Sin Chapter 2

Overcoming Sin and Temptation by John Owen

That which we have proposed unto consideration is the power and efficacy
of indwelling sin. The ways whereby it may be evinced are many. I shall begin
with the appellation of it in the place before mentioned. It is a law. “I find a
law,” says the apostle [Rom. 7:21]. It is because of its power and efficacy that
it is so called. So is also the principle of grace in believers the “law of the Spirit
of life” (Rom. 8:2), as we observed before, which is the “exceeding greatness
of the power of God” in them (Eph. 1:19). Where there is a law there is
We shall, therefore, show both what belongs unto it as it is a law in general,
and also what is peculiar1 or proper in it as being such a law as we have
There are in general two things attending every law, as such:
First, dominion. “The law has dominion over a man while he lives” (Rom.
7:1)—Kurieuei tou anthrøpou—“It lords it over a man.” Where any law
takes place, kurieuei, it has dominion. It is properly the act of a superior, and
it belongs to its nature to exact obedience by way of dominion. Now, there
is a twofold dominion, as there is a twofold law. There is a moral authoritative
dominion over a man, and there is a real effective dominion in a man.
The first is an affection2 of the law of God, the latter of the law of sin. The
law of sin has not in itself a moral dominion—it has not a rightful dominion
or authority over any man; but it has that which is equivalent unto it; whence
it is said basileuein, “to reign as a king” (Rom. 6:12), and kurieuein, “to lord
it” or have dominion (v. 14), as a law in general is said to have (7:1). But
because it has lost its complete dominion in reference unto believers, of whom
alone we speak, I shall not insist upon it in this utmost extent of its power.
But even in them it is a law still—though not a law unto them, yet, as was
said, it is a law in them. And though it has not a complete, and, as it were, a
rightful dominion over them, yet it will have a domination as to some things
in them. It is still a law, and that in them; so that all its actings are the actings
1 particular, characteristic
2 effect
of a law—that is, it acts with power, though it has lost its complete power of
ruling in them. Though it be weakened, yet its nature is not thawed. It is a
law still, and therefore powerful. And as its particular workings, which we
shall afterward consider, are the ground of this appellation, so the term itself
teaches us in general what we are to expect from it, and what endeavors it
will use for dominion, to which it has been accustomed.
Efficacy to Provoke
Secondly, a law, as a law, has an efficacy to provoke those that are obnoxious
unto it unto the things that it requires. A law has rewards and punishments
accompanying it. These secretly prevail on them to whom they are
proposed, though the things commanded be not much desirable. And generally
all laws have their efficacy on the minds of men, from the rewards and
punishments that are annexed unto them. Nor is this law without this spring
of power: it has its rewards and punishments. The pleasures of sin are the
rewards of sin; a reward that most men lose their souls to obtain. By this the
law of sin contended in Moses against the law of grace. “He chose rather to
suffer affliction with the people of God than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for
a season; for he looked unto the recompense of reward” (Heb. 11:25-26). The
contest was in his mind between the law of sin and the law of grace. The
motive on the part of the law of sin, wherewith it sought to draw him over
and wherewith it prevails on the most, was the reward that it proposed unto
him—namely, that he should have the present enjoyment of the pleasures of
sin. By this it contended against the reward annexed unto the law of grace,
called “the recompense of reward.”
By this sorry reward does this law keep the world in obedience to its commands;
and experience shows us of what power it is to influence the minds
of men. It has also punishments that it threatens men with who labor to cast
off its yoke. Whatever evil, trouble, or danger in the world attends gospel obedience—
whatever hardship or violence is to be offered to the sensual3 part of
our natures in a strict course of mortification—sin makes use of, as if they
were punishments attending the neglect of its commands. By these it prevails
on the “fearful,” who shall have no share in life eternal (Rev. 21:8). And it is
hard to say by whether of these, its pretended rewards or pretended punishments,
it does most prevail, in whether of them its greatest strength does lie.
By its rewards it entices men to sins of commission, as they are called, in ways
and actions tending to the satisfaction of its lusts. By its punishments it
3 perceived by the senses (not necessarily sexual)
induces men to the omitting of duties; a course tending to no less a pernicious4
event than the former. By which of these the law of sin has its greatest success
in and upon the souls of men is not evident; and that because they are
seldom or never separated, but equally take place on the same persons. But
this is certain, that by tenders5 and promises of the pleasures of sin on the one
hand, by threats of the deprivation of all sensual contentments and the infliction
of temporal evils on the other, it has an exceeding efficacy on the minds
of men, oftentimes on believers themselves. Unless a man be prepared to reject
the reasonings that will offer themselves from the one and the other of these,
there is no standing before the power of the law. The world falls before them
every day. With what deceit and violence they are urged and imposed on the
minds of men we shall afterward declare; as also what advantages they have
to prevail upon them. Look on the generality of men, and you shall find them
wholly by these means at sin’s disposal. Do the profits and pleasures of sin lie
before them?—nothing can withhold them from reaching after them. Do difficulties
and inconveniences attend the duties of the gospel?—they will have
nothing to do with them; and so are wholly given up to the rule and dominion
of this law.
And this light in general we have into the power and efficacy of
indwelling sin from the general nature of a law, whereof it is partaker.
We may consider, nextly, what kind of law in particular it is; which will further
evidence that power of it which we are inquiring after. It is not an outward,
written, commanding, directing law, but an inbred, working, impelling,
urging law. A law proposed unto us is not to be compared, for efficacy, to a
law inbred in us. Adam had a law of sin proposed to him in his temptation;
but because he had no law of sin inbred and working in him, he might have
withstood it. An inbred law must needs be6 effectual. Let us take an example
from that law which is contrary to this law of sin. The law of God was at first
inbred and natural unto man; it was concreated with7 his faculties, and was
their rectitude, both in being and operation, in reference to his end of living
unto God and glorifying of him. Hence it had a special power in the whole
soul to enable it unto all obedience, yea, and to make all obedience easy and
4 deadly
5 offers
6 is of necessity
7 created at the same time as
pleasant. Such is the power of an inbred law. And though this law, as to the
rule and dominion of it, be now by nature cast out of the soul, yet the remaining
sparks of it, because they are inbred, are very powerful and effectual; as
the apostle declares (Rom. 2:14-15). Afterward God renews this law and
writes it in tables of stone. But what is the efficacy of this law? Will it now,
as it is external and proposed unto men, enable them to perform the things
that it exacts and requires? Not at all. God knew it would not, unless it were
turned to an internal law again; that is, until, of a moral outward rule, it be
turned into an inward real principle. Wherefore God makes his law internal
again, and implants it on the heart as it was at first, when he intends to give
it power to produce obedience in his people: “I will put my law in their
inward parts, and write it in their hearts” (Jer. 31:31-33). This is that which
God fixes on, as it were, upon a discovery of the insufficiency of an outward
law leading men unto obedience. “The written law,” says he, “will not do it;
mercies and deliverances from distress will not effect it; trials and afflictions
will not accomplish it.” “Then,” says the Lord, “will I take another course:
I will turn the written law into an internal living principle in their hearts; and
that will have such an efficacy as shall assuredly make them my people, and
keep them so.” Now, such is this law of sin. It is an indwelling law: “It is sin
that dwells in me” (Rom. 7:17); “sin that dwells in me” (v. 20); “It is present
with me” (v. 21); “It is in my members” (v. 23)—yea, it is so far in a man, as
in some sense it is said to be the man himself; “I know that in me (that is, in
my flesh) dwells no good thing” (v. 18). The flesh, which is the seat and throne
of this law, yea, which indeed is this law, is in some sense the man himself, as
grace also is the new man. Now, from this consideration of it, that it is an
indwelling law inclining and moving to sin as an inward habit or principle,
it has sundry advantages increasing its strength and furthering its power, as:
It always abides in the soul—it is never absent. The apostle twice uses
that expression, “It dwells in me.” There is its constant residence and habitation.
If it came upon the soul only at certain seasons, much obedience might
be perfectly accomplished in its absence; yea, and as they deal with usurping8
tyrants, whom they intend to thrust out of a city, the gates might be sometimes
shut against it, that it might not return—the soul might fortify itself
against it. But the soul is its home; there it dwells, and is no wanderer.
Wherever you are, whatever you are about, this law of sin is always in you;
in the best that you do, and in the worst. Men little consider what a dangerous
companion is always at home with them. When they are in company,
8 seizing, taking control with power and force
when alone, by night or by day, all is one, sin is with them. There is a living
coal continually in their houses; which, if it be not looked unto, will fire them,
and it may be consume them. Oh, the woeful security of poor souls! How little
do the most of men think of this inbred enemy that is never from home!
How little, for the most part, does the watchfulness of any professors answer
the danger of their state and condition!
It is always ready to apply itself to every end and purpose that it serves
unto. “It does not only dwell in me,” says the apostle, “but when I would do
good, it is present with me.” There is somewhat more in that expression than
mere indwelling. An inmate may dwell in a house, and yet not be always meddling
with what the good-man9 of the house has to do (that so we may keep
to the allusion of indwelling, used by the apostle): but it is so with this law,
it does so dwell in us, as that it will be present with us in everything we do;
yea, oftentimes when with most earnestness we desire to be quit of it,10 with
most violence it will put itself upon us: “When I would do good, it is present
with me.” Would you pray, would you hear, would you give alms, would you
meditate, would you be in any duty acting faith on God and love toward him,
would you work righteousness, would you resist temptations—this troublesome,
perplexing indweller will still more or less put itself upon you and be
present with you; so that you cannot perfectly and completely accomplish the
thing that is good (as our apostle speaks, v. 18). Sometimes men, by hearkening
to their temptations, do stir up, excite, and provoke their lusts; and
no wonder if then they find them present and active. But it will be so when
with all our endeavors we labor to be free from them. This law of sin “dwells”
in us—that is, it adheres as a depraved principle, unto our minds in darkness
and vanity, unto our affections in sensuality, unto our wills in a loathing of
and aversation from that which is good; and by some, more, or all of these,
is continually putting itself upon us, in inclinations, motions, or suggestions
to evil, when we would be most gladly quit of it.
It being an indwelling law, it applies itself to its work with great facility
and easiness, like “the sin that does so easily beset us” (Heb. 12:1). It has a
great facility and easiness in the application of itself unto its work; it needs
no doors to be opened unto it; it needs no engines to work by. The soul cannot
apply itself to any duty of a man but it must be by the exercise of those
faculties wherein this law has its residence. Is the understanding or the mind
to be applied unto anything?—there it is, in ignorance, darkness, vanity, folly,
9 male head of household
10 be freed or released from it
madness. Is the will to be engaged?—there it is also, in spiritual deadness,
stubbornness, and the roots of obstinacy. Is the heart and affections to be set
on work?—there it is, in inclinations to the world and present things, and sensuality,
with proneness to all manner of defilements. Hence it is easy for it to
insinuate itself into all that we do, and to hinder all that is good, and to further
all sin and wickedness. It has an intimacy, an inwardness with the soul,
and therefore, in all that we do, does easily beset us. It possesses those very
faculties of the soul whereby we must do what we do, whatever it be, good
or evil. Now, all these advantages it has as it is a law, as an indwelling law,
which manifests its power and efficacy. It is always resident in the soul, it puts
itself upon all its actings, and that with easiness and facility.
This is that law which the apostle affirms that he found in himself; this
is the title that he gives unto the powerful and effectual remainder of
indwelling sin even in believers; and these general evidences of its power,
from that appellation, have we. Many there are in the world who find not
this law in them—who, whatever they have been taught in the word, have
not a spiritual sense and experience of the power of indwelling sin; and that
because they are wholly under the dominion of it. They find not that there
is darkness and folly in their minds because they are darkness itself, and
darkness will discover nothing. They find not deadness and an indisposition11
in their hearts and wills to God because they are dead wholly in trespasses
and sins. They are at peace with their lusts by being in bondage unto
them. And this is the state of most men in the world; which makes them woefully
despise all their eternal concerns. Whence is it that men follow and pursue
the world with so much greediness, that they neglect heaven, and life,
and immortality for it, every day? Whence is it that some pursue their sensuality
with delight?—they will drink and revel, and have their sports, let
others say what they please. Whence is it that so many live so unprofitably
under the word, that they understand so little of what is spoken unto them,
that they practice less of what they understand, and will by no means be
stirred up to answer the mind of God in his calls unto them? It is all from
this law of sin and the power of it that rules and bears sway in men, that all
these things do proceed; but it is not such persons of whom at present we
particularly treat.
From what has been spoken it will ensue that if there be such a law in
believers, it is doubtless their duty to find it out, to find it so to be. The more
they find its power, the less they will feel its effects. It will not at all advan-
11 disinclination, unwillingness
tage a man to have a hectical12 distemper and not to discover it—a fire lying
secretly in his house and not to know it. So much as men find of this law in
them, so much they will abhor it and themselves, and no more.
Proportionably also to their discovery of it will be their earnestness for grace,
nor will it rise higher. All watchfulness and diligence in obedience will be
answerable also thereunto. Upon this one hinge, or finding out and experiencing
the power and the efficacy of this law of sin, turns the whole course
of our lives. Ignorance of it breeds senselessness, carelessness, sloth, security,
and pride; all which the Lord’s soul abhors. Eruptions into great, open,
conscience-wasting, scandalous sins are from want of a due spiritual consideration
of this law. Inquire, then, how it is with your souls. What do you find
of this law? What experience have you of its power and efficacy? Do you find
it dwelling in you, always present with you, exciting itself, or putting forth
its poison with facility and easiness at all times, in all your duties, “when you
would do good”? What humiliation, what self-abasement, what intenseness
in prayer, what diligence, what watchfulness, does this call for at your hands!
What spiritual wisdom do you stand in need of! What supplies of grace, what
assistance of the Holy Ghost, will be hence also discovered! I fear we have
few of us a diligence proportionable to our danger.


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