Like many other Evangelicals who encountered John Owen’s writings through the Banner of Truth reprint of the nineteenth-century standard edition, it was for me a literally life-changing experience. I have been intrigued by his life and erudition, as well as his friendship with Oliver Cromwell and John Bunyan (Bunyan drew upon his character for one of his heroes in The Holy War), and taught by his passionate interest in the work of the Holy Spirit that was fully biblical and balanced. Owen on sanctification
But what especially impacted me was his view of sanctification, which I first met in the treatises The Nature, Power, Deceit, and Prevalency of the Remainders of Indwelling Sin in Believers (1667), Of the Mortification of Sin in Believers (1656), which were sermons he delivered in the university of Oxford; and Of Temptation: The Nature and Power of It, first published in 1658, which also consists of sermon material preached during the 1650s.
Though our technological and historical circumstances are very different from those of 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 The Nature, Power, Deceit, and Prevalency of the Remainders of Indwelling Sin in Believers. Basing his discussion on Romans 7:21, Owen shows how 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: The Nature and Power of It, essentially an exposition of Matthew 26:41, further analyzes the way in which believers fall into sin. 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.” The remedy that 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 final work, Of the Mortification of Sin in Believers, is in some ways the richest of the three. Based on Romans 8:13, it details how to fight indwelling sin and ward off temptation. Owen emphasizes that in the fight against sin the Holy Spirit employs all of our human powers. In sanctifying us, Owen insists, the Spirit works “in us and with us, not against us or without us.” Owen would rightly regard those today who talk about “letting go and letting God” take care of the believer’s sins as unbiblical. Yet, he is very much aware that sanctification is also a gift. This duty, he rightly emphasizes, is only accomplished through the Holy Spirit. Not without reason does Owen lovingly describe the Spirit as “the great beautifier of souls.”
In a day when significant sectors of evangelicalism are characterized by spiritual superficiality and shallowness, and holiness is rarely a major topic of interest or discussion, these books are like a draught of water in a dry and thirsty land. They remind us of the great spiritual heritage that we possess as evangelicals. Even more significantly, they challenge us to recover the biblical priority of holiness.
Overcoming Sin and Temptation
Now, in the just-about-to be-released Overcoming Sin and Temptation (Crossway Books, 2006), Kelly M. Kapic and Justin Taylor have produced “an unabridged but updated edition” of these three classic works of Owen “that preserves all of Owen’s original content but seeks to make it a bit more accessible” (p.17). Reader, buy this book and read it meditatively. It will change your life!
John Piper on why to read John Owen
John Piper has a Foreword to the work in which he writes this about Owen—and his favourite theologian Jonathan Edwards (also one of my favourites!):
“The two dead pastor-theologians of the English-speaking world who have nourished and taught me most are Jonathan Edwards and John Owen. Some will say Edwards is unsurpassed. Some say Owen was the greater. We don’t need to decide. We have the privilege of knowing them both as our friends and teachers. What an amazing gift of God’s providence that these brothers were raised up and that hundreds of years after they have died we may sit at their feet. We cannot properly estimate the blessing of soaking our minds in the Bible-saturated thinking of the likes of John Owen. What he was able to see in the Bible and preserve for us in writing is simply magnificent. It is so sad—a travesty, I want to say—how many Christian leaders of our day do not strive to penetrate the wisdom of John Owen, but instead read books and magazines that are superficial in their grasp of the Bible.
“We act as though there was nothing extraordinary about John Owen’s vision of biblical truth—that he was not a rare gift to the church. But he was rare. There are very few people like this whom God raises up in the history of the church. Why does God do this? Why does he give an Owen or an Edwards to the church and then ordain that what they saw of God should be preserved in books? Is it not because he loves us? Is it not because he would share Owen’s vision with his church? Great trees that are covered with the richest life-giving fruit are not for museums. God preserves them and their fruit for the health of his church.
“I know that all Christians cannot read all such giants. Even one mountain is too high to climb for most of us. But we can pick one or two, and then ask God to teach us what he taught them. 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.” (p.12).
Here is the link to the book on the Crossway site: http://www.gnpcb.org/product/1581346492