“What makes you tick?” It’s a question we may ask of other people when we are intrigued by their attitudes and actions. Or perhaps we ask it of ourselves when we struggle to make sense of what controls us. Either way, it is a crucial question, and one the Bible confronts us with repeatedly. Proverbs tells us bluntly: “As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he” (Prov. 23:7, KJV). There is something about our subterranean self that is impossible to ignore, for good or ill.
This reality led John Owen to write what he deemed to be one of his most important treatises: On the Grace and Duty of Being Spiritually Minded. It is built around Paul’s exhortation, “For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit” (Rom. 8:5). The Apostle presses home the seriousness of this statement by saying the trajectory of the flesh leads to death, while that of the Spirit leads to life.
Paul’s point in addressing this issue is in part to spell out the stark alternatives of everlasting death and everlasting life that await the unregenerate on the one hand and true believers on the other. There is an eternal ultimacy in what is at stake. However, Paul’s primary concern is to address this matter in the life of professing Christians. This letter was, after all, addressed to the church in Rome, not the population at large.
This concern revolves around the fact that although as Christians we have been taken out of the realm of death and darkness, the lingering influence of that dark domain remains within us. Although we are no longer under sin’s dominion, in this life we are never free from its corrupting influence. Satan will do all in his power to spoil our enjoyment of God’s good gift to us in Christ and to hamper our usefulness in the work of His kingdom.
Like many of his fellow Puritans, Owen devotes significant space to warning those who profess to believe in Christ against the danger of a false profession. He reminds us of Christ’s sobering words in the Sermon on the Mount that there will be “many” on the final day who will expect to be welcomed by the exalted Lord but who will be turned away (Matt. 7:21–23). The ultimate test of genuine faith is where it is placed—in Christ alone, or in our efforts to live and labor for Him?
The central thrust of Paul’s exhortation and Owen’s exposition of it, however, is to encourage those who are truly born again to consciously live out the new life that God has graciously planted in them through their union with Christ. If we have indeed been joined to Christ in salvation, then He alone is the One who truly “makes us tick” and will shape and direct every aspect of how we live through His Spirit and by His Word.