Overcoming Sin & Temptation

Derek Thomas Articles

J. I. Packer's endorsement of John Owen's treatment of sin in an introduction to the 1983, Multnomah Press edition of Owen's writings on sin, Sin and Temptation, contained the following effusive words: He told me how to understand myself as a Christian and live before God in a morally and spiritually honest way, without pretending either to be what I am not or not to be what I am. It is not too much at all to say that God used him to save my sanity. Likewise, Sinclair Ferguson, in an introduction to his own survey of Owen's writings, The Christian Life, testified to Owen's "penetrating exposition" and that as a teenager, Owen opened "up areas of need in [his] own heart, but also correspondingly profound assurances of grace in Jesus Christ." And John Piper, in a Foreword to this present edition, likewise speaks of the influence of John Owen and Jonathan Edwards upon him, saying that these two men have "nourished and taught [him] most."

We could multiply such citations. Enough, then, to justify yet another reprint of Owen's three classic treatments on sin: Of the Mortification of Sin in Believers (1656, and a second enlarged edition in 1658), Temptation (1658) and later Indwelling Sin (1667), all in one volume with updated and modernized spellings, punctuation etc. (including, alas! The Americanized spellings ["behavior" instead of "behaviour"]). Of significant interest are the overviews and extensive glossary at the back of the volume.

All three works are bound together, ringing the changes on the struggle within of grace-versus-sin in a way that few have equaled since. The section on mortification, largely drawn from sermons delivered to teenage boys at Oxford University, have a power that many have found convicting and yet graciously at the same time. Owen knew how only gospel motives can truly conquer sin.

Having taught an elective on Owen more than once at Reformed Theological Seminary and Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary over the past ten years I have discovered that Owen still holds a considerable power over the minds and hearts of those who read him. And nowhere is Owen more needful now than in the area of sanctification. Evangelicals are inclined to say that in Christ all our troubles will disappear. At best, it is only a half-truth. At worst, it (as Packer suggests above) destroys sanity. True, old problems are over, the problem of our severed relationship to God, the emptiness, or "vanity" of life, the fear of the future etc. But new troubles have begun! It is fair to say that I never knew about the problem of indwelling sin before I came to trust in Jesus Christ. I discovered immediately that through the "wardrobe door" I had, in fact, stepped into a war-zone. Nor is there any hope of cessation of hostilities this side of the grave or this-side of the Second Coming, whichever comes first.

This is precisely where the Puritans (men like John Owen, William Gurnall, and John Bunyan) were strong (and we are weak). They saw the Christian life as a war in which the prince of darkness, Satan, together with his minions, is implacably set against any advancement in the kingdom of God. Two great images abounded: "the pilgrim" and "the warrior" where believers (warriors and pilgrims each one) endeavor to make strides forward against the trinity of opposition: the world, the flesh and the devil. Think here of William Gurnall's The Christian in Complete Armour, or John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, or John Owen masterful On the Mortification of Sin in Volume 6 of his collected Works and you get the picture.

Owen's treatment of sin is part of a larger setting - the system which is reformed theology in all its multi-dimensional nature. Profound views of sin (in both its nature and extent) are the result of great views of God and the grace that is required for the salvation of sinners. Realising who we are and adjusting our lives accordingly, is what living the Christian life is chiefly about. It is a matter of knowing that we have died to sin the moment we first trusted in Jesus Christ (Rom. 6:2). Sin is no longer our master (Rom. 6:14); slavery to sin is something that belongs to our past (Rom. 6:17).

But sin has not surrendered the fight. On the contrary, as Romans 7 indicates all too clearly, sin remains a powerful force in the life of every Christian. Far from surrendering, sin has retreated into the background to fight a kind of guerrilla warfare. Remaining sin, wrote Thomas Watson, "is not perfectly cured in this life. Though grace does subdue sin, yet it does not wholly remove it... Though the Spirit be still weakening and hewing down sin in the godly, yet the stump of original sin is left. It is a sea that will not, in this life, be dried up."

The aim of the Christian life is to put this indwelling sin to death. "If by the Spirit you put to death ["mortify" is the King James word here] the deeds of the body, you will live" (Rom. 8:13); "Therefore put to death your members which are on earth..." (Col. 3:5). "Members" is the New King James rendition (the NIV has "your earthly nature"). Neither is quite as graphic as the original which literally translated is "appendages": the literal sense seems especially apropos here since what the apostle wants crucified are a list of sexual sins: "fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desire and covetousness which is idolatry"! Our aim is to destroy sin completely. And it is a life-long war of attrition. Lest we should be lulled into a false sense of security, Peter warns us of indwelling sin which "war against the soul" (1 Pet. 2:11). But how then do we engage in putting sin to death? This is where Owen excels and where this volume comes into its own. What does Owen say? A great deal! But essentially, this:

The first thing is to develop a Christian mind. It is interesting that the apostle speaks about this over and over again. "For to be carnally minded is death; but to be spiritually minded is life and peace" (Rom. 8:6). "And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God" (Rom. 12:2). For example, the way we think about sin affects the way we deal with sin. Recently, in a lecture on the doctrine of total depravity, I had occasion to mention the book once entitled, The Plague of Plagues, by the puritan Ralph Venning. The publishers (Banner of Truth) have seen fit to reissue it under a new title: The Sinfulness of Sin. "Obviously, its not meant to be best seller!" quipped one of the students! And, sadly, he had a point. Who would purchase a book with such a title? Only those intent and serious in ridding themselves of sin! It is the warning that J C Ryle uttered in the very opening sentence of his book, Holiness: "He that wishes to attain right views about Christian holiness, must begin by examining the vast and solemn subject of sin."

We need to have our minds changed, and changed about what sin is, and what sin does! It is interesting to note that the word most commonly used in the New Testament for "repentance" is metanoeo, a word which literally means to change one's mind. We need to appreciate the Bible's seven-fold description of sin as: rebellion against the ownership and rulership of God, transgression of the bounds that God has set has set, missing the mark God has told us to aim at, breaking the law which he has given, defiling ourselves and thereby making ourselves unfit (unclean) for his presence, embracing folly by shutting our ears to God's wisdom, and incurring guilt before God's judgement seat. This seven-fold recycling of sin's essence condemns us all, and we will do well to learn the Bible's thesaurus-like repetition of our sin.

If the first lesson is to know what sin is, the second is to learn to run from it. Running away from trouble is not necessarily cowardice; sometimes, in a moment of weakness, it is the sensible thing to do. "Flee" was the apostle's word: "Flee sexual immorality" (1 Cor. 6:18); "Flee youthful lusts..." (2 Tim. 2:22); "But you, O man of God, flee these things..." (1 Tim. 6:11; the "things" Paul had in mind were "foolish and harmful lusts which drown men in destruction and perdition" (v.9), one of which was "the love of money"). Did Paul have in mind the story of Joseph and how he fled from the clutches of Potiphar's venomous wife (Gen. 39:13)? Retreat in battle in order to regroup is a wise thing to do. We are to take care to recognize the occasions when sin is likely to strike: "he that dares to dally with the occasions of sin," writes Owen perceptively, will dare to sin."

Satan will go for our heart if he can, and that is why we need to ensure that we have on the breastplate of righteousness. In the context of Ephesians, Paul has in mind not only the foundational need of imputed righteousness, "the righteousness which is of God by faith" (Phil 3: 9); but, the apostle surely has in mind imparted righteousness. (Note the six-fold stapling of Ephesians by the word 'walk' (2:10, 4:1,17, 5:2,8,15, sadly omitted in the NIV translation) Weeds, if left unchecked, grow and eventually destroy the garden. As soon as we are conscious of the rising of sin within us, we are called upon to reject it. Unholy thoughts are to be replaced by holy ones. "Kill sin before it kills you" is Owen's warning, and what he meant was that sin is a killer, a vicious murderer out to destroy us. Compromise is not possible; we will be killed in the process. To sin's colourful allurements, we must learn to say "No!", even if that means running away.

Yet another feature of our warfare against sin (and we have merely been alluding to some of the things we need to know) is to develop a Christ-like character. Whenever the apostle makes mention of what some of the ways in which sin sometimes manifests itself, in Galatians 5:19-21, for example (and we should note that whenever the apostle mentions sinful habits, he is always specific in pinpointing our Satan-like sins) he is also careful to emphasize the positive side of sanctification, alluding, as he does, to the list of the Spirit's fruits. Thus, adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lewdness, idolatry, sorcery, hatred, contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, dissensions, heresies, envy, murders, drunkenness, revelries, and the like are to be replaced by love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

What this means, and what Owen constantly reinforces, is that we are to learn to deal with sin by focusing more and more on the character of Christ. We are to "put on" Christ, in the same way that we put on a garment. "Therefore, as God's chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience" (Col. 3:12). And nowhere did this Christ-likeness appear more evident than in Owen himself. At his death, David Clarkson, his pastoral associate for many years said: A great light is fallen; one of eminency for holiness, learning, parts and abilities; a pastor, a scholar, a divine of the first magnitude; holiness gave a divine lustre to his other accomplishments, it shined in his whole course, and was diffused through his whole conversation.

What am I saying? I'm saying, get hold of this volume edited by Kapic and Taylor. See it as an essential matter to read and devour. But prepare yourself for pain, for Owen will take no prisoners. If you want to keep living the humdrum, half-hearted life of faith you currently do, then pass it by.

John Owen, edited by Kelly Kapic & Justin Taylor / Illinois: Crossway, 2006
Review by Derek Thomas, Editorial Director of reformation21