Dying to sin: Thomas Chalmers
Thomas Chalmers lived slightly later than John Owen but he was a Puritan as well. The purpose of Thomas Chalmers’ The Expulsive Power of a New Affection is to show that “the rescue and recovery of the heart from the wrong affection that domineers over it” is best accomplished by “setting forth another object, even God, as most worthy of its attachment.” While Owen encourages railing against oneself, asking, “What love, what mercy, what blood, what grace have I despised and trampled on!” Chalmers argues that “it is not enough to travel the walk of experience along with you and speak to your own conscience and your own recollection of the deceitfulness of the heart and the deceitfulness of all that the heart is set upon.”
The essence of Chalmers’ method for the mortification of sin is this: “love of the world cannot be expunged by a mere demonstration of the world’s worthlessness. But may it not be supplanted by the love of that which is more worthy than itself?” For Chalmers then, sin is put to death, not so much by a direct fight but by replacing it in the affections. It is not that sin is starved so much as squashed out because the affections are so consumed with God and his ways that there is no place for sin. Thus sin is mortified by the desire for something better.
The great strength of this approach is its sense of victory. It assumes that the love of God is more powerful than sin, perhaps much like Paul does when he commands the Philippians to think about noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, praiseworthy and excellent things (Phil 4:8). The relationship of mortification to justification is clear: God’s love demonstrated in the former produces such welling up in the affections that the believer desires him and him only. Chalmers’ hope has influenced John Piper’s suggestions for fighting lust, exemplified in his ANTHEM acronym. In this view, the believer is totally dependent on Christ to be his satisfaction that sin might be expelled from his life.
Chalmers is not motivated by an insipid view of sin but a vital one. He sees that sin and its pleasures are so alluring that if they are taken from a person, they will feel a deep sense of loss, a “negative and cheerless vacancy”, unless they are gripped by a superior “habit of employment.” Far from being lacking, Chalmers’ view of sin is so vast that he believes that even if sin is displaced, it will re-emerge if the affections are not consumed by the glory of Christ.
However, Chalmers overstates his case in arguing that this “method alone will suffice for the rescue and recovery of the heart from the wrong affection that domineers over it.” What about when the believer’s affections grow tired? What then is available as power for mortification?