Temptation Chapter 1

Overcoming Sin and Temptation by John Owen

“Watch and pray, that you enter not into temptation” (Matt. 26:41). These
words of our Savior are repeated with very little alteration in three evangelists;
only, whereas Matthew and Mark have recorded them as above written,
Luke reports them thus: “Rise and pray, lest you enter into temptation”
[Luke 22:46]; so that the whole of his caution seems to have been, “Arise,
watch and pray, that you enter not into temptation.”
Solomon tells us of some that “lie down on the top of a mast in the midst
of the sea” (Prov. 23:34)—men overborne by security in the mouth of
destruction. If ever poor souls lay down on the top of a mast in the midst of
the sea, these disciples with our Savior in the garden did so. Their Master,
at a little distance from them, was “offering up prayers and supplications,
with strong crying and tears” (Heb. 5:7), being then taking into his hand and
beginning to taste that cup that was filled with the curse and wrath due to
their sins—the Jews, armed for his and their destruction, being but a little
more distant from them, on the other hand. Our Savior had a little before
informed them that that night he should be betrayed, and be delivered up to
be slain; they saw that he was “sorrowful, and very heavy” (Matt. 26:37);
nay, he told them plainly that his “soul was exceeding sorrowful, even unto
death” (v. 38), and therefore entreated them to tarry and watch with him,
now he was dying, and that for them. In this condition, leaving them but a
little space, like men forsaken of all love toward him or care of themselves,
they fall fast asleep! Even the best of saints, being left to themselves, will
quickly appear to be less than men—to be nothing. All our own strength is
weakness, and all our wisdom folly. Peter being one of them—who but a little
before had with so much self-confidence affirmed that though all men forsook
him, yet he never would so do [v. 35]—our Savior expostulates1 the
matter in particular with him: “He says unto Peter, Could you not watch
with me one hour?” (v. 40) as if he should have said, “Are you he, Peter, who
but now boasts of your resolution never to forsake me? Is it likely that you
should hold out therein, when you cannot watch with me one hour? Is this
your dying for me, to be dead in security, when I am dying for you?” And
indeed it would be an amazing thing to consider that Peter should make so
1 discusses earnestly
high a promise, and be immediately so careless and remiss in the pursuit of
it, but that we find the root of the same treachery abiding and working in
our own hearts, and do see the fruit of it brought forth every day, the most
noble engagements unto obedience quickly ending in deplorable negligence
(Rom. 7:18).
In this estate our Savior admonishes them of their condition, their weakness,
their danger, and stirs them up to a prevention of that ruin which lay at
the door. Says he, “Arise, watch and pray.”
I shall not insist on the particular aimed at here by our Savior, in this caution
to them that were then present with him; the great temptation that was
coming on them, from the scandal of the cross, was doubtless in his eye—but
I shall consider the words as containing a general direction to all the disciples
of Christ, in their following of him throughout all generations.
There are three things in the words: (1) The evil cautioned against—
temptation; (2) the means of its prevalency—by our entering into it; (3) the
way of preventing it—watch and pray.
It is not in my thoughts to handle the common-place of temptations, but
only the danger of them in general, with the means of preventing that danger;
yet, that we may know what we affirm and whereof we speak, some concerns
of the general nature of temptation may be premised.
First, for the general nature of tempting and temptation, it lies among things
indifferent; to try, to experiment, to prove, to pierce a vessel, that the liquor
that is in it may be known, is as much as is signified by it. Hence God is said
sometimes to tempt; and we are commanded as our duty to tempt, or try, or
search ourselves, to know what is in us, and to pray that God would do so
also. So temptation is like a knife, that may either cut the meat or the throat
of a man; it may be his food or his poison, his exercise or his destruction.
Secondly, temptation in its special nature, as it denotes any evil, is considered
either actively, as it leads to evil, or passively, as it has an evil and suffering
in it: so temptation is taken for affliction (James 1:2); for in that sense, we
are to “count it all joy when we fall into temptation”; in the other, that we
“enter not into it.”
Again, actively considered, it either denotes in the tempter a design for
the bringing about of the special end of temptation, namely, a leading into
evil; so it is said that “God tempts no man” (James 1:13), with a design for
sin as such—or the general nature and end of temptation, which is trial; so
“God tempted Abraham” (Gen. 22:1). And he proves or tempts by false
prophets (Deut. 13:3).
Now, as to God’s tempting of any, two things are to be considered:
(1) The end why he does it; (2) The way whereby he does it.
The End for Which God Tempts
For the first, his general ends are two:
He does it to show unto man what is in him—that is, the man himself;
and that either as to his grace or to his corruption (I speak not now of it as
it may have a place and bear a part in judiciary obduration2). Grace and corruption
lie deep in the heart; men oftentimes deceive themselves in the search
after the one or the other of them. When we give vent to the soul, to try what
grace is there, corruption comes out; and when we search for corruption,
grace appears. So is the soul kept in uncertainty; we fail in our trials. God
comes with a gauge that goes to the bottom.3 He sends his instruments of trial
into the bowels and the inmost parts of the soul, and lets man see what is in
him, of what metal he is constituted. Thus he tempted Abraham to show him
his faith. Abraham knew not what faith he had (I mean, what power and
vigor was in his faith) until God drew it out by that great trial and temptation.
When God says he knew it [Gen. 22:12], he made Abraham to know it.
So he tried Hezekiah to discover his pride [cf. 2 Chron. 32:25-31ff.]. God left
him that he might see what was in his heart, so apt to be lifted up, as he
appeared to have, until God tried him, and so let out his filth and poured it
out before his face. The issues4 of such discoveries to the saints, in thankfulness,
humiliation, and treasuring up of experiences, I shall not treat of.
God does it to show himself unto man, and that—
In a way of preventing grace.5 A man shall see that it is God alone who
keeps from all sin. Until we are tempted, we think we live on our own
strength. Though all men do this or that, we will not [cf. Matt. 26:35]. When
the trial comes, we quickly see whence is our preservation, by standing or
falling. So was it in the case of Abimelech: “I withheld you” (Gen. 20:6).
In a way of renewing grace. He would have the temptation continue with
2 hardening
3 basis, foundation
4 results, outcomes
5 a special grace that, preceding human willing, protects against further sinning
St. Paul, that he might reveal himself to him in the sufficiency of his renewing
grace (2 Cor. 12:9). We know not the power and strength that God puts
forth in our behalf, nor what is the sufficiency of his grace, until, comparing
the temptation with our own weakness, it appears unto us. The efficacy of
an antidote is found when poison has been taken; and the preciousness of
medicines is made known by diseases. We shall never know what strength
there is in grace if we know not what strength there is in temptation. We must
be tried, that we may be made sensible of being preserved. And many other
good and gracious ends he has, which he accomplishes toward his saints by
his trials and temptations, not now to be insisted on.
The Way God Tempts
For the ways whereby God accomplishes his search, trial, or temptation, these
are some of them:
He puts men on great duties, such as they cannot apprehend that they
have any strength for, nor indeed have. So he tempted Abraham by calling
him to that duty of sacrificing his son—a thing absurd to reason, bitter to
nature, and grievous to him on all accounts whatsoever. Many men know not
what is in them, or rather what is ready for them, until they are put upon
what seems utterly above their strength, indeed, upon what is really above
their strength. The duties that God, in an ordinary way, requires at our hands
are not proportioned to what strength we have in ourselves, but to what help
and relief is laid up for us in Christ; and we are to address ourselves to the
greatest performances with a settled persuasion that we have not ability for
the least. This is the law of grace; but yet, when any duty is required that is
extraordinary, that is a secret not often discovered. In the yoke of Christ it is
a trial, a temptation.
By putting them upon great sufferings. How many have unexpectedly
found strength to die at a stake, to endure tortures for Christ! Yet their call
to it was a trial. This, Peter tells us, is one way whereby we are brought into
trying temptations (1 Pet. 1:6-7). Our temptations arise from the “fiery trial,”
and yet the end is but a trial of our faith.
By his providential disposing of things so as that occasions unto sin will
be administered unto men, which is the case mentioned (Deut. 13:3); and
innumerable other instances may be adjoined.
Now, they are not properly the temptations of God, as coming from him,
with his end upon them, that are here intended; and therefore I shall set these
apart from our present consideration. It is, then, temptation in its special
nature, as it denotes an active efficiency toward sinning (as it is managed with
evil unto evil) that I intend.
The Way Satan Tempts
In this sense temptation may proceed either singly from Satan, or the world,
or other men in the world, or from ourselves, or jointly from all or some of
them, in their several combinations:
Satan tempts sometimes singly by himself, without taking advantage
from the world, the things or persons of it, or ourselves. So he deals in his
injection of evil and blasphemous thoughts of God into the hearts of the
saints; which is his own work alone, without any advantage from the world
or our own hearts: for nature will contribute nothing thereunto, nor anything
that is in the world, nor any man of the world; for none can conceive a God
and conceive evil of him. Herein Satan is alone in the sin, and shall be so in
the punishment. These fiery darts are prepared in the forge of his own malice,
and shall, with all their venom and poison, be turned into his own heart
Sometimes he makes use of the world, and joins forces against us, without
any helps from within. So he tempted our Savior, by “showing him all
the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them” [Matt. 4:8]. And the variety
of the assistances he finds from the world, in persons and things which I
must not insist on—the innumerable instruments and weapons he takes from
thence of all sorts and at all seasons—are inexpressible.
Sometimes he takes in assistance from ourselves also. It is not with us as
it was with Christ when Satan came to tempt him. He declares that he “had
nothing in him” (John 14:30). It is otherwise with us: he has, for the compassing6
of most of his ends, a sure party7 within our own breasts (James 1:14-
15). Thus he tempted Judas: he was at work himself; he put it into his heart
to betray Christ (Luke 22:3), “he entered into him” for that purpose (Luke
22:3). And he sets the world at work, the things of it, providing for him
“thirty pieces of silver” (v. 5: “They covenanted to give him money”); and
the men of it, even the priests and the Pharisees; and calls in the assistance of
his own corruption—he was covetous, “a thief, and had the bag” [John 12:6].
I might also show how the world and our own corruptions do act singly
by themselves, and jointly in conjunction with Satan and one another, in this
business of temptation. But the truth is, the principles, ways, and means of
6 attaining, achieving
7 participant
temptations, the kinds, degrees, efficacy, and causes of them, are so inexpressibly
large and various—the circumstances of them, from providence,
natures, conditions, spiritual and natural, with the particular cases thence
arising, so innumerable and impossible to be comprised within any bound or
order—that to attempt the giving an account of them would be to undertake
that which would be endless. I shall content myself to give a description of
the general nature of that which we are to watch against; which will make
way for what I aim at.
The Definitions of Temptation
Temptation, then, in general, is any thing, state, way, or condition that, upon
any account whatsoever, has a force or efficacy to seduce, to draw the mind
and heart of a man from its obedience, which God requires of him, into any
sin, in any degree of it whatsoever.
In particular, that is a temptation to any man which causes or occasions
him to sin, or in anything to go off from his duty, either by bringing evil into
his heart, or drawing out that evil that is in his heart, or any other way diverting
him from communion with God and that constant, equal, universal obedience,
in matter and manner, that is required of him.
For the clearing of this description I shall only observe, that though temptation
seems to be of a more active importance, and so to denote only the
power of seduction to sin itself, yet in the Scripture it is commonly taken in
a neuter sense, and denotes the matter of the temptation or the thing whereby
we are tempted. And this is a ground of the description I have given of it. Be
it what it will, that from anything whatsoever, within us or without us, has
advantage to hinder in duty, or to provoke unto or in any way to occasion
sin—that is a temptation, and so to be looked on. Be it business, employment,
course of life, company, affections, nature, or corrupt design, relations,
delights, name, reputation, esteem, abilities, parts or excellencies of body or
mind, place, dignity, art—so far as they further or occasion the promotion of
the ends before mentioned, they are all of them no less truly temptations that
the most violent solicitations of Satan or allurements of the world, and that
soul lies at the brink of ruin who discerns it not. And this will be further discovered
in our process.


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