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  • Writer's pictureDr. Roger D Duke

John Owen Declared: "Be Killing Sin or It Will Be Killing You"!

“Be Killing Sin or It Will Be Killing You” [1]:

Rhetorical Insights Into John Owen’s “Mortification of Sin in Believers” [ 2]

 

Introduction, Thesis, and Outline

 

       There has been many words uttered and much ink spilled at this conference about John Owen—the man and his ministry. Nearly as much as he depleted in his own expositions of the Scriptures and theological writing; if that is possible?! There is much about him I have come to love and appreciate concerning his life and trials. But I would not have been acquainted with him so intimately had I not been privileged to attend this conference and prepare this paper. In this short excurses the presenter hopes we might corporately discover the how of Owen’s writing and preaching rather than the why or the what of his lengthy and sometimes verbose Biblical and theological writings.

I.                    First, we will briefly consider Owen’s education.

II.                 Secondly, a primer concerning Classical Rhetoric will be offered.

III.              Thirdly, some discovered Rhetorical dynamics will be applied to his “Be Killing Sin or It Will Be Killing You” in The Mortification of Sin.[3] 

                          

An Observation Concerning Owen’s Education


            We have learned that Owen received his BA in 1632 and his MA respectively in 1635 from Queen’s College Oxford. The Doctor of Divinity was also conferred upon him in 1653 by his university.[4] There is no doubt that the educational pedagogy into which he was immersed was the Classical Education model. Primarily the content and method to be mastered was the Trivium. Tammara Mazzei gives us some insight concerning the importance of this learning theory:


In the Middle Ages, a good university education included what were known as the Seven Liberal Arts, parts of which were adopted from ancient Greece. These were divided into the trivium (Latin - the three roads) and the quadrivium. The trivium, [was] said by John of Salisbury (in [his] Metalogicon) to concern "the power of language," [it] referred to the study of grammar, rhetoric, and logic ([or] dialectic). . . . [I]t is worth noting that the arts of the trivium were more significant than merely learning to speak well and to use proper syntax, as the modern usage of the words might imply.[5]


Mazzei also notes the significance of Rhetoric:

Rhetoric was a system of rules or ways of doing things that governed literary writing and formal speeches ([or] sermons) that applied to both prose and poetry. The study of rhetoric taught students to focus on the style and the elements of discourse. e.g., arrangement, delivery, invention, style, memory.[6] Some scholars also looked at the context of the speech such as whether it was meant for judicial, political, or ceremonial purposes.[7]

 

It is with Rhetoric and how Owen utilized it that the remainder of this inquiry will concern itself.

Classical Rhetoric: A Primer

Gareth Hughes rightly observed that one battle cry of Christian Humanism of the Renaissance was “ad fontes.”  He explains:

Ad fontes is a Latin phrase meaning ‘[back] to the sources’, [this was] a favourite motto of Renaissance humanism. [Hughes was] . . . particularly thinking of Erasmus of Rotterdam with this phrase, recalling his invaluable biblical scholarship. Renaissance humanism both laid the groundwork for the Reformation and re-engaged with the writers of the early church.[8]

 

On one of these trips “back to the font” the Classical Method of learning employing logic, grammar, and rhetoric seems to have been recovered. It could be argued that it had never been completely lost. During this period there came to be a new appreciation for Aristotle’s seminal work—On Rhetoric: A Theory of Civic Discourse. No doubt its usage became one of the basic textbooks for speaking and writing. Please consider a simple definition of Rhetoric as an academic discipline and its importance to the Trivium. Aristotle observed how,

Rhetoric is an ability, in each particular case, to see the available means of persuasion. [These] Means . . . fall into two groups: one, such as the evidence of witnesses or written contracts, is not invented by the speaker and is thus non-artistic. Artistic means of persuasion are three in number: those derived from the character (ethos) of the speaker, when in a speech [or written document] he shows himself fair-minded and trustworthy; those derived from the emotion (pathos) awakened by a speaker in an audience; and those derived from true or probable argument (logos).[9] 

 

 These three; ethos, pathos, and logos, are innately internal skills of the speaker. Ethos is the character of the speaker—whether good or ill; pathos is the ability of the speaker to arouse a certain passion or emotion in the audience; logos is the ability of the speaker to employ logic consisting of facts or data so the auditors can be moved towards a desired action. All three artistic means can be strengthened for the orator when he discovers the hearer’s sitz im leben. He employs these separately or in combination; in order to bring them to a place of reasoned thought, or to persuade them in the decision he would have them make, or to convince them of the action he would have them take. Generally, Rhetoric calls forth a response or reaction —or at least a reasoned and thoughtful consideration of the topic.


Aristotle also understood; the to-be-delivered oratory would be spoken in a public venue. This venue was just as important—maybe more so—as the preparation of the speaker. The understanding of the audience’s sitz im leben could be utilized to inform the orator of various possible means of persuasion to be found or considered. Classical Rhetoric—at its core— understands the importance of those discovered and varied contextual dynamics. Aristotle enumerates the primary three:


A speech situation consists of a speaker, a subject, and an audience. The audience is either judge or spectator. If the audience is asked to judge an action in the future, the speech is deliberative; if an action in the past, judicial. If the audience is not asked to make a judgment about a past future action, the speech is epideictic. Deliberative speeches are either exhortations or dissuasions to action and aim at showing the potential advantage or harm of the action. Judicial speeches are either accusations of defenses about things done in the past and aim at showing the justice or injustice of what has been done. Epideictic speeches [are] either praise or blame and aim at showing that a person is honorable or shameful. . . [but] often remind the audience of events of the past and project the course of the future.[10]

 

Chaim Perelman, rhetorical theorist of some note, summarized what this short project will entail: “[R]hetoric [can be employed] as a broad theory of argument and persuasion and as an analytical tool that can be used to reveal the ideological underpinnings of appeals to rationality.”[11] For the purpose at hand, we will engage Rhetoric as an analytical tool to discover and understand better Owen’s moral, ideological, or theological underpinnings.


From the Rhetorical Macro to the Rhetorical Micro


            When Aristotle begins Book II of On Rhetoric he divides ethos into three different divisions.[12] “These are practical wisdom [phronesis] and virtue [arête] and good will [eunoia].”[13] He further shows how, “in order to establish [his] credibility, the rhetor’s words must project practical wisdom, virtue, and good sense.”[14] And “[U]understood with precision, rhetorical reasoning guides and phronesis drives moral inquiry.”[15] Consider;

The aim of moral inquiry is rendering sound judgment, but judgment in hard cases is

frustrated because the crux of the matter is hedged in by a potentially limitless parade of particulars. Rhetorical reason [or phronesis] manages particulars by systematically determining the relevance of issues and identifying the stasis (which is the most relevant of the relevant issues). Now ascribing [this] relevance, per se, is an act of phronesis (bold italics added).[16]


For this discussion, the most relevant of the relevant issues will be the “putting to death” or the “mortification of sin” in the believer. Owen’s ethos—virtue, good sense, and personal credibility—were already on display to his contemporaries by his faithful endeavors as preacher, pastor, theologian, and writer.


Practical Reason’s Dynamics


To understand practical reason one must be conversant with its varied hues and tints. Be mindful, the orator has these dynamics in his “rhetorical toolbox” whenever he prepares a sermon or exhorts his audience. He desires to move his auditors along toward a crescendo of thought and emotion to the point of decision:


Phronesis drives practical judgment in at least five distinct, discernible, nuanced ways: (1) by bringing to bear ethical principles where appropriate, (2) by bringing to bear past experience on present situations, (3) by generalizing from analogous cases to present ones, (4) by working in tandem with special topics to guide inquiry by determining which issues are most relevant, and (5) by combining all four aspects above to bring together probabilities in their convergence in order to facilitate praxis.[17]


Interlude and Confession


In the spirit of full disclosure for who are not conversant with Classical Rhetoric; the critic must explain something of his intended schemata. While it is true that Aristotle gives the historic definition that Rhetoric is; “. . . [the] ability, in each particular case, to see the available means of persuasion.”[18] It is equally true that the rhetorical critic must find those mean(s) used by the speaker/writer in the examined artifact. This entails the close reading and careful discovery of the rhetorical dynamics applied by the original author. Thus it is incumbent upon the critic to mine those rhetorical theories deployed in the original oratory.

These are then enumerated and demonstrated for the critics’ auditors; i.e., what was discovered of the rhetorical means the original orator utilized to persuade. The persuasive means must be uncovered by the critic, cited by the critic, and then made plain by the critic to those who experience his end product. His exposition is to be done in such a convincing manner that his hearers will believe this is the best rhetorical understanding of the original document. Thus, the critic does rhetoric as he investigates, expunges, and expounds his findings—to the end that his hearers accept the findings as the major rhetorical means of the original author.


Practical Reason Applied to Theological Ethical Principles


According to the Catholic Online Encyclopedia “ethics” is defined as; a “practical science . . . [that] prescribe[s] norms or rules for human activity and show[s] how, according to these norms, a man ought to direct his actions.”[19] The mortification of personal sin is the ethical action Owen desires his readers to take. Practical Reason is the means employed. The question for the present discussion is this: How did Owen seek to call his parishioners and readers to “the mortification of sin” rhetorically?


A Case Study from Owen’s Mortification of Sin [20]


            In the beginning of the address Owen quotes a portion of Roman 8:13 as his thesis: “If by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body you will live.” From this he extracts in outline form five “foundations upon which his discourse is based.”[21] These are;

1.      To whom it is directed: ‘You believers.’

2.      The condition: ‘If you.’

3.      The means of the accomplishment: ‘The Spirit.’

4.      A duty: ‘Put to death the deeds of the body.’

5.      A promise: ‘You shall live.”[22]

All these “foundations” are either implicitly or explicitly ethical for the believer. Consider Number 4 as our case study; the duty, the moral obligation, the incumbency, or the oughtness of the personal, ethical, and religious struggle for the Christian.


 The idea of mortification is the preeminent exercise Owen would call his hearers to pursue. He understood it, as expressed in Paul’s letter, to be the Christian’s life-long vocation. It is not optional but obligatory for one who is to become a fully devoted follower. It carries life-changing repercussions from the initial moment of conversion until the person’s call to glory. It is the vocation intertwined with sanctification. So greatly enjoined is the “call to kill the flesh” and take up this Christian ethic; Owen repeats his charge over again. Consider his clarion herald: “The choicest believers, who are assuredly freed from the condemning power of sin, ought yet to make it their business all their days to mortify the indwelling power of sin.”[23]


With an impending sense of urgency Owen thunders! “[B]e killing sin or it will be killing you.”[24] This can be “heard” and somewhat experienced even when his manuscript is read today. Like all ethical decisions with many moral factors that must be worked out in complicated contemporary contexts; Owen leaves the Christ follower with only one issue with which to be concerned. Mortification!!! This oughtness of mortification is the lifelong calling of all true Christians!!


“But what is this oughtness we refer to? What can be said of it to help us better understand the nature of morality? The oughtness of a moral obligation is what philosophers call incumbency.”[25] “Four observations arise” from this oughtness of moral obligation “that resist naturalistic explanations.”[26]


First, the incumbency of moral obligations demands something from us and binds us to something.


Second, moral obligations are unconditional imperatives.


Third, this incumbency applies not only to one’s actions but to the underlying motives as well.


Finally, moral obligations place demands on us prior to any action.[27]

 

Towards the end of the address, Owen argues “specific directions for the soul seeking to gain victory over disquieting lusts.”[28] He breaks these into “nine preparatory directions”[29] and “two directions [or actions] that deal directly with mortification.”[30] In “PREPARTORY DIRECTION 3: Charge your conscience with the guilt of indwelling sin;” he calls for practical reason to flow from an “incumbency of moral obligations”[31] that “demand something from us and bind us to something.”[32] There are two great issues upon which a phronesis decision are based for Owen: “indwelling sin in relation to the law of God[33] and “sin in relation to the gospel[34] of Christ. Here, Owen stands in the Reformation tradition that calls the believer to carefully consider, then choose how their conscience is inexorably bound by and to God’s Law and Christ’s Gospel.

The second “moral obligation”[35] or “unconditional imperative”[36] for Owen is his strong assertion every Christian should “be killing sin or it will be killing you.”[37] His reasoning is clear, when he argues from the lesser to the greater. If Paul has made this his business as the Lord’s Apostle, there is a moral incumbency or “oughtness” for every Christian to act likewise based on Paul’s example. Owen further exhorts his hearers,

[I]f this were the work and business of Paul, who was so incomparably exalted in grace, revelations, enjoyments, privileges, consolations, above the ordinary measure of believers, where may we possibly bottom an exemption from this work and duty whilst we are in this world.[38]

 

Then Owen gives a “brief account of the reasons”[39] for the moral imperative.

1.      Indwelling sin always abides whilst we are in the world. . . .

2.      Sin . . . is still acting, still laboring to bring forth the deeds of the flesh. . . .

3.      [I]f let alone . . . [the flesh] will bring forth great, cursed, scandalous, soul-destroying sins.

4.      “The flesh lusteth against the Spirit” [and] “The Spirit also lusteth against the flesh.”

5.      Negligence in this duty casts the soul into a perfect contrary condition to that which the apostle affirms [in other Scriptures].

6.      It is our duty to be “perfecting holiness in the fear of God.”[40]

From what Owen listed, the serious Christian should be persuaded of their moral imperative—“oughtness” to kill sin. This should be a life-long calling as one’s reasonable service to God.


Third, Owen employs the term “The body[41] as “metonymical.”[42] For, “The body . . . is taken for that corruption and depravity of our natures whereof the body, in a great part, is the seat and instrument, the very members of the body being made servants unto righteousness thereby.”[43] [44] Owen explains, “It is indwelling sin, the corrupted flesh or lust, that . . . [Paul] intended”[45] here. It is out of this depraved “body” that our corrupt deeds flow. What we believe and are internally is what we behave externally an ethicists might assert! “The ‘body’ here is the same . . . [as] ‘old man,’ and the ‘body of sin’”[46] found in Romans 6:6. “[O]r,” as Owen grants for discussion, “it may be synecdochically express the whole person considered as corrupted, and the seat of lusts and distempered affections.”[47]

Here Owen no doubt reverts to his classical and rhetorical training. Whether his idea of body as metonymy as the substitution of an attribute for the name of the thing meant,[48] or as synecdoche in which the part is made to represent the whole;[49] he shows how the moral incumbency applies not only to one’s actions but to the underlying motives as well. For these are inextricably linked together and cannot be separated! So, to kill the deeds of the flesh for Owen, the hidden man of the heart must be changed too.


Finally, under the heading “A TENDER CONSCIENCE and a WATCHFUL HEART,”[50] Owen lays out the “moral obligations [that] place demands on us prior to any action.”[51] These being;

First . . . consider indwelling sin in relation to the law of God. . . .

Secondly . . . consider [indwelling] sin in relation to the gospel. . . .[52]

 

As Owen calls his readers “to consider” how they should “be killing sin,” he plants himself firmly in the larger Reformation Tradition of Law and Gospel. Because of the two, there is an ethical “oughtness” placed on the Christian to consider the moral incumbency of both. The Law we cannot keep apart from Christ. And Christ’s Gospel calls us to an even higher standard. These rhetorically symbiotic twins—Law and Gospel—should be personally considered before all else as the Christian’s moral obligations. These will enable us, in turn, to “love God” and “love neighbor.” Or to be Owenian, they can equip us internally prior to actions considered in order that we can “be killing sin or it will be killing us”—at its root.

Concluding Thoughts, Ideas, and Assertion


This reading has sought to demonstrate various rhetorical insights into Owen’s “Mortification of Sin in Believers.” This has been attempted by . . .

ü  drawing on the definition of Rhetoric and moving from its macro understanding to its micro understanding.

ü  understanding that Rhetoric can be employed as an analytical tool.

ü  seeing how phronesis or practical reason is one component of ethos.

ü  defining practical reason or phronesis.

ü  discovering practical reason or phronesis in Owen’s address.

ü  showing the purpose of practical reason to be “statis” identification or that which is the most relevant of all the relevant issues to be considered. It was found in Owen’s sermon that to “Be killing sin—or it will be killing you” to be the most relevant action for believers to pursue.

ü  discovering how phronesis or practical reason was employed in Owen’s address.

ü  showing how practical reason can drive the practical or ethical judgment in five discernable nuanced ways;

ü  [By] bringing to bear ethical principles where appropriate . . .

ü  [By] bringing to bear past experience on present situations . . .

ü  [By] generalizing from analogous cases to present ones . . .

ü  [By] working in tandem with special topics to guide inquiry by determining which issues are most relevant . . .

ü  [By] combining all four aspects above to bring together probabilities in their convergence in order to facilitate praxis . . .

 ü  defining ethics.

ü  examining Owen’s “Mortification of Sins” outline as the basis of our case study.

ü  abstracting point four of his outline, A duty: ‘Put to death the deeds of the body’ as this inquiry’s focus. 

ü  considering four areas of ethical “oughtness” employed rhetorically by Owen to persuade his readers “to be killing sin.”


Aristotle observed the historic definition for Rhetoric to be; “. . . [the] ability, in each particular case, to see the available means of persuasion.”[53] Within those confines the critic should be able quite easily to find and expose the means used by the writer/orator. But if any of you have written; you have experienced the fact that many-a-time writing projects take on their own persona. Or, research leads off in an entirely new direction than was not suspected at the beginning. In this vein, the study at hand has taught this critic a new lesson. It is my belief that Owen did not set out to use nor did he even know he was using practical reason when he composed this monograph. It is further asserted that this is freshly mined and original understanding found while doing this critique—discovered when Owen was pursued from a rhetorical dynamic. I am not asking you to take my word for it. Spend time with Owen and this sermon—and see if this is not a credible rhetorical understanding of the “Mortification of Sin in Believers.”

 

 


[1] William H. Gould, ed., The Works of John Owen, vol. VI (Great Britain: Johnstone & Hunter, 1850-53; reprint, Great Britain: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1967), 9 (page citations are to the eighth reprint edition).

 

[2] Ibid, 5.

 

[3] Note: Many of this works citations are taken from the volume, John Owen, The Mortification of Sin: Abridged and Made Easy to Read, abridged by Richard Rushing (Carlisle, Penn.: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2004).

 

[4] Osmund Airy, “John Owen (1616-1683)” The Encyclopedia Britannica: A Dictionary of Arts, Sciences, and General Literature, 9th ed. (New York: Henry G. Allen and Company, 1888), 18: 85-86. This article was retrieved 2 May 2016 from http://johnowen.org/bibliography/owen-john-1616-1683-by-osmund-airy/.

 

[5] Tammara Mazzei, “The Medieval Trivium,” (Trivium Publishing, LLC.) This reference was retrieved 2 May 2016 from http://www.triviumpublishing.com/articles/trivium.html.

 

[6] These five dynamics are known as the “Canons of Rhetoric.” For a fuller discussion see the article “General Introduction” in Patricia Bizzell & Bruce Herzberg, eds., The Rhetorical Tradition: Readings from Classical Times to the Present (Boston: Bedford Books of St. Marten’s Press, 1990), 1-7.

 

[7] Tammara Mazzei, “The Medieval Trivium,” (Trivium Publishing, LLC.) This reference was retrieved 2 May 2016 from http://www.triviumpublishing.com/articles/trivium.html.

 

[8] Gareth Hughes. (2009, Oct. 20). Politics, Theology, and Christian Humanism [Web blog comment]. Retrieved 3 May 2016 from https://christhum.wordpress.com/2009/10/20/ad-fontes-of-christian-humanism/

 

[9] Aristotle, On Rhetoric: A Theory of Civic Discourse, trans. George A. Kennedy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 14.

 

[10] Aristotle, On Rhetoric: A Theory of Civic Discourse, trans. George A. Kennedy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 15.

 

[11] See Perelmen quote in the chapter “Twentieth-Century Rhetoric” in Patricia Bizzell & Bruce Herzberg, eds., The Rhetorical Tradition: Readings from Classical Times to the Present (Boston: Bedford Books of St. Marten’s Press, 1990), 901.

 

[12] Rhetorical Ring, “Phronesis in Rhetorical Reasoning.” Retrieved 9 May 2016 from http://www.rhetoricring.com/rhetoric-and-ethics/phronesis/phronesis-in-rhetorical-reasoning/

[13]Aristotle, On Rhetoric: A Theory of Civic Discourse, trans. George A. Kennedy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 121.

 

[14] Rhetorical Ring, “Phronesis in Rhetorical Reasoning.” Retrieved 9 May 2016 from http://www.rhetoricring.com/rhetoric-and-ethics/phronesis/phronesis-in-rhetorical-reasoning/  

 

[15] Ibid.

 

[16] Ibid.

 

[17] Ibid.

 

[18] Aristotle, On Rhetoric: A Theory of Civic Discourse, trans. George A. Kennedy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 14. 

 

[19] Catholic Online Encyclopedia, “Ethics.” Retrieved 17 May 2016 from http://www.catholic.org/encyclopedia/view.php?id=4389

 

[20] John Owen, “The Mortification of Sin,” abridged by Richard Rushing (Carlisle, PA.: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2004). This “abridged and made easy to read by Richard Rushing” edition was chosen for its more simple language rather than Owen’s original manuscript.

 

[21] Ibid, [1].

 

[22] Ibid, [1].

 

[23] John Owen, The Works of John Owen, vol. 6, Temptation and Sin, (London: Johnstone & Hunter, 1850-53; reprint, Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1967), 7 (page numbers are to the 2004 Eighth printing).

 

[24] Ibid., 9.

 

[25] Brett Kunkle, “The Nature of Moral Obligations: Moral Incumbency,” in Stand to Reason, Retrieved May 23, 2016 from http://www.str.org/blog/the-nature-of-moral-obligations-moral-incumbency#.V0LmVCE70zB                    

 

[26] Ibid.

 

[27] Ibid.

 

[28] John Owen, “The Mortification of Sin,” abridged by Richard Rushing (Carlisle, PA.: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2004), 54.

 

[29] Ibid., 54.

 

[30] Ibid., 54.

 

[31] Brett Kunkle, “The Nature of Moral Obligations: Moral Incumbency,” in Stand to Reason, Retrieved May 23, 2016 from http://www.str.org/blog/the-nature-of-moral-obligations-moral-incumbency#.V0LmVCE70zB                    

 

[32] Ibid.

 

[33] John Owen, “The Mortification of Sin,” abridged by Richard Rushing (Carlisle, PA.: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2004), 76.

 

[34] John Owen, “The Mortification of Sin,” abridged by Richard Rushing (Carlisle, PA.: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2004), 78.

 

[35] Kunkle, “The Nature of Moral Obligations.”

 

[36] Kunkle, “The Nature of Moral Obligations.”

 

[37] John Owen, The Works of John Owen, vol. 6, Temptation and Sin, (London: Johnstone & Hunter, 1850-53; reprint, Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1967), 9.

 

[38] John Owen, The Works of John Owen, vol. 6, Temptation and Sin, (London: Johnstone & Hunter, 1850-53; reprint, Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1967), 10.

 

[39] Ibid., 10.

 

[40] Ibid., 5-15.

 

[41] John Owen, The Works of John Owen, vol. 6, Temptation and Sin, (London: Johnstone & Hunter, 1850-53; reprint, Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1967), 7.

 

[42] Ibid.

 

[43] Ibid.

 

[44] Romans 6:19.

 

[45] John Owen, The Works of John Owen, vol. 6, Temptation and Sin, (London: Johnstone & Hunter, 1850-53; reprint, Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1967), 7.

 

[46] Ibid.

 

[47] Ibid., 7-8.

 

[48] “Metonymy,” Retrieved June 2, 2016 from google.comhttps://www.google.com/?gws_rd=ssl#q=define+metonymy

 

 

[49] “Synecdoche,” Retrieved 2 June 2016 from google.com @ https://www.google.com/?gws_rd=ssl#q=define+synecdoche

 

[50] John Owen, “The Mortification of Sin,” abridged by Richard Rushing (Carlisle, PA.: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2004), [76].

 

[51] Ibid.

 

[52] Ibid., [79-81].

 

[53] Aristotle, On Rhetoric: A Theory of Civic Discourse, trans. George A. Kennedy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 14. 

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