John Owen did not exactly hang a sign saying, “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here” over the door of this chapter, but he has given a stern warning to those who would dally with sin. Over all six of Chapter 9’s ominous symptoms, Owen’s exhortation from Chapter 2 hangs like a dark banner:
“Do you mortify; do you make it your daily work; be always at it while you live; cease not a day from this work; be killing sin or it will be killing you.”
Self-restrained Puritan writers apparently do not use exclamation points, but I hear one there.
Make no mistake — Romans 8:13 Spirit-orientation is still the basis for Owen’s writing, but he is issuing a warning: “this kind goes not out but by fasting and prayer. Extraordinary remedies are to be used” in the event of these “dangerous marks and symptoms”:
1. Sin under the skin
Sin that is habitual and persistent is obstinate. It dies hard. Squeamish, I recoil from Owen’s analysis of Psalm 38:5, but what is more tenacious than a festering wound which has begun to stink?
“Old neglected wounds are often mortal, always dangerous.”
When a believer cozies up with his sin, “it grows familiar to the mind and conscience,” is no longer repulsive, and Owen sees no light at the end of this dark choice. “Unmortified lust” in the Christian is difficult to distinguish from “the dominion of sin” in the unbeliever, and will never “die of itself. If it be not daily killed, it will always get strength.”
2. Sin by any other name . . .
When the heart begins to rationalize, danger lurks. Excusing a sharp-tongued reply to my twelve-year-old with the mitigating factor that I am tired from a late night of Bible study is a “desperate device of the heart in love with sin.” While I should be pleading the gospel at my heart’s first rebuke, my diva-heart seeks to “disentangle [me] from under the yoke that God was putting on [my] neck.” Then, having cast that conviction aside, along comes the thick, anaesthetizing bandage of self-pity on my conscience. “If only I were more rested I could be more patient.”
“Applying grace and mercy to an unmortified sin” is dangerous business.
3. Sin under the radar
Choosing NOT to be vigilant is a choice to be negligent. Therefore, temptation that creeps up on us and has become full-blown sin before we know it, confirms the fatal outcome of James 1:14,15. Again, “be killing sin or it will be killing you.”
4. Crime and Punishment
A righteous life motivated only by fear of hell or public censure is no different from “living in the practice of sin.” Since the believer’s only real weapon against sin is the grace of God (Romans 6:14), placing himself back under the law yields no deliverance.
“What gospel principles do not do, legal motives cannot do.”
5. Sin as heart monitor
Persistent sin in the life of the Christian should prompt a desperate question: Is this perplexing sin a sign of “God’s chastening hand?” Owen resolutely points the believer to an unflinching examination of his own “heart and ways.”
“A new sin may be permitted, as well as a new affliction sent, to bring an old sin to remembrance.”
6. Sin that numbs the soul
When the sword of the Word cuts,
but the flesh has deadened into callous;
when God Himself strikes at the cords of sin,
but the soul scrambles to maintain the tie,
to disdain the warning,
“that soul is in sad condition.”
When in the grip of sin, the soul may be unable to discern its own plight.
Is the struggle against sin a Romans 7 brotherhood with Paul, or is there a more urgent message? What exactly are you contending with, O my Soul?
Answer: The Hound of Heaven is at work. This is grace.