Mortification of Sin: A Gift of the Spirit

The delightful community at The Loft has posed a question:  What would you tell your past self, and I’m sharing my musings here based on The Mortification of Sin by John Owen, a Puritan theologian who wrote this entire book based on one verse, Romans 8:13, and putting forth one huge directive:  Be killing sin, or it will be killing you!

13 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.

Chapter Three of John Owen’s Mortification of Sin is rich with pithy quotes in which he disdains the efforts of all who would attempt to kill sin in their meager human strength:

In vain do men seek other remedies; they shall not be healed by them.

. . . prayer, fasting, watching, meditation, and the like.  These have their use in the business in hand; but whereas they are all to be looked on as streams, they look on them as the fountain.

. . . they are always mortifying, but never come to any sound mortification.

They watch over themselves, and pray for a season, until this heat waxes cold, and the sense of sin is worn off:  and so mortification goes also, and sin returns to its former dominion.

Our fallen and broken selves are most pitiful in our distractedness.  By the time we have cobbled together a coherent thought about “putting to death the deeds of the body,” our post-Edenic hearts have moved on to some more entertaining or seemingly urgent pursuit. Owen’s thesis is this:  the stony heart is removed only by the work of the Spirit, His fruit crowding out the fleshly variety that thrives like weeds in an untended tomato patch.  Sadly, our tending is often without prayer and rooted in will-power (and pride).

She Who Struggles with a Sharp Tongue (and whose fingers are poised over the keyboard at this very moment) may go an entire day without an uncharitable outburst toward man or beast, but let her get over-tired or over-taxed, and the vitriol flows instead of the honey she intended.  Indeed “always mortifying . . .”

But then — a plan.  Yes, we will tape Bible verses to the refrigerator, the bathroom mirror:  “Let no corrupt communication proceed out of your mouth, but that which is good to the use of edifying.”  Oh, and “from the same mouth come blessing and cursing. . . these things ought not to be so.”  This will keep the sin-killing wrecking ball swinging for another day or two.  Maybe.  But like other “remedies, [she] shall not be healed by [it].

Finally, the “heat waxes cold, and the sense of sin [having] worn off,” she makes a virtue out of her unrighteous habit, extolling the benefits of “speaking one’s mind” at all times.  “I’m blunt, that’s for sure.  No one ever has to wonder where he stands with me.”

And so the dust rises.

Sometimes they think, indeed, that they have foiled sin when they have only raised a dust that they see it not.

May God help us.

Advertisements

When Are Children Ready for John Owen?

It ‘s an occupational hazard, I suppose — twenty years of child-rearing and almost twice that of standing in front of random groupings of kids and teens in hopes of teaching them something from the Bible.  It’s no wonder, then, that when I want to make sure I understand something, I imagine communicating it to children.  Being impatient, I had not, until recently, tackled any of the Puritans, but when Tim Challies challenged his readers to join him in plowing through the Mortification of Sin, he gave me the push I needed; especially since it was already on my Kindle.  Having finished chapter two, I spent moments in the mini-van today pondering the rich theological truth which John Owen extracts from Romans 8:13:

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

Certainly, young believers need to hear the concept, “Be killing sin or it will be killing you.”  Temptation will not go away in this life.  They also need to know that their own efforts to “be good” (as adults are continually exhorting them to do) are not at all of the Gospel.  But is it possible to present a lesson about sin using concepts of death and destruction (“Kill sin!” cries John Piper.) in a way that children can receive and not be frightened or overwhelmed?

John Owen’s premise could be stated:  Feed what you wish to live and to flourish.  Starve what you wish to kill.  This is a violent truth for young ears, unless, that is, we use plant life to illustrate it.  Picture the classic science experiment:

Four plants.  Plant #1 goes into a sunny window with water everyday.  Plant #2 goes into a closet with daily water.  Plant #3 goes on the window sill with no water.  Plant #4 is the unfortunate model of mortification — no light, no water.  If we expect our learners (and our own dear offspring) to kill sin, our teaching and modeling has to include teaching on discouraging its growth in the form of company kept (I Corinthians 15:33), media choices, and thought life (Philippians 4:8).  They need to hear the truth that sin will never be satisfied with just their big toe in the water.  Jaws-like, sin will devour every offering, and one relaxation of the standard will likely lead to another.

However, there’s something deeper here that I am cautious about presenting to a group of children for fear of appearing to minimize the power of the Gospel.  Yes, the sinner is saved by grace.  Yes, the righteousness of Jesus was enough to carry the repentant thief from the last seconds of his wasted life into paradise.  But . . . yes, the believer is expected to make a muscular effort to live according to the commandments of obedience and love which Jesus carried forward from the Law and which the New Testament reinforces.  We do not nullify the gospel by teaching our children that “the vigor and power and comfort of our spiritual life depends on the mortification of the deeds of the flesh.”  Especially if we are careful to remind them that killing sin is not the way to heaven, but instead, it is the way we demonstrate that Jesus has made us fit for His heavenly home.

This teaching is as imperative for the next generation of little Pharisees as it has been for us, their parents.  Just this morning, Eugene Peterson reminded me that, “the worst sins are not even possible to persons who do not live a life of faith.” (Reversed Thunder).   Being kind to the kid nobody likes (I John 3:11), growing in grace (II Peter 3:18), making godly choices (Galatians 5:17), behaving consistently with our “divine nature” (I Peter 1:4,5):  these are all the work of the Spirit in the believer’s life, but kids need to demonstrate that they are plugged into the source of power.  If I am a ten-year-old with a quick temper, this may involve saying no to myself one hundred times a day.  It may involve asking myself “meddling” questions before going to bed at night:   Did I live like a free person today?  Did I let sin win?  Did my choices and words feed righteousness in my life —  or did I feed sin today?  Are my friends drawn to Jesus because they see that He is what makes the difference for me?  Or do I take the credit for all my good works?

Because of John Owen’s Mortification of Sin, I am challenged to examine the way I present the gospel as well as the way I teach believers(children and adults!) how to live a godly life.  Has this been your experience?   What thoughts do you have about teaching the truth of gospel-centered mortification of sin to young learners?

A God-Infused Life

Monk Habits for Everyday People by Dennis Okholm:  A Book Review

I get it!  A habit:  a piece of clothing worn by a member of a religious group; a usual way of behaving; something that a person does often in a regular and repeated way.

“Everyday people” need not wear the habit, but we can do the habit of everyday spirituality, and this particular Protestant needs that kind of reminder.  First of all, I value  having a name for spiritual disciplines and behaviors; and monastics, having built a life around spiritual practices, have forged a vocabulary that is both instructive and practical for one whose goal in life is to seek God.  For instance, when I think about my conviction that one should “hang in there” with one’s church family through thick and thin as “the discipline of stability,” I am reminded that my commitment is truly to the body of Christ, not merely to a particular group of delightful believers whom I happen to enjoy — most of the time.  When I hold my tongue instead of complaining about the sock on the living room floor — again, this is the discipline of restraint of speech.

Second, there is an intentionality to serving Christ that gives dignity and purpose to every task.  Monk Habits for Everyday People high lights this truth very practically.  Apparently, hospitality is a key discipline in the life of the monastery.  Me, too!  However, raising four boys and our 150 pound St. Bernard in a fixer-upper has always made inviting people into my home  an exercise in vulnerability.  Even if I managed to get the house “picked up” before company arrives, certainly the dog will throw up by the front door just as the guests drive in.

“No matter,” says the Benedictine monastic.  “All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ, for He himself will say, ‘I was a stranger and you welcomed me.'”  So, we swoop up the vomit with the paper towels, wash the hands, open the door, and hope the aroma of beef stew in the crock pot and apple pie cooling on the counter top cancels out the, um, other odor, while making our guests the focus of our love and attention, since they have been sent to us that we may serve Christ in humility.

I long for the holistic perspective that the satisfaction of our spiritual needs is as essential as habitual times of eating meals.  For me, this will mean prayer over the dish water,  attention to the silverware, and to the needs of the dear hands that used it.  Monk Habits for Everyday People is an invitation to change my world, in the tradition of Brother Lawrence (a Carmelite monk) who “practiced the presence of God,” and found, in the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, that “without the burden and labor of the day, prayer is not prayer, and without prayer, work is not work.”

Disclosure: I received this book free from Baker Books through the Baker Books Bloggers http://www.bakerbooks.com/bakerbooksbloggers program. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 http://www.access.gpo.gov/nara/cfr/waisidx_03/16cfr255_03.html.

Consequences Trump Intentions

A Book Review:  Same-Sex Marriage by Sean McDowell and John Stonestreet

If Siskel and Ebert could ever have agreed on a movie to watch together, and then have agreed in their enjoyment of the movie and let the world be privy to their discussion of that movie, it might have sounded a bit like McDowell and Stonestreet in their dialogue on so-called same-sex marriage.  Somehow, while scratching their heads about how they even came to be talking about it, this pair of apologist/cultural commentators hold Romans 1 in one hand and John 3:16 in the other, and manage to arrive at a helpful, practical, and yet scholarly consideration of an issue that will inevitably affect all biblically sensitive Christians — if it hasn’t already.

As I read their Guidance for Everyday Questions (Chapter 12) my mind was drawn to a Marvin Olasky interview that I recently read in World Magazine in which Jay Richards from the Institute of Faith, Work, and Economics made an important point about economics which applies to any intellectual discipline:  God cares about both intentions and consequences, but in matters of legislation “the motives of the members of Congress who vote on the bill do not matter.  They could have 535 different motives, but that policy is going to have the same effect either way.” In this vein, McDowell and Stonestreet argue very effectively that compassion, recognition of true and abiding love, and concern for the “rights” of an individual, while they sound like moral high ground and win support, do not hold a candle to three facts that require a descriptive approach to the subject of marriage (because it is a feature of reality like gravity) rather than a definitive approach (because it is not a cultural construct we can redefine at will.)  These are:   (1)sex makes babies; (2)society needs babies; (3)babies deserve mothers and fathers.   Through creative use of humor, personal experiences, and excellent interviews with authorities from a variety of disciplines, they demonstrate that the Christian is called to a life of love, regardless of essential disagreements among individuals, and that the issue of so-called same-sex marriage is “a fruit, not the root” of a culture that has been marinating in wrong ideas about marriage, love, relationships, and commitment for decades.

Now, having said that, I will confess that the sheer simplicity of that argument left me numb by the time “What is Marriage?” had been dissected, poked at, and analyzed from three different perspectives, rather like what happens in the brain when pondering the spelling of a common word.  What is marriage anyway?  However, I believe that the authors’ risk of reductionism paid off in the end, demonstrating that what we are really lamenting is not the introduction of a “different view of marriage” but, instead, the loss, over time, of the willingness to fight for strong marriages — especially in the church, where we think we know better (and should).

Perhaps this book’s greatest offering is its first and last chapters.  It opens with an historical perspective on the breakdown of marriage and ends with a Q&A approach to rubber on the road — how does a thoughtful, compassionate, and biblically astute person respond to everyday scenarios involving same-sex couples?  The authors do not bash or rant; they promote clear thinking on a sensitive and potentially divisive topic. They concede, realistically, that “same-sex marriage” is here; it is a consequence of our nation’s journey “away from God’s intent for sex and marriage,” fueled by legislation and judicial action that may or may not have arisen from good intentions.  There is, however, no admission of defeat, but instead, a message of hope:  it is not too late to build, pray for, and “stir up one another” toward a positive and healthy marriage culture, lived out before a bruised world in need of the truth.

 

Disclosure: I received this book free from Baker Books through the Baker Books Bloggers http://www.bakerbooks.com/bakerbooksbloggers program. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 http://www.access.gpo.gov/nara/cfr/waisidx_03/16cfr255_03.html.

There’s More to this Book than Its Bright Orange Cover!

When I  began hearing about The Ride of Your Life by Mike Howerton, I confess that it sounded like a guy-version of the mommy-blog:  “I was folding laundry this afternoon, when I just happened to think of I John 1:9 . . .”   Who knew that, without even straining the metaphor,  there could be lessons about riding a bike that would apply to establishing margins in your life; overcoming  fears that lead to regret; or even recognizing and then following your passion?

By the end of Chapter Two, I had repented of my disdain and was skipping ahead to read all the well-chosen epigraphs at the beginning of each chapter.  By the end of Chapter Six, I was beyond loving the book.  I had come to love the author.

Quietly, patiently, with the voice of a pastor and the heart of a dad, Mike reminds us that God holds us until we are strong (Lesson 1:  No fear).

He emphasizes the importance of pedaling hard, especially when the terrain is rough (Lesson 2:  Balance).

He warns that our focus will determine our ultimate destination (Lesson 3: Steering).

He differentiates between slamming on the breaks and simply slowing down (Lesson 4:  Braking).

Then, most essentially, he helps the reader apply the first four lessons when, catastrophically, the wheels come off, the bike swerves madly, and we hit the ground hard (Lesson 5:  Starting from a standstill).

The Ride of Your Life is a vulnerable sharing of Mike Howerton’s own experience that, sometimes, even though we are pedaling our hearts out, even though we seem to be on course — we wipe out.  It is at this point that the simple lessons of learning to ride a bike take on special significance because, unless they have become second nature to us, it’s hard to remember them with blood on our faces and scrapes on our knees.

Disclosure: I received this book free from Baker Books through the Baker Books Bloggers http://www.bakerbooks.com/bakerbooksbloggers program. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 http://www.access.gpo.gov/nara/cfr/waisidx_03/16cfr255_03.html.

Catch and Release

Proud, sad, excited, wistful, full of memories, full of hope, we have said good-bye to college-bound sons. Or we have rejoiced at  weddings and then gone home to wistful ponderings in an empty bedroom.  What a privilege to know someone so well, to have such a vital connection and love, and then to let go. The poem that follows is the fruit and the fall out of a sad and joyful goodbye to a growing up son.

Catch and Release

In the bedroom, one rectangle of light.
One small boy.
A collection of plastic toy fish.
A small, curved finger pointing,

“My aquarium!”

And the fish swam in the
box of air between
screen and pane.

Later,
on a different sort of day,
one rectangle of light.
One small boy, brown head
just visible, eyes twinkling over the sill
as he climbs back into his

second

story

bedroom

window.

Heart leaping like a fish,
careful not to startle him,
she waits.

Small curved fingers grasp sill;
legs appear;
she nets the small, muscular body and slumps
under the weight of her catch.

Still later,
much later,
one rectangle of light.
One tall man,
a collection of boxes and bags,
Straight finger pointing away toward a good life,
upstream,
unpredictable.

She opens the window and
the east sprays morning sun
on memory.


 

If you enjoy reading Living Our Days, subscribe to get regular content delivered to your inbox. Just enter your e-mail address in the field at the top of this page.

I link-up with a number of blogging communities on a regular basis. They are listed in the left sidebar by day of the week. I hope that you will take a moment to enjoy reading the work of some of these fine writers and thinkers.

Photo by Jules Marchioni on Unsplash