Reading John Owen: Prayer and Meditation


This post is the third in a series looking at how sin works in the Christian (based on John Owen’s book, “Indwelling Sin in Believers”). I would recommend reading the first two posts before this one – here and here.  We are currently tackling the part of the book where Owen examines James 1:14-15 and notes that the deception of sin works in the believer in 5 steps:
“Every man is tempted when he is drawn away by his own lust, and enticed. Then, when lust has conceived, it brings forth sin: and sin, when it is finished, brings forth death.”

STEP ONE is that sin draws away the mind. In my last post, we saw how, more specifically, it draws it from an appropriate consideration of the vileness of sin and the goodness of God – both duties that are designed to lead us to a condition of humility in walking before God and others.

There are two more duties that sin would draw our minds from, and they will be considered together because of the way they tend to be bound up in one another. These are the duties of private prayer and meditation on the Scriptures. Owen states that these are particular special duties that weaken the power of sin in general and thus should be pursued diligently by the Christian.


Owen is talking about a particular type of prayer and meditation here. Perhaps it would be useful first to point out what he does NOT mean:
    • Prayer as a shopping list of requests to God
    • Self-righteous, hypocritical prayer as the Pharisee: “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all I get.” (Luke 18:11-12)
    • Prayer following a script
    • Meditation like the Buddhists perform by focusing on nothing in order to “clear the mind”
    • Reading the Bible and not thinking about what it means or how it applies to your life
    • Chanting Scriptures to yourself without dwelling on their meaning

Owen would argue that these things are not prayer or meditation at all, but a hypocritical offering of sacrifice while the heart remains far off from God, a thing that God despises.

What he DOES mean is:
    • Prayer that is honest to God about the state of your heart, as the tax collector in Luke 18:13. “But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’”
    • Prayer that exalts God and praises him for who he is, as the psalmists do.
    • Prayer that begs God for assistance in dealing with the sin we find as we examine our souls.
    • Meditation on specific portions of Scripture, considering the meaning of them and then how they apply to the state of your heart.
    • A frequent returning of the mind to the things learned in Scripture and what God is showing you through them.


You may be thinking at this point “I know I need to pray and think about God’s Word, it’s obvious that they work against sin, can we please move on?” Bear with me (or rather, Owen). The trouble is, a general feeling that something is right is typically not enough to keep a person doing it. We saw in my last post that sin tries to keep conviction only in the feelings because it knows that feelings come and go and always fade. What has much more lasting effect is when the mind is convinced of a thing and so can preach to the feelings continually. Therefore, if we can understand how prayer and meditation weaken sin, we will be much more inclined to feel them important enough to make a habit of.

So, how do they?
    • They expose sin and bring it under God’s judgment.  In their very nature, this sort of prayer and meditation requires a searching of the soul, bringing before the Lord its “wants, straits and emergencies”. The Holy Spirit then assists the believer to discover “the most secret actings and workings of the law of sin: “We know not what we should pray for as we ought, but he helps our infirmities” (Rom 8:26)”. When sin is thus discovered, judged and condemned “what can possibly be more effectual for its ruin and destruction?”
    • They press upon the heart “a deep, full sense of the vileness of sin, with a constant renewed detestation of it; which, if anything, undoubtedly tends to its ruin.” In confessing sin, the soul agrees with God that it is an evil thing and deserving of severe punishment.
    • God himself has appointed these means as the way to obtain strength and power against sin. “Does any man lack? Let him ask of God” (James 1:5) and “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” (Heb 4:16)
    • Sin will rise up against these duties, thus revealing itself. The reluctance to pray or meditate reveals that there is sin that needs dealing with. Once the soul of a believer is made aware of its presence, it can “find the place of it and set itself against it.”
    • While the soul is engaged with God in these duties, sin cannot assert itself with power. Upon such a success, the soul can further triumph in God’s grace and have hope for the ultimate destruction of sin. This weakens the law of sin further.
    • Prayer and meditation lead to a greater watchfulness against sin. Owen stresses that if this is not the end result, then it means that the duties have been conducted in hypocrisy.


Given the devastation to sin that prayer and meditation brings, we can see why it would try to draw our minds away from them. But how does it do it? Let’s examine this as things sin will tell us, for the sake of clarity.
    • “Praying is no fun.” How many times have I thought this? Even said it! Prayer is BORING. Thinking about God is BORING. Those statements come from the sin within me, and if I listen to them, I will be drawn away.
    • “You don’t have time to pray/read your Bible; you have too many things to do.” We justify not praying or meditating on the Word by listing off all the things that ABSOLUTELY MUST be done today. We forget that prayer and meditation should be at the top of the list.
    • “You read the Bible and prayed at church/growth group/with your husband already; you don’t need to do it again today.” I used to use the church thing as an excuse as a child and my mum would tell me off for it. Owen argues that public prayer and reading of the Word do not substitute for the private practice of it. The reality is “Those things ought to be done, and this not to be left undone” (Matt 23:23). This is primarily because the way we do these things publicly is often quite different to how we do them privately. Public duties generally will not contain the same soul searching that is necessary for the weakening of sin.
    • “You can pray and read your Bible later, when there is more time.” Lastly, sin loves to make promises that there is time enough for spiritual duties later. Anything to put off doing them now to ensure that the present moment is lost and so allow sin to continue to grow (for the time being at least).


Hopefully from this study we can now see that the beginning of sin is being drawn away in our minds from the things of God.  God has given us our minds to be the eye of our soul, to watch diligently against sin and so prevent its further progression. This is why sin begins its attack here. If it can draw us away from watching, it will gain a foothold and can then go on with its deceit.

As Owen states: “The failing of the mind is like the failing of the watchman in Ezekiel 33:6; the whole is lost by his neglect.” Therefore let us be diligent to keep our minds steadfast on the things of God. “Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, unmovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord.” (1 Cor 15:58)

Next post we will examine what sin does next if it does manage to draw our minds away.

POST-SCRIPT: Incredibly, Owen does have more to say on this point of drawing away the mind - he goes into excruciating detail not only about which duties the mind should be engaged in, but also the right manner in which they should be done. He asserts that sin is just as happy to get believers performing their duties in the wrong way as not doing them at all - this draws the mind away equally well. I hope I have summarised the key parts of his argument, but if you don't feel completely satisfied, please feel free to read the relevant parts of his book yourself!

Reading John Owen Prayer and Meditation


  1. I like how Owen refers to those who excused themselves from the marriage feast - a field, oxen, a marriage - all very "valid" reasons (from a worldly perspective) for not partaking. My reasons are also usually pretty "valid"..........
    Your summary is really helpful. I'm grateful you're taking the time to summarise a book that is such a hard slog!!

    1. Yes that struck me too. I think we are most deceived when we believe that legitimate activities are a reason not to commune with God. I am realising through reading this book what a slippery fish sin is!
      I'm glad you're finding the summaries helpful, it is difficult to condense Owen's work as there is so much content in it. I hope that I do justice to the wonderful insights and advice he gives!

  2. You've taken on a mammoth task trying to drill John Owen down to a few posts - it's good to do it though, because it helps crystalize what's relevant and what is important to work on in our own lives today. It's easy to dismiss writers from previous centuries as not understanding our modern world, but God's truth remains the same through the generations and we can still learn from those who put such deep thought into God's word and its application.

    1. My thoughts exactly! Thanks for the encouragement :-).


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