Sin Chapter 12

Overcoming Sin and Temptation by John Owen

The third success of the deceit of sin in its progressive work is the conception
of actual sin. When it has drawn the mind off from its duty and entangled
the affections, it proceeds to conceive sin in order to the bringing of it forth:
“Then when lust has conceived, it brings forth sin” [James 1:15]. Now, the
conception of sin, in order unto its perpetration, can be nothing but the consent
of the will; for as without the consent of the will sin cannot be committed,
so where the will has consented unto it, there is nothing in the soul to
hinder its actual accomplishment. God does, indeed, by various ways and
means, frustrate the bringing forth of these adulterate conceptions, causing
them to melt away in the womb, or one way or other prove abortive, so that
not the least part of that sin is committed which is willed or conceived; yet
there is nothing in the soul itself that remains to give check unto it when once
the will has given its consent. Oftentimes, when a cloud is full of rain and
ready to fall, a wind comes and drives it away; and when the will is ready to
bring forth its sin, God diverts it by one wind or other: but yet the cloud was
as full of rain as if it had fallen, and the soul as full of sin as if it had been
This conceiving of lust or sin, then, is its prevalency in obtaining the consent
of the will unto its solicitations. And hereby the soul is deflowered of its
chastity toward God in Christ, as the apostle intimates (2 Cor. 11:2-3). To
clear up this matter we must observe—
That the will is the principle, the next seat and cause, of obedience and
disobedience. Moral actions are unto us or in us so far good or evil as they
partake of the consent of the will. He spoke truth of old who said, “Omne
peccatum est adeo voluntarium, ut non sit peccatum nisi sit voluntarium”—
“Every sin is so voluntary, that if it be not voluntary it is not sin.”120 It is most
true of actual sins. The formality of their iniquity arises from the acts of the
will in them and concerning them—I mean, as to the persons that commit
them; otherwise in itself the formal reason of sin is its aberration from the
law of God.
There is a twofold consent of the will unto sin—
That which is full, absolute, complete, and upon deliberation—a prevailing
consent; the convictions of the mind being conquered, and no principle
of grace in the will to weaken it. With this consent the soul goes into sin
120 Cf. St. Augustine’s The Free Choice of the Will, 3.17.49, in The Fathers of the Church (Washington,
D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1968), 59:210.
as a ship before the wind with all its sails displayed, without any check or
stop. It rushes into sin like the horse into the battle; men thereby, as the apostle
speaks, “giving themselves over to sin with greediness” (Eph. 4:19). Thus
Ahab’s will was in the murdering of Naboth [1 Kings 21]. He did it upon
deliberation, by contrivance, with a full consent; the doing of it gave him such
satisfaction as that it cured his malady or the distemper of his mind. This is
that consent of the will which is acted in the finishing and completing of sin
in unregenerate persons, and is not required to the single bringing forth of
sin, whereof we speak.
There is a consent of the will which is attended with a secret renitency
and volition of the contrary. Thus Peter’s will was in the denying of his
Master. His will was in it, or he had not121 done it. It was a voluntary action,
that which he chose to do at that season. Sin had not been brought forth if it
had not been thus conceived. But yet, at this very time, there was resident in
his will a contrary principle of love to Christ, yea, and faith in him, which
utterly failed not. The efficacy of it was intercepted, and its operations suspended
actually, through the violent urging of the temptation that he was
under; but yet it was in his will and weakened his consent unto sin. Though
it consented, it was not done with self-pleasing, which such full acts of the
will do produce.
Although there may be a predominant consent in the will, which may suffice
for the conception of particular sins, yet there cannot be an absolute,
total, full consent of the will of a believer unto any sin; for—
There is in his will a principle fixed on good, on all good: “He would do
good” (Rom. 7:21). The principle of grace in the will inclines him to all good.
And this, in general, is prevalent against the principle of sin, so that the will
is denominated from thence. Grace has the rule and dominion, and not sin,
in the will of every believer. Now, that consent unto sin in the will which is
contrary to the inclination and generally prevailing principle in the same will,
is not, cannot be, total, absolute, and complete.
There is not only a general, ruling, prevailing principle in the will against
sin, but there is also a secret reluctancy in it against its own act in consenting
unto sin. It is true, the soul is not sensible sometimes of this reluctancy,
because the present consent carries away the prevailing act of the will, and
takes away the sense of the lusting of the Spirit, or reluctancy of the principle
of grace in the will. But the general rule holds in all things at all times:
“The Spirit lusts against the flesh” (Gal. 5:17). It does so actually, though not
121 would not have
always to the same degree, nor with the same success; and the prevalency of
the contrary principle in this or that particular act does not disprove it. It is
so on the other side. There is no acting of grace in the will but sin lusts against
it; although that lusting be not made sensible in the soul, because of the prevalency
of the contrary acting of grace, yet it is enough to keep those actings
from perfection in their kind. So is it in this renitency of grace against the acting
of sin in the soul; though it be not sensible in its operations, yet it is
enough to keep that act from being full and complete. And much of spiritual
wisdom lies in discerning aright between the spiritual renitency of the principle
of grace in the will against sin, and the rebukes that are given the soul
by conscience upon conviction for sin.
Observe that reiterated, repeated acts of the consent of the will unto sin
may beget a disposition and inclinableness in it unto the like acts, that may
bring the will unto a proneness and readiness to consent unto sin upon easy
solicitations; which is a condition of soul dangerous, and greatly to be
watched against.
This consent of the will, which we have thus described, may be considered
[in] two ways: (1) as it is exercised about the circumstances, causes,
means, and inducements unto sin; (2) as it respects this or that actual sin.
In the first sense there is a virtual consent of the will unto sin in every
inadvertency unto the prevention of it, in every neglect of duty that makes
way for it, in every hearkening unto any temptation leading toward it; in a
word, in all the diversions of the mind from its duty, and entanglements of
the affections by sin, before mentioned: for where there is no act of the will,
formally or virtually, there is no sin. But this is not that which we now speak
of; but, in particular, the consent of the will unto this or that actual sin, so
far as that either sin is committed, or is prevented by other ways and means
not of our present consideration. And herein consists the conceiving of sin.
These things being supposed, that which in the next place we are to consider
is, the way that the deceit of sin proceeds in to procure the consent of
the will, and so to conceive actual sin in the soul. To this purpose observe—
That the will is a rational appetite—rational as guided by the mind, and
an appetite as excited by the affections, and so in its operation or actings has
respect to both, is influenced by both.
It chooses nothing, consents to nothing, but “sub ratione boni”—as it
has an appearance of good, some present good. It cannot consent to anything
under the notion or apprehension of its being evil in any kind. Good
is its natural and necessary object, and therefore whatsoever is proposed
unto it for its consent must be proposed under an appearance of being either
good in itself, or good at present unto the soul, or good so circumstantiate122
as it is; so that—
We may see hence the reason why the conception of sin is here placed as
a consequent of the mind’s being drawn away and the affections being entangled.
Both these have an influence into the consent of the will, and the conception
of this or that actual sin thereby. Our way, therefore, here is made
somewhat plain. We have seen at large how the mind is drawn away by the
deceit of sin, and how the affections are entangled—that which remains is but
the proper effect of these things; for the discovery whereof we must instance
in some of the special deceits, corrupt and fallacious reasonings before mentioned,
and then show their prevalency on the will to a consent unto sin.
The will is imposed upon by that corrupt reasoning, that grace is exalted
in a pardon, and that mercy is provided for sinners. This first, as has been
showed, deceives the mind, and that opens the way to the will’s consent by
removing a sight of evil, which the will has an aversation unto. And this, in
carnal hearts, prevails so far as to make them think that their liberty consists
in being “servants of corruption” (2 Pet. 2:19). And the poison of it does
oftentimes taint and vitiate123 the minds of believers themselves; whence we
are so cautioned against it in the Scripture. To what, therefore, has been spoken
before, unto the use and abuse of the doctrine of the grace of the gospel,
we shall add some few other considerations, and fix upon one place of
Scripture that will give light unto it. There is a twofold mystery of grace—of
walking with God, and of coming unto God; and the great design of sin is to
change the doctrine and mystery of grace in reference unto these things, and
that by applying those considerations unto the one which are proper unto the
other, whereby each part is hindered, and the influence of the doctrine of
grace into them for their furtherance defeated. See 1 John 2:1-2: “These
things I write unto you, that you sin not. And if any man sin, we have an
advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous: and he is the propitiation
for our sins.” Here is the whole design and use of the gospel briefly
expressed. “These things,” says he, “I write unto you.” What things were
these? Those mentioned in 1 John 1:2: “The life was manifested, and we have
seen it, and bear witness, and show unto you that eternal life, which was with
the Father, and was manifested unto us”—that is, the things concerning the
person and mediation of Christ; and that pardon, forgiveness, and expiation
from sin is to be attained by the blood of Christ (v. 7). But to what end and
122 verified by circumstances
123 invalidate, render incomplete, impair
purpose does he write these things to them? What do they teach, what do they
tend unto? A universal abstinence from sin: “I write unto you,” says he, “that
you sin not.” This is the proper, only, genuine end of the doctrine of the
gospel. But to abstain from all sin is not our condition in this world: “If we
say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us” (v.
8). What, then, shall be done in this case? In supposition of sin, that we have
sinned, is there no relief provided for our souls and consciences in the gospel?
Yes; says he, “If any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus
Christ the righteous: and he is the propitiation for our sins.” There is full relief
in the propitiation and intercession of Christ for us. This is the order and
method of the doctrine of the gospel, and of the application of it to our own
souls—first, to keep us from sin; and then to relieve us against sin. But here
enters the deceit of sin, and puts this “new wine into old bottles,” whereby
the bottles are broken, and the wine perishes, as to our benefit by it. It changes
this method and order of the application of gospel truths. It takes up the last
first, and that excludes the use of the first utterly. “If any man sin, there is
pardon provided,” is all the gospel that sin would willingly suffer to abide on
the minds of men. When we would come to God by believing, it would be
pressing the former part, of being free from sin, when the gospel proposes the
latter principally, or the pardon of sin, for our encouragement. When we are
come to God, and should walk with him, it will have only the latter proposed,
that there is pardon of sin, when the gospel principally proposes the former,
of keeping ourselves from sin, the grace of God bringing salvation having
appeared unto us to that end and purpose. Now, the mind being entangled
with this deceit, drawn off from its watch by it, diverted from the true ends
of the gospel, does several ways impose upon the will to obtain its consent—
By a sudden surprise in case of temptation. Temptation is the representation
of a thing as a present good, a particular good, which is a real evil, a
general evil. Now, when a temptation, armed with opportunity and provocation,
befalls the soul, the principle of grace in the will rises up with a rejection
and detestation of it. But on a sudden, the mind being deceived by sin,
breaks in upon the will with a corrupt, fallacious reasoning from gospel grace
and mercy, which first staggers, then abates the will’s opposition, and then
causes it to cast the scale by its consent on the side of temptation, presenting
evil as a present good, and sin in the sight of God is conceived, though it be
never committed. Thus is the seed of God sacrificed to Moloch, and the
weapons of Christ abused to the service of the devil.
It does it insensibly. It insinuates the poison of this corrupt reasoning by
little and little, until it has greatly prevailed. And as the whole effect of the
doctrine of the gospel in holiness and obedience consists in the soul’s being
cast into the frame and mold of it (Rom. 6:17); so the whole of the apostasy
from the gospel is principally the casting of the soul into the mold of this false
reasoning, that sin may be indulged unto upon the account of grace and pardon.
Hereby is the soul gratified in sloth and negligence, and taken off from
its care as to particular duties and avoidance of particular sins. It works the
soul insensibly off from the mystery of the law of grace—to look for salvation
as if we had never performed any duty, being, after we have done all,
unprofitable servants, with a resting on sovereign mercy through the blood
of Christ, and to attend unto duties with all diligence as if we looked for no
mercy; that is, with no less care, though with more liberty and freedom. This,
the deceitfulness of sin, endeavors by all means to work the soul from [these
things], and thereby debauches the will when its consent is required unto particular
The deceived mind imposes on the will to obtain its consent unto sin by
proposing unto it the advantages that may accrue and arise thereby; which is
one medium whereby itself also is drawn away. It renders that which is absolutely
evil a present appearing good. So was it with Eve (Genesis 3). Laying
aside all considerations of the law, covenant, and threats of God, she all at
once reflects upon the advantages, pleasures, and benefits which she should
obtain by her sin, and reckons them up to solicit the consent of her will. “It
is,” says she, “good for food, pleasant to the eyes, and to be desired to make
one wise” [v. 6]. What should she do, then, but eat it? Her will consented,
and she did so accordingly. Pleas for obedience are laid out of the way, and
only the pleasures of sin are taken under consideration. So says Ahab:
“Naboth’s vineyard is near my house, and I may make it a garden of herbs;
therefore I must have it” (1 Kings 21). These considerations a deceived mind
imposed on his will, until it made him obstinate in the pursuit of his covetousness
through perjury and murder, to the utter ruin of himself and his
family. Thus is the guilt and tendency of sin hid under the covert of advantages
and pleasures, and so is conceived or resolved on in the soul. As the
mind being withdrawn, so the affections being enticed and entangled do
greatly further the conception of sin in the soul by the consent of the will; and
they do it two ways—
By some hasty impulse and surprise, being themselves stirred up, incited,
and drawn forth by some violent provocation or suitable temptation, they put
the whole soul, as it were, into a combustion, and draw the will into a consent
unto what they are provoked unto and entangled with. So was the case
of David in the matter of Nabal. A violent provocation from the extreme
unworthy carriage of that foolish churl124 stirs him up to wrath and revenge
(1 Sam. 25:13). He resolves upon it to destroy a whole family, the innocent
with the guilty (vv. 33-34). Self-revenge and murder were for the season conceived,
resolved, consented unto, until God graciously took him off. His
entangled, provoked affections surprised his will to consent unto the conception
of many bloody sins. The case was the same with Asa in his anger,
when he smote the prophet [2 Chron. 16:7-10]; and with Peter in his fear,
when he denied his Master [Luke 22:56-60]. Let that soul which would take
heed of conceiving sin take heed of entangled affections; for sin may be suddenly
conceived, the prevalent consent of the will may be suddenly obtained;
which gives the soul a fixed guilt, though the sin itself be never actually
brought forth.
Enticed affections procure the consent of the will by frequent solicitations,
whereby they get ground insensibly upon it, and enthrone themselves.
Take an instance in the sons of Jacob (Gen. 37:4). They hate their brother
because their father loved him. Their affections being enticed, many new
occasions fall out to entangle them further, as his dreams and the like. This
lay rankling125 in their hearts, and never ceased soliciting their wills until they
resolved upon his death. The unlawfulness, the unnaturalness of the action,
the grief of their aged father, the guilt of their own souls, are all laid aside.
That hatred and envy that they had conceived against him ceased not until
they had got the consent of their wills to his ruin. This gradual progress of
the prevalency of corrupt affections to solicit the soul unto sin the wise man
excellently describes (Prov. 23:31-35). And this is the common way of sin’s
procedure in the destruction of souls which seem to have made some good
engagements in the ways of God: when it has entangled them with one temptation,
and brought the will to some liking of it, that presently becomes
another temptation, either to the neglect of some duty or to the refusal of
more light; and commonly that whereby men fall off utterly from God is not
that wherewith they are first entangled. And this may briefly suffice for the
third progressive act of the deceit of sin. It obtains the will’s consent unto its
conception; and by this means are multitudes of sins conceived in the heart
which very little less defile the soul, or cause it to contract very little less guilt,
than if they were actually committed. Unto what has been spoken concerning
the deceitfulness of indwelling sin in general, which greatly evidences its
power and efficacy, I shall add, as a close of this discourse, one or two par-
124 coarse, ill-natured man
125 festering, irritating
ticular ways of its deceitful actings; consisting in advantages that it makes use
of, and means of relieving itself against that disquisition126 which is made after
it by the word and Spirit for its ruin. One head only of each sort we shall here
It makes great advantage of the darkness of the mind, to work out its
design and intentions. The shades of a mind totally dark—that is, devoid
utterly of saving grace—are the proper working-place of sin. Hence the effects
of it are called the “works of darkness” (Eph. 5:11; Rom. 13:12), as springing
from thence. Sin works and brings forth by the help of it. The working
of lust under the covert of a dark mind is, as it were, the upper region of hell;
for it lies at the next door to it for filth, horror, and confusion. Now, there is
a partial darkness abiding still in believers; they “know but in part” (1 Cor.
13:12). Though there be in them all a principle of saving light—the day-star
is risen in their hearts—yet all the shades of darkness are not utterly expelled
out of them in this life. And there are two parts, as it were, or principal effects
of the remaining darkness that is in believers: (1) ignorance, or a nescience127
of the will of God, either “juris” or “facti” of the rule and law in general, or
of the reference of the particular fact that lies before the mind unto the law;
(2) error and mistakes positively; taking that for truth which is falsehood, and
that for light which is darkness. Now, of both of these does the law of sin
make great advantage for the exerting of its power in the soul.
Is there a remaining ignorance of anything of the will of God? Sin will
be sure to make use of it and improve it to the uttermost. Though Abimelech
were not a believer, yet he was a person that had a moral integrity with him
in his ways and actions; he declares himself to have had so in a solemn appeal
to God, the searcher of all hearts, even in that wherein he miscarried (Gen.
20:5). But being ignorant that fornication was a sin, or so great a sin as that
it became not a morally honest man to defile himself with it, lust hurries him
into that intention of evil in reference unto Sarah, as we have it there related.
God complains that his people “perished for lack of knowledge” (Hos. 4:6).
Being ignorant of the mind and will of God, they rushed into evil at every
command of the law of sin. Be it as to any duty to be performed, or as to any
sin to be committed, if there be in it darkness or ignorance of the mind about
them, sin will not lose its advantage. Many a man, being ignorant of the duty
incumbent on him for the instruction of his family, casting the whole weight
of it upon the public teaching, is, by the deceitfulness of sin, brought into a
126 formal inquiry, investigation
127 lack of knowledge
habitual sloth and negligence of duty. So much ignorance of the will of God
and duty, so much advantage is given to the law of sin. And hence we may
see what is that true knowledge which with God is acceptable. How exactly
does many a poor soul, who is low as to notional128 knowledge, yet walk with
God! It seems they know so much, as sin has not on that account much
advantage against them; when others, high in their notions, give advantage
to their lusts, even by their ignorance, though they know it not.
Error is a worse part or effect of the mind’s darkness, and gives great
advantage to the law of sin. There is, indeed, ignorance in every error, but
there is not error in all ignorance; and so they may be distinguished. I shall
need to exemplify this but with one consideration, and that is of men who,
being zealous for some error, do seek to suppress and persecute the truth.
Indwelling sin desires no greater advantage. How will it every day, every hour,
pour forth wrath, revilings, hard speeches; breathe revenge, murder, desolation,
under the name perhaps of zeal! On this account we may see poor creatures
pleasing themselves every day, as if they vaunted in their excellency,
when they are foaming out their own shame. Under their real darkness and
pretended zeal, sin sits securely, and fills pulpits, houses, prayers, streets, with
as bitter fruits of envy, malice, wrath, hatred, evil surmises, false speakings,
as full as they can hold. The common issue with such poor creatures is [that]
the holy, blessed, meek Spirit of God withdraws from them and leaves them
visibly and openly to that evil, froward, wrathful, worldly spirit, which the
law of sin has cherished and heightened in them. Sin dwells not anywhere
more secure than in such a frame. Thus, I say, it lays hold in particular of
advantages to practice upon with its deceitfulness, and therein also to exert
its power in the soul; whereof this single instance of its improving the darkness
of the mind unto its own ends is a sufficient evidence.
It uses means of relieving itself against the pursuit that is made after it in
the heart by the word and Spirit of grace. One also of its wiles, in the way of
instance, I shall name in this kind, and that is the alleviation of its own guilt.
It pleads for itself, that it is not so bad, so filthy, so fatal as is pretended; and
this course of extenuation it proceeds in two ways—
Absolutely. Many secret pleas it will have that the evil which it tends unto
is not so pernicious as conscience is persuaded that it is; it may be ventured
on without ruin. These considerations it will strongly urge when it is at work
in a way of surprise, when the soul has no leisure or liberty to weigh its suggestions
in the balance of the sanctuary; and not seldom is the will imposed
128 theoretical, conceptual
on hereby, and advantages gotten to shift itself from under the sword of the
Spirit—“It is not such but that it may be let alone, or suffered to die of itself,
which probably within a while it will do; no need of that violence which in
mortification is to be offered; it is time enough to deal with a matter of no
greater importance hereafter”—with other pleas like those before mentioned.
Comparatively; and this is a large field for its deceit and subtlety to lurk
in—“Though it is an evil indeed to be relinquished, and the soul is to be made
watchful against it, yet it is not of that magnitude and degree as we may see
in the lives of others, even saints of God, much less such as some saints of old
have fallen into.” By these and the like pretenses, I say, it seeks to evade and
keep its abode in the soul when pursued to destruction. And how little a portion
of its deceitfulness is it that we have declared!

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