Temptation and Sin: On Indwelling Sin in Believers Book Review
Thus far in 2019, we have explored the first two books in John Owen’s Volume 6: Temptation and Sin. To recap, Volume 6 includes four individual books:
- On the Mortification of Sin in Believers
- On Temptation
- On Indwelling Sin in Believers
- Exposition of Psalm 130
The two discourses we have already examined, On the Mortification of Sin in Believers and On Temptation, were written at the zenith of Puritan control of the English Parliament. In contrast, as we delve into On Indwelling Sin in Believers this month, we will be reviewing a book that was written when the Puritans were no longer the power players in government but now were the persecuted.
The Rise and Fall of the Puritans
After King Charles I’s public execution in 1649, the Puritans held the seat of power in the English government with Oliver Cromwell at the helm as Lord Protector. The Puritans flourished during this time and enjoyed the religious freedom to worship God according to the Bible. Amid these years of peace, Owen published On the Mortification of Sin in Believers in 1656 and On Temptation in 1658. However, with Cromwell’s death in 1658 and in-fighting among the Puritans, the political landscape dramatically shifted by 1660. The beheading of King Charles I had always been hotly contested among Englishmen and having a form of government devoid of monarchy proved unsustainable. The election of a new Parliament ultimately paved the way for Charles I’s son, who had been raised as a Roman Catholic while in exile in France, to return to England as King Charles II.
Initially, like any savvy politician attempting to unite a nation, Charles II made overtures to the Puritans, promising them religious freedom. Time, though, demonstrated the emptiness of these promises, and by 1662 Charles II issued the Act of Uniformity which required all worship to be conducted only by the dictates of the government outlined in the Book of Common Prayer. People were not allowed to worship God according to the Bible, and pastors who violated this law were fined and forbidden to preach forever. Many fled England for Europe or America, and at this time, John Bunyan, who later authored Pilgrim’s Progress, was imprisoned.
To circumvent the king’s unjust law, many Puritans started to worship in home churches. Charles II responded by instituting the Conventicle Act in 1664 which made it illegal for more than five people to gather in a home for a religious meeting unless they were of the same family. Consequently, John Owen and other Puritan pastors tried to bypass this new restriction by visiting individual families to preach and minister to them. With unrelenting resolve to punish the Puritans and force them to conform to the Church of England, the king further declared the Five Mile Act which made it illegal for a Puritan pastor to come within five miles of any congregation he had ever preached in.
Puritan pastors lived under the government’s stringent watch and were subject to severe fines and imprisonment. Many lost their livings and homes, and life was bleak for John Owen. No longer was he a member of the ascendant political party but a Nonconformist and Dissenter to the king’s rules of worship. Choosing to obey God, even though it meant disobeying the king, resulted in Owen finding himself constantly reproached, at one time running from an angry mob, and forced into hiding. In God’s providence though, this time in concealment resulted in great literary fruitfulness, and along with many other works, Owen wrote On Indwelling Sin in Believers and published it in 1668.
Part 3 of 4: On Indwelling Sin in Believers
According to the custom of Owen’s day, the complete title of this work is a lengthy sentence: The Nature, Power, Deceit, and Prevalency of the Remainders of Indwelling Sin in Believers; Together With The Ways of Its Working and Means of Prevention, Opened, Evinced, and Applied: With a Resolution of Sundry Cases of Conscience Thereunto Appertaining.
In our 21st century #hashtag tweeting culture, where truncated language is all the rage, a book with a cumbersome title like this is easily dismissed as too much work to decipher. Yet, when we consider Charles Spurgeon’s exhortation to his congregation in the 19th century, we find there is wisdom in learning from pilgrims who have gone before us: “Renounce as much as you will all light literature, but study as much as possible sound theological works, especially the Puritanic writers.” (i)
Despite unfashionably long titles, John Owen’s books are the epitome of sound theological works. His writings unite profound exegesis of Scripture with keen pastoral care for propelling God’s people onward to maturity in Christ. To this end, in On Indwelling Sin in Believers (from here on called Indwelling Sin), Owen explores Romans 7:21 and studies the subject of original sin and its lingering influence in the life of the Christian: “I find then the principle that evil is present in me, the one who wishes to do good.” He devotes an entire treatise to this topic to help followers of Christ gain an understanding from Scripture of the power and deceit of indwelling sin remaining in us, and the weapon of prayer supplied by our gracious Father to battle this formidable opponent.
Enmity Against God
With the words, “I find then the principle that evil is present in me,” the Apostle Paul testifies to his own personal experience in contending against indwelling sin. His words verify the battle that every Christian faces daily. Although indwelling sin remains in the believer, Owen is careful to show that the Christian is not held under its dominion as he formerly was as an unbeliever. By God’s regenerating grace, “the habitual inclination of [the Christian’s] will is unto good.” (ii) After establishing this biblical truth, Owen analyzes the nature of indwelling sin in the believer and from Romans 8:7 draws an important point for us to study: “The carnal mind is enmity against God.” That is, indwelling sin (also called “the flesh”) is enmity against God—it is fully committed to opposing God’s ways, to rebelling against him, and to demonstrating absolute repugnance for his holiness. While mortification of sin lessens the force and effect of indwelling sin in us, it does not change the nature of indwelling sin. Just as the Christian’s will is habitually inclined to good, in contrast, indwelling sin is habitually inclined towards evil. Because indwelling sin is the vile remnants of original sin in us, it will always be a tyrant, committed to opposing God.
Learning from God’s Word that indwelling sin is enmity against God and that this enemy resides in us is sobering. Owen’s purpose, though, is not to discourage us with this biblical truth but instead to help us make progress in sanctification, in being conformed to the image of Christ. He argues that men know their balance sheets, their financial health, and are well acquainted with the physical needs of their bodies. How much more important is it for man to be thoroughly acquainted with his heart? If we intend to walk with God, to bring him glory, to know what pleases him and what provokes him, should we not labor to be watchful that the enemy is not just outside of us but in our own hearts?
To further detail the power of indwelling sin, Owen brings forth Galatians 5:17: “For the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: and these are contrary the one to the other; so that I cannot do the things that I would.” The Bible reveals that the flesh, indwelling sin, works with force—“it lusteth.” It operates with efficacy and power, always trying to pull the believer towards evil. It urges, pursues, presses, fights, and wars with vigor. Because it resides in us, Owen warns that it works with great facility and ease. It doesn’t have to open any doors, and it has an intimacy with us, knowing our vanities and our weaknesses.
Along with investigating the power of indwelling sin, Owen covers the deceitfulness of sin. Sin operates in cunning ways. It entices the imagination and solicits the Christian’s heart with a thousand false promises. This is how Eve was deceived when the serpent tempted her to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil: “For God knows that in the day you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:5). Sin’s duplicitous nature promises pleasure, power, and reward, but in reality, delivers death.
Moreover, Owen presents James 1:14-15 to help us understand sin’s wily tactics: “Every man is tempted when he is drawn away of his own lust, and enticed. Then when lust hath conceived, it bringeth forth sin: and sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death.” Because the mind is responsible for directing the soul to remain in a posture of obedience, service, and gratitude to God, sin’s deceitfulness works by attempting to draw the mind away from the obedience and holiness it is called to. It does this by disguising sin as “false-painted beauty” (iii) and diverting us from seeing sin for what it truly is—vile baseness and betrayal of God.
In Genesis 39:9, when Joseph is tempted by Potiphar’s wife to commit adultery, he exclaims, “How can I do this thing, and sin against God?” Joseph resists committing this treacherous deed because he sees sin accurately for the evil that it is. In Colossians 3:2, God commands us to set our minds on things above, not on the earth. Indwelling sin’s deceitfulness labors constantly to draw our minds and hearts away from being set on the treasure of Christ. By many subtle and circuitous paths, sin seeks to dupe us to exchange the treasure of Christ for its “false-painted beauty.” (iv)
The Christian’s Weapon for Battling Sin
After Owen has examined the power and deceit of indwelling sin, he includes an outstanding chapter on private prayer, an important weapon God has given us to battle the remaining sin in our lives. In chapters like this, Owen is at his best because he demonstrates that knowing God is not merely intellectual knowledge but is heartfelt obedience and experience in walking in his ways. The fundamental point he drives home about the necessity of private prayer is summarized masterfully by 19th century English pastor J.C. Ryle:
Let no one be surprised if he hears ministers of the Gospel dwelling much on the importance of prayer. This is the point we want to bring you to,—we want to know that you pray. Your views of doctrine may be correct. Your love of Protestantism may be warm and unmistakable. But still this may be nothing more than head knowledge and party spirit. The great point is this,—whether you can speak to God as well as speak about God. (v)
Prayer is the act of dying to self. In this special privilege, we conform our mind, heart, and will to our Father’s will. As we engage in it, we obtain assistance and wisdom from God (James 1:5). The Holy Spirit powerfully helps us in prayer to search the recesses of our hearts for offense against our Maker (Romans 8:26). When seeking God’s face in earnest prayer, Owen shares, “there is wrought upon the heart a deep, full sense of the vileness of sin, with a constant renewed detestation of it.” This is why private prayer cannot be neglected. Either “prayer will consume sin, or sin will choke prayer.” (vi)
From the pages of Indwelling Sin, it is evident that John Owen had first-hand experience with contending against the remaining sin in his own life. His writings reveal that he found this principle present in himself and powerful, just as the Apostle Paul shares in Romans. However, throughout this work, Owen never loses sight of the perfect sacrifice of Christ on behalf of God’s people. He shows that it is not the rigors of our self-examination that acquit us of sin but only the precious blood of Christ. By canvassing the Scriptures, Owen brings forth the treasures of God’s Fatherly wisdom to us so we can chart the circuitous, deceitful routes of indwelling sin and be stirred to greater diligence and watchfulness, faith and prayer. The modern English version of Indwelling Sin is available in the Church Library.
i Matthew Barret and Michael A.G. Haykin, Owen on the Christian Life (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2015), 257.
ii John Owen, The Works of John Owen Volume VI (Johnstone & Hunter, 1850-1853; repr., Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1967), 160.
iii Owen, The Works of John Owen Volume VI, 248.
iv Owen, The Works of John Owen Volume VI, 248.
v J.C. Ryle, Practical Religion (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House; repr., 1977), 68.
vi Ryle, Practical Religion, 71.