Sin Chapter 7

Overcoming Sin and Temptation by John Owen

The third thing assigned unto this law of sin in its opposition unto God and
the law of his grace is that it leads the soul captive: “I find a law leading me
captive” (captivating me) “unto the law of sin” (Rom. 7:23). And this is the
utmost height which the apostle in that place carries the opposition and warring
of the remainders of indwelling sin unto; closing the consideration of it
with a complaint of the state and condition of believers thereby, and an
earnest prayer for deliverance from it: “O wretched man that I am! who shall
deliver me from this body of death?” (v. 24). What is contained in this expression
and intended by it shall be declared in the ensuing observations.
It is not directly the power and actings of the law of sin that are here
expressed, but its success in and upon its actings. But success is the greatest
evidence of power, and leading captive in war is the height of success. None
can aim at greater success than to lead their enemies captive; and it is a peculiar
expression in the Scripture of great success. So the Lord Christ, on his
victory over Satan, is said to “lead captivity captive” (Eph. 4:8)—that is, to
conquer him who had conquered and prevailed upon others; and this he did
when “by death he destroyed him that had the power of death, that is, the
devil” (Heb. 2:14). Here, then, a great prevalency and power of sin in its warring
against the soul is discovered. It so wars as to “lead captive,” which, had
it not great power, it could not do, especially against that resistance of the soul
which is included in this expression.
It is said that it leads the soul captive “unto the law of sin”—not to this
or that sin, particular sin, actual sin, but to the “law of sin.” God, for the most
part, orders things so, and gives out such supplies of grace unto believers, as
that they shall not be made a prey unto this or that particular sin, that it
should prevail in them and compel them to serve it in the lusts thereof, that
it should have dominion over them, that they should be captives and slaves
unto it. This is that which David prays so earnestly against: “Cleanse me from
secret faults. Keep back your servant also from presumptuous sins; let them
not have dominion over me: then shall I be upright” (Ps. 19:12-13). He supposes
the continuance of the law of sin in him (v. 12), which will bring forth
errors of life and secret sins; against which he finds relief in pardoning and
cleansing mercy, which he prays for. “This,” says he, “will be my condition.
But for sins of pride and boldness, such as all sins are that get dominion in a
man, that make a captive of a man, the Lord restrain your servant from
them.” For whatsoever sin gets such power in a man, be it in its own nature
small or great, it becomes in him in whom it is a sin of boldness, pride, and
presumption; for these things are not reckoned from the nature or kind of the
sin, but from its prevalency and customariness, wherein its pride, boldness,
and contempt of God does consist. To the same purpose, if I mistake not,
prays Jabez: “Oh that you would bless me indeed, and enlarge my coast, and
that your hand might be with me, and that you would keep me from evil, that
it may not grieve me!” (1 Chron. 4:10). The holy man took occasion from
his own name to pray against sin, that that might not be a grief and sorrow
to him by its power and prevalency. I confess, sometimes it may come to this
with a believer, that for a season he may be led captive by some particular
sin; it may have so much prevalency in him as to have power over him. So it
seems to have been with David, when he lay so long in his sin without repentance;
and was plainly so with those in Isaiah 57:17-18: “For the iniquity of
his covetousness was I wroth68 and smote him: I hid me, and was wroth, and
he went on frowardly in the way of his heart. I have seen his ways and will
heal him.” They continued under the power of their covetousness, so that no
dealings of God with them, for so long a time, could reclaim them. But, for
the most part, when any lust or sin does so prevail, it is from the advantage
and furtherance that it has got by some powerful temptation of Satan. He has
poisoned it, inflamed it, and entangled the soul. So the apostle, speaking of
such as through sin were fallen off from their holiness, says, “They were in
the snare of the devil, being taken captive by him at his will” (2 Tim. 2:26).
Though it were their own lusts that they served, yet they were brought into
bondage thereunto by being entangled in some snare of Satan; and thence
they are said to be “taken alive,” as a poor beast in a toil.
And here, by the way, we may a little inquire, whether the prevailing
power of a particular sin in any be from itself, or from the influence of temptation
upon it; concerning which at present take only these two observations:
Much of the prevalency of sin upon the soul is certainly from Satan, when
the perplexing and captivating sin has no peculiar footing nor advantage in
the nature, constitution, or condition of the sinner. When any lust grows high
and prevailing more than others, upon its own account, it is from the peculiar
advantage that it has in the natural constitution, or the station or condition
of the person in the world; for otherwise the law of sin gives an equal
propensity unto all evil, an equal vigor unto every lust. When, therefore, it
cannot be discerned that the captivating sin is peculiarly fixed in the nature
of the sinner, or is advantaged from his education or employment in the
world, the prevalency of it is peculiarly from Satan. He has got to the root of
68 filled with wrath
it, and has given it poison and strength. Yea, perhaps, sometimes that which
may seem to the soul to be the corrupt lusting of the heart, is nothing but
Satan’s imposing his suggestions on the imagination. If, then, a man find an
importunate rage from any corruption that is not evidently seated in his
nature, let him, as the papists69 say, cross himself, or fly by faith to the cross
of Christ, for the devil is nigh at hand.
When a lust is prevalent unto captivity, where it brings in no advantage
to the flesh, it is from Satan. All that the law of sin does of itself is to serve
the providence of the flesh (Rom. 13:14); and it must bring in unto it somewhat
of the profits and pleasures that are its object. Now, if the prevailing sin
does not so act in itself, if it be more spiritual and inward, it is much from
Satan by the imagination, more than the corruption of the heart itself. But
[more on] this, by the way.
I say, then, that the apostle treats not here of our being captivated unto
this or that sin, but unto the law of sin; that is, we are compelled to bear its
presence and burden whether we will or no. Sometimes the soul thinks or
hopes that it may through grace be utterly freed from this troublesome
inmate. Upon some sweet enjoyment of God, some full supply of grace, some
return from wandering, some deep affliction, some thorough humiliation, the
poor soul begins to hope that it shall now be freed from the law of sin; but
after a while it perceives that it is quite otherwise. Sin acts again, makes good
its old station; and the soul finds that, whether it will or no, it must bear its
yoke. This makes it sigh and cry out for deliverance.
This leading captive argues a prevalency against the renitency70 or contrary
actings of the will. This is intimated plainly in this expression—namely,
that the will opposes and makes head[way], as it were, against the working
of sin. This the apostle declares in those expressions which he uses (Rom.
7:15, 19, 20). And herein consists the “lusting of the Spirit against the flesh”
(Gal. 5:17); that is, the contending of grace to expel and subdue it. The spiritual
habits of grace that are in the will do so resist and act against it; and the
excitation of those habits by the Spirit are directed to the same purpose. This
leading captive is contrary, I say, to the inclinations and actings of the
renewed will. No man is made a captive but against his will. Captivity is misery
and trouble, and no man willingly puts himself into trouble. Men choose
it in its causes, and in the ways and means leading unto it, but not in itself.
So the prophet informs us in Hosea 5:11, “Ephraim was,” not willingly,
69 negative label for Roman Catholics, relating to belief in papal supremacy; from the Latin papa (“pope”)
70 resistance, reluctance
“oppressed and broken in judgment”—that was his misery and trouble; but
he “willingly walked after the commandment” of the idolatrous kings, which
brought him thereunto. Whatever consent, then, the soul may give unto sin,
which is the means of this captivity, it gives none to the captivity itself; that
is against the will wholly. Hence these things ensue:
That the power of sin is great—which is that which we are in demonstration
of; and this appears in its prevalency unto captivity against the actings and
contendings of the will for liberty from it. Had it no opposition made unto it,
or were its adversary weak, negligent, slothful, it were no great evidence of its
power that it made captives; but its prevailing against diligence, activity, watchfulness,
the constant renitency of the will, this evinces its efficacy.
This leading captive intimates manifold particular successes. Had it not
success in particular, it could not be said at all to lead captive. Rebel it might,
assail it might; but it cannot be said to lead captive without some successes.
And there are several degrees of the success of the law of sin in the soul.
Sometimes it carries the person unto outward actual sin, which is its utmost
aim; sometimes it obtains the consent of the will, but is cast out by grace, and
proceeds no further; sometimes it wearies and entangles the soul, that it turns
aside, as it were, and leaves contending—which is a success also. One or
more, or all of these, must be where captivity takes place. Such a kind of
course does the apostle ascribe unto covetousness (1 Tim. 6:9-10).
This leading captive manifests this condition to be miserable and
wretched. To be thus yoked and dealt with, against the judgment of the mind,
the choice and consent of the will, its utmost strivings and contendings—how
sad is it! When the neck is sore and tender with former pressures, to be compelled
to bear the yoke again—this pierces, this grieves, this even breaks the
heart. When the soul is principled by grace unto a loathing of sin, of every
evil way, to a hatred of the least discrepancy between itself and the holy will
of God, then to be imposed on by this law of sin, with all that enmity and
folly, that deadness and filth wherewith it is attended, what more dreadful
condition? All captivity is dreadful in its own nature. The greatest aggravation
of it is from the condition of the tyrant unto whom anyone is captivated.
Now, what can be worse than this law of sin? Hence the apostle, having once
mentioned this captivity, cries out, as one quite weary and ready to faint
(Rom. 7:24).
This condition is peculiar to believers. Unregenerate men are not said to
be led captive to the law of sin. They may, indeed, be led captive unto this or
that particular sin or corruption—that is, they may be forced to serve it
against the power of their convictions. They are convinced of the evil of it—
an adulterer of his uncleanness, a drunkard of his abomination—and make
some resolutions, it may be, against it; but their lust is too hard for them, they
cannot cease to sin, and so are made captives or slaves to this or that particular
sin. But they cannot be said to be led captive to the law of sin, and that
because they are willingly subject thereunto. It has, as it were, a rightful
dominion over them, and they oppose it not, but only when it has eruptions
to the disturbance of their consciences; and then the opposition they make
unto it is not from their wills, but is the mere acting of an affrighted conscience
and a convinced mind. They regard not the nature of sin, but its guilt
and consequences. But to be brought into captivity is that which befalls a man
against his will; which is all that shall be spoken unto this degree of the actings
of the power of sin, manifesting itself in its success.
The fourth and last degree of the opposition made by the law of sin to
God and the law of his will and grace is in its rage and madness. There is madness
in its nature: “The heart of the sons of men is full of evil, and madness is
in their heart” (Eccles. 9:3). The evil that the heart of man is full of by nature
is that indwelling sin whereof we speak; and this is so in their heart, that it
rises up unto madness. The Holy Ghost expresses this rage of sin by a fit similitude,
which he uses in sundry places (as Jer. 2:24; Hos. 8:9). It makes men as
“a wild ass”; “she traverses her ways,” and “snuffs up the wind,” and runs
whither her mind or lust leads her. And he says of idolaters, enraged with their
lusts, that they are “mad upon their idols” (Jer. 50:38). We may a little consider
what lies in this madness and rage of sin, and how it rises up thereunto:
For the nature of it; it seems to consist in a violent, heady, pertinacious
pressing unto evil or sin. Violence, importunity, and pertinacy are in it. It is
the tearing and torturing of the soul by any sin to force its consent and to
obtain satisfaction. It rises up in the heart, is denied by the law of grace, and
rebuked—it returns and exerts its poison again; the soul is startled, casts it
off—it returns again with new violence and importunity; the soul cries out
for help and deliverance, looks round about to all springs of gospel grace and
relief, trembles at the furious assaults of sin, and casts itself into the arms of
Christ for deliverance. And if it be not able to take that course, it is foiled and
hurried up and down through the mire and filth of foolish imaginations, corrupt
and noisome71 lusts, which rend and tear it, as if they would devour its
whole spiritual life and power (see 1 Tim. 6:9-10; 2 Pet. 2:14). It was not
much otherwise with them whom we instanced in before (Isa. 57:17). They
had an inflamed, enraged lust working in them, even “covetousness,” or the
71 dangerous, offensive, foul
love of this world; by which, as the apostle speaks, men “pierce themselves
through with many sorrows” [1 Tim. 6:10]. God is angry with them, and discovers
his wrath by all the ways and means that it was possible for them to
be made sensible thereof. He was “wroth and smote them”; but [even]
though, it may be, this staggered them a little, yet they “went on.” He is angry
and “hides himself” from them—deserts them as to his gracious, assisting,
comforting presence. Does this work the effect? No; they go on frowardly
still, as men mad on their covetousness. Nothing can put a stop to their raging
lusts. This is plain madness and fury. We need not seek far for instances.
We see men mad on their lusts every day; and, which is the worst kind of madness,
their lusts do not rage so much in them, as they rage in the pursuit of
them. Are those greedy pursuits of things in the world, which we see some
men engaged in, though they have other pretenses, indeed anything else but
plain madness in the pursuit of their lusts? God, who searches the hearts of
men, knows that the most of things that are done with other pretenses in the
world are nothing but the actings of men mad and furious in the pursuit of
their lusts.
That sin arises not unto this height ordinarily, but when it has got a double
That it be provoked, enraged, and heightened by some great temptation.
Though it be a poison in itself, yet, being inbred in nature, it grows not violently
outrageous without the contribution of some new poison of Satan unto
it, in a suitable temptation. It was the advantage that Satan got against David,
by a suitable temptation, that raised his lust to that rage and madness which
it went forth unto in the business of Bathsheba and Uriah. Though sin be
always a fire in the bones, yet it flames not unless Satan come with his bellows72
to blow it up. And let anyone in whom the law of sin arises to this
height of rage seriously consider, and he may find out where the devil stands
and puts in in the business.
It must be advantaged by some former entertainment and prevalency. Sin
grows not to this height at its first assault. Had it not been suffered to make
its entrance, had there not been some yielding in the soul, this had not come
about. The great wisdom and security of the soul in dealing with indwelling
sin is to put a violent stop unto its beginnings, its first motions and actings.
Venture all on the first attempt. Die rather than yield one step unto it. If,
through the deceit of sin, or the negligence of the soul, or its carnal confidence
to give bounds to lust’s actings at other seasons, it makes any entrance into
72 blacksmith’s device for blowing air into fire
the soul, and finds any entertainment, it gets strength and power, and insensibly
arises to the frame under consideration. You had never had the experience
of the fury of sin, if you had not been content with some of its dalliances.
Had you not brought up this servant, this slave, delicately, it would not have
now presumed beyond a son. Now, when the law of sin in any particular has
got this double advantage—the furtherance of a vigorous temptation, and
some prevalency formerly obtained, whereby it is let into the strengths of the
soul—it often rises up to this frame whereof we speak.
We may see what accompanies this rage and madness, what are the properties
of it, and what effects it produces—
There is in it the casting off, for a time at least, of the yoke, rule, and government
of the Spirit and law of grace. Where grace has the dominion, it will
never utterly be expelled from its throne, it will still keep its right and
sovereignty; but its influences may for a season be intercepted, and its government
be suspended, by the power of sin. Can we think that the law of
grace had any actual influence of rule on the heart of David, when, upon the
provocation received from Nabal, he was so hurried with the desire of selfrevenge
that he cried, “Gird on your swords,” to his companions, and
resolved not to leave alive one man of his whole household? (1 Sam. 25:34);
or that Asa was in any better frame when he smote the prophet and put him
in prison that spoke unto him in the name of the Lord [2 Chron. 16:10]? Sin
in this case is like an untamed horse, which, having first cast off his rider, runs
away with fierceness and rage. It first casts off a present sense of the yoke of
Christ and the law of his grace, and then hurries the soul at its pleasure.
Let us a little consider how this is done. The seat and residence of grace
is in the whole soul. It is in the inner man; it is in the mind, the will, and the
affections: for the whole soul is renewed by it into the image of God (Eph.
4:23-24), and the whole man is a “new creature” (2 Cor. 5:17). And in all
these does it exert its power and efficacy. Its rule or dominion is the pursuit
of its effectual working in all the faculties of the soul, as they are one united
principle of moral and spiritual operations. So, then, the interrupting of its
exercise, of its rule and power, by the law of sin, must consist in its contrary
acting in and upon the faculties and affections of the soul, whereon and by
which grace should exert its power and efficacy. And this it does. It darkens
the mind; partly through innumerable vain prejudices and false reasonings,
as we shall see when we come to consider its deceitfulness; and partly
through the steaming of the affections, heated with the noisome lusts that
have laid hold on them. Hence that saving light that is in the mind is clouded
and stifled, that it cannot put forth its transforming power to change the soul
into the likeness of Christ discovered unto it, which is its proper work (Rom.
12:2). The habitual inclination of the will to obedience, which is the next way
of the working of the law of grace, is first weakened, then cast aside and rendered
useless, by the continual solicitations of sin and temptation; so that the
will first lets go its hold, and disputes whether it shall yield or no, and at last
gives up itself to its adversary. And for the affections, commonly the beginning
of this evil is in them. They cross one another, and torture the soul with
their impetuous73 violence. By this way is the rule of the law of grace intercepted
by the law of sin, even by imposing upon it in the whole seat of its
When this is done, it is sad work that sin will make in the soul. The apostle
warns believers to take heed hereof, “Let not sin therefore reign in your
mortal body, that you should obey it in the lusts thereof” (Rom. 6:12). Look
to it that it get not the dominion, that it usurp not rule, no, not for a moment.
It will labor to intrude itself unto the throne; watch against it, or a woeful
state and condition lies at the door. This, then, accompanies this rage and
madness of the law of sin: It casts off, during its prevalency, the rule of the
law of grace wholly; it speaks in the soul, but is not heard; it commands the
contrary, but is not obeyed; it cries out, “Do not this abominable thing which
the Lord hates,” but is not regarded—that is, not so far as to be able to put
a present stop to the rage of sin, and to recover its own rule, which God in
his own time restores to it by the power of his Spirit dwelling in us.
Madness or rage is accompanied with fearlessness and contempt of danger.
It takes away the power of consideration and all that influence that it
ought to have upon the soul. Hence sinners that are wholly under the power
of this rage are said to “run upon God and the thick bosses74 of his buckler”75
(Job 15:26)—that wherein he is armed for their utter ruin. They despise the
utmost that he can do to them, being secretly resolved to accomplish their
lusts, though it cost them their souls. Some few considerations will further
clear this unto us—
Oftentimes, when the soul is broken loose from the power of renewing
grace, God deals with it, to keep it within bounds, by preventing grace.76 So
the Lord declares that he will deal with Israel—“Seeing you have rejected me,
I will take another course with you. I will lay obstacles before you that you
shall not be able to pass on whither the fury of your lusts would drive you”
73 vehement; impulsive
74 the projecting parts of a small, handheld shield; i.e., a strong, imposing defense
75 a small, handheld shield
76 a special grace that, preceding human willing, protects against further sinning
(Hos. 2:6). He will propose that to them from without that shall obstruct
them in their progress.
These hindrances that God lays in the way of sinners, as shall be afterward
at large declared, are of two sorts—
Rational considerations, taken from the consequence of the sin and evil
that the soul is solicited unto and perplexed with. Such are the fear of death,
judgment, and hell—falling into the hands of the living God, who is a consuming
fire. While a man is under the power of the law of the Spirit of life,
the “love of Christ constrains him” (2 Cor. 5:14). The principle of his doing
good and abstaining from evil is faith working by love, accompanied with
a following of Christ because of the sweet savor of his name. But now, when
this blessed, easy yoke is for a season cast off, so as was manifested before,
God sets a hedge of terror before the soul, minds it of death and judgment
to come, flashes the flames of hell-fire in the face, fills the soul with consideration
of all the evil consequence of sin, to deter it from its purpose. To
this end does he make use of all threatenings recorded in the law and gospel.
To this head also may be referred all the considerations that may be taken
from things temporal, as shame, reproach, scandal, punishments, and the
like. By the consideration of these things, I say, does God set a hedge before
Providential dispensations77 are used by the Lord to the same purpose,
and these are of two sorts—
Such as are suited to work upon the soul, and to cause it to desist and
give over in its lustings and pursuit of sin. Such are afflictions and mercies:
“I was wroth, and I smote them” (Isa. 57:17)—“I testified my dislike of their
ways by afflictions” (so Hos. 2:9, 11, 12). God chastens men with pains on
their bodies; says he in Job, “to turn them from their purpose and to hide sin
from them” (Job 33:17-19). And other ways he has to come to them and
touch them, as in their names, relations, estates, and desirable things; or else
he heaps mercies on them, that they may consider whom they are rebelling
against. It may be [that] signal78 distinguishing mercies are made their portion
for many days.
Such as actually hinder the soul from pursuing sin, though it be resolved
so to do. The various ways whereby God does this we must afterward consider.
These are the ways, I say, whereby the soul is dealt with, after the law
of indwelling sin has cast off for a season the influencing power of the law of
77 provisions, orderings
78 significant, remarkable, out of the ordinary
grace. But now, when lust rises up to rage or madness, it will also contemn79
all these, even the rod, and him that has appointed it. It will rush on shame,
reproaches, wrath, and whatever may befall it; that is, though they be presented
unto it, it will venture upon them all. Rage and madness is fearless.
And this it does two ways—
It possesses the mind, that it suffers not the consideration of these things
to dwell upon it, but renders the thoughts of them slight and evanid80; or if
the mind do force itself to a contemplation of them, yet it interposes between
it and the affections, that they shall not be influenced by it in any proportion
to what is required. The soul in such a condition will be able to take such
things into contemplation, and not at all to be moved by them; and where
they do prevail for a season, yet they are insensibly wrought off from the heart
By secret stubborn resolves to venture all upon the way wherein it is. And
this is the second branch of this evidence of the power of sin, taken from the
opposition that it makes to the law of grace, as it were by the way of force,
strength, and violence. The consideration of its deceit does now follow.

79 have contempt for, scorn, disdain
80 evanescent, liable to vanish

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