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!


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