Sin Chapter 13

Overcoming Sin and Temptation by John Owen

Before we proceed to the remaining evidences of the power and efficacy of
the law of sin, we shall take occasion from what has been delivered to divert
unto one consideration that offers itself from that Scripture which was made
the bottom and foundation of our discourse of the general deceitfulness of
sin, namely, James 1:14. The apostle tells us that “lust conceiving brings forth
sin,” seeming to intimate that look what sin is conceived, that also is brought
forth. Now, placing the conception of sin, as we have done, in the consent of
the will unto it, and reckoning, as we ought, the bringing forth of sin to consist
of its actual commission, we know that these do not necessarily follow
one another. There is a world of sin conceived in the womb of the wills and
hearts of men that is never brought forth. Our present business, then, shall
be to inquire whence that comes to pass. I answer, then—
That this is not so is no thanks unto sin nor the law of it. What it conceives,
it would bring forth; and that it does not is for the most part but a
small abatement129 of its guilt. A determinate130 will of actual sinning is actual
sin. There is nothing wanting on sin’s part that every conceived sin is not actually
accomplished. The obstacle and prevention lies on another hand.
There are two things that are necessary in the creature that has conceived
sin, for the bringing of it forth: (1) power; and (2) continuance in the will of
sinning until it be perpetrated and committed.
129 reduction, diminution
130 resolved, settled
Where these two are, actual sin will unavoidably ensue. It is evident,
therefore, that that which hinders conceived sin from being brought forth
must affect either the power or the will of the sinner. This must be from God.
And he has two ways of doing it: (1) by his providence, whereby he obstructs
the power of sinning; and (2) by his grace, whereby he diverts or changes the
will of sinning.
I do not mention these ways of God’s dispensations thus distinctly, as
though the one of them were always without the other; for there is much of
grace in providential administrations, and much of the wisdom of providence
seen in the dispensations of grace. But I place them in this distinction because
they appear most eminent therein—providence, in outward acts respecting
the power of the creature; grace, common or special, in internal efficacy
respecting his will. And we shall begin with the first—
When sin is conceived, the Lord obstructs its production by his providence,
in taking away or cutting short that power which is absolutely necessary
for its bringing forth or accomplishment; as—
Life is the foundation of all power, the principle of operation; when that
ceases, all power ceases with it. Even God himself, to evince the everlasting
stability of his own power, gives himself the title of “the living God.” Now,
he frequently obviates the power of executing sin actually by cutting short
and taking away the lives of them that have conceived it. Thus he dealt with
the army of Sennacherib, when, according as he had purposed, so he threatened
that “the LORD should not deliver Jerusalem out of his hand” (2 Kings
18:35). God threatens to cut short his power, that he should not execute his
intendment131 (19:28); which he performs accordingly, by taking away the
lives of his soldiers (v. 35), without whom it was impossible that his conceived
sin should be brought forth. This providential dispensation in the obstruction
of conceived sin, Moses excellently sets forth in the case of Pharaoh:
“The enemy said, I will pursue, I will overtake, I will divide the spoil; my lust
shall be satisfied upon them; I will draw my sword, my hand shall destroy
them. You blow with your wind, the sea covered them: they sank as lead in
the mighty waters” (Ex. 15:9-10). Sin’s conception is fully expressed, and as
full a prevention is annexed unto it. In like manner he dealt with the companies
of fifties and their captains, who came to apprehend Elijah (2 Kings 1:9-
12). Fire came down from heaven and consumed them, when they were ready
to have taken him. And sundry other instances of the like nature might be
recorded. That which is of universal concern we have in that great provi-
131 intention
dential alteration which put a period to the lives of men. Men living hundreds
of years had a long season to bring forth the sins they had conceived; thereupon
the earth was filled with violence, injustice, and rapine,132 and “all flesh
corrupted his way” (Gen. 6:12-13). To prevent the like inundation of sin, God
shortens the course of the pilgrimage of men in the earth, and reduces their
lives to a much shorter measure.
Besides this general law, God daily thus cuts off persons who had conceived
much mischief and violence in their hearts, and prevents the execution
of it: “Blood-thirsty and deceitful men do not live out half their days” [Ps.
55:23]. They have yet much work to do, might they have but space given
them to execute the bloody and sinful purposes of their minds. The psalmist
tells us, “In the day that the breath of man goes forth, his thoughts perish”
(Ps. 146:4): he had many contrivances about sin, but now they are all cut off.
So also Ecclesiastes 8:12-13: “Though a sinner do evil a hundred times, and
his days be prolonged, yet surely I know that it shall be well with them that
fear God, which fear before him: but it shall not be well with the wicked, neither
shall he prolong his days, which are as a shadow; because he fears not
before God.” Howsoever long a wicked man lives, yet he dies judicially, and
shall not abide to do the evil he had conceived. But now, seeing we have
granted that even believers themselves may conceive sin through the power
and the deceitfulness of it, it may be inquired whether God ever thus obviates
its production and accomplishment in them, by cutting off and taking
away their lives, so as that they shall not be able to perform it. I answer—
That God does not judicially cut off and take away the life of any of his
for this end and purpose, that he may thereby prevent the execution or bringing
forth of any particular sin that he had conceived, and which, without that
taking away, he would have perpetrated; for—
This is directly contrary to the very declared end of the patience of God
toward them (2 Pet. 3:9). This is the very end of the longsuffering of God
toward believers, that before they depart hence they may come to the sense,
acknowledgment, and repentance of every known sin. This is the constant
and unchangeable rule of God’s patience in the covenant of grace; which is
so far from being in them an encouragement unto sin, that it is a motive to
universal watchfulness against it—of the same nature with all gospel grace,
and of mercy in the blood of Christ. Now, this dispensation whereof we speak
would lie in a direct contradiction unto it.
This also flows from the former, that whereas conceived sin contains the
132 pillage, robbery, plunder
whole nature of it, as our Savior at large declares (Matthew 5), and to be cut
off under the guilt of it, to prevent its further progress, argues a continuance
in the purpose of it without repentance, it cannot be but they must perish forever
who are so judicially cut off. But God deals not so with his; he casts not
off the people whom he did foreknow. And thence David prays for the
patience of God before mentioned, that it might not be so with him: “O spare
me, that I may recover strength, before I go hence, and be no more” (Ps.
39:13). But yet—
There are some cases wherein God may and does take away the lives of
his own, to prevent the guilt that otherwise they would be involved in; as—
In the coming of some great temptation and trial upon the world. God
knowing that such and such of his would not be able to withstand it and hold
out against it, but would dishonor him and defile themselves, he may, and
doubtless often does, take them out of the world, to take them out of the way
of it: “The righteous is taken away from the evil to come” (Isa. 57:1)—not
only the evil of punishment and judgment, but the evil of temptations and trials,
which oftentimes proves much the worse of the two. Thus a captain in
war will call off a soldier from his watch and guard, when he knows that he
is not able, through some infirmity, to bear the stress and force of the enemy
that is coming upon him.
In case of their engagement into any way not acceptable to him, through
ignorance or not knowing of his mind and will. This seems to have been the
case of Josiah [2 Chron. 34:26-28]. And, doubtless, the Lord does oftentimes
thus proceed with his. When any of his own are engaged in ways that please
him not, through the darkness and ignorance of their minds, that they may
not proceed to further evil or mischief, he calls them off from their station
and employment and takes them to himself, where they shall err and mistake
no more. But, in ordinary cases, God has other ways of diverting his own
from sin than by killing of them, as we shall see afterward.
God providentially hinders the bringing forth of conceived sin, by taking
away and cutting short the power of them that had conceived it, so that,
though their lives continue, they shall not have that power without which it
is impossible for them to execute what they had intended, or to bring forth
what they had conceived. Hereof also we have sundry instances. This was the
case with the builders of Babel (Genesis 11). Whatever it was in particular
that they aimed at, it was in the pursuit of a design of apostasy from God.
One thing requisite to the accomplishing of what they aimed at was the oneness
of their language; so God says, “They have all one language; and this
they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, that they
have imagined to do” (v. 6). In an ordinary way they will accomplish their
wicked design. What course does God now take to obviate their conceived
sin? Does he bring a flood upon them to destroy them, as in the old world
some time before? Does he send his angel to cut them off, like the army of
Sennacherib afterward [2 Kings 19:35]? Does he by any means take away
their lives? No; their lives are continued, but he “confounds their language,”
so that they cannot go on with their work (v. 7)—takes away that wherein
their power consisted. In like manner did he proceed with the Sodomites
(Gen. 19:11). They were engaged in, and set upon the pursuit of, their filthy
lusts. God smites them with blindness, so that they could not find the door,
where they thought to have used violence for the compassing of their ends.
Their lives were continued, and their will of sinning [was continued]; but their
power is cut short and abridged. His dealing with Jeroboam was of the same
nature (1 Kings 13:4). He stretched out his hand to lay hold of the prophet,
and it withered and became useless. And this is an eminent way of the effectual
acting of God’s providence in the world, for the stopping of that inundation
of sin which would overflow all the earth were every womb of it
opened. He cuts men short of their moral power, whereby they should effect
it. Many a wretch that has conceived mischief against the church of God has
by this means been divested of his power, whereby he thought to accomplish
it. Some have their bodies smitten with diseases, that they can no more serve
their lusts, nor accompany them in the perpetrating of folly; some are
deprived of the instruments whereby they would work. There has been, for
many days, sin enough conceived to root out the generation of the righteous
from the face of the earth, had men strength and ability to their will, did not
God cut off and shorten their power and the days of their prevalency. “They
search out iniquities; they accomplish a diligent search: both the inward
thought of every one of them, and the heart, is deep” (Ps. 64:6). All things
are in a readiness; the design is well laid, their counsels are deep and secret;
what now shall hinder them from doing whatever they have imagined to do?
“But God shall shoot at them with an arrow; suddenly shall they be wounded.
So they shall make their own tongue to fall upon themselves” (vv. 7-8). God
meets with them, brings them down, that they shall not be able to accomplish
their design. And this way of God’s preventing sin seems to be, at least ordinarily,
peculiar to133 the men of the world; God deals thus with them every
day, and leaves them to pine away134 in their sins. They go all their days big
133 particular to, characteristic of
134 wither or waste away
with the iniquity they have conceived, and are greatly burdened that they cannot
be delivered of it.
The prophet tells us that “they practice iniquity that they had conceived,
because it is in the power of their hand” (Mic. 2:1). If they have power for
it, they will accomplish it: “To their power they shed blood” (Ezek. 22:6).
This is the measure of their sinning, even their power. They do, many of them,
no more evil, they commit no more sin, than they can. Their whole restraint
lies in being cut short in power, in one kind or another. Their bodies will not
serve them for their contrived uncleannesses, nor their hands for their revenge
and rapine, nor their instruments for persecution; but they go burdened with
conceived sin, and are disquieted and tortured by it all their days. And hence
they become in themselves, as well as unto others, “a troubled sea that cannot
rest” (Isa. 57:20).
It may be, also, in some cases, under some violent temptations, or in mistakes,
God may thus obviate the accomplishment of conceived sin in his own.
And there seems to be an instance of it in his dealing with Jehoshaphat, who
had designed, against the mind of God, to join in affinity with Ahab, and to
send his ships with him to Tarshish; but God breaks his ships by a wind, that
he could not accomplish what he had designed [2 Chron. 20:37]. But in God’s
dealing with his in this way, there is a difference from the same dispensation
toward others; for—
It is so only in cases of extraordinary temptation. When, through the violence
of temptation and craft of Satan, they are hurried from under the conduct
of the law of grace, God one way or other takes away their power, or
may do so, that they shall not be able to execute what they had designed. But
this is an ordinary way of dealing with wicked men. This hook of God is upon
them in the whole course of their lives; and they struggle with it, being “as a
wild bull in a net” (Isa. 51:20). God’s net is upon them, and they are filled
with fury that they cannot do all the wickedness that they would.
God does it not to leave them to wrestle with sin, and to attempt other
ways of its accomplishment, upon the failure of that which they were engaged
in; but by their disappointment awakens them to think of their condition and
what they are doing, and so consumes sin in the womb by the ways that shall
afterward be insisted on. Some men’s deprivation of power for the committing
of conceived, contrived sin has been sanctified to the changing of their
hearts from all dalliances with that or other sins.
God providentially hinders the bringing forth of conceived sin by opposing
an external hindering power unto sinners. He leaves them their lives, and
leaves them power to do what they intend; only he raises up an opposite
power to coerce, forbid, and restrain them. An instance hereof we have in
1 Samuel 14:45. Saul had sworn that Jonathan should be put to death, and,
as far as appears, went on resolutely to have slain him. God stirs up the spirit
of the people; they oppose themselves to the wrath and fury of Saul, and
Jonathan is delivered. So also when King Uzziah would have in his own person
offered incense, contrary to the law, eighty men of the priests resisted him,
and drove him out of the temple (2 Chron. 26:16-20). And to this head are
to be referred all the assistances which God stirs up for deliverance of his people
against the fury of persecutors. He raises up saviors or deliverers on
Mount Zion “to judge the mount of Edom” [Obad. 21]. So the dragon, and
those acting under him, spirited by him, were in a furious endeavor for the
destruction of the church (Rev. 12:16); God stirs up the earth to her assistance,
even men of the world not engaged with others in the design of Satan;
and by their opposition hinders them from the execution of their designed
rage. Of this nature seems to be that dealing of God with his own people
(Hos. 2:6-7). They were in the pursuit of their iniquities, following after their
lovers; God leaves them for a while to act in the folly of their spirits; but he
sets a hedge and a wall before them, that they shall not be able to fulfill their
designs and lusts.
God obviates the accomplishment of conceived sin by removing or taking
away the objects on whom, or about whom, the sin conceived was to be
committed. Acts 12:1-11 yields us a signal instance of this issue of providence.
When the day was coming wherein Herod thought to have slain Peter, who
was shut up in prison, God sends and takes him away from their rage and
lying in wait. So also was our Savior himself taken away from the murderous
rage of the Jews before his hour was come (John 8:59; 10:39). Both primitive
and latter times are full of stories to this purpose. Prison doors have been
opened, and poor creatures appointed to die have been frequently rescued
from the jaws of death. In the world itself, among the men thereof, adulterers
and adulteresses, the sin of the one is often hindered and stifled by the taking
away of the other. So wings were given to the woman to carry her into
the wilderness, and to disappoint the world in the execution of their rage
(Rev. 12:14).
God does this by some eminent diversions of the thoughts of men who
had conceived sin. The brethren of Joseph cast him into a pit, with an intent
to famish him there (Gen. 37:24). While they were, as it seems, pleasing themselves
with what they had done, God orders a company of merchants to come
by, and diverts their thoughts with that new object from the killing to the selling
of their brother (vv. 25-27); and how far therein they were subservient to
the infinitely wise counsel of God we know. Thus, also, when Saul was in the
pursuit of David, and was even ready to prevail against him to his destruction,
God stirs up the Philistines to invade the land, which both diverted his
thoughts and drew the course of his actings another way (1 Sam. 23:27). And
these are some of the ways whereby God is pleased to hinder the bringing
forth of conceived sin, by opposing himself and his providence to the power
of the sinning creature. And we may a little, in our passage, take a brief view
of the great advantages to faith and the church of God which may be found
in this matter; as—
This may give us a little insight into the ever-to-be-adored providence of
God, by these and the like ways in great variety obstructing the breaking forth
of sin in the world. It is he who makes those dams, and shuts up those floodgates
of corrupted nature, that it shall not break forth in a deluge of filthy
abominations, to overwhelm the creation with confusion and disorder. As it
was of old, so it is at this day: “Every thought and imagination of the heart
of man is evil, and that continually” [Gen 6:5]. That all the earth is not in all
places filled with violence, as it was of old, is merely from the mighty hand
of God working effectually for the obstructing of sin. From hence alone it is
that the highways, streets, and fields are not all filled with violence, blood,
rapine, uncleanness, and every villainy that the heart of man can conceive.
Oh, the infinite beauty of divine wisdom and providence in the government
of the world! for the conservation of it asks daily no less power and wisdom
than the first making of it did require.
If we will look to our own concerns, they will in a special manner enforce
us to adore the wisdom and efficacy of the providence of God in stopping the
progress of conceived sin. That we are at peace in our houses, at rest in our
beds, that we have any quiet in our enjoyments, is from hence alone. Whose
person would not be defiled or destroyed—whose habitation would not be
ruined—whose blood almost would not be shed—if wicked men had power
to perpetrate all their conceived sin? It may be the ruin of some of us has been
conceived a thousand times. We are beholding to this providence of obstructing
sin for our lives, our families, our estates, our liberties, for whatsoever is
or may be dear unto us; for may we not say sometimes, with the psalmist,
“My soul is among lions: and I lie even among them that are set on fire, even
the sons of men, whose teeth are spears and arrows, and their tongue a sharp
sword” (Ps. 57:4)? And how is the deliverance of men contrived from such
persons? “God breaks their teeth in their mouths, even the great teeth of the
young lions” (Ps. 58:6). He keeps this fire from burning, or quenches it when
it is ready to break out into a flame. He breaks their spears and arrows, so
that sometimes we are not so much as wounded by them. Some he cuts off
and destroys; some he cuts short in their power; some he deprives of the
instruments whereby alone they can work; some he prevents of their desired
opportunities, or diverts by other objects for their lusts, and oftentimes causes
them to spend them among themselves, one upon another. We may say, therefore,
with the psalmist, “O LORD, how manifold are your works! In wisdom
you have made them all: the earth is full of your riches” (Ps. 104:24); and
with the prophet, “Who is wise, and he shall understand these things? prudent,
and he shall know them? all the ways of the LORD are right, and the
just shall walk in them: but the transgressors shall fall therein” (Hos. 14:9).
If these and the like are the ways whereby God obviates the bringing forth
of conceived sin in wicked men, we may learn hence how miserable their condition
is, and in what perpetual torment, for the most part, they spend their
days. They “are like a troubled sea,” says the Lord, “that cannot rest” [Isa.
57:20]. As they endeavor that others may have no peace, so it is certain that
themselves have not any; the principle of sin is not impaired nor weakened in
them, the will of sinning is not taken away. They have a womb of sin that is
able to conceive monsters every moment. Yea, for the most part, they are forging
and framing folly all the day long. One lust or other they are contriving
how to satisfy. They are either devouring by malice and revenge, or vitiating
by uncleanness, or trampling on by ambition, or swallowing down by covetousness
all that stand before them. Many of their follies and mischiefs they
bring to the very birth, and are in pain to be delivered; but God every day fills
them with disappointment, and shuts up the womb of sin. Some are filled with
hatred of God’s people all their days, and never once have an opportunity to
exercise it. So David describes them: “They return at evening: they make a
noise like a dog, and go round about the city” (Ps. 59:6). They go up and down
and “belch out with their mouth: swords are in their lips” (v. 7), and yet are
not able to accomplish their designs. What tortures do such poor creatures live
in! Envy, malice, wrath, revenge devour their hearts by not getting vent. And
when God has exercised the other acts of his wise providence in cutting short
their power, or opposing a greater power to them, when nothing else will do,
he cuts them off in their sins, and to the grave they go, full of purposes of iniquity.
Others are no less hurried and diverted by the power of other lusts which
they are not able to satisfy. This is the sore travail they are exercised with all
their days: if they accomplish their designs they are more wicked and hellish
than before; and if they do not, they are filled with vexation135 and discon-
135 annoyance
tentment. This is the portion of them who know not the Lord nor the power
of his grace. Envy not their condition. Notwithstanding their outward, glittering
show, their hearts are full of anxiety, trouble, and sorrow.
Do we see sometimes the floodgates of men’s lusts and rage set open
against the church and [the] interest of it, and does prevalency attend them,
and power is for a season on their side? Let not the saints of God despond.
He has unspeakably various and effectual ways for the stifling of their conceptions,
to give them dry breasts and a miscarrying womb. He can stop their
fury when he pleases. “Surely,” says the psalmist,” the wrath of man shall
praise you: the remainder of wrath shall you restrain” (Ps. 76:10). When so
much of their wrath is let out as shall exalt his praise, he can, when he pleases,
set up a power greater than the combined strength of all sinning creatures,
and restrain the remainder of the wrath that they had conceived. “He shall
cut off the spirit of princes: he is terrible to the kings of the earth” (v. 12).
Some he will cut off and destroy, some he will terrify and affright, and prevent
the rage of all. He can knock them on the head, or break out their teeth,
or chain up their wrath; and who can oppose him?
Those who have received benefit by any of the ways mentioned may know
to whom they owe their preservation, and not look on it as a common thing.
When you have conceived sin, has God weakened your power for sin, or
denied you opportunity, or taken away the object of your lusts, or diverted
your thoughts by new providences? Know assuredly that you have received
mercy thereby. Though God deal not these providences always in a subserviency
to the covenant of grace, yet there is always mercy in them, always
a call in them to consider the author of them. Had not God thus dealt with
you, it may be this day you had been a terror to yourselves, a shame to your
relations, and under the punishment due to some notorious sins which you had
conceived. Besides, there is commonly an additional guilt in sin brought forth,
above what is in the mere conception of it. It may be others would have been
ruined by it here, or drawn into a partnership in sin by it, and so have been
eternally ruined by it, all which are prevented by these providences; and eternity
will witness that there is a singularity of mercy in them. Do not look, then,
on any such things as common accidents; the hand of God is in them all, and
that [is] a merciful hand if not despised. If it be, yet God does good to others
by it: the world is the better; and you are not so wicked as you would be.
We may also see hence the great use of magistracy136 in the world, that
great appointment of God. Among other things, it is peculiarly subservient to
136 human government
this holy providence, in obstructing the bringing forth of conceived sin—
namely, by the terror of him that bears the sword. God fixes that on the hearts
of evil men, which he expresses: “If you do that which is evil, be afraid; for he
bears not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to
execute wrath on them that do evil” (Rom. 13:4). God fixes this on the hearts
of men, and by the dread and terror of it closes the womb of sin, that it shall
not bring forth. When there was no king in Israel, none to put to rebuke, and
none of whom evil men were afraid, there was woeful work and havoc among
the children of men made in the world, as we may see in the last chapters of
the book of Judges. The greatest mercies and blessings that in this world we
are made partakers of, next to them of the gospel and covenant of grace, come
to us through this channel and conduit. And, indeed, this whereof we have
been speaking is the proper work of magistracy—namely, to be subservient to
the providence of God in obstructing the bringing forth of conceived sin.
These, then, are some of the ways whereby God providentially prevents the
bringing forth of sin, by opposing obstacles to the power of the sinner. And
[yet] by them sin is not consumed, but shut up in the womb. Men are not burdened
for it, but with it; not laden in their hearts and consciences with its guilt,
but perplexed with its power, which they are not able to exert and satisfy.
The way that yet remains for consideration whereby God obviates the
production of conceived sin is his working on the will of the sinner, so making
sin to consume away in the womb. There are two ways in general whereby
God thus prevents the bringing forth of conceived sin by working on the will
of the sinner; and they are: (1) by restraining grace; and (2) by renewing grace.
He does it sometimes the one way, sometimes the other. The first of these is
common to regenerate and unregenerate persons, the latter peculiar to believers;
and God does it variously as to particulars by them both. We shall begin
with the first of them.
God does this, in the way of restraining grace, by some arrow of particular
conviction, fixed in the heart and conscience of the sinner, in reference
unto the particular sin which he had conceived. This staggers and changes the
mind as to the particular intended, causes the hands to hang down and the
weapons of lust to fall out of them. Hereby conceived sin proves abortive.
How God does this work—by what immediate touches, strokes, blows,
rebukes of his Spirit—by what reasonings, arguments, and commotions of
men’s own consciences—is not for us thoroughly to find out. It is done, as
was said, in unspeakable variety, and the works of God are past finding out
[Rom. 11:33]. But as to what light may be given unto it from Scripture
instances, after we have manifested the general way of God’s procedure, it
shall be insisted on. Thus, then, God dealt in the case of Esau and Jacob. Esau
had long conceived his brother’s death; he comforted himself with the
thoughts of it, and resolutions about it (Gen. 27:41), as is the manner of profligate
sinners. Upon his first opportunity he comes forth to execute his
intended rage, and Jacob concludes that he would “smite the mother with the
children” (Gen. 32:11). An opportunity is presented unto this wicked and
profane person to bring forth that sin that had lain in his heart now twenty
years; he has full power in his hand to perform his purpose. In the midst of
this posture of things, God comes in upon his heart with some secret and
effectual working of his Spirit and power, changes him from his purpose,
causes his conceived sin to melt away, that he falls upon the neck of him with
embraces whom he thought to have slain. Of the same nature, though the way
of it was peculiar, was his dealing with Laban the Syrian, in reference to the
same Jacob (Gen. 31:24). By a dream, a vision in the night, God hinders him
from so much as speaking roughly to him. It was with him as in Micah 2:1—
he had devised evil on his bed; and when he thought to have practiced it in
the morning, God interposed in a dream, and hides sin from him, as he speaks
(Job 33:15-17). To the same purpose is that of the psalmist concerning the
people of God: “He made them to be pitied of all those that carried them captives”
(Ps. 106:46). Men usually deal in rigor with those whom they have
taken captive in war. It was the way of old to rule captives with force and
cruelty. Here God turns and changes their hearts, not in general unto himself,
but to this particular of respect to his people. And this way in general
does God every day prevent the bringing forth of a world of sin. He sharpens
arrows of conviction upon the spirits of men as to the particular that they
are engaged in. Their hearts are not changed as to sin, but their minds are
altered as to this or that sin. They break, it may be, the vessel they had fashioned,
and go to work upon some other. Now, that we may a little see into
the ways whereby God does accomplish this work, we must premise the ensuing
That the general medium wherein the matter of restraining grace does
consist, whereby God thus prevents the bringing forth of sin, does lie in certain
arguments and reasonings presented to the mind of the sinner, whereby
he is induced to desert his purpose, to change and alter his mind, as to the sin
he had conceived. Reasons against it are presented unto him, which prevail
upon him to relinquish his design and give over his purpose. This is the general
way of the working of restraining grace—it is by arguments and reasonings
rising up against the perpetration of conceived sin.
That no arguments or reasonings, as such, materially considered, are suf-
ficient to stop or hinder any purpose of sinning, or to cause conceived sin to
prove abortive, if the sinner have power and opportunity to bring it forth.
They are not in themselves, and on their own account, restraining grace; for
if they were, the administration and communication of grace, as grace, were
left unto every man who is able to give advice against sin. Nothing is nor can
be called grace, though common, and such as may perish, but with respect
unto its peculiar relation to God. God, by the power of his Spirit, making
arguments and reasons effectual and prevailing, turns that to be grace (I mean
of this kind) which in itself and in its own nature was bare reason. And that
efficacy of the Spirit which the Lord puts forth in these persuasions and
motives is that which we call restraining grace. These things being premised,
we shall now consider some of the arguments which we find that he has made
use of to this end and purpose—
God stops many men in their ways, upon the conception of sin, by an
argument taken from the difficulty, if not impossibility, of doing that [which]
they aim at. They have a mind unto it, but God sets a hedge and a wall before
them, that they shall judge it to be so hard and difficult to accomplish what
they intend, that it is better for them to let it alone and give over. Thus Herod
would have put John Baptist to death upon the first provocation, but he feared
the multitude, because they accounted him as a prophet (Matt. 14:5). He had
conceived his murder, and was free for the execution of it. God raised this consideration
in his heart, “If I kill him, the people will tumultuate; he has a great
party among them, and sedition will arise that may cost me my life or kingdom.”
He feared the multitude, and durst137 not execute the wickedness he had
conceived, because of the difficulty he foresaw he should be entangled with.
And God made the argument effectual for the season; for otherwise we know
that men will venture the utmost hazards for the satisfaction of their lusts, as
he also did afterward. The Pharisees were in the very same state and condition.
They would fain have decried the ministry of John, but durst not for fear
of the people (Matt. 21:26); and by the same argument were they deterred
from killing our Savior, who had highly provoked them by a parable setting
out their deserved and approaching destruction (Matt. 21:46). They durst not
do it for fear of a tumult among the people, seeing they looked on him as a
prophet. Thus God overawes138 the hearts of innumerable persons in the world
every day, and causes them to desist from attempting to bring forth the sins
which they had conceived. Difficulties they shall be sure to meet with; yea, it
137 dared
138 restrain or subdue by awe
is likely, if they should attempt it, it would prove impossible for them to accomplish.
We owe much of our quiet in this world unto the efficacy given to this
consideration in the hearts of men by the Holy Ghost; adulteries, rapines, murders
are obviated and stifled by it. Men would engage into them daily, but that
they judge it impossible for them to fulfill what they aim at.
God does it by an argument taken “ab incommodo”—from the inconveniences,
evils, and troubles that will befall men in the pursuit of sin. If they
follow it, this or that inconvenience will ensue—this trouble, this evil, temporal
or eternal. And this argument, as managed by the Spirit of God, is the
great engine in his hand whereby he casts up banks and gives bounds to the
lusts of men, that they break not out to the confusion of all that order and
beauty which yet remains in the works of his hands. Paul gives us the general
import of this argument: “For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do
by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law
unto themselves: which show the work of the law written in their hearts, their
conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the mean while accusing
or else excusing one another” (Rom. 2:14-15). If any men in the world may
be thought to be given up to pursue and fulfill all the sins that their lusts can
conceive, it is those that have not the law, to whom the written law of God
does not denounce the evil that attends it. “But though they have it not,” says
the apostle, “they show forth the work of it; they do many things which it
requires, and forbear or abstain from many things that it forbids, and so show
forth its work and efficacy.” But whence is it that they so do? Why, their
thoughts accuse or excuse them. It is from the consideration and arguings that
they have within themselves about sin and its consequents, which prevail
upon them to abstain from many things that their hearts would carry them
out unto; for conscience is a man’s prejudging of himself with respect unto
the future judgment of God. Thus Felix was staggered in his pursuit of sin
when he trembled at Paul’s preaching of righteousness and judgment to come
(Acts 24:25). So Job tells us that the consideration of punishment from God
has a strong influence on the minds of men to keep them from sin (Job 31:1-
3). How the Lord makes use of that consideration, even toward his own,
when they have broken the cords of his love and cast off the rule of his grace
for a season, I have before declared.
God does this same work by making effectual an argument “ab inutili”—
from the unprofitableness of the thing that men are engaged in. By this were
the brethren of Joseph stayed139 from slaying him: Genesis 37:26-27, “What
139 stopped
profit is it,” say they, “if we slay our brother, and conceal his blood?”—“We
shall get nothing by it; it will bring in no advantage or satisfaction unto us.”
And the heads of this way of God’s obstructing conceived sin, or the springs
of these kinds of arguments, are so many and various that it is impossible to
insist particularly upon them. There is nothing present or to come, nothing
belonging to this life or another, nothing desirable or undesirable, nothing
good or evil, but, at one time or another, an argument may be taken from it
for the obstructing of sin.
God accomplishes this work by arguments taken “ab honesto”—from
what is good and honest, what is comely, praiseworthy, and acceptable unto
himself. This is the great road wherein he walks with the saints under their
temptations, or in their conceptions of sin. He recovers effectually upon their
minds a consideration of all those springs and motives to obedience which
are discovered and proposed in the gospel, some at one time, some at another.
He minds them of140 his own love, mercy, and kindness—his eternal love, with
the fruits of it, whereof themselves have been made partakers; he minds them
of the blood of his Son, his cross, sufferings, tremendous undertaking in the
work of mediation, and the concern of his heart, love, honor, name, in their
obedience; minds them of the love of the Spirit, with all his consolations,
which they have been made partakers of, and privileges wherewith by him
they have been entrusted; minds them of the gospel, the glory and beauty of
it, as it is revealed unto their souls; minds them of the excellency and comeliness
of obedience—of their performance of that duty they owe to God—of
that peace, quietness, and serenity of mind that they have enjoyed therein.
On the other side, he minds them of being a provocation by sin unto the
eyes of his glory, saying in their hearts, “Do not that abominable thing which
my soul hates”; minds them of their wounding the Lord Jesus Christ, and
putting him to shame—of their grieving the Holy Spirit, whereby they are
sealed to the day of redemption—of their defiling his dwelling-place; minds
them of the reproach, dishonor, scandal, which they bring on the gospel and
the profession thereof; minds them of the terrors, darkness, wounds, want of
peace, that they may bring upon their own souls. From these and the like considerations
does God put a stop to the law of sin in the heart, that it shall not
go on to bring forth the evil which it has conceived.
I could give instances in argument of all these several kinds recorded in
the Scripture, but it would be too long a work for us, who are now engaged
in a design of another nature; but one or two examples may be mentioned.
140 brings to their mind
Joseph resists his first temptation on one of these accounts: “How can I do
this great wickedness, and sin against God?” (Gen. 39:9). The evil of sinning
against God, his God, that consideration alone detains him from the least
inclination to his temptation. “It is sin against God, to whom I owe all obedience,
the God of my life and of all my mercies. I will not do it.” The argument
wherewith Abigail prevailed on David to withhold him from
self-revenge and murder (1 Sam. 25:31), was of the same nature; and he
acknowledges that it was from the Lord (v. 32). I shall add no more; for all
the Scripture motives which we have to duty, made effectual by grace, are
instances of this way of God’s procedure.
Sometimes, I confess, God secretly works the hearts of men by his own
finger, without the use and means of such arguments as those insisted on, to
stop the progress of sin. So he tells Abimelech: “I have withheld you from sinning
against me” (Gen. 20:6). Now, this could not be done by any of the arguments
which we have insisted on, because Abimelech knew not that the thing
he intended was sin; and therefore he pleads that in the “integrity of his heart
and innocency of his hands” he did it (v. 5). God turned about his will and
thoughts, that he should not accomplish his intention; but by what ways or
means is not revealed. Nor is it evident what course he took in the change of
Esau’s heart, when he came out against his brother to destroy him (Gen.
33:4). Whether he stirred up in him a fresh spring of natural affection, or
caused him to consider what grief by this means he should bring to his aged
father, who loved him so tenderly; or whether, being now grown great and
wealthy, he more and more despised the matter of difference between him and
his brother, and so utterly slighted it, is not known. It may be God did it by
an immediate, powerful act of his Spirit upon his heart, without any actual
intervening of these or any of the like considerations. Now, though the things
mentioned are in themselves at other times feeble and weak, yet when they
are managed by the Spirit of God to such an end and purpose, they certainly
become effectual, and are the matter of his preventing grace.
God prevents the bringing forth of conceived sin by real spiritual saving
grace, and that either in the first conversion of sinners or in the following supplies
of it—
This is one part of the mystery of his grace and love. He meets men sometimes,
in their highest resolutions for sin, with the highest efficacy of his grace.
Hereby he manifests the power of his own grace and gives the soul a further
experience of the law of sin, when it takes such a farewell of it as to be
changed in the midst of its resolutions to serve the lusts thereof. By this he
melts down the lusts of men, causes them to wither at the root, that they shall
no more strive to bring forth what they have conceived, but be filled with
shame and sorrow at their conception. An example and instance of this proceeding
of God, for the use and instruction of all generations, we have in Paul.
His heart was full of wickedness, blasphemy, and persecution; his conception
of them was come unto rage and madness, and a full purpose of exercising
them all to the utmost: so the story relates it (Acts 9); so himself declares the
state to have been with him (Acts 26:9-12; 1 Tim. 1:13). In the midst of all
this violent pursuit of sin, a voice from heaven shuts up the womb and dries
the breasts of it, and he cries, “Lord, what will you have me to do?” (Acts
9:6). The same person seems to intimate that this is the way of God’s procedure
with others, even to meet them with his converting grace in the height
of their sin and folly (1 Tim. 1:16): for he himself, he says, was a pattern of
God’s dealing with others; as he dealt with him, so also would he do with
some such-like sinners: “For this cause I obtained mercy, that in me first Jesus
Christ might show forth all longsuffering, for a pattern to them which should
hereafter believe on him to life everlasting.” And we have not a few examples
of it in our own days. Sundry persons [who have been] on set purpose
going to this or that place to deride and scoff at the dispensation of the word
have been met with in the very place wherein they designed to serve their lusts
and Satan, and have been cast down at the foot of God. This way of God’s
dealing with sinners is at large set forth (Job 33:15-18). Dionysius the
Areopagite is another instance of this work of God’s grace and love. Paul is
dragged either by him or before him, to plead for his life, as “a setter forth
of strange gods,” which at Athens was death by the law. In the midst of this
frame of spirit God meets with him by converting grace, sin withers in the
womb, and he cleaves to Paul and his doctrine (Acts 17:18-34). The like dispensation
toward Israel we have (Hos. 11:7-10). But there is no need to insist
on more instances of this observation. God is pleased to leave no generation
unconvinced of this truth, if they do but attend to their own experiences and
the examples of this work of his mercy among them. Every day, one or other
is taken in the fullness of the purpose of his heart to go on in sin, in this or
that sin, and is stopped in his course by the power of converting grace.
God does it by the same grace in the renewed communications of it; that
is, by special assisting grace. This is the common way of his dealing with
believers in this case. That they also, through the deceitfulness of sin, may be
carried on to the conceiving of this or that sin, was before declared. God puts
a stop to their progress, or rather to the prevalency of the law of sin in them,
and that by giving in unto them special assistances needful for their preservation
and deliverance. As David says of himself, “His feet were almost gone,
his steps had well-nigh slipped” (Ps. 73:2)—he was at the very brink of unbelieving,
despairing thoughts and conclusions about God’s providence in the
government of the world, from whence he was recovered, as he afterwards
declares—so is it with many a believer; he is oftentimes at the very brink, at
the very door of some folly or iniquity, when God puts in by the efficacy of
actually assisting grace, and recovers them to an obediential frame of heart
again. And this is a peculiar work of Christ, wherein he manifests and exerts
his faithfulness toward his own: “He is able to succor them that are tempted”
(Heb. 2:18). It is not an absolute power, but a power clothed with mercy that
is intended—such a power as is put forth from a sense of the suffering of poor
believers under their temptations. And how does he exercise this merciful
ability toward us? He gives forth, and we find in him, “grace to help in time
of need” (Heb. 4:16)—seasonable help and assistance for our deliverance,
when we are ready to be overpowered by sin and temptation. When lust has
conceived and is ready to bring forth—when the soul lies at the brink of some
iniquity—he gives in seasonable help, relief, deliverance, and safety. Here lies
a great part of the care and faithfulness of Christ toward his poor saints. He
will not suffer them to be worried with the power of sin, nor to be carried
out unto ways that shall dishonor the gospel, or fill them with shame and
reproach, and so render them useless in the world; but he steps in with the
saving relief and assistance of his grace, stops the course of sin, and makes
them in himself more than conquerors. And this assistance lies under the
promise, “There has no temptation taken you but such as is common to man:
but God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that you are
able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that you may
be able to bear it” (1 Cor. 10:13). Temptation shall try us—it is for our good;
many holy ends does the Lord compass and bring about by it. But when we
are tried to the utmost of our ability, so that one assault more would overbear
us, a way of escape is provided. And as this may be done several ways,
as I have elsewhere declared, so this we are now upon is one of the most eminent—
namely, by supplies of grace to enable the soul to bear up, resist, and
conquer. And when once God begins to deal in this way of love with a soul,
he will not cease to add one supply after another, until the whole work of his
grace and faithfulness be accomplished; an example hereof we have (Isa.
57:17-18). Poor sinners there are so far captivated to the power of their lusts
that the first and second dealings of God with them are not effectual for their
delivery, but he will not give them over; he is in the pursuit of a design of love
toward them, and so ceases not until they are recovered. These are the general
heads of the second way whereby God hinders the bringing forth of con-
ceived sin—namely, by working on the will of the sinner. He does it either by
common convictions or special grace, so that of their own accord they shall
let go the purpose and will of sinning that they are risen up unto. And this is
no mean way of his providing for his own glory and the honor of his gospel
in the world, whose professors would stain the whole beauty of it were they
left to themselves to bring forth all the evil that is conceived in their hearts.
Besides these general ways, there is one yet more special, that at once
works both upon the power and will of the sinner, and this is the way of afflictions,
concerning which one word shall close this discourse. Afflictions, I say,
work by both these ways in reference unto conceived sin. They work providentially
on the power of the creature. When a man has conceived a sin, and
is in full purpose of the pursuit of it, God oftentimes sends a sickness and
abates his strength, or a loss cuts him short in his plenty, and so takes him off
from the pursuit of his lusts, though it may be his heart is not weaned from
them. His power is weakened, and he cannot do the evil he would. In this
sense it belongs to the first way of God’s obviating the production of sin.
Great afflictions work sometimes not from their own nature, immediately
and directly, but from the gracious purpose and intention of him that sends
them. He insinuates into the dispensation of them that of grace and power,
of love and kindness, which shall effectually take off the heart and mind from
sin: “Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now have I kept your word”
(Ps. 119:67). And in this way, because of the predominancy of renewing and
assisting grace, they belong unto the latter means, of preventing sin. And these
are some of the ways whereby it pleases God to put a stop to the progress of
sin, both in believers and unbelievers, which at present we shall instance in;
and if we would endeavor further to search out his ways unto perfection, yet
we must still conclude that it is but a little portion which we know of him.

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