Sin Chapter 3

Overcoming Sin and Temptation by John Owen

Having manifested indwelling sin, whereof we treat in the remainders of it in
believers, to be a law, and evinced in general the power of it from thence, we
shall now proceed to give particular instances of its efficacy and advantages
from some things that generally relate unto it as such. And these are three:
(1) its seat and subject; (2) its natural properties; and (3) its operations and
the manner thereof—which principally we aim at and shall attend unto.
First, for the seat and subject of this law of sin, the Scripture everywhere
assigns it to be the heart. There indwelling sin keeps its special residence. It
has invaded and possessed the throne of God himself: “Madness is in the
heart of men while they live” (Eccles. 9:3). This is their madness, or the root
12 fluctuating but persistent
of all that madness which appears in their lives. “Out of the heart proceed
evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies,”
etc. (Matt. 15:19). There are many outward temptations and
provocations that befall men, which excite and stir them up unto these evils;
but they do but as it were open the vessel, and let out what is laid up and
stored in it. The root, rise, and stirring of all these things is in the heart.
Temptations and occasions put nothing into a man, but only draw out what
was in him before, hence is that summary description to the whole work and
effect of this law of sin, “Every imagination of the thoughts of man’s heart is
only evil continually” (Gen. 6:5; so also 8:21). The whole work of the law of
sin, from its first rise, its first coining of actual sin, is here described. And its
seat, its work-house, is said to be the heart; and so it is called by our Savior
“the evil treasure of the heart”: “An evil man, out of the evil treasure of his
heart, brings forth evil things” (Luke 6:45). This treasure is the prevailing
principle of moral actions that is in men. So, in the beginning of the verse,
our Savior calls grace “the good treasure of the heart” of a good man, whence
that which is good does proceed. It is a principle constantly and abundantly
inciting and stirring up unto, and consequently bringing forth, actions conformable
and like unto it, of the same kind and nature with itself. And it is
also called a treasure for its abundance. It will never be exhausted; it is not
wasted by men’s spending on it; yea, the more lavish men are of this stock,
the more they draw out of this treasure, the more it grows and abounds! As
men do not spend their grace, but increase it, by its exercise, no more do they
their indwelling sin. The more men exercise their grace in duties of obedience,
the more it is strengthened and increased; and the more men exert and put
forth the fruits of their lust, the more is that enraged and increased in them—
it feeds upon itself, swallows up its own poison, and grows thereby. The more
men sin, the more are they inclined unto sin. It is from the deceitfulness of
this law of sin, whereof we shall speak afterward at large, that men persuade
themselves that by this or that particular sin they shall so satisfy their lusts as
that they shall need to sin no more. Every sin increases the principle, and fortifies
the habit of sinning. It is an evil treasure that increases by doing evil.
And where does this treasure lie? It is in the heart; there it is laid up, there it
is kept in safety. All the men in the world, all the angels in heaven, cannot dispossess
a man of this treasure, it is so safely stored in the heart.
The “heart” in the Scripture is variously used; sometimes for the mind
and understanding, sometimes for the will, sometimes for the affections,
sometimes for the conscience, sometimes for the whole soul. Generally, it
denotes the whole soul of man and all the faculties of it, not absolutely, but
as they are all one principle of moral operations, as they all concur in our
doing good or evil. The mind, as it inquires, discerns, and judges what is to
be done, what refused; the will, as it chooses or refuses and avoids; the affections,
as they like or dislike, cleave to or have an aversation from, that which
is proposed to them; the conscience, as it warns and determines—are all
together called the heart. And in this sense it is that we say the seat and subject
of this law of sin is the heart of man. Only, we may add that the Scripture,
speaking of the heart as the principle of men’s good or evil actions, does usually
insinuate together with it two things belonging unto the manner of their
A suitableness and pleasingness unto the soul in the things that are done.
When men take delight and are pleased in and with what they do, they are
said to do it heartily, with their whole hearts. Thus, when God himself blesses
his people in love and delight, he says he does it “with his whole heart and
with his whole soul” (Jer. 32:41).
Resolution and constancy in such actions. And this also is denoted in the
metaphorical expression before used of a treasure, from whence men do constantly
take out the things which either they stand in need of or do intend to
This is the subject, the seat, the dwelling place of this law of sin—the
heart; as it is the entire principle of moral operations, of doing good or evil,
as out of it proceed good or evil [Luke 6:45]. Here dwells our enemy; this is
the fort, the citadel of this tyrant, where it maintains a rebellion against God
all our days. Sometimes it has more strength, and consequently more success;
sometimes less of the one and of the other; but it is always in rebellion while
we live.
That we may in our passage take a little view of the strength and power
of sin from this seat and subject of it, we may consider one or two properties
of the heart that exceedingly contribute thereunto. It is like an enemy in war,
whose strength and power lie not only in his numbers and force of men or
arms, but also in the unconquerable forts that he does possess. And such is
the heart to this enemy of God and our souls; as will appear from the properties
of it, whereof one or two shall be mentioned.
The heart is unsearchable: “Who can know the heart? I the LORD search
it” (Jer. 17:9-10). The heart of man is pervious13 to God only; hence he takes
the honor of searching the heart to be as peculiar to himself, and as fully
declaring him to be God, as any other glorious attribute of his nature. We
13 permeable, penetrable
know not the hearts of one another; we know not our own hearts as we
ought. Many there are that know not their hearts as to their general bent and
disposition, whether it be good or bad, sincere and sound, or corrupt and
naught; but no one knows all the secret intrigues, the windings and turnings,
the actings and aversations of his own heart. Has anyone the perfect measure
of his own light and darkness? Can anyone know what actings of choosing
or aversation his will shall bring forth, upon the proposal of that endless variety
of objects that it is to be exercised with? Can anyone traverse the various
mutability of his afflictions? Do the secret springs of acting and refusing in
the soul lie before the eyes of any man? Does anyone know what will be the
motions of the mind or will in such and such conjunctions of things, such a
suiting of objects, such a pretension of reasonings, such an appearance of
things desirable? All in heaven and earth, but the infinite, all-seeing God, are
utterly ignorant of these things. In this unsearchable heart dwells the law of
sin; and much of its security, and consequently of its strength, lies in this, that
it is past our finding out. We fight with an enemy whose secret strength we
cannot discover, whom we cannot follow into its retirements.14 Hence, oftentimes,
when we are ready to think sin quite ruined, after a while we find it
was but out of sight. It has coverts and retreats in an unsearchable heart,
whither we cannot pursue it. The soul may persuade itself all is well, when
sin may be safe in the hidden darkness of the mind, which it is impossible that
he should look into; for whatever makes manifest is light. It may suppose the
will of sinning is utterly taken away, when yet there is an unsearchable reserve
for a more suitable object, a more vigorous temptation, than at present it is
tried with. Has a man had a contest with any lust, and a blessed victory over
it by the Holy Ghost as to that present trial?—when he thinks it is utterly
expelled, he ere15 long finds that it was but retired out of sight. It can lie so
close in the mind’s darkness, in the will’s indisposition, in the disorder and
carnality of the affections, that no eye can discover it. The best of our wisdom
is but to watch its first appearances, to catch its first under-earth heavings
and workings, and to set ourselves in opposition to them; for to follow
it into the secret corners of the heart, that we cannot do. It is true, there is yet
a relief in this case—namely, that he to whom the work of destroying the law
of sin and body of death in us is principally committed, namely, the Holy
Ghost comes with his axe to the very root; neither is there anything in an
14 privacy, seclusion, leisure
15 before
unsearchable heart that is not “naked and open unto him” (Heb. 4:13); but
we in a way of duty may hence see what an enemy we have to deal with.
As it is unsearchable, so it is deceitful, as in the place above mentioned:
“It is deceitful above all things”—incomparably so. There is great deceit in
the dealings of men in the world; great deceit in their counsels and contrivances
in reference to their affairs, private and public; great deceit in their
words and actings: the world is full of deceit and fraud. But all this is nothing
[compared] to the deceit that is in man’s heart toward himself; for that is
the meaning of the expression in this place, and not toward others. Now,
incomparable deceitfulness, added to unsearchableness, gives a great addition
and increase of strength to the law of sin, upon the account of its seat and
subject. I speak not yet of the deceitfulness of sin itself, but the deceitfulness
of the heart where it is seated. “There are seven abominations in the heart”
(Prov. 26:25); that is, not only many, but an absolute complete number, as
seven denotes. And they are such abominations as consist in deceitfulness; so
the caution foregoing insinuates, “Trust him not”—for it is only deceit that
should make us not to trust in that degree and measure which the object is
capable of.
Now, this deceitfulness of the heart, whereby it is exceedingly advantaged
in its harboring of sin, lies chiefly in these two things:
That it abounds in contradictions, so that it is not to be found and dealt
with according to any constant rule and way of procedure. There are some
men that have much of this, from their natural constitution, or from other
causes, in their conversation. They seem to be made up of contradictions;
sometimes to be very wise in their affairs, sometimes very foolish; very open
and very reserved; very facile16 and very obstinate; very easy to be entreated
and very revengeful—all in a remarkable height. This is generally accounted
a bad character, and is seldom found but when it proceeds from some notable
predominant lust. But, in general, in respect of moral good or evil, duty or
sin, it is so with the heart of every man—flaming hot and key cold; weak and
yet stubborn; obstinate and facile. The frame of the heart is ready to contradict
itself every moment. Now you would think you had it all for such a
frame, such a way; anon17 it is quite otherwise: so that none know what to
expect from it. The rise of this is the disorder that is brought upon all its faculties
by sin. God created them all in a perfect harmony and union. The mind
and reason were in perfect subjection and subordination to God and his will;
16 mild-mannered
17 presently, soon
the will answered, in its choice of good, the discovery made of it by the mind;
the affections constantly and evenly followed the understanding and will. The
mind’s subjection to God was the spring of the orderly and harmonious
motion of the soul and all the wheels in it. That being disturbed by sin, the
rest of the faculties move cross18 and contrary one to another. The will
chooses not the good which the mind discovers; the affections delight not in
that which the will chooses; but all jar and interfere, cross and rebel against
each other. This we have got by our falling from God. Hence sometimes the
will leads, the judgment follows. Yea, commonly the affections, that should
attend upon all, get the sovereignty and draw the whole soul captive after
them. And hence it is, as I said, that the heart is made up of so many contradictions
in its actings. Sometimes the mind retains its sovereignty, and the
affections are in subjection, and the will ready for its duty. This puts a good
face upon things. Immediately the rebellion of the affections or the obstinacy
of the will takes place and prevails, and the whole scene is changed. This, I
say, makes the heart deceitful above all things: it agrees not at all in itself, is
not constant to itself, has no order that it is constant unto, is under no certain
conduct that is stable; but, if I may so say, has a rotation in itself, where
oftentimes the feet lead and guide the whole.
Its deceit lies in its full promisings upon the first appearance of things;
and this also proceeds from the same principle with the former. Sometimes
the affections are touched and wrought19 upon; the whole heart appears in a
fair frame; all promises to be well. Within a while the whole frame is changed;
the mind was not at all affected or turned; the affections a little acted their
parts and are gone off, and all the fair promises of the heart are departed with
them. Now, add this deceitfulness to the unsearchableness before mentioned,
and we shall find that at least the difficulty of dealing effectually with sin in
its seat and throne will be exceedingly increased. A deceiving and a deceived
heart, who can deal with it?—especially considering that the heart employs
all its deceits unto the service of sin, contributes them all to its furtherance.
All the disorder that is in the heart, all its false promises and fair appearances,
promote the interest and advantages of sin. Hence God cautions the people
to look to it, lest their own hearts should entice and deceive them.
Who can mention the treacheries and deceits that lie in the heart of man?
It is not for nothing that the Holy Ghost so expresses it, “It is deceitful above
all things”—uncertain in what it does, and false in what it promises. And
18 contradictory
19 shaped, molded, fashioned
hence moreover it is, among other causes, that, in the pursuit of our war
against sin, we have not only the old work to go over and over, but new work
still while we live in this world, still new stratagems and wiles to deal with;
as the manner will be where unsearchableness and deceitfulness are to be contended
There are many other properties of this seat and subject of the law of sin
which might be insisted on to the same end and purpose, but that would too
far divert us from our particular design, and therefore I shall pass these over
with some few considerations.
First, never let us reckon that our work in contending against sin, in crucifying,
mortifying, and subduing of it, is at an end. The place of its habitation
is unsearchable; and when we may think that we have thoroughly won the
field, there is still some reserve remaining that we saw not, that we knew not
of. Many conquerors have been ruined by their carelessness after a victory, and
many have been spiritually wounded after great successes against this enemy.
David was so; his great surprise into sin was after a long profession, manifold
experiences of God, and watchful keeping himself from his iniquity. And
hence, in part, has it come to pass that the profession of many has declined in
their old age or riper time; which must more distinctly be spoken to afterward.
They have given over the work of mortifying of sin before their work was at
an end. There is no way for us to pursue sin in its unsearchable habitation but
by being endless in our pursuit. And that command of the apostle which we
have in Colossians 3:5, on this account is as necessary for them to observe who
are toward the end of their race, as those that are but at the beginning of it:
“Mortify therefore your members which are upon the earth”—be always
doing it while you live in this world. It is true: great ground is obtained when
the work is vigorously and constantly carried on; sin is much weakened, so
that the soul presses forward toward perfection: but yet the work must be endless;
I mean, while we are in this world. If we give over, we shall quickly see
this enemy exerting itself with new strength and vigor. It may be under some
great affliction, it may be in some eminent enjoyment of God, in the sense of
the sweetness of blessed communion with Christ, we have been ready to say
that there was an end of sin, that it was dead and gone forever; but have we
not found the contrary by experience? Has it not manifested that it was only
retired into some unsearchable recesses of the heart, as to its in-being and
nature, though it may be greatly weakened in its power? Let us, then, reckon
on it, that there is no way to have our work done but by always doing of it;
and he who dies fighting in this warfare dies assuredly a conqueror.
Secondly, has it its residence in that which is various, inconstant, deceit-
ful above all things? This calls for perpetual watchfulness against it. An open
enemy, that deals by violence only, always gives some respite.20 You know
where to have him and what he is doing, so as that sometimes you may sleep
quietly without fear. But against adversaries that deal by deceit and treachery
(which are long swords and reach at the greatest distance) nothing will
give security but perpetual watchfulness. It is impossible we should in this
case be too jealous, doubtful, suspicious, or watchful. The heart has a thousand
wiles and deceits; and if we are in the least off from our watch, we may
be sure to be surprised. Hence are those reiterated commands and cautions
given for watching, for being circumspect,21 diligent, careful, and the like.
There is no living for them who have to deal with an enemy deceitful above
all things, unless they persist in such a frame. All cautions that are given in
this case are necessary, especially that, “Remember not to believe.” Does the
heart promise fair?—rest not on it, but say to the Lord Christ, “Lord, you do
undertake for me.” Does the sun shine fair in the morning?—reckon not
therefore on a fair day; the clouds may arise and fall. Though the morning
gives a fair appearance of serenity and peace, turbulent affections may arise
and cloud the soul with sin and darkness.
Thirdly, then, commit the whole matter with all care and diligence unto
him who can search the heart to the uttermost, and knows how to prevent
all its treacheries and deceits. In the things before mentioned lies our duty, but
here lies our safety. There is no treacherous corner in our hearts but he can
search it to the uttermost; there is no deceit in them but he can disappoint22
it. This course David takes in Psalm 139. After he had set forth the omnipresence
of God and his omniscience (vv. 1-10), he makes improvement of it23:
“Search me, O God, and try me” (v. 23). As if he had said, “It is but a little
that I know of my deceitful heart, only I would be sincere; I would not have
reserves for sin retained therein. Wherefore do you, who are present with my
heart, who knows my thoughts long before, undertake this work, perform it
thoroughly, for you alone are able so to do.”
There are yet other arguments for the evidencing of the power and
strength of indwelling sin, from whence it is termed a “law,” which we must
pass through, according to the order wherein before we laid them down.
20 relief
21 watchful, attentive, cautious
22 undo an intended end or use
23 applies it

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