Sin Chapter 17

Overcoming Sin and Temptation by John Owen

The measure of the strength of any person or defensed city may be well taken
from the opposition that they are able to withstand and not be prevailed
against. If we hear of a city that has endured a long siege from a potent enemy,
and yet is not taken or conquered, whose walls have endured great batteries
and are not demolished, though we have never seen the place, yet we conclude
it [is] strong, if not impregnable.
And this consideration will also evidence the power and strength of
indwelling sin. It is able to hold out, and not only to live, but also to secure
its reign and dominion, against very strong opposition that is made to it. I
shall instance only in the opposition that is made unto it by the law, which is
oftentimes great and terrible, always fruitless; all its assaults are borne by it,
and it is not prevailed against. There are sundry things wherein the law
opposes itself to sin, and the power of it; as—
It discovers it. Sin in the soul is like a secret hectical distemper in the
body—its being unknown and unperceived is one great means of its prevalency;
or as traitors in a civil state—while they lie hid, they vigorously carry
on their design. The greatest part of men in the world know nothing of this
sickness, yea, death of their souls. Though they have been taught somewhat
of the doctrine of it, yet they know nothing of its power. They know it not so
as to deal with it as their mortal enemy, as a man, whatever he be told, cannot
be said to know that he has a hectical fever, if he love his life, and set not
himself to stop its progress. This, then, the law does—it discovers this enemy;
it convinces the soul that there is such a traitor harboring in its bosom: “I had
not known sin, but by the law: for I had not known lust, except the law had
said, You shall not covet” (Rom. 7:7). “I had not known it,” that is, fully,
clearly, distinctly. Conscience will somewhat tumultuate about it; but a man
cannot know it clearly and distinctly from thence. It gives a man such a sight
of it as the blind man had in the gospel upon the first touch of his eyes: “He
saw men like trees walking” [Mark 8:24]—obscurely, confusedly. But when
the law comes, that gives the soul a distinct sight of this indwelling sin. Again,
“I had not known it,” that is, the depths of it, the root, the habitual inclination
of my nature to sin, which is here called “lust” (as it is in James 1:14). “I
had not known it,” or not known it to be sin, “but by the law.” This, then,
the law does—it draws out this traitor from secret lurking places, the intimate
recedes of the soul. A man, when the law comes, is no more ignorant of his
enemy. If he will now perish by him, it is openly and knowingly; he cannot but
say that the law warned him of him, discovered him unto him, yea, and raised
a concourse32 about him in the soul of various affections, as an officer does
that discovers a thief or robber, calling out for assistance to apprehend him.
The law not only discovers sin, but discovers it to be a very bad inmate,
dangerous, yea, pernicious to the soul: “Was then that which is good”—that
is, the law—“made death unto me? God forbid. But sin, that it might appear
sin, working death in me by that which is good; that sin by the commandment
might become exceeding sinful” (Rom. 7:13). There are many things in this
verse wherein we are not at present concerned: that which I only aim at is the
manifestation of sin by the law—it appears to be sin; and the manifestation of
it in its own colors—it appears to be exceeding sinful. The law gives the soul
to know the filth and guilt of this indwelling sin—how great they are, how vile
it is, what an abomination, what an enmity to God, how hated of him. The soul
shall never more look upon it as a small matter, whatsoever thoughts it had of
it before, whereby it is greatly surprised. As a man that finds himself somewhat
distempered, sending for a physician of skill, when he comes requires his judgment
of his distemper; he, considering his condition, tells him, “Alas! I am sorry
for you; the case is far otherwise with you than you imagine: your disease is
mortal, and it has proceeded so far, pressing upon your spirits and infecting the
whole mass of your blood, that I doubt, unless most effectual remedies be used,
you will live but a very few hours”—so it is in this case. A man may have some
trouble in his mind and conscience about indwelling sin; he finds all not so well
as it should be with him, more from the effects of sin and its continual eruptions
than the nature of it, which he hopes to wrestle with. But now, when the
32 running together, flowing together, meeting of things
law comes, that lets the soul know that its disease is deadly and mortal, that it
is exceeding sinful, as being the root and cause of all his alienation from God;
and thus also the law proceeds against it.
The law judges the person, or lets the sinner plainly know what he is to
expect upon the account of this sin. This is the law’s proper work; its discovering
property is but preparative to its judging. The law is itself when it
is in the throne. Here it minces not the matter with sinners, as we use to do
one with another, but tells him plainly, “‘You’ are the ‘man’ in whom this
exceeding sinful sin does dwell, and you must answer for the guilt of it.” And
this, methinks, if anything, should rouse up a man to set himself in opposition
to it, yea, utterly to destroy it. The law lets him know that upon the
account of this sin he is obnoxious to the curse and wrath of the great God
against him; yea, pronounces the sentence of everlasting condemnation upon
him upon that account. “Abide in this state and perish,” is its language. It
leaves not the soul without this warning in this world, and will leave it without
excuse on that account in the world to come.
The law so follows on its sentence, that it disquiets and affrights the soul,
and suffers it not to enjoy the least rest or quietness in harboring its sinful
inmate. Whenever the soul has indulged to its commands, made provision for
it, immediately the law flies upon it with the wrath and terror of the Lord,
makes it quake and tremble. It shall have no rest, but is like a poor beast that
has a deadly arrow sticking in its sides, that makes it restless wherever it is
and whatsoever it does.
The law stays not here, but also it slays the soul (Rom. 7:9); that is, by
its conviction of the nature, power, and desert of this indwelling sin, it
deprives him in whom it is of all that life of self-righteousness and hope which
formerly he sustained himself with—it leaves him as a poor, dead, helpless,
hopeless creature; and all this in the pursuit of that opposition that it makes
against this sin. May we not now expect that the power of it will be quelled
and its strength broken—that it will die away before these strokes of the law
of God? But the truth is, such is its power and strength that it is quite otherwise.
Like him whom the poets feign33 to be born of the earth, when one
thought to slay him by casting him on the ground, by every fall he recovered
new strength, and was more vigorous than formerly34; so is it with all the falls
and repulses that are given to indwelling sin by the law: for—
33 pretend, imagine, as in fictional writing
34 referring to Antaeus, son of Poseidon and Gaia, who was later killed in mid-air by Hercules, who discovered
Antaeus’s secret
It is not conquered. A conquest infers two things in respect of the conquered—
first, loss of dominion; and, secondly, loss of strength. Whenever
anyone is conquered he is despoiled35 of both these; he loses both his authority
and his power. So the strong man armed, being prevailed against, he is
bound, and his goods are spoiled. But now neither of these befalls indwelling
sin by the assaults of the law. It loses not one jot of its dominion nor strength
by all the blows that are given unto it. The law cannot do this thing (Rom.
8:3); it cannot deprive sin of its power and dominion, for he that “is under
the law is also under sin”—that is, whatever power the law gets upon the conscience
of a man, so that he fear to sin, lest the sentence and curse of it should
befall him, yet sin still reigns and rules in his heart. Therefore says the apostle,
“Sin shall not have dominion over you: for you are not under the law, but
under grace” (Rom. 6:14); intimating plainly, that though a person be in
never so much subjection to the authority of the law, yet that will not exempt
and acquit him from the dominion of sin. Yea, the law, by all its work upon
the soul, instead of freeing and acquitting it from the reign of sin and
bondage unto it, does accidentally36 greatly increase its misery and bondage,
as the sentence of the judge on the bench against a malefactor37 adds to his
misery. The soul is under the dominion of sin, and, it may be, abides in its
woeful condition in much security, fearing neither sin nor judgment. The law
setting upon him in this condition, by all the ways aforementioned, brings
him into great trouble and perplexity, fear and terror, but delivers him not at
all. So that it is with the soul as it was with the Israelites when Moses had
delivered his message unto Pharaoh; they were so far from getting liberty by
it that their bondage was increased, and “they found that they were in a very
evil case” (Ex. 5:19). Yea, and we shall see that sin does like Pharaoh; finding
its rule disturbed, it grows more outrageously oppressive and doubles the
bondage of their souls. This is not, then, the work of the law, to destroy sin,
or deprive it of that dominion which it has by nature. Nor does it, by all these
strokes of the law, lose anything of its strength; it continues both its authority
and its force; it is neither destroyed nor weakened; yea—
It is so far from being conquered that it is only enraged. The whole work
of the law does only provoke and enrage sin, and cause it, as it has opportunity,
to put out its strength with more power, and vigor, and force than formerly.
This the apostle shows at large, Romans 7:9-13. But you will say, “Do
35 robbed, plundered
36 non-essentially, incidentally
37 criminal
we not see it by experience, that many are wrought upon by the preaching of
the law to a relinquishment of many sins and amendment of their lives, and
to a great contending against the eruptions of those other corruptions which
they cannot yet mortify? And it cannot be denied but that great is the power
and efficacy of the law when preached and applied to the conscience in a due
manner.” I answer—
It is acknowledged that very great and effectual is the power of the law
of God. Great are the effects that are wrought by it, and it shall surely
accomplish every end for which of God it is appointed. But yet the subduing
of sin is none of its work—it is not designed of God unto that purpose;
and therefore it is no dishonor if it cannot do that which is not its proper
work (Rom. 8:3).
Whatever effects it have upon some, yet we see that in the most, such is
the power and prevalency of sin, that it takes no impression at all upon them.
May you not see everywhere men living many years in congregations where
the law is powerfully preached, and applied unto the consciences as to all the
ends and purposes for which the Lord is pleased to make use of it, and not
once be moved by it—that receive no more impression from the stroke of it
than blows with a straw would give to an adamant?38 They are neither convinced
by it, nor terrified, nor awed, nor instructed; but continue deaf, ignorant,
senseless, secure, as if they had never been told of the guilt of sin or
terror of the Lord. Such as these are congregations full of, who proclaim the
triumphing power of sin over the dispensation of the law.
When any of the effects mentioned are wrought, it is not from the power
of the letter of the law, but from the actual efficacy of the Spirit of God
putting forth his virtue and power for that end and purpose; and we deny not
but that the Spirit of the Lord is able to restrain and quell the power of lust
when he pleases, and some ways whereby he is pleased so to do we have formerly
considered. But—
Notwithstanding all that may be observed of the power of the law upon
the souls of men, yet it is most evident that lust is not conquered, not subdued,
nor mortified by it; for—
Though the course of sin may be repelled for a season by the dispensation
of the law, yet the spring and fountain of it is not dried up thereby.
Though it withdraws and hides itself for a season, it is, as I have elsewhere
showed, but to shift out of a storm, and then to return again. As a traveler,
in his way meeting with a violent storm of thunder and rain, immediately
38 a diamond or any very hard substance
turns out of his way to some house or tree for his shelter, but yet this causes
him not to give over his journey—so soon as the storm is over he returns to
his way and progress again; so it is with men in bondage unto sin. They are
in a course of pursuing their lusts; the law meets with them in a storm of thunder
and lightning from heaven, terrifies and hinders them in their way. This
turns them for a season out of their course; they will run to prayer or amendment
of life, for some shelter from the storm of wrath which is feared coming
upon their consciences. But is their course stopped? Are their principles
altered? Not at all; so soon as the storm is over, [so] that they begin to wear
out that sense and the terror that was upon them, they return to their former
course in the service of sin again. This was the state with Pharaoh once and
In such seasons sin is not conquered, but diverted. When it seems to fall
under the power of the law, indeed it is only turned into a new channel; it is
not dried up. If you go and set a dam against the streams of a river, so that
you suffer no water to pass in the old course and channel, but it breaks out
another way, and turns all its streams in a new course, you will not say you
have dried up that river, though some that come and look into the old channel
may think, perhaps, that the waters are utterly gone. So is it in this case.
The streams of sin, it may be, run in open sensuality and profaneness, in
drunkenness and viciousness; the preaching of the law sets a dam against
these courses—conscience is terrified, and the man dares not walk in the ways
wherein he has been formerly engaged. His companions in sin, not finding
him in his old ways, begin to laugh at him, as one that is converted and growing
precise; professors themselves begin to be persuaded that the work of God
is upon his heart, because they see his old streams dried up: but if there have
been only a work of the law upon him, there is a dam put to his course, but
the spring of sin is not dried up, only the streams of it are turned another way.
It may be the man is fallen upon other more secret or more spiritual sins; or
if he be beat from them also, the whole strength of lust and sin will take up
its residence in self-righteousness, and pour out thereby as filthy streams as
in any other way whatsoever. So that notwithstanding the whole work of the
law upon the souls of men, indwelling sin will keep alive in them still: which
is another evidence of its great power and strength. I shall yet touch upon
some other evidences of the same truth that I have under consideration; but
I shall be brief in them.
In the next place, then, the great endeavors of men ignorant of the righteousness
of Christ, for the subduing and mortifying of sin, which are all fruitless,
do evidence the great strength and power of it. Men who have no
strength against sin may yet be made sensible of the strength of sin. The way
whereby, for the most part, they come to that knowledge is by some previous
sense that they have of the guilt of sin. This men have by the light of their
consciences; they cannot avoid it. This is not a thing in their choice; whether
they will or not, they cannot but know sin to be evil, and that such an evil
that renders them obnoxious to the judgment of God. This galls the minds
and consciences of some so far as that they are kept in awe, and dare not sin
as they would. Being awed with a sense of the guilt of sin and the terror of
the Lord, men begin to endeavor to abstain from sin, at least from such sins
as they have been most terrified about. While they have this design in hand,
the strength and power of sin begins to discover itself unto them. They begin
to find that there is something in them that is not in their own power; for,
notwithstanding their resolutions and purposes, they sin still, and that so, or
in such a manner, as that their consciences inform them that they must therefore
perish eternally. This puts them on self-endeavors to suppress the eruption
of sin, because they cannot be quiet unless so they do, nor have any rest
or peace within. Now, being ignorant of that only way whereby sin is to be
mortified—that is, by the Spirit of Christ—they fix on many ways in their
own strength to suppress it, if not to slay it; as being ignorant of that only
way whereby consciences burdened with the guilt of sin may be pacified—
that is, by the blood of Christ—they endeavor, by many other ways, to
accomplish that end in vain: for no man, by any self-endeavors, can obtain
peace with God. Some of the ways whereby they endeavor to suppress the
power of sin, which casts them into an unquiet condition, and their insufficiency
for that end, we must look into—
They will promise and bind themselves by vows from those sins which
they have been most liable unto, and so have been most perplexed with. The
psalmist shows this to be one great engine whereby false and hypocritical persons
do endeavor to extricate and deliver themselves out of trouble and perplexity.
They make promises to God, which he calls flattering him with the
mouth (Ps. 78:36). So is it in this case. Being freshly galled with the guilt of
any sin, that, by the power of their temptations, they, it may be, have frequently
been overtaken in, they vow and promise that, at least for some such
space of time as they will limit, they will not commit that sin again; and this
course of proceeding is prescribed unto them by some who pretend to direct
their consciences in this duty. Conscience of this now makes them watch over
themselves as to the outward act of the sin that they are galled with; and so
it has one of these two effects—for either they do abstain from it for the time
they have prefixed, or they do not. If they do not, as seldom they do, espe-
cially if it be a sin that has a peculiar root in their nature and constitution,
and is improved by custom into a habit, if any suitable temptation be presented
unto them, their sin is increased, and therewith their terror, and they
are woefully discouraged in making any opposition to sin; and therefore, for
the most part, after one or two vain attempts, or more, it may be, knowing
no other way to mortify sin but this of vowing against it, and keeping of that
vow in their own strength, they give over all contests, and become wholly the
servants of sin, being bounded only by outward considerations, without any
serious endeavors for a recovery. Or, secondly, suppose that they have success
in their resolutions, and do abstain from actual sins their appointed season,
commonly one of these two things ensues—either they think that they
have well discharged their duty, and so may a little now, at least for a season,
indulge to their corruptions and lusts, and so are entangled again in the same
snares of sin as formerly; or else they reckon that their vow and promise has
preserved them, and so sacrifice to their own net and drag, setting up a righteousness
of their own against the grace of God—which is so far from weakening
indwelling sin, that it strengthens it in the root and principle, that it may
hereafter reign in the soul in security. Or, at the most, the best success that
can be imagined unto this way of dealing with sin is but the restraining of
some outward eruptions of it, which tends nothing to the weakening of its
power; and therefore such persons, by all their endeavors, are very far from
being freed from the inward toiling, burning, disquieting, perplexing power
of sin. And this is the state of most men that are kept in bondage under the
power of conviction. Hell, death, and the wrath of God, are continually presented
unto their consciences; this makes them labor with all their strength
against that in sin which most enrages their consciences and most increases
their fears—that is, the actual eruption of it: for, for the most part, while they
are freed from that they are safe, though, in the meantime, sin lies tumultuating
in and defiling of the heart continually. As with running sores, outward
repelling medicines may skin them over, and hinder their corruption
from coming forth, but the issue of them is that they cause them to fester
inwardly, and so prove, though it may be not so noisome and offensive as they
were before, yet far more dangerous: so is it with this repelling of the power
of corruption by men’s vows and promises against it—external eruptions are,
it may be, restrained for a season, but the inward root and principle is not
weakened in the least. And most commonly this is the issue of this way: that
sin, having gotten more strength, and being enraged by its restraint, breaks
all its bounds, and captivates the soul unto all filthy abominations; which is
the principle, as was before observed, of most of the visible apostasies which
we have in the world (2 Pet. 2:19-20). The Holy Ghost compares sinners,
because of the odious, fierce, poisonous nature of this indwelling sin, unto
lions, bears, and asps (Isa. 11:6-9). Now, this is the excellency of gospel grace,
that it changes the nature and inward principles of these otherwise passionate
and untamed beasts, making the wolf as the kid, the lion as the lamb, and
the bear as the cow. When this is effected, they may safely be trusted in—“a
little child may lead them” [Isa. 11:6]. But these self-endeavors do not at all
change the nature, but restrain their outward violence. He that takes a lion
or a wolf and shuts him up from ravening,39 while yet his inward violence
remains, may well expect that at one time or other they will break their
bonds, and fall to their former ways of rapine and violence. However shutting
them up does not, as we see, change their natures, but only restrain their
rage from doing open spoil. So it is in this case: it is grace alone that changes
the heart and takes away that poison and fierceness that is in them by nature;
men’s self-endeavors do but coerce them as to some outward eruptions. But—
Beyond bare vows and promises, with some watchfulness to observe
them in a rational use of ordinary means, men have put, and some do yet put,
themselves on extraordinary ways of mortifying sin. This is the foundation
of all that has a show of wisdom and religion in the papacy: their hours of
prayer, fastings; their immuring40 and cloistering themselves; their pilgrimages,
penances, and self-torturing discipline—spring all from this root. I shall
not speak of the innumerable evils that have attended these self-invented ways
of mortification, and how they all of them have been turned into means, occasions,
and advantages of sinning; nor of the horrible hypocrisy which evidently
cleaves unto the most of their observers; nor of that superstition which
gives life to them all, being a thing riveted in the natures of some and their
constitutions, fixed on others by inveterate41 prejudices, and the same by others
taken up for secular advantages. But I will suppose the best that can be
made of it, and it will be found to be a self-invented design of men ignorant
of the righteousness of God, to give a check to this power of indwelling sin
whereof we speak. And it is almost incredible what fearful self-macerations42
and horrible sufferings this design has carried men out unto; and, undoubtedly,
their blind zeal and superstition will rise in judgment and condemn the
horrible sloth and negligence of the most of them to whom the Lord has
granted the saving light of the gospel. But what is the end of these things? The
39 seeking prey, devouring
40 confining within walls
41 hardened, habitual, deep-rooted
42 self-inflicted starvation, emaciation
apostle, in brief, gives us an account (Rom. 9:31-32). They attain not the righteousness
aimed at; they come not up unto a conformity to the law: sin is not
mortified, no, nor the power of it weakened; but what it loses in sensual, in
carnal pleasures, it takes up with great advantage in blindness, darkness,
superstition, self-righteousness, and soul-pride, contempt of the gospel and
the righteousness of it, and reigns no less than in the most profligate sinners
in the world.
The strength, efficacy, and power of this law of sin may be further evidenced
from its life and in-being in the soul, notwithstanding the wound that
is given unto it in the first conversion of the soul to God; and in the continual
opposition that is made unto it by grace. But this is the subject and design
of another endeavor.
It may now be expected that we should here add the special uses of all
this discovery that has been made of the power, deceit, prevalency, and success
of this great adversary of our souls. But as for what concerns that humility,
self-abasement, watchfulness, diligence, and application unto the Lord
Christ for relief, which will become those who find in themselves, by experience,
the power of this law of sin, [these] have been occasionally mentioned
and inculcated through the whole preceding discourse; so, for what concerns
the actual mortification of it, I shall only recommend unto the reader, for his
direction, another small treatise, written long since, unto that purpose, which
I suppose he may do well to consider together with this, if he find these things
to be his concern.43 “To the only wise God our Savior, be glory and majesty,
dominion and power, both now and ever. Amen” [Rom. 16:27].
43 See Owen’s Of the Mortification of Sin in Believers, reprinted in this volume.

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