Why Unbelievers Seem to Subdue Sin

And the reason why a natural man is not always perpetually in the pursuit of some one lust, night and day, is because he hath many to serve, every one crying to be satisfied; thence he is carried on with great variety, but still in general he lies towards the satisfaction of self. John Owen, Mortification of Sin in Believers, in The Works of John Owen, vol. 6 (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1967), 24.

Those of us who have walked long in the church are often horrified at the eruptions of sin within the church both among the laity and clergy. We look across at the orderliness and often even kindness of the world with jealousy and frustration.

Our generation is not alone in this experience. The Apostle Paul and the church throughout history cries out, “there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans” (1 Cor. 5:1). Too often we can say the same of greed, backbiting, gossiping, and pettiness.

Our friend and brother John Owen (1616-1683) suggests a partial explanation of this blemish upon Christ’s bride. The world, the flesh, and the devil, do not focus their efforts against the unbeliever. The battle against his soul has been won. The nonbeliever flies the flag of the kingdom of Babylon. What need has she to strafe her allies with concupiscence and grotesque sensuality?

Yet for the Christian the battle continues. Thus, our enemies must focus their combined efforts on particular weaknesses within us. In the same way that armies mass themselves at a weak point for conquest, so the enemies of our soul attack the least guarded or most vulnerable citadel. Having dominated one stronghold, sin then establishes a foreign base of operation, launching each new attack from the safety of our compromised soul.

Here lies the explanation of these consuming sins that implode within the church, but seem to trickle in the world. And our Lord gives us two instructions to overcome:

Matthew 26:14—Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.

Watch by discovering your besetting sins and the means by which they overpower; pray against your desire for the pleasure of sin and the habits and avenues of temptation. Pray to the Spirit to strengthen your spirit for the day and hour of temptation so that you have victory in Jesus. Pray against the agreeing parties of your sin—the world, your own flesh, and the devil.

Our time of watching is until the return of Christ or we are called home. Indwelling sin, the world, and the devil will not rest until we are present with the Lord.

Folded into the command to pray and watch is the discipline of confession:

1 John 1:9—If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

Sin is a complexity of desires, self-deception, pleasures, and comforts. Each attribute of sin when acted on is sin, and to “confess our sins” is not merely to confess theft, but rather we must confess the emotions, the desires, the lies, the machinations, the self-pity, disbelief, and on and on that leads to grotesque sin.

We cannot confess our iniquities exhaustively. They are more than the hairs of our head (Psalm 40:12). Our plea is to the great physician of our souls who knows the movements and symptoms of our sin better than we do. Healing power is found in agreeing with the physician not in sharing his knowledge of our infection.

The world experiences the peace of the defeated; the Christian is roiled by war and bears the scars and wounds of the skirmishes won and lost. We mortify sin not by an attack on an enemy but on the armed forces encamped against us—within and without.

Shane Walker is preaching pastor at First Baptist Church in Watertown, Wisconsin. This post first appeared on the blog of Andover Baptist Church in Linthicum, Maryland.