John Owen: Sin, Salvation, Self-Help

And we’re done with Schonthaler. I recommend giving his book a read – it’s very short, and stuffed with interesting tidbits. There were a couple others I considered making into articles here, but – they were too succinct. They’re already complete in themselves. So we’re moving right along, into John Owen’s The Mortification of Sin. If you hated Calvin, and you’re sick of assholes, you’re in the right place – or the wrong place, maybe. John Owen was a 17th century Puritan; his Mortification of Sin is basically what it sounds like. By modern standards, I think we’d call it a self-help book. However, the concept of a Christian self-help book actually sets off some very specific theological problems – and we’re going to start with them today.

The theological problem here exists at the intersection between salvation and sin. Basically, if you become saved, you’re going to heaven – that’s the general consensus. You’re covered by Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, and your sins are wiped away. The problem, then, is that people still go around sinning after they’re saved. Salvation doesn’t seem to fix that. And your salvation isn’t imperiled by your ongoing sin either – or if it is, it’s not in a way that anybody totally agrees on. There’s a bit in 1 John 5 where we’re told about a sin that leads to death, but it’s not clear what that means. So you’re saved, but still sinning, and that sin probably doesn’t stop you being saved. Given that logic, why not just go around being a shithead and getting away with it? 1 John more or less exists in response to that question: as it says in its opening chapter, “God is light, and in Him there is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with Him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true.” That book closes off the being-naughty avenue, but it’s behavioural advice – it doesn’t resolve the underlying theoretical issue. It actually arguably makes things worse.

So – let me lay this out. 1 John tells us to be good, because God is good, and it says that if we’re not being good, it’s because we’re not actually walking with God. That sounds like our salvation is conditional on our behaviour – it sounds like salvation can be undone or in some sense disproved or invalidated by our ongoing sin. Alternately, other parts of 1 John make salvation sound entirely unnecessary: “Everyone who does what is right is righteous, just as He is righteous. Everyone who commits sin is a child of the devil; for the devil has been sinning from the beginning.” From that verse alone, it sounds like anybody who does good is actually okay – they’re righteous, and not children of the devil. Makes it sound like they’re going to heaven. Makes it sound like their behaviour is more important than whether or not they were baptised, or whether or not they believe in God. 1 John kinda puts us in the worst of both worlds. Depending on how you read it, it sounds like either your salvation is conditional on your subsequent good behaviour, or that salvation was never really necessary in the first place. That’s not the intention of the book, but it’s where some readers end up. The problem, again, is that it’s a band-aid solution designed to patch over a gap by focusing on behaviour, and not by resolving the underlying theological tension.

So that’s our context for today. We’ve got sin, and salvation, and it’s not totally clear how they relate to each other. Plus, sometimes when you try to make them relate to each other, you end up in some really weird places. Enter John Owen. Owen’s The Mortification of Sin is about the process of killing sin, or at least fighting it off. It’s in the genre of kinda pastoral guidance, meaning that it’s not really interested in the underlying theological tension that we’ve been discussing. But once you know about that tension, you can see it shot right through the heart of the book. For instance, Owen spends a lot of time giving practical tips for training yourself out of certain behaviours. Some of the advice is actually pretty good – not all of it, but some of it. For instance, he says you should think about what prompts your sinful behaviour – whether it’s specific times, places, events – whatever the triggers might be (Ch 11). Those are all things that you should monitor more closely, to try and head the problem off before it starts. That makes sense. But then he also insists that the only real mortification of sin comes through the Spirit (Ch 7). It’s part of the salvation package – you only get it once you become a believer. Owen spends half the book giving us all these practical instructions, but then claims that mortifying sin is the work of the Spirit. So on the one hand we’ve got sin, which is largely described in behavioural terms, and then salvation, which has this metaphysical element that seems at odds with the practical, behaviour-focused advice of the rest of the book. It’s the work of the Spirit, but also you should monitor and avoid the things that prompt you to behave in certain ways.

Owen discusses this tension in more depth over in Chapter 3. I like what he says, generally speaking, but I’m not convinced it fixes any of the issues. I’ll give you a big juicy quote and you can make your own analysis. Owen starts by posing a question – if mortifying sin is all the work of the Spirit, what do we have to do? His reply is this:

“He [God] 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.”

It’s essentially a both/and scenario. The Spirit works in us and with us: God both does the work and expects us to do the work. It’s not an awful idea, but it still has the underlying theoretical issues. If we do the work of bettering ourselves, albeit alongside the Spirit, then how come non-religious people can also better themselves and curb harmful behaviours? Do they also have some kind of connection with the Spirit (suggesting baptism is not necessary to get that relationship), or can they do it without the Spirit (suggesting salvation might not be necessary at all)? One way or another, Owen’s theology here isn’t entirely sound. We have to come to terms with the reality of the fact that atheists, the fuckers, are perfectly capable of improving their behaviour and bettering themselves as human beings. That’s not something Owen had to confront in the same way. In Chapter 7, he writes off the entirety of classical Greek culture as incapable of mortifying sin in any meaningful way: “They had neither heat nor light.” Now, a few hundred years later, it turns out that non-religious people are generally no better or worse at mortifying sin than anybody else. Whatever our theology is, it has to take that into account.


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