How do we win the war? What war you ask? The war within. Paul tells us there is a war going on inside of us. He says,
For I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man, but I see a different law in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin which is in my members (Rom. 7:22-23)
The redeemed and natural man are waging war inside us. Even though there is a war inside of us, it is a war we are capable of winning. In Christ we have the power to kill the flesh (Rom. 8), destroying its dominion over us. The killing of the flesh is what John Owen calls the mortification of sin, which is the title of one of his books. In The Mortification of Sin, Owen provides believers with ways they can do battle with the natural man.
Instead of providing you with all the ways we can kill, or mortify sin (you will have to read the book for those), I would like to provide you with the place we must begin. My thesis, or rather Owen’s thesis, is as follows:
Only Believers Who Rely On the Work of the Holy Spirit Can Mortify the Flesh
Mortifying the flesh in the power of the flesh by means of bodily exercises, self-performances, and legal duties such as wearing rough clothing, making vows and penances, and disciplining yourself is vanity. In regards to such disciplines, Owen says,
Even if some are not neglecting the things appointed by God to lead to mortification, they may not be using them in their proper place and order. Praying, fasting, watching, meditation, and the like, certainly have their use for the business at hand, but many consider them as the fountain and not the stream coming from the fountain. These actions are the means only, and are subordinate to the Spirit and faith (15-16).
The actions Owen mentions, without the gospel as its fountain, are only performed by men while they feel a conviction of sin. After their guilt passes, they quit seeking to kill their sins, which results in their sin returning to its former dominion over time (17). To completely keep the flesh at bay, men must be believers. Owen says, “There is no self-endeavour that can accomplish mortification. Almighty energy is necessary for its accomplishment” (17). To try to kill the flesh by the work of the flesh without the work of the Spirit is vanity.
The Work of the Holy Spirit
As believers, we are given the Holy Spirit, who resides inside of us. He works in our hearts to root out our fleshly desires, “by causing our hearts to abound in grace and the fruits that are contrary to the works of the flesh” (17). The Holy Spirit causes us to see the grace of God for what it is, a free gift to sinners who deserve nothing but death. He also works in our lives to manifest the fruit of the Spirit, which serves to restrict the works of the flesh (Gal 5:19-21) (18).
While restricting the works of the flesh through the manifestation of the fruit of the Spirit, the Holy Spirit takes away our stony heart and “brings the cross of Christ into the heart of a sinner by faith, giving us communion with Christ in His death, and fellowship in His sufferings” (18). By taking away our heart of stone and bringing us into fellowship with Christ in His death and sufferings, we are empowered to root sin out of our lives because Christ has defeated the grip of sin once and for all in His death, burial, and resurrection.
We Work Along With the Holy Spirit
Even though the Holy Spirit works in our lives, we are responsible for mortifying the flesh as well. Owen believes the Spirit “works in us and upon us, as we are able to be wrought in and upon, and yet He preserves our own liberty and free obedience” (See especially Phil. 2:13) (19). The Holy Spirit works on our understandings, wills, consciences, and affections, as long as we allow Him (19).
We can win the war within us, but it is a war that can only be won if we are a believer. For if we are not a believer in Christ, there is no war to be fought, only slavery exists. Those who are not saved by the blood of Christ are enslaved by the Prince of this world. No amount of work will ever break the bondage of that slavery. Only the power of Christ can free us from the enslavement of Satan.
Once Christ has broken the bonds of the flesh, we are free to war against our worldly lusts. A war that we can and will win as Christ’s children. A war the Holy Spirit empowers us to fight.
To those who try to fight the flesh without first believing in Christ, Owen says,
They try many perplexing ways and duties, to keep down sin, but, being strangers to the Spirit of God, they find it is all in vain. They combat without victory, have war without peace, and are in slavery all their days (20).
May we all understand that the war within is not won alone. Rather, it is only won through the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ and our subsequent belief in His person and work. Our belief in Christ brings the Holy Spirit into our lives, allowing us to take up combat against the natural man.
All references refer to John Owen’s The Mortification of Sin: abridged and made easy to read by Richard Rushing, The Banner of Truth Trust, 2004.
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