Puritan Sundays: John Owen

If you’ve never heard of John Owen, you may have heard this famous quote:

“Be killing sin, or it will be killing you.”

These words come from John Owen’s works on indwelling sin and temptation in the believer. When people come to faith in Christ and are born again, there is still a battle to be fought over the remaining sin in our flesh. Paul speaks about this using the language of the old self and the new self. (see Ephesians 4 and Colossians 3 for examples). Even while we rejoice at being justified and made righteous in Christ, there’s still a war to be waged, by the Spirit’s power in us, with the sins and temptations that come from the world, our flesh, and the devil.

What is that war like, and how do we wage it? John Owen’s works – especially on sin and temptation – are the best handbook I’ve read for this discipline. Fair warning though – Owen is not an easy read. It takes a while to get used to the 17th century English and what J.I. Packer described as his ‘lumbering literary gait’. But it is so worth it. And today we have help from some fine and gracious editors who’ve given us an updated edition of his three classic works on sin and temptation in the believer – Of the Mortification of Sin in Believers, Of Temptation: The Nature and Power of It, and Indwelling Sin. Justin Taylor and Kelly Kapic have done a wonderful job of making these three works more accessible and more understandable to a modern audience by combining all three works into one book called Overcoming Sin and Temptation.

It took me a long time to read this book but that’s how it should be read. Some books are meant to be chewed on and digested slowly. I decided to use it as a kind of devotional before I did my Bible reading. I took notes in the margins, paraphrased his ideas, and looked up words I didn’t know in the dictionary. Many years on, I can see the fruit the Lord has worked in my own heart and life from taking one or two pages at a time and allowing the Spirit to work in me. It has been a picture of the synergy of sanctification that Paul speaks of in Philippians 2:12-13 – “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”

Have I arrived, so to speak? Absolutely not. While justified and declared righteous in Christ, I still wage war with my sin on a daily basis by the Spirit’s power. Some battles are won and many are lost, and some are still to be fought. But with John Owen’s help, I better understand the nature of this battle and the necessity of fighting it. Let me leave you with a couple quotes from this edition of Owen’s three works. The first is from the Forward by John Piper:

“As I look across the Christian landscape, I think it is fair to say concerning sin, ‘They have healed the wound of my people lightly’ (Jer. 6:14; 8:11, ESV). I take this to refer to leaders who should be helping the church know and feel the seriousness of indwelling sin (Rom. 7:20), and how to fight it and kill it (Rom. 8:13). Instead the depth and complexity and ugliness and danger of sin in professing Christians is either minimized – since we are already justified – or psychologized as a symptom of woundedness rather than corruption. This is a tragically light healing.”

And now from Owen:

“Set faith at work on Christ for the killing of your sin. His blood is the great sovereign remedy for sin-sick souls. Live in this, and you will die a conqueror; yea, you will, through the good providence of God, live to see your lust dead at your feet.”

You may not have the time or energy to read Owen right now. I certainly don’t. But there are many modern day authors who’ve been tremendously influenced by Owen who write in a more practical and readable style. One that immediately comes to mind is Jerry Bridges. He passed away some years ago, but his works on holiness and sanctification are nearly as convicting as Owen’s. Plus, from all accounts, he strived to live what he wrote. And if you’d like to read of one woman’s practice of ‘killing sin’, click here.

Have you read Owen? What has been your experience? And if you haven’t read him and do have the time and energy, I urge you to give him a try. You won’t be disappointed.

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