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Archive for July 13, 2012


Jul 13

Killing Sin by Letting Go and Letting God?

2012 | by Trent Hunter | Category: Quote

In Philippians 2:12-13, Paul exhorts Christians to grow in godliness, and gives them confidence that they can do so on the basis of God’s work in them:

Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

We see the same pairing of our labor and God’s work in Romans 8:13, “For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.”

God surely is at work in us. And that’s why it is possible for us to work out our own salvation. In other words, the sovereignty of God at work in our lives does not preclude our laboring to grow in Christlikeness.

This truth brings us to the popular saying, “let go and let God.” It sounds good. It sounds dependent. It sounds humble. But it misunderstands the Bible’s teaching on how we grow. Ironically, the result is a cycle of self-dependence in the struggle to “let go and let God.”

Recently, Justin Taylor posted part of J.I. Packer’s forward to John Owen’s The Mortification of Sin. To introduce Owen’s work, Packer rehearses the influence of what is called, Keswick theology, on the early years of his Christian walk.

I was converted—that is, I came to the Lord Jesus Christ in a decisive commitment, needing and seeking God’s pardon and acceptance, conscious of Christ’s redeeming love for me and his personal call to me —in my first university term, a little more than half a century ago. The group nurturing me was heavily pietistic in style, and left me in no doubt that the most important thing for me as a Christian was the quality of my walk with God: in which, of course, they were entirely right.

. . . Whether what I thought I heard was what was really being said may be left an open question, but it seemed to me that what I was being told was this. There are two sorts of Christians, first-class and second-class, ‘spiritual’ and ‘carnal’ (a distinction drawn from the King James rendering of 1 Cor. 3:1-3). The former know sustained peace and joy, constant inner confidence, and regular victory over temptation and sin, in a way that the latter do not. Those who hope to be of use to God must become ‘spiritual’ in the stated sense. As a lonely, nervy, adolescent introvert whose new-found assurance had not changed his temperament overnight, I had to conclude that I was not ‘spiritual’ yet. But I wanted to be useful to God. So what was I to do?

‘Let go, and let God’
There is a secret, I was told, of rising from carnality to spirituality, a secret mirrored in the maxim: Let go, and let God. . . . The secret had to do with being Spirit-filled. The Spirit-filled person, it was said, is taken out of the second half of Romans 7, understood (misunderstood, I would now maintain) as an analysis of constant moral defeat through self-reliance, into Romans 8, where he walks confidently in the Spirit and is not so defeated. The way to be Spirit-filled, so I gathered, was as follows.

First, one must deny self. Did not Jesus require self-denial from his disciples (Luke 9:23)? Yes, but clearly what he meant was the negating of carnal self — that is to say self-will, self-assertion, self-centredness and self-worship, the Adamic syndrome in human nature, the egocentric behaviour pattern, rooted in anti-God aspirations and attitudes, for which the common name is original sin. What I seemed to be hearing, however, was a call to deny personal self, so that I could be taken over by Jesus Christ in such a way that my present experience of thinking and willing would become something different, an experience of Christ himself living in me, animating me, and doing the thinking and willing for me. Put like that, it sounds more like the formula of demon-possession than the ministry of the indwelling Christ according to the New Testament. But in those days I knew nothing about demon-possession, and what I have just put into words seemed to be the plain meaning of ‘I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me’ (Gal. 2:20, KJV).

. . . The rest of the secret was bound up in the double-barrelled phrase consecration and faith. Consecration meant total self-surrender, laying one’s all on the altar, handing over every part of one’s life to the lordship of Jesus. Through consecration one would be emptied of self, and the empty vessel would then automatically be filled with the Spirit so that Christ’s power within one would be ready for use. With consecration was to go faith, which was explained as looking to the indwelling Christ moment by moment, not only to do one’s thinking and choosing in and for one, but also to do one’s fighting and resisting of temptation. Rather then meet temptation directly (which would be fighting in one’s own strength), one should hand it over to Christ to deal with, and look to him to banish it. Such was the consecration-and-faith technique as I understood it—heap powerful magic, as I took it to be, the precious secret of what was called victorious living.

But what happened? I scraped my inside, figuratively speaking, to ensure that my consecration was complete, and laboured to ‘let go and let God’ when temptation made its presence felt. . . . The technique was not working. Why not? Well, since the teaching declared that everything depends on consecration being total, the fault had to lie in me. So I must scrape my inside again to find whatever maggots of unconsecrated selfhood still lurked there. I became fairly frantic.

And then (thank God) the group was given an old clergyman’s library, and in it was an uncut set of Owen, and I cut the pages of volume VI more or less at random, and read Owen on mortification—and God used what the old Puritan had written three centuries before to sort me out.

John Owen helped Packer to grasp the Bible’s teaching on how Christians can fight temptation and grow in maturity. You can read John Owen’s, The Mortification of Sin, in Overcoming Sin and Temptation, a collection of three of Owen’s works on the subject of the Christian’s fight against sin.

For a summary and history of Keswick theology, read Kevin DeYoung’s interview with Andy Naselli, who wrote his doctoral dissertation on the subject. For an unpacking of the Bible’s teaching on how Christians grow, listen to Ryan’s seminar, The Gospel for Christians.