Category Archives: Mornings with Owen

Desire, Temptation, and Sin

 

After more than 35 years as a believer in Christ, there is one thing that I know to be true of my own Christian walk:

21 So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. 22 For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, 23 but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. 24 Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? 25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.

This passage generates questions though, or at least it should. How or Why does this war happen?  And What is to be done about it?

Paul gives an ultimate answer to the latter question, namely that Christ will deliver him from this body of death.  As to the former question, we know all too well that even after regeneration by the Holy Spirit and becoming a new creature in Christ that our remnant flesh exists to war against the spirit.  But given that general answer to the How or Why, there is a more detailed answer that Scripture speaks of as well.  One particular passage that is a bedrock for understanding why we sin is James  1:14-15

14 But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. 15 Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.

Collating our observations we arrive at something like a timeline for sin:

  1. Conception
  2. Gestation (Implied)
  3. Birth
  4. Maturation
  5. Death

Most of the time we find ourselves fighting sin at the Maturation step.  Sin has already conceived, gestated, been born, and is now maturing in our lives which surely includes multiplying and creating sinful patterns.  Once it’s born, it spreads like cancer.  Those who can’t or won’t kill sin before it matures will be undone by it.

However, those of us who are unsatisfied with the presence of sin in our lives, who recognize its deception and the internal corruption that produces it, and then like the Apostle in Romans 7 cry out, Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?can also simply become exhausted at fighting an uphill battle trying to chase down sin before it reaches maturation.

Therefore, it becomes imperative that we fight sin prior to its conception.

Desire

This means that the battle against sin must occur at the desire level, prior to its conception with temptation.  Let’s look at the passage again

14 But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. 15 Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.

Temptation exists because of our desires.  Notice how the temptation appeals because of the lure and enticement by our desires.  This is precisely how our Lord faced temptation, yet without sin.  His desires were pure and holy.  Generally, the bent of our desires determines the temptation.  For instance, a man or woman who doesn’t have a taste-bud affinity for chocolate cake will not tempted when a piece is set before them.

Our desires can either be good, bad, or neutral.  A good desire, such as the welfare of others or a neutral desire such as that for sustaining food or drink, might be simple examples for each.  While good and neutral desires may be somewhat obvious, lets put a definition on bad or unholy desires: any affection or compulsion that is contrary either to what God has ordered by nature or commanded by His word.

Temptation

It now becomes necessary to place our finger on the manner of temptation.

John Owen defines temptation as, “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.” (Vol. 6, pg. 96)

When our unholy desires or affections, which are contrary to God, intersect with temptations, which seek to seduce and draw the mind and heart away from obedience, the effect is sin.  Desire and temptation are an unholy union whose only offspring is death.

Owen advises on the potential avenues by which temptation may come, “either singly from Satan, or the world, or other men in the world, or from ourselves, or jointly from all or some of them.” (Vol. 6, pg. 95)

With this in mind, what’s to be done about it?

The Defense

  1. Setting our affections on Christ.  This comes through habitual exercise of exposure to the Word of God and meditation upon that Word.  Not just reading for the sake of reading, that’s powerless and leads to a false assurance of battle readiness.  This ineffectual reading is what George Mueller referred to as “water through a pipe”.  Instead we want to read as water filling up a vessel or pot until it overflows.
  2. Praying without ceasing. A heart that is set upon Christ cannot help but pray.  Conversely, one of the chief evidences that the hearts desires are being drawn away to the world is a lack of prayer.
  3. Fellowship with the saints.  An oft-neglected gift that God has given us in the combat against sin is the communion of the saints.  The Apostle James will draw out this point more clearly later in his epistle by the imperative to confess our sins to one another so that we may be prayed for and restored (James 5:13-20)

Finally, should our desires begin to wain, what’s to be done in order to avoid the pending attack of temptation?  Watch and Pray.  I’ve written elsewhere on this very subject and Owen himself considers that this is the singular defense against the wiles of temptation.

Watch and consider how temptation attacks.  Be aware of its crouching behind every corner.  Be vigilant in the duties outlined above.  Finally, pray.  Pray daily that God would keep you from temptation and deliver you from evil.  Have you considered that in the so-called Lord’s Prayer, as short as it is, two of its 7 petitions are: 1. Lead me not into temptation 2. Deliver me from evil.  Clearly our Lord in answering His disciples request to be taught how to pray considered that these two great appeals were to be included regularly in our supplications unto God.

Desire, Temptation, and Sin.  An unholy trinity, but not an invincible foe.  And not an enemy in any way matched against the Holy Triune God.  Therefore all benefits have been given to us to kill, by the Spirit, the deeds of the flesh.

The Gap between Head and Heart

 

“But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first.” Revelation 2:4

One of the well-known pitfalls of studying theology is the possibility of treating it as an end in itself, rather than as means to an end.  The goal of theology, the study of God, should be doxology, the worship of God.  When we treat theology as an end, simply the acquisition of doctrinal knowledge, theological pride becomes a very real danger.  Additionally, should theological pride be avoided (which is ever-present), another danger exists.  Doctrinal knowledge apart from Doxological practice is bound to deaden the heart’s affections toward God.

Because of the recent resurgence of interest in the Reformers, the doctrines of grace, etc., particularly among 20 and 30-somethings, the net for this trap has been cast far and wide.  While certainly any so-called denomination or group can easily fall prey to this, it seems most prevalent among those who hold claim to hold to reformed theology.  Once the Scriptures have been opened to illuminate the mind to the sovereignty of God over all things including, particularly or perhaps especially, the salvation of sinners, the flesh is easily tempted to revel in newfound knowledge that others have yet to learn.  Thus the trap for theological pride is set.

However, as we alluded to earlier, there is another trap, perhaps more deadly because it has less to do theological debates or waxing eloquently on this or that doctrine and everything to do with the affections of the heart towards God.

In his book, Grace and Duty of Being Spiritually Minded, John Owen comments specifically on this danger

“It is unimaginable how the subtile [sic] disquisitions and disputes of men about the nature, properties and counsels of God, have been corrupted, rendered sapless and useless, by vain curiosity, and striving for an artificial accuracy in the expression of men’s apprehensions.  When the wits and minds of men are engaged in such thoughts, ‘God is not in all their thoughts,’ even when all their thoughts are concerning him.  When once men are got into their metaphysical curiosities and logical niceties in their contemplations about God and his divine properties, they bid farewell, for the most part, unto all godly fear and reverence.”

When we divorce doxology from theology we engage in nothing more than an exercise of the flesh; it’s not only futile, but it’s sinful.  Studying theology is good, but it is good because it gives us a better understanding of the nature of God and His Son Jesus Christ, which ultimately leads us to worship of God.

Despite recent attempts to marginalize and discount their value, the Puritans were the quintessential pattern for how theology leads to doxology.  They were often described as fire and ice.  They had running through their veins the ice of doctrinal precision and steadfastness in the face of opposition along with the burning fire of affection for God that boiled in the bowels of their soul.

Below is further exhortation on the dangers particularly facing the young and reformed.  There, Paul Washer suggests a safeguard to avoiding them, namely the increase of prayer.

 

The Grace and Duty of Being Spiritual Minded

 

“I have set the Lord always before me”

In Psalm 16:8, we read of the Psalmist’s declaration that he has kept the Lord always before him.

Practically what would this look like in our day?

Setting the Lord before oneself is akin to meditating upon Him.  This oft-neglected practice involves literally setting the mind upon God, thinking of Him, His attributes and character, His commands and deeds, or how He has worked in our lives.

In his book, The Grace and Duty of Being Spiritually Minded, Puritan John Owen provides 3 objects of meditations upon God on which we may draw our minds.

The first is the being and existence of God.  Owen calls this the foundation of “all our relation and access unto him”, the “first object of faith” and the “first act of reason”.  Allowing our minds to be drawn upon the fact that God exists is the foundation of all our meditations.  Among other things, its chief concern is to combat atheism, whether doubts may be welling up in our minds or whether practically we live as though God does not exist.

The second is the omniscience and omnipresence of God. To this, Owen adds, “we cannot take one step in a walk before him unless we remember that always and in all places he is present with us.”  God’s omniscience means that He is all-knowing.  He not only knows our day to day happenings, but He knows our thoughts, our hearts, and our motivations.  His omnipresence refers to His existence in all places simultaneously.   Whether in our most joyous of days or our darkest of hours, we may take comfort in knowing that He is there.  Reflecting upon these attributes of God together provide a great hedge against temptation to sin.  Considering that He both knows our thoughts and is present with us during temptation, and even sin for that matter, is a great motivation to flee them.

The third is the omnipotency of God. On this final object of meditation, Owen writes, “It is utterly impossible we should walk before God, unto his glory, or with any real peace, comfort, or satisfaction in our own souls unless our minds are continually exercised with thoughts of his almighty power.”  God’s omnipotency means that He is all-powerful.  God is not, contrary to many modern beliefs, engaged in a battle with Satan, sin, or evil.  He has no equal and their is no opposition that is not already under the sovereignty of God, submissive to His power.  Consider this, even Satan, as in the case of Job and Peter (including the other disciples) must seek permission before afflicting God’s people.  This meditation is a great comfort, knowing that all things are in His powerful hands which serves to specifically combat fear and anxieties in the face of affliction.

By setting the Lord always before us it serves as a spiritual exercise that strengthens our faith, restrains against sin and temptation, and comforts us in our times of distress.

But, setting the Lord before us takes effort, you simply cannot in any fashion perform this duty while coasting or vegging out.  There are no off days or vacation days in Christianity.  It is an active duty, nevertheless the product of grace working in the heart.

Let us desire and then delight to have the Lord set ever before us.  And may our meditations be done unto the glory of God for the good of our souls.

We conclude with a final word from Owen

“Men may be in the performance of outward duties; they may escape the pollutions that are in the world through lust, and not run out into the same compass of excess and riot with other men: yet may they be strangers unto inward thoughts of God with delight and complacency.  I cannot understand how it can be otherwise with them whose minds are over and over filled with earthly things, however they may satisfy themselves with pretences of their callings and lawful enjoyments, or that they are not any way inordinately set on the pleasures or profits of the world.

To ‘walk with God,’ to ‘live with him,’ is not merely to be found in an abstinence from outward sins, and in the performance of outward duties, though with diligence in the multiplication of them. All this may be done upon such principles, for such ends, with such a frame of heart, as to find no acceptance with God.  It is our hearts that he requireth, and we can no way give them unto him but by our affections and holy thoughts of him with delight.  This it is to be spiritually minded, this it is to walk with God.  Let no man deceive himself; unless he thus abound in holy thoughts of God, unless our meditation of him be sweet unto us, all that we else pretend unto will fail us in the day of our trial.” Vol. 7 pg. 378-379