John Owen’s Treatise on Temptation

Temptation: Winning the Battle Before the War: In Modern EnglishJohn Owen (1616-1683) is one of the most respected Puritan theologians. One subject he explored deeply was our fight against sin and temptation, which is probably best known from his work The Mortification of Sin in Believers (1656). Two years later, Owen published another book, Of Temptation (1658), which focuses specifically on our battle with besetting temptations.

I recently released a new modern English translation of Of Temptation titled Temptation: Winning the Battle Before the War. My goal is to help more people to more easily read and understand this 17th century treatise. Times have changed, but our fight of faith is the same, and we benefit in interesting ways by examining the counsel of long-dead saints. So what can you expect from Owen’s book? I’ll share what stood out to me as I worked on this modern adaptation.

Entering into temptation

Owen first makes a distinction between day-to-day temptations and “entering into temptation” in a serious struggle. One of the main scriptures that Owen uses is Matthew 26:41: “Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” (ESV). Jesus said this to the disciples on the night he was betrayed, and they did respond–by promptly falling asleep. Owen defines entering into temptation as becoming entangled with temptations in a strong and powerful way. A serious trial and temptation was approaching the disciples, especially Peter, to deny their Lord. But they were not watching or praying, so when the temptation came, they fell.

One of the things that is great about reading older books is that they emphasize truths that have been overlooked in the current day. I think this concept of the threat of a coming hour of temptation is one of them. We sometimes fall to very serious temptations, but we believe we only failed in the moment rather than seeing that we failed before the temptation by our spiritual slumber. It is this emphasis on preparation throughout the book that led me to choose the subtitle, “Winning the Battle Before the War”. The key to victory over temptation is to watch and pray and meditate on the gospel before we are ever tempted.

A universal problem

Another challenge to our modern mindset is that Owen claims that all of us should be on our guard against these entangling, strong temptations. I think many of us think that a strong fight against temptation is for those who are entangled in addictive or destructive behaviors, such as sexual sin. But Owen rightly points out that the number of public and private sins are too many to count, and any of them can come against us an overwhelm us when we are “sleeping”. To only categorize certain sins as entangling is to underestimate the danger of sin in the very way that Owen is trying to help us to avoid.

Watch and pray

Owen says it is the duty of all Christians to follow Christ’s advice to watch and pray. He states that we are much weaker than we believe ourselves to be. We should be watching (in a practical way) for how temptations might approach us to put up a defense. Our main prayer is not for strength to resist temptations when we’re entangled. Our main prayer is to avoid entering into temptations altogether. Realizing that we are weak in ourselves, we should look to the strength of God to keep us from temptations. Owen reminds us that this was one of the directions in the Lord’s prayer: “Lead us not into temptation.”

The thing that struck me was the humility of this stance. Instead of looking to our own strength and willpower to make good decisions when tempted, we humbly ask God to protect us from temptations because we admit how easy it is to fail. Even when God decides to allow the temptation or trial, we are then in the best position to look to Christ for deliverance. Like Paul, we can listen for Him to say, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 12:9). It is a stance of humility and it glorifies God’s role in giving us deliverance from and within our temptations.

The word of Christ’s patience

The final verse that Owen examines is Revelation 3:10: “Because thou hast kept the word of my patience, I also will keep thee from the hour of temptation, which shall come upon all the world, to try them that dwell upon the earth” (KJV). I kept the King James Version translation here, because Owen uses the term “word of [Christ’s] patience” throughout the final chapters of the book. The ESV translation has different wordings, using the “word about patient endurance” and the “hour of trial”.

In my opinion, this is one of the best parts of the book, because it exalts Christ and the power of the gospel in our fight against temptation. Owen explains how important it is not just to know the gospel, but to love and value it. Our love for God and for our Savior, Jesus Christ, fills our heart with better things. Owen covers many aspects of the gospel to help us to love Christ more and to diminish the appeal of temptation in comparison. Without a daily consideration of the gospel, Owen claims that the other aspects of watching and praying will lack the power they could have to protect us.

Final prayer

I hope Owen’s book on temptation encourages and challenges you. In the prologue, Owen’s prayer echos my own prayer in working on this update:

“I pray that our faithful and merciful High Priest, who because of His own suffering and temptations is touched with the feeling of our infirmities, would accompany this small discourse with seasonable supplies of his Spirit and suitable mercy to those who read it. May it be useful to His servants for the ends for which it is designed. This is the prayer of him, who received this handful of seed from His storehouse and treasure.”
handful of barley
Owen, John. Temptation: Winning the Battle Before the War: In Modern English.

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