Preface: Reading John Owen by Justin Taylor

Overcoming Sin and Temptation by John Owen

Preface: Reading John Owen: Why a New Edition? by Justin Taylor

One of our goals in publishing this volume is to reintroduce John Owen to
the church today. And one of the hindrances in the way of his reception is his
reputation for being hard to read. There is no glossing over the fact that
studying Owen’s writings requires hard work. But we would also insist—
alongside many of the great saints in the history of the church—that the effort
required to read Owen is richly repaid. We agree with the judgment of J. I.
Packer regarding Owen’s works: “I did not say that it was easy to read
them!—that would not be true; yet I do venture to say that the labour
involved in plodding through these ill-arranged and tediously-written treatises
will find them abundantly worthwhile.”1 Our goal has been to produce
a faithful and accurate edition of Owen’s writings on sin and temptation that
begins to overcome some of these barriers to understanding his profound and
practical insights and instruction.
In order to understand Owen’s literary style, it is worth quoting Packer at
There is no denying that Owen is heavy and hard to read. This is not so
much due to obscure arrangement as to two other factors. The first is his
lumbering literary gait. ‘Owen travels through it [his subject] with the elephant’s
grace and solid step, if sometimes also with his ungainly motion,’
1 J. I. Packer, A Quest for Godliness (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 1990), 84.
says [Andrew] Thomson. That puts it kindly. 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. The present writer, however, has found that the
hard places in Owen usually come out as soon as one reads them aloud.
The second obscuring factor is Owen’s austerity as an expositor. He has a
lordly disdain for broad introductions which ease the mind gently into a
subject, and for comprehensive summaries which gather up scattered
points into a small space. He obviously carries the whole of his design in
his head, and expects his readers to do the same. Nor are his chapter divisions
reliable pointers to the discourse, for though a change of subject is
usually marked by a chapter division, Owen often starts a new chapter
where there is no break in the thought at all. Nor is he concerned about literary
proportions; the space given to a topic is determined by its intrinsic
complexity rather than its relative importance, and the reader is left to
work out what is basic and what is secondary by noting how things link
At the same time, we shouldn’t exaggerate the difficulties of Owen’s prose
when set before a certain sort of reader:
His studied unconcern about style in presenting his views, a conscientious
protest against the self-conscious literary posturing of the age, conceals
their uncommon clarity and straightforwardness from superficial readers;
but then, Owen did not write for superficial readers. He wrote, rather, for
those who, once they take up a subject, cannot rest till they see to the bottom
of it, and who find exhaustiveness not exhausting, but satisfying and
refreshing. . . .
Owen’s style is often stigmatized as cumbersome and tortuous.
Actually it is Latinised spoken style, fluent but stately and expansive, in the
elaborate Ciceronian style. When Owen’s prose is read aloud, as didactic
rhetoric (which is, after all, what it is), the verbal inversions, displacements,
archaisms and new coinages that bother modern readers cease to obscure
and offend. Those who think as they read find Owen’s expansiveness suggestive
and his fulsomeness fertilising.3
2 Ibid., 147.
3 Ibid., 193, 194.
Up until now, there have been two main options for those who want to read
Owen’s writings on sin and temptation. One could work through volume
6 of The Works of John Owen as edited by William Goold in the 1850s,4
or one could use a contemporary abridgement or paraphrase.5 In this volume
we are seeking to present something new: an unabridged but updated
edition of Owen’s three classic works that preserves all of Owen’s original
content but seeks to make it a bit more accessible. In so doing, we hope to
play a small part in reintroducing Owen to both the church and the
What changes have we made to the original edition of Owen’s works? We
• provided overviews of the thesis and arguments for all three
• footnoted difficult vocabulary words or phrases (at their first occurrence
in each book) and collected them into a glossary
• Americanized the British spelling (e.g., behaviour to behavior)
• updated archaic pronouns (e.g., thou to you)
• updated other archaic spellings (e.g., hath to have; requireth to
• updated some archaic word forms (e.g., concernments to concerns,
surprisals to surprises)
• corrected the text in places where the nineteenth-century edition
incorrectly deviated from the original
• modernized some of the punctuation
4 There are two main collections of Owen’s works: a 21-volume set edited by Thomas Russell (1826), and
a 24-volume set edited by William Goold (1850–1853). The former is long out of print; the latter, save for
one volume, has been reprinted in facsimile by the Banner of Truth Trust in Edinburgh (1965–1968) and
has remained in print for the last 40 years. The Works of John Owen, with some slight updates, have also
been included on a CD-Rom published by Ages Software of Rio, Wisconsin.
5 For an edited abridgement, see John Owen, Triumph Over Temptation: Pursuing a Life of Purity, Victor
Classics, ed. James M. Houston (Colorado Springs: Victor, 2004). (This volume was formerly titled Sin
and Temptation: The Challenge of Personal Godliness, originally published by Multnomah in 1983, followed
by Bethany in 1996.) The principle was “to seek the kernel and remove the husk,” which involved
cutting about half of the original work and extensive rewriting. See also Kris Lundgaard’s popular work,
The Enemy Within: Straight Talk About the Power and Defeat of Sin (Phillipsburg, N.J.: Presbyterian &
Reformed, 1998), which is not an edition of Owen’s writings per se, but rather an effort by Lundgaard to
restate and recast Owen’s arguments for today. In addition, the Banner of Truth Trust and Christian Focus
Publications in the UK have each produced small paperback editions of The Mortification of Sin, with only
slight modifications contained therein.
6We are also editing a new edition of Owen’s Communion with God (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, forthcoming).
• placed Owen’s Scripture references in parentheses7
• added our own Scripture references in brackets when Owen quotes
or alludes to a passage but does not provide a reference
• transliterated all Hebrew and Greek words, and provided a translation
if Owen didn’t provide one
• translated all Latin phrases that Owen leaves untranslated
• provided sources for quotations and allusions where possible
• removed Owen’s intricate numbering system, which functioned as
an extensive outline
• added headings and italics throughout this volume, and extensive
outlines of our own at the end, to aid the reader in following the flow
of Owen’s thought
As an example of the sort of limited modernizing that we have done to
the text, the following is a reproduction of an original paragraph from
Owen’s The Nature, Power, Deceit, and Prevalency of Indwelling Sin (from
his exposition of Revelation 2) . . .
The fame might alfo be fhewed concerning the reft of thofe Churches, only
one or two of them excepted. Five of them are charged with decays and
declensions. Hence there is mention in the Scripture of the Kindnefs of
Youth, öf the Love of Efpoufals, with great commendation, Jer. 2. 2, 3. of
our firft Faith, I Tim. 5. 12. of the beginning of our confidence, Heb. 3.14.
. . . and this is our edited version as it appears in this volume:
The same also might be showed concerning the rest of those churches, only
one or two of them excepted. Five of them are charged with decays and
declensions. Hence there is mention in the Scripture of the “kindness of
youth,” of the “love of espousals,” with great commendation (Jer. 2:2-3);
of our “first faith” (1 Tim. 5:12); of “the beginning of our confidence”
(Heb. 3:14).
Readers will note that, unlike in modern books, there are no chapter titles—
Owen didn’t assign any. Furthermore, the location of the chapter breaks can
7 Readers will note that the Scripture references in this volume do not correspond precisely to any particular
translation. The reason for this is twofold: (1) Owen did not rely upon one translation. His use of
Scripture often involves his own combination of translation and paraphrase. (2) While some of the Scripture
passages are similar to the Geneva Bible or to the King James Bible (published just five years before Owen’s
birth), they do not match precisely due to our updating of archaic components in those translations.
come across as arbitrary. As Packer said, Owen “obviously carries the whole
of his design in his head, and expects his readers to do the same. Nor are his
chapter divisions reliable pointers to the discourse, for though a change of
subject is usually marked by a chapter division, Owen often starts a new
chapter where there is no break in the thought at all.” In fact, we believe that
making the chapter breaks prominent can actually add to the confusion in
reading Owen’s work. (For example, in the outline for Of the Mortification
of Sin in Believers, you’ll note that chapter 3 begins with Roman numeral II.)
One option would have been to dispense with the chapter numbers altogether.
We decided to retain the chapter numbers, but to make them less prominent
by placing them in brackets and not always at the beginning of a new page.
This allows Owen’s own outline to receive greater emphasis, and we believe
it will aid the reader in following Owen’s thought.
As noted above, we have also taken Owen’s original intricate numbering
system and used it to create our own outlines in the back of the book. We
encourage readers to use these outlines, paginated for easy reference, where
one can see his main points and the flow of his argument.
Although we desire to see an increased understanding of and appreciation for
Owen’s works in our day, our greater desire is to see fellow believers return
to the biblical means of sanctification in their battle to overcome sin and
temptation. All of us find within ourselves a law to the effect that, when we
want to do right, we discover evil within ourselves (Rom. 7:21). Our prayer
is that this book will be used of God to help us watch and pray against temptation
(Matt. 26:41) so that by the Spirit we would mortify the deeds of the
body (Rom. 8:13).8

Soli Deo gloria.

8 Romans 7:21 is the foundational text for Owen’s Indwelling Sin. Matthew 26:41 is the key text for Of
Temptation: The Nature and Power of It. And Romans 8:13 stands at the front of Of the Mortification of
Sin in Believers.