JOHN OWEN AND THE PROBLEM OF INDWELLING SIN
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
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.