John Owen: Fighting Sin

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In the providence of God, the last few decades have witnessed a massive resurgence of interest in the Puritans. central in this resurgence have been the works of John Owen (1616–1683), who was described by some of his contemporaries as the “Calvin of England.” Indeed, Owen is to be placed alongside such theological giants as Augustine, Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Jonathan Edwards as one of the great biblical mentors on Christian theology and spirituality.

Owen grew up in a godly Puritan household. In the 1630s, he studied at Oxford, first for his BA and then for his MA. It was a tumultuous time for any who adhered to the Puritan cause, as Puritan leaders were becoming more vocal in their criticism of the unbiblical patterns of theology and worship of their mother church, the Church of England. The response to this criticism from the Anglican leadership was to use the power of the state to try to silence dissenting voices and bring about uniformity of belief. The ultimate result of this clash of perspectives was the English Civil War, which lasted from 1642 to 1651. Owen’s Puritan convictions naturally led him to sympathize with those fighting against the monarch, Charles I, who was a staunch defender of the state church. The initial victors in these struggles were the Puritans, who ruled much of Great Britain during the 1650s.

During this time of political turmoil, Owen was offered the pastorate in the village of Fordham in 1643. Owen was there until 1646, when he became the minister of the church at Coggeshall some five miles away. There, as many as two thousand people would crowd into the church each Lord’s Day to hear Owen preach, a clear indication of his ability. Owen’s gifts as a preacher and theologian were recognized later in the 1640s by none other than Oliver Cromwell (1599–1658), a rising star in the world of Puritan politics, who eventually appointed Owen as vice-chancellor of Oxford University. During this decade of Puritan ascendancy, Owen wrote two of his spiritual classics: On the Mortification of Sin in Believers (1656) and Of Temptation (1658). Both works are based on sermon material preached during the 1650s and can be found today in volume 6 of Owen’s collected works.

Though our technological and historical circumstances are very different from those of the Puritan era, the hearts of men and women have not changed. Indwelling sin, now as then, is an ever-present reality, as Owen details in these works. In fact, Owen argues that sin lies at the heart of even believers’ lives, and, if not resisted by prayer and meditation, will slowly but surely eat away zeal for and delight in the things of God.

Of Temptation is essentially an exposition of Matthew 26:41: “Watch and pray, that ye enter not into temptation” (KJV). Owen enumerates four seasons in which believers must exercise special care that temptation not lead them away into sin: times of outward prosperity, times of spiritual coldness and formality, times when one has enjoyed rich fellowship with God, and times of self-confidence, as in Peter’s affirmation to Christ, “I will not deny thee” (v. 35). The remedy Owen emphasizes is prayer. Typical of Puritan pithiness is his remark in this regard: “If we do not abide in prayer, we shall abide in cursed temptations.”

The first work, On the Mortification of Sin in Believers, is in some ways Owen’s richest discussion of the mortification of sin. This treatise was based on a series of sermons on Romans 8:13: “If ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live.” For Owen, this text made it abundantly clear that the believer has a constant duty to engage in putting to death the sin that still indwells his mortal frame. But equally important for Owen was the fact that this verse revealed that such a duty is only possible in the strength that the Holy Spirit supplies, for He alone is “sufficient for this work.” In essence, the Holy Spirit employs all of our human powers in the fight against sin. In sanctifying us, Owen insists, the Spirit works “in us and with us, not against us or without us.” Owen would rightly regard as unbiblical those who talk about “letting go and letting God” take care of the believer’s sins. Yet, he is very much aware that sanctification is a gift. This duty, he rightly emphasizes, is accomplished only through the Holy Spirit. Not without reason does Owen then lovingly describe the Spirit as “the great beautifier of souls.”

In a day when significant sectors of evangelicalism are characterized by spiritual superficiality and torpor, when godliness is not normally a major topic of interest, these books are like a draft of water in a dry and thirsty land. They remind us of the great spiritual heritage that we possess as Reformed Evangelicals. More significantly, they challenge us to recover the biblical priority of a godly life. 

First published in Tabletalk Magazine, an outreach of Ligonier. For permissions, view our Copyright Policy.