Have you ever wondered why, despite your sincere desire to walk with God, you still struggle with one sin issue that continually causes you to stumble? I’ll confess that has been my own experience – though I hope you’ll understand if I don’t share the details here.
It’s a question that has perplexed me for years, and I’ve recently gotten an intriguing answer from what many of us would consider a most unlikely source.
John Owen was a leading 17th-century theologian, author of detailed commentaries and theological treatises that fill 24 volumes. He is, for most of us, an unlikely source of insight not only because he was born 390 years ago (we think only our own generation truly understands), but also because his writing was filled with the old-school “thees” and “thous” that made us so glad to see modern translations of the Bible.
Now two intrepid editors have “translated” Owen for our generation, publishing three of his classic works in one volume, under the title Overcoming Sin and Temptation. The reading still is a challenge, but the result is that now I have benefited from the profound insights of a spiritual giant almost no one remembers – on a topic our generation almost completely ignores.
Owen pointed me to Isaiah 58, in which God says that although his people “seek me day after day and delight to know my ways,” the Lord nonetheless turns a deaf ear because the people otherwise do what they please and society is filled with injustice. If the people would humble themselves before God and help the hungry and homeless, then God would give healing and cause their light “to break out like the dawn.”
The problem, Owen says, is that, like the Israelites, many of us worship God out of self love and our obedience to him is incomplete. The insight I found so intriguing is that God may refuse to give us victory over one sin, in Owen’s words, “to admonish us, and to humble us, perhaps to chasten and correct us for our general loose and careless walking.” *
“God says, ‘Here is one, if he could get rid of this lust I should never hear from him again; let him wrestle with this, or he is lost.”
Owen suggests that perhaps the reason I plead with God to free me from that sin is more because it distresses me, than the fact it grieves the Lord who died to set me free. Because some areas of my life are not lived God’s way, my soul remains weak and selfish and constantly provokes God, Owen says.
“Without sincerity and diligence in a universality of obedience, there is no mortification of any one perplexing lust to be obtained.”
Those are challenging words for any individual whose culture tells him the goal of life is self-fulfillment, rather than serving God’s purposes. We all know how difficult it is to be completely obedient when society bombards us from every side with promises of money, power and sex. We want to honor God, but we also want to be accepted by others and to enjoy the good things our society offers. We find reasons to “go along and get along” –convincing ourselves it doesn’t really matter.
Obedience, however, is complete or it is not obedience. The apostle who most struggled with his impulses wrote: “As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct.” (1 Peter 1:14-15 ESV emphasis added) Those impulses, he said, “wage war against your soul.” (2.11)
When we teach and preach about salvation, we do not often mention obedience. In a society that places ultimate value on individual freedom, the Bible’s teaching that we are slaves goes against the grain. But the truth is that we all obey someone – either God or his enemy – and that obedience makes us slaves of one or the other. (Romans 6:16) Like a slave, I do not belong to myself, because I was bought with a price. (1 Corinthians 6:19-20)
It is not enough to cultivate private devotion and give ourselves to church work, to participate in whole-hearted worship, even to witness to others and participate in missions projects. If we are in other areas of life still pleasing ourselves or following our society, God rejects our religious activity, however well-intentioned. If we are ignoring the needs of the hungry and homeless, we will hear Jesus say, “Depart from me.”
That’s not easy to hear – and God knows our hearts – but if I want to experience freedom from that unrelenting sin, I have to give myself completely to living life God’s way – and thoroughly root out the accommodations I have made for a culture that rejects the one who died so I could be free.
* Quotes are drawn from chapter eight of Overcoming Sin and Temptation (Crossway Books, 2006)
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