God's Chemo for My Cancered Soul
They called it the Victorious Spirit-filled life. You got into it, they said, by total surrender to Jesus Christ (they assumed no one does this at conversion), and then looking to him whenever you felt sinful impulses stirring. He would then by his Spirit douse the desire, and quiet peace and joyful satisfaction would be your portion once again. As described by the gifted preachers under whom I sat, it sounded wonderful. But I could not make it work.
I was a new convert in my late teens. I had kept Christ at bay for too long and was trying to make up for lost time. Like any other introverted adolescent, I was a loner, my emotional life was all over the place, and I was essentially a mixed-up kid. I heard the formula as a way of transcending my less-than-satisfying inner state and labored to follow the instructions, but the mad, bad urges still raged and the quiet peace did not come.
What was wrong? I concluded that my surrender could not have been total and scoured my inside to find what more I could consecrate. Harry Ironside, sometime preacher at Moody Church in Chicago, drove himself into a nervous breakdown doing this, and I might well have gone the same way. But I chanced upon a mini&mdashtreatise, a set of sermons stitched together by the Puritan John Owen (1616-1663), pontifically titled Of the Mortification of Sin in Believers. And here was God’s chemo for my cancered soul.
Reaching across three centuries, Owen showed me my inside ‘my heart’ as no one had ever done before. Sin, he told me, is a blind, anti-God, egocentric energy in the fallen human spiritual system, ever fomenting self-centered and self- deceiving desires, ambitions, purposes, plans, attitudes, and behaviors. Now that I was a regenerate believer, born again, a new creation in Christ, sin that formerly dominated me had been dethroned but was not yet destroyed. It was marauding within me all the time, bringing back sinful desires that I hoped I had seen the last of, and twisting my new desires for God and godliness out of shape so that they became pride-perverted too. Lifelong conflict with the besetting sins that besetting sin generates was what I must expect.
What to do? Here was Owen's answer, in essence: Have the holiness of God clear in your mind. Remember that sin desensitizes you to itself. Watch'that is, prepare to recognize it, and search it out within you by disciplined, Bible-based, Spirit-led self- examination. Focus on the living Christ and his love for you on the cross. Pray, asking for strength to say “no” to sin's suggestions and to fortify yourself against bad habits by forming good ones contrary to them. And ask Christ to kill the sinful urge you are fighting, as the theophanic angel in C. S. Lewis's Great Divorce tells the man with the lizard to do.
Does it work? Yes. Sixty years on, I can testify to that. What was wrong with the Victorious Life teachers? They glossed over sin and so did not tell me half of what I needed to know.
Does Owen's book minister to others as it ministered to me? Yes. From prison just recently came the following:
"I found this book… near a toilet on the floor.… Immediately after I finished reading Owen's Mortification of Sin. I got on my knees on the floor of my cell and begged for Jesus to come into my miserable life and redeem me… and for the first time in my entire life I meant every single word that I professed .… Thank you, Jesus!"
Owen is one of the dead who still speak.
J. I. Packer is Board of Governors Professor of Theology at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia.