Sin Chapter 16

Overcoming Sin and Temptation by John Owen

It is of the power and efficacy of indwelling sin, as it remains in several
degrees in believers, that we are treating. Now, I have elsewhere showed that
the nature and all the natural properties of it do still remain in them; though,
therefore, we cannot prove directly what is the strength of sin in them, from
what its power is in those in whom it is only checked and not at all weakened,
yet may we, from an observation thereof, caution believers of the real
power of that mortal enemy with whom they have to do.
If the plague does violently rage in one city, destroying multitudes, and
there be in another an infection of the same kind, which yet arises not unto
that height and fury there, by reason of the correction that it meets with from
a better air and remedies used, yet a man may demonstrate unto the inhabitants
the force and danger of that infection got in among them by the effects
that it has and does produce among others, who have not the benefit of the
preventives and preservatives which they enjoy; which will both teach them
to value the means of their preservation, and be the more watchful against
the power of the infection that is among them. It is so in this case. Believers
may be taught what is the power and efficacy of that plague of sin which is
in and among them by the effects the same plague produces in and among
others, who have not those corrections of its poison and those preservatives
from death which the Lord Jesus Christ has furnished them with.
Having then fixed on the demonstration of the power of sin from the
effects it does produce, and having given a double instance hereof in believers
themselves, I shall now further evidence the same truth or pursue the same
evidence of it, by showing somewhat of the power that it acts in them who
are unregenerate, and so have not the remedies against it which believers are
furnished with. I shall not handle the whole power of sin in unregenerate persons,
which is a very large field, and not the business I have in hand; but only,
by some few instances of its effects in them, intimate, as I said, unto believers
what they have to deal with—
It appears in the violence it offers to the nature of men, compelling them
unto sins fully contrary to all the principles of the reasonable nature wherewith
they are endued24 from God. Every creature of God has in its creation
a law of operation implanted in it, which is the rule of all that proceeds from
24 endowed
it, of all that it does of its own accord. So the fire ascends upwards, bodies
that are weighty and heavy descend, the water flows—each according to the
principles of their nature, which give them the law of their operation. That
which hinders them in their operation is force and violence; as that which hinders
a stone from descending or the fire from going upwards. That which
forces them to move contrary to the law of their nature, as a stone to go
upwards or the fire to descend, is in its kind the greatest violence, of which
the degrees are endless. Now, that which should take a great millstone and
fling it upwards into the air, all would acknowledge to be a matter of wonderful
force, power, and efficacy.
Man, also, has his law of operation and working concreated with him.
And this may be considered two ways—either, first, as it is common to him
with other creatures; or as peculiar, with reference unto that special end for
which he was made. Some things are, I say, in this law of nature common to
man with other creatures; as to nourish their young, to live quietly with them
of the same kind and race with them—to seek and follow after that which is
good for them in that state and condition wherein they are created. These are
things which all brute living creatures have in the law of their nature, as man
also has. But, now, besides these things, man being created in a special manner
to give glory to God by rational and moral obedience, and so to obtain
a reward in the enjoyment of him, there are many things in the law of his creation
that are peculiar to him—as to love God above all, to seek the enjoyment
of him as his chief good and last end, to inquire after his mind and will
and to yield obedience and the like; all which are part of the law of his nature.
Now, these things are not distinguished so, as though a man might perform
the actions of the law of his nature, which are common to him with
other creatures, merely from the principles of his nature, as they do; but the
law of his dependence upon God, and doing all things in obedience unto him,
passes on them all also. He can never be considered as a mere creature, but
as a creature made for the glory of God by rational, moral obedience—
rational, because by him chosen, and performed with reason; and moral,
because regulated by a law whereunto reason does attend. For instance, it is
common to man with other creatures to take care for the nourishing of his
children, of the young, helpless ones that receive their being by him. There is
implanted in him, in the principles of his nature, concreated with them, a love
and care for them; so is it with other living creatures. Now, let other creatures
answer this instinct and inclination, and be not hardened against them like
the foolish ostrich, into whom God has not implanted this natural wisdom
(Job 39:16-17), they fully answer the law of their creation. With man it is not
so. It is not enough for him to answer the instinct and secret impulse and inclination
of his nature and kind, as in the nourishing of his children; but he must
do it also in subjection to God, and obey him therein, and do it unto his
glory—the law of moral obedience passing over all his whole being and all
his operations. But in these things lie, as it were, the whole of a man, namely,
in the things which are implanted in his nature as a creature, common to him
with all other living creatures, seconded by the command or will of God, as
he is a creature capable of yielding moral obedience and doing all things for
his glory. That, then, which shall drive and compel a man to transgress this
law of his nature—which is not only as to throw millstones upward, to drive
beasts from taking care of their young, to take from cattle of the same kind
the herding of themselves in quietness, but, moreover, to cast off, what lies in
him, his fundamental dependence on God as a creature made to yield him
obedience—must needs be esteemed of great force and efficacy. Now, this is
frequently done by indwelling sin in persons unregenerate.
Let us take some few instances—
There is nothing that is more deeply inlaid in the principles of the natures
of all living creatures, and so of man himself, than a love unto and a care for
the preservation and nourishing of their young. Many brute creatures will die
for them; some feed them with their own flesh and blood; all deprive themselves
of that food which nature directs them to as their best, to impart it to
them, and act in their behalf to the utmost of their power. Now, such is the
efficacy, power, and force of indwelling sin in man—an infection that the
nature of other creatures knows nothing of—that in many it prevails to stop
this fountain, to beat back the stream of natural affections, to root up the
principles of the law of nature, and to drive them unto a neglect, a destruction
of the fruit of their own loins. Paul tells us of the old Gentiles that they
were astorgoi, “without natural affection” (Rom. 1:31).That which he aims
at is that barbarous25 custom among the Romans, who oftentimes, to spare
the trouble in the education of their children, and to be at liberty to satisfy
their lusts, destroyed their own children from the womb; so far did the
strength of sin prevail to obliterate the law of nature, and to repel the force
and power of it. Examples of this nature are common in all nations; among
ourselves, of women murdering their own children, through the deceitful reasoning
of sin. And herein sin turns the strong current of nature, darkens all
the light of God in the soul, controls all natural principles, influenced with
the power of the command and will of God. But yet this evil has, through the
25 uncivilized
efficacy of sin, received a fearful aggravation. Men have not only slain but
cruelly sacrificed their children to satisfy their lusts. The apostle reckons idolatry,
and so, consequently, all superstition, among the works of the flesh (Gal.
5:20); that is, the fruit and product of indwelling sin. Now, from hence it is
that men have offered that horrid and unspeakable violence to the law of
nature mentioned. (So the psalmist tells us in Psalm 106:37-38. The same is
again mentioned in Ezekiel 16:20-21, and in sundry other places.) The whole
manner of that abomination I have elsewhere declared.26 For the present it
may suffice to intimate that they took their children and burnt them to ashes
in a soft fire; the wicked priests that assisted in the sacrifice affording them
this relief, that they made a noise and clamor that the vile wretches might not
hear the woeful moans and cries of the poor, dying, tormented infants. I suppose
in this case we need no further evidence. Naturalists can give no rational
account, they can only admire the secret force of that little fish which, they
say, will stop a ship in full sail in the midst of the sea; and we must acknowledge
that it is beyond our power to give an account of that secret force and
unsearchable deceit that is in that inbred traitor, sin, that can not only stop
the course of nature, when all the sails of it, that carry it forward, are so filled
as they are in that of affections to children, but also drive it backward with
such a violence and force as to cause men so to deal with their own children
as a good man would not be hired with any reward to deal with his dog. And
it may not be to the disadvantage of the best to know and consider that they
carry that about them and in them which in others has produced these effects.
The like may be spoken of all other sins against the prime dictates of the
law of nature, that mankind is or has been stained and defamed with—
murder of parents and children, of wives and husbands, sodomy, incest, and
the like enormities; in all which sin prevails in men against the whole law of
their being and dependence upon God. What should I reckon up the murders
of Cain and Abel, the treason of Judas, with their aggravations; or remind
the filth and villainy of Nero, in whom sin seemed to design an instance of
what it could debase the nature of man unto? In a word, all the studied,
premeditated perjuries; all the designed, bloody revenges; all the filth and
uncleanness; all the enmity to God and his ways that is in the world—is fruit
growing from this root alone.
It evidences its efficacy in keeping men off from believing under the dispensation
of the gospel. This evidence must be a little further cleared—
Under the dispensation of the gospel, there are but few that do believe.
26 See, for example, chapter 4 of Owen’s A Dissertation on Divine Justice (Works, 10:525-541).
So the preachers of it complain, “Who has believed our report?” (Isa. 53:1),
which the apostle interprets of the paucity27 of believers (John 12:38). Our
Savior, Christ himself, tells us that “many are called”—the word is preached
unto many—“but few are chosen” [Matt. 22:14]. And so the church complains
of its number (Mic. 7:1). Few there be who enter the narrow gate
[Matt. 7:14]; daily experience confirms this woeful observation. How many
villages, parishes, yea, towns, may we go unto where the gospel, it may be,
has been preached many years, and perhaps scarce meet a true believer in
them, and one who shows forth the death of Christ in his conversation! In
the best places, and most eminent for profession, are not such persons like
the berries after the shaking of an olive-tree—two or three in the top of the
uppermost boughs, and four or five in the highest branches?
There is proposed to men in the preaching of the gospel, as motives unto
believing, everything in conjunction that severally prevails with men to do
whatever else they do in their lives. Whatever anyone does with consideration,
he does it either because it is reasonable and good for him so to do, or
profitable and advantageous, or pleasant, or, lastly, necessary for the avoidance
of evil; whatever, I say, men do with consideration, whether it be good
or evil, whether it be in the works of this life or in things that lead to another,
they do it from one or other of the reasons or motives mentioned. And, God
knows, oftentimes they are very poor and mean in their kind that men are
prevailed upon by. How often will men, for a very little pleasure, a very little
profit, be induced to do that which shall embitter their lives and damn their
souls; and what industry will they use to avoid that which they apprehend
evil or grievous to them! And any one of these is enough to oil the wheels of
men’s utmost endeavors, and set men at work to the purpose. But now all
these things center in the proposal of the gospel and the command of believing;
and every one of them in a kind that the whole world can propose nothing
like unto it—
It is the most reasonable thing that can be proposed to the understanding
of a man, that he who, through his own default, has lost that way of
bringing glory to God and saving his own soul (for which ends he was made)
that he was first placed in, should accept of and embrace that other blessed,
easy, safe, excellent way for the attaining of the ends mentioned, which God,
in infinite grace, love, mercy, wisdom, and righteousness, has found out, and
does propose unto him. And—
It is the most profitable thing that a man can possibly be invited unto, if
27 smallness of number
there be any profit or benefit, any advantage, in the forgiveness of sins, in the
love and favor of God, in a blessed immortality, in eternal glory. And—
It is most pleasant also. Surely it is a pleasant thing to be brought out of
darkness into light—out of a dungeon unto a throne—from captivity and
slavery to Satan and cursed lusts, to the glorious liberty of the children of
God, with a thousand heavenly sweetnesses not now to be mentioned. And—
It is surely necessary, and that not only from the command of God, who
has the supreme authority over us, but also indispensably so, for the avoidance
of eternal ruin of body and soul (Mark 16:16). It is constantly proposed
under these terms: “Believe, or you perish under the weight of the wrath of
the great God, and that forevermore.” But now, notwithstanding that all
these considerations are preached unto men, and pressed upon them in the
name of the great God from day to day, from one year to another, yet, as was
before observed, very few there are who set their hearts unto them, so as to
embrace that which they lead unto. Tell men ten thousand times that this is
wisdom, yea, riches—that all their profit lies in it—that they will assuredly
and eternally perish, and that, it may be, within a few hours, if they receive
not the gospel; assure them that it is their only interest and concern; let them
know that God himself speaks all this unto them—yet all is one, they regard
it not, set not their hearts unto it, but, as it were, plainly say, “We will have
nothing to do with these things.” They will rather perish in their lusts than
accept of mercy.
It is indwelling sin that both disenables men unto and hinders them from
believing, and that alone. Blindness of mind, stubbornness of the will, sensuality
of the affections, all concur to keep poor perishing souls at a distance
from Christ. Men are made blind by sin, and cannot see his excellencies;
obstinate, and will not lay hold of his righteousness; senseless, and take no
notice of their own eternal concerns. Now, certainly that which can prevail
with men wise, and sober, and prudent in other things, to neglect and despise
the love of God, the blood of Christ, the eternal welfare of their own souls,
upon weak and worthless pretenses, must be acknowledged to have an astonishable
force and efficacy accompanying it.
Whose heart, who has once heard of the ways of God, can but bleed to
see poor souls eternally perishing under a thousand gracious invitations to
accept of mercy and pardon in the blood of Christ? And can we but be astonished
at the power of that principle from whence it is that they run headlong
to their own destruction? And yet all this befalls them from the power and
deceit of sin that dwells in them.
It is evident in their total apostasies. Many men not really converted are
much wrought upon by the word. The apostle tells us that they do “clean
escape from them that live in error” (2 Pet. 2:18). They separate themselves
from idolatry and false worship, owning and professing the truth: and they
also escape the “pollutions of the world” (v. 20); that is, “the corruption that
is in the world through lust,” as he expresses it (2 Pet. 1:4)—those filthy, corrupt,
and unclean ways which the men of the world, in the pursuit of their
lusts, do walk and live in. These they escape from, in the amendment28 of their
lives and ordering of their conversation according to the convictions which
they have from the word; for so he tells us that all this is brought about
“through the knowledge of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ”—that is, by the
preaching of the gospel. They are so far wrought upon as to forsake all ways
of false worship, to profess the truth, to reform their lives, and to walk
answerable to the convictions that are upon them. By this means do they gain
the reputation of professors: “They have a name to live” (Rev. 3:1), and are
made “partakers” of some or all of those privileges of the gospel that are
numbered by the apostle (Heb. 6:4-5). It is not my present business to show
how far or wherein a man may be effectually wrought upon by the word, and
yet not be really wrought over to close with Christ, or what may be the
utmost bounds and limits of a common work of grace upon unregenerate
men. It is on all hands confessed that it may be carried on so far that it is very
difficult to discern between its effects and productions and those of that grace
which is special and saving. But now, notwithstanding all this, we see many
of these daily fall off from God, utterly and wickedly; some into debauchery
and uncleanness, some to worldliness and covetousness, some to be persecutors
of the saints—all to the perdition29 of their own souls. How this comes
about the apostle declares in that place mentioned. “They are,” says he,
“entangled again.” To entice and entangle (as I have showed before from
James 1:14-15) is the proper work of indwelling sin; it is that alone which
entangles the soul, as the apostle speaks (2 Pet. 2:18, 20). They are allured
from their whole profession into cursed apostasy through the lusts of the
flesh. It prevails upon them, through its deceit and power, to an utter relinquishment
of their profession and their whole engagement unto God. And
this several ways evinces the greatness of its strength and efficacy—
In that it gives stop or control unto that exceeding greatness of power
which is put forth in the word in their conviction and reformation.We see it
by experience that men are not easily wrought upon by the word; the most
28 moral improvement, reformation
29 ruin, damnation, destruction
of men can live under the dispensation of it all the days of their lives, and continue
as senseless and stupid as the seats they sit upon, or the flint in the rock
of stone. Mighty difficulties and prejudices must be conquered, great strokes
must be given to the conscience, before this can be brought about. It is as the
stopping of a river in his course, and turning his streams another way; the
hindering of a stone in his falling downwards; or the turning away of the wild
ass, when furiously set to pursue his way, as the prophet speaks (Jer. 2:24).
To turn men from their corrupt ways, sins, and pleasures; to make them pray,
fast, hear, and do many things contrary to the principle of flesh, which is
secretly predominant in them, willingly and gladly; to cause them to profess
Christ and the gospel, it may be under some trials and reproaches; to give
them light to see into sundry mysteries, and gifts for the discharge of sundry
duties; to make dead, blind, senseless men to walk, and talk, and do all the
outward offices and duties of living and healthy men, with the like attendancies
of conviction and reformation, are the effects and products of mighty
power and strength. Indeed, the power that the Holy Ghost puts forth by the
word, in the staggering and conviction of sinners, in the wakening of their
consciences, the enlightening of their minds, the changing of their affections,
the awing of their hearts, the reforming of their lives and compelling them to
duties, is inexpressible. But now unto all these is there check and control given
by indwelling sin. It prevails against this whole work of the Spirit by the word,
with all the advantages of providential dispensations, in afflictions and mercies,
wherewith it is attended. When sin is once enraged, all these things
become but like the withes and cords wherewith Samson was bound before
his head was shaven. Cry but to it, “The Philistines are upon you; there is a
subtle, a suitable temptation; now show your strength and efficacy”—all
these things become like tow that has smelt the fire30; conscience is stifled, reputation
in the church of God despised, light supplanted, the impressions of
the word cast off, convictions digested, heaven and hell are despised: sin
makes its way through all, and utterly turns the soul from the good and right
ways of God. Sometimes it does this subtly, by imperceptible degrees, taking
off all force of former impressions from the Spirit by the word, sullying conscience
by degrees, hardening the heart, and making sensual the affections by
various workings, that the poor backslider in heart scarce knows what he is
doing, until he comes to the very bottom of all impiety, profaneness, and
enmity against God. Sometimes, falling in conjunction with some vigorous
30 coarse flax (tow) that has been charred or, perhaps, has caused the fire to smolder
temptation, it suddenly and at once plunges the soul into a course of alienation
from God and the profession of his ways.
It takes them off from those hopes of heaven which, upon their convictions,
obedience, and temporary faith or believing, they had attained. There
is a general hope of heaven, or at least of the escaping of hell, of an untroublesome
immortality, in the most sottish31 and stupid souls in the world, who,
either by tradition or instruction from the word, are persuaded that there is
another state of things to come after this life; but it is, in unconvinced, unenlightened
persons, a dull, senseless, unaffecting thing, that has no other hold
upon them nor power in them but only to keep them free from the trouble
and perplexity of contrary thoughts and apprehensions. The matter is otherwise
with them who by the word are so wrought upon as we have before
declared; their hope of heaven and a blessed immortality is oftentimes accompanied
with great joys and exultations, and is a relief unto them under and
against the worst of their fears and trials. It is such as they would not part
with for all the world; and upon all occasions they retreat in their minds unto
it for comfort and relief.
Now, all this by the power of sin are they prevailed with to forego. Let
heaven go if it will, a blessed immortality with the enjoyment of God himself,
sin must be served, and provision made to fulfill the lusts thereof. If a
man, in the things of this world, had such a hope of a large inheritance, of a
kingdom, as wherein he is satisfied that it will not fail him, but that in the
issue he shall surely enjoy it, and lead a happy and a glorious life in the possession
of it many days; if one should go to him and tell him, “It is true, the
kingdom you look for is an ample and honorable dominion, full of all good
things desirable, and you may attain it; but come, cast away all hopes and
expectations of it, and come join with me in the service and slavery of such
or such an oppressing tyrant”—you will easily grant he must have some
strange bewitching power with him, that should prevail with a man in his wits
to follow his advice. Yet thus it is, and much more so, in the case we have in
hand. Sin itself cannot deny but that the kingdom of heaven, which the soul
is in hope and expectation of, is glorious and excellent, nor does it go about
to convince him that his thoughts of it are vain and such as will deceive him,
but plainly prevails with him to cast away his hopes, to despise his kingdom
that he was in expectation of, and that upon no other motive but that he may
serve some worldly, cruel, or filthy and sensual lust. Certainly here lies a secret
efficacy whose depths cannot be fathomed.
31 foolish, especially as it relates to drunkenness
The apostle manifests the power of the entanglements of sin in and upon
apostates, in that it turns them off from the way of righteousness after they
have known it (2 Pet. 2:21). It will be found at the last day an evil thing and
a bitter [thing] that men live all their days in the service of sin, self, and the
world, refusing to make any trial of the ways of God, whereunto they are
invited. Though they have no experience of their excellency, beauty, pleasantness,
safety; yet, having evidence brought unto them from God himself that
they are so, the refusal of them will, I say, be bitterness in the latter end. But
their condition is yet far worse, who, as the apostle speaks, “having known
the way of righteousness,” are by the power of indwelling sin “turned aside
from the holy commandment.” To leave God for the devil, after a man has
made some trial of him and his service—heaven for hell, after a man has had
some cheering, refreshing thoughts of it—the fellowship of the saints for an
ale-house or a brothel-house, after a man has been admitted unto their communion,
and tasted of the pleasantness of it; to leave walking in pure, clear,
straight paths, to wallow in mire, draughts and filth—this will be for a lamentation:
yet this does sin prevail upon apostates unto; and that against all their
light, conviction, experiences, professions, engagements, or whatever may be
strong upon them to keep them up to the known ways of righteousness.
It evinces its strength in them by prevailing with them unto a total renunciation
of God as revealed in Christ, and the power of all gospel truth—in
the sin against the Holy Ghost. I do not now precisely determine what is the
sin against the Holy Ghost, nor wherein it does consist. There are different
apprehensions of it. All agree in this, that by it an end is put to all dealings
between God and man in a way of grace. It is a sin unto death. And this does
the hardness and blindness of many men’s hearts bring them to; they are by
them at length set out of the reach of mercy. They choose to have no more to
do with God; and God swears that they shall never enter into his rest: so sin
brings forth death. A man by it is brought to renounce the end for which he
was made, willfully to reject the means of his coming to the enjoyment of
God, to provoke him to his face, and so to perish in his rebellion. I have not
mentioned these things as though I hoped by them to set out to the full the
power of indwelling sin in unregenerate men; only by a few instances I
thought to give a glimpse of it. He that would have a fuller view of it had need
only to open his eyes, to take a little view of that wickedness which reigns,
yea, rages all the world over. Let him consider the prevailing flood of the
things mentioned by Paul to be “the fruits of the flesh” (Gal. 5:19-21)—that
is, among the sons of men, in all places, nations, cities, towns, parishes; and
then let him add thereunto but this one consideration, that the world, which
is full of the steam, filth, and blood of these abominations, as to their outward
actings of them, is a pleasant garden, a paradise, compared to the heart
of man, wherein they are all conceived, and hourly millions of more vile
abominations, which, being stifled in the womb by some of the ways before
insisted on, they are never able to bring forth to light—let a man, I say, using
the law for his light and rule, take this course, and if he have any spiritual
discerning, he may quickly attain satisfaction in this matter. And I showed in
the entrance of this discourse how this consideration does fully confirm the
truth proposed.

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