Every couple of years I like to gather a few men from my church and read through John Owen’s great trilogy on sin: The Mortification of Sin (1656), On Temptation (1658), and Indwelling Sin (1668). (We use the collected volume Overcoming Sin and Temptation, edited by Kelly Kapic and Justin Taylor.) Like re-reading any classic, new insights present themselves upon each revisitation. On my most recent pass I was arrested by a few pages tucked away in Indwelling Sin.
Discussing the effects of sin in believers, Owen makes three observations about the scandalous sins of Christians recorded in Scripture. And in a year when evangelicalism has had our share of Christian leaders embroiled in scandalous sins, it would be helpful to take Owen’s remarks to heart.
Here are three lessons we can learn from Owen.
1. Leaders Fall
His point isn’t that we should expect this (we shouldn’t!). But it’s striking to Owen that, of the scriptural examples we see of saints falling, it isn’t just normal believers but those who “had a peculiar eminency in them on the account of their walking with God in their generation” (363). He cites Noah, Lot, David, Hezekiah, and others. “They were not men of an ordinary size, but higher than their brethren, by the shoulders and upwards, in profession, yea, in real holiness” (363).
Plenty of questions must be asked about the how and why, the ins and outs of each of these retreats to sin. But that’s not Owen’s concern. His focus has more to do with what application we should take away. How ought these biblical examples of backsliding warn us and aid us in our own fight against the flesh?
His takeaway is to take sin seriously. Only a formidable foe could sideline such heroes of the faith:
Surely that must needs be of a mighty efficacy that could hurry such giants in the ways of God into such abominable sins as they fell into. An ordinary engine could never have turned them out of the course of their obedience. It was a poison that no athletic constitution of spiritual health, no antidote, could withstand. (363)
Seeing giants fall is a shocking reminder that we face an enemy too mighty for us.
2. Seasoned Leaders Fall
Owen goes a step further in his next observation. He returns to his biblical examples—Noah, Lot, David, Hezekiah—and notes that they didn’t fall when they were new believers, but many years into their walk with the Lord:
And these very men fell not into their great sins at the beginning of their profession, when they had had but little experience of the goodness of God, of the sweetness and pleasantness of obedience, of the power and craft of sin, of its impulsions, solicitations, and surprises; but after a long course of walking with God, and acquaintance with all of these things, together with innumerable motives unto watchfulness. (363–64)
In other words, these weren’t baby Christians getting picked off like a straggling antelope in the Serengeti. No—these were mighty lions, who had for years experienced the blessings of obedience and become well acquainted with the dangers and deceit of sin. They knew full well how to walk in a manner worthy of their calling. “And yet we see how fearfully they were prevailed against” (364).
3. Seasoned Leaders with Fresh Experiences of Grace Fall
A final observation builds on the previous two. Not only does the Bible show us believers who sin, and seasoned believers who sin, but seasoned believers sinning who’ve just had fresh experiences of God’s grace.
Again, focusing on Noah, Lot, David, and Hezekiah, Owen walks through biblical texts to validate this point. He concludes:
I say, their falls in such seasons seem to be permitted on set purpose to instruct us all in the truth that we have in hand; so that no persons, in no season, with whatsoever furniture of grace, can promise themselves security from its prevalency any other ways than by keeping close constantly to him who has supplies to give out that are above its reach and efficacy. (365)
Here we have Owen circling back to his applicational sweet spot. No matter who you are, no matter how much “success” you’ve had, no matter what gifts you possess—none of us can wander from the Shepherd.
How vigilant must we be against sin! How intentional to allow God to empower us for the battle! The only way we can hope to make it out unscathed is by clinging to Christ. If we become lax in our pursuit of him, or apathetic in our desire to be filled by the Spirit, we cannot expect a comfortable affair.
I don’t mean to make an exact comparison between the sinful exploits of modern Christian leaders and the falls from grace we see on exhibit in Scripture. In the biblical stories, we have specific, divine commentary on the events; we see the totality of the person’s life; we have detailed description of motive, consequences, and more.
There are major differences to be sure. At the same time, though, there are some striking similarities. Enough similarities, it seems, for us to take away some of the sobering warnings Owen has outlined for us. As he says in On Temptation, another work in the trilogy:
Assuredly, he that has seen so many better, stronger men than himself fail, and cast down in the trial, will think it incumbent on him to remember the battle, and if it be possible, to come there no more. (170)
In nothing does the folly of the hearts of men show itself more openly, in the days wherein we live, than in this cursed boldness, after so many warnings from God, and so many sad experiences every day under their eyes, of running into and putting themselves upon temptations. (170)
Were Owen alive today, surely he would have much to say on Christian leaders who disqualify themselves due to sin. But a drum he would most certainly continue to beat is the warning we must all take: if sin and temptation have taken them out, let that be a reminder of vigilance with which you need to fight. Don’t get proud. Replace nominal accountability with real accountability. And above all, cling to Jesus; you have no other hope.