A painful diagnosis: Overcoming Sin and Temptation by John Owen

In which the reviewer grapples manfully with the convoluted disquisitions of John Owen’s treatises upon sin, with an account of the chief concerns therein, and a resolution of sundry matters belonging thereunto.

Overcoming Sin and Temptation: Three classic works by John Owen

John Owen
Edited by Kelly M Kapic and Justin Taylor
Crossway, Wheaton, 2006, 464pp.

I am a good reader. I always have been. In school, I was one of those annoying people who had no real trouble understanding what Shakespeare said on the first reading. I was the nerd at theological college who not only enjoyed reading Oliver O’Donovan’s notoriously dense book Resurrection and Moral Order, but provided a summary for my study group. And I still derive great pleasure from reading demanding literary fiction and poetry, whether contemporary or from centuries past.

I say all this not to boast, but to provide some context for the following statement: John Owen’s Overcoming Sin and Temptation is one of the most difficult and demanding books I have ever read.

There’s no denying the importance of the subject, nor the rich teaching which Owen supplies (more on that below), but the bad news had best be gotten out of the way. Owen is hard work, and everyone acknowledges it. In the foreword to the volume, JI Packer, who is possibly the number one ticket holder in the John Owen fan club, is quoted as saying:

Much of Owen’s prose reads like a roughly-dashed-off translation of a piece of thinking done in Ciceronian Latin. It has, no doubt, a certain clumsy dignity; so has Stonehenge; but it is trying to the reader to have to go over sentences two or three times to see their meaning, and this necessity makes it much harder to follow an argument. (p. 16)

But it has to be said that the editors of this volume—Kelly Kapic and Justin Taylor—have done everything possible to make the task as easy as it can be for modern readers. There are numerous footnotes along the way explaining archaic words and phrases (Owen wrote in the mid-17th century). The spelling has been modernized, and the layout and typography are excellent. Just as usefully, detailed outlines are supplied as appendices so that the complexities of Owen’s presentation can be grasped more easily.

Even so, there is no doubt that this is a book for the able, determined and persistent reader. It won’t be discussed around the water cooler at work; it won’t be piled up in great heaps at your local Christian retailer; and on the bedside table of those brave souls who venture to tackle it, it will most likely sit for some months with a little piece of paper sticking out about a quarter of the way through.

All of this is an immense shame, because as well as being one of the most difficult books I have read in the last 20 years, it is also one of the most challenging. Overcoming Sin and Temptation is a compilation of three of Owen’s treatises on the subject of sin: ‘Of the Mortification of Sin in Believers’, ‘Of Temptation: The Nature and Power of It’ and ‘Indwelling Sin’ (or, to give it its full title, ‘The Nature, Power, Deceit, and Prevalency of the Remainders of Indwelling Sin in Believers, Together with the Ways of Its Working, and Means of Prevention’). Complex and difficult the writing might be, but the central theological truth of all three works is very simple: sin remains alive within the Christian as an active, hostile principle against God, and it is your urgent and daily task to “be killing sin or it will be killing you” (p. 50).

It’s a book, in other words, about self-understanding: “The man that under­stands the evil of his own heart, how vile it is, is the only useful, fruitful, and solid believing and obedient person”, says Owen (p. 283). He expands on the point in this key passage:

“For the flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: and these are contrary the one to the other; so that I cannot do the things that I would” (Gal 5:17) …

There are these contrary principles in the hearts of believers. And if they labor not to be spiritually wise, how shall they be able to steer their course aright? Many men live in the dark to themselves all their days; whatever else they know, they know not themselves. They know their outward estates, how rich they are, and the condition of their bodies as to health and sickness they are careful to examine; but as to their inward man, and their principles as to God and eternity, they know little or nothing of themselves. Indeed, few labor to grow wise in this matter, few study themselves as they ought, are acquainted with the evils of their own hearts as they ought; on which yet the whole course of their obedience, and consequently of their eternal condition, does depend …

We shall find, also, in our inquiry hereinto, what diligence and watchfulness is required unto a Christian conversation [= way of life]. There is a constant enemy unto it in everyone’s own heart; and what an enemy it is we shall afterward show, for this is our design: to discover him to the uttermost. In the meantime, we may well bewail the woeful sloth and negligence that is in the most, even in professors [= professing Christians]. They live and walk as though they intended to go to heaven hood-winked and asleep, as though they had no enemy to deal with. (pp. 238-9.)

This is a penetrating description of much contemporary Christianity. I must be honest and say that it is also a penetrating description of me. When I read The Fight as a young Christian in the 1980s, I was left with a strong awareness of the Christian life as a battle—a constant war between the Spirit and the flesh (along with the flesh’s close allies, the world and the devil). And I set about combating the sin in my life through prayer, Bible reading and the encouragement of Christian friends. But somehow in the ensuing 25 years, that awareness has faded—in my own life and (unless I’m much mistaken) in the consciousness of most evangelical Christians I know. A kind of implicit semi-Pelagianism has gained ground—the idea that once we are converted, the state of my soul is fairly neutral. I am able to choose to do what is right. My will, mind and affections are set free, and now live under the rule of grace and the law of the Spirit of life. There may be some minor vestiges of sin left over, but I do not consider from day to day how active, harmful and dangerous they may be. I cruise along, focusing mostly on the Christian ministries and activities I am involved in, and spending very little time thinking about sin in my life, let alone actively opposing and killing it.

But the ground on which the gospel lands is not neutral, it is hostile, and the hostility remains even after the entry of God’s Spirit:

But when Christ comes with his spiritual power upon the soul to conquer it to himself, he has no quiet landing place. He can set foot on no ground but what he must fight for and conquer. Not the mind, not an affection, not the will, but all is secured against him. And when grace has made its entrance, yet sin will dwell in all its coasts. (p. 261-2)

Owen reasserts the profoundly important biblical truth that although the dominion and rule of sin is broken in the life of the regenerate believer, the presence and power of sin yet remains. In another place in his works (not in this volume), Owen likens sin in the unbelieving, unregenerate soul to a dense forest, the ground completely covered with trees, vines and undergrowth. This jungle of sin has complete dominion over the land. No light can break in, and there is no opposing principle or power to stand in its way.1 When the powerful work of God through the gospel breaks into a person’s life, there is now a new principle—a new power at work. Some trees are uprooted. Others are pruned. Light starts to stream in. The condemnation due to sin is washed away by Christ’s blood, the dominion or rule of sin is broken, and the forest begins to be cleared. A new master has claimed ownership. However, much of the forest remains. In fact, large tracts of it may be quite untouched. What’s more, the forest is living and growing: it will not wither and die on its own. Only the active work of mortification, under the power of the indwelling Spirit, will slowly reduce and kill off the choking, entangling influence of sin in our lives.

This is what ‘mortification’ is, according to Owen—a lifelong, habitual fighting and contending against sin in our lives—weakening it, rooting it out and ‘putting to death what is earthly in you’ (as Paul says in Col 3:5; cf. Rom 8:13). In Owen’s judgement, “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” (p. 47).

Neglect of this duty, Owen argues, is the reason why so many Christians lack vigour and comfort in their spiritual lives. Indwelling sin constantly impedes, distracts, attacks and diminishes our fellowship with God. It weakens our resolve, plays havoc with the heart by entangling its affections and desires, and fills our mind with the wrong thoughts. Left untreated and unopposed, it is like a cancer or “distemper” which weakens us and places us in mortal spiritual danger. “Take care, brothers”, says the author of Hebrews, “lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today, ’ that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” (Heb 3:12-13).

When Owen gets down to talking about how a Christian should go about putting to death (‘mortifying’) the sin in our lives, the book starts to feel as detailed and diagnostic as a medical manual, and just about as readable. But although medical manuals are not page-turners, they’re rather important if you suffer from a deadly disease and need to know its causes and cures. This is why Owen’s painstaking dissection of sin is so valuable.

Take this paragraph, for example: in it, Owen talks about how certain activities, while good in themselves, can entangle us in temptation:

Entering into temptation may be seen the lesser degrees of it; as, for instance, when the heart begins secretly to like the matter of the temptation, and is content to feed it and increase it by any ways that it may without downright sin. In particular, a man begins to be in repute for piety, wisdom, learning, or the like—he is spoken of much to that purpose; his heart is tickled to hear of it, and his pride and ambition affected with it. If this man now, with all his strength, ply the things from whence his repute, and esteem, and glory among men do spring, with a secret eye to have it increased, he is entering into temptation; which, if he take not heed, will quickly render him a slave of lust … (‘On Temptation’, pp. 188-9)

Overcoming Sin and Temptation is full of this sort of close diagnostic work on the soul—probing, exposing and analyzing the ways in which sin deceives us. It’s part of what makes it so heavy going, but it’s also, of course, why it is so full of challenge and conviction for those persistent enough to keep reading.

This careful, almost obsessive, diagnostic work on the human soul is very foreign to us. And it’s not the only aspect of Owen’s work that stands out as strange or different. Like any book from another age (Owen’s treatises were published between 1655 and 1658), Overcoming Sin and Temptation keeps surprising the reader not only with its vocabulary and mode of expression, but with the expectations, commonplaces and emphases of its world. Two in particular stood out for me.

The first is the emphasis on self-talk. Most of Owen’s directions for carrying out mortification, for example, consist in thinking certain thoughts or considering certain truths:

Keep alive upon your heart these or the like considerations of its guilt, danger, and evil; be much in the meditation of these things; cause your heart to dwell and abide upon them; engage your thoughts into these considerations; let them not go off nor wander from them until they begin to have a powerful influence upon your soul—until they make it to tremble. (p. 103)

Then there is this striking passage:

Bring your lust [= sinful desire] to the gospel—not for relief, but for further conviction of its guilt; look on him whom you have pierced … and be in bitterness. Say to your soul:

What have I done? What love, what mercy, what blood, what grace have I despised and trampled on! Is this the return I make to the Father for his love, to the Son for his blood, to the Holy Ghost for his grace? Do I thus requite the Lord? Have I defiled the heart that Christ died to wash, that the blessed Spirit has chosen to dwell in? And can I keep myself out of the dust? What can I say to the dear Lord Jesus? How shall I hold up my head with any boldness before him? Do I account communion with him of so little value, that for this vile lust’s sake I have scarce left him any room in my heart? How shall I escape if neglect so great salvation? (p. 105)

This emphasis is very common among the Puritans: don’t listen to yourself, preach to yourself. The word of God needs to be spoken and applied to our own souls, and this happens both publicly and privately. It happens publicly as we meet with others and they speak God’s word to us, but it also happens privately as we read and meditate upon the Word, and apply it vigorously, honestly and prayerfully to our own thoughts and desires and affections.

Owen regards private prayer and meditation of this kind as a spiritual duty. This is the second emphasis that stood out for me. ‘Duty’ is hardly the way I would describe the importance of personal prayer and Bible meditation. In fact, out of a desire to avoid legalism, like most evangelicals I have avoided the language of duty in talking about the ‘quiet time’.

Yet Owen is correct to point out that God in his mercy directs and commands us to engage constantly in prayer, and in setting our minds and hearts on heavenly things. It is an obligation upon us, and to neglect this good and helpful duty is not only rebellious, but foolish in the extreme—for it is precisely by fulfilling these duties that we weaken, undermine and uproot the presence of sin in our lives.

I hasten to add that Owen is not talking about the Puritan caricature of endless introspection and anxiety about whether one is numbered among the elect; nor does he have in mind a mindless or mechanical observance, whereby we tick the ‘quiet time’ box each day and consider the obligation fulfilled. Every duty, he argues, whatever its kind, must be done according to the rules which govern it—and in the case of spiritual duties, that means undertaking them in faith, with diligence and joy, looking to Christ and to the glory of God, and stirring up our hearts and affections to be engaged fully in the consideration of God’s word and its application to our lives.

All this is profoundly challenging to us modern evangelicals. How have we allowed this strand of evangelical doctrine and daily experience to wane? Owen’s answer would be that we have been diverted and distracted from it through the very power that spiritual duties are designed to oppose: the relentless, prevalent, deceitful power of indwelling sin.


1 I am indebted to John Hannah’s article on John Owen and the normal Christian life for this reference: http://www.graceonlinelibrary.org/articles/full.asp?id=33|37|569.

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