Tag Archives: Mortification of Sin

Week 30 of 50 in the Institutes: God’s Humbling of the Whole World

Carl Trueman’s blogs on the Reformation 21 website for this week’s assignments are not to be missed (see links below).

For my part I want to draw attention to Calvin’s comments in 3.20.42 on the second petition of the Lord’s prayer, “thy kingdom come.”  Calvin defined the kingdom as follows (emphasis added):

God reigns when men, in denial of themselves and contempt of the world and this earthly life, devote themselves to righteousness and aspire to heaven.  Thus this kingdom consists of two parts; the first is, when God by the agency of his Spirit corrects all the depraved lusts of the flesh, which in bands war against Him; and the second, when he brings all our thoughts into obedience to his authority.Squadron photo

In contrast to “which in bands war against him” of Beveridge’s translation (used above), the McNeill-Battles rendering is: “the desires of the flesh which by squadrons war against him,” which I find to be a much more vivid portrayal of the relentless assaults of the flesh.

Calvin went on to assert that God sets up his kingdom by humbling the whole world in various ways, but ultimately at the end of the age (emphasis added):

This petition, therefore, is duly presented only by those who begin with themselves; in other words, who pray that they may be purified from all the corruptions which disturb the tranquillity and impair the purity of God’s kingdom. Then as the word of God is like his royal sceptre, we are here enjoined to pray that he would subdue all minds and hearts to voluntary obedience. This is done when by the secret inspiration of his Spirit he displays the efficacy of his word, and raises it to the place of honour which it deserves. We must next descend to the wicked, who perversely and with desperate madness resist his authority. God, therefore, sets up his kingdom, by humbling the whole world, though in different ways, taming the wantonness of some, and breaking the ungovernable pride of others. . . . For such is the nature of the kingdom of God, that while we submit to his righteousness he makes us partakers of his glory. This is the case when continually adding to his light and truth, by which the lies and the darkness of Satan and his kingdom are dissipated, extinguished, and destroyed, he protects his people, guides them aright by the agency of his Spirit, and confirms them in perseverance; while, on the other hand, he frustrates the impious conspiracies of his enemies, dissipates their wiles and frauds, prevents their malice and curbs their petulance, until at length he consume Antichrist “with the spirit of his mouth,” and destroy all impiety “with the brightness of his coming,” (2 Thess. 2:8).

Thy kingdom come, Lord!

Links to Reformation 21 blogs through the Institutes:

July 27: 3.20.18 – 3.20.22

July 28: 3.20.23 – 3.20.27

July 29: 3.20.28 – 3.20.30

July 30: 3.20.31 – 3.20.36

July 31: 3.20.37 – 3.20.42

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Week 10 of 50 in the Institutes: Calvin, Owen & Sanctification

Before putting down my thoughts on the upcoming week’s reading assignments in the Institutes, I like to peruse the Reformation 21 blogs to see if the assigned blogger back in 2009 addressed any of the issues that stood out to me (to save time such can I can merely point to them).  Those with rapid recall of everything we have read to this point may begin to have some consternation by this coming Friday when you read 2.3.11 in the Institutes and mentally compare it to what John Owen had to say in Mortification of Sin. So as point man for the group, let me try to save you a headache, or at least a little consternation.

First let’s go back to the following passage from On the Mortification of Sin, where Owen answers the question of why a person is exhorted to mortify sin, if such mortification is the work of the Spirit (at the end of chapter 3):

Secondly. If this be the work of the Spirit alone, how is it that we are exhorted to it? — seeing the Spirit of God only can do it, let the work be left wholly to him.

[1.] It is no otherwise the work of the Spirit but as all graces and good works which are in us are his. He “works in us to will and to do of his own good pleasure,” Phil. ii.13; he works “all our works in us,”  Isa. xxvi. 12, — “the work of faith with power,” 2 Thess 1. 11, Col. ii. 12; he causes us to pray, and is a “Spirit of supplication,” Rom. viii. 26, Zech. xii. 10; and yet we are exhorted, and are to be exhorted, to all these.

[2.] He doth not so work our mortification in us as not to keep it still an act of our obedience. The Holy Ghost works in us and upon us, as we are fit to be wrought in and upon; that is, so as to preserve our own liberty and free obedience. He works upon our understandings, wills, consciences, and affections, agreeably to their own natures; he works in us and with us, not against us or without us; so that his assistance is an encouragement as to the facilitating of the work, and no occasion of neglect as to the work itself.

With reference to the believer’s duty to mortify sin (Romans 8:13), Owen clearly affirmed the responsibility of man, and the idea that God doesn’t do this work “against us or without us”.  Compare this to Calvin’s remarks in 2.3.11 in regard to our efforts to cooperate in sanctification or perseverance:

As to the common saying, that after we have given admission to the first grace, our efforts co-operate with subsequent grace, this is my answer:—If it is meant that after we are once subdued by the power of the Lord to the obedience of righteousness, we proceed voluntarily, and are inclined to follow the movement of grace, I have nothing to object. For it is most certain, that where the grace of God reigns, there is also this readiness to obey. And whence this readiness, but just that the Spirit of God being everywhere consistent with himself, after first begetting a principle of obedience, cherishes and strengthens it for perseverance? If, again, it is meant that man is able of himself to be a fellow-labourer with the grace of God, I hold it to be a most pestilential delusion.

Putting these two passages side by side without careful consideration might leave the casual reader scratching his head and wondering: “So who’s right, Calvin or Owen?”  The answer is both, and I don’t think they are truly contradicting one another (read above excerpt more closely).  How could they, since they were both called “the theologian of the Holy Spirit” in their respective generations?

Louis Berkhof comes in handy here, in the following excerpt from his Systematic Theology, in the section on sanctification (note: we are talking about sanctification here, NOT justification):

It [sanctification] is a work of God in which believers co-operate.  When it is said that man takes part in the work of sanctification, this does not mean that man is an independent agent in the work, so as to make it partly the work of God and partly the work of man; but merely, that God effects the work in part through the instrumentality of man as a rational being, by requiring of him prayerful and intelligent co-operation with the Spirit.  That man must co-operate with the Spirit of God follows: (a) from the repeated warning against evils and temptations, which clearly imply that man must be active in avoiding the pitfalls of life, Rom. 12:9, 16, 17; 1 Cor. 6:9,10; Gal. 5:16-23; and (b) from the constant exhortations to holy living.  These imply that the believer must be diligent in the employment of means at his command for the moral and spiritual improvement of his life, Micah 6:8; John 15:2, 8, 16; Rom. 8:12, 13; 12:1, 2, 17; Gal. 6:7, 8, 15.

So the resolution lies in the affirmation of both the sovereignty of God and the responsibility of man.  Both Owen and Calvin cited Philippians 2:13 when dealing with this issue, which is one of the most remarkable passages in all of Scripture with regard to the affirmation of both of these non-contradictory doctrines.  John Murray had an excellent interpretation of Phil. 2:12-13 (as cited by Moises Silva in his commentary on Philippians):

God’s working in us is not suspended because we work, nor our working suspended because God works.  Neither is the relation strictly one of cooperation as if God did his part and we did ours so that the conjunction or coordination of both produced the required result.  God works and we also work.  But the relation is that because God works we work. All working out of salvation on our part is the effect of God’s working in us. . . . We have here not only the explanation of all acceptable activity on our part but we also have the incentive to our willing and working. . . . The more persistently active we are in working, the more persuaded we may be that all the energizing grace and power is of God.

Now if you still have a headache, I recommend aspirin at this point!

Links to Reformation 21 blogs through the Institutes:

Mar. 9:  2.2.18 – 2.2.23

Mar. 10:  2.2.24 – 2.2.27

Mar. 11:  2.3.1 – 2.3.4

Mar. 12: 2.3.5 – 2.3.9

Mar. 13: 2.3.10 – 2.3.14

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Week 8 of 9 in Winslow: The Lord, the Restorer of His People

This week’s assignment in Octavius Winslow’s book, Personal Declension and Revival of Religion in the Soul, is chapter 8, “The Lord, the Restorer of His People”.

I appreciate the way Winslow opened this chapter by giving two reasons why it is necessary for the Lord to restore his people continually, namely: enmity within (indwelling sin) and without (Satan and the world). After thus identifying the root causes for the perpetual proneness to declension on the part of every believer, Winslow then highlighted the underlying principle of all departures from God:

We look at a believer’s lax practice, we mourn and weep over it, and we do well; we trace our own, and still deeper shame and confusion of face cover us: but we forget that the cause of our bitterest sorrow and humiliation should be, the concealed principle of evil from whence springs this unholy practice. How few among the called of God, are found confessing and mourning over the sin of their nature – the impure fountain from whence flows the stream, the unmortified root from whence originates the branch, and from which both are fed and nourished! This is what God looks at, — the sin of our fallen, unsanctified nature, — and this is what we should look at, and mourn over. Indeed, true mortification of sin consists in a knowledge of our sinful nature, and its subjection to the power of Divine grace. The reason why so few believers ‘through the Spirit mortify the deeds of the body,’ is, a forgetfulness that the work has to do first and mainly with the root of sin in the soul: ‘Make the tree good, and the fruit will also be good’; purify the fountain, and the stream will be pure. Oh, were there a deeper acquaintance with the hidden iniquity of our fallen nature, — a more thorough learning out of the truth, — that ‘in our flesh there dwelleth no good thing,’ – a more heartfelt humiliation on account of it, and more frequent confession of it before God, — how much higher than they now are would be the attainments of holiness of many believers.

I’m indebted to Winslow for prompting this question when reflecting on that passage: How well do I know my own mortal enemy of indwelling sin, my own Moriarty? That metaphor didn’t originate with me. It is found toward the end of chapter 5 in Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis:

When an adolescent or an adult is engaged in resisting a conscious desire, he is not dealing with a repression nor is he in the least danger of creating a repression. On the contrary, those who are seriously attempting chastity are more conscious, and soon know a great deal more about their own sexuality than anyone else. They come to know their desires as Wellington knew Napoleon, or as Sherlock Holmes knew Moriarty; as a rat-catcher knows rats or a plumber knows about leaky pipes. Virtue – even attempted virtue – brings light; indulgence brings fog. [C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Harper Collins, 2001), 102]

Proverbs 4:19 describes the “fog” that ensues from sinful indulgence as being even thicker:

“The way of the wicked is like deep darkness; they do not know over what they stumble.” (ESV)

So the struggle is a good thing. It is always part of keeping up the good fight of the faith (1 Tim. 6:12). Even better is the slow but steady progress that comes in mortifying the deeds of the flesh by the Spirit:

“But the path of the righteous is like the light of dawn, which shines brighter and brighter until full day.” (Prov. 4:18, ESV)

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