Reading John Owen: When God Prevents a Crime


Yes I’ve finally come back to John Owen and this will be my final post in this series on how sin works in the believer (based on Owen’s book “Indwelling Sin in Believers”). I have written five (yes five) posts so far on the subject – click here to see the full list in the series if you’re interested in reading the others.


Owen bases his theory of how sin works on the following verses in James 1:14-15:
“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.”

In my other posts in the series I have described the first three steps. Sin firstly draws away the mind - earthly distractions and temptations come along and the sin within us makes a friend of them and uses them to pull us away from thinking about God and heavenly things. Secondly, sin entices. It shows us the pleasure that the sin would bring us and does all it can to hide the dangers. We are dazzled by its promises and start to long for the fulfillment of them. With our mind thus drawn away from considerations of God and his holy will and our desires caught up in the longing for pleasure, sin is then conceived in our will – we decide that we will pursue it.


The next step in this progression is the “bringing forth” of sin – the actual act of it. However, Owen states that “there is a world of sin conceived in the womb of the wills and hearts of men that is never brought forth” but also “there is nothing wanting on sin’s part that every conceived sin is not actually accomplished”.  In other words, if sin had its way, every sin conceived would be carried out, yet this is not the case. So why is that?


Two things are required for a conceived sin to be actually committed:
  1. The person must have the power to do what they have purposed
  2. The person must continue to have the will to sin until the action of it has been committed

This is where God often steps in. He either obstructs the power of sinning by his providence, or changes the will of sinning by his grace (or he does both). And there are quite a number of ways that he does this.


Let's look at the ways God obstructs the power to sin first.

He cuts short life. This is rather sobering, but there are a multitude of instances in the Bible where God takes away a person's life to prevent them from carrying out the sin they had purposed. No life = no sin. I'll give just one example - the Egyptians who pursued the Israelites in order to destroy them were prevented from doing so when God brought the Red Sea down on top of them: "The enemy said, I will pursue, I will overtake, I will divide the spoil; my lust shall be satisfied upon them; I will draw my sword, my hand shall destroy them. You blow with your wind, the sea covered them: they sank as lead in mighty waters" (Exodus 15:9-10).

Owen points out that this is a way that God deals with the wicked (those who hate him), using death both as a judgment for their sin as well as to prevent further sin. He does not do this with his own though - ordinarily, he prefers instead to bring those who love him to repentance of their conceived sin. The only exception to this is where God may sometimes cut short a believer's life if he knows there is some great temptation/trial to come upon the world which the believer would not be able to stand up under. "Thus a captain in war will call off a soldier from his watch and guard, when he knows that he is not able, through some infirmity, to bear the stress and force of the enemy that is coming upon him." It is not done in judgment, but rather compassion. Owen gives Josiah as an instance of this in 2 Chronicles 34:26-28.

He withholds the power to commit the sin. God does this primarily in unbelievers. There are plenty of sins people want to commit but can't because they don't have the means. Owen asserts that God is responsible for this, and he uses a couple of biblical examples to back this theory up. There's the account of the tower of Babel builders in Genesis 11:1-9, where God confuses their language so that they are unable to cooperate with each other to get the work finished. Another instance occurs in Genesis 19:1-11, where the Sodomites desire to have sex with the men inside Lot's house, but God strikes them with blindness so that they are unable to find the door and get in.

There is also the general principle of it evident in Micah 2:1 "they practice iniquity that they had conceived, because it is in the power of their hand" and "to their power they shed blood" in Ezekiel 22:6. I can't say it better than Owen: "This is the measure of their sinning, even their power. They do, many of them, no more evil, they commit no more sin, than they can. Their whole restraint lies in being cut short in power, in one kind or another." This inability to commit the sin they desire leads to frustration and restlessness, like "a troubled sea that cannot be still" (Isaiah 57:20).

He raises up an opposite power to oppose the sin. In some cases, a person may have the power to commit their conceived sin but God raises up an opposing power to "coerce, forbid and restrain them". He does this to believers and unbelievers alike. It is sufficient to mention one example of this - the occasion when King Saul swears that Jonathan will be put to death but his people oppose him in this endeavour and so save Jonathon out of Saul's hand (1 Samuel 14:45).

He removes the person against whom the sin is intended. This is fairly self-explanatory - if someone is bent on a certain sin against a particular person, they can be thwarted if they no longer have access to that person. God did this for Peter when he was in prison and Herod desired to kill him - he sent an angel to open the prison and took Peter away the night before Herod intended to do it (Acts 12:1-11).

He creates a distraction which diverts the person from their intended sin. This is how Joseph was rescued from being killed by his brothers - a band of merchants came along and they decided to sell him into slavery instead (read the full account in Genesis 37).

He restrains sin through human government. It cannot be underestimated how much more sin would be committed were it not for human government and consequences for law-breaking. Romans 13:4 says "For the one in authority is God's servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God's servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer." We are protected from much evil through this restraining power of the law of the land.


God is also able to change or divert the will of a person away from the sin they had intended. Owen proposes that he does this sometimes by restraining grace (common to both believers and unbelievers) and sometimes by renewing grace (for believers alone):

He uses reason to change the person's mind about committing the sin. There are a number of arguments that God will cause to prevail upon the mind and so change the will away from the sin:
  • "It is too difficult to do this." Sometimes God causes people to give up on their sin due to the perceived impossibility of accomplishing it. 
  • "The consequences aren't worth it." Sometimes God brings to mind either earthly or eternal consequences to a sin that cause a person to tremble and decide that they will pursue it no longer. I imagine this is what prevents many people from murdering the ones they hate!
  • "There is no advantage to doing this." It may be that there are no overtly negative consequences to a sin, but rather a perceived lack of profit gained from committing it. This argument is what caused Joseph's brothers to sell him into slavery rather than kill him: "What profit is it if we kill our brother and conceal his blood? Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites..." (Genesis 37: 26-27).
  • "It will displease God and grieve his Holy Spirit." God frequently brings this argument to the believer's mind. He reminds us of his love, mercy and kindness, the blood of Jesus, the work of the Spirit, the glory and beauty of the gospel and the obedience that is owed to God in the light of these things. He causes us to remember that our sin is against him and will disrupt our communion with him and so sets us off from the pursuit of it. 

Owen emphasises that reason alone is not sufficient to prevent the bringing forth of sin, for if it was, there would be no need for God's grace. It is the fact of God, by the power of his Spirit, causing reason to prevail that makes this a restraining grace of his.

He converts the person to faith in the gospel. This he did spectacularly to Paul on the road to Damascus. Paul set off to imprison and kill all the Christians he found but Jesus appeared to him on the way and converted him to faith so that Paul no longer wished to carry out the murder that he had in his heart (Acts 9:1-22). And Paul is but one of millions that God has done this for - "every day, one or other is taken in the fullness of the purpose of his heart to go on in sin, in this or that sin, and is stopped in his course by the power of converting grace."

He gives special grace to assist the believer not to commit the sin.“…so it is with many a believer; he is oftentimes at the very brink, at the very door of some folly or iniquity, when God puts in by the efficacy of actual assisting grace, and recovers them to an obediential frame of heart again… He gives forth, and we find in him ‘grace to help in time of need’ (Heb 4:16) – seasonable help and assistance for our deliverance, when we are ready to be overpowered by sin and temptation.”


It has been sobering for me to consider these many ways in which God reduces the acts of sin that are performed in this world and where society would be if God was to take his sovereign hand away completely. Owen is worth quoting extensively on this: "Whose person would not be defiled or destroyed - whose habitation would not be ruined - whose blood almost would not be shed - if wicked men had power to perpetrate all their conceived sin? It may be the ruin of some of us has been conceived a thousand times. We are beholding to this providence of obstructing sin for our lives, our families, our estates, our liberties, for whatsoever is or may be dear to us..."

And not only where society would be, but ourselves too! "When you have conceived sin, has God weakened your power for sin, or denied you opportunity, or taken away the object of your lusts, or diverted your thoughts by new providences? Know assuredly that you have received mercy thereby.... Had not God thus dealt with you, it may be this day you had been a terror to yourselves, a shame to your relations, and under the punishment due to some notorious sins which you had conceived... Do not look, then, on any such things as common accidents; the hand of God is in them all, and that [is] a merciful hand if not despised. If it be, yet God does good to others by it: the world is the better; and you are not so wicked as you would be."

I am filled with thankfulness to think that God is so merciful so as to restrain sin as much as he does.


The other big take-home message from this section of our study on sin is not to envy those who do not know God, supposing that their lives are somehow easier than a life lived in obedience to God. Because "the principle of sin is not impaired nor weakened in them" and "the will of sinning is not taken away" (as it is to a degree in the Christian), their lives are spent constantly contriving how to satisfy one lust or another, yet they are frequently frustrated in their attempts and filled with disappointment.

"This is the sore travail they are exercised with all their days: if they accomplish their designs they are more wicked and hellish than before; and if they do not, they are filled with vexation and discontentment. This is the portion of them who know not the Lord nor the power of his grace. Envy not their condition. Notwithstanding their outward, glittering show, their hearts are full of anxiety, trouble and sorrow."

This is a solemn note to finish on but I feel that it is both necessary and helpful to consider the sort of miserable existence we are saved from as Christians so that we may realise and appreciate anew the mercies of God toward us. "There but for the grace of God, go I" - and let us never forget that.


  1. Where would we be indeed? It's always uncomfortable and sobering to think about our sinfulness, but wonderful to know of the many and varied mechanisms by which God restrains sin and is merciful to us. As difficult as it can be to be "dealt with by God", it is mercy and grace, and like you I'm incredibly thankful.
    Another wonderful summary of Owen xx

    1. I feel the same Sue - has been great sharing this journey of realising our sin and the great mercies of God together! xox

  2. A really interesting overview Hannah - and quite fascinating to see all the ways God intervenes when we're not even aware of it. It's nice to know that so many sins are thwarted before they are enacted - imagine what our world would be like if God wasn't taking an interest in what Satan was doing down here!

    1. It is scary to think about! It would be hell on earth for sure. I'm grateful that he does so often intervene, even with my conceived sins! xox


Please tick the "notify me" box if you'd like to receive an email when I reply to your comment.