Never Give Up the Fight

John Owen on Sin

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.

Galatians 5:17

One of my family’s favorite local attractions is Stowe Botanical Gardens. There’s beauty to be found there every month of the year. Being a photographer, I spend a lot of alone time there with only my camera equipment to keep me company. One particular day last spring, I positioned my tripod in a quiet corner near the main building in order to take flower portraits (yes, flowers like to have their portraits taken by appreciative admirers). Suddenly, I heard a commotion behind me and turned to see what all the excitement was about. My eyes fell on a black snake slithering up a tangled mass of shrubbery towards the nest of a protective female thrasher. She was in full panic mode, which caught the attention of other thrashers in the area who joined her in sounding the alarm.

I grabbed my tripod and quickly repositioned it in order to capture the moment. The screeching thrashers jumped towards the snake in an effort to impede its forward movements. This slowed the snake’s advance, but it showed no signs of giving up. Finally, after about five minutes of drama, the snake positioned itself on a limb and began to play the waiting game. Although I had already taken over a hundred pictures of the squabble, I continued watching the nature show with keen interest, wondering who would be the first to blink in this standoff. Much to my surprise and the relief of the thrashers, the snake made his retreat a few minutes later.

I’ve thought a lot about those thrashers since then. They never gave up the fight against their enemy. We also have an enemy and he is a snake that never retreats but instead slithers through the tangled mass of our hearts 24/7. I wonder, do I fight that hard when sin is staring me straight in the eye?  A young convert once wrote Jonathan Edwards and asked for advice on living the Christian life. Edwards responded with many helpful exhortations, but this one caught my attention:

Remember that pride is the worst viper that is in the heart, the greatest disturber of the soul’s peace and of sweet communion with Christ; it was the first sin committed, and lies lowest in the foundation of Satan’s whole building; it is with greatest difficulty rooted out, and is the most hidden, secret and deceitful of all lusts, often creeping insensibly into the midst of religion [Christianity], sometimes under the guise of humility itself. (To the Rising Generation: Addresses Given to Children and Young Adults,  “A Letter to a Young Convert,” Soli Deo Gloria Publications)

In a similar vein, J. I. Packer once recounted his spiritual struggle through the “Victorious Spirit-filled Life” phase of his youth in an article for Christianity Today, stating that John Owen had probably saved him from a nervous breakdown by showing him the inside of his heart.

Sin, he told me, is a blind, anti-God, egocentric energy in the fallen human spiritual system, ever fomenting self-centered and self- deceiving desires, ambitions, purposes, plans, attitudes, and behaviors. Now that I was a regenerate believer, born again, a new creation in Christ, sin that formerly dominated me had been dethroned but was not yet destroyed. It was marauding within me all the time, bringing back sinful desires that I hoped I had seen the last of, and twisting my new desires for God and godliness out of shape so that they became pride-perverted too. Lifelong conflict with the besetting sins that besetting sin generates was what I must expect.

Brian and I have had this definition of sin swirling around in our minds for months. It forms a very vivid picture in one’s thinking and has an arresting power when temptation raises its ugly head. I really believe God has used it powerfully in our sanctification. In the same article, Packer sums up the essence of Owen’s teaching regarding how we are to deal with sin as follows:

  • Have the holiness of God clear in your mind.
  • Remember that sin desensitizes you to itself.
  • Prepare to recognize it and search it out by disciplined, Bible-based, Spirit-led self-examination.
  • Focus on the living Christ and His love for you on the cross.
  • Pray for the strength to say “no” to sin.
  • Fortify yourself against bad habits by forming good ones.
  • Ask Christ to kill the sinful urge you are fighting.

This list is so helpful to me in my daily battle with the enemy.  One of the first things I was taught as a new Christian is this:  There are no vacations in the Kingdom of God.  I’ve never forgotten it.

Would you like a little more help in the battle?  Go to the man himself and read volume six from The Work’s of John Owen.  It’s not a quick read; in fact, it’s better to read a few paragraphs, take notes, pray, and then mediate on what you have read. Then pray again. The next day, read a few more paragraphs, etc. It won’t be long before you’ll understand why the most quoted line from Owen is “Be killing sin or it will be killing you.”

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