It’s impossible to live like this–impossible, impossible, impossible!
That’s what the great Russian writer Lev Nikolaevich Tolstoy wrote in his article of 1882 On the Occasion of the Moscow Census…but those words easily sum up all he wrote in the last thirty years of his life.
This includes his attack on art, the church, the state and society, all as a result of his return to Gospel purity.
For example, upon his move to Moscow from the Russian countryside he was exposed to urban poverty and began handing out fistfuls of money, but realized that was not enough.
Thus his outburst.
He lashed out at his own class, the wealthy, who managed to live in the face of such wretchedness and hopelessness, and not flinch.
He taught that brotherly love and certain precepts from the Sermon on the Mount could, as the translator of What Is Art? Richard Pevear put it, “lead mankind to a stateless, egalitarian, agrarian society of non-smoking, teetotal vegetarians dressed as peasants and practicing chastity before and after marriage.”
But as a father of thirteen children it is safe to say that Tolstoy failed to obey at least one of his own principles.
And that his ideal society (grounded in worldly wisdom) never emerged from the Russian country side is an indication of the impossibility of unregenerate men and woman to obey seemingly simple precepts like “Love your neighbor.”
Christopher Hitchens on Gospel Obligations
In his book Rage Against God, Peter Hitchens works his way through the arguments atheists use to suggest that we can develop effective and binding codes without a deity.
He then mentions his brother Christopher, who is, of course, an advocate of this belief, yet states, “the order to ‘love thy neighbour as thyself is too extreme and too strenuous to be obeyed.”
Humans, Christopher says, “are not so constituted as to care for others as much as themselves.”
That is, the gospel is a sick delusion.
Yet, the unrelenting devotion of mothers is a definitive example against that argument, as well as the work of doctors and nurses.
However, things heat up when we witness the most powerful expression of this obligation: “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).
Now we are reaching contrary to human nature. And we are about to push it over the edge.
Gospel Obligations We Can’t Bear
The command to love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. Not to resist an evil person. To give the man who sues you the property he wants–and then some. And to give to whom ever asks of you.
These are all examples of precepts impossible to bear.
And one way to suggest that these are contrary to human nature is to point out that just about everyone–believer and unbeliever–will try to wiggle out of these injunctions by providing tailor-made exceptions.
The only problem is there are no footnotes to these commands. Jesus is calling for a full surrender of all personal rights.
And trust me: that seems a bit extreme and too strenuous to obey. And I am a believer.
John Owen on Properly Killing Sin
I suspect there is, has been and will always be an utter distaste for the commands of Jesus among unbelievers–Hitchens and Tolstoy being popular examples–because of the unlikelihood of meeting those obligations.
Why is that?
John Owen, in The Mortification of Sin in Believers, has a lot to say about it. What follows is my summary of his argument.
If we are going to obey the commands from Jesus that say to kill our sins, then we must first be believers: “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” (Romans 8:13).
Otherwise there will be condemnation at your failure. This is why it is believers alone who are commanded to mortify sin:
If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. Colossians 3:1-5
Certainly philosophers in the past and the present can do something that looks like mortification–chronic fasting or vows of solitude–but it is false and unacceptable to God.
For unbelievers to attempt to kill sin through these methods amounts to a picture of the sun painted on a sign post versus the actual sun hanging in the sky.
This is typically the sad fate of wicked men who attempt to kill sin without Christ:
The bellows blow fiercely; the lead is consumed by the fire; in vain the refining goes on, for the wicked are not removed. Rejected silver they are called, for the Lord has rejected them. Jeremiah 6:29-30
If Not Kill Sin–What Do We Tell Unbelievers to Do?
Yes, sin must be mortified, but something else must happen first for the unbeliever. You must be born of the Spirit. No Spirit, no mortification:
You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. Romans 8:9
Those in the flesh cannot please God. Romans 8:8
But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. Romans 8:10
And Christ in us will produce the right operation to kill sin:
If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you. Romans 8:11
In essence, killing sin and mortifying this or that lust is not the immediate business of unregenerate men. Conversion of their soul is their immediate business.
The 3 Things That Happen to Unbelievers Who Attempt to Kill Sin
So what happens when unbelievers try to destroy sin in their life without the help of the Holy Spirit? Owen says three things:
1. Unregenerate men are distracted from conversion.
When an unbeliever makes mortification of sins his main focus, he loses sight of what is truly important: his salvation. Thus, preaching mortification of sin to unregenerate men focuses on legalism and not repentance.
What did Peter tell the unregenerate Jews when they asked what to do about their sin? He said to repent. The root must be dealt with if you want good fruit.
2. Unregenerate men engaged in killing sin think their souls are not in danger.
When they try to pacify their consciences without Christ, they are sick in soul, and run to mortification rather than the great physician.
Moreover, these unregenerate men trying to kill sin will think they are in good condition, doing quite well, thank you, without the help of some saviour.
3. Unregenerate men will despair when their attempts at mortification fail.
Eventually sin returns to trample all of their efforts–and in their despair they conclude that mortification of sin is all for nothing, and so give in, becoming, as Owen says, “the most vile and desperate of sinners.”
Unbelievers who attempt to kill sin do so because they say, “I do not want to be bad.” But what they don’t say, but is equally true, is that they do not want to surrender their soul.
They want to maintain their autonomy and defeat their sin in their own power, which only leads to death. Unfortunately, killing sin without Christ deludes, hardens and destroys.
Jesus and every Apostle pointed out that to kill sin is the work of living men. There is no death of sin without the death of Christ.
Until then biblical obligations will seem strange, strenuous and impossible to unbelievers.
Until then people who attempt to kill sin without Christ will endure the punishment like that of king Sisyphus: rolling an immense boulder up a hill, only to watch it roll back down, ad nauseam.
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