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August 18, 2008 / beidson

John Owen On The Extremity of Sin

There is a reason why we are tempted in the little things, and it’s because to give in to them will inevitably mean our surrender to greater temptations.  And so Jesus said, “One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much, and one who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much” (Luke 16:10).

It is the nature of both faithfulness and faithlessness to express itself in great degrees, for good or for evil.  And this only makes sense, since to be faithful demands no faithlessness, and to be faithless demands no faithfulness.  There is no man who can be faithlessly faithful.  This is why Jesus continues a little while later, “No servant can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other.  You cannot serve God and money [insert idolatrous lust]” (v. 13). 

Writing centuries ago, Puritan John Owen confronted those under his watchful care with these similar words: “Every time sin rises to tempt or entice, it always seeks to express itself in the extreme.  Every unclean thought or glance would be adultery if it could; every covetous desire would be oppression; and every unbelieving thought would be atheism.  It is like the grave that is never satisfied” (The Mortification of Sin, abridged by Richard Rushing, p. 8).

He continues: “In this we see the deceitfulness of sin.  It gradually prevails to harden man’s heart to his ruin.  Sin’s expression is modest in the beginning but, once it has gained a foothold, it continues to take further ground and presses on to greater heights.  This advance of sin keeps the soul from seeing that it is drifting from God.  The soul becomes indifferent to the seed of sin as it continues to grow.  This growth has no boundaries but utter denial of God and opposition to Him.  Sin precedes higher by degrees; it hardens the heart as it advances.  This enables the deceitfulness of sin to drive the soul deeper and deeper into sin” (p. 8).

We should be very afraid that we might end up like this.  In fact, this, in part, is what will cause us to persevere and turn away from sin, for how do we know that we will not be seduced to the point that we do not want to turn back because we are so in love with our sin?

I remember a pastor friend of mine who once remarked, “You don’t have to retrace your steps when you fall back into temptation.  You simply pick up where you left off.”  These are sobering words.  It’s as if God has covered up the deep holes of depravity we spent our lives digging.  We are sure to stand on top of these old sins by God’s grace, but if we should desire to pull off the cover and dive back in, we will not need to dig the hole again; it is waiting there for us.

This is why John Owen calls for the mortification of sin, or as one counselor has put it, radical amputation, referring to Jesus’ command to cut off any member of our body that is leading us into sin.  The metaphor works well for that is precisely what it will take to stay close to the Lord and far away from sin’s extremities.  We must amputate that which causes us to stumble, for it is better to enter the kingdom of God with a broken body than to be cast into hell.   As Owen said, “Always be killing sin or it will be killing you” (p. 5).

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