When Are Children Ready for John Owen?

It ‘s an occupational hazard, I suppose — twenty years of child-rearing and almost twice that of standing in front of random groupings of kids and teens in hopes of teaching them something from the Bible.  It’s no wonder, then, that when I want to make sure I understand something, I imagine communicating it to children.  Being impatient, I had not, until recently, tackled any of the Puritans, but when Tim Challies challenged his readers to join him in plowing through the Mortification of Sin, he gave me the push I needed; especially since it was already on my Kindle.  Having finished chapter two, I spent moments in the mini-van today pondering the rich theological truth which John Owen extracts from Romans 8:13:

For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by Spirit, you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.

Certainly, young believers need to hear the concept, “Be killing sin or it will be killing you.”  Temptation will not go away in this life.  They also need to know that their own efforts to “be good” (as adults are continually exhorting them to do) are not at all of the Gospel.  But is it possible to present a lesson about sin using concepts of death and destruction (“Kill sin!” cries John Piper.) in a way that children can receive and not be frightened or overwhelmed?

John Owen’s premise could be stated:  Feed what you wish to live and to flourish.  Starve what you wish to kill.  This is a violent truth for young ears, unless, that is, we use plant life to illustrate it.  Picture the classic science experiment:

Four plants.  Plant #1 goes into a sunny window with water everyday.  Plant #2 goes into a closet with daily water.  Plant #3 goes on the window sill with no water.  Plant #4 is the unfortunate model of mortification — no light, no water.  If we expect our learners (and our own dear offspring) to kill sin, our teaching and modeling has to include teaching on discouraging its growth in the form of company kept (I Corinthians 15:33), media choices, and thought life (Philippians 4:8).  They need to hear the truth that sin will never be satisfied with just their big toe in the water.  Jaws-like, sin will devour every offering, and one relaxation of the standard will likely lead to another.

However, there’s something deeper here that I am cautious about presenting to a group of children for fear of appearing to minimize the power of the Gospel.  Yes, the sinner is saved by grace.  Yes, the righteousness of Jesus was enough to carry the repentant thief from the last seconds of his wasted life into paradise.  But . . . yes, the believer is expected to make a muscular effort to live according to the commandments of obedience and love which Jesus carried forward from the Law and which the New Testament reinforces.  We do not nullify the gospel by teaching our children that “the vigor and power and comfort of our spiritual life depends on the mortification of the deeds of the flesh.”  Especially if we are careful to remind them that killing sin is not the way to heaven, but instead, it is the way we demonstrate that Jesus has made us fit for His heavenly home.

This teaching is as imperative for the next generation of little Pharisees as it has been for us, their parents.  Just this morning, Eugene Peterson reminded me that, “the worst sins are not even possible to persons who do not live a life of faith.” (Reversed Thunder).   Being kind to the kid nobody likes (I John 3:11), growing in grace (II Peter 3:18), making godly choices (Galatians 5:17), behaving consistently with our “divine nature” (I Peter 1:4,5):  these are all the work of the Spirit in the believer’s life, but kids need to demonstrate that they are plugged into the source of power.  If I am a ten-year-old with a quick temper, this may involve saying no to myself one hundred times a day.  It may involve asking myself “meddling” questions before going to bed at night:   Did I live like a free person today?  Did I let sin win?  Did my choices and words feed righteousness in my life —  or did I feed sin today?  Are my friends drawn to Jesus because they see that He is what makes the difference for me?  Or do I take the credit for all my good works?

Because of John Owen’s Mortification of Sin, I am challenged to examine the way I present the gospel as well as the way I teach believers(children and adults!) how to live a godly life.  Has this been your experience?   What thoughts do you have about teaching the truth of gospel-centered mortification of sin to young learners?

5 thoughts on “When Are Children Ready for John Owen?”

  1. I’ve also been thinking about how to communicate Owen’s writings to children. I like your plant life illustration in communicating what killing means. However, it doesn’t quite capture the aggressiveness and soul-destroying capacities of sin, how it can “kill” you if you don’t kill it first. Perhaps a story could communicate such complex truths more effectively?


    1. Yes, you are right. I hadn’t considered the illustration in terms of effect of sin. I was hoping it would illustrate the idea of feeding what you wish to flourish and live; starve what you wish to “kill” or extinguish. You are definitely on to something with the idea of story because kids see all the time (in real life) the effects of sin on relationships (hurt feelings, anger) and events (a fun outing turning into a battle because someone wants his own way). If a skilled teacher can transform an event into a lively story, the consequences of sin can be illustrated. Tim C. has a great link to an article today that argues that Paul did not use consequences as a deterrent to sin, but rather our identity in Christ. Thanks for your thoughtful comment and question.


      1. Thanks for the heads-up on the article, I’ll check it out 🙂

        I tried to write a story after reading Chapter 1 of Owen’s book, but I think it would be more appropriate for teenagers (or older), not young children. Also, I don’t know if I could make a continuation of it based on Chapter 2. It’s tricky since I haven’t read the book before, so I do not know what Owen will say next 🙂


  2. You ask the tough questions. I love the Puritans and theologians from centuries back. You’ve read Spurgeon, I imagine?

    This is brilliant:

    “when I want to make sure I understand something, I imagine communicating it to children.” I wonder about the connection between this and the “Let the little children come to me.”

    In sales, there’s a saying: KISS. keep it simple, stupid.

    We do complicate things, don’t we? The mortification of sin must be gospel-centered, as you say. Rooted in grace. Because grace is the bedrock of our faith. Christianity is the only faith in which God comes to us, not where man is striving so hard to reach him. I love Michael Horton’s (you’d appreciate his Putting Amazing Back into Grace, esp in your zeal to teach your kids right) insight that Jacob’s ladder was one that Jesus came down on to get to us, not what we are supposed to climb to reach Him. My point is the mortification must be grounded in this grace, or ours is a hopeless faith.

    Did you know I homeschool? I think you’ll take to this.


    I don’t mean to PR myself on your board. Feel free to delete the link whenever.



  3. Thanks for the input, and for your positive comments. Funny you should mention Spurgeon, because no, I have not read Spurgeon, but I read something about him on Tim Challies site today and had been thinking I need to check him out. Good to hear from you.


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