You are on page 1of 14

John Owen on Accountability (Part 1 of 4) Posted onMarch 15, 2011byLuke Gilkerson A few weeks ago I finished a long series

of commentaries on John Owens classic,On the Mortification of Sin in Believers. Even though the book is over 350 years old and written with a clumsy dignity (to quote J.I. Packer), it has been celebrated as one of the best books on how the Holy Spirit transforms us and how we put sin to death in us.

Since publishing the commentary Ive been asked by several people about how we can use Owens advice in their accountability groups and conversations . If Owen were alive today, how would he counsel believers about having fruitful accountability relationships? This is the question I hope to answer.

Introduction: Owens Small Group Philosophy While the designation small group only recently entered the vocabulary of church culture, the concept is by no means new. In his book, The Duty of Pastors and People Distinguished, John Owen offers a rich and vibrant description of how church members are to engage in what we might today call small group life. Owen believes Christians should gather often in smaller settings, outside larger corporate gatherings, to grow in the grace of God. This, he says, is simply a part of the law of nature. From the earliest days of mankind, the basic units where spiritual instruction and growth occurred were the family and the friendships fostered in the ordinary contexts of life. When God spoke His special revelation through Moses and the prophets, these natural relationships were not abrogated but greatly complemented. Even though the people of God have developed a stronger corporate identity over time, God still has a design for the family and natural friendships in our spiritual growth. Owen commends church members to of their own accord assemble together, to consider one another, to provoke unto love and good works, to stir up the gifts that are in them, yielding and receiving mutual consolation by the fruits of their most holy faith. Owen believes private families and small groups of believers should deliberately meet together in order to: Admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak (1 Thessalonians 5:14)

Admonish and reprove those who have offended their brother (Matthew 18:15) Explain the way of God more accurately to each other (Acts 18:26) Exhort one another to be on guard against the hardening effects of sin (Hebrews 3:13) Stir up and encourage one another to love and good works (Hebrews 10:24-25) Gently restore those who have are trapped in sin (Galatians 6:1) Encourage and build up one another (1 Thessalonians 5:11) Visit the sick (Matthew 25:36) Make peace with each other (Matthew 5:9) Contend for the faith together (Jude 3; 1 Peter 3:15) Pray for one another (1 John 5:16) Build up one another in our holy faith (Jude 20) Address one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs (Ephesians 5:19) Moreover, Owen sees a dynamic relationship between the preaching people hear on Sunday and having a vibrant small group life. Ministers are designated by God to unfold and interpret the Word to Gods people. In turn, church members can meet together privately and focus on application, where they counsel and comfort each other by applying the what theyve heard from the pulpit. .... Owen-ish Accountability: 10 Principles After studying On the Mortification of Sin in Believers, I believe we can pull out (at least) 10 principles for turning accountability groups into sin-killing fellowships. Principle #1. Healthy accountability relationships help us know ourselves and our sin. Friends are people who truly know us and who help us know ourselves better. Friends can see past the masks we wear and our personality quirks. Close friends are people we can share our story with, people who can help us see the sovereign ways God is guiding and fathering us. Proverbs 20:5 reminds us the purposes, motives, and intentions of our hearts are like deep water. Often we peer into our hearts, and even then dont understand why we do what we do all the time. But the proverb finishes with but a man of understanding will draw it out. This is what wise friends try to do for us: they help us see what makes us tick. They pull out of us what we are unable to seeor dont want to see.

First, those who help us slay our sin are able to see past our temperament. Owen points out some people are simply more even-tempered and well-mannered than others. But even if you are endowed with more natural graces, this should never be confused with mortified sin. Sometimes the nicest Christians are those who are filled with doubt, envy, prayerlessness, spiritual laziness, or some other socially respectable sin. Wise friends help us to see this. Second, those who help us slay our sin know enough of our story to be able to remind us about all of Gods mercies in our life. They know about our significant spiritual breakthroughs: the day we first remember Gods grace breaking through, the ways God has refined our character, the moments of sharp conviction, all the ways our hearts now flow withas Owen puts itthe desires and pantings of grace. They know about all the other undeserved graces we enjoy in our life. Owen reminds us we need to keep alive in our thoughts all the specific ways God has worked in us and around us. As we do this, it reinforces our understanding of why the presence of sin in our heart is so detestable to God. As we look back over our lives and see how God has been beautifying our hearts and making us more like Christ, our sin will seem all the more ugly to us. Application: Spend time swapping stories with your accountability partner: your upbringing, your testimony, your greatest trials, your most pressing temptations, your darker secrets. Treat your partner like a good book that God is in the process of writing. Principle #2. Healthy accountability relationships are families of warriors, not fellowships of wimps Killing sin at the root is not just about having occasional conquests over sin. It is a constant battle. Owen says mortification is as much a mindset as it is a process a mindset of strategic warfare. Owen writes, the contest is vigorous and hazardousit is about things of eternity. Wise friends help one another maintain this edge. They are not passive or slight in their attitude about sin, but they think like military strategists. They try to understand the schemes of the devil. They are students of the sinful human heart, wanting to understand as best they can the subtle ways sin works its way into our lives.

Those who help us slay our sin can help us see the patterns of disobedience in our lives. Perhaps there are specific occasions, people, events, or activities that give opportunity for sin to thrive in us. Often we are enticedas Owen puts itto dally with occasions of sin. Friends can help us to understand these attitudes and patterns and help us get honest with ourselves. Application: Set the expectation with your accountability partners that fighting sin strategically is one of your primary goals. In my previous post I began a series about how to apply John Owens classic work, Of the Mortification of Sin in Believers, to our accountability relationships. We looked at two key principles for accountability partners to practice. Today we look at four more. Accountability relationships should strive to understand: The depth of sin The danger of sin The detestableness of sin The death of sin Principle #3. Healthy accountability relationships strive to understand the depth of sin. One of Owens great strengths as a theologian is his penetrating gaze into the depths of sin. Sin is always deeper than we think it is. Just when we think we know how deep our sin is, another layer of the onion is peeled away, and we see another subtle way sin is working in us. Sin is not merely confined to outward actions or words, but is an inclination or disposition of the soul. Sin is not rooted in what we do but in the very affections of the heart. The sin that indwells us is like a commanding presence in the soul, manifesting itself a craving for rebellion, a strong desire to be autonomous, a desire not to be ruled by God. Even when we restrain ourselves from outwardly sinning, inwardly we can still harbor the enjoyment of sin. Friends who help us to fight sin are aware of how deep sin is rooted in us. We can never assume sin is at rest. Of course, we can celebrate the ways God has overcome our sinful habits. We can trust in Gods promises that the Holy Spirit is killing the sin in us. But we can never underestimate sins subtlety. As Owen says, sin likes to play dead. When sin seems the most silent, this may be when it is the most deadly.

Application: Spend time together studying what the Bible has to say about the depths of human depravity. Spend time being honest with one another about the times you harbored sin in your heart even if you didnt act on your impulses. Principle #4. Healthy accountability relationships strive to understand the danger of sin. Exploring the Scriptures, Owen believes the sin in us is never satisfied. It is always trying to bring about maximum sin: great, cursed, scandalous, soul-destroying sins. If the sin that resides in our hearts had its way, it would stop at nothing until we totally relinquished God. Hebrews 3:13 says we can be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. Sin is a master manipulator. It helps us to rationalize small compromises in our character, gaining new footholds day by day. This results in a hardness of heart and conscience that slowly but surely takes over. Over time the Word of God loses its effect on our souls. We lose our fear, wonder, and love for God. Sermons do not penetrate us. We are blind to how God is disciplining us. Eternal realities do not grip us. All of this is a part of the slow death brought about by sin. Be killing sin, writes Owen, or it will be killing you. Friends who help us to slay our sin help us to remember the dangers of leaving sin unmortified. Hebrews 3:13 also calls us to exhort one another every day, as long as it is called today, that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. This verse shows us there is a deeper level of interaction we are called to have in the church, giving constant, honest, and helpful feedback to each other that actually helps us see how sin is operating at the heart level. Application: Spend time studying together the Scriptures that speak about the hardheartedness sin brings when we are not watchful or repentant. Help one another to see the subtle ways sin is silently robbing you of joy, conviction, and abundant life in Christ. Principle #5. Healthy accountability relationships strive to understand the detestableness of sin. At the bottom of true mortification, says Owen, is the a hatred of sin as sin. He means we should hate sin because it is sinfulit is ugly and offensive to God. Often

we only fight the sins that plague our own conscience, that disturb our own hearts, but we forget that Jesus bled and died for every kind of sin. All sin is appalling to God. This principle is the dividing line between mortifying sin (in the way Romans 8:13 commands) and just making moral reforms in our lives. Christianity is not a selfimprovement program. You set yourself against a particular sin, says Owen, and do not consider that you are nothing but sin. Friends who help us to kill our sin will remind us of why sin is so detestable to God, not just why it is troublesome to us. This means when we confess a conviction over our sin, our accountability partner points us back to the Word of God, reminding us that our conscience is but a reflection of the moral law God has stamped on our hearts. Our friends should ask us the hard questions, helping us to see the unbelief, selfishness, and idolatry driving our sins. Wise friends remind us of both the uglinessand beauty of the cross: ugly because we see how God forsook Jesus on account of our sins; beautiful because we are no longer under Gods condemnation. Application: Spend time studying together how the Bible describes Gods hatred of sin. As you talk about your struggles, find the places in Scripture that inform you about how God feels about those particular sins. Principle #6. Healthy accountability relationships strive to understand the death of sin. Owen explains how the Holy Spirit slays sin in us. Just as our sin is rooted in the affections, cravings, and inclinations of the heart, God displaces the power of sin withnew affections in the heart. God gives us the Holy Spirit who brings into us new spiritual cravings that counter our old desires (Galatians 5:17). When we keep in step with the Spirits desires, then we manifest a character of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-controland these graces displace the cravings of sin. This is the way our sin is crucified: its strength is sapped little by little. Our disposition to sin is weakened over time. And like a dying man on a Roman cross, mortified sin eventually moves seldom and faintly, cries sparingly, and is scarce heard in the heart; it may have sometimes a dying pang, that makes an appearance of great vigor and strength, but it is quickly over. Friends who help us fight sin are those who help us to walk in the Spirit. Owen explains what this means. The Spirit is the one who implants gracious impulses in our

hearts that counter the power of sin in us. We keep in step with the Spirit by cherishingthese new impulses. We cherish humility to fight pride. We cherish patience to fight undue urgency. We cherish heavenly-mindedness to fight the love of this world. These desires are already implanted in us by the Spirit, and good friends are given to us by God to stir up these things in us (Hebrews 10:24-25), to stoke the embers into a roaring bonfire. Good accountability partners dont merely tell us to improve; they inspire us to see the work of the Spirit already going on in us and make us aware of the desires the Spirit has given. Application: Spend time studying the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5. Talk about the ways you and your accountability partner see these graces manifesting themselves in your lives. Encourage one another to remember the redeeming work God has done in your lives. Principle #7. Healthy accountability relationships inspire God-worship, not willworship. Killing sin is not a matter of more willpower, or what Owen calls will-worship. Often Christians, fueled by a fresh conviction, will make promises to themselves and to God about stopping a specific sin or renewing obedience in a specific area. We create our list of tips and tricks that we hope will maintain us in our commitments. But these convictions easily wear off. In Owens mind, this is far from a simple mistake in judgment: it is making willpower into an idol. He says, Mortification by self-strength, carried on by ways of selfinvention, unto the end of a self-righteousness, is the soul and substance of all false religion in the world. If we arent careful, even godly Christian disciplines like listening to sermons, praying, mediating, fasting, and experiencing the sacraments can be twisted into duties we treat like cures for our sinful dispositions. These things are divinely appointed means to bring about transformation in our hearts, but they must be fueled by a disposition of faith in Christ. The Holy Spirit is the source of change. He is the fountainhead: these means are the streams. Often our desire to grow or become better Christians comes not from a desire to honor and glorify God, but is just a sanitized form of selfishness and self-focus. What

might look like an ardent and holy desire to kill our sin might actually be just one more way we are making ourselves the most important thing. In contrast, God needs to be the object of our worship. Owen writes in Mortification, Be much in thoughtfulness of the excellency of the majesty of God and your infinite, inconceivable distance from Him. Gods holy majesty needs to become our focus. We need to set our thoughts and affections on things above: the wonder and beauty of Christ who is the image of the invisible God (Colossians 1:15; 3:1). We need to set our hopes fully on the revelation of God when Jesus returns, when our present knowledge of Him will seem pale in comparison to blinding light of Christs face (1 Corinthians 13:12; 1 Peter 1:13; 1 John 3:2-3). When this is our constant mediation, Owen says, our souls become unfit places for sin to thrive. Friends who help us to mortify sin are aware of the sinful tendency to make willpower into an idol. They are also aware that even accountability groups can be twisted into ways we reinforce our self-centered focus. The best accountability partners are fellow worshipers: people who help us to clear away the mental fog and pretenses and point us to the Holy One. Application: Spend time together looking at passages of Scripture that capture the majesty, power, and holiness of God. Allow time for being on your knees together in prayer. As you confess your struggles, allow one another to point out the ways you might be focusing more on your own willpower and not stirring up faith in the power of God. Principle #8. Healthy accountability relationships use grace-centered motives, not lawcentered motives, for inspiring repentance. One of Owens primary concerns in Mortification is explaining what motivates real change in someone. Yes, the Spirit is the one who heals our stony and rebellious hearts, but He uses means to accomplish this. He brings to mind consciousmotivations that melt the heart and inspire genuine repentance. Often, when we want to motivate change in ourselves, we rush to what Owen calls restraining graces. We think about the potential consequences of our sinful behavior. We think about God punishing or disciplining us. We think about the shame we might feel if others found out. On one hand, these are not bad motivators. The Scriptures mention these are ways God curbs the effects of sin in the world.

On the other hand, these restraining graces do not penetrate deep enough. In fact, Owen says when we rush to these motivators as our first line of defense against temptation, it means sin has already taken great possession of the will. Restraining graces, in other words, do not make us desire sin less. At best they only help us modify our behavior. Restraining graces are usually based on legal principlesif I sin I will be punished or shamedbut the Holy Spirit brings to mind other motivators, what Owen calls renewing graces. These conscious motivators battle sin at the heart-level. These motivators are based on gospel principles of grace (Romans 6:14). Law says: The wages of sin is death, so do not sin. Grace says: In love, Christ died for your sins, so draw near to Him. Law says: Fear how God might discipline you for your sin. Grace says: Love how God has set you apart and saved you for Himself. Law says: You should hate sin because it defiles your conscience. Grace says: Hate your sin because you have fallen in love with the God who has shown how much He hates sin. Law says: If others see your sin, you will lose their respect. Grace says: Hate your sin because you love communing with God. In other words, law motivates obedience out of the fear of losing something; the gospel motivates obedience out of the joy of gaining something. It is Gods kindness that leads us to repentance (Romans 2:4). For Owen, the command to mortify sin in Romans 8:13 cannot be severed from the accompanying promise: you will liveyou will experience full and never-ending life. Friends who help us kill sin primarily use the power of the gospel, not law, to spur us on to love and good deeds. Of course we should not neglect using the law: we should remind one another of Gods holy commandments. It is good to remind one another of the heart-hardening effects and the hell-worthiness of sin. Indeed, Owen says we should pay close attention to what the law says, because when we do, it will speak with a voice what shall make you tremble, that shall cast you to the ground and fill you with astonishment. But the goal of reminding one another about Gods commandments is not to prompt us to try harder in our obedience. Faced with Gods high and holy standards, the goal

is not to focus on our lack of obedience, but to focus on the perfect obedience of the Son of God. Owen says, the purpose of the law is to bring us to the throne of grace where we throw ourselves on the mercy of Godwhere we encounter the gospel and its life-transforming power. Good accountability partners constantly point us back to the gospel of Jesus Christ. They know the best way to stir us up to forsake sin and put on Christlike virtues is to help us remember who we already are in Christ. Friends who help us slay our sin help us to consider ourselves already dead to sin (Romans 6:11) because of the Spirit of Christ in us. They help us remember we are chosen by God, set apart, and dearly loved (Colossians 3:12). They help us remember the divine Son of God who was sent to reconcile us to the Father by the blood of His cross (1:19-20). That same Christ now lives in us (1:27). We have died and been raised with Him (3:1-3). God has made us into a new person, patterned after Christ himself (3:10). At peace with God we are given the astounding promises of fellowship with God and adoption into His family (2 Corinthians 6:16-18). These promises are what compel us to cleanse ourselves from every sin (7:1). Application: Commit to spending more time with your accountability partner talking about how the great promises of the gospel should inspire you to live differently. Study the passages of Scripture that connect gospel blessings to living obediently. Today is the final installment in our series on healthy accountability groups derived from the principles laid down in John Owens classic work, Of the Mortification of Sin in Believers. Weve looked at eight principles so far (read parts 1, 2, and 3). Today, we look at two final principles for accountability partners to practice. Principle #9. Healthy accountability relationships are Christ-centered, not sincentered. For Owen, there is a significant difference between preparing the heart to mortify sin and actually killing it. Owen has many directions for us about preparing our hearts. We are to humble ourselves by reminding ourselves of the guilt, danger, and evil of our sin. We are to mourn our sin in the light of Gods perfect law. We are to stir up our hearts to long for Christ to change us. We should meditate on the greatness and

majesty of God. All of these things are merely preparationthe way we grasp the hilt of the blade. Actually killing sin, delivering the moral blow, is primarily a work of faith. Owen teaches faith is a disposition of the heart, what he called a settled expectation, a wholehearted belief that Christ will, in His perfect timing, transform our character. Faith is the eye of the soul that not only looks to Christ for salvation from the punishment of sin, but also looks to him for deliverance from the power of sin. Sanctifying faithengages God in expectation and hope. The Holy Spirit produces this kind of faith in us, but this is not, as it were, a merely mystical process. He uses our own minds and makes us conscious of Christ and His promises to produce this faith. Owen says we should run to Gods Word and fill our minds with thoughts of Christ being our tender and merciful High Priest, the one who intimately knows our human frailties and temptations. We are to run to Gods Word and fill our thoughts with Christs promises and His ability to sanctify us. We lift our hearts to Him believing in Christs ruthless loyalty to His people, believing He will transform our hearts. This is true mortification. Friends who help us to slay our sin do not merely try to create an atmosphere of forced humility. Good accountability partners are not focused on digging up your worst sins or lecturing you about them. Confession of sins is, of course, importance and necessary (James 5:16), but good partners do not treat the confession process as the end-all of accountability. In the end, they know the Holy Spirit is the only one who can bring about change, and they know He is one who must create faith in the heart. Accountability is about giving an account to others of our sin, but it is more so about giving an account to each other about our great God. The word used in the Bible for confession of sin is the same word used for the profession of our faith. Knowing this, accountability groups should not be sin centered but Christ-centered. We should speak often and speak joyfully about the Christ who inspires sin-fighting faith.

Application: For every sin that is confessed among your accountability partners, remember to turn to specific promises in Gods Word that inspi re you to lift your soul to Christ. Pray together, seeking Christ for grace in your time of need. Principle #10. Healthy accountability relationships celebrate the cross. Jesus once likened our relationship to Him as a branch to a vine (John 15). Connected to him we receive the life-giving sap of His righteous life. Connected to Him we can produce lasting fruit that glorifies God and shows the world that we are His disciples. A branch is grafted by gouging a cleft in the vine and inserting the bud into that cleft. The same is true for our relationship to Christ. He was pierced for us. The cross is the place of contact. His death not only reconciles us to God, but it also is the source of our purification (Ephesians 5:25-27; Titus 2:14; Hebrews 9:14). For Owen, understanding and embracing what happened to Christ on the cross is what enables our hearts to trust in Him for our sanctification. For Owen the cross was like a precious gem: as we turn it and see it from different angles, the light of Gods revelation refracts through it in new and brilliant ways. The Holy Spirit uses our contemplation of the cross to stoke the embers of faith into a roaring blaze. The Cross and Our Death to Sin On the cross, Jesus died to sin once and for all (Romans 6:10). He died to this sinful world. He died to ways of the world, its tempting influences, and most of all, tasted the wages of sin for all of us. He experienced the unquenchable fire of Gods wrath on the cross. After this he rose from death in resurrection glory, being the first of many who will rise from the dead. Now, at the right hand of God, Jesus experiences the full life of the age to come, an age where the tyranny of sin has no presence. Because the Spirit of Christ lives in us, we too experience a taste of that resurrection life. We get a taste of His death to sin while we await the Day when sin and death are vanquished forever. Knowing this, we can reckon ourselves dead to sin and alive to God (Romans 6:11). We can lift our souls to God knowing He has every intention of transforming our hearts and minds because Christs resurrection is real. We are united to the resurrected One, and this means Gods power is present in us to w alk in newness of life. The Cross Ratifies a New Covenant

On the cross, Jesus completed the work He was sent to do. He was faithful to the very end. He set His face like a flint for Jerusalem (Luke 9:51), anticipating the death that awaited Him. He went to the cross knowing that His blood would be poured out and ratify the New Covenant (Luke 22:20). He knew after His mission was complete, the Father would pour out the promised Holy Spirit on His people (Ezekiel 36:26; Acts 2:33). Because the cross was Gods way of ratifying the New Covenant, we can fully put our trust in God and His plan to write His law on our hearts (Jeremiah 31:33). In the face of what seems like overwhelming temptations we can lift our hearts to God and seek relief from Him. When our stony hearts seem unchangeable, we can think of the fruit of Jesus work being poured out at Pentecost and know God has every intention to transform us. The Cross Reveals the Virtue of Christ On the cross, Jesus demonstrated to His disciples the devotion of full obedience and faith. The One who called His disciples to deny themselves, to take up their crosses and follow Him (Luke 14:27), literally denied Himself every heavenly privilege and humbled Himself to the point of death (Philippians 2:8). From the beginning the devil tempted the Son of God to forgo the pain of the cross (Matthew 4:9; 16:23). At the hour of His arrest He could have asked His Father to send thousands of angels to his aid (26:53), but instead he marched into the darkness and turned Himself over to His merciless killers. The Spirit inspired for us the four Gospels so that, among other things, we could be moved by the drama of the cross, so that we could see the face of Jesus. On the cross we see Jesus most startling and inspiring virtues magnified. Instead of returning insult for insult, we see One who loves His enemies and prays for His persecutors. Instead of turning inward to sulk in His pain, we see One who seems to care more for the pain of others. Instead of shrinking back from the cup of suffering, we see One who entrusted Himself to God in the face of unspeakable pain, injustice, and shame. As Jonathan Edwards put it, on the cross All the virtues of the Lamb of God, his humility, patience, meekness, submission, obedience, love and compassion, are exhibited to our view. Caught up in the drama of the cross, we get the clearest view of the One we are putting our faith in. Will someone who was so obedient in death fail us now in life?

Caught up in the drama of the cross we also get a glimpse of the very virtues the Holy Spirit has planted in our own hearts. Seeing those virtues in action in the life of Christ, we can cherish them all the more. And in cherishing the virtues of Christ, we displace the temptations of sin. Accountability and the Cross Friends who help us battle sin will remind us first and foremost about the cross. It where our sin was dealt with once and for all. It where the New Covenant was ratified. It where the Son of God showed us the meaning of true obedience. Godly friends know the value of preaching the gospel to each other as often as they can. Application: Study the cross together with your accountability partners. Spend time on your knees every time you meet together, lifting your hearts in worship of the One who redeemed you.