Newsletter #36: Be Killing Your Sin or Your Sin Will Be Killing You
Welcome back to the Masculinist, the monthly newsletter about Christianity and Masculinity.
Even for the Christian, sin is a serious matter. As Paul writes in 2 Timothy,
Now in a large house there are not only gold and silver vessels, but also vessels of wood and of earthenware, and some to honor and some to dishonor. Therefore, if anyone cleanses himself from these things, he will be a vessel for honor, sanctified, useful to the Master, prepared for every good work. Now flee from youthful lusts and pursue righteousness, faith, love and peace, with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart.
Our usefulness God thus depends on cleansing ourselves from unrighteousness. And even for Christians, the Bible is clear that the practice of sin leads to destruction. For example, Galatians 5 says:
But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh. For the flesh sets its desire against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are in opposition to one another, so that you may not do the things that you please. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the Law. Now the deeds of the flesh are evident, which are: immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these, of which I forewarn you, just as I have forewarned you, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God
Especially those of us who are Protestant tend to focus on grace and the gospel. But we should never forget that sin is a serious matter, not just with God but also in terms of our life here and now in the temporal world. Pursuing holiness is fundamental to the life of the Christian man.
Since I know I have non-Christian readers I’ll just be clear that this issue is not for you. If you aren’t a Christian there’s no reason to treat the Bible as standard for your behavior. It’s a free country, and I’d encourage you to do whatever you think is right. What’s more, trying to “follow the rules” is spiritually dangerous anyway if you don’t have faith in Christ.
Perhaps the best book on sin and how to defeat it is John Owen’s 1656 Puritan classic On The Mortification of Sin. It’s been touted by a who’s who of pastors including John Piper and Tim Keller. Keller in fact said that, “I wouldn’t be in the ministry—my life would be a shipwreck—if I hadn’t read that book.” J. I. Packer said, “I owe more to John Owen than to any other theologian, ancient or modern; and I owe more to The Mortification of Sin than to anything else he wrote.”
Despite its greatness, Mortification of Sin has a problem. It was written a long time ago in English that’s very archaic. Owen was not a very good writer to begin with either, and his outlining system was weak. This makes the book painful to read and difficult to understand in parts. Owen isn’t Shakespeare, but reading him can be a tough slog.
Inspired by linguist John McWhorter, who urged translating Shakespeare into modern English so modern audiences can better understand it, back in 2013 I did just that for Mortification of Sin. I took Owen’s original text and, using an NIV-style idea for idea translation, created a version that the average adult can readily read and comprehend. It’s still dense, substantial material – but it’s readable.
You can get a sense of this by simply looking at the first sentence of the book, which in Owen’s original is:
I shall in a few words acquaint thee with the reasons that obtained my consent to the publishing of the ensuing discourse.
We can understand this, but you can also get a sense of why reading a book full of sentences like this would be tedious. And parts of its are much more difficult to understand. My translation is:
Let me briefly tell you why I wrote this book.
I’ll share some of Owen’s insights below, using my version of the text. But first, I should warn Catholic and Orthodox readers that you might also want to take a pass on this one. Owen is not only theologically Protestant (Reformed), but like many of his time was a militant anti-Catholic, something that shines through in Mortification of Sin. So be aware of that.
Owen’s book is an exposition of Romans 8:13, “If by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” This verse is directed to those of us who are Christian (“you”), in which we are assigned a duty (putting to death the deeds of the body, or as it were, killing sin), given a means of accomplishing it (“by the Spirit”), and given a promise (“you will live”) if we carry that duty out.
Owen stresses that despite our being saved through the work of Christ on the cross, indwelling sin continues to act in the lives of Christians, seeking their ruin, and that the battle against sin is one of life or death. In his most famous saying he says, “Be killing your sin or your sin will be killing you.” He writes:
Indwelling sin is always acting, always trying to give birth to sinful acts, always seducing us, always tempting us. Who can claim that he’s ever had anything to do with God or for God that indwelling sin did not do something to corrupt? And sin will be working like this to some degree every day we are in this world. If sin then is always acting against us, and we are not actively killing it, we are lost creatures. Anyone who stands still and lets his enemy attack him without resisting is sure to end up defeated. If sin is really this subtle, watchful, strong, and always at work in the business of killing our souls, and we’re lazy, negligent, and foolish in fighting it, can we expect a good outcome? There is not a day in our lives in which sin does not either defeat us or is defeated, prevails over us or is prevailed over, and it will be like this as long as we live in this world.
Owen reminds us that to mortify sin is not to ever be able to completely eliminate it from our lives in this world:
It’s true that we always aim to totally and irreversibly kill sin, but this is not something we can ever accomplish in this life. Nobody truly sets about killing any sin who doesn’t desire, aim, and plan its complete death so that no trace of its root or fruit is left in his heart or his life. He would so completely kill it that it would never again rise up, call out to him, seduce or tempt him, for all eternity. Its non-existence is what he aims to achieve. Now he may have, by the Spirit and the grace of Christ, amazing success and victory against some particular sin so that he never again falls prey to it. Nevertheless, to totally kill and destroy it so that is simply ceases to exist in him is something that he simply can’t achieve in this life.
Rather, this mortification involves the weakening of that sin’s power to tempt and propel him to perform evil and rebel against God:
This is done by implanting and cultivating a power of grace that is opposed to sin and destructive of it. This is the foundation of weakening sin. So implanting and growing in humility weakens pride. Patience weakens impulsiveness. Purity of mind and conscience weaken sexual sin. Heavenly mindedness weakens the love of this world. These are the graces of the Spirit, empowered and directed by the Spirit, acting on or towards the same objects that evil desires also try to act, only in an opposite and holy direction.
And also to get to where the Spirit or the new man quickly, strongly, and cheerfully fights against the evil desire, and begins to find frequent and increasing success at defeating it.
From there Owen identifies two prerequisites without which it is impossible to kill any sin. The first is to actually be a Christian. Sin can be only be killed by the power of the Holy Spirit, and it is through faith in Christ alone that we receive the power of the Spirit. And as he stresses, trying to convince people to stop sinning without first bringing them to conversion is counter-productive: “That is what the law is for. It is to make us aware that we need a Savior. If it doesn’t do that it only sends people into legalism and hypocrisy.”
If you are not a Christian, what’s important to understand is that Christianity is not fundamentally about complying with rules or trying to make sure we do more good than bad in life. Rather, it’s about recognizing that all of us have sinned and fallen short of God’s standard. Even people who don’t believe in God know that they’ve failed to always live up to the standard of their own conscience. Forgiveness for the wrongs we’ve done comes from the death and resurrection of Christ. We receive this through faith in Him – who He is, what He has done, and what He has promised. This faith produces new life in us, and a transformation carried on throughout our lives in this world and completed in the next. It turns us away from sin and towards loving God and loving our neighbor, forgiving others just as we have been forgiven. The critical point of Christianity is whether you have that faith in Christ. So rather than trying to do a better job next time or something, I would encourage you instead to give serious consideration to the claims of Christ.
The second prerequisite to killing sin is to be in the sincere pursuit of universal obedience to God.
If you are trying with all your might to kill a sin or evil desire, why? It’s causing you anxiety, it makes you afraid, you know it has bad consequences, and you don’t feel like you have peace with God about it. But maybe you aren’t praying and reading your Bible. Or maybe you’ve been committing other sins that aren’t quite causing you as much personal trouble, but haven’t done anything to kill them. Christ died for all these too. Why aren’t you being diligent in killing all of your sin and carrying out all the duties you’ve been assigned? If you hate sin as sin then you would be just as aggressive about trying to stamp out all of it in your life. The fact that you are so selective in the particular sins you strive to defeat says plainly that the reason is because they are the only ones that are causing you pain and trouble. If they weren’t, you probably wouldn’t be worried about them either.
Don’t let anyone think he can do his own work if he won’t do God’s. God’s work consists of universal obedience – obedience to God in everything. To be freed from only one sin – that’s just our own agenda. That’s why Paul says, “Let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit” (2 Corinthians 7:1). If we want to do anything, we have to do everything. So killing sin doesn’t just come down to killing this or that evil desire. It involves a universally humble frame of heart, with watchfulness over every evil, along with the performance of every duty. That’s what we must seek to do.
Owen then walks through a list of nine preparatory instructions, including considering whether our sin has any particularly dangerous symptoms; getting a sense of the guilt, danger, and evil of our sin; asking where and how it normally defeats us; etc.
He notes that sin has a tendency to get us to minimize its severity in our own mind:
Every evil desire has a tendency to try to reduce the severity of its guilt. “Isn’t this just a little sin?” it asks you to say to yourself. Or as in the case of Naaman earlier: “When I bow myself in the house of Rimmon, the LORD pardon your servant in this matter” (2 Kings 5:18). Our sin tries to get us to say, “This may be bad, but it’s not nearly as bad as this other sin.” Or it tries to convince us that our behavior is not nearly as bad as someone else’s. There are numerous ways sin uses to divert the mind away from understanding the true severity of the guilt of it. Sin’s evil breath fogs up the mind so that it can’t make a proper judgment about it. Rationalizations, extenuating circumstances, mixed-up desires, promises to reform later, and hope for future forgiveness all play a role in keeping the mind from truly understanding the magnitude of what we are doing.
He also recommends, among other things, bringing our sin to the law to understand fully what the law says concerning this sin and the judgment it incurs. We may respond that are not under the law but under grace, but Owen says this can lead us into a dangerously negligent stance towards sin:
This is a trap too many believers have fallen into. It’s a door that leads to apostasy. They pretend to themselves that since they’ve been delivered from the law, there’s no more reason to consult it to see what it has to say about the way they are living their lives. Once the seed of this attitude gets planted in someone’s heart, it grows little by little in him, and starts to affect the way he thinks practically about sin. Once it does that, it gives sinful desires a green light that leads to all sorts of abominable behavior.
And he suggests complementing this with remembering all that God has done for us despite our continued sins: the patience He has shown towards us in particular, his interventions to keep us from being hardened by the sin we continually practice, and the multitude of blessings he has given us personally. (“All the times circumstances were favorable to you, all the times you’ve been delivered out of trials, all the times you’ve received mercy when things could have been worse, all the joy you’ve received in life”).
We should also be constantly longing for deliverance from our sin:
In the physical world, a strong desire for something has no value unless it motivates a person to actually take some action to make the thing desired actually come to pass. It’s different in the spiritual world. In the spiritual world, longing after deliverance – breathing and panting after it – is a grace all its own, and it changes the soul towards accomplishing it. It’s like when Paul, describing the repentance and godly sorrow of the Corinthians after he had rebuked them for their sin, talks about “what longing, what zeal” (2 Corinthians 7:11) as one of the things that was working to bring about the changes he had been telling them to make.
And we should also understand the circumstances in which particular sins defeat us, and take pains to avoid those circumstances:
Consider the ways, the people, the opportunities, the activities, and the conditions that have in the past led to sin – especially if it happens often – and be extremely watchful about all of them. Consider this: people frequently do this when it comes to purely physical or bodily problems. We keep a watch out for the seasons of the year, the foods we eat, polluted air, or anything else that can aggravate or trigger diseases or reactions in us. And where we can, we avoid things like this that will hurt us. Are our souls any less important? Anyone who allows himself to play with fire when it comes to the things that let sin have its way in us obviously isn’t properly concerned about sin since he’s more than willing to risk himself in dangerous situations.
After all these preliminaries, Owen lays out the simple but profound answer to how to kill sin: we set our faith to work on Christ with an expectation of deliverance.
Christ’s blood is the great cure-all for souls that are sick with sin. Set your faith on Him, live in this reality, and you will die a conqueror. I am serious. You will, through the providence of God, live to see your evil desires dead at your feet.
He expands upon what this means and how it works:
Use faith to fill your soul with the knowledge of the provision Christ has already made specifically for the purpose of killing your sin. By faith, ponder this: although you are in no way able in or by yourself to obtain any victory over your sin, and though you’re even growing tired of the fight and are ready to give up, yet there is enough in Jesus Christ to bring you relief. “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13). The prodigal son was strengthened when he was about to give up by the thought that there was food enough for him in his father’s house. Even though he was far away from home, just knowing that brought relief and steadied him…I say then, by faith think often of the unlimited supply of grace that is in Jesus Christ, and how He can at any time strengthen and deliver you. Even if that does not give you an immediate victory, at least you will be strengthened in your chariot.
Lift up your heart by faith to expect relief from Christ. Relief in this case is like Habakkuk’s vision: “For still the vision awaits its appointed time; it hastens to the end—it will not lie. If it seems slow, wait for it; it will surely come; it will not delay” (Habakkuk 2:3). Though it might seem like a long time as you’re waiting for help in the middle of your struggle with sin, you can be sure that help will come at the appointed time. And you can also be sure that the time appointed by Lord Jesus is the best time. So raise up your heart to a certain expectation of relief from Christ. Look at Him “as the eyes of servants look to the hand of their master” (Psalm 123:2) when he is expecting something from that master. If you do, your soul will be satisfied and Christ will surely deliver you. He will kill your evil desires and you will have true peace in the end. Just look for it from Him – expect Him to do it.
We should put our faith in Christ for this because of His great faithfulness, already proven to us on the Cross.
I can confidently say that setting your soul by faith on the expectation of relief from Jesus Christ because He is a merciful high priest will do more to kill your sin and evil desires – and do it faster – than any of the most extreme self-discipline and self-help methods anybody has every tried has ever done. And let me add that nobody was ever eternally lost due to being overcome by any sin, evil desire, corruption or what have you if he could raise his soul by faith to an expectation of relief from Jesus Christ.
God tells us that His covenant with us is like the physical laws that govern the movements of the sun, the moon, and the stars (Jeremiah 31:36). That’s why the psalmist said he waited for God’s relief “more than watchmen for the morning” (Psalm 130:6). That is, it would certainly come just like morning would come at its appointed time for the soldiers on night watch. Your help from Christ will be like that. It will come at the appointed time like rain on parched desert ground. “He who calls you is faithful; He will surely do it” (1 Thessalonians 5:24).
This is only a sampling of what Owen has to say. So please read the book.
In translating this work I did not attempt to be scholarly or capture every nuance of meaning. Rather, my goals were readability and practicality. I wanted to make this book useful for readers in the critical work of killing sin. And to make it more likely more people will actually read it.
In addition to the translation, I also applied a new, coherent outline. The text itself is almost entirely left in its original order, but I broke it up into sections and such differently. In doing this I used a technique called “horizontal logic.” That is, you can simply read the outline by itself and have an excellent précis of the entire book. I even made it so that just reading the chapter titles will give you a good sense of the book. In fact, the outline makes such a useful pocket guide in its own right I’m also including a PDF version of it for you here.
Complete outline: http://www.aaronrenn.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/08/MOS-full-outline.pdf
Main table of contents only: http://www.aaronrenn.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/08/MOS-main-table-of-contents.pdf
Please be sure to pick up your copy of my modern English translation of Mortification of Sin today.
Joshua Harris Getting Divorced and Renouncing His Faith
I didn’t personally live through the purity culture movement in Evangelicalism. But I did read Joshua Harris’ million-copy bestseller I Kissed Dating Goodbye and wrote about it in Masc #7.
Harris, who became a megachurch pastor and Gospel Coalition council member before resigning to attend seminary, recently announced that he and his wife are getting a divorce. A few days later he announced that he was no longer a Christian. For some earlier context on this, you can watch the documentary about him released last year called I Survived I Kissed Dating Goodbye.
It’s a sad situation. As I previously wrote, while not without his flaws, Harris has been de facto scapegoated for a movement that predated him. He also wrote IKDG at age 21. We can all thank God that nothing we wrote at age 21 became a gigantic international bestseller.
Harris’ announcements have prompted another round of purity culture bashing. But in Evangelicalism’s culture of no accountability, I can’t help but wonder what the next similar debacle will be.
It’s not hard to imagine, for example, that a large number of people, especially women, in these hipster urban churches ended up missing their window to have children (and perhaps to marry) at some point turning on their pastors. The urban church movement is still hot, but nothing stays hot forever. Once it becomes passé, who knows what might happen. This isn’t as big as the purity movement, but there will undoubtedly be thousands of people who wanted to marry or have kids who didn’t after sitting for years in these global city churches that were all explicitly teaching that the city is the place to be. They may quite rightly start asking what role the teachings of their pastors played in driving the decisions that brought them to this point (see Coda).
Or think about the people in the future who will talk about the harm done by the “don’t treat family as an idol” movement that’s now big.
Or realtalk: think about someone reading my newsletter who feels the same way. As someone who both got some bad advice from the church and also got some objectively good advice that led to disaster, I always try to be clear that I’m not telling people what to do. I also try to have skin the game, etc. But realistically, if I’m writing about something I’m doing then I’m promoting that. If people apply it and it doesn’t work or causes them harm, then they might blame me.
Nothing is more natural than to want to blame somebody else for our own problems. Without overlooking legitimate harms, we all need to make sure that we take responsibility for the decisions we make in our own lives.
Nevertheless, we all need to feel the weight of what it is we are saying to others. I’ve got thousands of people on this newsletter and need to be serious about what I’m writing. The truth is that as human beings we’re all going to get things wrong. That’s why we need to have a posture of accountability to discover where we have gone wrong. That doesn’t necessarily mean falling on our sword or capitulating to an angry mob that has no genuine interest in reconciliation. It does mean taking action to correct errors and do what we can to make sure similar errors don’t recur.
Sadly, there’s little evidence of that happening with purity culture or anything else in the Evangelical world. So we should expect many more blow-ups in the future.
The American Interest ran an interesting essay by Tara Burton on “The Neo-Paganism of Jordan Peterson.” Here’s an excerpt:
It’s telling that this kind of atavism has taken hold most strongly among young, libertarian or right-leaning atheists. While Jordan Peterson has vaguely hinted at a Christian affiliation, and individual members of the manosphere, such as Return of Kings’ Roosh V (Daryush Valizadeh), have embraced Neo-traditionalist Christianity, the contours of the reactionary internet tend toward the secular—or at least, the spiritual-but-not-religious.
But today, for the first time, the coming culture wars may not be fought between Christians and pagans. As more and more Americans on both sides of the political aisle leave organized religion, we may see the next culture war skirmish fought between two different kinds of pagan, each of whom believes that it is the heroic underdog: the destroyer of a civilization that is either too masculine, or too feminine, for its own good.
She is right not to take Peterson’s identifications with Christianity at face value. (He refuses to affirm the resurrection of Christ, for one thing). I would like to do an entire issue of this newsletter at some point covering the five or so most salient points about these new masculinity or “dissident right” movements (as well as their sizeable minority of left wing analogues). But the first and most important commonality they have is their leaders and members are overwhelmingly atheists or New Age. By New Age I mean affirming an indeterminate spirituality but not a real traditional religion. Jordan Peterson is clearly New Age in this regard. There’s also a small sliver of them that are explicitly neo-pagan, like Jack Donovan, who apparently worships Thor or some such.
There are very few Christians of any type in these movements. Some of those who claim the label do so merely as a sort of cultural identity marker. Another group of them are heterodox or heretical in their views. Only the Catholic integralists like Adrian Vermeule form a material block of traditional Christians, and even they are pretty tiny in number. (There are also a similarly tiny number of religious Jews and Muslims).
All of these groups exist in part because they are filling the vacuum left by the disappearance of Christianity from Western society. That disappearance opened the door to alternative forms of identity, meaning, and the quest for fulfillment. Secular elites believed they would be able to exclusively define or control what would come after Christianity, but as we see that has not yet proven to be the case.
A reader emailed to point out that the transcripts of David Cayley’s interviews with Ivan Illich referenced in Masc #35 are available online. Just search for Illich in the list. I believe these interviews are the basis of the book The Rivers North of the Future that I had mentioned.
The Atlantic: Raj Chetty Wants to Fix the American Dream – “the strongest correlation [with high opportunity for upward mobility] is the number of intact families.”
NYT: I’ve Picked My Job Over My Kids by Lara Bazelon – “I love them beyond all reason. But sometimes my clients need me more.”
NYT: Women in Japan Reject the Burden of Marriage – “I would rather do what I want to do right now”
New York Daily News: 20% of Millennials say that have no friends
Here’s a nice update to a chart I’ve referenced before about how heterosexual couples met. This one is via Twitter user Nicholas Christakis.
This is not masculinity related, but Mark Galli’s “elusive presence” columns at Christianity Today are interesting reading.
In retrospect it seems to me that those days before I knew the names of all the bridges were happier than the ones that came later, but perhaps you will see that as we go along. Part of what I want to tell you is what it is like to be young in New York, how six months can become eight years with the deceptive ease of a film dissolve, for that is how those years appear to me now, in a long sequence of sentimental dissolves and old-fashioned trick shots – the Seagram Building fountains dissolve into snowflakes, I enter a revolving door at twenty and come out a great deal older, and on a different street. But most particularly I want to explain to you, and in the process perhaps to myself, why I no longer live in New York. It is often said that New York is a city for only the very rich and the very poor. It is less often said that New York is also, at least for those of us who came there from somewhere else, a city only for the very young.
And even that late in the game I still liked going to parties, all parties, bad parties, Saturday-afternoon parties given by recently married couples who lived in Stuyvestant Town, West Side parties given by unpublished or failed writers who served cheap red wine and talked about going to Guadalajara, Village parties where all the guests worked for advertising agencies and voted for Reform Democrats, press parties at Sardi’s, the worst kinds of parties. You will have perceived by now that I was not one to profit by the experience of others, that it was a very long time indeed before I stopped believing in new faces and began to understand the lesson in that story, which was that it is distinctly possible to stay too long at the Fair.