by Mike Ratliff
As for you, O LORD, you will not restrain your mercy from me; your steadfast love and your faithfulness will ever preserve me! For evils have encompassed me beyond number; my iniquities have overtaken me, and I cannot see; they are more than the hairs of my head; my heart fails me. Be pleased, O LORD, to deliver me! O LORD, make haste to help me! (Psalms 40:11-13 ESV)
As we saw in Part 1, the first step in mortifying our sin is to attack it habitually. That means that as we take each step through each part of each day we habitually take each thought capture to the Holiness of God. We compare what our hearts are attempting to pursue for gratification with God’s standards, the Law and the commands of our Saviour. This is the first step in our declared war on the root of sin in our hearts. There are two ways to attack our sin nature. The first way is useless. It involves trying to stop doing the sin. It is equivalent to picking the fruit off of a bad tree in an attempt to kill it. That, of course, is silly, but that is what trying to use will power to stop sinning is analogous to. The other way to to attack our sin nature is to lay the axe at the root of the tree and start going for the kill. If we kill the root the tree will die. I would rather think of what we are attempting to kill as weeds rather than a fruit tree, but you get the idea.
This habitual attack takes focus. I’m sorry, but there is no other way to accomplish this. We must focus on what is actually being pursued by our hearts. Remember, our hearts are deceitful and dark. They lie to us. They are the very thing that separated us from God before salvation. Since salvation, the thing is still hard at work trying to pursue as much fleshly gratification as it can. It assumes that we are ignorant of it and what it is doing. It appeals to our emotions. It appeals to our past. It tries to manipulate our wills. Therefore, we must get into the pit with it. We must habitually fight the thing with prayer, fasting and devotion to the Holiness of God. As we stop each sneak attack from our sin nature, we often think that much has been accomplished. This causes us to take a break in our vigilance. Of course, that is the opening our wicked hearts are looking for in order to draw us into sinful pursuits.
One more thing before we look at step two. I hope this offends no one, but for the Christian, it is a sin to seek fulfillment from any other source other than God. That’s right. If we seek fulfillment from fleshly pursuits we are actually guilty of idolatry. Idolatry is the activity that our hearts love and it always leads to darkened minds and hardened hearts. Is it a sin to seek fulfillment from our marriages or our children or grandchildren? It is if it takes the place of our devotion to the Lord. On the other hand, if we relish our spouses and our families in the Lord then what a blessing! If we see all that have as blessings from God then we will enjoy them all as an act of worship with a grateful heart towards our Lord. I don’t see this as legalism. Legalism would be demanding no fun anytime for anyone outside of church stuff. Sorry, but I don’t want that either. I find that genuine regenerate Christian walk as joyous not a burden.
Step one in this battle is an habitual weakening of the sin. Step two is In constant fighting and contending against sin. Here is the text from John Owen. I will try to explain the detail after each paragraph. Take your time. I understand that 17th Century English is tough to read, but it can be done. :-) It takes concentration and patience.
(2.) In constant fighting and contending against sin. To be able
always to be laying load on sin is no small degree of mortification.
When sin is strong and vigorous, the soul is scarce able to make any
head against it; it sighs, and groans, and mourns, and is troubled, as
David speaks of himself, but seldom has sin in the pursuit. David
complains that his sin had “taken fast hold upon him, that he could
not look up,” Ps. xl. 12. How little, then, was he able to fight
against it! Now, sundry things are required unto and comprised in this
fighting against sin:–
John Owen uses David’s example from Psalm 40 to show how sin can bring us to despair. It can drive us to our knees (not a bad place to be) and leave us helpless before our Lord. Have we ever considered that perhaps God is using this battle to humble us and bring us to total dependence upon Him?
[1.] To know that a man hath such an enemy to deal withal, to take
notice of it, to consider it as an enemy indeed, and one that is to be
destroyed by all means possible, is required hereunto. As I said
before, the contest is vigorous and hazardous, — it is about the
things of eternity. When, therefore, men have slight and transient
thoughts of their lusts, it is no great sign that they are mortified,
or that they are in a way for their mortification. This is every man’s
“knowing the plague of his own heart,” 1 Kings viii. 38, without which
no other work can be done. It is to be feared that very many have
little knowledge of the main enemy that they carry about with them in
their bosoms. This makes them ready to justify themselves, and to be
impatient of reproof or admonition, not knowing that they are in any
danger, 2 Chron. xvi. 10.
In this part of the sermon Owen shows that we must see the seriousness of this battle. It is eternal in nature. We must understand how dangerous not dealing with this sin really is. As we saw earlier, it blinds us. It makes our minds dark. Any pursuit of fulfillment outside of the Grace of God is a sin. However, if we see the danger, are actively grieving over our sin while constantly imploring God for victory then we must rejoice because God has awakened that desire in us to be free from this sin. Therefore, we must see all sin as deadly enemies not to be tolerated even in thought. It is a war and we must win it.
[2.] To labour to be acquainted with the ways, wiles, methods,
advantages, and occasions of its success, is the beginning of this
warfare. So do men deal with enemies. They inquire out their counsels
and designs, ponder their ends, consider how and by what means they
have formerly prevailed, that they may be prevented. In this consists
the greatest skill in conduct. Take this away, and all waging of war,
wherein is the greatest improvement of human wisdom and industry,
would be brutish. So do they deal with lust who mortify it indeed. Not
only when it is actually vexing, enticing, and seducing, but in their
retirements they consider, “This is our enemy; this is his way and
progress, these are his advantages, thus hath he prevailed, and thus
he will do, if not prevented.” So David, “My sin is ever before me,”
Ps. li. 3. And, indeed, one of the choicest and most eminent parts of
practically spiritual wisdom consists in finding out the subtilties,
policies, and depths of any indwelling sin; to consider and know
wherein its greatest strength lies, — what advantage it uses to make
of occasions, opportunities, temptations, — what are its pleas,
pretences, reasonings, — what its stratagems, colours, excuses; to
set the wisdom of the Spirit against the craft of the old man; to
trace this serpent in all its turnings and windings; to be able to
say, at its most secret and (to a common frame of heart) imperceptible
actings, “This is your old way and course; I know what you aim at;” –
and so to be always in readiness is a good part of our warfare.
Being a problem solver, this is natural for me. To defeat an enemy we must know what its ways are. We must see the process of our falling. We must actively pursue the understanding of the steps into stumbling. Yes, that is right, we sin in steps. There is always a way of escape. We sin because we don’t recognize the steps as they happen so we find ourselves on the threshold of sin before we realize it. So, what we must do is to deny our hearts of ever even entering the process. As we read Owen’s description of this battle, we must see that it is brutal affair. The taking away of the very things our hearts cherish is utterly painful at times. Denying self and taking up our crosses and following Jesus is the essence of this. However, we must also know the nature of the beast within us all. Owen calls it a “serpent in all its turnings and windings” within our hearts. How can we do this? How can we learn what is imperceptible to us naturally? It must start with prayer and it feeds off of our habitual and constant battle of weakening it. If we diligently monitor what our hearts are pursuing we will be able to detect the deceiving nature of our wicked hearts. We may lose a skirmish here and there because of surprise attacks, but as we learn how to fight this battle we will also learn how our sin nature works and how truly wicked it really is.
[3.] To load it daily with all the things which shall after be
mentioned, that are grievous, killing, and destructive to it, is the
height of this contest. Such a one never thinks his lust dead because
it is quiet, but labours still to give it new wounds, new blows every
day. So the apostle, Col. iii. 5.
What nullifies the pursuit of fleshly gratification in our hearts? Whatever it is we must “load it daily with all the things…that are grievous, killing, and destructive to it.” To me, this involves prayer, worship and devotion to my Lord. If I pursue Him in all parts of my life then there is very little “down time.” The more time we take off from our pursuit of killing our sins at the root the more we will find ourselves in ever worsening battles against it. Sorry, but there is no vacation from this. However, I have found that God has given me a “heart” for loving Him more and more. I absolutely love to be in His presence. I love reading godly books and especially my Bible. I love worshipping Him. I love Him. In this section John Owen tells us that just because we have won a few rounds we cannot stop working to kill it. We must do whatever it is that kills that sin constantly, wounding it as we drain the life from it.
Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. (Colossians 3:5 ESV)
Now, whilst the soul is in this condition, whilst it is thus dealing,
it is certainly uppermost; sin is under the sword and dying.
When I had been a believer about 5 years, I thought I was pretty mature. Most of my Church friends did as well. However, I was not. I started losing these battles as if I had no weapon in my hand at all. I was losing not only enumerable battles with sin, but also I seemed to have very little control at times. I became convinced that I was either not a believer or I had reverted back to Christian babyhood. Through this battle, however, I discovered a truth that I have never forgotten. That truth is this, It does not matter how much time we spend at church, listening to sermons and participating in worship services, or even in teaching classes. Those things do very little to mortify sin. In fact, if we depend upon these things we will eventually stumble. No, religion for the sake of mortification of sin is pretty useless. However, personal devotion to God, getting into the Word, continual prayer, fasting, continual monitoring of our wicked heart’s pursuits will be actively cultivating humility while uprooting pride. This puts sin under the sword and it is dying. If we depend upon an hour in church once a week to do this then we are kidding ourselves. We are asking for a fleshly walk and hard, darkened hearts. However, piling the pursuit of godliness on our hearts, habitually and continually will start to drive a stake in the heart of the slippery beast.
We will look at Part 3 in the next post. In the meantime, pray for wisdom and discernment. Pray for God to enlarge your mind and understanding of these truths. If things seem hard to grasp, then ask God to show you the truth. This battle is the toughest battle for most Christians, but to the victors come the invaluable treasure of a pure and undefiled conscience which will keep the devout Christian on the narrow way of the cross stumbling not.
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