The Bible portrays sin as a powerful, ever-vigilant enemy. Sin deceives (Genesis 3:13), desires (Genesis 4:7), destroys (Genesis 6:7). Even forgiven sin within the Christian is powerfully active, waging war (Romans 7:23), lusting (Galatians 5:17), enticing (James 1:14), entangling (Hebrews 12:1). Many Christians struggle with "nagging sins" — those entrenched, persistent, difficult-to-dislodge sins that continually entangle us in our efforts to follow Christ. Sometimes we struggle for decades, with bouts of backsliding and despair recurring. Most godly Christians, who have made true progress in their pursuit of holiness, can sing with feeling "prone to wander, Lord I feel it," or share the lament of Augustine: "I have learned to love you too late!"
The gospel gives us hope that all sin, even nagging sins, can be both forgiven and subdued. But because sin has such persistence and power, we must be vigilant in our struggle against it. As John Owen puts it, "If sin be subtle, watchful, strong, and always at work in the business of killing our souls, and we be slothful, negligent, foolish ... can we expect a comfortable event?"
Here are four strategies for maintaining vigilance in the fight, drawn from John Owen, and particularly in relation to a nagging, persistent sin — that kind that keeps on tripping us up and entangling us in its grip.
1. Hate it.
We are accustomed to using the gospel to relieve the guilt of our sin. But sometimes — especially in the case of persistent, nagging sins — we should use the gospel first to aggravate our guilt. John Owen puts this challenge quite vividly:
Bring thy lust to the gospel, not for relief, but for further conviction of its guilt. Look on him whom thou hast pierced, and be in bitterness. Say to thy soul, "what have I done? What love, what mercy, what blood, what grace, have I despised and trampled on! ... Have I obtained a view of God’s fatherly countenance that I might behold his face and provoke him to his face?"
If we do not feel the magnitude of our sin, if we are not gripped by its stench and grossness, if we pass over it lightly with glib affirmations of grace — we will probably never get around to the serious vigilance required for killing it. Truly subduing it requires properly grieving it.