Monday, February 27, 2006


A Review of Volume 6 of the Works of Dr John Owen.

The challenge has been laid before me to re-read John Owen's glorious volume on "Mortification and Sin" and to re-discover where this somewhat disturbing emphasis on "indwelling sin" has come from and whether the great Puritan theologian really meant for this to be. I see this as intricately linked to my on-going thoughts about the "whole council of God" (Acts 20:27) and whether there is some danger in a "Cross only" mentality that is an extremely popular view today.

I want to make it patently obvious that I am not entering into a "Opposing Everything" ministry that characterises many - which, by the way, was something I hated when I was growing up. The views and practices that I am considering are actually ones that I do believe must characterise and in some cases dominate our lives. But I am concerned at the danger of emphasising them to the neglect of other issues in the whole council of God.

I wasn't prepared to be so encouraged and thrilled by Owen's rich writing - and above all his passion for a Spirit-saturated lifestyle. Indeed he does have a lot of text on the vitality of "mortifying sin" that makes me realise where this enthusiasm for speaking often of the "heinous sins that nailed the Saviour to the tree" and "accountability groups" - where individuals share the multitude of sins that make them "the greatest sinner ever" - comes from. For example;

"The vigour and power and comfort of our spiritual life depends on the mortification of the deeds of the flesh" (p9).

"That the choicest believer ... ought yet to make it their business all their days to mortify the indwelling power of sin" (p9).

"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" (p9).

"Indwelling sin always abides whilst we are in this world; therefore it is always to be mortified" (p10).

However there are some key quotes that I haven't heard mentioned in this new enthusiasm for dealing so passionately with sin. John Owen noted clearly that he was aware of the ease in which legalism can creep into ANY area of the believers life - even a good and valid practice like the mortifying of sin. He said;

"Mortification from self-strength carried on by ways of self-invention unto the end of a self-righteousness is the soul and substance of all false religion in the world" (p7).

And so he begins his exhaustive discourse on the VITALITY of the Spirit's work in this. Indeed he makes the matter non-negotiable;

"He (the Spirit) only is sufficient for this work; all ways and means without Him are a thing of nought" (p9).

We may rightly ask - how then does the Spirit mortify sin - if we are doomed to failure without Him? John Owen has much to say;

"How does the Spirit mortify sin?

1) By causing our hearts to abound in grace and the fruits that are contrary to the flesh.

2) By a real physical efficiency on the root and habit of sin for the weakening and destroying and taking it away.

3) He brings the Cross of Christ into the heart of a sinner by faith and gives us communion with Christ in His death" (p19).

Owen is obviously aware of the danger of swinging to the other extreme in resisting legalism and "letting go and letting God" for he wrote;

"He (the Spirit) works upon our understanding, wills, consciences and affections - agreeably to their own nature. He works in us and with us, not against us or without us; so that His assistance is an encouragement as to the facilitating of the work" (p19).

Terry Virgo spoke much of the work of the Spirit in helping and aiding us to mortify sin in our lives - and noted that one way we can always tell when the Spirit is at work, is that He gently convicts and brings an area of change to our lives that requires attention. Condemnation on the other hand, he said, "is a work of darkness. It is doomed to failure and can never work". It concerns me therefore when (passionate sincerity aside) there is talk of "periods of never-ending correction" and "ultimatums ... you must do this ... or else" and such like.

John Owen comments on this subtle legalism;

"This is the saddest warfare that any poor creature can be engaged in. A soul under the power of conviction from the law is pressed to fight against sin but hath no strength for the combat. They cannot but fight and they can never conquer. The law drives them on and sin drives them back".

And then he reminds us again of how we must have the Spirit - or all is doomed;

"I have proved that the Spirit alone can mortify sin; He is promised to do it, and all other means without Him are empty and vain. A man may easier see without eyes, speak without a tongue that truly mortify sin without the Spirit" (p34).

It is slightly later on the large volume that John Owen then embarks on a glorious chapter that sounds suspiciously like John Piper and his talk of Christian hedonism. Consider the following statements;

"In this frame the heart is filled with better things and their excellencies so far as to be fortified against the matter of any temptation" (p144).

"It is from that dear estimation he had of the excellency of Christ. So verse 1o (Phil 3) the soul is exercised to communion with Christ and to walking with Him. He drinks new wine and cannot desire the old things of the world, for he says, "The new is better". He tastes every day of how precious the Lord is and therefore longs not after the sweetness of forbidden things - which indeed have none" (p144).

"Let a soul exercise itself to communion with Christ in the good things of the gospel - pardon of sin, fruits of holiness, hope of glory, peace with God, joy in the Holy Ghost, dominion over sin, and he shall have a mighty preservative against temptation" (p144).

"He that is satisfied with the kindness of God as with marrow and fatness - that is every day entertained at the banquet of new wine, hath a holy contempt of the baits and allurements that lie in prevailing temptations" (p144).

An important comment was made in my post on Terry Virgo's messages on the grace of God, concerning the practice of publics display of emotion over "indwelling sin" and whether or not that is true humility or whether indeed it is helpful or not. John Owen actually deals with this and pleads for a healthy balance;

"Self condemnation and abhorrency do very well consist with gospel justification and peace ... this is the mystery of the gospel which unbelief is a stranger to, nothing but faith can give us a real subsistence unto these things in the same soul, at the same time. It is easy to learn the notion of it, but it is not easy to experience the power of it".

Or in other words, surely we are not meant to live on the one hand in liberal triumphalism rejoicing in "sins forgiven and conscience cleansed" without a strong realisation of our sins that did indeed drive Christ to Calvary - BUT on the other hand it is just as unhealthy to constantly be weeping over the sins that put Jesus there, without rejoicing in what He has done. Didn't it say that "For the JOYS set before Him, He ENDURED the Cross, SCORNING its shame"? The Cross was never a positive thing! It was a place of shame, of the ultimate humiliation - and Christ Himself pleaded with God that "this cup be taken away"! Let's never forget that. But He did, so that we can live with the glorious realisation of "sins forgiven and conscience cleansed". I am concerned that a constant and public display of our indwelling sins is not actually glorifying to Jesus Christ, who has Don said, may well be pointing out that He has actually forgotten those sins we are constantly rehearsing because they were laid in the open grave at the Cross (remember Pilgrims Progress??! Christian didn't stay there - but walked on towards the Celestial City!).

John Owen concludes it excellently;

"Faith will carry heaven in one hand and hell in the other - showing the one deserved and the other purchased" (p547).

So I am hugely encouraged by reading this Volume - it truly is awesome! But it presents the tension that we must hold again before me, and I am concerned that we don't swing to either excess because of particular passions or viewpoints. And above all - above all - we can do NOTHING without the Spirit of God and His work within us. Surely this is the ultimate 'charismatic dimension'?

7 comments:

nwood said...

This is an excellent review of an excellent volume and I am very grateful for this! Yes I think that you have highlighted some dangers and excesses which were introduced in all sincerity - to be sure - but are actually damaging.

I particularly found your quotes of Owen helpful on the vitality of the Spirit! Yes - yes! How is it that He can be so quickly relegated to a side pew ... or as Gordon Fee put it; "MARGINALISED"?!?!? He is here to do more than just distribute a few gifts!!

I have just recently finished reading a book called; "Stop Dating the Church" by Joshua Harris, the new pastor of Covenant Life Church, I believe - and I have a real concern with it, that maybe some of your readers can help me with, Dan.

Harris gives a list of vital factors in which one should choose a church. How is it that the Spirit - His Presence and His Ministry isn't mentioned in that list? Yet what IS mentioned is that a church is willing to "throw you out"!? That concerns me greatly as to the priorities held here.

I would appreciate thoughts on this and where it is going. But thank you again for this review.

jul said...

Hmmm, maybe I should read that book. I do already have it, and now I'm curious!

Ollie said...

I've seen it - yes, that is a valid concern that I hadn't really considered before. After all Ephesians 2:20 is pretty darn clear; We are being built into a dwelling place for God IN THE SPIRIT!

Unless Harris 'assumed' that the active Presence of the Spirit is assumed? But surely as a writer you can't assume anything - especially in regards to the life and Presence of the Spirit?

Hugh Griffiths said...

Your reference John Piper with Owen and I thought you might like the biography presented at the 1994 Pastors' Conference that is available here: http://desiringgod.org/library/biographies/94owen.html
Piper presents an inspiring overview of 'Cromwell's Chaplain'

Baxter's Boy said...

I think that the issue that is absolutely key here is the Presence of the Spirit infiltrating and soaking EVERYTHING that we do as a New Testament Church - Owen saw this, hence his comments on our efforts to mortify sin being absolutely hopeless without His aid and His power. This is why I am so passionate about seeing the baptism of the Spirit as a birthright for new believers, and furthermore seeing the wonderful filling of the Spirit as the "Ultimate Imperative" - each new and subseqent filling being a stepping from "Glory to Glory" - higher and higher in our communion with God.

So yes ... the comment and query about Joshua Harris's book on "Stop Dating the Church" is quite valid. I have read it, and I found it a concerning book - useful in raising a prophetic call, just as Mahaney's prophetic call to the Cross is useful. But the book being absent of ANY mention of the Spirit's work and Presence within the whole book, not just the 10 point check list bothered me. So hence it would not be a book I could recommend with enthusiasm. I would HIGHLY recommend on the other hand two newish books that are saturated in the Spirit - "Does the Future Have a Church?" by Terry Virgo, and "What on Earth is the Church For?" by Dave Devenish - both available from Newfrontiers.

They carry the same prophetic shout that I 'think' Joshua Harris was trying to get across, but come at it (as Owen) from the standpoint that we can do NOTHING without the Holy Spirit.

And as Ollie said - no, in writing I don't think it is acceptable to take ANYTHING for granted, because you don't know who your readership will be. So maybe Harris did assume it or take it as writ. But maybe not. I found the book similar to Mark Dever's book on "Nine Marks of a Healthy Church". But then again Mark Dever (I think) is a cessationist in practice if not doctrine, so I would expect that of him. Harris on the other hand lays claim to a "charismatic dimension" (whatever that is) so I would have hoped he would at least of paid lip service to the vital Presence of the Spirit in a church.

jules w said...

A fantastic account and review of a volume I haven't even dared approach and read! Wow - so you have the entire Works of Owen? Brave man!! It's great to know that they are still being utilised and read!!

I was particularly interested in the extraordinary way that Owen managed to hold a marvellous tension throughout his writing on all matters. He stays away from legalism and our own efforts and urges that without the Spirit we can do NOTHING - but he also does not allow us to give up the fight and let go and let God. Furthermore he acknowledges that we must indeed mourn our sin, but a daily rehersal of them is not glorifying to the Risen Savior who has actually put them to DEATH. Sorry but doesn't "It is FINISHED" mean it is FINISHED?!?!

So useful and helpful.

Don said...

What excellent comments! Yum yum, to quote Pooh!