Overcoming Sin and Temptation by John Owen
Introduction: Life in the Midst of Battle: John Owen’s Approach to Sin, Temptation, and the Christian Life by Kelly M. Kapic
“Be killing sin or it will be killing you.”1
WHY READ JOHN OWEN?
Sitting across from me in our London flat with warm tea in her hand and shortbread
on the table, my wife had a revelation. During recent conversations we
had been praying that God would provide a mentor for me while I was working
on my Ph.D.—someone who would ask the hard questions, challenge my
thinking and living, and consistently point me to the love of the Father. As we
sat talking that morning, in what had become normal language around our
home, I began another sentence with, “Do you know what Owen said yesterday
. . . ?” Stopping me, Tabitha interjected, “You are being mentored. Listen
to how you refer to John Owen, as if he were still alive. He is your mentor.”
She was right. Although Owen had been dead for centuries, I found
myself in almost daily dialogue with this prominent Puritan whose thought
was serving as the object of my doctoral studies. While recognizing the cultural
and historical differences between Owen’s time and my own was of vital
importance for my academic research, still I was often drawn into a living dialogue
with this intriguing man. Sometimes I found myself frustrated with his
methods or conclusions, but very often his insights simply captured me. His
words would stir me to the point of honest self-examination and an ever-
1 John Owen, The Works of John Owen, ed. William H. Goold, 24 vols. (Edinburgh: Johnstone & Hunter,
1850-1855; reprint by Banner of Truth Trust, 1965, 1991) (hereafter cited as Works), 6:9.
growing appreciation for the glory and love of God. I can recall many a time
when I would have to stop reading, stand up, and just walk around for
awhile, trying to digest a profound sentence. While a person from another
century cannot serve as a replacement for living and breathing fellowship, I
have learned the value of listening to the saints of old, and this Puritan theologian
is certainly a voice worth hearing. I sometimes think of Dr. John
Owen as a perceptive physician who delivers both a terrifying diagnosis and
the means of a miraculous cure.
u u u
John Owen was born in the year of William Shakespeare’s death, 1616,
and his life paralleled an exciting and tumultuous century in Britain.2 Before
he died in 1683, Owen had experienced life as an army chaplain, a political
insider, Vice Chancellor of Oxford, a leading Puritan theologian, faithful pastor,
father, and husband. He had also known great personal loss. Though he
had eleven children with his first wife, only one of them survived beyond adolescence;
the one girl who did survive ended up returning to live with her
father after her marriage collapsed, and while in his home she died of consumption.
3 Such painful experience cannot help but leave a deep imprint on
a person. On the professional level Owen’s career had reached great heights,
such as preaching before Parliament, leading Oxford University, and having
friendships with those in the highest positions of authority, including Oliver
Cromwell. Yet he also lived through the loss of power and position, as his
country moved away from a Puritan-influenced government back to a country
led by a King who was less than excited about the Puritan ideals.4
2 The best published biography on Owen remains Peter Toon, God’s Statesman: The Life and Work of John
Owen: Pastor, Educator, Theologian (Exeter, UK: Paternoster, 1971). See also Peter Toon, ed., The
Correspondence of John Owen (Cambridge: James Clarke & Co., 1970); idem, ed., The Oxford Orations
of Dr. John Owen (Cornwall: Gospel Communications, 1971). Some recent book-length studies on Owen’s
thought deserve mention: Richard W. Daniels, The Christology of John Owen (Grand Rapids, Mich.:
Reformation Heritage, 2004); Sinclair B. Ferguson, John Owen on the Christian Life (Edinburgh: Banner
of Truth, 1987); Robert W. Oliver, ed., John Owen: The Man and His Theology (Phillipsburg, N.J.:
Presbyterian & Reformed, 2002); Steve Griffiths, Redeem the Time: The Problem of Sin in the Writings of
John Owen (Fearn, UK: Mentor, 2001); Jon D. Payne, ed., John Owen on the Lord’s Supper (Edinburgh:
Banner of Truth, 2004); Sebastian Rehnman, Divine Discourse: The Theological Methodology of John
Owen, Texts and Studies in Reformation and Post-Reformation Thought (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker,
2002); Carl R. Trueman, The Claims of Truth: John Owen’s Trinitarian Theology (Carlisle, UK:
Paternoster, 1998). Kelly M. Kapic, Communion with God: The Divine and the Human in the Theology
of John Owen (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, forthcoming, 2007).
3 Dewey D. Wallace, “The Life and Thought of John Owen to 1660: A Study of the Significance of Calvinist
Theology in English Puritanism” (Ph.D. thesis, Princeton University, 1965), 124. Sarah Gibbord Cook also
writes of the difficult time after the Restoration, when Dr. and Mrs. Owen were separated from their children
for long periods of time because of various circumstances (“A Political Biography of a Religious
Independent: John Owen, 1616–83” [Ph.D. thesis, Harvard University, 1972], 290).
4 Cf. Christopher Hill, The Experience of Defeat: Milton and Some Contemporaries (London: Faber &
Faber, 1984), 170-178.
Throughout the various seasons of his life Owen proved himself a most
able author: the authoritative nineteenth-century edition of his works fill
twenty-four tightly printed volumes.5 Amid his extensive writings, which
include biblical commentaries and exhaustive (and exhausting!) treatments
of doctrines like justification and the atonement, Owen also produced devotional
literature that quickly became beloved. In the volume you are reading
we have selected three of his classics on spirituality—although it needs
to be said that he viewed all of his discourses as spiritual exercises and not
as something void of practical import. In these three particular works we
find Owen’s detailed reflections on sin, temptation, and the believer’s call to
In 1656 Owen first published Of the Mortification of Sin in Believers. In
1658 that volume was slightly revised and another short treatise, Of
Temptation: The Nature and Power of It, was also printed. During the time
that these two books were published, Owen was still serving as Dean of
Christ Church, Oxford University, and the substance of both discourses grew
out of brief sermons that Owen delivered during his tenure there. Young students
were most likely the bulk of his original audience—Owen had entered
Queen’s College Oxford as a student at the age of twelve, which was not
uncommon for the time.6 One consequence of addressing this youthful audience
seems to be that his reflections tend toward the concrete and practical,
emphasizing the particular rather than lingering too long on the abstract.
Here were young people who were beginning to experience the complexity
of sin and self, and Owen was compelled to help.
Crucial to resisting sin and temptation, according to Owen, was an
understanding of what you were fighting. Although written a decade later,
Owen’s explorations on these practical subjects are further unpacked in his
book, The Nature, Power, Deceit, and Prevalency of Indwelling Sin (1667).
Here Owen focuses on the power of sin not as it exists “out there,” but as it
exists “within” a person. By the time this volume was published, Owen’s context
had significantly changed: he had been removed from the academic setting,
had watched the return of Charles II, and had personally witnessed the
governmental crackdown on nonconformist Puritan preachers. But for
Owen, circumstances—whether amiable or painful—were not an excuse to
5 Besides the standard printed 24-volume set noted above, an electronic version has recently been produced:
“The Works of John Owen” (Rio, Wis.: Ages Software, 2000). Owen’s Latin writings have also recently
been translated and made available in English: John Owen, Biblical Theology, or, the Nature, Origin,
Development, and Study of Theological Truth, in Six Books, trans. Stephen Westcott (Morgan, Pa.: Soli
Deo Gloria, 1994).
6 Toon, God’s Statesman, 5.
stop resisting sin. The call of holiness was a call from God himself, and thus
not contingent upon the state of affairs in which one finds oneself.
Christians are called to war against sin. According to Owen, this means
they are called to learn the art of battle, which includes understanding the
nature of sin, the complexity of the human heart, and the goodness and provision
of God. Following a classic stream of orthodox theology, Owen
argues that humility is crucial to growth in the Christian life, and proper
humility comes from “a due consideration” both of God and of oneself.7
Only from this perspective can one be in a right position to approach the
call to holiness.
Owen’s varied experiences, such as working with students (not to mention
faculty) and providing pastoral care, gave him ample opportunity for reflection
on the way that sin weaves its way into every aspect of people’s lives.
Two particular challenges about human nature that appear in these volumes
deserve brief comment: his attempt to present a holistic view of the human
person, and his belief that personality differences must be considered when
dealing with sin.
Engaging the Whole Person
Contemporary readers may at first glance struggle with Owen’s detailed parsing
of human nature and sin, believing that his reflections are dated and irrelevant.
However, upon closer examination the reader may begin to recognize
that although Owen does not use current labels, he is dealing with very contemporary
issues, such as depression, addiction, apathy, and lust.
One of Owen’s concerns was that some people reduced the struggle with
sin to a problem centered on the physical body. They had taken the biblical
language of the “body of sin” (Rom 6:6, ESV) and inappropriately treated it
as a literal reference to physicality. This misunderstanding leads to what
Owen considers the monastic “mistake”: believing that rigid regiments that
yield greater physiological control will eventually diminish the sin that lies in
a person.8 For Owen, while the body is important, it is but the instrument for
the real problem.
Using classic faculty-psychology categories of the mind, the will, and the
affections, Owen consistently attempts to present a holistic perspective of the
7 Works, 6:200.
8 Works, 6:7, 18.
human person, and this informs his view of sin and sanctification.9 Originally
humanity was created without sin, and thus their mind rightly reflected on
the Creator and his creation, their affections properly loved God, and their
will followed after the good. However, with the fall these faculties became
disordered. Even after believers are redeemed by God they will continue to
struggle with the abiding vestiges of sin that disorient the faculties, a condition
that remains throughout their earthly life.10
Sin moves by drawing the mind away from God, enticing the affections
and twisting desires and paralyzing the will, thus stunting any real Christian
growth.11 One of the most frightening truths that Owen wants the believer to
recognize is that “Your enemy is not only upon you . . . but is in you also.”12
Part of understanding the battle against sin is seeing that the enemy, so to
speak, is not only external, but internal, which is why Christians often have
conflicting desires within them.13 Most Christians seem unaware of or apathetic
about the sin that remains in them, but whether they recognize it or not
there is a “living coal continually in their houses,” which, if not properly
attended to, will catch their home on fire.14
As the Scriptures often call attention to the “heart” or “soul” of a person,
Owen argues that such references tend to be shorthand for the various
faculties, and thus to deal with sin the whole person must be engaged.15
Although Owen gives ample attention to each of the faculties, let us focus on
the affections as a test case to show the nature of sin and temptation. Far too
often Christians working within the Reformed tradition have been guilty of
confusing stoic ideals of emotional detachment with maturity in the Christian
life. But this Reformed tradition, which Owen self-consciously grows out of,
has at its best made significant space for the importance of the affections. As
early as the sixteenth century John Calvin, one of the great fathers of the
Reformed tradition, saw this confusion and warned against it. Calvin chided
those Christians who acted like “new stoics,” because they believed that
groaning, weeping, sadness, and having deep concerns were signs of sinfulness.
According to Calvin such comments tend to grow from “idle men who,
exercising themselves more in speculation than in action,” do not understand
9 For a discussion of Owen’s anthropology and his use of faculty psychology, see Kapic, Communion with
God: The Divine and the Human in the Theology of John Owen, especially chapter 2.
10 Works, 6:165.
11 Works, 6:97, 167, 245, 252.
12 Works, 6:162.
13Cf. Romans 7:7-25. Owen’s whole treatise Indwelling Sin builds off of this chapter, especially Romans 7:21.
14 Works, 6:166.
15 Works, 6:170.
the pain of this world and the ravages of sin, which the Savior who wept and
mourned knew so well.16 The goal of Calvin and of others after him, like
Owen, was not the absence of affections, but rightly informed and directed
Affections are a gift from God to all humanity. Far too often the faculties
have been “gendered” in the church, for example, when people lump
“rationality” with men and “emotions” with women. In addition to empirical
evidence that easily contradicts such hastily drawn stereotypes, one
should reject such schemas because all Christians are called to love God with
their mind, will, and affections. Healthy affections are crucial to the life of
faith, and numbing them cannot be the answer. In Owen’s estimation, because
the affections are so important to faithful obedience, Scripture often interchanges
the language of heart and affections, for here is “the principal thing
which God requires in our walking before him. . . . Save all other things and
lose the heart, and all is lost—lost unto all eternity.”17
The goal of the Christian life is not external conformity or mindless
action, but a passionate love for God informed by the mind and embraced
by the will. So the path forward is not to decrease one’s affections but rather
to enlarge them and fill them with “heavenly things.” Here one is not trying
to escape the painful realities of this life but rather endeavoring to reframe
one’s perspective of life around a much larger canvas that encompasses all of
reality. To respond to the distorting nature of sin you must set your affections
on the beauty and glory of God, the loveliness of Christ, and the wonder of
the gospel: “Were our affections filled, taken up, and possessed with these
things . . . what access could sin, with its painted pleasures, with its sugared
poisons, with its envenomed baits, have unto our souls?”18 Resisting sin,
according to this Puritan divine, comes not by deadening your affections but
by awakening them to God himself. Do not seek to empty your cup as a way
to avoid sin, but rather seek to fill it up with the Spirit of life, so there is no
longer room for sin.
Part of treating persons as holistic beings is recognizing the similarities and
differences among them. With this in mind, it seems strange that “psychology”
is so often a negative term among Christians. Certainly people have used
16 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2 vols., The Library of Christian Classics (Philadelphia:
Westminster Press, 1960), 1:709 (III.viii.9).
17 Works, 6:249.
18 Works, 6:250; cf. 6:188.
this science in a problematic manner at times, reducing human persons to
mechanistic behavioral responses without any reference to God. However,
many Christians have created problems on the other end by their overly simplistic
view of human persons, failing to account for such important factors
as physiological distinctions, diverse backgrounds, and deep-seated socioeconomic
impulses. While it is true that all humans are made in God’s image,
and that everyone is called to resist sin and seek righteousness, these commonalities
do not cancel out undeniable particularities. In other words, what
does righteousness look like in the lives of concrete individuals? How does
sin tempt people in different ways? In many respects Owen’s three treatises
can be read as early modern attempts to explore human psychology as
affected by sin and renewed by the Spirit.19
Faithful living does not always look the same. Sensitive pastors have long
recognized this, learning the art of taking the wisdom of Scripture and applying
it with care to the lives of those they counsel. Cookie-cutter molds simply
will not work. In this vein, one reason that Owen consistently calls his readers
to understand their own temperaments is because this will help them better
appreciate how sin and temptation arise in their own lives. He recognizes
that some people are by birth and experience “earthy,” while others are “naturally
gentle,” and still others tend to have “passionate” dispositions. The
challenge for all is to learn about their own constitution: “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.”20
According to this Puritan pastor, there is no temperament that is free from
temptation, and the trick is to be aware of the threats that are easily overlooked.
For example, those who are naturally gentle and pleasant may be surprised to
find themselves far down a path that they should have courageously departed
from long ago. Such a person may, for instance, turn a deaf ear to slander or a
blind eye to injustice because acknowledging these wrongs might require the
person to act courageously. Although it would be easier to mind his own business,
he may need to risk discomfort by standing up for those mocked or being
willing to express righteous anger in the face of discrimination. Others who tend
toward the “earthy” may rightly uphold what is now commonly called
authenticity, but in the process they foster “selfishness” and “harsh thoughts of
others.” We all have “peculiar lusts” due to our particular constitution, education,
or prejudice, and such things have “deep rooting and strength in
19 Cf. Timothy J. Keller, “Puritan Resources for Biblical Counseling,” Journal of Pastoral Practice 9/3
20 Works, 6:132.
them.”21 Satan tends to attack us according to our particular personalities,
moving against a confident person much differently than an anxious one, but
tempting both nonetheless. Thus, we must learn our dispositions, for in so
doing we are more prepared to avoid the stealthy arrows directed at us.
A persistent danger among Christians is that we confuse certain personalities
with sanctification, creating an inaccurate hierarchy within the kingdom
of God. In fact, Owen believes that because of our various backgrounds
and temperaments, it is very hard to discern the most faithful Christians, since
looks can be deceiving:
Remember that of many of the best Christians, the worst is known and
seen. Many who keep up precious communion with God do yet oftentimes,
by their natural tempers of freedom or passion, not carry so glorious
appearances as others who perhaps come short of them in grace and the
power of godliness.22
Not only can appearances be misleading, but people in positions of leadership
in the church often suffer greater falls than the average congregation
member. When considering countless examples of the saints in Scripture (e.g.,
Noah, David, Hezekiah), Owen concludes that great “eruptions of actual
sin” often occur not in “the lowest form or ordinary sort of believers,” but
in people who have in the past “had a peculiar eminency in them on the
account of their walking with God in their generation.”23 Past faithfulness is
not a protection against present dangers.
In this life there is no escaping the challenges of temptation, and thus
all—young and old, pastor and parishioner, poor and rich, wise and simple—
must commit themselves to battle against sin. “Be acquainted, then, with
thine 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.”24 Do not justify your own particular sin, but seek to recognize
it so that you might fight against it with all your strength. Although sin and
temptation affect everyone differently, none can escape the constant
onslaught. Christians are called to wage war against this enemy, knowing that
there are only two options: “Be killing sin or it will be killing you.”25 While
21 Works, 6:132.
22 Works, 6:298, emphasis original.
23 Works, 6:279.
24 Works, 6:132.
25 Works, 6:9.
battlefield language may sound extreme to our ears, that is how Owen—following
the Bible—conceives of this struggle. With this in mind, the only hope
Owen can promise comes not through further self-examination but by
embracing the love and provision of God.
KNOWING YOUR GOD
Affirming the importance of honest introspection does not blind Owen to the
fact that this exercise will lead a person to despair if it is not also paralleled
with a study of the grace of God. Since sin entered the world, it has become
challenging for people to rightly view themselves, God, and his work. We are
prone to have “hard thoughts” of God that tend to keep us from turning to
him.26 Owen’s goal is not to have people remain focused on their sin but
rather to embrace the redemption accomplished in Christ. The aim is not
despair but freedom for what Owen often calls “gospel obedience.”27
Obedience rightly understood is always a response to God’s love.
A crucial work of the mind in the process of sanctification is the consistent
consideration of God and his amazing grace.28 This does not mean considering
God as an abstract metaphysical principle. Rather, the Christian
meditates upon him and with him. This distinction makes all the difference,
placing the discussion within the framework of relationality, rather than mere
rationality. Owen’s challenge is most instructive: “when we would undertake
thoughts and meditations of God, his excellencies, his properties, his glory,
his majesty, his love, his goodness, let it be done in a way of speaking unto
God, in a deep humiliation . . . in a way of prayer and praise—speaking unto
God.”29 The invitation here is not to impersonal theological studies but rather
to life-changing encounters with Yahweh.
One of the great promises of God is that he will preserve his people. In
fact, the idea of the “perseverance of the saints” is frequently misunderstood,
according to Owen, for so often discussion about remaining in the faith
focuses on human efforts, as if it is up to us to avoid losing our salvation. In
truth, the Christian hope rests not ultimately upon our own diligence, but on
God’s faithfulness.30 It is God, not us, who will ultimately persevere, and that
is why he is able to promise us eternal life: “where the promise is, there is all
26 E.g., Works, 2:34-35; 6:377, 570-72; 7:521; 9:37-39; 11:389-390, 581, etc.
27 E.g., Works, 1:441; 2:180-181; 3:323, 634; 8:536; 11:379-424, etc.
28 Works, 6:222.
29 Works, 6:225.
30 This is the argument made at great length in Owen’s massive book, The Doctrine of the Saints’
Perseverance (1654), Works, 11:1-666.
this assistance. The faithfulness of the Father, the grace of the Son, and the
power of the Spirit, all are engaged in our preservation.”31 Christians can be
confident about their growth in sanctification and eternal security because
they are confident in the God who promises it.
Ever deepening communion with God occurs as the Spirit draws us to
the Father through the Son.32 The Father will allow none to be snatched from
his hand, the Son incarnate is a truly sympathetic high priest who is the lover
of our souls, and the Spirit applies the atoning work of Christ to us. Thus,
Owen reminds believers to keep these truths in mind as they face temptation,
bringing their “lust to the gospel,” lest they lose sight of the sufficient sacrifice
and restorative grace found in God’s work. “What love, what mercy,
what blood, what grace have I despised and trampled on! Is this the return I
make to the Father for his love, to the Son for his blood, to the Holy Ghost
for his grace?”33 Notice that the love is preexistent, the blood shed, and the
grace extended. The believer is not working to secure these realities, but seeking
to live in light of them. Christians stand in the shadow of the cross, having
experienced the tender mercy of God. They aim not to convince God that
they are worthy of his love, but to grow in their knowledge and fellowship
with him. It is through this ever-growing communion with the Father, Son,
and Spirit that the believer is most able to resist sin and temptation. “Let a
soul exercise itself to a communion with Christ in the good things of the
gospel—pardon of sin, fruits of holiness, hope of glory, peace with God, joy
in the Holy Ghost, dominion over sin—and he shall have a mighty preservative
against all temptations.”34
THE WORK OF SANCTIFICATION
How should the Christian understand the work of sanctification? Is the call
of believers to holiness God’s work or their own? There are two extremes
often found in the church when dealing with these questions. On the one
hand, there are those who seem to believe that we are saved by grace and
sanctified by works: here grace is problematically reduced to the initial work
of salvation. On the other hand, in an effort to avoid “works righteousness,”
others tend to collapse justification and sanctification; the danger here is that
31 Works, 6:142.
32 Owen unpacks the idea of fellowship with God within a Trinitarian framework in his Of Communion
with God the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost (1657; Works, 2:1-274). To place Owen’s approach within the
larger context of his thought, see Kapic, Communion with God: The Divine and the Human in the
Theology of John Owen, especially chapter 5.
33 Works, 6:58.
34 Works, 6:144.
the biblical call to active, faithful obedience by the believer can be nullified,
and inappropriate passivity can set in. Rather than these two extremes, Owen
follows the more traditional Reformed perspective that upholds another
model of sanctification.35
True and lasting resistance to sin comes not through willpower and selfimprovement
but through the Spirit who empowers believers with a knowledge
and love of God. Throughout his writings Owen is always quick to
highlight the continuing work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer.36
Not only does the Spirit of God bring life to those who are dead in sin, thus
causing a new birth, but he also continues the work of God in the renewing
of that person in the image of Christ. The fundamental difference between
Owen’s proposal and self-help programs is that he believes that only as the
Spirit communicates the grace and love of the Father to us can we experience
genuine relief.37 Mortification of sin is “the gift of Christ” to believers, and
this is given by the Spirit of the Son.38 Efforts apart from the Spirit do not
bring sanctification, even if they do produce changed behavior. Although the
Spirit often uses beneficial activities such as “fasting and watching,” rituals
and human effort without the Spirit cannot ultimately bring liberation from
sin and temptation.39
So is the work of sanctification God’s work or our work? Or is it some
combination of the two? Maybe such questions are themselves problematic.
John Murray, writing several centuries after Owen, fairly communicates
the kind of approach Owen employs, although Murray here states it
God’s working in us [in sanctification] is not suspended because we work,
nor our working suspended because God works. Neither is the relation
strictly one of co-operation as if God did his part and we did ours so that
the conjunction or coordination of both produced the required result. God
works in us and we also work. But the relation is that because God works
35 Owen warns, for example, against the extremes of rigid legalism on the one hand and false liberty on the
other (Works, 6:14).
36 Owen’s fullest exploration of the person and work of the Spirit is found in volumes 3 and 4 of his works.
Volume 3 contains a massive treatise on the Holy Spirit, and volume 4 contains four shorter explorations
of aspects of the work of the Spirit (e.g., the Spirit and prayer, or spiritual gifts).
37 Works, 6:7, 10, 16.
38 Works, 6:19.
39 Works, 6:61, 224-232.
40 John Murray, Redemption, Accomplished and Applied (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1955; reprint,
1992), 148-149, emphasis original.
Owen’s own view is similar, seeing sanctification as the work of God in and
through the life of the believer. This is not passivity, but active living empowered
by the Spirit of life.41
Two concepts commonly appear in early Reformed approaches to sanctification:
mortification and vivification. Building on the language and imagery
of Colossians 3:9-10, the idea of mortification was understood as a putting off
of the “old man,” and vivification was conceived as the reality of being made
alive by the Spirit.42 Although the actual language of “vivification” is found
less often in Owen than in earlier theologians like John Calvin or the renowned
Puritan Thomas Goodwin, the idea is clearly present.43 These twin ideas of
sanctification require not only the shedding of sin but also renewal in grace.
A practical example of how this works out may prove helpful.
Consider a man who is struggling with inappropriate sexual thoughts
about one of his female coworkers. What does holiness look like in this case?
Very often Christians have a truncated view of sanctification, which stops far
too short of true righteousness. Although it would be a good thing for this
man to get to the point that he no longer looks at this women as an object of
lust, that is not all that is hoped for in sanctification. Rather, in the power of
the Spirit the goal is to move to a life-affirming position. Thus, the objective
is not the absence of thoughts about this woman but the presence of a godly
appreciation for her. Under normal circumstances this man should not simply
try to deny her existence by avoiding her, but rather begin treating her
with dignity, offering words that build her up instead of dehumanizing her
with his thoughts. Ultimately lust will be replaced by genuine and appropriate
respect and love. Similarly, the goal of dealing with gossip is not merely
the absence of slander (which is the good work of mortification), but eventually
the creating of an environment of encouragement, peace, and trust (further
fruits of the Spirit’s enlivening presence and work). Following the
41 Owen puts it thus: “The Holy Spirit works in us and upon us, as we are fit to be wrought in and upon;
that is, so as to preserve our own liberty and free obedience. He works upon our understandings, wills,
consciences, and affections, agreeably to their own natures; he works in us and with us, not against us or
without us” (Works, 6:20).
42 See Richard A. Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms: Drawn Principally from
Protestant Scholastic Theology (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 1985), 196, 328-329.
43 For a helpful comparison between Calvin and Owen on these topics, see Randall C. Gleason, John Calvin
and John Owen on Mortification: A Comparative Study in Reformed Spirituality, Studies in Church History
(New York: Peter Lang, 1995). Calvin employs this language more often than Owen, but Owen does use
it for bringing and sustaining life to people who are spiritually dead (e.g., Works, 3:209, 282, 329, 334;
15:585). Thomas Goodwin, a friend of Owen, would be an example of a Puritan who employs the language
much more frequently, in his slightly older treatise, The Trial of a Christian’s Growth in
Mortification, or Purging Out Corruption; and Vivification, or Bringing Forth More Fruit . . . (1643), The
Works of Thomas Goodwin, 12 vols. (James Nichol: 1861–1866; reprint, Eureka, Calif.: Tanski, 1996),
trajectory of thought of theologians like Calvin and Owen, sanctification
involves both putting sin to death and becoming free to love and obey.
We have briefly explored a few themes from Owen’s thought that might help
prepare readers for what they are about to encounter in his writings on sin,
mortification, and temptation. Several things will quickly become apparent,
such as recognizing that the language, sentence structure, and sometimes his
sensitivities are not modern. As you read, do not be surprised to feel a certain
amount of historical distance between yourself and Owen—to deny such
differences would be naïve and problematic. The goal is not to create romantic
views of the past, hoping to usher Christians back to some sort of “pure”
seventeenth-century setting. Owen makes it perfectly clear that the power of
sin and Satan were just as real then as now. Believers should read Owen not
to return to the past but to gain insight into how they might more faithfully
live in the present and prepare for the future.
“Be killing sin or it will be killing you.” Culture has changed, but sinful
human nature has not. For centuries Owen’s works have challenged
Christians to think afresh about how they face the reality of sin and temptation.
Now Owen serves yet another generation of believers, calling us to wake
from sleepy and apathetic attitudes toward holiness, demanding that we
engage in honest self-reflection. But he doesn’t stop there, for he intends to
excite in us a renewed sense of the tender mercy of God who delights to commune
with his people. Owen’s thoughts are before you. You stand at the
threshold of Dr. John Owen’s office. Will you enter and receive the diagnosis,
and stay to hear your cure?