Sin Chapter 1

Overcoming Sin and Temptation by John Owen

It is of indwelling sin, and that in the remainders of it in persons after their
conversion to God, with its power, efficacy, and effects that we intend to treat.
This also is the great design of the apostle to manifest and evince1 in chapter
7 of the Epistle to the Romans. Many, indeed, are the contests about the principal
scope of the apostle in that chapter, and in what state the person is,
under the law or under grace, whose condition he expresses therein. I shall
not at present enter into that dispute, but take that for granted which may be
undeniably proved and evinced—namely, that it is the condition of a regenerate
person, with respect unto the remaining power of indwelling sin which
is there proposed and exemplified, by and in the person of the apostle himself.
In that discourse, therefore, of his, shall the foundation be laid of what
we have to offer upon this subject. Not that I shall proceed in an exposition
of his revelation of this truth as it lies in its own contexture,2 but only make
use of what is delivered by him as occasion shall offer itself. And here first
occurs that which he affirms: “I find then a law, that, when I would do good,
evil is present with me” (v. 21).
There are four things observable in these words: (1) The appellation3 he
gives unto indwelling sin, whereby he expresses its power and efficacy: it is
“a law”; for that which he terms “a law” in this verse, he calls in the foregoing,
“sin that dwells in” him. (2) The way whereby he came to the discovery
of this law; not absolutely and in its own nature, but in himself he found
it: “I find a law.” (3) The frame of his soul and inward man with this law of
sin, and under its discovery: he “would do good.” (4) The state and activity
of this law when the soul is in that frame when it would do good: it “is
present with” him. For what ends and purposes we shall show afterward.
Indwelling Sin Is a Law
The first thing observable is the compellation4 here used by the apostle; he
calls indwelling sin “a law.” It is a law.
A law is taken either properly for a directive rule or improperly for an
1 proven, evidenced, made manifest
2 context
3 name, designation
4 address, naming
operative effective principle, which seems to have the force of a law. In its first
sense, it is a moral rule which directs and commands, and sundry5 ways
moves and regulates, the mind and the will as to the things which it requires
or forbids. This is evidently the general nature and work of a law. Some things
it commands, some things it forbids, with rewards and penalties which move
and impel men to do the one and avoid the other. Hence, in a secondary sense,
an inward principle that moves and inclines constantly unto any actions is
called a law. The principle that is in the nature of everything, moving and carrying
it toward its own end and rest, is called the law of nature. In this respect,
every inward principle that inclines and urges unto operations or actings suitable
to itself is a law. So the powerful and effectual working of the Spirit and
grace of Christ in the hearts of believers is called “the law of the Spirit of life”
(Rom. 8:2). And for this reason does the apostle here call indwelling sin a law.
It is a powerful and effectual indwelling principle, inclining and pressing unto
actions agreeable and suitable unto its own nature. This, and no other, is the
intention of the apostle in this expression: for although that term, “a law,”
may sometimes intend a state and condition—and if here so used, the meaning
of the words should be, “I find that this is my condition, this is the state
of things with me, that when I would do good evil is present with me,” which
makes no great alteration in the principal intention of the place—yet properly
it can denote nothing here but the chief subject treated of; for although
the name of a law be variously used by the apostle in this chapter, yet when
it relates unto sin it is nowhere applied by him to the condition of the person,
but only to express either the nature or the power of sin itself. So, “I see
another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing
me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members” (7:23). That
which he here calls the “law of his mind,” from the principal subject and seat
of it, is in itself no other but the “law of the Spirit of life which is in Christ
Jesus” (8:2); or the effectual power of the Spirit of grace, as was said. But “the
law,” as applied unto sin, has a double sense: for as, in the first place, “I see
a law in my members,” it denotes the being and nature of sin; so, in the latter,
“Leading into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members,” it signifies
its power and efficacy. And both [of] these are comprised in the same
name, singly used (7:21). Now, that which we observe from this name or term
of a “law” attributed unto sin is that there is an exceeding efficacy and power
in the remainders of indwelling sin in believers, with a constant working
toward evil.
5 various
Thus it is in believers; it is a law even in them, though not to them.
Though its rule be broken, its strength weakened and impaired, its root mortified,
yet it is a law still of great force and efficacy. There, where it is least
felt, it is most powerful. Carnal men, in reference unto spiritual and moral
duties, are nothing but this law; they do nothing but from it and by it. It is in
them a ruling and prevailing principle of all moral actions, with reference
unto a supernatural and eternal end. I shall not consider it in them in whom
it has most power, but in them in whom its power is chiefly discovered and
discerned—that is, in believers; in the others only in order to the further conviction
and manifestation thereof.
The Law of Indwelling Sin Is Found in Believers
Secondly, the apostle proposes the way whereby he discovered this law in
himself: euriskø ara ton nomon, “I find then a law.” He found it. It had been
told him there was such a law; it had been preached unto him. This convinced
him that there was a law of sin. But it is one thing for a man to know
in general that there is a law of sin; [it is] another thing for a man to have
an experience of the power of this law of sin in himself. It is preached to all;
all men that own6 the Scripture acknowledge it as being declared therein. But
they are but few that know it in themselves; we should else have more complaints
of it than we have, and more contendings against it, and less fruits
of it in the world. But this is that which the apostle affirms—not that the
doctrine of it had been preached unto him, but that he found it by experience
in himself. “I find a law”—“I have experience of its power and efficacy.”
For a man to find his sickness, and danger thereon from its effects, is
another thing than to hear a discourse about a disease from its causes. And
this experience is the great preservative of all divine truth in the soul. This
it is to know a thing indeed, in reality, to know it for ourselves, when, as we
are taught it from the word, so we find it in ourselves. Hence we observe,
secondly, believers have experience of the power and efficacy of indwelling
sin. They find it in themselves; they find it as a law. It has a self-evidencing
efficacy to them that are alive to discern it. They that find not its power are
under its dominion. Whosoever [would] contend against it shall know and
find that it is present with them, that it is powerful in them. He shall find the
stream to be strong who swims against it, though he who rolls along with it
be insensible7 of it.
6 fully confess, acknowledge as true
7 apathetic, callous, uncomprehending
The Habitual Inclination of Believers’ Wills Is
unto Good
Thirdly, the general frame of believers, notwithstanding the inhabitation of
this law of sin, is here also expressed. They “would do good.” This law is
“present”: thelonti emoi poiein to kalon. The habitual inclination of their will
is unto good. The law in them is not a law unto them, as it is to unbelievers.
They are not wholly obnoxious8 to its power, nor morally unto its commands.
Grace has the sovereignty in their souls: this gives them a will unto good. They
“would do good,” that is, always and constantly. 1 John 3:9, poiein hamartian,
9 “to commit sin,” is to make a trade10 of sin, to make it a man’s business
to sin. So it is said [that] a believer “does not commit sin”; and so poiein
to kalon, “to do that which is good.” To will to do so is to have the habitual
bent and inclination of the will set on that which is good—that is, morally
and spiritually good, which is the proper subject treated of: whence is our
third observation: there is, and there is through grace, kept up in believers a
constant and ordinarily prevailing will of doing good, notwithstanding the
power and efficacy of indwelling sin to the contrary.
This, in their worst condition, distinguishes them from unbelievers in
their best. The will in unbelievers is under the power of the law of sin. The
opposition they make to sin, either in the root or branches of it, is from their
light and their consciences; the will of sinning in them is never taken away.
Take away all other considerations and hindrances, whereof we shall treat
afterward, and they would sin willingly always. Their faint endeavors to
answer their convictions are far from a will of doing that which is good. They
will plead, indeed, that they would leave11 their sins if they could, and they
would fain12 do better than they do. But it is the working of their light and
convictions, not any spiritual inclination of their wills, which they intend by
that expression: for where there is a will of doing good, there is a choice of
that which is good for its own excellency’s sake—because it is desirable and
suitable to the soul, and therefore to be preferred before that which is contrary.
Now this is not in any unbelievers. They do not, they cannot, so choose
that which is spiritually good, nor is it so excellent or suitable unto any principle
that is in them; only they have some desires to attain that end whereunto
that which is good does lead, and to avoid that evil which the neglect
8 harmfully exposed
9 This precise phrase is not actually found in 1 John 3:9, though the concept is.
10 make a habit
11 cease
12 eagerly, gladly
of it tends unto. And these also are for the most part so weak and languid13
in many of them, that they put them not upon any considerable endeavors.
Witness that luxury, sloth, worldliness, and security that the generality of men
are even drowned in. But in believers there is a will of doing good, a habitual
disposition and inclination in their wills unto that which is spiritually
good; and where this is, it is accompanied with answerable effects. The will
is the principle of our moral actions; and therefore unto the prevailing disposition
thereof will the general course of our actings be suited. Good things
will proceed from the good treasures of the heart [Luke 6:45]. Nor can this
disposition be evidenced to be in any but by its fruits. A will of doing good,
without doing good, is but pretended.
Evil Is Present Within Believers
Fourthly, there is yet another thing remaining in these words of the apostle,
arising from that respect that the presence of sin has unto the time and season
of duty: “When I would do good,” says he, “evil is present with me.”
There are two things to be considered in the will of doing good that is in
believers: (1) There is its habitual residence in them. They have always a
habitual inclination of will unto that which is good. And this habitual preparation
for good is always present with them; as the apostle expresses it (Rom.
7:18). (2) There are special times and seasons for the exercise of that principle.
There is a “When I would do good”—a season wherein this or that good,
this or that duty, is to be performed and accomplished suitably unto the habitual
preparation and inclination of the will.
Unto these two there are two things in indwelling sin opposed. To the
gracious principle residing in the will, inclining unto that which is spiritually
good, it is opposed as it is a law—that is, a contrary principle, inclining unto
evil, with an aversation14 from that which is good. Unto the second, or the
actual willing of this or that good in particular, unto this “When I would do
good,” is opposed the presence of this law: “Evil is present with me”—emoi
to kakon parakeitai—evil is at hand, and ready to oppose the actual accomplishment
of the good aimed at. Whence, fourthly, indwelling sin is effectually
operative in rebelling and inclining to evil, when the will of doing good
is in a particular manner active and inclining unto obedience.
And this is the description of him who is a believer and a sinner, as everyone
who is the former is the latter also. These are the contrary principles and
13 lacking power
14 a moral turning away, estrangement, repulsion
the contrary operations that are in him. The principles are a will of doing
good, on the one hand, from grace, and a law of sin on the other. Their
adverse actings and operations are insinuated in these expressions: “When I
would do good, evil is present with me.” And these both are more fully
expressed by the apostle: “For the flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit
against the flesh: and these are contrary the one to the other; so that I cannot
do the things that I would” (Gal. 5:17).
And here lie the springs of the whole course of our obedience. An
acquaintance with these several principles and their actings is the principal
part of our wisdom. They are upon the matter, next to the free grace of God
in or justification by the blood of Christ, the only things wherein the glory of
God and our own souls are concerned. These are the springs of our holiness
and our sins, of our joys and troubles, of our refreshments and sorrows. It is,
then, all our concerns to be thoroughly acquainted with these things, who
intend to walk with God and to glorify him in this world.
And hence we may see what wisdom is required in the guiding and management
of our hearts and ways before God. Where the subjects of a ruler
are in feuds and oppositions, one against another, unless great wisdom be
used in the government of the whole, all things will quickly be ruinous in that
state. There are these contrary principles in the hearts of believers. And if they
labor not to be spiritually wise, how shall they be able to steer their course
aright? Many men live in the dark to themselves all their days; whatever else
they know, they know not themselves. They know their outward estates, how
rich they are, and the condition of their bodies as to health and sickness they
are careful to examine; but as to their inward man, and their principles as to
God and eternity, they know little or nothing of themselves. Indeed, few labor
to grow wise in this matter, few study themselves as they ought, are
acquainted with the evils of their own hearts as they ought; on which yet the
whole course of their obedience, and consequently of their eternal condition,
does depend. This, therefore, is our wisdom; and it is a needful wisdom, if
we have any design to please God, or to avoid that which is a provocation to
the eyes of his glory.
We shall find, also, in our inquiry hereinto, what diligence and watchfulness
is required unto a Christian conversation.15 There is a constant enemy
unto it in everyone’s own heart; and what an enemy it is we shall afterward
show, for this is our design: to discover him to the uttermost. In the meantime,
we may well bewail the woeful sloth and negligence that is in the most,
15 way of life
even in professors.16 They live and walk as though they intended to go to
heaven hood-winked and asleep, as though they had no enemy to deal with.
Their mistake, therefore, and folly will be fully laid open in our progress.
That which I shall principally fix upon, in reference unto our present
design, from this place of the apostle, is that which was first laid down—
namely, that there is an exceeding efficacy and power in the remainder of
indwelling sin in believers, with a constant inclination and working toward
Awake, therefore, all of you in whose hearts is anything of the ways of
God! Your enemy is not only upon you, as on Samson of old, but is in you
also. He is at work, by all ways of force and craft, as we shall see. Would you
not dishonor God and his gospel; would you not scandalize the saints and
ways of God; would you not wound your consciences and endanger your
souls; would you not grieve the good and holy Spirit of God, the author of
all your comforts; would you keep your garments undefiled, and escape the
woeful temptations and pollutions of the days wherein we live; would you be
preserved from the number of the apostates in these latter days? Awake to
the consideration of this cursed enemy, which is the spring of all these and
innumerable other evils, as also of the ruin of all the souls that perish in this
16 those who make a religious confession; professing Christians


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