Thursday, October 2, 2014

Chains - A Short Story
See, over there, a young girl walks enjoying the beauty of creation. Now and then she stoops to admire a flower or reaches up to feel the leaves of a tree. As she walks, she is not mindful of her proximity to her home and doesn't notice the weeds that are beginning to grow up here and there among the flowers. 
Suddenly, she looks up and beholds a large building of curious design. Her curiosity is piqued and she walks towards the building and in through the door. She wanders around, marveling at the strange implements she sees there, but she has little idea of their purposes. At last, as the light of evening begins to fade, she remembers that she must get home for her evening meal.

As she turns herself about trying to find the door, a stern, authoritative voice orders her to stop. A tremor of fear courses through her body as she remembers her father's instruction to not wander so far that she could not make it home in time for dinner. She wonders if this might not be her father, who has found her where she ought not to be and she looks sheepishly at the man's feet. Without softening, the voice commands her to enter one of the rooms near where she stood and to pick up the chains and place the metal bands about her wrists. In tearful dejection, the young girl does as she is told for she knows she is in the wrong and realizes that she does not deserve mercy.

All that night, the girl lies in the corner of that room, miserable, cold, and alone. Now and again, the voice of the man returns to remind her of her failure to obey her father, and her inability to do anything right. At last, she falls into a fitful sleep, plagued by ugly dreams.

When morning comes, a new voice wakes her from just outside the room. It reminds her of all the times she has failed her father, and recommends that she clean the room from top to bottom in order to possibly win back her father's approval. The girl in silent resignation looks about her for a broom to sweep the floor. She finds nothing, but then she notices a few twigs lying on the floor in a corner, so she binds them together with the ribbon that held her hair and begins to sweep the dirty straw and clots of filth towards the door.

At this moment, she realizes a new problem. The chains that bind her wrists prevent her from removing the debris from the room. She throws her whole body into an effort to sweep the dirt towards the large crack under the door.
Finally, exhausted, she lies down in her corner and cries herself to sleep. Several hours later, a harsh voice wakes her from her dream and she finds several mouldy pieces of bread have been flung to her. She picks at them, and wishes that she hadn't disobeyed her father.

After several days of this a new voice speaks to her from the other side of the wall. “I know a way out,” it whispers. Another voice croaks back, “Don't be ridiculous! Why would she want out? We're fed and sheltered – what more could we want?” The first voice shushes the second with a hiss and continues, “There's a secret nail or floorboard or something in there that if you find it and push it, your chains will fall off, and the door will fly open.”

The girl is somewhat encouraged and she begins looking for the secret to escape. Days turn into weeks and she continues to scour the room within the reach of her chains. Sometimes she finds a loose board or nail and her heart leaps within her in hope one moment, only to be dashed the next as nothing happens. She continues to eat the dry bread and drink the muddy water the guard brings to her, and clean the cell, always hoping to get it clean enough to be let out. At times, she is plagued by guilt for trying to escape her father's just punishment and she stops looking for the secret to escape and redoubles her cleaning mission. Other times, she is so tired and discouraged, she does nothing.

As the months roll by she becomes jaded and begins to forget the beautiful gardens of her father and her longing for his food fades as she forgets what it tastes like.

Early in the morning, she hears a far away voice singing a song of peace and goodwill and she recognizes it as the long absent voice of her father. She knows that she loves him, and suddenly she realizes that he would never sentence her to prison – his punishments had never been unjust before. She no longer has any reason to believe that her father is punishing her. She stands up and demands to see the prison guard. The surly voice yells at her from outside the room, demanding her silence. She cries out all the louder and shakes her hands in fury – the chains fall off. Not stopping to wonder at it, she runs to the door, wading through the pile of refuse, and pushes on it until it swings open. She stands there a moment trying to remember which way is out and suddenly sees a little man running down the corridor.

With purpose in her steps, she walks through the halls until she reaches the exit where she stands blinking in the sunlight for a few moments, then she begins to run towards her father's house – she does not want to miss another meal!

When she arrives home, her father starts up with joy, “Where have you been, my child? Many a long day I have waited for you to come home!” She runs to him sobbing and begs him to forgive her for staying out too late. “I forgive you, Child – you had only to ask!” He holds her at arm's length. “Child, what are those marks on your wrists and why are you so dirty? Come, it is a bath for you and then dinner!”

And so, the young girl was reunited with her father, and she enjoyed his company as much as he enjoyed hers. Sometime later, she remembered the voices of the others she had heard in her imprisonment and asked if he could help her free them. The next day, they set out for the prison. As they went, her father cut down the thorns and pruned the trees and shrubs that grew along the path. When the arrived at the place, they found a little old man in a suit and tie sleeping on a chair in the sun's warm rays. Her father approached him and found one of his old servants whom he had released from service because he had caught him stealing.
“What are you doing here, old man.” He said and prodded the man with his walking stick.

The man awoke with a start and sullenly replied, “Nothing as concerns you, Master.” He glared at the girl. She remembered his voice as being that of her guard and whispered that information to her father.

“Go, old man, before I put you in prison for wrongfully accusing and detaining my child. If I ever see you in my country again, I will do so and more.” The man spat and scurried off in surprising rapidity.

Father and daughter walked hand in hand into the shed and walked through the passageways, looking through each door. When they reached the room where she had been held for so long, the girl wept in anger and shame at her own foolishness. Her father gently embraced her and reminded her that he would never leave her no matter what she did nor would he punish her unjustly. He then picked up the chains and showed her how they did not even have a lock – she was only held by her own imagination.

They left the room and continued their surveillance of the building. At last, they reached a room where two people lay sleeping on the dirty straw. One held a bent nail in his hand and the other a crust of bread. Their clothes were in tatters and their hair fell in mats about their shoulders. A stench rose up from a pile of straw and rottenness that lay near them. The one pillowed his head in the pile, the other's chains were so strained as to hold him away from the filth.

“Wake up, sluggards!” Her father laughed and the two jerked upright in a daze. “Come with me, my merry men, and we will make you clean!”

“I think I'll wait for dinner,” said the one from the filth. “Besides, I like it here.” He glared suspiciously at her father.

The other cowered in terror, “Master, I must confess I didn't mean to try to escape your judgment. I'll work the rest of my days! Just don't kill me, please!”

The girl reached out gently to the latter, “It was not Father's judgment that brought you to this place, nor would he kill you for trying to escape. See, there is no lock on the chains! They will come off, if you only twist a little.” The poor man wept as she helped him remove his chains.

“Now you,” the girl turned towards the first man, “do you remember the fine dinners of meat before you came here? The smell of fresh baked bread and the sweetness of fruit? Come, what better dinner can you find?”

“Do not tempt me, witch!” The man pulled his chains closer to him, and burrowed into his pile of filth to protect himself from some perceived curse. “I am where I should be and I will not leave.”

“Come child, leave him. He will not starve for I suspect his guard will collect him and remove him from the grounds before morning. If he wakes up, he will return to my country.” And with that, father and daughter helped the other man to stand up and walk from that place. When they had regained the light of day they wiped their feet of the filth in that place and began their journey home.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Don't Stop Hitting Until the Enemy is Dead

This is the second week of Tim Challies' reading of John Owens' Overcoming Sin and Temptation.

The choicest believers, who are assuredly freed from the condemning
power of sin, ought yet to make it their business all their days to mortify the
indwelling power of sin.” (Owens, p. 50, para. 1)

The believer may expect to be pruned (see John 15:2). If you have not experienced any of God's pruning yet, you might want to consider whether you are indeed a Christian. From my experience, God's pruning comes in the form of little trials that bring my sins into view so that I can see their full ugliness. This is where Owens' statement comes in – it is my job, when I become aware of a sin in my life to destroy it. We should do as Paul who tells us in 1 Corinthians 9:27 that he keeps his body disciplined.

Many times believers become discouraged because this mortification is a daily task, and they think that somehow when they become Christians their struggle with sin should be over. The decisive battle has been fought (when Christ died on the cross, he won the ultimate victory), but the fight goes on – the devil will destroy as many as he can before Christ returns to set things right. Suffice it to say, as long as we live on this Earth between the two comings of Christ we will be tempted to sin, and we will sin. Just one note of encouragement, the Bible says that God will always give us a means of escaping from those temptations that we face – will we act upon those escapes or assume that to become a stronger Christian we must approach those sins and stoically resist them? “He that is appointed to kill an enemy, if he leave striking before the other ceases living, does but half his work (Gal. 6:9; Heb. 12:1; 2 Cor. 7:1).” (Owens, p. 51, para. 1)

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 and in all conditions, even where there is least suspicion.” (Owens, p. 51, para. 2)

Sin is actively trying to get us to do what is evil, keep us from doing good, and otherwise create disunity between us and God. The sins of commission and omission are equally sinful and separate us just as far from God. We know what we ought to do, but don't do it and what we know that we ought not to do, we do that instead (see Romans 7:19). Owens states that, “There is not a day but sin foils or is foiled, prevails or is prevailed on; and it will be so while we live in this world.” I don't know about you, but this is very frustrating and I have been known to rail against Adam and Eve for introducing sin into the world. However, knowing my desire to do that which is good and my ability to do something completely different, I believe that I would have done just as they did in the Garden.

“Sin will not only be striving, acting, rebelling, troubling, disquieting, but if let alone, if not continually mortified, it will bring forth great, cursed, scandalous, soul-destroying sins.” (Owens, p. 52, para. 3) Sin wants to shame the sinner into inaction. It wants to be seen and talked about and judged – well, not it, because it is the sinner who is nearly always confused with the sin itself and that's just the way sin likes it because if we are ashamed enough we give up and don't even try to not sin. Once we stumble publicly once, every private temptation is harder to resist and the flesh that lives inside us is desperately trying to grow our temptations into full-fledged sins. This is why we must struggle against sin in our lives, stomping on the little flames that lick around the edges of our consciousness because if we ignore them too long, they will grow into an unstoppable fire.

How are we to resist our sinful natures? It almost sounds as if we are faced with an unwinnable war. We have to realize that we in ourselves do face an unassailable opponent in our sinful natures. However, in Christ we have the victory. If we fail to utilize the Spirit then we fail to utilize our ultimate weapon. God has given us a great gift, but all too often we neglect it. If we neglect to fight against the sin in our lives, what happens? Aren't we redeemed? Don't we have our place secure in the Kingdom of God? Yes, but why live in the misery of a sin-sick life? Why obtain for ourselves the punishments that God meets out to sinners in this life? For the Christian, to remain in sin is to be sick and in pain.

All that being said, it is our duty to kill sin. (1 Pet. 2:2; 2 Pet. 3:18, 2 Cor. 3:16) We're supposed to work at it daily and ceaselessly. It doesn't matter what other Christians appear to do (though we should encourage them to do what they should!) If they aren't actively fighting sin in their lives that is to their harm and we should not use their actions as a reason to not fight sin in our own lives. Furthermore, we shouldn't look at other people's sins and consider that they are worse than ours – Every sin separates us equally from God no matter how great or little it is on our little man-made scales of good and evil!

Keep after it! God is working and I'm excited to see what happens next!


Thursday, September 4, 2014

The Foundation of Mortification – Romans 8:13

I am joining with Tim Challies as he reads John Owens' books Overcoming Sin and Temptation (edited by Kelly M. Kapic and Justin Taylor). Here is my summary of week one's reading!
For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. (Romans 8:13)

Owens begins his work by clarifying what he means by certain terms. Many times I have dialogued with other believers and found that what I mean by something is completely different from what they mean by it and arguments arise. Owens provides a scriptural reference for each of his theses which further clarifies his meaning. I appreciate that because I can go back to the Scripture, read what he is referring to in context, and discover his meaning.

The first idea that Owens wants his readers to understand is that there are conditions and duties to believers. Romans 8:13 talks about how if we live in sin, then we inherit death, but if we kill the actions of sin we gain life. Owens points out that this verse seems to indicate that we obtain eternal life through actions of our own, but he quickly points out that it is not cause and effect, but rather a means and an end because “A gift, and procuring cause in him to whom it is given, are inconsistent.” (Owens, p. 46, para. 3). Owens then moves on to who this verse refers to. He cites several verses from earlier in the chapter that indicate that Paul is speaking to believers – you to whom “there is no condemnation” (v. 1), you that are “not in the flesh, but in the Spirit” (v. 9), you who are “quickened by the Spirit of Christ” (vv. 10-11). He further points out that the verse is in no way speaking to unbelievers because one cannot obtain eternal life through personal merit (Rom. 10:3-4, Jn. 15:5). 

“The choicest believers, who are assuredly freed from the condemning power of sin, ought yet to make it their business all their days to mortify the indwelling power of sin.” (Owens, p. 47, para. 1)

The third of Owens' theses for this chapter is his statement of who makes this mortification of sin possible. The verse itself says that we are able to put sin to death through the Holy Spirit. Owens wants to make this completely clear to his readers so that there can be absolutely no confusion as to whether this might be a spirit of holiness that we ourselves have. He points out from other verses in the chapter that this is undoubtedly the Spirit of God that “dwells in us” (v. 9), that “quickens us” (v. 10), it is the “Holy Ghost” (v. 14 – depending upon the translation), the “Spirit of adoption” (v. 15), and the Spirit “that makes intercession for us” (v. 26). Furthermore, he reminds the reader in no uncertain terms that trying to mortify our sins on our own is a futile endeavour. All other ways of mortification are vain, all helps leave us helpless; it must be done by the Spirit.” (Owens, p. 47, para. 2). Many men try to destroy the sins in their lives through their own methods (Rom. 9:30-32), but these are the foundations of false religions. There is no way to destroy sin in our lives through our own actions. 

“Mortification from a 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.” (Owens, p. 47, para. 2)

Next we come to the duty that Owens states every believer has and the means of performing it. In order to deal with this concept, Owens finds that he must clarify more terms. First, what is meant by “the body” in Romans 8:13? It is the same as “the flesh” found at the beginning of the verse and if we look back to chapter 6 in verse 19 we find that it is the corruption and depravity of our natures – namely indwelling sin, the corrupted flesh, and lust. Finally, it is also referred to as “the old man” and “the body of sin” in Romans 6:6. Owens notes that Paul uses the word “body” to refer to our depraved natures, making an important distinction that our physical bodies are merely the seat and instrument of our depraved natures (Rom. 6:19), not in and of themselves evil. (I suspect that Owens is arguing against a theory propounded by Plato and embraced by some Christians that the body itself is evil.) Now, we move on to the “works of the flesh” (Gal. 5:19) which we are to mortify. These are the outward actions (praxeis) caused by indwelling sin and the lusts of the flesh (Mt. 3:10, Rom. 8:6) resulting in the destruction of the body (Rom. 8:10). Owens then moves into what it means to “mortify” the “works of the flesh.” It is to put to death, kill, take the life from the old man of flesh and sin. This “Old Man” is fully alive with knowledge, wisdom, craft, subtlety, and strength and is what is “crucified with Christ” (Rom. 6:6) and is “dead with Christ” (Rom. 6:8). Furthermore, we are being “regenerated” through Christ (Rom. 6:3-5), but we still battle against the dying “old man” (Gal. 5:17).  

“The mortification of indwelling sin remaining in our mortal bodies, that it may not have life and power to bring forth the works or deeds of the flesh, is the constant duty of believers.” (Owens, p. 49, para. 1).

Finally, Owens moves into the promise made at the end of the verse – you will live. This is in direct opposition to the promise of death if you live after the flesh (Rom. 8:13, Gal. 6:8). Owens points out that it is the promise of eternal life, but that it might also refer to Spiritual life in Christ – not just the quickening of our spirits as a result of salvation, but the added elements of joy, comfort, and vigour that comes from living in fellowship with Christ (I Thessalonians 3:8). 

“The vigor, and power, and comfort of our spiritual life depends on the mortification of the deeds of the flesh.” (Owens, p. 49, para. 3).

Final Thoughts:

I found that one evening was not sufficient for the unpacking of this chapter! I managed to cram all my reading and writing into a day, but my brain hurts the way it did when cramming for a test in college! As I continue this exercise, I'm going to divide each chapter into sections (Owens provides such neat divisions anyway) and read a little each day, creating my outline as I go.
I've neglected to do any really extended and intense studies since college and I've missed the intellectual stimulation (I don't miss the tests, though.) It will be interesting to find what insights I will stumble upon since Owens' perspective will likely be much different from mine (the difference in centuries providing the most obvious difference followed by his background as a politician, as a minister, as an educator, and as a Puritan.) The socio-political backdrop for his writing in itself provides an interesting starting point for evaluation of his writing. 
It is an adventure! Keep reading and keep writing – I can't wait to read what other bloggers and commentators are discovering as they too delve into Owens' book!


Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Overcoming Sin and Temptation, by John Owens

Sin is such a touchy topic right now. Our culture demands that we be tolerant of everyone's behavior, no matter what the Bible says about it and while we as Christians know that this isn't true and we (sometimes) stand firm on hot button issues such as homosexuality or abortion, we have unwittingly allowed this societal permissiveness to influence our daily lives and sins that a generation or two ago were virtually unheard of in the lives of believers are now as common as dental checkups and vaccination schedules. Most assuredly each generation within the Church has it's own unique temptations, however, it seems to me that there has been a growing lethargy and unwillingness to call out and confront the sins that are found in the lives of believers. Furthermore, there is a general confusion among young believers as to how to approach sin and temptation. We have been raised in a social climate that says that everything is permissible (except intolerance) and a great confusion has come upon us as we see that the Bible clearly states that we should resist sin and temptation, but the church often does not practically explain to us how that is to be done.

Over the next few months, I will be joining with Christians from around the world as we read John Owens' classic work Overcoming Sin and Temptation. Tim Challies started this virtual reading group over at his blog and I am excited to learn what God has in store for us as we read through the books chapter by chapter. It will not be an easy read – Owens is a challenging author in more ways than one! Not only does he write in a style rather unfamiliar to modern readers, but he also writes about topics which we sometimes would rather not disturb!

I will be posting weekly reflections on my own readings here and participating in the conversation over at Challies' blog. I'm cautiously looking forward to this excursion into Owens' works – I know it will be a challenge and I tend to be lazy (sloth? Oh dear...) Will you join me?