Temptation Chapter 4

Overcoming Sin and Temptation by John Owen

These things being premised in general, I proceed to the consideration of three
particular cases arising from the truth proposed: the first whereof relates unto
the thing itself; the second unto the time or season thereof; and the last unto
deportment1 in reference unto the prevention of the evil treated of.
It may be inquired: (1) How a man may know when he is entered into
temptation; (2) What directions are to be given for the preventing of our
entering into temptation; (3) What seasons there are wherein a man may and
ought to fear that an hour of temptation is at hand.
I say, then—
When a man is drawn into any sin, he may be sure that he has entered
into temptation. All sin is from temptation (James 1:14). Sin is a fruit that
comes only from that root. Though a man be never so suddenly or violently
surprised in or with any sin, yet it is from some temptation or other that he
has been so surprised (so the apostle, Gal. 6:1). If a man be surprised, overtaken
with a fault, yet he was tempted to it; for says he, “Consider yourself,
lest you also be tempted”—that is, as he was when he was so surprised, as it
were, at unawares. This men sometimes take no notice of, to their great disadvantage.
When they are overtaken with a sin they set themselves to repent
of that sin, but do not consider the temptation that was the cause of it, to set
themselves against that also to take care that they enter no more into it. Hence
are they quickly again entangled by it, though they have the greatest detestation
of the sin itself that can be expressed. He that would indeed get the conquest
over any sin must consider his temptations to it, and strike at that root;
without deliverance from thence, he will not be healed.
This is a folly that possesses many who have yet a quick and living sense
of sin. They are sensible of their sins, not of their temptations—are displeased
with the bitter fruit, but cherish the poisonous root. Hence, in the midst of
their humiliations for sin, they will continue in those ways, those societies, in
the pursuit of those ends, which have occasioned that sin; of which more
Temptations have several degrees. Some arise to such a height, do so press
on the soul, so cruciate and disquiet it, so fight against all opposition that is
1 behavior
made to it, that it is a peculiar power of temptation that he is to wrestle with.
When a fever rages, a man knows he is sick, unless his distemper has made
him mad. The lusts of men, as James tells us, “entice, draw away,” and seduce
them to sin [1:14]; but this they do of themselves, without peculiar instigation,
in a more quiet, even, and sedate manner. If they grow violent, if they
hurry the soul up and down, give it no rest, the soul may know that they have
got the help of temptation to their assistance.
Take an empty vessel and put it into some stream that is in its course to
the sea, it will infallibly be carried thither, according to the course and speed
of the stream; but let strong winds arise upon it, it will be driven with violence
on every bank and rock, until, being broken in pieces, it is swallowed
up of the ocean. Men’s lusts will infallibly (if not mortified in the death of
Christ) carry them into eternal ruin, but oftentimes without much noise,
according to the course of the stream of their corruptions; but let the wind
of strong temptations befall them, they are hurried into innumerable scandalous
sins, and so, broken upon all accounts, are swallowed up in eternity.
So is it in general with men; so in particular. Hezekiah had the root of pride
in him always; yet it did not make him run up and down to show his treasure
and his riches until he fell into temptation by the ambassadors of the king
of Babylon [2 Chron. 32:31]. So had David; yet could he keep off from numbering
the people until Satan stood up and provoked him and solicited him
to do it [1 Chron. 21:1]. Judas was covetous from the beginning; yet he did
not contrive to satisfy it by selling of his Master until the devil entered into
him, and he thereby into temptation [Luke 22:3]. The like may be said of
Abraham, Jonah, Peter, and the rest. So that when any lust or corruption
whatsoever tumultuates and disquiets the soul, puts it with violence on sin,
let the soul know that it has got the advantage of some outward temptation,
though as yet it perceives not wherein, or at least is become itself a peculiar
temptation by some incitation or provocation that has befallen it, and is to
be looked to more than ordinarily.
Entering into temptation may be seen in 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. So was it with Jehu. He perceived that his repute for zeal began to
grow abroad, and he got honor by it. Jonadab2 comes in his way, a good and
holy man. “Now,” thinks Jehu, “I have an opportunity to grow in honor of
my zeal.” So he calls Jonadab to him, and to work he goes most seriously
[2 Kings 10:16ff.]. The things he did were good in themselves, but he was
entered into temptation, and served his lust in that he did. So is it with many
scholars. They find themselves esteemed and favored for their learning. This
takes hold of the pride and ambition of their hearts. Hence they set themselves
to study with all diligence day and night—a thing good in itself; but they do
it that they might satisfy the thoughts and words of men, wherein they
delight: and so in all they do they make provision for the flesh to fulfill the
lusts thereof [Rom. 13:14].
It is true, God oftentimes brings light out of this darkness and turns
things to a better issue. After, it may be, a man has studied sundry years, with
an eye upon his lusts—his ambition, pride, and vain-glory—rising early and
going to bed late, to give them satisfaction, God comes in with his grace, turns
the soul to himself, robs those Egyptian lusts [cf. Num. 11:5], and so consecrates
that to the use of the tabernacle which was provided for idols.
Men may be thus entangled in better things than learning, even in the
profession of piety, in their labor in the ministry, and the like. Some men’s profession
is a snare to them. They are in reputation, and are much honored on
the account of their profession and strict walking. This often falls out in the
days wherein we live, wherein all things are carried by parties. Some find
themselves on the accounts mentioned, perhaps, to be the darlings and
“ingentia decora,”3 or glory of their party. If thoughts hereof secretly insinuate
themselves into their hearts and influence them into more than ordinary
diligence and activity in their way and profession, they are entangled, and
instead of aiming at more glory, had need lie in the dust, in a sense of their
own vileness. And so close is this temptation that oftentimes it requires no
food to feed upon but that he who is entangled with it do avoid all means
and ways of honor and reputation; so that it can but whisper in the heart that
that avoidance is honorable. The same may be the condition with men, as was
said, in preaching the gospel, in the work of the ministry. Many things in that
work may yield them esteem—their ability, their plainness, their frequency,
their success; and all in this sense may be fuel unto temptations. Let, then, a
man know that when he likes that which feeds his lust, and keeps it up by
2 Jehonadab
3 “grand ornaments”
ways either good in themselves or not downright sinful, he is entered into
When by a man’s state or condition of life, or any means whatsoever, it
comes to pass that his lust and any temptation meet with occasions and opportunities
for its provocation and stirring up, let that man know, whether he perceive
it or not, that he is certainly entered into temptation. I told you before
that to enter into temptation is not merely to be tempted, but so to be under
the power of it as to be entangled by it. Now, it is impossible almost for a man
to have opportunities, occasions, advantages, suited to his lust and corruption,
but he will be entangled. If ambassadors come from the king of Babylon,
Hezekiah’s pride will cast him into temptation. If Hazael be king of Syria, his
cruelty and ambition will make him to rage savagely against Israel. If the
priests come with their pieces of silver, Judas’s covetousness will instantly be
at work to sell his Master. And many instances of the like kind may, in the days
wherein we live, be given. Some men think not to play on the hole of the asp4
and not be stung [Isa. 11:8], to touch pitch and not be defiled,5 to take fire in
their clothes and not be burnt [Prov. 6:27]; but they will be mistaken. If your
business, course of life, societies, or whatever else it be of the like kind, do cast
you on such things, ways, persons, as suit your lust or corruption, know that
you are entered into temptation; how you will come out God only knows. Let
us suppose a man that has any seeds of filth in his heart engaged, in the course
of his life, in society, light, vain, and foolish, whatsoever notice, little, great, or
none at all, it be that he takes of it, he is undoubtedly entered into temptation.
So is it with ambition in high places; passion in a multitude of perplexing
affairs; polluted corrupt fancy in vain societies; and the perusal of idle books
or treatises of vanity and folly. Fire and things combustible may more easily
be induced to lie together without affecting each other than peculiar lusts and
suitable objects or occasions for their exercise.
When a man is weakened, made negligent or formal in duty, when he can
omit duties or content himself with a careless, lifeless performance of them,
without delight, joy, or satisfaction to his soul, who had another frame formerly;
let him know, that though he may not be acquainted with the particular
distemper wherein it consists, yet in something or other he is entered into
temptation, which at the length he will find evident, to his trouble and peril.
How many have we seen and known in our days, who, from a warm profession
have fallen to be negligent, careless, indifferent in praying, reading, hear-
4 cobra
5 William Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing, III.iii.
ing, and the like! Give an instance of one who has come off without a wound,
and I dare say you may find out a hundred for him that have manifested themselves
to have been asleep on the top of the mast; that they were in the jaws
of some vile temptation or other, that afterward brought forth bitter fruit in
their lives and ways. From some few returners from folly we have every day
these doleful complaints made: “Oh! I neglected private prayer; I did not meditate
on the word, nor attend to hearing, but rather despised these things: and
yet said I was rich and wanted nothing. Little did I consider that this unclean
lust was ripening in my heart; this atheism, these abominations were fomenting6
there.” This is a certain rule: If his heart grow cold, negligent, or formal
in duties of the worship of God, and that either as to the matter or manner of
them, who has had another frame, one temptation or other has laid hold upon
him. World, or pride, or uncleanness, or self-seeking, or malice and envy, or
one thing or other, has possessed his spirit; gray hairs are here and there upon
him, though he perceive it not. And this is to be observed as to the manner of
duties, as well as to the matter. Men may, upon many sinister accounts, especially
for the satisfaction of their consciences, keep up and frequent duties of
religion, as to the substance and matter of them, when they have no heart to
them, no life in them, as to the spirituality required in their performance. Sardis
kept up the performance of duties, and had therefore a name to live, but
wanted spiritual life in their performances, and, was therefore “dead” (Rev.
3:1). As it is in distempers of the body, if a man find his spirits faint, his heart
oppressed, his head heavy, the whole person indisposed, though he do not yet
actually burn nor rave, yet he will cry, “I fear I am entering into a fever, I am
so out of order and indisposed”—a man may do so in this sickness of the soul.
If he find his pulse not beating aright and evenly toward duties of worship and
communion with God—if his spirit be low and his heart faint in them—let him
conclude, though his lust does not yet burn nor rage, that he is entered into
temptation, and it is high time for him to consider the particular causes of his
distemper. If the head be heavy and slumber in the things of grace, if the heart
be cold in duties, evil lies at the door. And if such a soul does escape a great
temptation unto sin, yet it shall not escape a great temptation by desertion.
The spouse cries, “I sleep” (Song 5:2) and that she had “put off her coat, and
could not put it on” [v. 3]—had an indisposition7 to duties and communion
with Christ.8 What is the next news you have of her? Her “Beloved had with-
6 inciting, agitating
7 disinclination, unwillingness
8 Owen—along with most interpreters in the seventeenth century—interpreted the Song of Solomon (or
Canticles, as they referred to it) as a “description of the communion that is between the Lord Christ and
his saints” (Works, 2:46).
drawn himself” (v. 6)—Christ was gone; and she seeks him long and finds him
not. There is such a suitableness between the new nature that is wrought9 and
created in believers and the duties of the worship of God, that they will not be
parted nor kept asunder, unless it be by the interposition10 of some disturbing
distemper. The new creature feeds upon them, is strengthened and increased
by them, finds sweetness in them, yea, meets in them with its God and Father;
so that it cannot but of itself, unless made sick by some temptation, delight in
them, and desire to be in the exercise of them. This frame is described in the
119th Psalm throughout. It is not, I say, cast out of this frame and temper11 or
other. Sundry other evidences there are of a soul’s entering into temptation,
which upon inquiry it may discover.
I propose this to take off the security that we are apt to fall into, and to
manifest what is the peculiar duty that we are to apply ourselves unto in the
special seasons of temptation; for he that is already entered into temptation
is to apply himself unto means for disentanglement, not to labor to prevent
his entering in. How this may be done I shall afterward declare.

9 shaped, molded, fashioned
10 interjection, intervention
11 character, disposition

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