Owing Owen

I don’t think it’s any coincidence that, when listening to or reading something about the nature of sin and temptation, nearly every theologian I respect has, in the same breath as both of these concepts, mentioned the name of John Owen. The first time I ever remember hearing his name was several years ago, while listening to John Piper’s sermon series, How To Kill Sin. His text for that series was Romans 8:12-13, the main subject of which was to ‘put to death the deeds of the body’. It was then that he mentioned John Owen’s book, On the Mortification of Sin in Believers, which was a collection of sermons of Owen’s own exposition of the same text. I filed the name away, but was never able to find a copy of the book by itself.

Then this summer thanks to an amazing sale, I finally acquired Owen’s works (though I had managed to find a paperback copy of Mortification about a year and a half ago), and finally was able to actually start reading it last month. I made it my goal to read his Big Three, Mortification, On Temptation, and On Indwelling Sin in November, and almost made it, but didn’t quite finish IS (as part of my reading project also included Phillip Schaff’s volume on the German Reformation). But in these three books I found the wealth of wisdom and piety unlike almost anything I’d ever read. All the old theologians that talk about how incredible Owen is aren’t exaggerating.

I’ve read a small smattering of other Puritans (Watson, Burroughs, Venning, etc) but Owen has by far surpassed them all. While they all offer incredible theology with practicality almost unheard of today, they sometimes seem to be almost over-spiritual. They seem to appeal to their experiences frequently, or sometimes their use of Scriptures can leave something to be desired. But Owen is by far the most textual of any I’ve read, while not losing any of the godly sincerity of the others.

I’d never before been urged to such watchfulness. Temptation is almost entirely related to this, and most of his explanation of indwelling sin repeatedly finds itself turning into another exhortation to watch. The majority of the way I had been taught regarding sin and temptation seemed to be to have verses memorized that I could cling to, and to cry out to God when tempted and ask for his help. But from Owen I heard, possibly for the first time in my life, that my main task was to altogether avoid temptation. To scrutinize every action, every thought, every motive to see if anywhere in it lied a hiding place for sin.

I feel like there isn’t a way I could explain even part of what I learned reading these three books in one post. In fact, I feel like I did them a disservice reading them as quickly as I did, even if they are incredibly short (only 320 pages in all). So, hopefully as I keep writing here I’ll from time to time mention a particular point that comes to mind, especially if I reread them as I intend.

But in the meantime, if anyone wants to read them, you can find all three books in one volume with slightly updated language, entitled Overcoming Sin and Temptation, which includes a foreword by Piper. I can describe how much it bothers me that the Puritans have a reputation of either a) being self-righteous witch-hunting theocrats, or b) ivory tower theologians out of touch with reality. Owen is immensely theological, which no one would most likely contest, but also is more practical than any modern author I’ve read. He plumbs the depths of a doctrine and then shows you innumerable ways to live it. Read him!

* * *

Incidentally, I highly recommend that sermon series by Piper. It’s one of his best.

How To Kill Sin, part I

Part 2

Part 3


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