November 21, 2014

Reading John Owen’s Blog: On Battling Sin

by Mike Riccardi

John Owen Portrait 2In recent years, many Christians have become increasingly familiar with Jonathan Edwards. As a result, many know that in addition to Edwards’ many theological masterpieces (like The End for Which God Created the World, The Freedom of the Will, and Original Sin), he also wrote what he called Miscellanies. These were reflections of various lengths on miscellaneous theological and practical topics. In other words, they were 18th-century Puritan blog posts.

Well, Edwards wasn’t the only one to do that. John Owen, perhaps the greatest theological mind of Puritanism, also penned these short, blog-post-like, reflections—though he called them “Discourses” instead of “Miscellanies.” A number of Owen’s Discourses are contained in Volume 9 of his Works, under the heading, “Several Practical Cases of Conscience Resolved.” There, he answers numerous practical questions within the span of 3 to 5 pages or so. Some examples include: “How does a Christian recover from neglect of the spiritual disciplines?” and “What does it mean for a sin to be ‘habitual’?” and “How are we to prepare for the coming of Christ?”

The tenth discourse in this collection answers the question: “What shall a person do who finds himself under the power of a prevailing corruption, sin, or temptation?” I don’t know about you, but I’d sure jump at the chance to read John Owen’s blog, and especially his answer on how to mortify a particular besetting sin. You’ll need to read it a bit more slowly and carefully than perhaps you would a contemporary blog post, but my experience with Owen’s writing has been that it’s worth the effort. Here’s John Owen, the blogger.

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Question. What shall a person do who finds himself under the power of a prevailing corruption, sin, or temptation?

[…]

I answer,—

Labor to Affect Your Mind with the Danger of it

First. He should labour to affect his mind with the danger of it. It is not conceivable how subtle sin is to shift off an apprehension of the danger of it. “Notwithstanding this,” says the man, “yet I hope I am in a state of grace, and shall be saved, and come to the issue of it at one time or other;” and so the mind keeps off a due sense of the danger of it.

DangerI beseech you, brethren and sisters, if this be your condition, labour to affect your minds that this state, as far as I know, will end in hell; and let not your minds be relieved from the apprehension that, upon due and good grounds of faith, these ways go down to the chambers of death. Do not please yourselves, imagining you are members of the church, and have good hopes of salvation by Jesus Christ; but consider whither this tends, and affect your minds with it.

Burden Your Conscience with the Guilt of it

Secondly. When the person is affected with the danger of it, the next thing to be done is, to burden his conscience with the guilt of it. For the truth is, as our minds are, upon many pretences, slow to apprehend the danger of sin; so our consciences are very unwilling to take the weight of the burden of it as to its guilt.

I speak not of men of seared consciences, that, lay what weight you will upon them, will feel none; but even of the consciences of renewed men, unless they use all the ways and means whereby conscience may be burdened,— as by apprehensions of the holiness of God, of the law, of the love of Christ, and of all those things whereby conscience must be made to feel the weight of its guilt.

No sooner doth it begin to be made a little sick with a sense of the guilt of sin, but it takes a cordial presently. “Here this sin hath taken place, it hath contracted this and that guilt; I have been thus long negligent in this or that duty; I have thus long engaged in this and that folly, and been so given up unto the world: I must take to Christ by faith, or I am undone.” It is afraid of making its load. But let conscience bear the burden, and not easily shift it off, unless it can, by true faith, guided by the word, load it upon Christ; which is not a thing of course to be done.

Pray for Deliverance

Heb 2;18Thirdly. “What shall we do in case we have this apprehension of its danger, and can be thus burdened with its guilt?” Pray for deliverance. “How?” you will say. There is in the Scriptures mention of “roaring” (Ps 32:3), “The voice of my roaring;” and likewise of “shouting” (Lam 3:8), “I shouted and I cried.” This is a time to pray that God would not hide his face from our roaring, nor shut out our prayers when we shout unto him; that is, to cry out with all the vigour of our souls.

Christ is able “to succor” [cf. Heb 2:18] and help them that “make an outcry” to him. The word signifies so; and our word “succor,” signifies a running in to help a man who is ready to be destroyed. These may seem hard things to us, but it is a great thing to save our souls, and to deliver ourselves from the snares of Satan.

Treasure up Every Warning

Fourthly. Treasure up every warning, and every word that you are convinced was pointed against your particular corruption. There is none of you who may have the power of particular corruptions, but God, at one time or other, in his providence or word, gives particular warning, that the soul may say, “This is for me, I must comply with it;” but “it is like a man that sees his face in a glass, and goes away, and immediately forgets what manner of man he was,”—there is an end of it.

But if God give you such warnings, set them down, treasure them up, lose them not; they must be accounted for. “He that, being often reproved, hardens his neck, shall suddenly be destroyed, and that without remedy” [Prov 29:1].

Two Rules

Fifthly. I shall mind you of two rules, and so have done:—

1. In your perplexities as to the power of sin, exercise faith, that, notwithstanding all you see and find that you are almost lost and gone, there is a power in God, through Christ, for the subduing and the conquering of it.

2. It is in vain for any to think to mortify a prevailing sin, who doth not at the same time endeavor to mortify all sin, and to be found in every duty. Here is a person troubled and perplexed with a temptation or corruption; both are the same in this case: he cries, “O that I were delivered! I had rather have deliverance than life! I will do my endeavour to watch against it.” But it may be this person will not come up to a constancy in secret prayer;—he will go up and down, and wish himself free, but will not be brought up to such duties [as] wherein those lusts must be mortified.

Therefore, take this rule along with you,—never hope to mortify any corruption whereby your hearts are grieved, unless you labour to mortify every corruption by which the Spirit of God is grieved; and be found in every duty, especially those under which grace thrives and flourishes.

Mike Riccardi

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Mike is the Pastor of Local Outreach Ministries at Grace Community Church in Los Angeles. He also teaches Evangelism at The Master's Seminary.
  • Brian Morgan

    Mike. I wasn’t aware of these writings. How practical and refreshingly useful. I will look this volume up. Thanks!

  • Dan Freeman

    Thanks for bringing Owen to light Mike. I have loved his writings ever since I discovered them, and although I have heard some accuse his writing as being unreadable, I have not found that to be the case at all. Are more guest posts by Owen forthcoming?

    • Thanks Dan. Unreadable Owen is not. Not the easiest? I’ll grant that.

      Reading Owen has always reminded me of a quote from John Piper. He said, “Raking is easy, but all you get is leaves. Digging is hard, but you might find diamonds.” I’ve had the privilege of digging into Scripture through the prism of John Owen’s Bible-saturated mind. It’s been hard work. But the diamonds of the glory of Christ found therein have been beautiful, and well worth it.

      Regarding more posts from Owen, I’m sure I can talk him into a couple more guest posts on the Cripplegate. 😉

  • tovlogos

    Good stuff, Mike.

    “First. He should labour to affect his mind with the danger of it (be aware of the schemes/wiles of the devil). It is not conceivable how subtle sin is to shift off an apprehension of the danger of it. (subtle, insidious, and effecting every orifice of the unsaved; though Christians is not subject to the devil’s indwelling, he is still often attacked by him [Ephesians 6:16]) “Notwithstanding this,” says the man, “yet I hope (we know by assurance) I am in a state of grace, and shall be saved, and come to the issue of it at one time or other;” and so the mind keeps off a due sense of the danger of it (though the danger is ever present).”

    “…never hope to mortify any corruption whereby your hearts are grieved, unless you labour to mortify every corruption by which the Spirit of God is grieved; and be found in every duty, especially those under which grace thrives and flourishes.” Amen.

    • Thanks Mark. Always appreciate your comments.

      But I think you’ve misunderstood one part of what Owen was saying. When Owen was speaking about the man who hopes he is in a state of grace, he’s actually saying that’s a bad thing for this man. Owen’s point was that we should labor to affect our minds with the true danger of our sin in any way we can. But this is the man who “keeps off a due sense of the danger of it.” That’s not good.

      This is the man who is consistently subject to the bondage of a particular sin or sins, and who says to himself, “Oh, but I’m sure that I’m saved. I prayed the prayer. I raised my hand. I got baptized. I go to church,” etc. And so because he thinks that he’s saved, “the mind keeps off a due sense of the danger of” his sin; in other words, he doesn’t really apprehend how dangerous his sin is. He figures he’ll be saved anyway, so what really does it matter?

      And so his point is: If you find yourself under the bondage of a particular besetting sin, don’t lessen the severity of that sin issue by flattering yourself that you’re saved, and then using your supposed “assurance” for license. Instead, recognize that the way of this pattern leads to hell (“…labour to affect your minds that this state, as far as I know, will end in hell…”), and fight like crazy to be rid of it and to bear fruits in keeping with repentance.

      Hope that’s clarifying.

      • tovlogos

        Thanks a lot, Mike, I appreciate your input. I agree; by the Lord’s grace I’ll be more careful. Excellent.

      • DarlingM

        This is an amazing explanation! Thank you for clarifying, now is more clear to my understanding 🙂

  • Gabriel Powell

    I’ll never forget what John Piper said about the benefit of reading Owen: “If you rake, you get leaves. If you dig, you get gold.” Thanks for this, Mike!

  • Deborah Davis

    Mike, I’ve been reading John Owen’s Overcoming Sin and Temptation along with Tim Challies on his blog. It’s my first attempt at Owen’s writing and I’m loving it. I’m so glad to see you posting this. Thanks too for pointing out these volumes.

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  • Sidon Junior Cottle

    Really helpful!, browsing through the contents of John Owen’s work i can dig out some of the treasures on Owen’s “blog”.
    Thanks Mike

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