11. Particular Direction #2: Get A Clear Sense of the Guilt of Sin
As always, we begin each new chapter by way of review. This time we shall start from the beginning and bring ourselves up to the present chapter. In chapters 1-3 we learned that mortification is the lifelong duty of every Christian, even the [so-called] best among us, and that the Spirit is the efficient cause of it. Our discussion was grounded in and flowed out of an exegesis of Romans 8:13. In chapter 4 we learned that the vigor and comfort of our spiritual lives depends on the mortification of sin. In chapters 5 and 6, having laid a foundation in 1-4, we learned what mortification is not, as well as what it actually is. In chapter 7 and 8 two general rules for the mortification of sin were set forth. First, in chapter 7, Owen states that there is no real mortification unless a man be a believer. Second, in chapter 8, Owen argues that mortification of any one particular lust is dependent on a universality of obedience, i.e., obedience in all things, not just the sin that troubles us. In chapter 9, Owen gave us the first of several particular directions for the mortification of any lust: consider the dangerous symptoms which attend your lust. By this he means that a person should be alert for at least six things: (1) sin’s inveterateness, i.e., the length of time a particular lust has been permitted to remain unchallenged in our hearts and the strength it has thus acquired; (2) ways we alleviate our conscience in spite of unconfessed sin; (3) how successful a sin has become in at least delighting our minds, whether or not we are able to act on it right then and there; (4) a willingness to forsake sin only in light of possible punishments; (5) the presence of a judiciary hardness, and (6) the strength of any lust to withstand God’s dealings—dealings which include affliction, desertion, and God’s call through the preached word. If these six things be present a normal course of mortification will not do.
We have briefly surveyed chapters 1-9. In chapter ten, Owen continues his discussion of particular principles for the mortification of any lust. Here is the second principle (see ch. 9 for the first): Get a clear and abiding sense upon the mind and conscience of the guilt, danger, and evil of that sin wherewith thou art perplexed.
A Detailed Discussion of the Argument of Chapter Ten
The argument of chapter ten is an exposition of the second particular principle stated immediately above. Thus, Owen gives us two ways in which we can deepen our sense of the guilt of any sin so that we do not excuse ourselves for it. Further, he gives us four clues regarding the danger of any lust, including deceitfulness, divine correction, loss of peace and strength, and eternal destruction. Finally, Owen talks about three evils which attend every sin, that is, it grieves the Spirit of God, wounds the Lord Jesus Christ afresh, and takes away a man’s usefulness to the Lord. Let us now look at these areas in more detail.
Particular Principle #2: Get A Clear and Abiding Sense of the Guilt of the Sin
It is an unmistakable trait of fallen humanity that we excuse ourselves for our sin, sometimes in the face of the most heinous crimes. We often do so by deflecting another’s gaze from the evil we’ve just perpetrated to some other (worse) crime committed by someone else. “Look,” we say, “I’m not as bad as that person. Why…I’ve never done that before!” Is it any wonder that the Bible refers to sin as incredibly deceitful and is also full of examples illustrating this point. Take the life of David for starters. We need only think of the length he went to in order to exonerate himself of his sin against Bathsheba until finally the prophet Nathan “shut up all subterfuges and pretences by his parable that so [sic] he might fall fully under the sense of the guilt of it.” Owen says:
Innumerable ways there are whereby sin diverts the mind from a right and due apprehension of its guilt. Its noisome exhaltations darken the mind, that it cannot make a right judgment of things. Perplexing reasonings, extenuating promises, tumultuating desires, treacherous purposes of relinquishment, hopes of mercy, all have their share in disturbing the mind in its consideration of the guilt of a prevailing lust.86
There is, then, the need for Christians to examine their sinful ways deeply and not invoke thoughts of forgiveness too quickly, lest they really not understand what it is they have done. They must, rather, learn “to fix a right judgment” as to the guilt of their own sin. Owen suggests two ways to grow in this. First, we must realize that as those who have been brought from death to life, and have experienced the liberating grace of God, there is a sense in which sin is more grievous when we commit it than when an unbeliever commits it. This is so because we have sinned against the personal knowledge of God’s mercy, grace, assistance, relief, means, and deliverances. Unbelievers have not. Second, God sees the abundance of beauty in the desires of our believing hearts, more than exists in the best of unregenerate men and their deeds, but he also sees the incredible evil in our hearts since we commit sin all the while conscious of grace. We confess one thing and live another; we are hypocrites in respect to our testimony about God. This God sees. Remember what Christ said to the church of Laodicea: “I know your deeds” (Rev 3:15).
In summary then, the knowledge of these two facts, namely, that our sin is in some sense more grievous since we consciously sin against Christ, and also that God sees this evil, should help lead us to a proper recognition of the guilt of our sin. We cannot “run and hide” as our first parents thought.
Get A Clear and Abiding Sense of the Danger of the Sin
We must not only consider the guilt of our sin, but we must also recognize the dangers inherent in it. The first real danger that we face is that we become hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. Indeed, this is exceedingly dangerous because it is deceitful; it is difficult to realize when it’s happening. Hebrews 3:12-13 says,
3:12 See to it, brothers and sisters, that none of you has an evil, unbelieving heart that forsakes the living God. 3:13 But exhort one another each day, as long as it is called “Today,” that none of you may become hardened by sin’s deception.
It is important to realize that the hardening spoken of here is to the uttermost; do not be deceived, sin is never content to stop anywhere short of destruction; in any way accessible to it, it will make strides in that direction. As we progress further and further into a sin, the more it deceives us and the less we fear God. In this sense it is akin to hypoxia or the loss of oxygen; we are often unable to recognize the problem before it’s too late. Regarding the devastating consequences of sin’s deceitfulness, Owen comments:
Sin will grow a light thing to thee; thou wilt pass it by as a thing of nought; this it will grow to. And what will be the end of such a condition? Can a sadder thing befall thee? Is it not enough to make any heart to tremble, to think of being brought into that estate wherein he should have slight thoughts of sin? Slight thoughts of grace, of mercy, of the blood if Christ, of the law, heaven, and hell, come all in at the same season. Take heed, this is that thy lust is working towards,—the hardening of the heart, searing of the conscience, blinding of the mind, stupifying of the affections, and deceiving of the whole soul.87
The second danger we face—should we continue in some sin—involves God’s correction, sometimes referred to as his “vengeance,” judgment,” or “punishment.” Owen is not saying that God will cast off his beloved eternally (cf. Rom 8:1, 38-39), but that he will visit us with the rod. Again, we need only think of Yahweh’s relationship with David. Because of David’s sin, his son died, his kingdom was diminished, his own body suffered agony, and he himself was exposed to public scandal and humiliation. God had promised that he would do this; Psalm 89:30-33 says,
8:30 “If his sons forsake My law, and do not walk in my judgments, 8:31 if they violate My statutes, and do not keep my commandments, 8:32 then I will visit their transgression with the rod, and their iniquity with floggings. 8:33 “But I will never take away my tender love from him, nor will I ever betray my faithfulness.”
The third danger we invite when we persist in known sin is loss of peace and strength. As Owen says, “to have peace with God, to have strength to walk before God, is the sum of the great promises of the covenant of grace.”88 But of what value is life if everyday is a chore and we experience so little of his perfect peace that transcends understanding and his strength through which we can do all things. Allowing one unmortified lust to have its way can bring us to this point. Listen to the words of Isaiah and Hosea:
Isaiah 57:17 I was enraged by his sinful greed; I punished him, and hid my face in anger, yet he kept on in his willful ways.
Hosea 5:15 For I will be like a lion to Ephraim, like a great lion to Judah. I will tear them to pieces and go away; I will carry them off, with no one to rescue them. 5:15 Then I will go back to my place until they admit their guilt. And they will seek my face; in their misery they will earnestly seek me.”
When Judah sinned, God hid himself in anger. So Owen asks the question, “what peace is there when God hides himself from us?” This is not the same thing as the wrath and judgment God pours out on unbelievers all the time (see Romans 1:18-32). This is the way God deals with his people that they might “admit their guilt,” abandon their “willful ways,” and “seek his face.” When God hides his face, so to speak, we lose the beauty of our fellowship with him and the power of walking in his presence. The design is to bring us back to him. Owen says,
Consider this a little,—though God should not utterly destroy thee, yet he might cast thee into this condition, wherein thou shalt have quick living apprehensions of thy destruction. Wont thy heart to thoughts hereof; let it know what it is like to be the issue (i.e., result) of its state. Leave not this consideration until thou hast made they soul to tremble within thee.89
These are strong words, but they come from a pastor’s heart—a heart that knows sinful waywardness and the sting of God’s chastening hand. Owen wants us to reflect on the fact that God might take away our peace and strength, he might give us pain and suffering because of unmortified sin. We would do well to think long and hard about this and come back to our senses; we must return to a holy fear of the Lord God.
The fourth danger we invite when we live with unmortified sin is the danger of eternal destruction. Since Owen believes in the eternal security of the believer, he takes pains to spell out what he means here. First, he notes that there is a connection between continuance in sin and eternal destruction:
…that though God does resolve to deliver some from a continuance in sin that they may not be destroyed, yet he will deliver none from destruction that continue in sin; so that whilst anyone lies under an abiding power of sin, the threats of destruction and everlasting separation from God are to be held out to him. So Heb iii.12; to which add chap. x. 38.90
Owen continues discussing the problem of abiding sin. We would do well to listen carefully to what he has to say, for this is an issue that most people (including Bible teachers) today do not understand very well, or at all. Generally they have so confused God’s love with some sentimental attitude toward sin that there is no room left for his holiness, nor is there any corresponding confidence that he can keep them to the end. It is worthwhile to quote Owen at length:
That he who is so entangled…under the power of any corruption, can have at that present no clear prevailing evidence of his interest in the covenant, by the efficacy whereof he may be delivered from fear of destruction; so that destruction from the Lord may justly be a terror to him, and he may, he ought to look upon it, as that which will be the end of his course and ways. “There is no condemnation to them that are in Christ Jesus,” Rom. viii. 1. True; but who shall have the comfort of this assertion? who may assume it to himself? “They that walk after the Spirit, and not after the flesh.” But you will say, “Is not this to persuade men to unbelief?” I answer, No. There is a twofold judgment that a man may make of himself,—first, of his person; and secondly, of his ways. It is the judgment of his ways, not his person, that I speak of. Let a man get the best evidence for his person that he can, yet to judge that an evil way will end in destruction is his duty; not to do it is atheism. I do not say, that in such a condition a man ought to throw away the evidences of his personal interest in Christ; but I say, he cannot keep them. There is a twofold condemnation of a man’s self:—First, In respect of desert, when the soul concludes that it deserves to be cast out of the presence of God; and this is so far from a business of unbelief that it is an effect of faith. Secondly, With respect to the issue and event, when the soul concludes that it shall be damned. I do not say this is the duty of any one, nor do I call them to it; but this I say, that the end of the way wherein a man is ought by him to be concluded to be death, that he may be provoked to fly from it. And this is another consideration that ought to dwell upon a soul, if it desire to be freed from the entanglement of its lusts.91
Let’s summarize the point Owen is making here. I think it is this: The person who believes that he/she can continue in sin, with no desire to be free of it (most often because they do not even consider the “sin” in question to indeed be “sin”), ought not to believe that heaven will be their latter end; they ought to conclude that terror and judgment awaits them. The hope of heaven ought not to be held out to those who do not desire its reign, in some measure, in the here and now. The person, on the other hand, who says that he/she should be cast out of God’s presence is at once a believer, for unbelievers do not possess such acute understandings of their own sin in relation to God and his holiness. One should allow their sin, and the possible, eternal consequences of it, to cause them to flee from it.
In short, notice that Owen is not saying that because a person sins, he/she should have no hope of heaven. Not at all. In fact, he is not making any such judgment. He is merely claiming that if indeed you continue in sin with no thought of your latter end, he does not hold out heaven for you. Thus he is not saying that you are or are not a believer, but only that he would not treat you as such, and you too should be leery of making the claim to believe when you do so little about your sin. The argument is an evidence to inference argument not cause to effect. Owen is not saying that the cause of your salvation is mortification. But, he is saying that one may reasonably draw the inference from the evidence (i.e., lack of concern over one’s continual sin) that you are in danger of God’s judgment; you are in reality an unbeliever. In the end, however, no man should make the judgment that he will certainly be condemned by God, but only recognize his sin (i.e., his ways) and flee from it now.
Get A Clear and Abiding Sense of the Evils of the Sin
While the danger of sin deals with what is to come in the future, i.e., the judgment of God, the evils attending any sin deal with the present, its impact in the here and now. Owen lists three evils accompanying any sin and the Christian should give serious consideration to them.
First, there is the evil involved in grieving the Holy Spirit with whom we were sealed for the day of redemption. In giving a reason why Christians should put off the old man with his many lusts, the apostle Paul says in Ephesians 4:30:
Do not grieve the Holy Spirit with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption.
Therefore, Christians should abstain from fleshly lusts because it grieves the Spirit of God. Further, it is through the Spirit that we receive all the benefits of salvation and through Him that we come to know the personal presence of Christ in us. Our bodies are the temples of God and so it behooves us to deeply and thoroughly consider what things we expose this temple to, for God is jealous for his temple, his dwelling place by the Spirit. Owen says,
As a tender and loving friend is grieved at the unkindness of his friend, of whom he hath well deserved, so it is with this tender and loving Spirit, who hath chosen our hearts for a habitation to dwell in, and there to do for us all that our souls desire. He is grieved by our harbouring his enemies, and those whom he is to destroy, in our hearts with him. “He doth not afflict willingly, nor grieve us,” Lam iii. 33; and shall we daily grieve him?92
Second, willful sin wounds the Lord Jesus Christ afresh: It wounds us, those for whom he died; it wounds him in that it foils the communication of his love for us; and it gives his enemy gratification when we sin. “As a total relinquishment of him, by the deceitfulness of sin, is the ‘crucifying him afresh, and putting of him to open shame;’” so every harbouring of sin that he came to destroy wounds and grieves him.93
Third, another evil attending unmortified lusts is that they take away a man’s usefulness in his generation. Owen points out that God will often resist such a person in ministry so that they are effectively laboring “in the fire” without “any success.” Regarding a man so entangled in his lusts, Owen says,
His works, his endeavours, his labours, seldom receive blessing from God. If he be a preacher, God commonly blows upon his ministry, that he shall labour in the fire, and not be honoured with any success or doing any work for God; and the like may be spoken of other conditions.94
Owen laments the fact that in 17th century England there were so many who professed to know Christ but whose walk with him gave no real evidence of it. How some things never change! There are undoubtedly many reasons for this, Owen says, but it can hardly be denied that chief among them is that many men “harbor spirit devouring lusts in their bosoms, that lie as worms at the root of their obedience, and corrode and weaken it everyday.”
A Summary of Chapter Ten
In this chapter Owen outlined his second particular principle for the mortification of any lust: Get a clear and abiding sense upon the mind and conscience of the guilt, danger, and evil of that sin wherewith thou art perplexed. He spoke of the guilt of sin in terms of believers who knowingly sin against the God who has delivered them and how this renders their sin more grievous than those who sin without this knowledge. Further, he discussed four dangers attending unmortified sin. They are: (1) sin’s deceitfulness in hardening the heart; (2) the danger of God’s rod of correction; (3) the loss of peace and strength, and (4) eternal destruction. Finally, Owen elaborates three evils which attend unmortified sin. These are: (1) it grieves the Holy Spirit; (2) wounds Christ afresh, and (3) takes away a man’s usefulness in service to God. The point Owen wishes to make in his discussion is that the person who would deal with deeply ingrained sins must take these considerations to heart, meditate on them often, until it is clear what effect sin has really had on their soul; they should think on these things “until they tremble.” This is his second particular principle. In the next chapter he will deal with the third, fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh principles.