This morning, after spending time in the Psalms, my eye glanced to my left and caught a volume that I’ve not pulled off the shelf in quite some time. So, I picked up A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life and opened it to the page where a blue sticky note marks my progress of slowly working through this 1,000-page practical theology. Four pages in particular counseled my heart and I will summarize their content here.
“While the Puritans did not ignore the effects of sin on the unregenerate, they gave far more attention to understanding sin in the lives of the regenerate.” According to Beeke and Jones, the Puritans’ practical theology concerning the presence of sin in the believer (stemming from an accurate interpretation of Romans 5-7) may be summarized into three categories. This helps us to understand temptation, our responsibility to kill sin, and the power of Christ and His gospel to set us free.
The Remnants of Indwelling Sin
Rightly, the Puritans understood Romans 7 as a description of the believer’s struggle against sin, particularly indwelling sin. “Saints in this world are never entirely free from original sin; it will plague them to the day they die….This ‘law of sin’ is powerful, even in the best of saints, and ‘though its rule be broken its strength weakened and impaired, its root mortified, yet it is a law still of great force and efficacy.’ Original sin in believers, to use a phrase from Burgess, is like a furnace always sending forth sparks.”
The presence and power of sin “arise from its being seated or rooted in the human heart. Christianity is a heart religion because it aims to repair what sin has corrupted and damaged.” Thus, as much as Christians have the perennial tendency to focus merely on behavior modification, the root issue is always what God sees in the heart and the transformation that Christ alone can make there. Recognizing the presence of indwelling sin is actually evidence of a person being regenerate; whereas, the denial of one’s own sinfulness is proof that a man or woman is not truly saved (1 John 1:8).
Freedom from Sin’s Dominion
“If Romans 5 speaks about the imputation of guilt from Adam to his descendants, and Romans 7 speaks of the presence of indwelling sin in the life of believers, Romans 6 proclaims the freedom from the dominion of sin that characterizes the lives of the godly. At the moment of regeneration a Christian experiences emancipation (redemption) from the power or dominion of sin, although not from the presence of sin in his heart and life.” Therefore, as the apostle exhorts us in Romans 6, we must be about the business of constantly applying the truth of our position in Christ—we are dead to sin and alive unto God—to our daily practice of the Christian life.
“Believers are able to mortify sin because they receive from Christ the gift of the Spirit. Owen speaks of the Spirit working 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.’…Far from advocating a stringent moralism, the doctrine of mortification [the believer’s responsibility to be constantly killing his own sin] brings glory to the work of Christ through the Holy Spirit, for the Spirit ‘brings the cross of Christ into our hearts with its sin-killing power. And in the life of believers, the Spirit is the author and finisher of their sanctification. Thus the cure of guilt among those who love Christ is their justification; in this life, the cure of sin’s dominion is sanctification, which involves mortifying sin by the power of the Spirit; and, after this life, the blessing that will bring the full cure from sin to God’s people is glorification.”
The glorious news of the gospel is that, although the disciple of Christ continues to fight a difficult battle against sin and, with the apostle, may often cry out, “Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death?” (v. 24), the final victory of redemption is on its way. With Paul we can confidently shout, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (v. 25). The final victory will come through Christ when He delivers us from our body of sin and death.