Benedict Arnold and the Putting Off of Sin

"Let me die in this old uniform in which I fought my battles. May God forgive me for having ever put on another." Benedict Arnold

Those are the unverifiable, now legendary, said-to-be last words of one of history's most renowned traitors. A once important figure in America's Colonial Army and fight for independence, Benedict Arnold's life came to an end in 1801, in London, with his legacy, his very name, in fact, becoming a colloquial term for what it means to be an untrustworthy double agent.

Although Arnold had at one time put on the uniform which represented freedom for what would become the United States of America, he exchanged the glory of that fight for reasons not entirely well known, perhaps pride and money, and put on the coat of another.

In counseling, as well as in my own life, I'm often confronted frequently by a similar phenomena, that is, the failure of us all to consistently obey the Bible's repeated commands to put off the lusts, passions, desires, and deeds of the flesh (those old, earthly, sinful ways), and to instead put on Christ, and His righteousness (that which brings glory to God).

What is frequently at issue in counseling is a matter of spiritual warfare, where the counselee struggles with the natural consequences of temptation and desire giving birth to sin. All to often, promises of repentance, and declarations of remorse give way to repeated acts of high treason against God and family. As hope for progress wanes, the question is often asked, why can't I change? 

To be sure, this pairing of put off/put on can be difficult to grasp intellectually. What must begin in the heart (putting off the desires of the flesh), must then manifest itself outwardly in visible, sometimes tangible life change (putting on Christ leading to life transformation). Whatever is not clear at face value, we know that it's a matter of faith, and that failure to pursue it often spells spiritual disaster for all who rebel against it.

The apostle Paul, in Romans 13:11-14, instructs his audience concerning this critical matter of what amounts to preparation for spiritual warfare in what Paul understands to be the final days of redemptive history (v.11). Having exhorted his audience to love one another, Paul warns the church at Rome to "discard the deeds of darkness" (HCSB), and to "put on the armor of light" (v.12). 

He then instructs the church to "walk [live] with decency," and offers a brief list of examples of the types of pagan, sinful behaviors found in the world of darkness: orgies, drunkenness, sexual impurity and promiscuity, quarreling, and jealousy. While this list wasn't intended to be exhaustive of the many ways the human heart expresses its depravity, I can't help but notice how common even these few matters of the heart are in the counseling room. Despite our great technological advancements, there truly is nothing new under the sun.

Finally, and perhaps by way of a slight re-stating of his earlier commanding thought, Paul instructs the church again in verse 14 to "put on the Lord Jesus Christ," followed by the injunction to "make no provision" (ESV) or "make no plans to satisfy the fleshly desires" (HCSB). Here, in the last phrase of this important passage on biblical living, I find a place where many who come for counseling intentionally scuttle their own sanctification, and chances for spiritual growth and drawing nearer to Christ.

It isn't very often, perhaps never, that I counsel with someone lamenting the effects of sin in their life who says to me, "I didn't realize that was sinful, or contrary to God's law." Instead, they readily confess the thing they came to counseling about as sin, and they may even repeatedly state their desire to rid themselves of it (i.e. anger, pride, jealousy, pornography, etc). 

For a short while, through homework assignment, participation in church community, and prayer, they may even show outward signs of change, but eventually, for some, those old patterns of living come roaring back to life. In some cases, those are the people I will never see in counseling again. They simply fall away as they give themselves over once more to the desires they never fully put off.

In time, what I sometimes learn, perhaps from a family member or friend of the person, is that all along, despite appearances of change, the person had been holding onto secret desires, harboring scandalous thoughts and intentions of the heart, and even scheming of ways to subvert and circumvent the biblical counsel they had been receiving.

They were, in every way, walking in a manner similar to that of a spiritual Benedict Arnold, making provision for their lust by preparing aforethought to turn their backs on their stated allegiance to God, family, friends, and even their church.

At the time of the Revolutionary War, treason was punishable by death. Indeed, one of Arnold's co-conspirators was captured and hanged. While I'm not familiar with Christ's church hanging anyone today for treason against King Jesus (that is, after all, what sin is), my fear is that we're tempted to treat sin far too kindly, and make provision for it inwardly, even as we battle against it publicly.

Theologian Sinclair Ferguson, in his book, "John Owen on the Christian Life," quotes Owen as saying that, "Custom of sinning takes away the sense of it; the course of the world takes away the shame of it; and love to it makes men greedy in pursuit of it."

In light of Paul's commands to put off sin and put on Christ, we might add to Owen's wise words that making provision for sin keeps alive for the future what ought to be mortified in the present (i.e. put to death). 

Indeed, as Owen himself would write in "The Mortification of Sin," that, "The mortification of indwelling sin remaining in our mortal bodies, that it may not have life and power to bring forth the works or deeds of the flesh is the constant duty of believers."

Not all counseling scenarios are driven by active, ongoing sin, but many are. And, many are perpetuated by our reluctance to put to death the desires of our flesh, choosing instead to keep them hidden and alive by the making of secret provision for them.

Hear again the words of John Owen:

Do you mortify; do you make it your daily work; be always at it whilst you live; cease not a day from this work; be killing sin or it will be killing you.