Sin Chapter 9

Overcoming Sin and Temptation by John Owen

How sin by its deceit endeavors to draw off the mind from attending unto
that holy frame in walking with God wherein the soul ought to be preserved,
has been declared; proceed we now to show how it does the same work in
reference unto those special duties by which the designs, workings, and prevalency
of it may in a special manner be obviated and prevented.
Sin, indeed, maintains an enmity against all duties of obedience, or rather
with God in them. “When I would do good,” says the apostle, “evil is present
with me” [Rom. 7:21]—“Whenever I would do good, or whatsoever
good I would do (that is, spiritually good, good in reference unto God), it is
present with me to hinder me from it, to oppose me in it.” And, on the other
side, all duties of obedience do lie directly against the actings of the law of
sin; for as the flesh in all its actings lusts against the Spirit, so the Spirit in all
its actings lusts against the flesh. And therefore every duty performed in the
strength and grace of the Spirit is contrary to the law of sin: “If you through
the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the flesh” (Rom. 8:13). Actings of the Spirit
of grace in duties does this work. These two are contrary. But yet there are
some duties which, in their own nature and by God’s appointment, have a
peculiar influence into the weakening and subduing the whole law of sin in
its very principles and chief strengths; and these the mind of a believer ought
principally in his whole course to attend unto; and these does sin in its deceit
endeavor principally to draw off the mind from. As in diseases of the body,
some remedies, they say, have a specific quality against distempers; so, in this
disease of the soul, there are some duties that have a special virtue against this
sinful distemper. I shall not insist on many of them, but instance only in two,
which seem to me to be of this nature—namely, that by God’s designation
they have a special tendency toward the ruin of the law of sin. And then we
shall show the ways, methods, and means which the law of sin uses to divert
the mind from a due attendance unto them. Now, these duties are—first,
prayer, especially private prayer; and, secondly, meditation. I put them
together because they much agree in their general nature and end, differing
only in the manner of their performance; for by meditation I intend meditating
upon what respect and suitableness there is between the word and our
own hearts, to this end, that they may be brought to a more exact conformity.
It is our pondering on the truth as it is in Jesus, to find out the image
and representation of it in our own hearts; and so it has the same intent with
prayer, which is to bring our souls into a frame in all things answering the
mind and will of God. They are as the blood and spirits in the veins that have
the same life, motion, and use. But yet, because persons are generally at a
great loss in this duty of meditation, having declared it to be of so great efficacy
for the controlling of the actings of the law of sin, I shall in our passage
give briefly two or three rules for the directing of believers to a right performance
of this great duty, and they are these:
Meditate of God with God; that is, when we would undertake thoughts
and meditations of God, his excellencies, his properties, his glory, his majesty,
his love, his goodness, let it be done in a way of speaking unto God, in a deep
humiliation and abasement of our souls before him. This will fix the mind,
and draw it forth from one thing to another, to give glory unto God in a due
manner, and affect the soul until it be brought into that holy admiration of
God and delight in him which is acceptable unto him. My meaning is that it
be done in a way of prayer and praise—speaking unto God.
Meditate on the word in the word; that is, in the reading of it, consider
the sense in the particular passages we insist upon, looking to God for help,
guidance, and direction, in the discovery of his mind and will therein, and
then labor to have our hearts affected with it.
What we come short of in evenness and constancy in our thoughts in
these things, let it be made up in frequency. Some are discouraged because
their minds do not regularly supply them with thoughts to carry on their meditations,
through the weakness or imperfection of their inventions. Let this be
supplied by frequent returns of the mind unto the subject proposed to be meditated
upon, whereby new senses will still be supplied unto it. But this by the
These duties, I say, among others (for we have only chosen them for an
instance, not excluding some others from the same place, office, and usefulness
with them), do make a special opposition to the very being and life of
indwelling sin, or rather faith in them does so. They are perpetually designing
its utter ruin. I shall, therefore, upon this instance, in the pursuit of our
present purpose, do these two things: (1) show the suitableness and useful-
ness of this duty, or these duties (as I shall handle them jointly), unto the ruining
of sin; (2) show the means whereby the deceitfulness of sin endeavors to
draw off the mind from a due attendance unto them.
For the first, observe:
That it is the proper work of the soul, in this duty, to consider all the
secret workings and actings of sin, what advantages it has got, what temptations
it is in conjunction with, what harm it has already done, and what it is
yet further ready to do. Hence David gives that title unto one of his prayers:
“A prayer of the afflicted, when he is overwhelmed, and pours out his complaint
before the LORD” (Psalm 102). I speak of that prayer which is attended
with a due consideration of all the wants, straits,96 and emergencies of the
soul. Without this, prayer is not prayer; that is, whatever show or appearance
of that duty it has, it is no way useful, either to the glory of God or the
good of the souls of men. A cloud it is without water, driven by the wind of
the breath of men. Nor was there ever any more present and effectual poison
for souls found out than the binding of them unto a constant form and usage
of I know not what words in their prayers and supplications, which themselves
do not understand. Bind men so in their trades or in their businesses in
this world, and they will quickly find the effect of it. By this means are they
disenabled from any due consideration of what at present is good for them
or evil unto them; without which, to what use can prayer serve, but to mock
God and delude men’s own souls? But in this kind of prayer which we insist
on, the Spirit of God falls in to give us his assistance, and that in this very
matter of finding out and discovering the most secret actings and workings
of the law of sin: “We know not what we should pray for as we ought, but
he helps our infirmities” (Rom. 8:26); he discovers97 our wants unto us, and
wherein chiefly we stand in need of help and relief. And we find it by daily
experience, that in prayer believers are led into such discoveries and convictions
of the secret deceitful work of sin in their hearts, as no considerations
could ever have led them into. So David, in Psalm 51, designing the confession
of his actual sin, having his wound in his prayer searched by the skillful
hand of the Spirit of God, he had a discovery made unto him of the root of
all his miscarriages, in his original corruption (v. 5). The Spirit in this duty is
as the candle of the Lord unto the soul, enabling it to search all the inward
parts of the belly. It gives a holy, spiritual light into the mind, enabling it to
search the deep and dark recesses of the heart, to find out the subtle and
96 difficulties, distresses
97 reveals, demonstrates
deceitful machinations,98 figments, and imaginations of the law of sin therein.
Whatever notion there be of it, whatever power and prevalency in it, it is laid
hand on, apprehended, brought into the presence of God, judged, condemned,
bewailed. And what can possibly be more effectual for its ruin and
destruction? For, together with its discovery, application is made unto all that
relief which in Jesus Christ is provided against it, all ways and means whereby
it may be ruined. Hence, it is the duty of the mind to “watch unto prayer”
(1 Pet. 4:7), to attend diligently unto the estate of our souls, and to deal
fervently and effectually with God about it. The like also may be said of meditation,
wisely managed unto its proper end.
In this duty there is wrought upon the heart a deep, full sense of the vileness
of sin, with a constant renewed detestation of it; which, if anything,
undoubtedly tends to its ruin. This is one design of prayer, one end of the soul
in it—namely, to draw forth sin, to set it in order, to present it unto itself in
its vileness, abomination, and aggravating circumstances, that it may be
loathed, abhorred, and cast away as a filthy thing (as Isa. 30:22). He that
pleads with God for sin’s remission, pleads also with his own heart for its
detestation (Hos. 14:3). Herein, also, sin is judged in the name of God; for
the soul in its confession subscribes unto God’s detestation of it and the sentence
of his law against it. There is, indeed, a course of these duties which
convinced persons do give up themselves unto as a mere covert99 to their lusts;
they cannot sin quietly unless they perform duty constantly. But that prayer
we speak of is a thing of another nature, a thing that will allow no composition
with sin, much less will serve the ends of the deceit of it, as the other, formal
prayer, does. It will not be bribed into a secret compliance with any of
the enemies of God or the soul—no, not for a moment. And hence it is that
oftentimes in this duty the heart is raised to the most sincere, effectual sense
of sin and detestation of it that the soul ever obtains in its whole course of
obedience. And this evidently tends also to the weakening and ruin of the law
of sin.
This is the way appointed and blessed of God to obtain strength and
power against sin: “Does any man lack? Let him ask of God” (James 1:5).
Prayer is the way of obtaining from God by Christ a supply of all our wants,
assistance against all opposition, especially that which is made against us by
sin. This, I suppose, need not be insisted on; it is, in the notion and practice,
98 plottings, schemings, cunning designs
99 shelter
clear to every believer. It is that wherein we call, and upon which the Lord Jesus
comes in to our succor100 with suitable “help in time of need” (Heb. 4:16).
Faith in prayer countermines101 all the workings of the deceit of sin; and
that because the soul does therein constantly engage itself unto God to oppose
all sin whatsoever: “I have sworn, and I will perform it, that I will keep your
righteous judgments” (Ps. 119:106). This is the language of every gracious
soul in its addresses unto God: the inmost parts thereof engage themselves to
God, to cleave to him in all things and to oppose sin in all things. He that
cannot do this cannot pray. To pray with any other frame is to flatter God
with our lips, which he abhors. And this exceedingly helps a believer in pursuing
sin unto its ruin; for—
If there be any secret lust that lies lurking in the heart, he will find it either
rising up against this engagement, or using its artifices102 to secure itself from
it. And hereby it is discovered, and the conviction of the heart concerning its
evil furthered and strengthened. Sin makes the most certain discovery of itself;
and never more evidently than when it is most severely pursued. Lusts in men
are compared to hurtful and noisome beasts; or men themselves are so
because of their lusts (Isa. 11:4-6). Now, such beasts use themselves to their
dens and coverts, and never discover themselves, at least so much in their
proper nature and rage, as when they are most earnestly pursued. And so it
is with sin and corruption in the heart.
If any sin be prevalent in the soul, it will weaken it and take it off from
the universality of this engagement unto God; it will breed a tergiversation103
unto it, a slightness in it. Now, when this is observed, it will exceedingly
awaken a gracious soul, and stir it up to look about it. As spontaneous lassitude,
104 or a causeless weariness and indisposition of the body, is looked on
as the sign of an approaching fever or some dangerous distemper, which stirs
up men to use a timely and vigorous prevention, that they be not seized upon
by it, so is it in this case. When the soul of a believer finds in itself an indisposition
to make fervent, sincere engagements of universal holiness unto God,
it knows that there is some prevalent distemper in it, finds the place of it, and
sets itself against it.
While the soul can thus constantly engage itself unto God, it is certain
that sin can rise unto no ruinous prevalency. Yea, it is a conquest over sin, a
100 assistance, relief
101 counterplots
102 trickeries
103 equivocation, falsification by vague or ambiguous language
104 listlessness, lethargy
most considerable conquest, when the soul does fully and clearly, without any
secret reserve, come off with alacrity105 and resolution in such an engagement
(as Ps. 18:23). And it may upon such a success triumph in the grace of God,
and have good hope, through faith, that it shall have a final conquest, and
what it so resolves shall be done; that it has decreed a thing, and it shall be
established. And this tends to the disappointment, yea, to the ruin of the law
of sin.
If the heart be not deceived by cursed hypocrisy, this engagement unto
God will greatly influence it unto a peculiar diligence and watchfulness
against all sin. There is no greater evidence of hypocrisy than to have the heart
like the whorish woman to say, “‘I have paid my vows,’ now I may take
myself unto my sin” (Prov. 7:14); or to be negligent about sin, as being satisfied
that it has prayed against it. It is otherwise in a gracious soul. Sense and
conscience of engagements against sin made to God do make it universally
watchful against all its motions and operations. On these and sundry other
accounts does faith in this duty exert itself peculiarly to the weakening of the
power and stopping of the progress of the law of sin. If, then, the mind be
diligent in its watch and charge to preserve the soul from the efficacy of sin,
it will carefully attend unto this duty and the due performance of it, which is
of such singular advantage unto its end and purpose. Here, therefore—
Sin puts forth its deceit in its own defense. It labors to divert and draw
off the mind from attending unto this and the like duties. And there are,
among others, three engines, three ways and means, whereby it attempts the
accomplishment of its design:
It makes advantage of its weariness unto the flesh. There is an aversation,
as has been declared, in the law of sin unto all immediate communion
with God. Now this duty is such. There is nothing [that] accompanies it
whereby the carnal part of the soul may be gratified or satisfied, as there may
be somewhat of that nature in most public duties, in most that a man can do
beyond pure acts of faith and love. No relief or advantage, then, coming in
by it but what is purely spiritual, it becomes wearisome, burdensome to flesh
and blood. It is like traveling alone without companion or diversion, which
makes the way seem long, but brings the passenger with most speed to his
journey’s end. So our Savior declares, when, expecting his disciples, according
to their duty and present distress, should have been engaged in this work,
he found them fast asleep: “The spirit,” says he, “indeed is willing, but the
flesh is weak” (Matt. 26:41); and out of that weakness grow their indisposi-
105 eagerness, liveliness, speed
tion unto and weariness of their duty. So God complains of his people: “You
have been weary of me” (Isa. 43:22). And it may come at length unto that
height which is mentioned, “You have said, Behold, what a weariness is it!
And you have snuffed at it, says the LORD of hosts” (Mal. 1:13). The Jews
suppose that it was the language of men when they brought their offerings
or sacrifices on their shoulders, which they pretended wearied them, and they
panted and blew as men ready to faint under them, when they brought only
the torn, and the lame, and the sick. But so is this duty oftentimes to the flesh.
And this the deceitfulness of sin makes use of to draw the heart by insensible106
degrees from a constant attendance unto it. It puts in for the relief of
the weak and weary flesh. There is a compliance between spiritual flesh and
natural flesh in this matter—they help one another; and an aversation unto
this duty is the effect of their compliance. So it was in the spouse (Song 5:2,
8). She was asleep, drowsing in her spiritual condition, and pleads her natural
unfitness to rouse herself from that state. If the mind be not diligently
watchful to prevent insinuations from hence—if it dwell not constantly on
those considerations which evidence an attendance unto this duty to be indispensable—
if it stir not up the principle of grace in the heart to retain its rule
and sovereignty, and not to be dallied with by foolish pretenses—it will be
drawn off; which is the effect aimed at.
The deceitfulness of sin makes use of corrupt reasonings, taken from the
pressing and urging occasions of life. “Should we,” says it in the heart,
“attend strictly unto all duties in this kind, we should neglect our principal
occasions, and be useless unto ourselves and others in the world.” And on
this general account, particular businesses dispossess particular duties from
their due place and time. Men have not leisure to glorify God and save their
own souls. It is certain that God gives us time enough for all that he requires
of us in any kind in this world. No duties need to jostle one another, I mean
constantly. Special occasions must be determined according unto special circumstances.
But if in anything we take more upon us than we have time well
to perform it in, without robbing God of that which is due to him and our
own souls, this God calls not unto, this he blesses us not in. It is more tolerable
that our duties of holiness and regard to God should entrench upon the
duties of our callings and employments in this world than on the contrary;
and yet neither does God require this at our hands, in an ordinary manner or
course. How little, then, will he bear with that which evidently is so much
worse upon all accounts whatsoever! But yet, through the deceitfulness of sin,
106 imperceptible
thus are the souls of men beguiled. By several degrees they are at length driven
from their duty.
It deals with the mind, to draw it off from its attendance unto this duty,
by a tender of a compensation to be made in and by other duties; as Saul
thought to compensate his disobedience by sacrifice [1 Sam. 13:8-9]. “May
not the same duty performed in public or in the family suffice?” And if the
soul be so foolish as not to answer, “Those things ought to be done, and this
not to be left undone” [Matt. 23:23], it may be ensnared and deceived. For,
besides a command unto it, namely, that we should personally “watch unto
prayer,” there are, as has been declared, sundry advantages in this duty so performed
against the deceit and efficacy of sin, which in the more public attendance
unto it, it has not. These [duties] sin strives to deprive the soul of by
this commutation,107 which by its corrupt reasonings it tenders unto it.
I may add here that which has place in all the workings of sin by deceit—
namely, its feeding the soul with promises and purposes of a more diligent
attendance unto this duty when occasions will permit. By this means it brings
the soul to say unto its convictions of duty, as Felix did to Paul, “Go your
way for this time; when I have a convenient season, I will call for you” [Acts
24:25]. And by this means oftentimes the present season and time, which
alone is ours, is lost irrecoverably. These are some of the ways and means
whereby the deceit of sin endeavors to draw off the mind from its due attendance
unto this duty, which is so peculiarly suited to prevent its progress and
prevalency, and which aims so directly and immediately at its ruin. I might
instance also in other duties of the like tendency; but this may suffice to discover
the nature of this part of the deceit of sin. And this is the first way
whereby it makes way for the further entangling of the affections and the conception
of sin. When sin has wrought this effect on anyone, he is said to be
“drawn away,” to be diverted from what in his mind he ought constantly to
attend unto in his walking before the Lord. And this will instruct us to see
and discern where lies the beginning of our declensions108 and failings in the
ways of God, and that either as to our general course or as to our attendance
unto special duties. And this is of great importance and concern unto us.
When the beginnings and occasions of a sickness or distemper of body are
known, it is a great advantage to direct in and unto the cure of it. God, to
recall Zion to himself, shows her where was the “beginning of her sin” (Mic.
1:13). Now, this is that which for the most part is the beginning of sin unto
107 substitution, exchange
108 moral decline
us, even the drawing off the mind from a due attendance in all things unto
the discharge of its duty. The principal care and charge of the soul lies on the
mind; and if that fail of its duty, the whole is betrayed, either as unto its general
frame or as unto particular miscarriages. The failing of the mind is like
the failing of the watchman in Ezekiel [33:6]; the whole is lost by his neglect.
This, therefore, in that self-scrutiny and search which we are called unto, we
are most diligently to inquire after. God does not look at what duties we perform,
as to their number and tale, or as to their nature merely, but whether
we do them with that intension of mind and spirit which he requires. Many
men perform duties in a road or course, and do not, as it were, so much as
think of them; their minds are filled with other things, only duty takes up so
much of their time. This is but an endeavor to mock God and deceive their
own souls. Would you, therefore, take the true measure of yourselves, consider
how it is with you as to the duty of your minds which we have inquired
after. Consider whether, by any of the deceits mentioned, you have not been
diverted and drawn away; and if there be any decays upon you in any kind,
you will find that there has been the beginning of them. By one way or other
your minds have been made heedless, regardless, slothful, uncertain, being
beguiled and drawn off from their duty. Consider the charge (Prov. 4:23, 25-
27). May not such a soul say, “If I had attended more diligently; if I had considered
more wisely the vile nature of sin; if [I] had not suffered my mind to
be possessed with vain hopes and foolish imaginations, by a cursed abuse of
gospel grace; if I had not permitted it to be filled with the things of the world,
and to become negligent in attending unto special duties—I had not at this
day been thus sick, weak, thriftless, wounded, decayed, defiled. My careless,
my deceived mind, has been the beginning of sin and transgression unto my
soul.” And this discovery will direct the soul unto a suitable way for its healing
and recovery; which will never be effected by a multiplying of particular
duties, but by a restoring of the mind (Ps. 23:3).
And this, also, does hence appear to be the great means of preserving our
souls, both as unto their general frame and particular duties, according to the
mind and will of God—namely, to endeavor after a sound and steadfast mind.
It is a signal grace to have “the spirit of power, and of love, and of a sound
mind” (2 Tim. 1:7)—a stable, solid, resolved mind in the things of God, not
easily moved, diverted, changed, not drawn aside; a mind not apt to hearken
after corrupt reasonings, vain insinuations, or pretenses to draw it off from
its duty. This is that which the apostle exhorts believers unto: “Therefore, my
beloved brethren, be steadfast, unmovable, always abounding in the work of
the Lord” (1 Cor. 15:58). The steadfastness of our minds abiding in their duty
is the cause of all our unmovableness and fruitfulness in obedience; and so
Peter tells us that those who are by any means led away or enticed “fall from
their own steadfastness” (2 Pet. 3:17). And the great blame that is laid upon
backsliders is that they are not steadfast: “Their heart was not steadfast” (Ps.
78:37). For if the soul be safe, unless the mind be drawn off from its duty, the
soundness and steadfastness of the mind is its great preservative. And there
are three parts of this steadfastness of the mind: (1) full purpose of cleaving
to God in all things; (2) a daily renovation and quickening of the heart unto
a discharge of this purpose; (3) resolutions against all dalliances or parleys
about negligences in that discharge—which are not here to be spoken unto.


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