The book I have read the most is probably The Mortification of Sin by John Owen, which I have made a custom of reading at least once a year. It is a short book, that can be read in one sitting, but it contains some of the most profound insights into the human nature, the nature of sin, and how we can fight sin. In one chapter, Owen gives us six reasons on the necessity of mortification (the killing) of sin. Here are the first three:
1) “Indwelling sin always abides whilst we are in this world; therefore it is always to be mortified.”
There is no such thing as perfect holiness, perfect obedience, perfect service, here on earth. If anyone thinks that he is perfect, he probably never knew to begin with what it means to be perfect in obedience to any one of God’s commands. Or perhaps, those that would talk about perfectionism don’t know the difference between good and evil, or they deny the teaching of original, indwelling sin, and they bring down the power of Christ in a believer’s life and they re-define holiness and perfection to something that is so weak and watered down that it is attainable by human power.
Regardless how one might invent an earthly perfection that the Gospel never teaches, the Bible clearly affirms that during all our days on earth, we will never attain to moral perfection. Therefore, we will not dare to be wise above what the Bible teaches, and so we say with John Owen that “indwelling sin lives in us in some measure and degree while we are in this world.”
12 Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. – Phil. 3:12
Though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. – 2 Cor. 4:16
12 For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known. – 1 Cor. 13:12
17 For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. – Gal. 5:17
8 If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. – 1 John 1:8
Rom 7:24, Phil. 3:21, Gal. 6:9, Heb 12:1, 2 Cor. 7:1, etc…
2) “Sin does not only still abide in us, but is still acting, still laboring to bring forth the deeds of the flesh.”
If sin were to leave us alone to run after God as hard as we wanted, then okay, we would not have to fight sin. But, we know from the Bible that this indwelling sin nature is ever out to kill us, out to destroy us.
“As sin is never less quiet than when it seems to be most quiet, and its waters are for the most part deep when they are still, so ought our contrivances against it to be vigorous at all times, in all conditions, even where there is least suspicion”
In other words, our sinful nature is always hard at work to destroy us, even at moments when we feel that we are safe and secure and there is no way we can fall into temptation… And sure enough, I know from experience that it’s those times that I think “I’m safe from temptation for now”, when I am most prone to fall.
Which one of us can ever say that we ever did anything with God or for God, and indwelling sin did not have a hand in corrupting our actions? As fallen creatures, this is the battle that we will have to fight on earth, for the rest of our days. Therefore, because sin will always be acting, if we are not always mortifying sin, then we are in huge peril. John Owen brings up the point that if you were in a boxing match against a powerful enemy, and all you did was stand still and let him pound you, you would be in huge danger! And sin is more dangerous that the most powerful boxer in the world… it is subtle, strong, watchful, and always at work in the business of killing our souls, and if we are lazy or careless or slothful or foolish in our fight against it, then what can we expect but ruin? We have to protect ourselves, and we have to fight back.
“There is not a day but sin foils or is foiled, prevails or is prevailed on; and it will be so, while we live in this world.”
If ever you can get sin to stop raging and fighting within you, then you no longer have to fight. But we know from the Bible (and from experience), that from 8 years old, to 18, to 25, to 35, to 85 years old, sin will ever be trying to destroy you, so we must fight back.
3) “Sin will not only be striving, acting, rebelling, troubling, disquieting; but, if let alone, if not continually mortified, will bring forth great, cursed scandalous, soul-destroying sins.”
19 Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, 20 idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, 21 envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. – Galatians 5:19-21
These are the kinds of things that sin is ever trying to bring forth in our life. It is not just trying to bring forth small white lies and “insignificant” sins… no, it’s working to bring forth the greatest kinds of God-blaspheming, scandalous, destructive evils that it can. Think about King David… do you really think he realized that his lingering over to look at Bathsheba from the roof of his house would lead to committing adultery, killing a man, trampling on the goodness of God, and destroying his family? Of course not, but the sinful nature that dwelled in him was aiming for all that, and he walked right into it. John Owen writes,
“Sin aims always at the utmost: every time it rises up to tempt or entice, might it have its own course, it would go out to the utmost sin of that kind. Every unclean thought of 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 fullness…. Every rise of lust, might it have its course, would come to the height of villainy. It is like the grave, that is never satisfied. And herein lies no small share of the deceitfulness of sin… It is modest, as it were, in its first motions and proposals; but having once got footing in the heart by them, it constantly makes good its ground, and presses on to some further degrees in the same kind.
This acting and pressing forward, makes the soul take little notice of what an entrance is already made to a falling off from God. It thinks all is indifferently well, if there be no further progress. And so far as the soul is made insensible to any sin,… so far it is hardened. But sin is still pressing forward, because it has no bounds but utter relinquishment of God, and opposition to him. The only reason it proceeds towards its height by degrees, gaining ground by slowly hardening our hearts, is not from its nature, but its deceitfulness.”
Oh, how this should make us tremble. This is probably one of the most frightening statements about sin that I have ever read and I know it’s so true. Sin always aims at the utmost… For every lust, if sin were to be given free reign, it would surely lead to fornication, adultery, or rape. For every thought of anger or revenge or jealousy, if sin were to be given free reign, it would lead to murder, or oppression, or assault. Think about all the Christian leaders that fell to adultery, fell to greed, or financial ruin. I assure you that sin in all its deceitfulness, did not begin by proposing them to a scandalous sin right away. But sin began with a glance, a dissatisfied thought about their own life, a lingering fantasy, a click of a mouse… and through these sins that the pastor thought he had under control, a hardening of the heart begins and slowly the person becomes more bold and brazen in his endeavors. He lies to his wife, he spends more time with a certain person than he should, he writes letters, he re-schedules meetings, and before you know it, his heart is hard and there is no conviction of sin and he makes shipwreck of his faith, leaving a trail of carnage and blood and destruction in his wake.
Why do we have to fight sin? Because sin is not just out to make us into naughty people. Sin is out to destroy us and to destroy our relationship with God and to undermine God’s kingdom on earth.