In The Mortification of Sin, Puritan theologian John Owen writes that living a holy life for Jesus is something that the Holy Spirit must help you do. Only God can truly change a person. If you want to kill your anger or your pornography use or your self-pity so that it stays dead, you need supernatural help. We can kill a sin by just trying really, really hard, but not sin. If all you do is throw out your computer and your phone, you may be able to stop from ever looking at online porn again. But you haven’t changed. And you, my friend, are the problem.
And me, too.
Some of us can probably stop swearing or drinking or cheating by pure willpower, but we can’t make ourselves love and worship the right thing. Just making a rule for yourself that you won’t look at pornography anymore won’t change your soul’s perfect north. Don’t get me wrong: Do that, please. Make the rule and then stick to it. But willpower by itself can only change behavior, not a heart. And that’s what God wants: our hearts. The obedience our Creator desires is not just a dutiful one; He wants obedience that springs from hearts and minds that truly love and worship Him. Living free from sin means living for Him, and living for Him means having a spiritually changed heart.
True holiness and truly spiritual change have to start with Him, because the only one who can make you love God is God. So if you want your sin truly dead or dying, you first need God’s help to make you a different kind of person.
Owen asks and then answers the question that we’d all probably ask after reading that: How does that happen? How does God change us and make us holier? And in one section of the book, he gives three specific ways:
- By causing our hearts to abound in grace (in other words, by lovingly giving us His supernatural power and the fruits of His own Spirit).
- By weakening and destroying the root of our sin.
- By giving us union with Jesus Christ, His death, and His sufferings.
In other words, if you have trusted in Jesus then God’s Spirit helps you to change from the inside out by giving you power, by weakening your sin at its root (the root being desire, either the desiring of a sinful thing or the desiring of a good thing more than you desire God), and by placing you in Jesus, the only One who can and did crush sin.
Giving us grace, weakening our sin at its foundational level, and giving us Union with Jesus.
We absolutely should work out our own salvations with fear and trembling, but we should do so knowing that it’s Him whose first working in us. Everything good starts with God, including sanctification.
Real holiness, goodness that comes from down deep in the soul, has to be initiated by God in a person. If we want to truly change, we should pray for God’s healing hand to help us, not just plan on sweating it out.
Self-discipline all by itself might be enough to quit cursing, but it isn’t enough to change your heart.
Dead sin follows a living heart, and the only One who can create either is God.
So it’s wonderful news that He is offering to right now.