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John Owen and the problem of indwelling sin

Category Articles
Date December 22, 2001


It is evident that in the shallowness of modern English evangelicalism sin is not dealt with seriously in evangelism or in the battles of the Christian life and many feel that Owen is the man who can teach this generation much that is absent, to our lamentable weakness

At the Westminster Conference 2001, held at Westminster Chapel, London on December 11 the Rev. William Timmins of Beeston in Derbyshire gave a paper on “John Owen and the Problem of Indwelling Sin.” John Owen (1616-1683) was the great theologian of the Puritan period. He was not a Presbyterian but an Independent, an advocate of the Congregational way of governing congregations. Owen was different, not even dressing like the Presbyterians. Anthony Wood his contemporary described him in “Athenai Oxoniensis” thus: “You must know that Owen, being a vaine person, weared for the most part sweet powder in his haire, sets of points at his knees, boots and lawn-hose tops, as the fashion then was for young men.” In part Owen’s clothing was a protest against the formalism of the Episcopalians and the dourness of some of the Presbyterians. The Independents had a reputation for a greater measure of lightness and gaiety than the other Puritans. Owen treasured John Bunyan’s preaching, and his affection was reciprocated by the author of Pilgrim’s Process. They both shared the same radical printer.

The Banner of Truth has served to give Owen back to Britain as the greatest theologian these islands have ever known, and for that we shall be ever in their debt. The larger Christian world first met Owen in the Banner of Truth reprint of “Death of Death” in 1959, certainly in the furore caused by J.I.Packer’s Introduction. Packer has continued to promote Owen at every opportunity, certainly in his annual papers in the old Puritan Conference. The Banner of Truth has committed itself to keeping the Works of Owen in print. There are also the brilliant paperbacks of the Rev. Dr. Law which have put the writings of Owen into contemporary English. His work on the Holy Spirit in that series is particularly remarkable. It is as if Owen has said everything on the subject, so that one asks oneself why one bothers to read anyone else!.

Others are showing an interest in Owen. There are the two abbreviations which Grace Publications have brought out: “What Every Christian Needs to Know” which is a full helpful summary of both Owen’s works on Temptation and on Mortification of Sin. “Life by his Death” is an abbreviation of “Death of Death.”

Kris Lundgaard is a former student of Reformed Theological Student Jackson and was taught there a course on Puritanism by visiting professor J.I.Packer. In 1998 he brought out a book entitled “The Enemy Within” (Presbyterian and Reformed) which is a contemporary restatement of Owen’s works on “The Nature, Power, Deceit, and Prevalency of the Remainder of Indwelling Sin in Believers” and “The Mortification of Sin.” His love for Owen has been joined this year by Steve Griffiths, an Anglican vicar in London, who has published a book entitled “Redeem the Time. Sin in the Writings of John Owen” (Mentor/ Focus), which book is heavily praised by Sinclair Ferguson.

At the Westminster Conference the Owen paper was again on this narrow theme of his teaching on indwelling sin. My own introduction to Owen forty years ago was his “Spiritual Mindedness” which has always been a classic favourite with Christians. No doubt the balance will be restored and treatises on the glories of the person and work of Christ will make their appearance as this century advances, because it is clearly the mark of the thinking preacher that he is learning from Owen. It is evident that in the shallowness of modern English evangelicalism sin is not dealt with seriously in evangelism or in the battles of the Christian life and many feel that Owen is the man who can teach this generation much that is absent, to our lamentable weakness.

So William Timmins introduced us to “Indwelling Sin” which Owen wrote when he was 52 and which was published in 1668. Timmins’ brief was not to introduce us to “Mortification”, though those two short books are usually handled together, but we had more time to consider the former. yet William could not avoid the latter theme. The competence with which the subject was handled encourages us to commend him to the committee to give further papers on Owen in the future. “Indwelling Sin” came out of Owen preaching a series of sermons on the conflict within the believer. Timmins found it easier to read Owen quickly rather than slowly, and then, William said, we too might discover Owen the passionate pastor concerned with the holiness of the congregation in his charge.

The foundational distinctive Owen sets out is that sin continues to abide in the believer but not to have the dominion. It can tempt and seduce but it does not reign. Indwelling sin is a ‘law’ in our members; it has power and we are always made aware of it throughout our Christian lives. Our inclination through the indwelling Spirit is to do good but sin is there all the time. As we swim against the current of the world and the flesh we find how strong sin is. Sometimes irregular lusts trouble the Christian greatly. So sin is powerful, but it does not lord it over the believer.

The vital prescription is to mortify remaining sin. If that is not done the soul will be weakened like a cobweb. Mortifying sin serves our great end of glorifying God. Mortification is a hope-enducing teaching. If mortification is neglected we will be drawn away from God as indwelling sin lusts against the Spirit, fighting and seeking to take us captive in its rage and madness, to have us actually bear the yoke again. Indwelling sin is manifested in a consistent perpetual propensity and lust for evil with us. It is a deceiver within, enticing the mind and affections. See the effect it has had on Noah, Lot, David, Hezekiah and others!

Owen’s work teaches us we have three needs, for wisdom to know our own hearts and our Saviour Christ better; our need for watchfulness to even die rather than yield one step to sin; and thirdly our need to be ever at war. Not to acknowledge this is the height of madness. We are to be killing sin or sin will be killing us. Fine discussion chaired by Graham Harrison followed the paper.


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