By Andrew Davis, Senior Pastor
I love to read the Puritans, and few books have had a more practical effect on my Christian life than John Owen’s little book, On the Mortification of Sin in Believers. That doesn’t mean that Owen is easy to read—he’s not. But his rich thought on the importance of Christians battling with their sin is worth the work it takes to understand his style.
We’re commanded in Scripture to holiness. “You shall be holy, for I am holy” (1 Pet 1:16; Lev 11:44, 19:2). It should be our desire as Christians to grow in holiness, and for this reason, there are few battles more bitterly fought than the battle with indwelling sin. It is absolutely essential to our Christian joy and fruitfulness that we be about putting sin to death; and even more significantly, it is absolutely essential for us to put sin to death if we are going to glorify God in this life.
So, back to Owen. When I preached on Colossians 3:5–9 in 2007, I gave a list of twelve practical insights on the mortification of sin from Owen, and I have found that list to be helpful in my own life and the lives of others in our church body. Below is that list with a few brief comments:
1. Believe in Christ and repent of your sins. The fight against sin is a fight for Christians. Non-Christians can’t fight this battle, and trying to do so might cause one to misunderstand salvation—that salvation can someone be earned by works.
2. Determine to fight this vicious battle daily. Owen: “There is not a day but sin foils or is foiled, prevails or is prevailed upon; and it will be whilst we live in the world.”
3. Rely on the Holy Spirit, not your own ability or strength. It’s clear according to Romans 8:13 that it is only “by the Spirit” that we can put sin to death. The Spirit equips us for this battle, leads us to the battle, and empowers us to kill sin at the moment of temptation.
4. Be cross-centered. The cross has power to make the world look as spiritually dead as it really is. Sin cannot be killed all at one; rather it is crucified and bleeds to death over the remainder of your life. Fertile meditation on Christ’s blood shed on the cross has permanent sin-killing power.
5. Understand what mortification is—and what it’s not. It is a habitual weakening of sin’s root, as how a victim dies on the cross—gradually, slowly losing power. It is a constant fighting against all indwelling sin with no rest—both offensive and defensive. Offensive by doing what most frustrates sin; defensive by preparing for sin’s sudden lunges at us. It is not to kill a particular sin completely, for that is impossible in this life. It is not to allow sin to conceal itself and then reappear in a different guise.
6. Resolve to fight sin on all fronts. Learn to hate sin—all sin, any sin, sin itself—as the vile virus of evil that it is. Learn to see sin in the light of the glory of God and what an affront it is to him.
7. Study the lusts that are attacking you: Learn to discern particularly dangerous lusts or sin habits that trouble you. Study how those sin habits gain control over you when they do, then ask God for help in doing battle.
8. Labor on your heart. Increase a sense of the shame you will feel on judgment day in giving Christ an account. Increase a sense of the vileness of sin and of its sheer ugliness. See it in light of eternity. Get a constant longing and breathing after freedom from this sin.
9. Crush sin early in the battle. Fight hard against the first risings of temptation in your heart.
10. Deal thoroughly with sin in confession and repentance. When the Spirit convicts you of sin, do you feel the pain and deal with the cause, or do you block it with painkillers? Don’t be too quick in confession. Pause and hear the Spirit speaking his grief into your spiritual ears.
11. Be filled with the Spirit and all of his graces. The Spirit fights sin mostly by making righteousness and holiness so beautifully attractive. The fruit of the Spirit flow from a heart filled with the Spirit. Be filled with the Spirit and sin will appear more and more repulsive to you.
12. Be optimistic in Christ: Owen: “Christ’s blood is the great sovereign remedy for sin-sick souls. Live in this and you will die a conqueror; yes, you will, through the good providence of God, live to see your lust dead at your feet!”
By Andrew Davis, Senior Pastor
Perhaps these words sum up Old Testament worship as well as any: “You are to worship at a distance.” That was the command written in Exodus 24: “Come up to the Lord, you and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel. You are to worship at a distance, but Moses alone is to approach the Lord; the others must not come near. And the people may not come up with him.” The people of God were commanded to worship and serve the Lord their God. They were to offer animal sacrifice as an aroma pleasing to the Lord, as both Abel and Noah did. They were to set up altars as Abraham did in the Promised Land (Gen 12:8), and “call on the name of the Lord.”
They were given visions of angels, as Jacob was in Genesis 28, and some elect ones like Moses had special experiences of the presence of God (Ex 33:15–33). The people of God were to shout for joy at God’s mighty acts, they were to pray and offer their various prescribed offerings. But the center of the OT system of worship was this: “You are to worship at a distance.”
The distance was established by the word of God himself, most clearly in the Law of Moses given at Sinai. God had commanded the Israelites to consecrate themselves and to gather around the sacred mountain to hear the words of God Almighty (Ex 19). However, God also commanded that a barrier, an obstacle, a fence, a boundary line be clearly marked around the sacred mountain, and the dreadful command was spread through the assembly: “Whoever touches the mountain must surely be put to death” (Ex 19:12). The lesson was clear right from the start: you are not welcome to come freely into my presence whenever you wish.
This distance between God and people was codified and established for generations when God gave Moses the regulations for worship. These included the Tabernacle, the place where God’s holy Ark of the Covenant would be placed. The Tabernacle was a visual reminder of the separation between God and his sinful people. The system of curtains and courtyards served to keep people out.
So also was the arrangement of the “Most Holy Place,” separated from the “Holy Place.” For God commanded concerning the “Most Holy Place” that only the High Priest (Aaron or one of his descendants) was permitted to enter, and that only once per year, with blood as an atonement for sin. Even Aaron was restricted from free access. “The Lord said to Moses: ‘Tell your brother Aaron not to come whenever he chooses into the Most Holy Place behind the curtain in front of the atonement cover on the ark, or else he will die, because I appear in the cloud over the atonement cover’” (Lev 16:2).
What was the reason for this distance? Simply put, the issue was sin. Right from the beginning of the history of humanity as a sinful race, God set up this barrier. After Adam and Eve were evicted from the Garden, God set up warrior angels with a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the entrance to the Tree of Life (Gen 3:24). The message of all of this is clear: God is holy and can in no way have fellowship with our wretched sinful race unless the sin is atoned for, effectively covered in some way.
That Aaron was symbolically allowed into the Most Holy Place at all, carrying the blood of an atoning sacrifice, was cause for great hope. This picture was fulfilled when Christ offered himself once for all to God in the true heavenly temple, and opened for us an eternal passageway into the very presence of God by his body and his blood (Heb 10:19–22).
And, with the New Covenant comes a command from God: “Let us draw near to God”! The incredible bliss and joy of this achievement was set up nobly by the restrictions of the Old Covenant. Without the fifteen centuries of restrictions our sin so richly earned, we would not have a proper sense of eternal gratitude for the achievement of Christ in opening up a way of access into the very presence of God. Nor would we rightly value to terrifying holiness of our Creator-King, nor would we rightly hate and detest forever the sin which separated us from him. The restrictions were prophetic blessings. Their fulfillment in the blood of our Savior, Jesus Christ, was a far greater blessing.
By Nathan Finn, Elder
On September 3rd, Steven Smith, a preaching professor and vice president at Southwestern Seminary, preached a fine sermon in our chapel at Southeastern Seminary. His text was the parable of the seeds in Matthew 13. I would encourage you to watch the sermon online.
In his sermon, Dr. Smith mentioned two types of cynics that we often find in evangelical circles, including among Southern Baptists. He referred to the “Fox News cynics,” most of whom are middle aged and older. These cynics are very worried that American culture is going to hell in a hand-basket and they spend a lot of time complaining about the future of our nation and how that might negatively affect the church. These complaints sometimes dominate Christian conversation in local churches and other contexts.
Dr. Smith also mentioned “hipster cynics,” most of whom are in their 20s and 30s. These cynics believe that their parents (the Fox News crowd) are hopelessly clichéd and blasé and spend a lot of time complaining about the silliness of evangelical culture. These complaints sometimes dominate Christian conversation in local churches and other contexts.
I don’t think the point was that American culture is all peachy or that evangelicalism is totally devoid of kitschiness. Obviously, there is a place for a healthy concern about some of the trends in our nation and a healthy critique of some of evangelicalism’s shortcomings. The problem is when concern gives way to cynicism and we begin to lose sight of the promises of God and the hope of the gospel.
As I was listening to the sermon, I kept thinking that many Christians are at least sometimes tempted toward cynicism. The type of cynicism depends upon a variety of factors, including age, socio-economic status, ethnicity, denominational tradition, etc. As a historical theologian, I can assure you that church historians—like historians in general—are often tempted toward cynicism. One friend of mine (an ethicist) jokes that it must be part of the church historian job description!
Yet, despite widespread temptation, cynicism is never the appropriate response for a follower of Jesus Christ. The reason is simple: there is no such thing as gospel cynicism. The good news gives rise to faith, hope, and love. Cynicism gives rise to doubts, complaints, and divisions. Preaching the gospel to yourself everyday isn’t just about avoiding legalism or license—it’s also about avoiding cynicism. The gospel is too good a news for us to give cynicism any breathing room.