09/19/17

Aversion to Holiness

© Jorge Casais | 123rf.com

In chapter four of Indwelling Sin in Believers, John Owen began to unpack how indwelling sin is enmity against God. Here in chapter five, he described how this enmity manifests itself as aversation—turning from God and all things associated with God in disgust. Aversation is an older term, with a more intense sense of disgust than the similar modern term aversion. A Biblical example of aversation would be the enmity between the Jews and Samaritans.

The Samaritans believed they were the true descendents of Israel and the keepers of the Torah. During New Testament times, their main religious site was Mount Gerizim. They believed that the Jewish temple and priesthood were illegitimate. They took their name from the Hebrew phrase “keeper of the law.” They believed Mount Gerizim was where both the patriarchs and the Israelites (when they first arrived in Canaan) made sacrifices. The Samaritan version of the Pentateuch also said God’s people should worship him in Shechem, making worship in Jerusalem illegitimate. They also believed that their messiah would be a prophet like Moses.

Needless to say, this made the Jews and Samaritans religious, ethnic and cultural enemies with a strong aversation for one another. This context lays the foundation for the encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman in chapter four of the gospel of John. John Owen said there is an aversation in the law of sin against everything of God. All reluctance towards religious practices designed to attain communion with God, all carnality and religious formality springs from this root. “It will allow an outward, bodily presence unto the worship of God, wherein it is not concerned, but it keeps the heart quite away.”

Some people pretend they have no aversation towards the things of God. Rather, they believe they have liberty or freedom from these duties. Owen thought this pretended liberty came from “ignorance of the true state and condition of their own souls.” or through a lack of faith and interest in Christ. “It may be, whatever duties of worship or obedience such persons perform, they may, through want of faith and an interest in Christ, have no communion with them; and if so, sin will make but little opposition unto them therein.” It can often be found in the emotions, where there is a secret loathing about any “close or cordial dealing with God.”

Even when convictions, sense of duty, dear and real esteem of God and communion with him, have carried the soul into its closet, yet if there be not the vigour and power of a spiritual life constantly at work, there will be a secret loathness in them unto duty; yea, sometimes there will be a violent inclination to the contrary, so that the soul had rather do any thing, embrace any diversion, though it wound itself thereby, than vigorously apply itself unto that which in the inward man it breathes after. It is weary before it begins, and says, “When will the work be over?”

Aversation is also found in the mind. When we pray we should be able to  “fill our mouths with arguments” to God (Job 23:4). Our minds should be ready to plead for the considerations that prevail with God. What if it starts, but then wanders or fades—“all from this secret aversation unto communion with God, which proceeds from the law of indwelling sin.” Others are so occupied with family or public duties that they have little time for private prayer. This is the source of many foolish opinions and the beginning of many who fall away from God.

Finding this aversation in their minds and affections from closeness and constancy in private spiritual duties, not knowing how to conquer and prevail against these difficulties through Him who enables us, they have at first been subdued to a neglect of them, first partial, then total, until, having lost all conscience of them, they have had a door opened unto all sin and licentiousness, and so to a full and utter apostasy.

Owen said he was convinced that among believers, there were two common ways of backsliding. The first was from a great or notorious sin that bloodied their consciences, tainted their affections or and intercepted all delight of having anything more to do with God. The second was from weariness in contending against “the powerful aversation, which they found in themselves.” The reason for all of this is, that giving way to the law of sin in the least is giving strength to it. Leaving it alone lets it grow. Failure to conquer it, is to be conquered by it.

The best way to prevent the fruits and effects of this aversation is to stay in a universally holy frame of mind. It is impossible to keep the heart in a holy frame of mind for one duty, unless it is done for all of them. “A constant, even frame and temper in all duties, in all ways, is the only preservative for any one way.” Strive to prevent the beginnings of this aversation. Guard against temptations; oppose them. Strive to possess your mind with the beauty and excellency of spiritual things, and so this cursed aversation of sin will be weakened.

As an aside, Owen suggested his readers develop a humble awareness of the presence of this aversation to spiritualness present in our nature. If someone were to recognize its efficacy, what consideration can, be more powerful, to bring them unto humbly walking with God?” Since God delights to dwell with individuals who are “of an humble and contrite spirit,” so it can be effective in weakening the remaining sin within us.

In closing the chapter, Owen urged that we labor to occupy our minds with the beauty and excellency of spiritual things, so that “this cursed aversation of sin” can be weakened. “Let, then, the soul labour to acquaint itself with the spiritual beauty of obedience, of communion with God, and of all duties of immediate approach to him, that it may be filled with delight in them.”

06/23/17

Total War Against Sin

Christian fighting against Apollyon; Wiki image of stained glass in Robin Chapel

The sense of total war, and the carnage it generates, was graphically portrayed by Mel Gibson in the movie Hacksaw Ridge. And yet the movie’s hero was a man who did not fire a shot against his enemy. He trusted in God to deliver him. Puritan writers regularly used the imagery of warfare to describe our battle against the indwelling sin of our flesh. But John Owen intensified that imagery in his work Indwelling Sin, when he clearly portrayed our fight against sin as total war against the indwelling sin of our flesh.

In chapter four of Indwelling Sin, Owen said he would limit his reflections on the nature of indwelling sin to what Paul said in Romans 8:7, namely that the carnal mind (or the mind that is set on the flesh, as in the ESV) is hostile to God. After quoting the Greek phrase for “carnal mind”, Owen said this fleshly wisdom was the same as “the law of sin.”  More than just an enemy of God, this mindset is hostile to God. It does not submit to God’s law, because it cannot.  Owen said this enmity signifies there is no possibility for reconciliation.

There can be reconciliation with an enemy of God, as Paul wrote in Romans 5:10: “while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son.” But where there is enmity, there can be no reconciliation. As Owen said: “There is no way to deal with any enmity whatever but by its abolition or destruction.” The only way to reconcile enemies is to first destroy the enmity that exists between them, which Christ did by his death (Ephesians 2:15).  And if even the smallest amount remains, it is still enmity; it is still poison.

Every spark of fire is still fire, and it will burn. The apostle Paul, who may have made as great a progress in subduing his flesh as any one on earth, still cried out for deliverance: “Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24) Mortification of the flesh will abate its force, but cannot change its nature. While grace changes the nature of a person, nothing can change the nature of sin. “Whatever effect be wrought upon it, there is no effect wrought in it, but that it is enmity still, sin still.”

God is love (1 John 4:8) and against this God we carry enmity all out days—an enmity that is incapable of cure or reconciliation. “Destroyed it may be, it shall be, but cured it cannot be.” When it is enmity against which a person struggles, nothing can be expected but continual fighting until one or the other is destroyed. “If it be not overcome and destroyed, it will overcome and destroy the soul.”

Here lies its power: there is never a truce or true peace. “It is never quiet, conquering nor conquered.” Some people try to quiet their corruptions by trying to satisfy them—to make provisions for their flesh by gratifying its desires (Romans 13:14). Yet this is but adding fuel to the fire. All the fuel in the world, everything that is combustible will not satisfy it, but will only increase it. So it is with trying to satisfy sin by sinning. You cannot bargain with a fire to only burn so much; you have to quench it.

It is so with this indwelling sin: whether it violently tumultuate [create great emotional or mental agitation], as it will do on provocations and temptations, it will be outrageous in the soul; or whether it seem to be pleased and contented, to be satisfied, all is one, there is no peace, no rest to be had with it or by it. Had it, then, been of any other nature, some other way might have been fixed on; but seeing it consists in enmity, all the relief the soul hath must lie in its ruin.

Although Scripture variously portrays this enmity as our enemy, it is ultimately “enmity against God.” Peter urged us to abstain from the passions of the flesh that war against our soul (1 Peter 2:11). Paul said the desires of the flesh and Spirit are opposed to one another to keep us from doing what we want to do in the flesh (Galatians 5:17). “It fights against the Spirit, or the spiritual principle that is in us, to conquer it; it fights against our souls, to destroy them.” Its nature and ultimate aim is to oppose God.

This is our state and condition: All the opposition that ariseth in us unto any thing that is spiritually good, whether it be from darkness in the mind, or aversation in the will, or sloth in the affections, all the secret arguings and reasonings that are in the soul in pursuit of them, the direct object of them is God himself. The enmity lies against him; which consideration surely should influence us to a perpetual, constant watchfulness over ourselves.

Every sin is opposition to God—an attempt to cast off His yoke. It is an attempt to break off the dependence the creature should have on the Creator. So here we may reflect back on the Genesis account of the Fall, where humankind sought to be like God, independently knowing what was good and what was evil (Genesis 3:5). The carnal mind is hostile to God because it will not subject itself to the will of God. “The soul wherein it is may be subject to the law of God; but this law of sin sets up in contrariety unto it, and will not be in subjection.” It is absolute and universal to all of God and all of the soul.

If there were anything of God that sin was not in enmity against, the soul could have a shelter and retreat there. But enmity lies against God himself. It is against everything that is of God—his nature, properties, mind or will, his law or gospel. The nearer anything is to God, the greater is enmity against it. “That which hath most of God hath most of its opposition.” The more spirituality and holiness is in a thing, the greater is the enmity against it.

Enmity is also universally against the soul. If this law of sin had been content to subdue one faculty of the soul, but leave another at liberty, “it might possibly have been with more ease opposed or subdued.” But when Christ comes with his spiritual power to the soul, he can find no quiet landing place. “He can set foot on no ground but what he must fight for and conquer.”

Everything is secured against him—the mind, the will and emotions. And when grace had made it’s landing, yet sin is entrenched from coast to coast. Had there been anything in the soul at perfect freedom and liberty, perhaps a stand to drive enmity out could be made. But it is universal and makes war throughout the soul.

The mind hath its own darkness and vanity to wrestle with,—the will its own stubbornness, obstinacy, and perverseness; every affection its own frowardness and aversation from God, and its sensuality, to deal withal: so that one cannot yield relief unto another as they ought; they have, as it were, their hands full at home. Hence it is that our knowledge is imperfect, our obedience weak, love not unmixed, fear not pure, delight not free and noble.

In Pilgrim’s Progress there is a battle between the pilgrim Christian and Apollyon that captured this sense of total war described by Owen. The narrator, who “dreamed the dream” of Christian’s journey had this to say:

In this combat no man can imagine, unless he had seen and heard as I did, what yelling and hideous roaring Apollyon made all the time of the fight—he spake life a dragon; and on the other side, what sighs and groans burst from Christian’s heart. I never saw him all the while give so much as one pleasant look, till he perceived he had wounded Apollyon with his two-edged sword; then, indeed, he did smile, and look upward; but it was the dreadfullest sight that ever I saw.

A digital copy of Owen’s work, Indwelling Sin in Believers, is available here.

04/21/17

An Evil Treasure

 

© Artem Mazunov | 123rf.com

In the third chapter of Indwelling Sin in Believers by John Owen, he moved on from describing how indwelling sin was a law to where it is located, what are its properties and how it operates.  First, Owen noted that everywhere in Scripture indwelling sin is said to have its “especial residence” in the heart. Citing Matthew 15:19, he listed how evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts and other sinful actions proceed from the heart. There are many outward temptations that excite and stir up these evils, but they merely open the vessel and let out what was already laid up and stored there. “The root, rise, and spring of all these things is in the heart. Temptations and occasions put nothing into a man, but only draw out what was in him before.”

From the very beginning, God saw that every intention of the human heart was “only evil continually” (Genesis 6:5). In Luke 6:45, Jesus referred to the evil treasure of the heart, which Owen said was “the prevailing principle of moral actions” in humanity. Note how the beginning of the verse also points to “the good treasure of the heart,” referring to the grace received from our Savior. This good treasure will never be exhausted. The more we draw out of this treasure, the more it grows! And their indwelling sin decreases. However, the more we exert and manifest the fruit of our lusts, the more they are increased in us. “It feeds upon itself, swallows up its own poison, and grows thereby.”

The more men sin, the more are they inclined unto sin. It is from the deceitfulness of this law of sin, whereof we shall speak afterward at large, that men persuade themselves that by this or that particular sin they shall so satisfy their lusts as that they shall need to sin no more. Every sin increaseth the principle, and fortifieth the habit of sinning. It is an evil treasure that increaseth by doing evil. And where doth this treasure lie? It is in the heart; there it is laid up, there it is kept in safety. All the men in the world, all the angels in heaven, cannot dispossess a man of this treasure, it is so safely stored in the heart.

As an aside Owen commented how the heart in Scripture has various meanings. Sometimes it refers to the mind and understanding; sometimes to the will, sometimes the emotions (or affections); and sometimes to the whole soul. It typically refers to the whole soul and all its faculties, but not always. However all these faculties act together as one principle when doing good or evil.

This is the subject, the seat, the dwelling-place of this law of sin,—the heart; as it is the entire principle of moral operations, of doing good or evil, as out of it proceed good or evil. Here dwells our enemy; this is the fort, the citadel of this tyrant, where it maintains a rebellion against God all our days. Sometimes it hath more strength, and consequently more success; sometimes less of the one and of the other; but it is always in rebellion whilst we live.

The properties of the heart include that it is unsearchable, except by the Lord (Jeremiah 17:9-10). Can anyone know the perfect measure of their own light and darkness? “We fight with an enemy whose secret strength we cannot discover.” Often we think sin is quite ruined, but after awhile we find it was merely out of sight. It has places to hide in an unsearchable heart where we cannot enter. We might persuade ourselves that all is well, when sin is safely hidden in the hidden darkness of our mind, or the will’s indisposition, or the disorder and carnality of the emotions.

The best of our wisdom is but to watch its first appearances, to catch its first under-earth heavings and workings, and to set ourselves in opposition to them; for to follow it into the secret corners of the heart, that we cannot do.

Not only is the heart unsearchable, it is also deceitful. The deceit we see in the world around us is nothing in comparison to the deceit in our hearts towards ourselves. “Now, incomparable deceitfulness, added to unsearchableness, gives a great addition and increase of strength to the law of sin, upon the account of its seat and subject.” Owen wants us to be clear that he speaks here of the deceitfulness of the heart, and not of sin itself. And this deceitfulness of the heart has two advantages in harboring sin.

First, it abounds in contradictions, so there is not any constant rule by which it proceeds. “The frame of the heart is ready to contradict itself every moment.” Whenever you think you have everything under control, you quickly discover it is “quite otherwise.” So no one knows what to expect from it. This is because of sin working upon all the faculties of the heart. Sometimes the mind is subjected to God’s will, as are the emotions, and the will is ready for its duty. But if the emotions rebel or an obstinate will arises and prevails, everything is changed.

This, I say, makes the heart deceitful above all things: it agrees not at all in itself, is not constant to itself, hath no order that it is constant unto, is under no certain conduct that is stable; but, if I may so say, hath a rotation in itself, where ofttimes the feet lead and guide the whole.

Second, its deceit lies in the initial appearance of things. Sometimes our emotions are moved and “the whole heart appears in a fair frame; all promiseth to be well.” But in a little while, the whole frame is changed—the mind was not affected or turned; the emotions played their part at first, and then wandered off; and all the fair promises of the heart left with them. Add this deceitfulness to the previously mentioned unsearchableness, and we find that the difficulty of dealing with sin is exceedingly increased. Who can cope with a deceived and heart? Particularly since it employs all its deceits in the service of sin.

All the disorder that is in the heart, all its false promises and fair appearances, promote the interest and advantages of sin. Hence God cautions the people to look to it, lest their own hearts should entice and deceive them.

Therefore it is not for nothing that the Lord says in Jeremiah 17:9 that “the heart is deceitful above all things and desperately sick.” So consider these things. First, never think that your work in contending against sin is at an end. It hides within the unsearchable places of our heart. So when we think we have thoroughly won, there is some reserve of sin remaining that we missed. Second, since our heart is changeable and deceitful, we should be perpetually watchful against it. Against an adversary that deals in deceit and treachery, only perpetual watchfulness will give you security. Third and finally, commit the whole matter to Him who can search and know your heart (Jeremiah 17:10). For there is no treacherous corner in your heart that He cannot search to its uttermost.

A digital copy of Owen’s work, Indwelling Sin in Believers, is available here.

12/6/16

Is It Well with Your Soul?

© krsmanovic | stockfresh.com

© krsmanovic | stockfresh.com

Sometimes Puritan authors seem to put an entire introduction into their book titles. John Owen’s work, Indwelling Sin in Believers, is a good example of this tendency. It’s original title was: “The Nature, Power, Deceit, and Prevalency of the Remainders of Indwelling Sin in Believers; Together with the Way of Its Working and Means of Prevention, Opened, Evinced, and Applied: With a Resolution of Sundry Casts of Conscience Thereunto Appertaining.” In chapter two Owen discusses why and how indwelling sin is a law—“an inward effective principle.”

In chapter one, Owen argued why he sees Paul contemplating the existence of indwelling sin after his conversion in Romans 7. “Your enemy is not only upon you, as on Samson of old, but is in you also.” In chapter two Owen described why indwelling sin is properly understood in general to be a law, and then elaborated what is “peculiar and proper” in such a law.

The first thing that underlies any law is dominion. Owen pointed to Romans 7:1, where Paul said the law was binding (has dominion) over an individual. He suggested there are two aspects to this dominion. There is a moral authoritative dominion, and there is a real effective dominion. The first is an affection of the law of God; the second is an affection of the law of sin. Although the law of sin does not have any rightful moral dominion or authority over any person, “it hath that which is equivalent unto it.”  Owen sees indwelling sin as a usurper to the throne of grace that God intended for humanity when He made us in His image.

Because of the work of Christ, indwelling sin has lost its complete dominion over believers. Nevertheless, it still is a law in them. “But even in them it is a law still; though not a law unto them, yet, as was said, it is a law in them.” It does not have complete dominion, yet it will act with power and bind us with regard to some things. “Though it be weakened, yet its nature is not changed.”

Laws also have the ability to goad those who oppose it to obey what it requires through reward and punishment. All laws influence our minds through the rewards and punishments that accompany them. “The pleasures of sin are the rewards of sin;” ones that many people lose their souls to obtain. Owen sees the discussion of Moses in Hebrews 11 as an example of the contest in the minds of believers between the law of sin and the law of grace. Moses refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, rejecting the pleasures that went along with it. “He considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward” (Hebrews 11:26).

The motive on the part of the law of sin, wherewith it sought to draw him over, and wherewith it prevails on the most, was the reward that it proposed unto him,—namely, that he should have the present enjoyment of the pleasures of sin. By this it contended against the reward annexed unto the law of grace, called “the recompense of reward.”

The law of sin also has punishment for those who would oppose it, or who attempt to “cast off its yoke.” Whatever the evil, trouble, or danger that exists in the world when someone attempts to obey the gospel—whatever the hardships someone seeking to mortify their flesh faces—“sin makes use of.” Owen thought it was difficult to discern which approach was more effective, the pretended rewards or the pretended punishments of indwelling sin. But one thing was certain, whether it was by the promises of pleasures or the threats of temporal evils or the loss of pleasure, it has a great effect on the minds of believers and unbelievers alike.

Owen then turned to consider what was “peculiar and proper” in the law of sin.  He again asserted it is not an outward, written law. Such a law cannot compete with “an inbred, working, impelling urging” one. An inbred law is necessarily effectual. To illustrate his point, he pointed to how the law of God was at first naturally inbred to humanity. It had power to enable obedience, even to make this obedience easy and pleasant. Although this law (with regard to its rule and dominion) has been cast out of the soul, there are yet sparks that remain which are very powerful and effectual (Romans 2:14-15).

God renewed this law, writing it on tablets of stone. He knew as an outward, written law it could not enable us to perform the things it required. It would have to again become internal. It would have to turn from an outward moral rule into a real, inward principle. So God made His law internal again, implanting it in our hearts (Jeremiah 31:31-33). The written law, He knew, would not do it. “Mercies and deliverances from distress will not effect it; trials and afflictions will not accomplish it.” Therefore He turned the written law into “an internal living principle.”

The same applies to sin. “It is now an indwelling law.” It is in us. The flesh is its seat and throne. From this, we can see that it has some advantages for increasing its strength and furthering its power. It always abides in the soul. It is never absent. It is always ready to apply itself to every end and purpose that it serves. Because it is an indwelling law, it can easily apply itself with great ease.

It needs no doors to be opened unto it; it needs no engines to work by. . . . Hence it is easy for it to insinuate itself into all that we do, and to hinder all that is good, and to further all sin and wickedness. It hath an intimacy, an inwardness with the soul; and therefore, in all that we do, doth easily beset us. It possesseth those very faculties of the soul whereby we must do what we do, whatever it be, good or evil. Now, all these advantages it hath as it is a law, as an indwelling law, which manifests its power and efficacy. It is always resident in the soul, it puts itself upon all its actings, and that with easiness and facility.

This is the law Paul said he found within him. This is what he said remains even in believers. Owen said that from what he has described, if such a law is in believers, it is their duty to discover it. Upon this one hinge, finding and experiencing the law of sin, turns the whole course of our lives. Ignorance of it breeds “senselessness, carelessness, sloth, security, and pride.” All of this the Lord abhors. The eruptions of great, open scandalous sins are the result of a failure to consider this law. “Inquire, then, how it is with your souls.”

What do you find of this law? What experience have you of its power and efficacy? Do you find it dwelling in you, always present with you, exciting itself, or putting forth its poison with facility and easiness at all times, in all your duties, “when you would do good?” What humiliation, what self-abasement, what intenseness in prayer, what diligence, what watchfulness, doth this call for at your hands! What spiritual wisdom do you stand in need of! What supplies of grace, what assistance of the Holy Ghost, will be hence also discovered! I fear we have few of us a diligence proportionable to our danger.

Simply put, is it well with your soul?

A digital copy of Owen’s work, Indwelling Sin in Believers, is available here.

11/4/16

Who Will Deliver Me?

© albund | stockfresh.com

© albund | stockfresh.com

The last half of the seventh chapter of Romans (7:13-25) has been a matter of theological debate from the time of the early church. Is Paul describing himself while under the law, before salvation or afterwards—his condition under the grace of salvation? The Puritan author John Owen can shed some light on the passage in his seminal work, Indwelling Sin in Believers. In the first chapter of Indwelling Sin, Owen acknowledged the dispute over how to understand the passage, but quickly declared the apostle was describing the condition of the regenerate person, “with respect to the remaining power of indwelling sin.” As if the title wasn’t a dead giveaway.

Clear thinking on this passage is essential, for we live in a time where there are renewed disputes about how to understand the doctrine of original sin. But before turning to Owen’s work, I want to note some of the biblical arguments for both positions. In his New American Commentary: Romans, Robert Mounce said that both positions could be persuasively argued. In support of Paul writing of his experience before conversion in 7:13-25 are several phrases throughout the passage. Paul said he was “sold under sin” (v. 14). He knew that nothing good dwelt in him (v. 18). He was “captive to the law of sin” (v. 23) and a wretched man in need of deliverance (v. 24).

The dramatic contrast of chapter seven with the victory of chapter eight in Romans is further evidence to argue for a preconversion setting. In chapter seven Paul was crying out for deliverance. In chapter eight, he said a believer was set free from the law of sin and death (v. 8:2) and controlled by the Spirit of God (v. 8:9). Another strong argument for Paul describing his spiritual experience before conversion in chapter seven is the “quagmire of impotence and misery” described there. “How could this be the abundant life that Jesus came to bring (John 10:10)?”

On the other hand, throughout the entire passage (7:13-25) Paul used the present tense—over twenty times. For example, in verse fifteen Paul said: “I do not understand my own actions.” If he was speaking of his life before conversion, would he not have said something like: “I don’t understand what I did.” Then there are statements that seem incompatible with the experience of a nonbeliever, as in verse 22: “For I delight in the law of God in my inner being.” Earlier, in Romans Paul said about those who were outside of Christ although they knew God, they sought to suppress the truth of God (1:18-21). There was no one who was righteous, who seeks God (3:10-12).

Mounce said he thought Paul was revealing his difficulty “meeting the radical demands of the Christian faith.” He used his own experience to describe the inevitability of spiritual defeat when a believer fails to trust in Christ for victory over their indwelling sin. Recognizing our inability to live up to our desire to do what is right (chapter 7), we know that in Christ, we are more than conquerors (chapter 8). “Sanctification is a gradual process that repeatedly takes the believer through this recurring sequence of failure through dependency upon self to triumph through the indwelling Spirit.”

Douglas Moo pointed out that most of the early church fathers thought the verses described a preconversion Paul. However, Augustine had a change of heart that seems to have been at least partly due to his battle with Pelagius over the freedom of the will. We see this in his work, A Treatise Against Two Letters of the Pelagians. Augustine wrote this treatise in response to two letters he received from Pope Boniface. One was from Julian and the other from eighteen bishops, including Julian. The letters challenged the catholic faith and attacked Augustine personally. In chapter 22 of book one, Augustine said he once thought that Paul was describing a man under the law (preconversion).

But afterwards I was constrained to give up the idea by those words where he says, “Now, then, it is no more I that do it.” For to this belongs what he says subsequently also: “There is, therefore, now no condemnation to them that are in Christ Jesus.” And because I do not see how a man under the law should say, “I delight in the law of God after the inward man;” since this very delight in good, by which, moreover, he does not consent to evil, not from fear of penalty, but from love of righteousness (for this is meant by “delighting”), can only be attributed to grace.

Almost all of the Reformers, particularly Luther, agreed with Augustine that the passage depicted a believer in Christ.  Writing in the century after the Reformation, Owen was clearly influenced by their thought. His opening declaration was:

It is of indwelling sin, and that in the remainders of it in persons after their conversion to God, with its power, efficacy, and effects that we intend to treat. This also is the great design of the apostle to manifest and evince in chap. 7 of the Epistle to the Romans.

Beginning with verse 7:21, “So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand,” Owen observed four things. First, Paul referred to indwelling sin as “a law.” Second, he experienced this law within himself. Third, despite the inhabitation of this law of sin, the general framework of believers is to do good. And fourth, when the believer would do good, evil is close at hand.

By calling indwelling sin a law, Owen thought Paul meant it was an inward principle that inclines and presses the believer towards actions agreeable and consistent with its own nature, namely that of sin. It is a law in them, but not to them. “Though its rule be broken, its strength weakened and impaired, its root mortified, yet it is a law still of great force and efficacy. There, where it is least felt, it is most powerful.”

In saying he found this law within him, Paul meant that he found it within himself. It is one thing to know in general there is a law of sin. It is entirely another thing to experience the power of the law of sin within your being. Owen saw this experience of the law of sin is the great preservative of divine truth in the soul. When we are taught it from the Scriptures and then find it exists within us, we truly know it. “He shall find the stream to be strong who swims against it, though he who rolls along with it be insensible of it.”

Notwithstanding the indwelling of the law of sin, the habitual inclination of believers is towards good. “There is, and there is through grace, kept up in believers a constant and ordinarily prevailing will of doing good, notwithstanding the power and efficacy of indwelling sin to the contrary.” Good things come from the good treasures of the heart. But you can only see the evidence of this disposition by its fruits. “A will of doing good without doing good is but pretended.”

Whenever a believer would do good, they should consider two things. While there is a gracious principle residing within the will, there is also a contrary principle inclined towards evil. So then, “Indwelling sin is effectually operative in rebelling and inclining to evil, when the will of doing good is in a particular manner active and inclining unto obedience.”

So this is a description of the person who is a believer and a sinner. And “everyone who is the former is the latter also.” Their actions and operations are implied in these expressions: “When I want to do right, evil lies close at hand” (Romans 7:21); and: “For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do” (Galatians 5:17).

Owen then concluded his first chapter for Indwelling Sin as follows:

Awake, therefore, all of you in whose hearts is any thing of the ways of God! Your enemy is not only upon you, as on Samson of old, but is in you also. He is at work, by all ways of force and craft, as we shall see. Would you not dishonour God and his gospel; would you not scandalize the saints and ways of God; would you not wound your consciences and endanger your souls; would you not grieve the good and holy Spirit of God, the author of all your comforts; would you keep your garments undefiled, and escape the woeful temptations and pollutions of the days wherein we live; would you be preserved from the number of the apostates in these latter days;—awake to the consideration of this cursed enemy, which is the spring of all these and innumerable other evils, as also of the ruin of all the souls that perish in this world!

So John Owen and Augustine see Paul speaking of life after conversion. Douglas Moo and others see him remembering his life before conversion. Personally, I find truth in both positions. Experientially, the truth of Owen’s metaphor of swimming against the stream rings true for me. Awareness of the stream of indwelling sin and the strength of its current within me is stronger now than before my conversion. But unconverted, that same stream would have swept me faster downstream, though I was insensible to it. Whether preconversion or postconversion, the answer is still the same: “Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”

A digital copy of Owen’s work, Indwelling Sin in Believers, is available here.

03/1/16

The Antidote for Temptation

© kikkerdirk | stockfresh.com

© kikkerdirk | stockfresh.com

In Of Temptation, John Owen’s last direction on how to guard against temptation contains the ultimate antidote against the poison of temptation. Owen said this antidote was one that Christ himself gave preeminence in his address to the church of Philadelphia in Revelation 3:10. Since Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever, then his encouragement to the church in Philadelphia is for us today as well. This enables us to place the burden of resisting temptation upon “him who is able to bear it.” Therefore Owen thought it requires our particular attention.

In Revelation 3:10, Jesus said: “Because you have kept my word about patient endurance, I will keep you from the hour of trial that is coming on the whole world, to try those who dwell on the earth.” The Greek word used here for “patient endurance” refers to the state of expectation or patient anticipation of the arrival of someone or something. Coupled with the sense of “observed” for kept, then Jesus is saying something like, “Because you listened to what I said about waiting patiently, I will keep you from the time of temptation that is coming.”  First Owen unpacks what it means to “patiently endure;” and then how this perseverance is a means of preserving and establishing us in the faith of Christ’s promise.

This command to patiently endure is the work of the gospel. It means that our call to forbearance is based upon the patience and long-suffering that Christ exercises towards all persons—towards the saints; towards those of His elect not yet effectually called; and towards those of the perishing world. Owen said the individual acquainted with the gospel knows there is no more glorious then his patience.

That he should bear with so many unkindnesses, so many causeless breaches, so many neglects of his love, so many affronts done to his grace, so many violations of engagements as he doth, it manifests his gospel to be not only the word of his grace but also of his patience.

With regard to the elect who are not yet effectually called, “he stands waiting at the door of their hearts and knocks for an entrance” (Revelation 3:20). Often, for a long time he is scorned, persecuted and reviled by them. Yet while he stands at the door, his heart is full of love for their poor rebellious souls. He waits patiently, until “my head is wet with dew, my locks with the drops of the night” (Song of Songs, 5:2).

To the perishing world, He “has endured with much patience vessels of wrath” (Romans 9:22). While the gospel is preached, Christ endures many harsh words from them. But he lets them pass. He doesn’t strike back. Rather, he does what is good for them. “Nor will he cut this way of proceeding short until the gospel shall be preached no more. Patience must accompany the gospel.”

Implied in keeping this word are three things that will help keep us from the “hour of temptation”: knowledge, valuation and obedience.

The person that would keep this word must know it—be acquainted with it—in a fourfold way. First, they must know it as a word of grace and mercy, able to save them (Roman 1:16; Titus 2:11; James 1:21). “When the word of the gospel is known as a word of mercy, grace, and pardon, as the sole evidence for life, as the conveyance of an eternal inheritance; when the soul finds it such to itself, it will strive to keep it.”

Second, they must know it as a word of holiness and purity, to sanctify them (John 15:3; 1 Peter 1:2; 2 Timothy 2:19). The person who doesn’t know the word of Christ’s patience as a sanctifying, cleansing word and the power of it in their own soul, neither know it or keeps it. “The empty profession of our days knows not one step towards this duty; and thence it is that the most are so overborne under the power of temptations.” They are full of self, of the world, of fury, ambition, and almost all unclean lusts. Yet they yet talk of keeping the word of Christ!

Third, they must know it as a word of liberty and power to set them free. This freedom is not only from the guilt of sin and from wrath, for that it does as a word of peace and mercy. It is not only from the power of sin, for that it does as a word of holiness.  Rather, it is freedom from all outward respects of the world that might entangle them or enslave them. It declares us to be “Christ’s freemen,” in bondage to no one (John 8:32; 1 Corinthians 7:23).

There is nothing more unworthy of the gospel than a mind in bondage to persons or things, prostituting itself to the lusts of men or affrightments of the world. And he that thus knows the word of Christ’s patience, really and in power, is even thereby freed from innumerable, from unspeakable temptations.

Fourth, they must know it as a word of consolation, to support them in every condition.  “It gives support, relief, refreshment, satisfaction, peace, consolation, joy, boasting, glory, in every condition.”

The second thing implied in keeping this word is seeing its value: “It is to be kept as a treasure.” To value it as your chief treasure means that you “keep the word of Christ’s patience.” The person who wants to have consideration from Christ in a time of temptation must not disregard the things Christ sees as important.

This leads to the third thing in keeping this word: obedience. Personal obedience of all the commands of Christ is keeping his word (John 14:15). It is the life and soul of the duty required. We have arrived then at the apex of this safeguarding duty.

The person who is acquainted with the gospel in its excellencies—its mercy, holiness, liberty and consolation—makes it their business to surrender themselves to it. Then when opposition and apostasy tries the patience of Christ to the utmost, they will be preserved from the hour of temptation. This encompasses all of what has been said before; and it is the only way to guard against temptation. Let no one think they can be kept even one hour from entering into temptation without it. Wherever they fail to surrender to the gospel, temptation asserts itself.

The same promise of preservation given to the church in Philadelphia was given to the sealed servants of God in Revelation 7:3. We should remember that in every such promise there are three things: the faithfulness of the Father, who gives it; the grace of the Son, which is the promise; and the power and efficacy of the Holy Ghost, which accomplishes the promise.  The faithfulness of God consists in his discharge of his promises, for he will not reverse himself. As Paul said in 2 Timothy 2:13: “If we are faithless, he remains faithful— for he cannot deny himself.”

The grace of the Son is in every promise of the covenant, so that when the hour of temptation comes, the soul that has a right to the promise shall enjoy it. The Spirit is called “the Spirit of promise” not only because he is promised by Christ, but also because he effectually makes good the promise. “He also, then is engaged to preserve the soul walking according to the rule laid down.”

This constant, universal keeping of Christ’s word of patience will keep the heart and soul in such a frame, as wherein no prevalent temptation, by virtue of any advantages whatever, can seize upon it, so as totally to prevail against it. So David prays, Ps. 25:21, “Let integrity and uprightness preserve me.” This integrity and uprightness is the Old Testament-keeping the word of Christ,—universal close walking with God. Now, how can they preserve a man? Why, by keeping his heart in such a frame, so defended on every side that no evil can approach or take hold on him. Fail a man in his integrity, he hath an open place for temptation to enter, Isa. 57:21. To keep the word of Christ is to do it universally, as hath been showed.

Owen has more to say in elaborating on the promise of Christ to keep us from the hour of trial that is coming on the whole world (Revelation 3:10). But we will stop here. If you want to read his original work, here is a link to Overcoming Sin and Temptation, a trilogy of three by Owen: “Of the Mortification of Sin in Believers;” “Of Temptation;” and “Indwelling Sin.”

02/9/16

Guard Your Heart

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© albund | stockfresh.com

John Owen introduced chapter seven of his work, “Of Temptation” by saying he would now address how the heart becomes entangled by temptation. Before this chapter, he had addressed the outward means and occasions of temptation (If you’re interested in reading reflections on those topics, search for other articles with “Owen”). Now he comes to the heart, where temptation will often take advantage of our natural temperament and constitution.

Let him that would not enter into temptation labour to know his own heart, to be acquainted with his own spirit, his natural frame and temper, his lusts and corruptions, his natural, sinful, or spiritual weaknesses, that, finding where his weakness lies, he may be careful to keep at a distance from all occasions of sin.

The person who would guard their heart to avoid temptation has to be acquainted with their own temperament, so they can watch over the deceitfulness that is constantly assailing it. Some temptations grow out of what are the best and noblest parts of our natural temperament, which if it were “well broken up and fallowed,” would see God’s grace take root and grow. “But if it is not watched over, it can be a means of innumerable surprisals and entanglements in temptation.” Then there are other areas of our temperament that are more fruitful ground where envy, malice selfishness and the like can grow. Here the person can scarcely make a move without becoming ensnared in one or the other of them.

He who watches not this thoroughly, who is not exactly skilled in the knowledge of himself, will never be disentangled from one temptation or another all his days.

Just as people can have natural temperaments, which can become a great opportunity for temptation if they are not watched over, so they may have particular lusts or corruptions, which become deeply rooted. This can occur through their natural constitution or by personal experience. Unless the person is mindful of its manifestations, it will be continually entangling and ensnaring them. Uselessness and scandal are continually growing branches on the “root” of unfamiliarity believers have with their natural temperament and constitution. “How few there are who will either study themselves or bear those who would acquaint them with them!”

Be acquainted, then, with thine own heart: though it be deep, search it; though it be dark, inquire into it; though it give all its distempers other names than what are their due, believe it not.

When you know the condition and state of your heart, guard it against the occasions and opportunities that are likely to entangle your nature or provoke you corruption. (Here Owen’s advice echoes the common sense advice in recovery to avoid the people, places and things of addiction.) It may be that there are some circumstances that you cannot avoid, suffer them as best you can through the time of temptation. “Seeing we have so little power over our hearts when once they meet with suitable provocations, we are to keep them asunder, as a man would do fire and the combustible parts of the house wherein he dwells.”

Be sure to stock up on provisions to withstand any approaching storm of temptation. Consider when an enemy seeks to attack a fort or castle. If that enemy finds it well protected and provisioned to withstand a siege, they will move on and not assault it. So shall Satan, if he finds our hearts fortified against his batteries and provided to hold out, will flee from us (James 4:7). The provisions capable of withstanding such an assault are the supplies of the Gospel—“keep the heart full of a sense of the love of God in Christ.” Since we all will be tempted, we should do the following to stay alert for the approach of any temptation.

First, we should always be alert to gain an early discovery of temptation. Many times people don’t see their enemy until they are wounded by it. Often, temptation is not easily discerned. “Few take notice of it until it is too late, and they find themselves entangled.” Watch out for the snares that are laid for you. Understand the advantages may use against you before they gain power and strength; “before they are incorporated with thy lusts, and have distilled poison into thy soul.”

Second, consider the aim of the temptation, whatever it may be. Satan does not aim to have you violate the law; it is not the thing he aims at. His intent lies against your interest in the gospel. “He would make sin but a bridge to get over to a better ground, to assault thee as to thy interest in Christ.” Today he might say, “It’s okay to commit that sin in the name of Christ.” But tomorrow he will condemn you for having done so.

Third, meet your temptation with thoughts of faith concerning the cross of Christ and it will collapse before you. Don’t debate with it. Let your temptation do whatever it will—whether that is doubts about your ability to withstand the sin or fear of its power. “I it is not able to stand before faith lifting up the standard of the cross.”

Now suppose you are surprised by temptation and entangled unawares, so that it is too late to resist the initial entrance of it. What should you do to avoid being carried away by its power? Do as Paul did—beseech God again and again that it would leave you (2 Corinthians 12:8). And if you remain in it, you will certainly either be quickly delivered out of it, or receive sufficient grace not to be utterly foiled by it. Don’t focus your thoughts on the things that tempt you, which could lead to further entanglements. Rather, set yourself against the temptation and pray that it would leave you.

Look to Him who has promised deliverance. Remember that he is faithful and will not let you to be tempted beyond your ability, “but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it” (1 Corinthians 10:14). Discover where the temptation that surprised you gained its entrance and speedily close that breach. “Deal with thy soul like a wise physician.” Find out how you were enticed into this situation. If you find negligence or carelessness in keeping watch over yourself, fix you soul there; make up that breach—“and then proceed to the work that lies before thee.”

If you want to read his original work, here is a link to Overcoming Sin and Temptation, a trilogy of three by Owen: “Of the Mortification of Sin in Believers;” “Of Temptation;” and “Indwelling Sin.”

10/30/15

Seasons of Temptation

© Carmen Behr | 123rf.com

© Carmen Behr | 123rf.com

“Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” (Matthew 26:41)

John Owen oriented his book, Of Temptation around his thoughts on the above verse. Chapter six of that work looks at what Owen called the seasons of temptation. He observed how there were various times or seasons when temptation is commonly at hand. These opportunities will unavoidably “seize upon the soul” unless we are watchful to prevent it. When we are under such a season, Owen cautions us to be particularly on our guard so that we do not enter or fall into the power of temptation.

The first of these seasons occurs in a time of outward prosperity. “Prosperity and temptation go together.” Prosperity is the ground for many temptations and without eminent supplies of grace it will create the opportunity for any one of a myriad of temptations. Then it will provide all the food and fuel the temptation needs to burn hotter and brighter.

In Proverbs 1:32 it says the prosperity or complacency of fools destroys them. It hardens them in their way and makes them despise instruction. It puts the day of reckoning far off, lest its terror should influence you into changing your ways. “Without a special assistance, it hath an inconceivably malignant influence on believers themselves.” Agur prayed that he would not have riches (Proverbs 30:8, 9) so that he would not forget the Lord.

David was confident that he would not be moved in his prosperity (Proverbs 30:6), but he gravely overestimated himself. Although Solomon said we should rejoice in the day of prosperity (Ecclesiastes 7:14), Owen advised us to rejoice in the God of mercies, who does good for us by his patience and forebearance despite our unworthiness. He urged that we consider how evil lies close at hand in prosperity. “A man in that state is in the midst of snares. Satan hath many advantages against him; he forgeth darts out of all his enjoyments; and, if he watch not, he will be entangled before he is aware.”

You need something to give poise or stability to your heart. Formality in religious practice can creep in, laying the soul open to various temptation in their full power and strength. “Satisfaction and delight in creature-comforts, the poison of the soul, will be apt to grow upon thee.” Owen said to be vigilant and careful in such a time or you will be surprised. There is a hardness and disregard of spirituality that can happen in prosperity. Many people’s disregard of this warning has cost them dear. “Blessed is he that feareth always, but especially in a time of prosperity.”

Another season to watch for is when there is a time of neglect in our communion with God, a formality in our religious duty, a time of “the slumber of grace.” A soul in such a state of mind should wake up and look around. Their enemy is close at hand and they are about to fall into a condition that could cost them dear for the rest of their life. While a time of neglect in your communion with God is bad enough, it is also an indication that something worse is at the door. Recall how Peter fell into a time of spiritual and physical drowsiness and did not heed the caution of Christ to “watch and pray” so that he not enter into temptation. And since he was not watching as he should, he entered into it.

Consider, then, O poor soul, thy state and condition! Doth thy light burn dim? Or though it give to others as great a blaze as formerly, yet thou seest not so clearly the face of God in Christ by it as thou hast done? Is thy zeal cold? Or if it do the same works as formerly, yet thy heart is not warmed with the love of God and to God in them as formerly, but only thou proceedest in the course thou hast been in? Art thou negligent in the duties of praying or hearing? Or if thou dost observe them, thou doest it not with that life and vigour as formerly? Dost thou flag in thy profession? . . . If thou art drowsing in such a condition as this, take heed; thou art falling into some woeful temptation that will break all thy bones, and give thee wounds that shall stick by thee all the days of thy life. Yea, when thou awakest, thou wilt find that it hath indeed laid hold of thee already, though thou perceivedst it not; it hath smitten and wounded thee, though thou hast not complained nor sought for relief or healing.

Perversely, a season of great spiritual enjoyment is often turned into a season of danger and temptation because of Satan and the weakness of our hearts. Consider Paul, who in 2 Corinthians 12:1 related having visions and revelations of the Lord. Yet to keep him from becoming conceited because of the greatness of the revelations, yet he was given a thorn in the flesh to keep him from becoming conceited (2 Corinthians 12:7). Satan sees that being possessed by the joy before us, we become lax over many of the ways of approach to our souls. So he seeks and finds some advantage to use against us. “Let us not say, ‘We shall never be moved;’ we know not how soon God may hide his face, or a messenger from Satan may buffet us.”

A fourth season of temptation is with self-confidence. At times of high self-confidence temptation is usually close at hand. The case of Peter is a clear example of this. He said he would not fall away or deny Jesus. Even if all the others fell away, even if it meant his death he would stand fast (Mark 14:29-31). “This said the poor man when he stood on the very brink of that temptation that cost him in the issue such bitter tears.” Within a few hours of his confident declaration that he would never deny Christ he did so three times.

Would you think that Peter, who had walked on water with Christ, who confessed him to be the Son of God, who was with him on the mount, would at the questioning of a servant girl—when there was not legal inquisition or process against him—would swear that he did not know who Jesus was?  So if you would guard against sin, beware of self-confidence.

And this is the first thing in our watching, to consider well the seasons wherein temptation usually makes its approaches to the soul, and be armed against them.

Here is a link to Overcoming Sin and Temptation, a trilogy of three works by Owen: “Of the Mortification of Sin in Believers;” “Of Temptation;” and “Indwelling Sin.”

07/3/15

Temptation Prevention

© Ion Chiosea | 123RF.com

© Ion Chiosea | 123RF.com

John Owen has been peeling back the layers of what Jesus meant in Matthew 26:41 when he cautioned us to not enter into temptation. Here he unpacks three things in what Jesus meant by the command to “watch and pray” that we don’t enter into temptation. We need to be aware of the dangers of temptation. We must realize we are powerless to keep ourselves from temptation; we cannot save ourselves. We have to have faith in God that he will preserve us.

“Always bear in mind the great danger that it is for any soul to enter into temptation.” Owen commented how it was regrettable how little regard many people have for their need to avoid temptation. If they can keep themselves from open sin, they are content. Yet they will regularly put themselves in the way of temptation. He said that someone who keeps bad company, will eventually become bad company! First such a person will abhor the thoughts and practices of those around them, ignoring the warnings to avoid such persons.

They argue they should be free to try everything—whether it comes from God or not. What was been the result of such an approach? Owen said he didn’t know anyone who had not suffered some consequence; even including the downfall of his or her faith. No one should pretend to fear sin if they don’t fear temptation. The two cannot be separated. Remember: “He hates not the fruit [of sin] who delights in the root [of temptation].”

“Sin will not seem great or heavy to someone who thinks the temptation is light or small.” When an individual decides to dabble in a temptation, sin is at the door. Rationalizing why they must enter into temptation has ruined innumerable believers. Owen said he did not have any hope for a more fruitful profession of faith among believers until there was a greater fear of temptation. Therefore, “the daily exercise of our thoughts with an apprehension of the great danger that lies in entering into temptation, is required of us.”

Secondly, we must keep in mind that we are powerless to keep and preserve ourselves from entering into temptation. So we must pray that we are kept from it, because we cannot rescue ourselves. There are so many ways we can enter into temptation—“the means of it so efficacious and powerful,—the entrances of it so deceitful, subtle, insensible, and plausible,”—that we cannot prevent or preserve ourselves from it. We must realize we are so weak and Satan so cunning and powerful, that if left to ourselves, we will not know that we are ensnared until it is too late—until “sin hath got ground in my heart.”

In God alone can we trust for our preservation and to him must we constantly turn. This will make us aware of our need to always commit ourselves to the care of God; to do nothing without asking God’s counsel. There is a double advantage to following this advice. The first is engaging the grace and compassion of God, who has called the fatherless and helpless to rest upon him. The second is its usefulness for preservation. The person who looks to God for help is both sensible of their danger and conscientious in the use of the means to preserve themselves.

The third thing meant by Christ in his admonition to watch and pray is that we must believe he will preserve us. “To believe that he will preserve us is a means of preservation.” We must come to believe that if we fall into temptation, that God will provide a means of escape. We should pray for what God has promised. James 1:5-7 says that God gives generously to all without reproach. “Let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose he will receive anything from the Lord.” This is also what Christ meant in telling us to watch and pray. If we act in faith on the promises of God for our preservation out of temptation, he will keep us and deliver us from the evil one.

If we separate these two commands, to watch and pray, we should first of all take prayer into consideration. “To pray that we enter not into temptation is a means to preserve us from it.” If we want to be minimally involved with temptation, we should pray continually to avoid it. As Paul encourages us in Ephesians 6:18 to pray at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication, let us keep watch so that we aren’t diverted by anything whatsoever.

Abide in prayer, and that expressly to this purpose, that we “enter not into temptation.” Let this be one part of our daily contending with God—that he would preserve our souls, and keep our hearts and our ways, that we be not entangled; that his good and wise providence will order our ways and affairs, that no pressing temptation befall us; that he would give us diligence, carefulness, and watchfulness over our own ways. So shall we be delivered when others are held with the cords of their own folly.

Once again as I read Owen’s thoughts here in chapter five from Of Temptation, I was reminded of the suggestions in Twelve Step recovery for coping with addiction. Minimizing the dangers of potential addiction triggers or avoiding people, places and things seems to correspond to the first point. The next two contain echoes of Steps One through Three. The parallels don’t equate his views on temptation and recovery, but they demonstrate the compatibility of the principles of recovery with Christian spirituality.

A digital copy of Owen’s work, Of Temptation, is available here.

06/12/15

Knowing When You Enter Temptation

© Jaroslav Chaplya | 123RF.com

© Jaroslav Chaplya | 123RF.com

When I moved into my current house, there were several yucca plants on the property. For a few weeks they have beautiful flowers, but then they fall off leaving bare, ugly stalks. The remaining plant is a series of spiny, tough, sword-shaped leaves. They have this incredibly hardy tubular root system. And if you don’t dig up and kill off all the pieces of yucca root, the plants will grow back again and again. If you can’t tell yet, I don’t like yucca plants. So I dug up all the plants and their roots and then spent two years making sure the plants didn’t grow back from the small pieces of yucca root I’d missed when digging up the plants. Sin and temptation are like that—like a yucca plant and its roots.

In chapter four of his work, Of Temptation, John Owen describes how someone can recognize when they have entered into temptation. In previous posts we looked at the general nature of temptation (Lead Us Through Temptation), how we fall into temptation (Entering Into Temptation), and how to avoid temptation (Avoiding Temptation).

The first thing Owen wants us to realize is that all sin springs from temptation. As it says in James 1:14: “Each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire.” So whenever someone falls into sin, they enter through a temptation. “Sin is a fruit that comes only from that root.” Sometimes, when people disregard this basic fact, they are their own worst enemy.

They repent and address their sin, but not the temptation that triggered the sin. “Hence are they quickly again entangled by it, though they have the greatest detestation of the sin itself that can be expressed.” So if you want victory over any sin, you must uncover the temptations at the root of that sin and get rid of the roots. If you don’t, you will not overcome the sin.

Foolishly, many people hate the bitter fruit, but still cherish the poisonous root. So despite their humiliations from sin, they continue with the companionship, habits and behaviors that come before it. This inevitably results in further sin.

Temptations also have several degrees. Some are so intense and disquieting, that there is little doubt the individual wrestles with a strangely powerful temptation. “When a fever rages, a man knows he is sick.” Lust will infallibly carry a person into eternal ruin, like a stream that empties into the sea. But if a wind of strong temptation blows, they can be driven onto the rocks of innumerable scandalous sins. So when any lust or corruption disquiets your soul and then leads to sin, recognize that some outward temptation has befallen you. Look closer to find out what has triggered the sin in you.

Temptation can also be more discrete. The heart can secretly grow fond of a temptation and be eventually become content to feed and increase it in ways that aren’t necessarily sinful. For example, a person could have a reputation for piety, wisdom, or learning—and be widely seen by others as such. His heart might be tickled to hear this from others, and his pride and ambition affected by it.

If this man now, with all his strength, ply the things from whence his repute, and esteem, and glory amongst men do spring, with a secret eye to have it increased, he is entering into temptation; which, if he take not heed, will quickly render him a slave of lust.

It is true that God will often bring light out of such darkness and turn things to a better outcome. So it may be that a person studies for years—with an eye on his lusts of pride ambition and vain-glory. But then God comes in with his grace and turns the soul to himself, robbing those “Egyptian lusts.” And thus he consecrates for his purposes what was intended for personal idolatry.

This can even be true of the profession of personal piety or of the ministry. Someone might have a reputation for piety and be honored by others for his or her “strict walking.” If the desire for this honor becomes embedded in their heart and influences them into more than ordinary diligence and activity within their faith walk, they have become entangled in temptation. Often it requires nothing more than the whisper in their heart that the avoidance of honor and reputation is itself honorable.

It can attach in this way to preaching the gospel. There are many things that could lead to esteem—their ability, their plainness, their frequency, their success. All of this could be fuel for temptation. “Let, then, a man know that when he likes that which feeds his lust, and keeps it up by ways either good in themselves or not downright sinful, he is entered into temptation.”

When the circumstances of a person’s life brings lust and temptation together with the opportunity of provoking sin, they have certainly entered into temptation—whether they realize it or not. Remember that to enter into temptation is not merely to be tempted, but is to be so under the power of it as to become entangled by it. It is almost impossible for someone to the have both the opportunity and occasion suited for their lust and not become entangled in it. “Some men think to play on the hole of the asp and not be stung, to touch pitch and not be defiled, to take fire in their clothes and not be burnt; but they will be mistaken.”

Sometimes a person becomes negligent or formal in their spiritual duties. As it was with the church at Sardis: “You have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead” (Revelation 3:1). So we can even say there is a rule—if your heart grows cold, if you become negligent or formal in your worship of God, some temptation has got a hold of you.

Men may, upon many sinister accounts, especially for the satisfaction of their consciences, keep up and frequent duties of religion, as to the substance and matter of them, when they have no heart to them, no life in them, as to the spirituality required in their performance.

A digital copy of Owen’s work, Of Temptation, is available here.