Book Review: Overcoming Sin and Temptation (John Owen)

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“The really great writers are not valuable for their cleverness but for their straightforward and astonishing insight into what the Bible really says about great realities. This is what we need.”

John Piper’s opening exhortations in the Foreword are an important introduction to not only these paramount works of John Owen, but the theologian himself. John Owen is one of the most prolific writers and teachers in the history of the church. His writing is extensive, rich, and the perfect paradoxical balance of simplicity with depth. Owen was famous for his treatment on the issues of sin, and these three classics — Of the Mortification of Sin in Believers, Of Temptation: The Nature and Power of It, and The Nature Power, Deceit, and Prevalency of Indwelling Sin — are a trifecta in answering all of man’s questions on sin and temptation. What is it? Why is it? And most importantly, how can we overcome it?

In this updated translation and packaging, Crossway has done a wonderful job of taking Owen’s work, preserving and retaining the rich wisdom he lent us long ago, and updating it to be more easily received and applied by modern readers. Reading the Puritans of old can be very daunting; chapter markings and an outlined sense of thought are sometimes missing, and of course the language of these men from long ago can be hard to follow accurately. Editors Kelly M. Kapic and Justin Taylor and their team have treated Owen’s classic writing with precision and care, while giving us a one-volume, compact version of his work on sin. The book is outlined into three “movements” or “acts,” keeping Owen’s three classic works on sin separated in some sense.

Act One is Of the Mortification of Sin in Believers, perhaps Owen’s most notable work of all. In it John Owen builds out the thesis of Romans 8:13, which has founded his entire philosophy on sin and mortification: “If you through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body you shall live.” Owen takes this verse, and from there explains why mortifying sin is necessary in the Christian life, the dangers of leaving sin un-mortified, the “Do’s and Don’ts” on how we are to mortify our sins, and answering common questions and objections surrounding these subjects.

Owen first illustrates our pursuit for the mortification of sin as, “the saddest warfare that any poor creature can be engaged in. A soul under the power of conviction from the law is pressed to fight against sin, but has no strength for the combat. They cannot but fight, and they can never conquer” [85]. Our inability to mortify sin must be realized, but there is still hope for us in this area. “There is no way of deliverance from the state and condition of being in the flesh but by the Spirit of Christ” [112]. We can only be moved by the Spirit of Christ when we come to the self-realization that we mustn’t excuse or justify our sin, but rather make Christ the ultimate Deliverer. “Christ, dealing with his decaying children, goes to the root with them, lays aside their profession: “I know you” (Rev. 3:15) — “You are quite another thing than you profess; and this makes you abominable” [138]. Perhaps the most moving sentence of Owen’s Mortification is when he makes this remark about how we perceive Christ: “When we go to Christ for healing, faith eyes him peculiarly as one pierced” [169]. The rich theological understanding of why mortification is necessary guides the reader through Of the Mortificationwith a sense of urgency, guilt, yet hope and peace in Spirit’s work.

Act Two is Of Temptation: The Nature and Power of It. In this section of the book, Owen’s foundational text is Matthew 26:41, and Owen uses the words “Watch and pray” taken from the passage to build an entire basis for how we should treat temptation: with a watchful eye, and a heart of prayer. Owen’s focus in this section is more on temptation than sin, which he beautifully illustrates as two completely different entities. He spends his time answering the evil in question (temptation), its prevalence in our lives, and how we prevent it. One of the key quotations from Owen’s argument is when he says, “The efficacy of an antidote is found when poison has been taken; and the preciousness of medicines is made known by diseases” [213].

In a similar style as Of the Mortification, Owen moves from the foundational texts, to clearly defining what temptation is and what it is not. Finally, he addresses how we can be diligent in striving to avoid temptation, from which he goes back to Matthew 26:41 and urges us to “watch and pray.” “The daily exercise of our thoughts with an apprehension of the great danger that lies in entering into temptation, is required of us” Owen writes [271]. Finally, he shows the faithfulness of God in pursuing righteousness, writing, “He that makes it his business to eat daily of the tree of life will have no appetite unto other fruit, though the tree that bear them seem to stand in the midst of paradise” [301].

Finally, Act Three finishes with The Nature Power, Deceit, and Prevalency of Indwelling Sin, where Owen seeks to explain what indwelling sin is, how it operates, why we struggle with it, and how it affects us. Owen, as he does in the other two parts, centers the entire argument around one core verse — this time coming from Romans 7:21. Owen teaches us some valuable lessons about the power and efficacy of indwelling sin. “it is one thing for a man to know in general that there is a law of sin; [it is] another thing for a man to have an experience of the power of this law of sin in himself” [328]. He encourages us to “commit the whole matter with all care and diligence unto him who can search the heart to the uttermost” [356].

I love the way Owen’s essay on indwelling sin ends. “And these are some of the ways whereby it pleases God to put a stop to the progress of sin, both in believers and unbelievers, which at present we shall instance in; and if we would endeavor further to search out his ways unto perfection, yet we must still conclude that it is but a little portion which we know of him” [506]. Despite the vast amount of work and belaboring John Owen did in these rich pages, even he realizes that his works do not compare to the “unsearchable riches” of our great God. And this blog post is an infinitesimal look into what Owen’s words and thoughts in Overcoming Sin and Temptation.

If you’re a fan of John Owen, get this book. But even if you’re not, get this book.

It is a difficult read for beginners and new Christians, but read it slowly, read it with care, and let Owen’s straightforwardness and simplicity carry you to a deeper understanding of what sin and temptation are, and how Christ’s work and God’s glory helps us defeat this evils. I highly recommend this for any church leader, as it is a great resource to help ourselves and our congregations understand these tough topics better. A big thank you to Crossway for this fresh look at a classical goldmine in theology.

Stars: 5.0/5.0

Beyond the Page” is a reading program by Crossway that allows experienced bloggers to download free eBooks in exchange for a book review upon completion. Below is a review of a book I’ve selected in the program. Check out my review, check out these books, and check out Beyond the Page if you’re interested in signing up.

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