Sin Chapter 5

Overcoming Sin and Temptation by John Owen

Thirdly, we have considered somewhat of the nature of indwelling sin, not
absolutely, but in reference unto the discovery of its power; but this more
35 stubbornly contrary behavior, obstinacy
clearly evidenced itself in its actings and operations. Power is an act of life,
and operation is the only discoverer of life. We know not that anything lives
but by the effects and works of life; and great and strong operations discover
a powerful and vigorous life. Such are the operations of this law of sin, which
are all demonstrations of its power.
That which we have declared concerning its nature is that it consists in
enmity. Now, there are two general heads36 of the working or operation of
enmity: aversation and opposition.
First, aversation. Our Savior, describing the enmity that was between
himself and the teachers of the Jews, by the effects of it, says in the prophet,
“My soul loathed them, and their soul also abhorred me” (Zech. 11:8).
Where there is mutual enmity, there is mutual aversation, loathing, and
abomination. So it was between the Jews and the Samaritans—they were enemies
and abhorred one another (as John 4:9).
Secondly, opposition, or contending against one another, is the next product
of enmity. “He was turned to be their enemy, and he fought against them”
(Isa. 63:10), speaking of God toward the people. Where there is enmity, there
will be fighting; it is the proper and natural product of it. Now, both these
effects are found in this law of sin.
First, for aversation. There is an aversation in it unto God and everything
of God, as we have in part discovered in handling the enmity itself, and so
shall not need much to insist upon it again. All indisposition unto duty,
wherein communion with God is to be obtained; all weariness of duty; all carnality,
or formality unto duty—it all springs from this root. The wise man
cautions us against this evil: “Keep your foot when you go to the house of
God” (Eccles. 5:1)—“Have you any spiritual duty to perform, and do you
design the attaining of any communion with God? Look to yourself, take care
of your affections; they will be gadding37 and wandering, and that from their
aversation to what you have in hand.” There is not any good that we would
do wherein we may not find this aversation exercising itself. “When I would
do good, evil is present with me” [Rom. 7:21]—“At any time, at all times,
when I would do anything that is spiritually good, it is present—that is, to
hinder me, to obstruct me in my duty; because it abhors and loathes the thing
which I have in hand, it will keep me off from it if it be possible.” In them in
whom it prevails, it comes at length unto that frame which is expressed (Ezek.
36 categories
37 straggling, roving
33:31). It will allow an outward, bodily presence unto the worship of God,
wherein it is not concerned, but it keeps the heart quite away.
It may be [the case that] some will pretend they find it not so in themselves,
but they have freedom and liberty in and unto all the duties of obedience
that they attend unto. But I fear this pretended liberty will be found,
upon examination, to arise from one or both of these causes: First, ignorance
of the true state and condition of their own souls, of their inward man and
its actings toward God. They know not how it is with them, and therefore
are not to be believed in what they report. They are in the dark, and neither
know what they do, nor whither they are going. It is like the Pharisee [who]
knew little of this matter; which made him boast of his duties to God himself.
Or, secondly, it may be [the case that] whatever duties of worship or obedience
such persons perform, they may, through want of faith and an
interest38 in Christ, have no communion with them; and if so, sin will make
but little opposition unto them therein. We speak of them whose hearts are
exercised with these things. And if under their complaints of them, and groanings
for deliverance from them, others cry out unto them, “Stand off, we are
holier than you,” they are willing to bear their condition, as knowing that
their way may be safe, though it be troublesome; and being willing to see their
own dangers, that they may avoid the ruin which others fall into.
Let us, then, a little consider this aversation in such acts of obedience as
wherein there is no concern but that of God and the soul. In public duties
there may be a mixture of other considerations; they may be so influenced by
custom and necessity that a right judgment cannot from them be made of this
matter. But let us take into consideration the duties of retirement, as private
prayer and meditation, and the like; or else extraordinary duties, or duties to
be performed in an extraordinary manner.
In these will this aversation and loathing oftentimes discover itself in the
affections. A secret striving will be in them about close and cordial dealing
with God, unless the hand of God in his Spirit be high and strong upon his
soul. Even when convictions, sense of duty, dear and real esteem of God and
communion with him have carried the soul into its closet, yet if there be not
the vigor and power of a spiritual life constantly at work, there will be a secret
loathness39 in them unto duty; yea, sometimes there will be a violent inclination
to the contrary, so that the soul had rather do anything, embrace any
diversion, though it wound itself thereby, than vigorously apply itself unto
38 share or stake
39 unwillingness, reluctance
that which in the inward man it breathes after. It is weary before it begins,
and says, “When will the work be over?” Here God and the soul are immediately
concerned; and it is a great conquest to do what we would, though
we come exceedingly short of what we should do.
It discovers itself in the mind also. When we address ourselves to God in
Christ, we are, as Job speaks, to “fill our mouths with arguments” (Job 23:4),
that we may be able to plead with him, as he calls upon us to do: “Put me in
remembrance; let us plead together” (Isa. 43:26). Whence the church is called
upon to take unto itself words or arguments in going to God (Hos. 14:2). The
sum is that the mind should be furnished with the considerations that are prevailing
with God, and be in readiness to plead them, and to manage them in
the most spiritual manner, to the best advantage. Now, is there no difficulty
to get the mind into such a frame as to lay out itself to the utmost in this work;
to be clear, steady, and constant in its duty; to draw out and make use of its
stores and furniture40 of promises and experiences? It starts, wanders,
flags41—all from this secret aversation unto communion with God, which
proceeds from the law of indwelling sin. Some complain that they can make
no work of meditation—they cannot bend their minds unto it. I confess there
may be a great cause of this in their want of a right understanding of the duty
itself, and of the ways of managing the soul in it; which therefore I shall a little
speak to afterward: but yet this secret enmity has its hand in the loss they
are at also, and that both in their minds and in their affections. Others are
forced to live in family and public duties, they find such little benefit and success
in private. And here has been the beginning of the apostasy of many professors,
and the source of many foolish, sensual opinions. Finding this
aversation in their minds and affections from closeness and constancy in private
spiritual duties, not knowing how to conquer and prevail against these
difficulties through him who enables us, they have at first been subdued to a
neglect of them, first partial, then total, until, having lost all conscience of
them, they have had a door opened unto all sin and licentiousness, and so to
a full and utter apostasy. I am persuaded there are very few that apostatize
from a profession of any continuance, such as our days abound with, but their
door of entrance into the folly of backsliding was either some great and notorious
sin that bloodied their consciences, tainted their affections, and intercepted
all delight of having anything more to do with God; or else it was a
course of neglect in private duties, arising from a weariness of contending
40 equipment, weapons
41 declines in vigor or strength
against that powerful aversation which they found in themselves unto them.
And this also, through the craft of Satan, has been improved into many foolish
and sensual opinions of living unto God without and above any duties of
communion. And we find, that after men have for a while choked and blinded
their consciences with this pretense, cursed wickedness or sensuality has been
the end of their folly. And the reason of all this is that the giving way to the
law of sin in the least is the giving strength unto it. To let it alone is to let it
grow; not to conquer it is to be conquered by it.
As it is in respect of private, so it is also in respect of public duties that
have anything extraordinary in them. What strivings, strugglings, and pleadings
are there in the heart about them, especially against the spirituality of
them! Yea, in and under them, will not the mind and affections sometimes be
entangled with things uncouth, new, and strange unto them, such as, at the
time of the least serious business, a man would not deign42 to take into his
thoughts? But if the least loose,43 liberty, or advantage be given unto
indwelling sin, if it be not perpetually watched over, it will work to a strange
and unexpected issue.44 In brief, let the soul unclothe any duty whatsoever,
private or public, anything that is called good—let a man divest it of all outward
respects which secretly insinuate themselves into the mind and give it
some complacency in what it is about, but do not render it acceptable unto
God—and he shall assuredly find somewhat of the power and some of the
effects of this aversation. It begins in loathness and indisposition; goes on with
entangling the mind and affections with other things; and will end, if not prevented,
in weariness of God, which he complains of in his people (Isa. 43:22).
They ceased from duty because they were “weary of God.” But this instance
being of great importance unto professors in their walking with God, we must
not pass it over without some intimations of directions for them in their contending
against it and opposition to it. Only this must be premised, that I am
not giving directions for the mortifying of indwelling sin in general—which
is to be done alone by the Spirit of Christ, by virtue of our union with him
(Rom. 8:13)—but only of our particular duty with reference unto this special
evil or effect of indwelling sin that we have a little insisted on, or what in
this single case the wisdom of faith seems to direct unto and call for; which
will be our way and course in our process upon the consideration of other
effects of it.
42 condescend
43 lack of restraint
44 result, outcome
The great means to prevent the fruits and effects of this aversation is the
constant keeping of the soul in a universally holy frame. As this weakens the
whole law of sin, so answerably all its properties, and particularly this aversation.
It is this frame only that will enable us to say with the psalmist, “My
heart is fixed, O God, my heart is fixed” (Ps. 57:7). It is utterly impossible to
keep the heart in a prevailing holy frame in any one duty, unless it be so in
and unto all and every one. If sin-entanglements get hold in any one thing,
they will put themselves upon the soul in everything. A constant, even frame
and temper in all duties, in all ways, is the only preservative for any one way.
Let not him who is neglective in public persuade himself that all will be clear
and easy in private, or on the contrary. There is a harmony in obedience:
break but one part, and you interrupt the whole. Our wounds in particular
arise generally from negligence as to the whole course; so David informs us,
“Then shall I not be ashamed, when I have respect unto all thy commandments”
(Ps. 119:6). A universal respect to all God’s commandments is the
only preservative from shame; and nothing have we more reason to be
ashamed of than the shameful miscarriages of our hearts in point of duty,
which are from the principle before mentioned.
Labor to prevent the very beginnings of the workings of this aversation;
let grace be beforehand with it in every duty.We are directed to “watch unto
prayer” (1 Pet. 4:7); and as it is unto prayer, so unto every duty—that is, to
consider and take care that we be not hindered from within nor from without
as to a due performance of it. Watch against temptations, to oppose them;
watch against the aversation that is in sin, to prevent it. As we are not to give
place to Satan, no more are we to sin. If it be not prevented in its first
attempts, it will prevail. My meaning is: Whatever good, as the apostle
speaks, we have to do, and find evil present with us (as we shall find it
present), prevent its parleying45 with the soul, its insinuating of poison into
the mind and affections, by a vigorous, holy, violent stirring up of the grace
or graces that are to be acted46 and set at work peculiarly in that duty. Let
Jacob come first into the world; or, if prevented by the violence of Esau, let
him lay hold on his heel, to overthrow him and obtain the birthright [Gen.
25:26]. Upon the very first motion of Peter to our Savior, crying, “Master,
spare yourself,” he immediately replies, “Get you behind me, Satan” [Matt.
16:23]. So ought we to say, “Get you gone, you law of sin, you present evil,”
45 discussing (especially with an enemy)
46 activated
and it may be of the same use unto us. Get grace, then, up betimes47 unto duty,
and be early in the rebukes of sin.
Though it do its worst, yet be sure it never prevails to a conquest. Be
sure you be not wearied out by its pertinacity,48 nor driven from your hold
by its importunity49—do not faint by its opposition. Take the apostle’s
advice, “We desire that every one of you do show the same diligence to the
full assurance of hope unto the end: that you be not slothful” (Heb. 6:11-
12). Still hold out in the same diligence. There are many ways whereby men
are driven from a constant holy performance of duties, all of them dangerous,
if not pernicious to the soul. Some are diverted by business, some by
company, some by the power of temptations, some discouraged by their own
darkness; but none so dangerous as this, when the soul gives over in part or
in whole, as wearied by the aversation of sin unto it, or to communion with
God in it. This argues the soul’s giving up of itself unto the power of sin;
which, unless the Lord break the snare of Satan therein, will assuredly prove
ruinous. Our Savior’s instruction is that “we ought always to pray, and not
to faint” (Luke 18:1). Opposition will arise—none so bitter and keen as that
from our own hearts; if we faint, we perish. “Take heed lest you be wearied,”
says the apostle, “and faint in your minds” (Heb. 12:3). Such a fainting as
attended with a weariness, and that with a giving place to the aversation
working in our hearts, is to be avoided, if we would not perish. The caution
is the same with that of the same apostle, “Rejoicing in hope, patient in
tribulation, continuing instant50 in prayer” (Rom. 12:12); and in general,
“Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, that you should obey it in
the lusts thereof” (Rom. 6:12) To cease from duty, in part or in whole, upon
the aversation of sin unto its spirituality, is to give sin the rule, and to obey
it in the lusts thereof. Yield not, then, unto it, but hold out the conflict; wait
on God, and you shall prevail: “They that wait upon the LORD shall renew
their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and
not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint” (Isa. 40:31). But that which
is now so difficult will increase in difficulty if we give way unto it; but if we
abide in our station,51 we shall prevail. The mouth of the Lord has spoken
it [Isa. 40:5; 58:14; Mic. 4:4].
Carry about a constant, humbling sense of this close aversation unto spir-
47 early, in due time
48 obstinance, stubbornness
49 persistence
50 insistent, constant, faithful
51 position
itualness that yet lies in our nature. If men find the efficacy of it, what should,
what consideration can, be more powerful to bring them unto humble walking
with God? That after all the discoveries that God has made of himself
unto them, all the kindness they have received from him, his doing of them
good and not evil in all things, there should yet be such a heart of unkindness
and unbelief still abiding as to have an aversation lying in it to communion
with him—how ought the thoughts of it to cast us into the dust! to fill
us with shame and self-abhorrency all our days! What have we found in God,
in any of our approaches or addresses unto him, that it should be thus with
us? What iniquity have we found in him? Has he been a wilderness unto us,
or a land of darkness? Did we ever lose anything by drawing nigh52 unto him?
Nay, has not therein lain all the rest and peace which we have obtained? Is
not he the fountain and spring of all our mercies, of all our desirable things?
Has he not bid us welcome at our coming? Have we not received from him
more than heart can conceive or tongue express?
What ails, then, our foolish and wretched hearts, to harbor such a cursed
secret dislike of him and his ways? Let us be ashamed and astonished at the
consideration of it, and walk in a humbling sense of it all our days. Let us
carry it about with us in the most secret of our thoughts. And as this is a duty
in itself acceptable unto God, who delights to dwell with them that are of a
humble and contrite spirit [Isa. 57:15], so it is of exceeding efficacy to the
weakening of the evil we treat of.
Labor to possess the mind with the beauty and excellency of spiritual
things, so that they may be presented lovely and desirable to the soul; and
this cursed aversation of sin will be weakened thereby. It is an innate acknowledged
principle that the soul of man will not keep up cheerfully unto the worship
of God unless it has a discovery of a beauty and comeliness in it. Hence,
when men had lost all spiritual sense and savor of the things of God, to supply
the want that was in their own souls, they invented outwardly pompous
and gorgeous ways of worship, in images, paintings, pictures, and I know not
what carnal ornaments; which they have called “The beauties of holiness!”
[Ps. 110:3]. Thus much, however, was discovered therein, that the mind of
man must see a beauty, a desirableness in the things of God’s worship, or it
will not delight in it; aversation will prevail. Let, then, the soul labor to
acquaint itself with the spiritual beauty of obedience, of communion with
God, and of all duties of immediate approach to him, that it may be rifled53
52 near
53 disordered, ruffled
with delight in them. It is not my present work to discover the heads54 and
springs of that beauty and desirableness which is in spiritual duties, in their
relation to God, the eternal spring of all beauty—to Christ, the love, desire,
and hope of all nations—to the Spirit, the great beautifier of souls, rendering
them by his grace all glorious within; in their suitableness to the souls of men,
as to their actings toward their last end, in the rectitude and holiness of the
rule in attendance whereunto they are to be performed. But I only say at
present, in general, that to acquaint the soul thoroughly with these things is
an eminent way of weakening the aversation spoken of.

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