Sin Chapter 4

Overcoming Sin and Temptation by John Owen

Secondly, we have seen the seat and subject of this law of sin. In the next place
we might take a view of its nature in general, which also will manifest its
power and efficacy; but this I shall not enlarge upon, it being not my business
to declare the nature of indwelling sin: it has also been done by others.
I shall therefore only, in reference unto our special design in hand, consider
one property of it that belongs unto its nature, and this always, wherever it
is. And this is that which is expressed by the apostle, “The carnal mind is
enmity against God” (Rom. 8:7). That which is here called phron·ma t·s
sarkos, “the wisdom of the flesh,” is the same with “the law of sin” which
we insist on. And what says he hereof? Why, it is exthra eis theon—“enmity
against God.” It is not only an enemy—for so possibly some reconciliation
of it unto God might be made—but it is enmity itself, and so not capable of
accepting any terms of peace. Enemies may be reconciled, but enmity cannot;
yea, the only way to reconcile enemies is to destroy the enmity. So the apostle
in another case tells us, “We, who were enemies, are reconciled to God”
(Rom. 5:10); that is, a work compassed24 and brought about by the blood of
Christ—the reconciling of the greatest enemies. But when he comes to speak
of enmity, there is no way for it, but it must be abolished and destroyed:
“Having abolished in his flesh the enmity” (Eph. 2:15). There is no way to
deal with any enmity whatsoever but by its abolition or destruction. And this
also lies in it as it is enmity, that every part and parcel of it, if we may so speak,
the least degree of it that can possibly remain in anyone, while and where
there is anything of its nature, is enmity still. It may not be so effectual and
powerful in operation as where it has more life and vigor, but it is enmity still.
As every drop of poison is poison, and will infect, and every spark of fire is
fire, and will burn, so is every thing of the law of sin, the last, the least of it—
it is enmity, it will poison, it will burn. That which is anything in the abstract
is still so while it has any being at all. Our apostle, who may well be supposed
to have made as great a progress in the subduing of it as anyone on the earth,
yet after all cries out for deliverance, as from an irreconcilable enemy (Rom.
7:24). The meanest acting, the meanest and most imperceptible working of
it, is the acting and working of enmity. Mortification abates of its force, but
does not change its nature. Grace changes the nature of man, but nothing can
24 attained, achieved
change the nature of sin. Whatsoever effect be wrought upon it, there is no
effect wrought in it, but that it is enmity still, sin still. This then, by it, is our
state and condition: “God is love” (1 John 4:8). He is so in himself, eternally
excellent, and desirable above all. He is so to us, he is so in the blood of his
Son and in all the inexpressible fruits of it, by which we are what we are, and
wherein all our future hopes and expectations are wrapped up. Against this
God we carry about us an enmity all our days; an enmity that has this from
its nature, that it is incapable of cure or reconciliation. Destroyed it may be,
it shall be, but cured it cannot be. If a man has an enemy to deal with that is
too mighty for him, as David had with Saul, he may take the course that he
did—consider what it is that provoked his enemy against him, and so address
himself to remove the cause and make up his peace: “If the LORD have stirred
you up against me, let him accept an offering: but if they be the children of
men, cursed be they before the LORD” (1 Sam. 26:19).
Come it from God or man, there is yet hope of peace. But when a man
has enmity itself to deal with, nothing is to be expected but continual fighting,
to the destruction of the one party. If it be not overcome and destroyed,
it will overcome and destroy the soul. And herein lies no small part of its
power, which we are inquiring after—it can admit of no terms of peace, of
no composition. There may be a composition where there is no reconciliation—
there may be a truce where there is no peace, but with this enemy we
can obtain neither the one nor the other. It is never quiet, conquering nor conquered;
which was the only kind of enemy that the famous warrior complained
of old. It is in vain for a man to have any expectation of rest from his
lust but by its death; of absolute freedom but by his own. Some, in the tumultuating
of their corruptions, seek for quietness by laboring to satisfy them,
“making provision for the flesh, to fulfill the lusts thereof,” as the apostle
speaks (Rom. 13:14). This is to aslake25 fire by wood and oil. As all the fuel
in the world, all the fabric of the creation that is combustible, being cast into
the fire, will not at all satisfy it, but increase it, so is it with satisfaction given
to sin by sinning—it does but inflame and increase. If a man will part with
some of his goods unto an enemy, it may satisfy him; but enmity will have
all, and is not one whit the more satisfied than if he had received nothing at
all—like the lean cattle that were never the less hungry for having devoured
the fat. You cannot bargain with the fire to take but so much of your houses;
you have no way but to quench it. It is in this case as it is in the contest
between a wise man and a fool: “Whether he rage or laugh, there is no rest”
25 slacken, diminish
(Prov. 29:9). Whatever frame or temper26 he be in, his importunate27 folly
makes him troublesome. It is so with this indwelling sin: whether it violently
tumultuate,28 as it will do on provocations and temptations, it will be outrageous
in the soul; or whether it seem to be pleased and contented, to be satisfied,
all is one, there is no peace, no rest to be had with it or by it. Had it,
then, been of any other nature, some other way might have been fixed on;
but seeing it consists in enmity, all the relief the soul has must lie in its ruin.
Secondly, it is not only said to be “enmity,” but it is said to be “enmity
against God.” It has chosen a great enemy indeed. It is in sundry places proposed
as our enemy: “Abstain from fleshly lusts, which war against the soul”
(1 Pet. 2:11); they are enemies to the soul, that is, to ourselves. Sometimes as
an enemy to the Spirit that is in us: “The flesh lusts” or fights “against the
Spirit” (Gal. 5:17). It fights against the Spirit, or the spiritual principle that is
in us, to conquer it; it fights against our souls to destroy them. It has special
ends and designs against our souls, and against the principle of grace that is
in us; but its proper formal object is God: it is “enmity against God.” It is its
work to oppose grace; it is a consequent of its work to oppose our souls, which
follows upon what it does more than what it intends; but its nature and formal
design is to oppose God—God as the lawgiver, God as holy, God as the
author of the gospel, a way of salvation by grace, and not by works—this is
the direct object of the law of sin. Why does it oppose duty, so that the good
we would do we do not [Rom. 7:19], either as to matter or manner? Why does
it render the soul carnal, indisposed, unbelieving, unspiritual, weary, wandering?
It is because of its enmity to God, whom the soul aims to have communion
with in duty. It has, as it were, that command from Satan which the
Assyrians had from their king: “Fight neither with small nor great, save only
with the king of Israel” (1 Kings 22:31). It is neither great nor small, but God
himself, the King of Israel, that sin sets itself against. There lies the secret formal
reason of all its opposition to good—even because it relates unto God.
May a road, a trade, a way of duties be set up, where communion with God
is not aimed at, but only the duty itself, as is the manner of men in most of
their superstitious worship, the opposition that will lie against it from the law
of sin will be very weak, easy, and gentle. Or, as the Assyrians, because of his
show of a king, assaulted Jehoshaphat, but when they found that it was not
Ahab, they turned back from pursuing of him [1 Kings 22:31-33]; so because
26 character, disposition
27 persistent, pressing
28 agitate, disturb, stir up
there is a show and appearance of the worship of God, sin may make
head[way] against it at first, but when the duty cries out in the heart that indeed
God is not there, sin turns away to seek out its proper enemy, even God himself,
elsewhere. And hence do many poor creatures spend their days in dismal,
tiring superstitions, without any great reluctancy from within, when others
cannot be suffered29 freely to watch with Christ in a spiritual manner one hour.
And it is no wonder that men fight with carnal weapons for their superstitious
worship without,30 when they have no fighting against it within; for God is not
in it, and the law of sin makes not opposition to any duty, but to God in every
duty. This is our state and condition: All the opposition that arises in us unto
anything that is spiritually good, whether it be from darkness in the mind, or
aversation in the will, or sloth in the affections, all the secret arguings and reasonings
that are in the soul in pursuit of them, the direct object of them is God
himself. The enmity lies against him; which consideration surely should influence
us to a perpetual, constant watchfulness over ourselves. It is thus also in
respect of all propensity unto sin, as well as aversation from God. It is God
himself that is aimed at. It is true, the pleasures, the wages of sin, do greatly
influence the sensual, carnal affections of men: but it is the holiness and authority
of God that sin itself rises up against; it hates the yoke of the Lord. “You
have been weary of me,” says God to sinners [Isa. 43:22]; and that during their
performance of abundance of duties. Every act of sin is a fruit of being weary
of God. Thus Job tells us what lies at the bottom in the heart of sinners: “They
say to God, Depart from us” [Job 21:14; 22:17]—it is enmity against him and
aversation from him. Here lies the formal nature of every sin—it is an opposition
to God, a casting off his yoke, a breaking off the dependence which the
creature ought to have on the Creator. And the apostle gives the reason why
he affirms “the carnal mind to be enmity against God,” namely, “because it is
not subject to the will of God, nor indeed can be” (Rom. 8:7). It never is, nor
will, nor can be subject to God, its whole nature consisting in an opposition
to him. The soul wherein it is may be subject to the law of God; but this law
of sin sets up in contrariety31 unto it, and will not be in subjection. To manifest
a little further the power of this law of sin from this property of its nature,
that it is enmity against God, one or two inseparable adjuncts32 of it may be
considered, which will further evince it:—
It is universal. Some contentions are bounded unto some particular con-
29 cannot be bothered
30 outwardly
31 state of being contrary or in opposition to
32 dependent statements that amplify meaning
cerns; this is about one thing, that about another. It is not so here; the enmity
is absolute and universal, as are all enmities that are grounded in the nature
of the things themselves. Such enmity is against the whole kind of that which
is its object. Such is this enmity: for it is universal to all of God; and it is universal
in all of the soul.
It is universal to all of God. If there were anything of God, his nature,
properties, his mind or will, his law or gospel, any duty of obedience to him,
of communion with him, that sin had not an enmity against, the soul might
have a constant shelter and retreat within itself, by applying itself to that of
God, to that of duty toward him, to that of communion with him, that sin
would make no opposition against. But the enmity lies against God, and all
of God, and everything wherein or whereby we have to do with him. It is not
subject to the law, nor any part or parcel, word or tittle33 of the law. Whatever
is opposite to anything as such, is opposite unto all of it. Sin is enmity to God
as God, and therefore to all of God. Not his goodness, not his holiness, not
his mercy, not his grace, not his promises: there is not anything of him which
it does not make head against; nor any duty, private, public, in the heart, in
external works, which it opposes not. And the nearer (if I may so say) anything
is to God, the greater is its enmity unto it. The more of spirituality and
holiness is in anything, the greater is its enmity. That which has most of God
has most of its opposition. Concerning them in whom this law is most predominant,
God says, “You have set at nought34 all my counsel, and would
[have] none of my reproof” (Prov. 1:25). Not this or that part of God’s counsel,
his mind, or will is opposed, but all his counsel; whatsoever he calls for
or guides unto, in every particular of it, all is set at nought, and nothing of
his reproof attended unto. A man would think it not very strange that sin
should maintain an enmity against God in his law, which comes to judge it,
to condemn it; but it raises a greater enmity against him in his gospel, wherein
he tenders mercy and pardon as a deliverance from it; and that merely because
more of the glorious properties of God’s nature, more of his excellencies and
condescension, is manifested therein than in the other.
It is universal in all of the soul.Would this law of sin have contented itself
to have subdued any one faculty of the soul—would it have left any one at liberty,
any one affection free from its yoke and bondage—it might possibly have
been with more ease opposed or subdued. But when Christ comes with his
spiritual power upon the soul to conquer it to himself, he has no quiet land-
33 a kind of accent in the Hebrew alphabet (see Matt. 5:18, KJV)
34 you have treated as nothing
ing place. He can set foot on no ground but what he must fight for and conquer.
Not the mind, not an affection, not the will, but all is secured against
him. And when grace has made its entrance, yet sin will dwell in all its coasts.
Were anything in the soul at perfect freedom and liberty, there a stand might
be made to drive it from all the rest of its holds; but it is universal and wars in
the whole soul. The mind has its own darkness and vanity to wrestle with—
the will its own stubborness, obstinacy, and perverseness; every affection its
own frowardness35 and aversation from God, and its sensuality, to deal with:
so that one cannot yield relief unto another as they ought; they have, as it were,
their hands full at home. Hence it is that our knowledge is imperfect, our obedience
weak, love not unmixed, fear not pure, delight not free and noble. But
I must not insist on these particulars, or I could abundantly show how diffused
this principle of enmity against God is through the whole soul.
Hereunto might be added its constancy. It is constant unto itself, it wavers
not, it has no thoughts of yielding or giving over, notwithstanding the powerful
opposition that is made unto it both by the law and gospel; as afterward
shall be showed.
This, then, is a third evidence of the power of sin, taken from its nature
and properties, wherein I have fixed but on one instance for its illustration—
namely, that it is “enmity against God,” and that universal and constant. Should
we enter upon a full description of it, it would require more space and time than
we have allotted to this whole subject. What has been delivered might give us
a little sense of it, if it be the will of God, and stir us up unto watchfulness. What
can be of a more sad consideration than that we should carry about us constantly
that which is enmity against God, and that not in this or that particular,
but in all that he is and in all wherein he has revealed himself? I cannot say
it is well with them who find it not. It is well with them, indeed, in whom it is
weakened, and the power of it abated; but yet, for them who say it is not in
them, they do but deceive themselves, and there is no truth in them.

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