John Owen 2

In the February 2019 edition of Grace Notes, we explored the first book, On the Mortification of Sin in Believers, contained in John Owen’s Volume 6: Temptation and Sin. To review, Volume 6 includes four books:

  • On the Mortification of Sin in Believers
  • On Temptation
  • On Indwelling Sin in Believers
  • Exposition of Psalm 130

This month we will investigate the second book of this work, On Temptation, and will continue to uncover why John Owen is known as the “Prince of the Puritans.”

Part 2 of 4: On Temptation — Understanding the Historical Times

At the insistence of friends in 1658, Owen published On Temptation. In under 70 pages, he examines what God’s eternal Word teaches about the nature and power of temptation in the life of the Christian, the danger of entering into temptation, and the means prescribed by God for preventing that danger. 

To enrich our understanding of this work, it is crucial to look at the historical times in which Owen wrote it. The mid-17th century was a tumultuous period of sweeping political and religious change in England. For starters, King Charles I had an adversarial relationship with Parliament. Parliament resented Charles I for imposing new taxes and also for not consulting with them before engaging in a losing war with Scotland. On the other side, Charles I viewed Parliament as a group of power-hungry men, bent on dethroning him. The Puritans were also at odds with Charles I because he wanted to impose strict restrictions on how worship should be conducted in the Church of England, and the Puritans sought the religious freedom to worship God according to Scripture. In 1642, disagreements between Charles I and Parliament reached a boiling point, and civil war broke out in England.

From 1642 to 1648, the country engaged in two civil wars over religious and political principles. The main conflicts were Puritanism versus Anglicanism and parliamentary self-government versus royal absolutism.[i] Parliament and the Puritans prevailed, and on January 30, 1649 King Charles I was beheaded. For many Englishmen, the public execution of their king posed an impossible reality. With the monarchy dissolved, England’s form of government from 1649 to 1660 was a Puritan republic led by military leader Oliver Cromwell. During this time, the Puritans thrived and enjoyed the religious freedom to worship God according to the Bible.

In addition, a friendship formed between Oliver Cromwell and John Owen. After Cromwell heard Owen preach before Parliament, he engaged Owen to serve as chaplain to his military troops while on expedition to Ireland in 1649. Then, by 1651 at the request of Parliament, Owen was appointed Dean of Christ Church College, Oxford University, and in the following year he was appointed Vice Chancellor of the entire Oxford University. During these years in the university environment, Owen not only carried the duties of an administrator, he also regularly preached before Parliament and was often consulted on public affairs, he studied God’s Word and wrote, and he preached on alternate Lord’s Days to his students along with Puritan pastor Thomas Goodwin. 

When the crown was offered to Oliver Cromwell in 1657, Owen, along with other Puritan leaders, sharply disagreed and was disappointed that Cromwell even entertained the idea of becoming king. All that the Puritans had fought for in the establishment of a righteous government seemed to be fleeting as those in power sunk to the same low levels of their forerunners, who had been ejected less than a decade earlier at the great expense of beheading King Charles I. 

As he witnessed the great winds of political change sweeping through England again, Owen was “under the impression that an hour of temptation had come and that the best security for religious principles was the advancement of personal godliness.”[ii] With these concerns, John Owen penned On Temptation and published it in 1658.  It is noteworthy that when faced with cataclysmic political change in his country, which would undoubtedly affect the religious liberty of Puritans, Owen’s counsel for dealing with these uncertain times was not to rally political parties or to write governmental treatises. Instead, he perceived that the best way to promote the interests of Christ during these agitated times was to seek the advancement of personal holiness for God’s people. This priority to pursue godliness as the means for preparing oneself for uncertain times gives us further insight into the caliber of John Owen’s character and why he is called the “Prince of the Purtians.”

Owen was right to be concerned about the shifting political times because by 1658 Cromwell passed away, a series of artificial governments were set up and torn down, and in 1660, General George Monck arranged the election of a new Parliament which paved the way for Charles I’s son, who had been raised as a Roman Catholic in exile in France, to return to England as King Charles II.[iii] This change ultimately resulted in the heightened persecution of the Puritans, and Owen was often subject to danger and false arrests as he sought to preach the Gospel freely. 

Timeless Biblical Truth for Every Age

TemptationAndSin_OwenVol6While the political winds of change played a part in motivating John Owen to publish On Temptation, the content of this work contains timeless biblical truth for followers of Christ in every age. To instruct the Christian reader of the entangling nature and power of temptation, Owen analyzes Matthew 26:41 and unfolds the treasure of God’s wisdom to his children for combatting temptation: “Keep watching and praying, that you may not enter into temptation.” In addition, by exploring examples from Scripture of Christ’s temptations and those of notable believers, Owen demonstrates what it is “to enter into temptation” and our Lord’s directions “to watch and pray” so that we may not enter into temptation.  

Why should the Christian study what Scripture teaches about temptation? When surveying the titles of the latest Christian books, you would be hard-pressed to find an entire one devoted to the subject of temptation. So, why does Puritan John Owen write a whole discourse on this topic? For starters, he explains that all sin comes from temptation: “But each one is tempted when he is carried away and enticed by his own lust. Then when lust has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and when sin is accomplished it brings forth death” (James 1:14-15). As lovers of Christ, we frequently grieve over our sin and truly repent, but Owen points out that we often remain completely unaware of the temptation that leads to our sin. In On the Mortification of Sin in Believers, Owen demonstrates from Scripture how Christians have the duty to put to death indwelling sin daily. This duty of mortifying sin is an essential part of our sanctification and pursuit of holiness. In this second work, On Temptation, Owen further elaborates on how to make progress in our sanctification. To gain conquest over a particular sin and to put it to death, we must become aware of the temptations and circumstances that lead to that particular sin. 

With this goal in mind, Owen carefully defines what temptation in the life of the believer is: “Temptation, then, in general is any thing, state, way or condition that, upon any account whatever, hath a force or efficacy to seduce to draw the mind and heart of a man from its obedience, which God requires of him, into any sin, in any degree of it whatever.”[iv] Consequently, temptation is any enticement that leads to sin and can proceed from Satan, the world, ourselves, other men, or a combination of some or all of these. In contrast, God never tempts or lures man to sin. Owen meticulously distinguishes between God testing man to reveal what is in his heart (for example, in Genesis 22:1-2 God tests Abraham by commanding him to sacrifice his son Isaac) versus temptation which proceeds from Satan, the world, or from ourselves and leads to sin. 

Christ’s Temptations and Those of Notable Believers

In our fallen world, temptation is a daily reality. Owen points out that “our Saviour calls the time of his ministry the time of his ‘temptations’ Luke 22:28.”[v] It is not realistic or biblical to pray for absolute freedom from temptations. When Christ walked this earth, Satan tempted him with the vanities of the world and “showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory” (Matthew 4:8). 

In addition, Scripture provides many examples of the temptations of believers.  Our forefather Abraham struggled with temptation when he traveled in the land of Egypt. Fearing the Egyptians would kill him because of his wife Sarah’s beauty, he instructed her to lie and to say she was his sister.  Thus, Abraham endangered Sarah’s chastity (Genesis 12:10-13). And consider Peter who boldly pledged to Jesus, “Even though all may fall away because of You, I will never fall away. Even if I have to die with You, I will not deny You” (Matthew 26:33, 35). When tempted three times to deny Jesus, Peter fell each time. 1 Samuel 25 reveals David faced temptation to murder the unworthy Nabal. However, God providentially delivered David from committing this wicked act by Abigail’s interceding. Instead of praying for absolute freedom from temptations, Owen shows that our Savior instructs us to “keep watching and praying, that [we] may not enter into temptation” (Matthew 26:41).

So, what is it to “enter into temptation?” To explain what it is, Owen first shows what it is not: (1) to “enter into temptation” is not merely to be tempted, and (2) to “enter into temptation” is not to be conquered by temptation for Scripture records that Jesus entered into temptation (Luke 4:1-13) but was never foiled by it. Rather, to “enter into temptation” is when temptation entices and converses longingly with the heart, and attempts to reason with and cloud the mind to turn a blind eye to the danger and peril of sin. When the believer “enters into temptation,” the lure of sin actively attempts to entrap the affections and to entangle the heart in evil.

Furthermore, Owen instructs that temptation reaches its hour, its height “when it makes a conjunction of affrightments and allurements”[vi] upon the Christian’s resolve not to sin. This is what David experienced as he contemplated murdering Uriah. Fear of the discovery of his adultery with Bathsheba, possible revenge from Uriah, and certain public humiliation of being exposed as an adulterer — these terrors restlessly agitated David’s mind, urgently argued with what his conscience knew to be wrong, and powerfully clouded his judgment. The desires of David’s flesh to remain externally clean and undiscovered before his fellow man united with the temptation to murder Uriah, and this volatile combination made his heart rage and writhe.

We all know how the story of David and Uriah ends — David succumbs to temptation, and though he is the king of the Israelites, responsible for upholding justice and righteousness, he commits the unthinkable act of murder in addition to adultery. When we consider David’s story and how it demonstrates the danger of “entering into temptation,” we begin to understand why our Savior commands us to “keep watching and praying, that [we] may not enter into temptation” (Matthew 26:41). Because “watching and praying” are the two means established by God to preserve us from temptation, Owen devotes a significant portion of his book to investigating what Scripture teaches about “watching.”    

Keeping Watch

To begin with, Owen elaborates, “to watch is as to be on our guard, to take heed, to consider all ways and means whereby an enemy may approach to us.”[vii] In these words, Owen captures the duties and activities of a soldier. But, how can the Christian be as circumspect in daily life as the solder who stands alert on active duty? Just as a soldier on active duty stands watch against the enemy, we must be keenly aware of the wiles of Satan, the deceitfulness of our flesh, and all approaches and occasions upon which the world seeks to entangle our hearts in sin. 

From the pulpit here at Grace Presbyterian Church, we are constantly exhorted to make use of the ordinary means of grace (God’s Word, prayer, and Sacraments), and Owen emphasizes the same simple formula. To keep from entering into temptation, we must be careful and diligent in our daily Scripture reading and private prayer life. This involves highly treasuring God’s Word and praying daily to remember that the chief business of our lives is to know God and to keep His ways as we live out our callings.

Along with being in the Word and prayer, Owen exhorts the Christian reader to watch one’s heart, to labor to know the heart’s spiritual weaknesses, its vulnerable areas, and the vanities to which it is most susceptible. To this end, the final point I will share from Owen on keeping watch is his emphasis on knowing your own heart and fortifying it with God’s Word.

In Psalm 18:23, David recounts how he considered his ways and “kept [himself] from [his] iniquity.” Likewise, we are to know our natural tempers and to be aware of the lusts in our hearts we commonly struggle with. Then, we must beware of situations, occasions, societies, businesses, and recreations that place us in entangling circumstances when united with our heart’s weaknesses. Moreover, recognizing that in a fallen world it is unrealistic to avoid every provoking circumstance, Owen provides instructions for further protection against approaching temptation — we must fill the storehouse of our hearts full with the great sacrifice Christ made on our behalf. Owen urges, “Store the heart with a sense of the love of God in Christ, with the eternal design of his grace, with a taste of the blood of Christ, and his love in the shedding of it.”[viii] By exercising faith upon the finished work of Christ, we fortify our hearts with God’s Word.

In conclusion, a final gem from Scripture that Owen highlights to strengthen our hearts in keeping watch is from Philippians 4:7. Here the Apostle Paul writes about how the “peace of God” will “keep our hearts.” Owen explains that the Greek words in this passage have a military connotation and present the word picture of a garrison — a military post that has been fortified to withstand attack. Thus, the peace of God “garrisons” our hearts. What is this peace of God, and how does it act as a garrison for our hearts? The peace of God is the abiding sense of God’s love and favor in Jesus Christ, and when we cherish this priceless truth of belonging to God because of the finished work of Christ, we “garrison” our hearts against temptation and the assaults of this world.

In On Temptation, Owen explains from Scripture the Christian’s duty to watch and pray against entering into temptation. He helps us to understand that all sin first begins with temptation, and to make progress in sanctification, we must identify the danger of temptation and be equipped to meet and combat the enticements of the world, the flesh, and the devil. Most, if not all, of the classic Bible verses on temptation are addressed in this work, and the Christian reader who seeks to “garrison” his heart will find this book to be a treasure. The modern English version of On Temptation published by Banner of Truth in the Puritan Paperback series is available in the Church Library.  Alternatively, Owen’s original Volume 6 edited by Scottish Presbyterian William H. Goold can be purchased on Amazon and 


[i] Richard S. Dunn, The Age of Religious Wars 1559-1715 (New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 1979), 170.

[ii] John Owen, The Works of John Owen Volume VI (Johnstone & Hunter, 1850-1853; repr., Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1967), 88.

[iii] Dunn, The Age of Religious Wars 1559-1715, 178.

[iv] Owen, The Works of John Owen Volume VI, 96.

[v] Ibid, 97.

[vi] Ibid, 100.

[vii] Ibid, 100.

[viii] Ibid, 134.