Christ’s Temptation and Our Own

Jesus IconI recently posted on Jesus’ temptation in Matthew’s Gospel and argued that the event showed Satan offering Jesus means other than the cross of becoming the Messiah; signified Jesus’ overthrow of Satan; and I suggested that each temptation is developed in the rest of Gospel. I concluded that post by reminding the reader that it was both Jesus’ loving submission to the Father and self-sacrificial love for us that braced him for his messianic role. In this short post I will unpack what the temptation teaches us about Christ and the challenge it issues to us.

When I preached Matthew 4:1-11 I said that Jesus’ temptation reveals Jesus’ struggle with his mission, which was a tremendous burden. However you read Hebrews 5:7-9 one thing is certain: Jesus’ obedience to God the Father was difficult. However when Jesus was tempted by Satan, experiencing in himself our human weakness, he was without sin (Hebrews 4:15). Jesus was unswervingly committed to his task, thus he trusted his Father and gave himself up for us. To borrow an analogy from John Owen’s On Temptation: temptation pierces a vessel revealing what is within. When Jesus is tempted we are given a window into his character and what we see there is steadfast love, for his Father and those he came to save.

ScalpelWe are no different, for temptation peels back our pious masks and pretensions. Owen wrote, “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.” He understood that the nature of temptation is to expose our hearts and added, “[Temptation shows] man what is in him–that is, the man himself.” When Jesus was tempted he rose above it for he was devoted to God the Father. However, what temptation more often than not reveals in the Christian is a lack of commitment to God. We know from Scripture that God sometimes tempts in order to test our faith and that “temptation may proceed either singly from Satan, or the world, or other men in the world, or from ourselves, or jointly from all or some of them”. But regardless of its source – and I would encourage investigating Owen’s different categories, also see James’ differentiation between internal and external temptation – when we are enticed by evil our hearts are exposed. Jesus’ temptation reveals his deliberate and devoted commitment to God. When we are tempted, what is revealed?

I will conclude with two practical points for when we are tempted. Firstly, we must rely on God’s grace to forgive and strengthen us. Owen writes, “Until we are tempted, we think we live on our own strength,” but when we feel like giving in to temptation we are reminded of our need for Christ’s blood and the Spirit’s empowerment. As N. T. Wright says, in The Lord and His Prayer, alluding to Matthew 12, “Invoke the name of the Stronger than the Strong.” The cross has removed our guilt and the Spirit works in us to break the power of sin, when we are tempted, as for when we sin, we need look no further than our gracious God. Secondly, resist temptation, hate sin, submit yourself to God and resist the devil. John Owen has written extensively on the battle with sin, which we make meagre progress in only because we do not actively set about doing it. So when you are tempted, resist what you know will displease your heavenly Father. And let us strive after Jesus’ example, who resisted temptation until the point of death.

The Lost Art Of ‘Quiet Times’

Traffic captured on a time lapseLife gets busier. That is the experience few of us evade. But what do we give up when the inescapable fact of busyness presses? Though they are the hardest things to relinquish, I have learnt we are to make our selfish and indulgent activities past times. As Christians we are called to live in community, which is life long service and active love towards others, after God. Jesus’ call to discipleship involves dying to self and therefore to those things directed solely towards self-gratification. That is an arduous call. As our lives become more crowded with responsibilities, we must abandon selfish pursuits. These pursuits are the places we retreat to, zealously protect, and need to survive.

What has always surprised me, observing my own approach in dealing with busyness, is my readiness to abandon prayer and reading the Scriptures, what we might call ‘quiet times’. I can even justify it: ‘I am busy serving the church, loving my neighbour, and glorifying God in my life.’ Action is—after all—greater than contemplation, isn’t it? In fact, I could argue that contemplation is quite selfish; our devotion should seek to actively bless others. Maybe it is these lines of thought which have brought so many Christians to a place that leaves no room for meditation amidst the hum drum of life.

Man on a bench reading his Bible

However, Christians through the centuries have emphasised the vitally important and vitality imbibing discipline of meditating on God’s Word. They saw it as the one activity we should zealously guard, retaining it at any cost. Indeed, Christians have always insisted on practising daily Scripture reading, meditation and prayer. The obvious danger with any spiritual discipline is legalism, but that risk does not justify the failure to spend time in the Scriptures, serious contemplation, and sincere prayer; nor does busyness. Below are a few challenging quotes I have come across in my reading recently.

In one of Samuel Rutherford’s letters he offers some directions for Christian living, a “Christian directory” (this can be found in Letters Of Samuel Rutherford, p70). And in the place of prominence, first on the list, he writes: “That hours of your day, less or more time, for the Word and prayer, be given to God”. For Rutherford, this discipline was not even in question. Only in the second direction does he mention the tangle of “worldly employments”; and that amidst them we should give some thought to sin, judgment, death and eternity, along with a word or two of prayer to God, on top of daily reading. It seems unrealistic or overly pious. But as I read through his letters I was struck by the richness of his relationship with God and how that deep communion overflowed into godly concern and invaluable counsel for the church.

Banner of Truth's Collected Works of John OwenIn his irreplaceable work on mortification, John Owen warns Christians against growing “sermon-proof” (p52, volume 6 of Owen’s collected works, Banner Of Truth). The cause of this, the ability to have our souls and sin addressed through the preaching of God’s Word while remaining unconcerned and hardened, is rooted in the ease with which we “pass over duties, praying, hearing, reading”. Complacency starts at home and extends to the pulpit where are hard hearts are visibly unaffected and sin becomes lighter. Owen continues: “Slight thoughts of grace, of mercy, of the blood of Christ, of the law, heaven, and hell, come all in at the same season.” Our faith involves being good listeners to God’s Word, not merely faithful church-goers. The heart that is not nourished and continually challenged by meditating on the Scriptures in private, is already becoming hardened to it in public.

I will close with some striking words from the 1547 Book Of Homilies. The collection was deftly edited by Thomas Cranmer. While it is widely accepted he contributed just three homilies – on salvation, faith and good works – Ronald Bond thinks the style and theology of the sermon on Scripture is clearly the work of Cranmer’s pen. So Cranmer writes: ‘What excuse shall we therefore make, at the last day before Christ, that delight to read or hear men’s fantasies and inventions, more than his most Holy Gospel? And will find no time to do that which chiefly above all things we should do; and will rather read other things? Let us, therefore, apply ourselves, as far forth as we can have time and leisure, to know God’s Word by diligent hearing and reading thereof, as many profess God and have faith and trust in him.’

John Owen and Asceticism


John Greenhill - John OwenI think most Christians have at some point wondered what to make of Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 9:27. For Paul seems to affirm a form of ascetic practise in Christian discipleship, “I discipline my body and keep it under control” (ESV). Other renderings speak of forcing our bodies into submission, striking it with blows, and making it our slave. These are unsettling words coming from the lips of Paul because they seem to suggest a disciplined and self-wrought hardship on our bodies. The horrors of self-flagellation spring to mind, as well as the studied loneliness of monasticism, and the guilt-ridden, heavy-laden notions of Catholic penance or contrition. There is no doubt that Christians throughout history have overplayed the role of guilt in Christian life and enforced practises that leave people desolate and disconnected from the world. But as John Owen says: “A man may have leanness of body and soul together” (Collected Works VI, p61).

This year, for my honours dissertation, I have had the privilege of working through Owen’s ‘Of mortification of sin in believers, etc.’ I have found myself greatly blessed through careful study of this luminary, Puritan and pastoral giant of the 17th century. In his fifth direction for the mortification of sin (see chapter XI), Owen exhorts us to carefully study our own natural dispositions and distempers which make us more prone to certain sins, in specific situations. His first point is quick to state that being naturally susceptible to any particular sin is not an extenuation of that sin. In the second point Owen challenges believers to serious and vigilant watchfulness against situations that advantage that disposition; he calls us to fix ourselves upon its account. The third point, which I want to tease out a little more, is that mortification of sin (which is rooted in our nature) takes us further than the standard evangelical arsenal: praying, reading Scripture, being accountable to each other, issuing gospel challenges to fellow saints and sitting under preaching. Owen moves beyond these and underscores that must we bring our bodies into subjection.

Mortification - John OwenOwen is resoundingly and repeatedly emphatic throughout his treatise when it comes to the duty of believers. His application often cuts close to the bone of my Reformed convictions. However it is irresponsible to ignore the carefully robust gospel foundations Owen lays at the beginning of his discourse, and reminds us of throughout: firstly we are “meritoriously mortified” (p40) at the cross with Christ, baptised into his death and raised with him to new life; secondly by the Spirit we have communion with the triune God, and therefore our growth in holiness always has its source in our union with Christ. Owen loved the doctrines of grace. So when he tackles the subjection of our bodies, through “rigour”, he starts by denying the Catholic (or “Papal”) practises which, despite putting great emphasis on mortification as a voluntary service and part of penance, are ignorant of the righteousness we have in Christ, the work of the Holy Spirit, and therefore the true nature of mortification. But perhaps the Reformed are guilty of the other criticism Owen supplies: have we become negligent of subjecting our bodies for fear of upsetting the sentiment of sola gratia?

Owen gives us two limitations that we must bear in mind when subjecting our bodies. Firstly, it is merely the means to an end, the weakening of our natural disposition at its root. The ascetic weakening or impairing of our bodies is not good in itself, but must result in the mortification of sin. Secondly, these practises possess no virtue in themselves for they are accomplished by the Spirit. It is he alone who strengthens us to the successful mortification of sin. I might as well finish with quoting Owen’s own summary of this direction emitting his usual brevity and brilliance, “When the distemper complained of seems to be rooted in the natural temper and constitution, in applying our souls to a participation in the blood and Spirit of Christ, an endeavour is to be used to give check in the way of God to the natural root of that distemper” (p61). Owen would say that the endeavour is our duty, and I agree with him. But what are we doing about it?