work, which I have described as our duty, is effected, carried on, and accomplished by the power of the Spirit, in all the parts and degrees of it" p 138
  • Remember the Gospel!: "Act faith peculiarly upon the death, blood, and cross of Christ; that is, on Christ as crucified and slain. Mortification of sin is peculiarly from the death of Christ." p 136 and again "Set faith at work on Christ for the killing of your sin. His blood is the great sovereign remedy for sin-sick souls. Live in this, and you will die a conqueror; yea, you will, through the good providence of God, live to see your lust dead at your feet." p 131
  • Be exceedingly violent against your sin: "Such a one never thinks his lust dead because it is quiet, but labors still to give it new wounds, new blows every day." p 77 At first temptation, "Rise up with all your strength against it, with no less indignation than if it had fully accomplished what it aims at." p 110
  • The fight against sin must be relentless: Never take a day off against sin. Always fight it. "Do you mortify; do you make it your daily work; be always at it while you live; cease not a day from this work; be killing sin or it will be killing you." p 50 and "...know there is no safety against it but in a constant warfare." p 52 and "As it never dies of itself, so if it be not daily killed it will always gather strength" p 91
  • It's a hard long fight: Mortification is not the utter killing of sin. We aim for it, but in this life we will not accomplish it. Rather, mortification is "a habitual weakening of sin". We crucify the flesh, and it is bleeding out. (For more on this expectation, see the TRF post Expect a Hard Long Bloody Fight)
  • Sometimes God allows sin as a fatherly discipline: "How do you know but that God has suffered the lust wherewith you have been perplexed to get strength in you, and power over you, to chasten you for your other negligences and common lukewarmness in walking before him; at least to awaken you to the consideration of your ways, that you may make a thorough work and change in your course of walking with him?" p 88
If you would like a more eloquent summary of the book, please read this excellent brief article by Jen Pollock Michel called The Bloody Business of Killing Sin, on The Gospel Coalition website.

You can buy the book on Kindle for only $0.99, or as an abridged paperback from Banner of Truth for only $8.10. But perhaps the best version is a 3-part John Owen collection (edited, with footnotes) called Overcoming Sin & Temptation. All page numbers in this post have been referenced to this edition, which includes not only Of the Mortification of Sin in Believers, but also the two Owen books: Of Temptation, and Indwelling Sin.

Always killing sin,
The Relentless Fight

Monday, June 22, 2015

Taking Thoughts Captive

"we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ." 2 Corinthians 10:5

What role does the mind play in the fight against sin? Do only our affections matter? Or only our actions? What about our thoughts? One of the hardest parts of the fight is in our minds. It's relatively easy to stop the gross outward displays of sin like adultery, murder, theft. But to stop lustful fantasies, angry thoughts, and ideas of stealing? That's a whole 'nother level. Let's examine a biblical understanding of our mind and thoughts, and see what applications we can draw for the fight.

The Scripture speaks often of the fluidity of our minds. We have the capacity of "setting our mind" on items, and cultivating thought in that direction. We can focus in like a laser. Consider these Scriptures:
  • Colossians 3:1-3 Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. 2 Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. 3 For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. 
  • Romans 8:6 For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.
  • Matthew 16:23 But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”
  • 2 Peter 3:1 This is now the second letter that I am writing to you, beloved. In both of them I am stirring up your sincere mind by way of reminder,

There is a danger that our glorious God-given minds will be turned towards the Enemy's purposes. Paul cautions in 2 Corinthians 11:3, "But I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ." Therefore, God identifies our "thoughts" as one of the primary areas of repentance, as we see in these Scriptures:
  • Isaiah 55:7 let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the Lord, that he may have compassion on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.
  • Jeremiah 4:14 O Jerusalem, wash your heart from evil, that you may be saved. How long shall your wicked thoughts lodge within you?

So if Satan is using our thoughts as a weapon in the fight, what are we to do? We must fight fire with fire, and use these very same tactics against our Enemy. What does this look like? Primarily by taking every thought captive. We cannot let our thoughts wash by like a river, and gaze serenely at the torrent. We must set a gate, and watch it vigilantly. Let's look more closely at Paul's tactic as he describes it:
For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. 4 The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. 5 We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ. 6 And we will be ready to punish every act of disobedience, once your obedience is complete. - 2 Corinthians 10:3-6 
We have many sinful and tempting thoughts that arise throughout the day: lustful thoughts, angry thoughts, self-centered narratives that we write, fantasies of our own success, doubts of God's goodness, justifications of our actions, and replaying conflicts in our mind. God commands us to NOT let these thoughts roam free. We must capture them! Round them up, label them, identify what they are. Bring them before the judgment seat of Christ, and let Him evaluate them.

Why is this so important? What does it matter what we think? We're not DOING it, so what's the big deal? John Owen describes our danger, "Every unclean thought or glance would be adultery if it could; every covetous desire would be oppression, every thought of unbelief would be atheism, might it grow to its head." Wow, that's scary! There is enough evil in that one initial thought to bring about complete destruction. Make no mistake, it will grow. Owen says "but if let alone, if not continually mortified, it will bring forth great, cursed, scandalous, soul-destroying sins." This is ground zero, the thoughts. This is where your actions originate from: the ruminations of your mind. Ben Stuart put it well in his series The Fight, "What you think about, you care about, and what you care about, you chase."

Let's close with some practical applications:
  1. Patrol your thoughts: Become a mental bounty-hunter. Don't just let your thoughts pass through your mind unchecked. Challenge them, take them captive! And if needed: kill them. Become more aware of WHEN you're thinking, and WHAT you're thinking. Maybe even write it down. Label them biblically, and realize the power in your thoughts. Realize the direction these sinful thoughts are headed in, and get violent. John Owen again, "Do you find your corruption to begin to entangle your thoughts? Rise up with all your strength against it, with no less indignation than if it had fully accomplished what it aims at. Consider what an unclean thought would have; it would have you roll yourself in folly and filth. Ask envy what it would have - murder and destruction is at the end of it. Set yourself against it with no less vigor than if it had utterly debased you to wickedness."
  2. Remember the gospel, and pray for God's help: As you consider this great task, it is appropriate that you would feel it is overwhelming, because out of our evil hearts are constantly coming evil thoughts (Mark 7:21). And you're right! On our own, we CANNOT fight this exhausting constant battle. This pushes us away from dependence on ourselves, and onto Jesus. Remember the Gospel first, because you CAN'T do this on your own. You fail. You're weak. But Jesus has forgiven you and GIVEN you his Holy Spirit to make war. Now you CAN take captive those thoughts. And do so. Keep fighting! Pray that God gives you awareness of thoughts, empowers your self control, grants you repentance and a willingness to kill your evil thoughts. Remember that self-control is a fruit of the Holy Spirit. Cry out with the psalmist, "Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts!" (Psalm 139:23)
  3. Cultivate the mind of Christ: Don't just take your bad thoughts captive and leave it at that. Cultivate the good holy thoughts! We must put off AND put on. Colossians 3:2 instructs us to set our minds on things above; and Philippians 4:8 commands, "Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things." Again in Romans 12:2, "Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect." Slowly, by the power of the Holy Spirit, we will grow in holiness in our minds. 
Happy hunting,
The Relentless Fight

PS: All quotes above from John Owen are taken from one of his most famous works, "Of the Mortification of Sin in Believers," found in this volume, "Overcoming Sin and Temptation". To learn more about this book, check out the TRF review here

Monday, June 8, 2015

Relentless Rest

Wait for the LORD; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the LORD! - Psalm 27:14

Here on The Relentless Fight, we often talk of the need for ACTION against our sin. The overall flavor is that of activity and movement and work. But the Scripture also commands us to rest, to wait, to be silent. How do we make sense of this?

First, let's explore the biblical commands to rest and wait:
  • Psalm 27:14 Wait for the LORD; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the LORD! 
  • Exodus 14:13f And Moses said to the people, “Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the Lord, which he will work for you today. For the Egyptians whom you see today, you shall never see again. The Lord will fight for you, and you have only to be silent.”
  • Matthew 11:28-30 Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
  • Psalm 131:1f O Lord, my heart is not lifted up; my eyes are not raised too high; I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me. But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child is my soul within me.
  • Hebrews 6:15 And thus Abraham, having patiently waited, obtained the promise.
  • Exodus 20:8-11 Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.

We see there are different contexts for rest: In the Psalms we have the daily walk with God through the suffering and anxieties of life. In Jesus' ministry we find rest for our souls. In Hebrews we see Abraham and other heroes of the faith resting and waiting for God to fulfill His promises. In the 10 Commandments we see the command to rest 1 day out of 7 to honor God's Sabbath. But there is another kind of deeper rest, that regarding our spiritual standing with God, in relation to our righteousness. Let us explore that:

  • Romans 4:4f Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness
  • Hebrews 4:3a For we who have believed enter that rest
  • Hebrews 4:9f So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God's rest has also rested from his works as God did from his.
  • John 6:29 Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” (Note: in Jesus' logic, work = faith)
  • Romans 11:6 But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace.

So we see that the deeper rest is the resting of FAITH, of believing and trusting in Christ for our gifted righteousness. This means we cease striving and working to earn our right standing before God. We dismantle all the complicated machinery of human-made religion and self-righteousness. We discard it as filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6). Therefore our primary application from this meditation on rest is that we are called to give up our hard working and receive quietly the GIFT.

But all over the Scripture, we are also commanded to FIGHT (1 Timothy 6:12), to "work out your own salvation" (Phil 2:12) and be active in our sanctification and holiness. Which one is it? Do we fight, or do we rest? How do we make sense of this? As John Piper has said in illuminating simplicity, "It's a fight to rest". Wow. Meaning, we fight hard to rest in the gospel. We fight against substitute saviors, and we fight against the thinking that we just need to try harder. We fight to STAND on Christ the solid rock, remembering that all other ground is sinking sand. And it's only by resting on the Rock of Christ that we are able to fight with any lasting gospel power.

Hebrews 4:11 summarizes this paradox quite well, "Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience." We STRIVE to enter REST. We must be diligent, to work at it, to watch out that we do not fail to rest in Christ. As Hebrews goes on in verse 14, "Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession." Hold fast!! And how do we do that? By drawing near often as invited in verse 16, "Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need."

How does this practically apply? Consider these 3 areas:
  • Spiritually rest in Christ and war against your self-sufficiency. Remember the gospel. HOLD tightly to the promises of Scripture. This might actually mean NOT asking forgiveness for the 10th time. If you've confessed your sin and asked God for forgiveness, believe that He has given it. REST in His Word in 1 John 1:9. You don't need to pay Him back. You don't need to earn your way into His favor again. You don't need to clean yourself up before you walk into His throne room. What does this mean? Go to church! Sing some worship. Meet up with some Christian friends. Read the Word. Pray. Enjoy the Lord. Do it all out of joy, walking in your standing in Christ. But don't do it out of guilt. Sometimes this may seem like NOT fighting. But it's the most effective strategy TO fight. Remember the gospel. 
  • Physically rest like keeping the Sabbath. There's something that happens spiritually when we live out in parable form the great rest of Hebrews 4. We enter into God's rest by resting our bodies. This reminds us (somewhat like communion) of the gospel. Practically, this helps in the fight against the temptations to workaholism, which can be a form of spiritually earning our standing. 
  • Emotionally rest in a balanced way. There's no need for crazy activity but rather a confident faith in The Lord. Wait for his timing. Be at peace, Christian. Your God reigns supreme and sovereign. He is not wringing His hands wondering how it will all work out. Consider Psalm 46:10, "Be still, and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth!"

Fighting to rest,
The Relentless Fight