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Posts Tagged ‘John Owen’

Fastidious, Pt.3

Here’s an awesome quote from John Owen that has helped me break through on a key issue in my investigation of the Biblical practice of fasting. If you’ve read previous posts of this subject, you know that I have struggled to separate what the Bible describes as good, and what the Bible condemns, namely the practice of abstention denounced in Colossians.

Referring to 1 Cor 9:27 (“No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.”), Owen says this:

“The bringing of the very body into subjection is an ordinance of God, tending to the mortification of sin. This gives check to the natural root of distemper, and withers it by taking away the fatness of soil…(criticizes the Catholic practice of penance as it relates to fasting)…The bringing of the body into subjection in the case insisted on, by cutting short the natural appetite by means of fasting, watching and the like, is doubtless acceptable to God, if it be done with the ensuing limitations.”

[i] “That the outward weakening and impairing of the body be not looked upon as a good thing in itself, or that any mortification doth consist therein (which were again to bring us under carnal ordinances); but only as a means for the end proposed, the weakening of any distemper in its natural root and seat. A man may have leanness of body and soul together.”

[ii] “That the means whereby this is done, namely, by fasting and watching, and the like, be not looked on as things that in themselves, and by virtue of their own power, can produce true mortification of any sin; for if they would, sin might be mortified, without any help of the Spirit, in any unregenerate person in the world. they are to be looked on only as ways whereby the Spirit may, and sometimes doth, put forth strength for the accomplishing of His own work, especially in the case mentioned.”

Well said, J-O!

Owen concludes by stating that the Catholics misunderstanding of this makes their version of fasting better suited for horses. The error of the Catholics is in thinking that personal righteousness is gained in the keeping of such practices. Owen insists that the practices of fasting and praying, and the weakening of the body are not the goal. they are only a means to an end. Our righteousness is accomplished by Christ on the cross, and worked out through the Spirit. Fasting merely serves to clear obstacles from our path as we seek to apply the blood of the Savior.

Working through this quote from Owens with my brother-in-law has helped me separate the benefit of fasting from the errorists of Colossians. In Colossians, Paul warns that these men who forbid them “Do not touch, do not taste, do not handle (Col 2 :21).” are mistaking the practice of abstaining for actual holiness. They are effectively saying that abstaining from certain foods makes one holy.

So how is Biblical fasting different than the false teaching of Colossians?

  1. Fasting is paired with prayer.
  2. Fasting is not a lifelong practice, but done for finite periods of time. A fast can be indefinite, but it will end at some point.
  3. Fasting appears to be comprehensive, not selective (Read: giving up chocolate for Lent).
  4. Fasting is a tool, not a destination.

I have to say that I’ve really been enjoying this process. It has driven me to study my Bible and think critically. I praise God that He brought this passage of Owens’ book before my eyes at a time when I was battling through this issue. I’d started and stopped before. Providentially, I hit these paragraphs right on time.

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The quotification of John Owen

Some time ago picked up a copy of John Owen’s “The Mortification of Sin.” I literally bought it because I had a gift certificate to our church bookstore, wanted one particular book, had only a few dollars left, and Owen’s book was the cheapest one available at the time. I figured, “Hey, I always hear what a great theologian this guy was, and what a classic book this is. Why not?” I didn’t get to it for some time but picked it up due to a challenge from a friend, Travis Carden. I read the first four chapter and put it down because I am a chicken. It is a TOUGH read and it refused to let me move quickly at any point.

I’ve found few books that intimidated me in this way; his style of writing is challenging and yet the material is so compelling that you know you have to go back over and over sections because the effort proves worthwhile every time. It’s a book that I read 5 pages at a time.

After putting it down, I ended up hearing Kris Lundgaard at a church conference and ended reading his modern adaptation of Owen’s work, “The Enemy Within.” In time, Lundgaard’s book has driven me back to Owen. Because of the difficulty of the book and its grip on me that demands that I understand it completely, I knew I had to cover the first four chapters again. Upon further review, I was reminded of so many priceless quotes that I had to share them with you. I quoted “Mortification” once already. I just have to add more, and more will follow as I work my way through the book.

On the definition of ‘mortification’:

“To kill a man, or any other living thing, is to take away the principle of all his strength, vigour and power, so that he cannot act, or exert, or put forth any proper actings of his own.”

On the need to be thorough in the task of mortification:

“He that is appointed to kill an enemy, if he leave striking before the other ceases living, doth but half his work.”

On the insidious tendency of indwelling sin to cloak itself in silence:

“When sin lets us alone, we may let sin alone: but as sin is never less quiet than when it seems to be most quiet, and its waters are for the most part deep when they are still, so ought our contrivances against it to be vigorous at all times, in all conditions, even where there is least suspicion.”

On the need to constantly wage war against the flesh:

“He that stands still, and suffers his enemies to double blows upon him without resistance, will undoubtedly be conquered in the issue.”

Suffer me one more, on the effects of the neglect of mortification:

” Where sin, through the neglect of mortification gets a considerable victory, it breaks the bones of the soul; and makes a man weak, sick and ready to die, so that he cannot look up. And when poor creatures will take blow after blow, wound after wound, foil after foil, and never rouse themselves to a vigorous opposition, can the expect anything but to be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin, and that their souls should bleed to death?”

That’s two chapter’s worth! I’ll try not to just type the whole book out. As you can see, Owen is one of the greatest Christian minds that the world has know. If nothing else, buy this book and settle yourself to harvest its fruit.

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Some advice on buying spiritual real estate.

My wife and I go a chance to go out tonight. One of the students in the high school ministry offered to watch our children, so we gladly took advantage of the opportunity for a quiet evening out. That’s the thing about having young children: you love them to death, you even miss them when you’re gone only a few hours, and yet you need all the breaks that you can get. One of the benefits of getting out of the house is that you can get into some good conversation. Normally, the time comes for conversation after the kids have gone to bed and you are both tired. Sitting down and talking sometimes exaggerates the wind-down period. A good long talk usually translates into feeling that much more tired the next morning.

Ironically, the topic tonight was sin. It’s probably in part due to some of the reading I’ve been having the high school students do this summer for our Saturday book study. We were reflecting on the odd tension inside the Christian when sin is present. Sin makes you miserable and yet you just won’t stop. This is true even for mature believers who don’t even enjoy sin briefly, and yet they still find themselves sinning.

As years go by, it makes me sad to see people that I know personally know, or know by acquaintance, slowly unveil a pattern of unrepentant sin. Often it’s so subtle that you don’t even realize it until they’ve made career out of it. Often the subtlety of the sin makes it hard to pin down and confront. Sin is crafty and skilled as disguising itself, not declaring itself until it marbles the soul like fat on a rib-eye steak. The product is a wasted life; wasted relationships, wasted gifts, you name it.

You know, people have too cheap a conception of what we are to make out of our lives. They see their spiritual contribution to the church much like their material contribution to the economy. It’s like they say “Not everyone can be rich, not everybody needs to be a hero, not everyone can get ahead.” and settle on spiritual mediocrity.

It’s the spiritual equivalent of a house a wife, two cars, 2.3 kids, and a dog. Welcome to Christian suburbia.

That makes me so angry. The disgusting truth is that it’s not really suburbia, it’s the reject rack at the Goodwill. If I have learned one thing in my recent studies about sin, it’s that if you aren’t going forward, you are going backward. John Owen said it well in “The Mortification of Sin”: “Be killing sin or it will be killing you.”

I was reading a movie review in a magazine this evening on our night out. The magazine was a British publication. The movie was based on the “tension-beneath-the-surface- in-peaceful-suburbia” premise, and the review panned the movie by asking why, with so many movies based on this premise, would anybody want to live in an American suburb? The popular premise holds that the picture perfect, well groomed neighborhood is a cover for all kinds of angst and potential mayhem, like a pot ready to boil.

This is an accurate description of the Christian suburb of spiritual mediocrity: what looks like tranquility and peace is actually decay. Christians who no longer feel the need to press forward into the kingdom are slowly crumbling. The end of this decay is that millions will wake up on the wrong side of eternity, finding that their professions of faith were unfounded.

Sin, our mortal enemy, has many weapons at its disposal. One of sins most effective weapons for professing Christians is complacency. Christians must be armed with urgency about their spiritual progress. To declare premature victory and arrival is to invite heartbreak and failure.

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Some thoughts about the mortification of the flesh, gleaned from the book study hosted in my home with some of the students in the high school ministry. Many of the students were noting the extreme positions that people take in dealing with their sin. They tied some points of note in the Kris Lundgaard book “The Enemy Within” together with things they pulled from John MacArthur’s “The Gospel According to the Apostles”.

“The Enemy Within” is a modern day re-working of John Owen’s “Mortification of Sin”. “The Gospel According to the Apostles” deals with the issue of “Lordship Salvation”, that is, does salvation necessarily entail fruit, is repentance part of the gospel, can one take Jesus as Savior without taking Him as Lord? Both books, the students pointed out to my pleasure, run parallel on the issue of sanctification.

One one hand, MacArthur laments that many people who claim to be Christians believe that spiritual growth may never occur. They accept living in a state of total moral defeat without pausing to question their profession of faith. They are comforted by their professions of faith, undaunted by the lack of further evidence of salvation.

On the other hand, Lundgaard point out that the battle to mortify our flesh is never over, and our flesh comes after us even when we are at our best. Christians never rest. Regrettably, many Christians who do believe that saving faith is followed by fruit are in a state of denial about their flesh. They declare premature victory. They don’t take their sin as seriously as they should because they think they are supposed to pretend it isn’t there.

What I added to the student’s observations, is that most every theological issue in history is mostly populated on either extreme of that issue. It is like a swinging pendulum, and most people end up clustering on one far side or the other.

In the issue of personal holiness, the one extreme is to accept living in total defeat. The other extreme is living in willful ignorance of the battle. Both extremes are equally harmful.

I think that the ultimate example of how to approach the mortification of the flesh is found in Romans 7:15-25:

For we know that the Law is spiritual, but I am of flesh, sold into bondage to sin. For what I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate. But if I do the very thing I do not want to do, I agree with the Law, confessing that the Law is good. So now, no longer am I the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh; for the willing is present in me, but the doing of the good is not. For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want. But if I am doing the very thing I do not want, I am no longer the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me. I find then the principle that evil is present in me, the one who wants to do good. For I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man, but I see a different law in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin which is in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, on the one hand I myself with my mind am serving the law of God, but on the other, with my flesh the law of sin.”

Here are a few points toward a balanced view of mortification:

  1. Humble yourself; you are a sinner and you sin.
  2. Don’t become comfortable with your sin.
  3. Don’t flag in your disgust with your sin even though the fight is lifelong.
  4. Work hard at the practice if resisting the flesh.
  5. Be assured that victory through the Spirit is assured.

 

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John Owen packs Puritan punch.

I’ve been picking my way, lately, through a Christian classic called “The Mortification of Sin” by John Owen, a Puritan. I remember being in the church bookstore with a few dollars left over on a gift certificate, seeing the book, and thinking “Hey! There’s an inexpensive little book. I’ve heard it’s pretty good.” So I bought it.

“Little” is hardly the word. Owen packs a wallop. He is thorough in picking apart the workings of sin in the heart of a believer. I strenuously recommend it to anyone who is deadly serious about spiritual growth, and no one else. Following is a quote to whet your appetite:

“Sin aims always at the utmost: every time it rises up to temps or entice, might it have its own course, it would go to the utmost sin of that kind. Every unclean thought or glance would be adultery, if it could; every covetous desire would be oppression; every thought of unbelief would be atheism, might it grow to its head. Men may come to that, that sin may not be heard speaking a scandalous word in their hearts; that is, provoking to any great sin with scandal in its mouth: but every rise of lust, might it have its course, would come to the height of villainy. It is like the grave, that is never satisfied. And herein lies no small share of the deceitfulness of sin, by which it prevails to the hardening of men, and so to their ruin. It is modest in its first motions and proposals; but having once got footing in the heart of men by them, it constantly makes good its ground, and presseth on to some further degrees in the same kind.”

Enjoy.

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