Last Lord’s Day evening we began this short series of sermons to introduce the new ministry, to be called Genesis 39, by drawing attention to the way in which easily accessible pornography terribly accentuates a temptation that has been the bane of the existence of Christian men throughout history. Men have always had a special problem with sinful sexual desire and the behaviors that go with it, and the ubiquity of pornography in our culture, in effect, is simply throwing gasoline on an already burning fire. There are features of the life of men and women and there are differences in the make-up of men that supply the fuel, but, as Paul put it in the text that we read last Lord’s Day evening, it is the sin that dwells within us, the evil desires that belong to our flesh, the remnant of our old, unbelieving selves that lights the match and blows on the coals. We spoke of the damage that pornography is doing to men in our time, American men in general and Christian men in particular. We addressed the fact that it is a problem in some ways unique to men in its power and effects and a problem that the finest of Christian men have found a great and often a life-long struggle. A man who wants to honor and serve the Lord with his life, a man who desires to keep the commandments of God in gratitude for his saving love finds that here, in most cases more often than anywhere else, his holy desires are undone. This was a point made by the Apostle Paul, by Thomas Boston – the great Scottish divine, by J.I. Packer – a man still living with us and a very important author of valuable books – and by John Wenham, each in his own way, and all of them together bore witness to the power of this temptation and the struggle that Christian men have in dealing with it. I could have cited any number of other godly men to the same effect.
I noted last time that we fully understand that women are not immune to these temptations and certainly not immune to the consequences of pornography in the life of the men they love and the society of which they are apart. Now comes word that plans are being made to address this issue for our women in a way similar to that being organized for our men. More information on that will be forthcoming.
I have decided not to read vv. 12-19 for the simple reason that if I were to read them I would have to explain them and I don’t have the time for that this evening. But Paul says in those verses, contradicting a deep-seated prejudice in the Greco-Roman mind, that the body counts and so, as Christians, what we do with our bodies counts.
v.18 This text has long puzzled Christians because, after all, it seems obvious that there are other sins besides sexual immorality, that are both committed inside the body and against one’s own body. Drunkenness comes to mind, as do smoking oneself into lung cancer, drug abuse, gluttony, and even suicide. The simplest solution is to say that Paul means only to emphasize the fact that there is a special sense in which sinful sexual union is a sin against one’s own body because of the point he has just made about the way in which it effects union with another body and so represents a betrayal of the union of our bodies with the Lord and a betrayal of the prospect of the sinless body which we will be given at the resurrection of our bodies. We have here a typically Hebrew way of putting an absolute in the place of what we would consider to be a comparative. No other sins do this quite so profoundly and probably no other sin does this more often in the case of Christian men.
v.20 The argument is two-fold: first, you have an obligation to keep the temple of the Lord pure and your body is that temple because the Holy Spirit is dwelling within you; and, second, your body is not your own to do with as you please. It belongs to God and therefore as God’s steward you must serve him with it.
The world of Paul’s day was a sex-sotted world. One contemporary commentator wondered if every person in Rome was using aphrodisiacs. [Seward, Jerusalem’s Traitor, 34-35] The Greco-Roman world was notoriously licentious. So, while the temptations of sexual desire are never absent, in certain times and places it is particularly necessary to talk about them and ours, like Paul’s, is such a time. Tonight I don’t plan to expound this text so much as simply to use it to draw attention to Paul’s emphasis on the inconsistency of sexual immorality with the commitments of a Christian life.
It will not be long before the question rises in any serious Christian’s mind and heart as to why God does not grant us greater sanctification sooner than he does. Why so much repeated failure in the life of someone who genuinely wants to be wholly committed to Christ and earnestly desires to be a credit to the Lord? Why is our spiritual and moral progress so tentative, so fitful, and so damnably slow? After all, wouldn’t the kingdom of God and the progress of the gospel profit mightily from there being vast multitudes of people all over the world whose lives are the proof of Christ’s victory over sin, who demonstrate in a way no one could deny the goodness of the new creation? Wouldn’t it be so much easier to convince the world that Christ is indeed Lord and Savior, if his people – in this case, if his men – lived at a level so obviously higher than that of other men in love, in faithfulness, in honesty, and in purity? But instead Christians are beset by their own love of sin and their own weakness in the face of temptation. They live with the heartbreak and the shame of moral failure. They are often demoralized because far too often they have besmirched the reputation of the Lord’s name by the things they have said and done. Why? Why? Why? That they must ask that question has been perhaps the greatest mystery and the greatest grief to God’s people since the first sinner was, by the grace of God, made a saint.
Every true believer at some point asks and must ask why the Lord permits the dregs of our original sinfulness to continue to corrupt our hearts and lives, why when we are made new creatures by the grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit, there remains so much that belongs to the old and not to the new, why now that we have received the grace of God our indwelling sin still so terribly rots in our heart and breaks out in our life. And while no one can answer that question completely or fully penetrate that mystery, wise and good men have made a start. They have, surely rightly and wisely, taught us that 1) it is our still so great and powerful sin that God supremely uses to humble us and to humble us in a way that nothing else could so effectively and powerfully humble us. And if true gospel humility is the foundation of everything good in a Christian’s life, that is no small thing. 2) It is our still so terrible and powerful sin that keeps us watchful, careful about our Christian lives. I think you would admit this if you stopped and thought about it. You and I would never watch and pray that we not enter into temptation were we not so conscious of the ease with which temptation has so often conquered us. 3) It is our sin that also trains our hands to war. It is in the contest with this intractable, relentless, and unforgiving enemy that we learn what it means to be a soldier of Jesus Christ and how this holy warfare is to be waged. Indeed, our new Genesis 39 ministry is one example of men gathering together to learn how to make war. But we would never have done this were we not facing an enemy that has won too many victories already. We need to get better and do better at putting on the full armor of God and wielding the weapons that the Holy Spirit supplies so that we can go from victory to victory in this desperate warfare that has overspread this world and engulfed every one of our lives. 4) It is our sin that teaches us to value the love that God has poured into our hearts. Only when we face the fact of our moral failure – persistent, disgusting, and constant as it has too often been – do we consider how great a love it must be that is willing to bear with our appalling failure to respond appropriately to God’s love and grace. Too often we have had to ask ourselves, “If this is gratitude, what must ingratitude be?” How many times has it been so with you, as it has been with me, that it is after sinning inexcusably and for the umpteenth time that I am made to realize how much the Lord must love me. And how often I have had to say to him, “Lord, for all my betrayal of your goodness to me, you know that I love you!” [cf. Whyte, Bunyan Characters, vol. III, 291-301]
Alexander Whyte beautifully put it this way.
“God did not sanctify you on the same day on which he justified you…. I will put it to yourself to say – if you had been both called and justified and adopted and sanctified wholly and all at once, you would never have known, you would never have believed, what an inveterate and hopeless and unparalleled sinner you are, nor what a glorious Savior you have got in the Son of God. No; it is not your first pardon that gives God his great name in you. It is His every day and every hour pardon of your sins; sins that are past all name and past all belief.” [Thomas Shepard, 99-100]
Now, remember what we are about in these sermons. The sin that more than any other teaches Christian men those lessons is the sin of unlawful sexual desire and the behavior that goes with it. In the language of Christian spiritual theology for many men, if not for the vast majority of them, sinful sexual desire is a besetting sin. The term comes from Hebrews 12:1 in the KJV where we are told to lay aside the sin that so easily besets us. That’s not a reference to a besetting sin in particular, but it’s where the terminology comes from. The Puritans referred to such sins as bosom sins or darling sins. [Cf. Brooks, Works, ii, 391; iii, 331] We spoke at some length last time about Thomas Boston’s life-long struggle with his besetting sin. Long and hard as I have looked for some biblical evidence for the phenomenon of a besetting sin, I have never really found it. The texts that spiritual writers use to locate the phenomenon in biblical teaching are only useful as bare analogies, such as the unbelieving peoples of Canaan that the Israelites allowed to remain in the Promised Land and who then served as a perpetual temptation to them.
So, for example, James Fraser of Brea, the Scottish covenanter, writes in his Memoir:
“I find it with me as with the Israelites, Judges 1, that there were some nations that they could not drive out; so I may say that there are some strong evils that I cannot get mastered at all, and which continually afflict me, and discourage me.” [Memoir, 155-157]
But hardly anyone who is a master of the Christian life denies the fact that there are besetting sins in our lives, sins that dominate us as others do not. With some, of course, it is anger or drink or fear, but with many men, the first sin that comes to mind when sin is spoken of is sinful sexual desire and its behaviors. This is their besetting sin, or at least one of the few sins that seems to them to have a foot on their neck.
As I mentioned last time, John Calvin was conscience-struck on his deathbed by a sin that he had never mastered. He called it “the wild beast of his wrath” and asked a final forgiveness for it. [Schaff, Church History, viii, 839]
But what you find in spiritual writers is a concern that the fact that you have such a sin, a sin that is particularly powerful in your life, be admitted and addressed. The 17th century Puritan Ralph Venning, in his classic work on sin, The Plague of Plagues, says,
“Watch against that which may be most properly called your own sin, that to which you are most inclined, and which most easily besets and conquers you…. the sin of my particular complexion and constitution, my nature’s darling sin…” [254-255]
Indeed, Charles Simeon, a master of the Christian life if ever there was one, argued that besetting sins were so related to a person’s nature, his type of personality, his background and so on, that his or her “besetting sin in a state of nature will most generally remain so when he is in a state of grace.” In other words, our besetting sins gain strength from some feature of our personality or our nature or our experience. Among Simeon’s besetting sins, as he knew very well and admitted to others, was a sin that obviously grew out of his own nature and his own experience. It was a prickliness, a sort of arrogance, a concern about getting his feelings hurt that led him to lose his temper far too easily and far too frequently. [H.E. Hopkins, Charles Simeon, 104 and passim]
Even the saintly Robert Murray McCheyne, who was famous in his own day and ever since for the holiness of his life, struggled with a besetting sin – like Boston, a sin he never identifies – and, apparently, never completely conquered. Of course he was only 29 years of age when he died. He was a single man, he wanted to be married – he proposed to two different young women and was rejected on both occasions – so it is certainly not difficult to imagine that his besetting sin was the sin so many men have had to struggle with throughout their lives. [Cf. David Robertson, Awakening, 141]
That there is such a thing as a besetting sin is not entirely bad news. In some respects this fact of human life and of Christian life is nothing less than a great kindness on God’s part. He could, after all, if he so wished, show us the full extent of our moral failure at every point of the compass, in regard to every one of his commandments. He could show us in exquisite detail how utterly we fail to love him and to love our neighbor in every way in which we are commanded to do so. But if he were to do that, we would be so demoralized, so defeated, so hopeless that we would not be able to get out of bed in the morning. And so what God has done is to concentrate the reality of sin and its lessons in one place or two in a man or woman’s life. Not that we’re not comprehensive sinners, but when we’re thinking about our sins, we usually think about one or two things. In this way he humbles us, softens our hearts towards the sins of others, forces us to face facts, works in us a hunger and thirst for righteousness, breaks the connection between our hearts and this world and makes us long for heaven, teaches us to mortify our sins, and does all that without completely defeating us and discouraging us to the point of abject surrender. Besetting sins, in this way, are part of God’s fatherly wisdom and affection for his people. That we must struggle with sin is apparently necessary to fulfill God’s purposes in our lives. That we be not overwhelmed by our sins is required by Christ’s victory over sin on our behalf and our deliverance from the rule of sin by the Holy Spirit. Besetting sins are, apparently, one of our heavenly Father’s ways of halving the difference.
So, gentlemen especially, consider that what we are talking about these Sunday evenings and will be talking about in the Genesis 39 ministry, is your besetting sin. You have a besetting sin. What is more, for most of you, your besetting sin is the same besetting sin that most men have. Alexander Whyte once asked his young men’s class: “Do you know your besetting sin? Do you weep in secret about it? It is a manly act, an act of a good soldier of Jesus Christ.” [Barbour, Bio, 655] In other words, this is the Christian life, always has been, always will be, battling with a powerful sin, being often discouraged but not always, fighting without complete loss of hope, failures followed by a return of determination and commitment. There never was going to be another life than this one for you and for me. So, let the men of this church face these facts. Sinful sexual desire is for many if not virtually all of them a besetting sin. That being so, certain things follow.
- The entire reality of sin in a believer’s life is concentrated for us in this particular sin. It may be concentrated in a few other sins as well, but it is certainly concentrated here. That makes our thinking about this and dealing with it doubly important.
- Everything the Bible teaches us about putting our sins to death applies especially and in the first place to this sin.
- The struggle to put this sin to death will be magnified by the unusual power of this sin, the grip it has on us due to our nature as men and our vulnerability to temptations of this kind.
- The fact that our culture just now happens to be in open collusion with and aiding and abetting sexual temptation is going to make what was already a very difficult task, more difficult still. You younger men need to realize that American culture was not very long ago very different in this regard. Pornographers were criminals and had to hide their product from the general public or risk arrest and prison. Sexual promiscuity was universally condemned and it was at least the formal position of the entire culture that sex ought to be reserved for marriage. American television was subject to an ethic of chastity imposed upon it by censors. In their long-running situation comedy set in a typical American suburban household, Dick van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore, who played the husband and wife, slept in separate beds! It was not the sexualized or sex-sotted culture you now take for granted. And while sinful sexual desire was then as now a nightmare for Christian men, it was not made much worse by the culture’s capitulation to sexual licentiousness as it is now. The sexual revolution has been a catastrophe in a great many ways for western culture, but it has certainly been the devil’s instrument for troubling Christian men!
In a study of besetting sins, Thomas Brooks, with typical Puritan thoroughness, proposes six motives for entering the lists against one’s besetting sins. [Works, ii, 391-395]
- To battle this sin is a strong demonstration and evidence of your Christian convictions and sincerity. To battle on against your strongest enemy is the proof of your loyalty to Christ.
- The conquest of darling sins renders the conquest of other sins easier. If you can get on top of this sin, if you can even weaken it to the point that it troubles you considerably less than once it did, you will know how to put other sins to death and you will be determined to do that and confident and inspired to do it. It will be like a soldier’s “mopping-up” operation after the issue has already been decided.
- Consider, Brooks says, the damage this sin has already done to your soul, to your peace, to your joy, to your spiritual strength.
- The conquest of this sin will bring you greater joy than almost anything else in your life.
- It is both your duty and your glory as a Christian to do what you are going to want to have done on your dying day.
- Until you have done this, fears and doubts will haunt your soul and you will remain a less mature Christian with comparatively little spiritual help to offer others.
Then Brooks offers five means of dealing effectively with our besetting sins. [395-397] They are these:
- Engage all your power and might against the sin. No half-measures here. No unwillingness to go the extra mile. Are you willing, for example, to get help from others, to talk to others about your struggle, or is your pride more important to you than your holiness of life? His point is that you are going to have to concentrate your effort here. You’re going to have to do more here. He writes: “As the king of Syria said to his captains, ‘Fight neither with small nor great, but only with the king of Israel.’” His point is that you must not content yourself with skirmishes but only with full-scale attack.  Constantine’s motto was Immedicabile vulnus ense rescindendum est, that is “An incurable wound must be cut away with the sword.” [ensis –is, a sword]
- Labor to be excellent in the grace most opposite. That is, you put sin to death most effectively by cultivating the contrary virtue. This is biblical wisdom and we’ll talk more about it next Lord’s Day evening. But for now, a married man will lay the ax to the root of this sin most effectively by cultivating an erotically fulfilling marriage. An unmarried man’s situation is more difficult, all the more as we are marrying later so there are longer years spent single, but for him as well the cultivation of chastity in heart, speech, and behavior will be crucial.
- Keep reminding yourself what you are going to think of these sins at the last day, how you are going to hate the fact that they held you in such a grip, how grubby and unmanly it is all going to seem to you then. And on that day, consider how much you are going to want to be able to demonstrate that you fought the good fight against them.
- Apply yourself to extraordinary means. This is something like his first means, but he means that special measures of even ordinary means of grace – Word and prayer, for example – will be necessary here.
- Avoid the occasions of this sin. We will talk a lot about this in our Genesis 39 monthly Sunday school class. There are times in your life when it would not even occur to you to look at pornography. There are other people present. You are occupied with pressing business and with responsibilities it is your duty to fulfill. Well, then, a key method of dealing with besetting sins is to increase the amount of time like that in your life and decrease the time in which it would be even possible for you to commit the sin. There are occasions for this sin – times, places, opportunities, and nowadays technologies – and you must reduce those occasions, all of which can be done.
The greatest work ever written on the subject of a Christian putting his sins to death was John Owen’s On the Mortification of Sin in Believers, a small work of some 80 pages published in 1656 when Owen was the Dean of Christ Church and Vice-chancellor of the University of Oxford. The work was the published form of sermons he had preached in the University. Remember, in those days, university boys were 15, 16 and 17 years of age, younger than university students are today. It is perhaps this fact that gives the work its wonderful practical power and explains why through the centuries since it has profoundly helped so many young and older men. This was the work that J.I. Packer discovered in a church basement in the 1940s, the work that delivered him from the despair into which the higher life or victorious life teaching, then so common in Christian circles, had cast him. It is this same work that Jerry Bridges, the PCA man and a senior manager of the Navigators, popularized some years ago in his best-selling book The Pursuit of Holiness. I remember after reading Owen in the 1970s I felt as if I had grown from a boy to a Christian man! There is no substitute for Owen’s own words and his own argument in his own words. Owen’s wisdom is timeless and he addresses our battle as no one else can or ever has. If you men have not read Owen On the Mortification of Sin, you have a treat in store, but, as Alexander Whyte once said in reference to another author and another book, “prepare for the knife.” In introducing his discourse Owen asks this question:
“Suppose a man to be a true believer, and yet finds in himself a powerful indwelling sin, leading him captive to…it, consuming his heart with trouble, perplexing his thoughts, weakening his soul, [disturbing his] peace, …defiling his conscience, and exposing him to hardening of heart…, what shall he do?”
He answers that question in his book. I can’t give his full answer to you this evening, but let me offer you some extracts and insights as we conclude this evening. And in a general way you can follow the course of Owen’s argument.
- “Be killing sin or it will be killing you.” 
- “Sin always aims at the utmost… Every unclean thought or glance would be adultery if it could.” 
- “Not to be daily mortifying sin, is to sin against the goodness, kindness, wisdom, grace and love of God, who hath furnished us with a principle of doing [so].” 
- “Every unmortified sin will certainly do two things: 1) It will weaken the soul, and deprive it of its vigor. 2) It will darken the soul, and deprive it of its comfort and peace.” 
- “To mortify a sin is not utterly to kill, root it out, and destroy it, that it should have no more hold at all nor residence in our hearts. It is true that this is that which is aimed at; but this is not in this life to be accomplished.” 
- “Mortification of a lust consists in three things: “a habitual weakening of it,” “in constant fighting and contending against [the] sin,” and “in success.” Frequent success against any lust is another part of and evidence of mortification.” [28-32]
- “There is no death of sin without the death of Christ.” Unless a man be a believer…he can never mortify any one sin.” 
- [Mortification of sin] is the work of faith, the peculiar work of faith. 
- “Without sincerity and diligence in a universality of obedience, there is no mortification of any one perplexing lust to be obtained.” You can’t work on your besetting sin by letting the rest of your life go to pot morally and spiritually, is what he’s saying.  “Hatred of sin as sin, not only as galling or disquieting, a sense of the love of Christ in the cross, lie at the bottom of all true spiritual mortification.” 
- Indeed, says Owen, this is God’s use of besetting sins, to make us hate sin as sin. And then he says this – and this gets to any Christian man who reads this section of the book – For too many of us, if we were delivered from our besetting sin we would hardly ever think of our sin or of putting it to death. The sin that troubles us is the sin we care about! 
- Then follows a set of very useful, helpful directions; what a man is to do. Too many to repeat here, but here are a few.
- “Get a clear and abiding sense upon thy mind and conscience of the guilt, danger, and evil of that sin wherewith thou art perplexed.” 
- “Do not permit it to get the least ground. Do not say, ‘Thus far it shall go and no farther.’ If it have allowance for one step, it will take another. It is impossible to fix bounds to sin.” 
- Set faith at work on Christ for the killing of thy sin. “…[there is] provision…laid up in Jesus Christ for this end and purpose…”  “Act faith peculiarly upon the death, blood, and cross of Christ… Mortification of sin is peculiarly from the death of Christ.” 
- “Thus Paul dealt with his temptation, whatever it were: ‘I besought the Lord that it might depart from me.’” 
There is so much more in this magnificent little book, but that gives you a taste of what two wise and godly men have taught us from the Word of God – Thomas Brooks and John Owen – about mortifying our sins. There are three parts of getting on top of our besetting sins: motivation (one has got to want to do so, really want to and for the right reasons), law (one must obey the commandments of God, one of which is to put our sins to death), and, finally, wisdom, the skillful employment of various means. More on wisdom next time.
But we now know these things because we have faced the fact that we have this besetting sin: 1) we are all in this together; 2) it is a problem we are going to have to address with might and main – hence the Sunday school class for all the men once a month; 3) we’re going to need help from others; 4) and it is our calling in life to do battle with our sins – and this sin stands for all our sins – and our inheritance in Christ to get the better of even the most powerful of them much more often than not.