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What If John Owen Was My Life Coach?




John Owen was a Puritan theologian in the 1600s. He was also a prolific writer, writing several classics, including a book about overcoming sin with a really strange title. In this blog, I go to Owen, confessing a sin and asking him for advice as if he were my life coach or mentor. I trust his advice will help you as much as it did me.

 

In my journey of spiritual formation, I've faced a subtle inner sin that plagues me: selfishness, particularly when it comes to food. My wife and I travel often for ministry and share our meals. However, when the food arrives, a selfish impulse within me wants to ensure I get enough food, regardless of how much she gets. She, however, is always willing to share.


That Tricky Heart

As Jeremiah rightly stated, the heart is wicked (Jer 17:9) and can be incredibly subtle, cunning, and convincing. It presents powerful arguments in my favor, always ready to justify my sinful desires: I’m bigger, have a faster metabolism, and therefore, need more food.


Sadly, it is not just when eating out. The other night, I had made dinner for myself when my wife, sister-in-law, and niece came over. I overheard my sister-in-law talking about my cooking from my bedroom—she was impressed. But my chief concern, my obsession, was ensuring she and her daughter did not eat my food! I recognized what was happening in me in a way that I would not have before I started my journey of studying the topic of spiritual formation.


As a discipline, I have recently focused on eating less, remembering that the desert fathers felt that walking away before you were full was more challenging than fasting.[1] I am also learning about the importance of sharing my food. Hospitality is an essential value in the Middle East, where I live. In many Western cultures, I could walk into someone’s home and be offered nothing to eat or to drink. That is unthinkable in this part of the world and would be the subject of neighborhood gossip.


Help Me, John!

How could John Owen's teachings assist me in this ongoing battle? He would likely start by explaining that a true disciple is not satisfied with a mere profession of faith but strives to emulate Jesus in both behavior and heart attitudes. “The choicest believers, who are assuredly freed from the condemning power of sin, ought yet to make it their business all their days to mortify the indwelling power of sin.”[2]


He would explain that these negative, sinful actions are the lingering attributes of the old man, the flesh. The outward manifestation of not sharing my food results from something inside. “The deeds of the flesh denote the outward manifestations of ‘the works of the flesh,’ but also the inner heart causes.”[3] This goes back to Jeremiah’s description above of the human heart as corrupt.


I Am Not Alone in the Battle

While God expects me to deal with the old man, he doesn’t ask me to do it alone. “This is the work of the Spirit.”[4] Paul refers to the “fruit of the Spirit,” not the fruit of “really good people who are self-disciplined” in Galatians 5:22-23. Even sinners can stop bad habits, but that leads to self-righteousness, which is at the heart of every “false religion in the world.”[5] Of course, we must cooperate with the Spirit. How could one have self-discipline (Gal. 5:23) if they are simply being controlled? Kenneth Acha shares Owen’s view, “Even though this is a work of the Spirit, we are given it as a duty because we must collaborate with the Holy Spirit for it to be done.”[6]


If I told Owen I could discipline myself, he might suggest that God wants me to go further. To paraphrase him: Consistently overcoming a particular desire is another way to show that you are controlling it. By success, I don't just mean stopping a sin from happening, but actually defeating it and striving until you have completely conquered it.[7]


Crucifying the Flesh Leads to Joy

It is not enough to share my food; God wants me to do it with joy. Conquering sin through self-discipline is not the same as being filled with the Holy Spirit. Here, Owen might expound on the phrase in Romans 8:13, “You shall live.” Owen paraphrases 1 Thessalonians 3:8, “Ye shall live, lead a good, vigorous, comfortable, spiritual life whilst you are here, and obtain eternal life hereafter.”[8] When people hear the words “mortification” and “crucifying of the flesh,” they are not typically filled with warm fuzzies. But the promise of God is life to those who mortify the flesh. John 10:10 promises abundant life, and the One who spoke those words calls us to daily crucifixion (Luke 9:23).

 

At this point, Owen might get practical, explaining how to overcome my selfishness. But not just that, also my lack of concern and love for the other individual(s), whether my wife when we are eating out or someone who comes over just as I’m about to eat. “Every lust is a depraved habit or disposition, continually inclining the heart to evil.”[9] Sin is strengthened by giving in to temptation: “When a suitable temptation falls in with a lust, it gives it a new life.”[10] 


At this point, I might ask my counselor, “How do I overcome temptation and sin?” Owen brilliantly gives the example of a man struggling through crucifixion. “He first struggles, strives and cries out,” but as the life flows from him, “his cries [grow] low and hoarse, scarce to be heard.” [11] Like the dying man, at first, we give in to our temptation with great vigor. But as one crucifies their flesh, the demands for satisfaction lessen and eventually cease.


“Frequent success against any lust is another part in evidence of modification,”[12] Owen says. The more one brings his temptations to the Holy Spirit, and the more time passes without giving in, the stronger he becomes in resisting sin.

 

Don’t Mourn the Death of Your Flesh

As with all funerals, they are sad occasions. The believer does not want to say goodbye to their old friend, whether it be lust, gluttony, or some other vice. “The desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh” (Gal. 5:17). He feels he cannot live within him. The old man “fights against God,” but “by the implanting and growth of humility is pride weakened, passion by patience, uncleanness by purity of mind and conscience, love of this world by heavenly-mindedness: which are graces of the Spirit.”[13]


The Promise is Life!

As our session ends, he would remind me that the promise is life. “The life promised is opposed to the death threatened in the clause foregoing, ‘If ye live after the flesh, ye shall die.’”[14] True life comes from defeating the lies of the flesh that claim you can't live without certain sins. Is this not what Paul says? “For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life” (Gal. 6:8). Owen would look me in the eyes, as a man who knows from experience and say, “The vigour, and power, and comfort of our spiritual life depends on the mortification of the deeds of the flesh.”[15]


 

[1] John Cassian, John Cassian Collection, Book V, The Spirit of Gluttony, Chapter V and VI, Kindle.

[2] John Owen, Of the Mortification of Sin in Believers (Nashville, TN: WordSearch Bible, 2019), 8, WordSearch.

[3] Kenneth Acha, “Book Summary of the Mortification of Sin in Believers by John Owen,” Kenneth MD, accessed April 15, 2024, https://kennethmd.com/book-summary-of-the-mortification-of-sin-in-believers-by-john-owen.

[4] Owen, Of the Mortification of Sin in Believers, 8.

[5] Acha, “Book Summary of the Mortification of Sin in Believers by John Owen.”

[6] Ibid.

[7] Owen, Of the Mortification of Sin in Believers, 39.

[8] Ibid., 10.

[9] John Owen, The Works of John Owen, ed. William H. Goold, vol. 6 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, n.d.), 28, Logos.

[10] Ibid., 29.

[11] Ibid., 30.

[12] Ibid., 32.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid., 8-9.

[15] Ibid., 9.

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Shalom from Israel! I am Ron Cantor and this is my blog. I serve as the President of Shelanu TV.

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