“It is the great duty of all believers to use all diligence in the ways of Christ’s appointment, that they fall not into temptation.” (John Owen)
Owen said that he knows God is able to deliver us out of temptation (2 Peter 2:9); and that he is faithful to not let us be tempted beyond our ability, but gives us a way to escape (1 Corinthians 10:13). However, he was resolved to convince us that it is our great duty to be diligent so that we don’t enter into temptation. Owen emphasized here the theme verse of his work on temptation, Mathew 26:41: “Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation.” Simply put according to Owen, “If we are led into temptation, evil will befall us” (Matthew 6:43).
First he looked at individuals he referred to as “ungrounded” believers. By this he meant someone—as in the Parable of the Sower—who received the word of God joyfully, but had sown it in rocky soil. Temporarily they brought forth some “good fruit,” but when temptation came, they fell away. Owen said the storm of temptation withered their profession and slew their soul. Citing Matthew 7:26, he likened these individuals to the foolish person who built his house on sand. When the storm came against it, it fell. “Entrance into temptation is, with this sort of man, an entrance into apostasy, more or less, in part or in whole; it faileth not.” Judas was an example of such a person.
Owen then suggested that when we consider ourselves with regard to temptation, we should recognize we are weakness itself. “We have no power to withstand.” As with Peter (Mark 14:29), “Confidence of any strength in us is one great part of our weakness.” What’s worse, it is a weakness stemming from treachery in our hearts. He said not to flatter ourselves that we can withstand the temptation. There are secret lusts lurking in our hearts. Perhaps they are not stirring just now, but they are ready to rise up as soon as temptation befalls us. They will never give up until they are either killed or satisfied.
The power of temptation darkens the mind so that the individual may not be able to make a right judgment of things as he did before entering into it. It does this in various ways. First, it fixes the imagination and thoughts upon the object of temptation, so that the mind is diverted from considering the things that would relieve it. “By the craft of Satan the mind shall be so fixed to the consideration of this state and condition, with the distress of it, that he shall not be able to manage any of the reliefs suggested and tendered to him against it.”
Second, temptation blinds our mind and darkens our understanding by entangling our affections (emotions). If there is anyone who does not realize this, let them open their eyes and they will quickly learn it. Owen said show him an individual who is caught up emotionally (i.e., with love, hope, fear) with regard to a specific temptation, and he will show you where that person is darkened and blinded. Their present judgment will not be totally altered, but it will be darkened and rendered too weak “to influence the will and master the affections.” Set free by temptation, these affections will run wild.
Third, temptation will give “oil and fuel to our lusts.” It will incite, provoke and make them rage beyond measure. For a time, it will heighten it and make it wholly predominant. “It will lay the reins on the neck of a lust, and put spurs to the sides of it, that it may rush forward like a horse into the battle.” You don’t know the pride, fury or madness of a corruption until it meets with a suitable temptation.
Temptation can be either public or private. If it is public, there will be strong reasons and pretences to justify it or minimize it. Owen likened this to a person carried into exile. There they degenerate from “the manners of the people from whence they came, and fall into that of the country whereunto they are brought; as if there were something in the soil and the air that transformed them.”
If the temptation is a private one, it will unite with a lust. The temptation will intertwine with it, and they will receive mutual support from each other. “Now, by this means temptation gets so deep in the heart that no contrary reasonings can reach unto it; nothing but what can kill the lust can conquer the temptation.” Self-will may for a season work against it, “but it must come to this—its lust must die, or the soul must die.”
Regardless of where the lust is situated within the soul, the temptation will strive to conqueror the whole soul, one way or another. Suppose someone struggles with ambition. There are a variety of ways to rationalize why they should bridle their desire to cling to God. Not only will this prevent sound reasoning, which it does necessarily, but it will also try to draw the whole soul into the same frame of mind.
In brief, there is no particular temptation, but, when it is in its hour, it hath such a contribution of assistance from things good, evil, indifferent, is fed by so many considerations that seem to be most alien and foreign to it, in some cases hath such specious [attractive] pleas and pretences, that its strength will easily be acknowledged.
You should also consider the consequences of any previous temptations. Didn’t they defile your conscience, disquiet your peace, weaken your obedience and cloud the face of God? Even if you were not overcome to the point of total powerlessness over the temptation, weren’t you still foiled by it? Weren’t you greatly perplexed by it? Did you ever in your life come out of a struggle with some temptation without some loss? Would you be willingly entangled with it again? If you are free, take care. Do not enter into again, if possible, “lest a worse thing happen to thee.”
Owen then cautioned that the person who willfully or negligently enters into temptation has no reason to expect any assistance from God or any deliverance from the temptation. “The promise is made to them whom temptations do befall in their way, whether they will or not; not them that willfully fall into them,—that run out of their way to meet with them.” To enter into temptation in this way is the same as continuing in sin so that grace can thrive (Romans 6:1-2).
Once again, I found myself thinking of how what John Owen said here in Of Temptation applies to addiction and recovery. I see the echoes of powerlessness over alcohol and drugs. In fact, a nonreligious person could substitute the words “addiction” and “addictive thinking” for “temptation” and read it as a treatise on how to avoid addictive thinking and behavior. A digital copy of Owen’s work, Of Temptation, is available here.