Temptation, the nature and power of it. A lesson from John Owen


By Ninos Hadjirousou

Watch and pray, that ye enter not into temptation.” (Matthew 26:41)

So many today are in need of a way of understanding and a great deal of instruction on how to deal with the temptations around us. We live in a world that loves sin and allows sin legally to be displayed everywhere and anywhere. So the fight becomes harder for the Christian. I found that the great Puritan John Owen was a useful help for me, by God’s grace, on this subject which I wish to share with you.

Owen emphasises that Jesus Christ was awake, watchful, alert and praying when times were difficult, with trial or temptation, as we see Him do so in the Garden of Gethsemane in (Matthew 26:37,38). Christ knew what was coming, He told his disciples that He would be betrayed and put to death by the religious leaders. He also told them that He was dying. For their sins. After Christ said this, He continued in prayer and gave them space.

Owen then observed that “Even the best of saints, being left to themselves, will quickly appear to be less than men, to be nothing. All our own strength is weakness, and all our wisdom is folly. Peter being one of them, who but a little before had with so much self-confidence affirmed that though all men forsook him, yet he never would so do, our Saviour expostulates the matter in particular with him: verse 40 ‘He saith unto Peter, Could you not watch with me one hour?’ as if he should have said ‘Art thou he, Peter, who but now boastedst of thy resolution never to forsake me?‘”

It is interesting to see that even the great Apostle Peter made such a mistake. Making such a great promise, and failing to realize what he got himself into. He became careless and gave up quickly by trusting in his own strength. Owen adds, “we find the root of the same treachery abiding and working in our own hearts, and do see the fruit of it brought forth every day, the most noble engagements unto obedience quickly ending in deplorable negligence.”

Owen then gives a general explanation of temptation and its nature.

Temptation has a negative aspect, often leading to sin (because of our weakness), but God has a positive reason for allowing it. His chief end is to test (and strengthen) our faith

John Owen states in a general sense that temptation “is anything, 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.” That is the negative aspect of temptation.

The positive aspect is that God uses our trials to test us. The same word in Greek translated ‘trials’ is also translated ‘tempted’ (James 1:2,12). So God allows trials to happen, to help us overcome sin by strengthening our faith. The nature of tests is to try, to experiment, to prove, to reveal something that may be known to us in the mist of difficult circumstances. “Hence” Owen wrote “God is said sometime to tempt; and we are commanded as our duty to tempt, or search ourselves, to know what is in us, and to pray that God would do so also.” And then He concludes “So temptation is like a knife, that may either cut the meat or the throat of a man; it may be his food or his poison; his exercise or his destruction.” This may sound contradictory but remember that God is not the author of sin, that is why “God tempts not man“(James 1:13). He also does not allow believers more than what they can endure without a way to escape (1 Corinthians 10:13).

Why does He do it? And how does He do it?

Owen wrote: “He doth it to show unto man what is in him, that is the man himself;”. Often man deceives himself when he tries to find what is in him, grace or corruption. Thus the soul is in a stage of great uncertainty, and fails under self imposed trials.

But Owen adds “God comes with a gauge that goes to the bottom. He sends his instruments of trial into the bowels and the inmost parts of the soul, and lets man see what is in him, of what metal he is constituted. Thus he tempted Abraham to show him his faith. Abraham knew not what faith he had (I mean, what power and vigour was in his faith) until God drew it out by that great trial and temptation. When God says he knew it, he made Abraham know it.”

This must bring a saint to thankfulness and humiliation, treasuring and valuing the experiences so that he learns from them and never forgets them.

God does it, to show himself to man. So that man will know that it is only God that can keep him away from sin.

As Owen wrote “Until we are tempted, we think we live on our own strength.”

The second way He does it, is to renew grace, as He did with

The Apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 12:9 the Lord said to him “My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness.” Paul responds “Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me”. So God tests us that we may trust that His all-sufficient grace is enough for us to endure and to persevere the trials and the sufferings that come in our way. And this becomes so valuable.

It affects the way we think of life on this earth, that we don’t need wealth and health to survive on (though these things need not be bad). All you and I need is Christ. Then we shall not worry what the world worries about, we shall not curse God or use God’s name in vain when we are under a difficult trial in our lives. For we take hold of what our Lord said in Matthew 6:25-32. We begin to see the faith that God placed in us for this particular situation that we may be in, it helps us overcome our fears and our anxieties. We realize how faithful is our Lord’s promise to His disciples (and to us) that He will be with us wherever we go (Matthew 28:20). This affects and influences others who are around us, watching us, talking to us, how we walk in life, how we go in the valley of the shadow of death. It brings people to realize that God is real and He is good even in the most severe of trials.

Now imagine a world without disease; then who would bother searching for cures? As Owen says “the preciousness of the medicine is made know by diseases.

We shall never know what strength there is in grace if we know not what strength there is in temptation.”

While we live on this earth we must look into the face of our enemy and recognize who he is. For since the Fall of Adam, Satan is the one who leads temptations to make us sin. He is like one who has many strings that are connected to everything around us. They are attached to all his fingers, and with the one movement, he can use them against us. These are His own weapons, the world’s lifestyle and system, other people around us; and he even uses ourselves to do his own bidding. This is a powerful enemy and we must not underrate him so easily.

We all have desires which are good. But Satan comes and perverts them, corrupts them into something ugly and destructive. He uses good, God-given desires, then he corrupts them, then uses it as a bait to lure us into his trap. Then if we fall, it is because we were consumed by our own corrupted desires, because of our fallen mortal bodies. So it is not just the Devil that we have to be aware about, it is also the sinful nature that still dwells in us, even after we become born again by the Holy Spirit. This is a reality for the Christian, the Apostle Paul recognized it well when he wrote, “for I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is in my flesh.”(Luke 22:3, James 1:14-15, , Romans 7:18).

And the more we give in to a habitual rebellious, addictive lifestyle of amusing ourselves with lusts of the flesh, we sense to be in the dangerous position of losing our lives. As James said “sin when it is fully grown brings forth death” (James 1:15), and as Paul said “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23).


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