Temptation Chapter 7

Overcoming Sin and Temptation by John Owen

Watch the Heart
That part of watchfulness against temptation which we have considered
regards the outward means, occasions, and advantages of temptation; we
now proceed to that which respects the heart itself, which is wrought upon
and entangled by temptation. Watching or keeping of the heart, which above
all keepings we are obliged unto, comes within the compass of this duty also;
for the right performance whereof take these ensuing directions:
Let him that would not enter into temptations labor to know his own
heart, to be acquainted with his own spirit, his natural frame and temper, his
lusts and corruptions, his natural, sinful, or spiritual weaknesses, that, finding
where his weakness lies, he may be careful to keep at a distance from all
occasions of sin.
Our Savior tells the disciples that “they knew not what spirit they were
of” [Luke 9:55], which, under a pretense of zeal, betrayed them into ambition
and desire of revenge. Had they known it they would have watched over
themselves. David tells us that he considered his ways, and “kept himself from
his iniquity,” which he was particularly prone unto (Ps. 18:23).

There are advantages for temptations lying oftentimes in men’s natural
tempers and constitutions. Some are naturally gentle, facile,23 easy to be
entreated, pliable; which, though it be the noblest temper of nature, and the
best and choicest ground, when well broken up and fallowed24 for grace to
grow in, yet, if not watched over, will be a means of innumerable surprises and
entanglements in temptation. Others are earthy, froward,25 morose,26 so that
envy, malice, selfishness, peevishness,27 harsh thoughts of others, repinings28 lie
at the very door of their natures, and they can scarce step out but they are in
the snare of one or other of them. Others are passionate and the like. Now, he
that would watch that he enter not into temptation had need be acquainted
with his own natural temper that he may watch over the treacheries that lie in
it continually. Take heed lest you have a Jehu in you, that shall make you drive
furiously; or a Jonah in you, that will make you ready to repine; or a David,
that will make you hasty in your determinations, as he was often, in the
warmth and goodness of his natural temper. He who watches not this thoroughly,
who is not exactly skilled in the knowledge of himself, will never be
disentangled from one temptation or another all his days.
Again: as men have peculiar natural tempers, which, according as they
are attended or managed, prove a great fomes29 of sin, or advantage to the
exercise of grace, so men may have peculiar lusts or corruptions, which, either
by their natural constitution or education, and other prejudices, have got deep
rooting and strength in them. This, also, is to be found out by him who would
not enter into temptation. Unless he know it, unless his eyes be always on it,
unless he observes its actings, motions, advantages, it will continually be
entangling and ensnaring of him. This, then, is our sixth direction in this kind:
Labor to know your own frame and temper;
what spirit you are of;
what associates in your heart Satan has;
where corruption is strong,
where grace is weak;
what stronghold lust has in your natural constitution,
and the like.
23 mild-mannered
24 plowed but unseeded
25 stubbornly contrary, obstinate
26 sullenly melancholy, gloomy
27 irritability, discontentment
28 discontentment, grumblings
29 diseased material
How many have all their comforts blasted and peace disturbed by their natural
passion and peevishness! How many are rendered useless in the world
by their frowardness and discontent! How many are disquieted even by their
own gentleness and facility!30 Be acquainted, then, with your own heart:
though it be deep, search it; though it be dark, inquire into it; though it give
all its distempers other names than what are their due, believe it not. Were
not men utter strangers to themselves—did they not give flattering titles to
their natural distempers—did they not strive rather to justify, palliate,31 or
excuse the evils of their hearts that are suited to their natural tempers and constitutions,
than to destroy them, and by these means keep themselves off from
taking a clear and distinct view of them—it were impossible that they should
all their days hang in the same briers without attempt for deliverance.
Uselessness and scandal in professors are branches growing constantly on this
root of unacquaintedness with their own frame and temper; and how few are
there who will either study them themselves or bear with those who would
acquaint them with them!
When you know the state and condition of your heart as to the particulars
mentioned, watch against all such occasions and opportunities, employments,
societies, retirements,32 businesses, as are apt to entangle your natural
temper or provoke your corruption. It may be there are some ways, some
societies, some businesses, that you never in your life escaped them, but suffered
by them, more or less, through their suitableness to entice or provoke
your corruption. It may be you are in a state and condition of life that weary
you day by day, on the account of your ambition, passion, discontent, or the
like: if you have any love to your soul, it is time for you to awake and to
deliver yourself as a bird from the evil snare. Peter will not come again in
haste to the high priest’s hall; nor would David walk again on the top of his
house, when he should have been on the high places of the field. But the particulars
of this instance are so various, and of such several natures in respect
of several persons, that it is impossible to enumerate them (Prov. 4:14-15).
Herein lies no small part of that wisdom which consists in our ordering our
conversation aright. Seeing we have so little power over our hearts when once
they meet with suitable provocations, we are to keep them asunder, as a man
would do fire and the combustible parts of the house wherein he dwells.
Be sure to lay in provision in store against the approaching of any temptation.
This also belongs to our watchfulness over our hearts. You will say,
30 aptitude, ease
31 moderate the seriousness or intensity of
32 privacy, seclusion, leisure
“What provision is intended, and where is it to be laid up?” Our hearts, as
our Savior speaks, are our treasury. There we lay up whatsoever we have,
good or bad; and thence do we draw it for our use (Matt. 12:35). It is the
heart, then, wherein provision is to be laid up against temptation. When an
enemy draws nigh to a fort or castle to besiege and take it, oftentimes, if he
find it well manned and furnished with provision for a siege, and so able to
hold out, he withdraws and assaults it not. If Satan, the prince of this world,
come and find our hearts fortified against his batteries, and provided to hold
out, he not only departs, but, as James says, he flees: “He will flee from us”
(4:7). For the provision to be laid up it is that which is provided in the gospel
for us. Gospel provisions will do this work; that is, keep the heart full of a
sense of the love of God in Christ. This is the greatest preservative against the
power of temptation in the world. Joseph had this; and therefore, on the first
appearance of temptation, he cries out, “How can I do this great evil, and sin
against God?”—and there is an end of the temptation as to him; it lays no
hold on him, but departs. He was furnished with such a ready sense of the
love of God as temptation could not stand before (Gen. 39:9). “The love of
Christ constrains us,” says the apostle, “to live to him” (2 Cor. 5:14); and so,
consequently, to withstand temptation. A man may, nay, he ought to lay in
provisions of the law also—fear of death, hell, punishment, with the terror
of the Lord in them. But these are far more easily conquered than the other;
nay, they will never stand alone against a vigorous assault. They are conquered
in convinced persons every day; hearts stored with them will struggle
for a while, but quickly give over. But store the heart with a sense of the love
of God in Christ, and his love in the shedding33 of it; get a relish of the privileges
we have thereby—our adoption, justification, acceptance with God; fill
the heart with thoughts of the beauty of his death—and you will, in an ordinary
course of walking with God, have great peace and security as to the disturbance
of temptations. When men can live and plod on in their profession,
and not be able to say when they had any living sense of the love of God or
of the privileges which we have in the blood of Christ, I know not what they
can have to keep them from falling into snares. The apostle tells us that the
“peace of God shall keep our hearts” (Phil. 4:7). The Greek [phroureø]
denotes a military word—a garrison; and so is, “shall keep as in a garrison.”
Now, a garrison has two things attending it—first, that it is exposed to the
assaults of its enemies; second, that safety lies in it from their attempts. It is
so with our souls; they are exposed to temptations, assaulted continually; but
33 diffusing, spreading abroad
if there be a garrison in them, or if they be kept as in a garrison, temptation
shall not enter, and consequently we shall not enter into temptation. Now,
how is this done? Says he, “The peace of God shall do it.” What is this “peace
of God”? A sense of his love and favor in Jesus Christ. Let this abide in you,
and it shall garrison you against all assaults whatsoever. Besides, there is that,
in a special manner, which is also in all the rest of the directions—and means
that temptation can make use of to approach unto our souls. Contending to
obtain and keep a sense of the love of God in Christ, in the nature of it, obviates34
all the workings and insinuations of temptation. Let this be a third
direction, then, in our watching against temptation: Lay in store of gospel
provisions that may make the soul a defensed place against all the assaults
In the first approach of any temptation, as we are all tempted, these directions
following are also suited to carry on the work of watching, which we
are in the pursuit of:
Be always awake, that you may have an early discovery of your temptation,
that you may know it so to be. Most men perceive not their enemy until
they are wounded by him. Yea, others may sometimes see them deeply
engaged, while themselves are utterly insensible; they sleep without any sense
of danger, until others come and awake them by telling them that their house
is on fire. Temptation in a neuter sense is not easily discoverable—namely, as
it denotes such a way, or thing, or matter, as is or may be made use of for the
ends of temptation. Few take notice of it until it is too late, and they find
themselves entangled, if not wounded. Watch, then, to understand betimes35
the snares that are laid for you—to understand the advantages your enemies
have against you, before they get strength and power, before they are incorporated
with your lusts, and have distilled poison into your soul.
Consider the aim and tendency of the temptation, whatsoever it be, and
of all that are concerned in it. Those who have an active concurrence into36
your temptation are Satan and your own lusts. For your own lust, I have manifested
elsewhere what it aims at in all its actings and enticings. It never rises
up but its intent is the worst of evils. Every acting of it would be a formed
enmity against God. Hence look upon it in its first attempts, whatsoever pretenses
may be made, as your mortal enemy. “I hate it,” says the apostle (Rom.
7:15)—that is, the working of lust in me. “I hate it; it is the greatest enemy I
34 anticipates and prevents
35 early, in due time
36 cooperation with
have. Oh, that it were killed and destroyed! Oh, that I were delivered out of
the power of it!” Know, then, that in the first attempt or assault in any temptation,
the most cursed, sworn enemy is at hand, is setting on you, and that
for your utter ruin; so that it were the greatest madness in the world to throw
yourself into his arms to be destroyed. But of this I have spoken in my discourse
of Mortification.
Has Satan any more friendly aim and intention toward you who is a
sharer in every temptation? To beguile you as a serpent, to devour you as a
lion, is the friendship that he owes you. I shall only add that the sin he tempts
you to against the law, it is not the thing he aims at; his design lies against
your interest in the gospel. He would make sin but a bridge to get over to a
better ground, to assault you as to your interest in Christ. He who perhaps
will say today, “You may venture on sin, because you have an interest in
Christ,” will tomorrow tell you to the purpose that you have none because
you have done so.
Meet your temptation in its entrance with thoughts of faith concerning
Christ on the cross; this will make it sink before you. Entertain no parley, no
dispute with it, if you would not enter into it. Say, “‘It is Christ that died’—
that died for such sins as these.” This is called “taking the shield of faith to
quench the fiery darts of Satan” (Eph. 6:16). Faith does it by laying hold on
Christ crucified, his love therein, and what from thence he suffered for sin.
Let your temptation be what it will—be it unto sin, to fear or doubting for
sin, or about your state and condition—it is not able to stand before faith lifting
up the standard of the cross. We know what means the papists,37 who
have lost the power of faith, use to keep up the form. They will sign themselves
with the sign of the cross, or make aerial crosses; and by virtue of that
work done, think to scare away the devil. To act faith on Christ crucified is
really to sign ourselves with the sign of the cross, and thereby shall we overcome
that wicked one (1 Pet. 5:9).
Suppose the soul has been surprised by temptation, and entangled at
unawares, so that now it is too late to resist the first entrances of it. What
shall such a soul do that it be not plunged into it, and carried away with the
power thereof?
First, do as Paul did: beseech God again and again that it may “depart
from you” (2 Cor. 12:8). And if you abide therein, you shall certainly either
be speedily delivered out of it, or receive a sufficiency of grace [so as] not to
be foiled utterly by it. Only, as I said in part before, do not so much employ
37 negative label for Roman Catholics, relating to belief in papal supremacy; from the Latin papa (“pope”)
your thoughts about the things whereunto you are tempted, which oftentimes
raises further entanglements, but set yourself against the temptation itself.
Pray against the temptation that it may depart; and when that is taken away,
the things themselves may be more calmly considered.
Second, fly to Christ, in a peculiar manner, as he was tempted, and beg
of him to give you succor in this “needful time of trouble.” The apostle
instructs us herein: “In that he has been tempted, he is able to succor them
that are tempted” (Heb. 4:16). This is the meaning of it: “When you are
tempted and are ready to faint, when you want succor—you must have it or
you die—act faith peculiarly on Christ as he was tempted; that is, consider
that he was tempted himself—that he suffered thereby—that he conquered
all temptations, and that not merely on his own account, seeing for our sakes
he submitted to be tempted, but for us.” (He conquered in and by himself,
but for us.) And draw, yea, expect succor from him (Heb. 4:15-16). Lie down
at his feet, make your complaint known to him, beg his assistance, and it will
not be in vain.
Third, look to him who has promised deliverance. Consider that he is
faithful and will not suffer you to be tempted above what you are able.
Consider that he has promised a comfortable issue of these trials and temptations.
Call all the promises to mind of assistance and deliverance that he
has made; ponder them in your heart. And rest upon it, that God has innumerable
ways that you know not of to give you in deliverance; as—
He can send an affliction that shall mortify your heart unto the matter
of the temptation, whatever it be, that that which was before a sweet morsel
under the tongue shall neither have taste or relish in it unto you—your desire
to it shall be killed; as was the case with David; or,
He can, by some providence, alter that whole state of things from
whence your temptation does arise, so taking fuel from the fire, causing it to
go out of itself; as it was with the same David in the day of battle; or,
He can tread down Satan under your feet, that he shall not dare to suggest
anything any more to your disadvantage (the God of peace shall do it),
that you shall hear of him no more; or,
He can give you such supply of grace as that you may be freed, though
not from the temptation itself, yet from the tendency and danger of it; as was
the case with Paul [2 Cor. 12:8-9]; or,
He can give you such a comfortable persuasion of good success in the
issue as that you shall have refreshment in your trials, and be kept from the
trouble of the temptation; as was the case with the same Paul; or,
He can utterly remove it, and make you a complete conqueror. And innu-
merable other ways he has of keeping you from entering into temptation, so
as to be foiled by it.
Fourth, consider where the temptation, wherewith you are surprised, has
made its entrance, and by what means and with all speed make up the
breach.38 Stop that passage which the waters have made to enter in at. Deal
with your soul like a wise physician. Inquire when, how, by what means, you
fell into this distemper; and if you find negligence, carelessness, want of keeping
watch over yourself, to have lain at the bottom of it, fix your soul there—
bewail that before the Lord—make up that breach—and then proceed to the
work that lies before you.

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