I’m with Paul.
When he vents in Romans 7 about his “captivity to the law of sin,” I hear a howl of frustration. For Paul, for me, sin is an inside job, and we are all betrayed by our own mortal flesh before we open our eyes in the morning.
But then, being Paul, he rips the rhetorical right out of his question, (“Who will deliver me from this body of death?”), by providing an answer — THE answer:
I thank God — through Jesus Christ our Lord!
Wouldn’t it be helpful to get a glimpse of the Apostle Paul’s personal journal? What did the struggle look like between “the law of God” and “the law of sin” in a mind and a heart that was utterly devoted to God?
We want a method. “What’s working for you?”
John Owen, in Chapter Six of The Mortification of Sin, describes the process of killing sin as a pilgrim on the path — not exactly describing it from the rear view mirror, but definitely in process: “Here’s how you’ll know that you are warring against evil in your heart.”
I. Pulling the plug on bad habits
This Puritan must have had a sense of humor: “And the reason why a natural man is not always perpetually in the pursuit of some one lust, night and day, is because he hath many to serve . .thence he is carried on with great variety.”
When it comes to sin, we are all on the cafeteria plan. Where to begin? So many choices.
John Owen also had a heart, because it seems that we have his sympathy here. Not only does he admit the “violence and impetuousness” of the temptations we fight, but also shows that he is aware of differences in temperament among individuals. What looks like diligence in a workaholic is alike, in degree, to what looks like a peaceful heart in a lazy man. But these, along with the more “scandalous sins” must be put to death at the root, which is not a pretty thing to look at, at least from the inside. John Owen borrows Paul’s image: crucifixion, (Galatians 5:24) and describes the death of a sin with violence involving struggle, beating down, and fastening it to a cross.
By contrast, we give up too soon. With behavioral scientists admitting that it takes an average of 66 days to break any habit (and the range is anywhere from 18 to 254 days), very often we “leave the principle and root untouched, perhaps unsearched out, [and] make little or no progress in this work of mortification.”
II. Declaring war
According to John Piper, “Just Do It” is an atheistic stance, but, verbally, not far from this truth: “Do It in the Spirit!” Where boot straps leave off and Spirit picks up is a matter of the heart. Owen urges the believer to take his stand on the cross and to take the mercy of God for fighting sin. It is by the Spirit that we recognize sin as the enemy of our soul; it is by the Spirit that we know our enemy well; it is by the Spirit that we will “load [the enemy, sin] daily with destruction . . . new wounds, new blows every day.”
III. Experiencing victory
How does one recognize success? “[Sin’s] motions and actions are fewer and weaker than formerly, so that they are not able to hinder his duty nor interrupt his peace.”
This convinces me that the “normal Christian life” is found in a moment-by-moment clinging to the promises of Scripture and a praying-like-breathing dependence on the Spirit who “implants . . .principle[s] of grace that stand in direct opposition to [sin] and are destructive of it.” Indeed, “promptness, alacrity, [and] vigor” are the characteristics of the “new man” in “contending with, cheerful fighting against” sin.
As children of the age of self-help books, 12-Step programs, and “Everything-Under-the-Sun for Dummies,” we come to the Word of God looking for a method, a sin-killing strategy that we can execute and then move on. What we find in John Owen’s Mortification of Sin — and in the Word of God itself — is not mechanical, but relationship-oriented. Fight temptation, hate your sin, take the Spirit’s power, and do it as if your life depends upon it. It does.