See part two of this two-part series on fighting sin here.
I just committed a sin. It doesn’t matter what it was. It does matter that I knew it was wicked; tried not to do it, and did it anyway. What was wrong with me that I couldn’t stop myself from doing evil? And how did I get from a place of enjoying God and obeying him, to doing the very thing he hates?
It wasn’t the first time I’ve sinned and asked those two questions, and it sure won’t be the last. Perhaps you have asked them too. But I want to introduce you to someone who has helped me find answers. His name is John Owen, and he departed this earth nearly 350 years ago. But when I read his book Indwelling Sin in Believers it was like having my soul cut open, dissected and diagnosed. Let me give you the fast version of my therapy.
So, What Is Wrong With Me?
Even though Christ has died for us … there remains another power of sin.
Owen gets straight to the point from the very beginning—our problem is sin. Even though Christ has died for us and destroyed the power of sin to condemn us to death and hell, there remains another power of sin. Owen calls this the “indwelling” power of sin, which simply means that sin has the power to make us sin because it still dwells within us. It is no longer unchallenged—we have the power of grace in us now—but it persists nonetheless. This is the source of the battle that rages within every Christian:
For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. (Romans 7:18-20).
So, what’s wrong with me is that I have a spiritual power called sin dwelling in my heart, urging me to commit evil. That was one question answered!
How Does Sin Happen?
Owen then proceeds to hand the Christian the battle plan of our enemy, sin. Of course, sin isn’t really a living entity, but it helps to understand how it works by using language as though it is. The key passage Owen unpacks is James 1:14-15:
But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.
Owen’s exposition of these verses showed me that sin actually has a process. It works in a certain way and we can learn that way and so be able to better fight against it. He breaks it down like this:
Every man is tempted when he is lured…
Sin’s first move is distraction. Proverbs 1:17 says “In vain is the net spread in the sight of any bird.” However, if the bird can be lured to look away, the trap can successfully be set. Now, in the soul of a Christian the mind is like the eye. When our mind is suitably occupied with the things of God and watching against sin (our spiritual duties), we “see” the traps sin sets for us. But if our minds are distracted by something else (e.g. worldly pursuits), sin can then take the opportunity to hide the trap. Distraction from spiritual duties then, is where sin first aims.
… and enticed by his own desire…
Sin entices with the promise of pleasure … like a hook covered with the bait.
Next, the bait is laid out: sin entices with the promise of pleasure. Dazzled by the appeal, the danger goes unnoticed—like a hook covered with the bait. This is how Eve was deceived and ate the fruit. Her initial response to Satan—“If we eat or touch it we shall die”—showed her awareness of the danger. But then she allowed herself to forget it when her desires were stirred up by thoughts of the beauty of the fruit and its usefulness for making her wise (Gen 3:6).
… Then, desire when it has conceived …
Acts of sin cannot be committed unless first there is a decision to commit them—this is the conception of sin. These decisions occur in the part of our soul we designate “the will”, a faculty that is influenced by both reason and affection (i.e. our likes/dislikes). When the mind is drawn off from its duty and a longing for the pleasures of sin is created, the way is paved for the decision to sin. Sin appears to be good, and so we choose it.
… gives birth to sin …
The next step in this progression is the “birthing” of sin—the actual deed of it. This is where we are surprised, right? We wonder, like I did, “how did I get here?” What we fail to realise is that we lose the battle to sin far earlier than we think.
If I had kept my mind occupied with the things of God and watching against sin, I would have seen the danger.
Let’s trace it back. I did sin because I chose it. I chose it because it appeared good. It appeared good because I saw the pleasure of it and not the danger. I saw the pleasure and not the danger because when sin was laying the trap I was distracted.
That’s it, right there. I was distracted. If I had kept my mind occupied with the things of God and watching against sin, I would have seen the danger when sin came with its proposal. Yet, being distracted from this duty, I allowed sin to work further and so lost the battle.
Friends, this is where we need to aim our efforts: to attend to the spiritual duties that protect us from being deceived by sin. These duties are the means by which God promises to help us. Distraction from them is the means by which sin wins its victories. Much more could be said about this, but that is a discussion for another time.
… and sin, when it is fully grown, brings forth death.
For now, let’s remember that the end of sin is death. We mustn’t think of sin like a harmless pet that we can keep on a leash and tame. It’s a voracious dragon, and without the saving grace of Jesus, it will take us in its jaws all the way to hell. That, in fact, is its endgame.
I say then, with Owen: “Awake, therefore, all of you in whose hearts is anything of the ways of God! Your enemy is not only upon you, as on Samson of old, but is in you also.” Get to know its battle plan. And FIGHT.