Tag Archives: Puritans

Quotable Church History: “Be killing sin…”

This is the seventh in a series on famous quotes from church history. We’re looking at who said these famous words, in what context, and whether it’s biblical.

Today’s quote comes from the post-Reformation period.  It’s probably the most well-known quote by any Puritan:  “Be killing sin, or sin will be killing you.”  It comes from John Owen (1616-1683).

Himself born into a Puritan family, God raised up Owen to become one of Puritanism’s greatest theologians.  As a young man he already showed signs of precociousness — he was known to study for 18+ hours each day.  By the age of 19 he had earned a Master of Arts degree from Oxford.  He served later as a pastor, but eventually returned to Oxford to teach theology.  Owen was a prolific writer — the Banner of Truth reprint of his collected writings runs to 16 volumes of about 9,000 pages.  In Owen’s case, prolific equals profound but not always plain.  Owen often expects a lot from his readers.  Some modern editions of his books have rendered him more readable, but those wanting to begin digging into the Puritans ought to look elsewhere (I recommend Thomas Watson).

In 1656 Owen published an exposition of Romans 8 entitled Of the Mortification of SinYou can find this book available for free online.  In this book Owen shows at length how Christians are to wage war on sin and do violence to it in their hearts and lives.  You could think of it as an extended explanation of how to apply Heidelberg Catechism QA 89.  In older editions of the HC this question reads:  “What is the mortification of the old man?”  Answer:  “It is a sincere sorrow of heart that we have provoked God by our sins, and more and more to hate and flee from them.”  “Mortification” is an antiquated word for killing.  So, at a certain point in his book, Owen says it:  “Be killing sin, or sin will be killing you.”

This is speaking about the life of a redeemed Christian.  A Christian who has been saved by God’s free gift of grace in Jesus Christ needs to set himself or herself to the task of sanctification — the process of growing in holiness.  While we are passive in things like our election, regeneration, and justification, we are empowered by the Holy Spirit to be active in our sanctification.  God calls us to be active in this.  Thus Owen gives Christians this imperative or command:  be killing sin.  It is something to which we need to apply ourselves.  We must strangle sin in our lives.  If we are not constantly murdering our wickedness, it will rise up and murder us.  It will destroy our lives.  Why?  Because it is the very nature of sin to kill and destroy.

By now you might recognize this quote as self-evidently biblical.  However, if it isn’t, consider one of the verses Owen was expositing.  Romans 8:13 says it most clearly:  “For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.”  Putting to death the deeds of the body equals “be killing sin.”  Not killing sin and having sin kill you equals “if you live according to the flesh you will die.”  Colossians 3:5 also urges Christians to plunge the knife into sin, “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.”  We’re to do that, the Holy Spirit goes on to say, because on account of these the wrath of God is coming.  If you don’t slay sin, your sins will slay you in the end.

Often when I’m tempted to sin I recall these pithy words of John Owen, based on God’s Word.  They’ve often been a help in seeing sin for what it is.  Sin presents itself to us in deceitful ways.  It promises what it will never deliver.  It promises to enrich your life, but this is a deadly lie.  Faced with sin, tell yourself the truth:  “Be killing sin or sin will be killing you.”  That’s reality and we ignore it to our detriment.

Now if you want to learn how to murder your wickedness, you could turn to Owen.  Sadly, as I mentioned, Owen is not going to be digestible spiritual food for everyone today.  Let me then recommend a readable summary of Owen’s teaching on this.  You’ll find it in section three of Visual Theology by Tim Challies and Josh Byers.  The clear prose of Challies is complemented by the effective infographics of Josh Byers.  It’s hard to beat on this topic.



Top Ten Influential Books

There’s this thing on Facebook where people are invited to share the top ten influential books in their lives.  A while back I was tagged for this too.  It didn’t take much thought — I had my top ten in ten minutes.  For my own future reference, and perhaps to point you in the direction of some good books too, I thought I would post it over here as well.

1. The Word of God — a light for my path, wisdom from above, good news for a great sinner.
2. The Defense of the Faith (3rd edition), by Cornelius Van Til. This book and its biblical approach has been foundational for everything, not just apologetics.
3. A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life, by J. I. Packer. Combined with the next volume, this set me to learn from the Puritans.
4. Worldly Saints: The Puritans as They Really Were, by Leland Ryken. This busted all kinds of preconceived notions of the Puritans.
5. All Things for Good, by Thomas Watson. This is the first Puritan book I read. It’s powerful!
6. Expository Preaching with Word Pictures, by Jack Hughes. This one unfolds the method behind Watson’s genius and applies it to preaching today.
7. Christ-Centered Preaching, by Bryan Chapell. The book my seminary preaching prof dissed, but which many of us loved and learned lots from.
8. The Christian Soldier, by D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones. This helped to bridge the gap between my military ambitions and the desire to serve in a different army.
9. Competent to Counsel, by Jay Adams. How do you apply Van Til’s presuppositionalism to counselling? Adams made a good initial effort to show us.
10. War Against the Idols: The Reformation of Worship from Erasmus to Calvin, by Carlos M. N. Eire. Was the Regulative Principle of Worship invented by the Puritans? No, Eire demonstrates that its pedigree goes back to at least Geneva.

There are lots of other books, but I’d say that those 10 were definitely some of the biggest ones in my life so far.

Read the Puritans

I believe it was C.S. Lewis who promoted the reading of old books and authors; something to the effect that we should read one old book for every four new books.  That is sage advice.  There is so much to be gained from going to those who’ve gone before us.  Unfortunately, when it comes to our own Reformed tradition, there’s not a lot of old stuff in English.  However, we do have close relatives to whom we can turn.  Joel Beeke has an excellent article entitled “Why You Should Read the Puritans.”  You can find it here.   I concur for the most part.  It’s nothing new under the sun, but not all Puritan authors are equally worthy of our time and effort.  For some, their obscurity is history’s judgment on their prolixity and obfuscation.  For others (like Thomas Watson), the fact that they’re still being republished bears witness to their effectiveness in communication and the timeless message they held forth.

I know what some of you are thinking:  the Puritans spoke and wrote an English that’s hard to understand.  Sometimes that’s true.  But I say, “So what?”  Are we afraid of having to work a bit to understand an author?  Are we so narcissistic and lazy that we can’t put some effort into our reading?  But having said that, I would highly recommend beginning with Thomas Watson and his All Things for Good.  Give him a try.  You might be surprised.

(reposted from 07.21.07)

Jeremiah Burroughs and Contentment

One of my favourite Puritan books is Jeremiah Burroughs’ The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment.  Tim Challies recently featured this book as one of the classics that he reads through with some of his blog devotees.  As you read Burroughs’ Rare Jewel, you get a sense that this is a man who knows what he’s talking about.  Phil Simpson explains how Jeremiah Burroughs learned contentment.

Here’s my book review from last year:

The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment, Jeremiah Burroughs, Carlisle:  Banner of Truth Trust, 1998.  Paperback, 228 pages, $7.99.

Try this experiment sometime:  go to your average vanilla Christian bookstore and ask for a book on contentment.  Chances are they won’t be able to help you.  And if you go on-line and look for books on the subject, there are a few modern titles, but not very many.  Unfortunately, the health, wealth and prosperity “gospel” is far more popular and it’s way easier to find books by the likes of Joel Osteen and Joyce Meyer.  Contentment is out of style – it is indeed a “rare jewel.”  To learn from the Scriptures on this important topic, we’re best advised to go back four centuries to Jeremiah Burroughs, an English Puritan.

Now I know that when some of you hear or read “Puritan,” you’re tuned out.  How can a Puritan still speak to us today?  Weren’t the Puritans legalists?  Aren’t they impossible to understand?  I’ll be the first to admit that there are some Puritan works that are difficult reading, but let me assure you that Burroughs writes in a style that’s fairly easy to understand.  If that weren’t enough, this edition has been edited slightly for language and punctuation.  Moreover, forget all that you’ve heard about the Puritans.  Read one for yourself.  See what you’ve been missing.

Burroughs tackles the subject of contentment with an eye on the gospel.  He insists that contentment begins with a believer fixing his eyes on the promises of the covenant of grace, those promises fulfilled in Jesus Christ.  And flowing from that are many practical applications!  For instance, he explains that contentment comes not from addition but from subtraction (p.45).  One does not find joy by adding things, but by taking away from sinful desires.  Furthermore, Burroughs gives the Biblical warnings about prosperity and riches that we still need to hear today.  He outlines the many excellent blessings that come from contentment with God’s provision.  Like a surgeon, he gets to the heart and exposes the excuses that we make for our discontentedness and how evil it truly is.  He concludes with two chapters on “How to Attain Contentment.”

Christian bookstores are full of volumes on “Christian living.”  Sad to say, a lot of it is spiritual junk food – it tastes great but it will not truly nourish.  Burroughs may not be modern, but he knew the Bible and he knew how to apply the Bible to the hearts and lives of his listeners.  He gives true, nourishing soul food.  This is devotional reading through which you’ll grow as a believer.  Highly recommended.


For further reading on the Puritans, I can also recommend:  A Quest for Godliness: the Puritan Vision of the Christian Life, J.I. Packer, Wheaton: Crossway, 1990; Worldly Saints:  The Puritans As They Really Were, Leland Ryken, Grand Rapids: Academie, 1986.

Meet the Puritans

Mark Jones, Danny Hyde and Rowland Ward have started a new collaborative blog on the Puritans. This looks promising!  I’ve long been convinced that the Puritans are not only worth meeting, but spending a lot of time with.  If you’d like a book that provides a helpful orientation to Puritan authors, I recently wrote a review of a book that has the same title as this new blog:  Meet the Puritans.