2. Indwelling Sin as a Law
In this chapter Owen will explore in greater detail what he means when he talks about the “dominion” and “efficacy” of the remainders indwelling sin in the soul of a Christian. What does it mean that sin is still regarded as a “law in” believers though it is not a “law unto” them? How does it exert its power in our experience? These are important questions for all Christians to come to grips with, but especially new Christians, lest they go astray, doubting their salvation and/or commitment to the Lord. In the end, all Christians must remember and meditate on the truth that no matter how powerful they might find the law of indwelling sin (and it is powerful), the far greater fact—which Owen reminds us of at the outset—concerns the work of the Spirit, which in its power and consistency is also likened to a “law” in Romans 8:2 (cf. Eph 1:19):
8:1 There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. 8:2 For the law of the life-giving Spirit in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death.
So then, armed with the Spirit-animated truth about our salvation, let us move on to Owen’s discussion of the power of indwelling sin. Caution: Owen’s discussion of the pervasiveness of sin’s power in our lives will seem overdone by the standards of some today, but he is certainly closer the Biblical mark than any moderns. So then, let us ditch the moderns, as one writer has wisely said, and let us proceed forward with Paul, who I find Owen to properly interpret. Owen’s discussion is not just chicken soup for a hungry soul, it is good medicine for the depraved soul. There is no healing until a correct diagnosis has been given. As Karl Barth once said, “If Jesus Christ died on a cross in our place, then I guess we know what our place is!” Let us never forget that it took a cross to reconcile us to God, not just a polite conversation between two parties at odds. The problem is much worse than we 21st century techno-geniuses have psychologized—even in our more sober moments. Thus, Owen pulls no punches in discussing sin’s hold over Christians, nor is he in any way stranger to grace and power. But, the latter never seem to become a reality in our daily experience until we are literally smitten with the depth of the depravity of our own souls. “Nothing good lives in me,” that is, “in my flesh,” says the apostle of grace.
Owen says that there are two things which attend every law as law, and so it is with the law of indwelling sin. First, as a law, indwelling sin has “dominion.” Second, as a law, it carries with it punishments and rewards, depending on how one reacts to it. Let’s take a closer look at these two ideas.
“The Law Hath Dominion”
In Romans 7:1 the apostle says “the law has dominion over a man for as long as he lives.” It is in the place of a superior over the man who is properly regarded as an inferior and it is in this context that it exacts obedience from the man. But the precise relationship is a little more sophisticated than this, as Owen points out:
Now, there is a twofold dominion, as there is a twofold law. There is a moral authoritative dominion over a man and there is a real affective dominion in a man. The first is an affection of the law of God, the latter of the law of sin. The law of sin hath not in itself a moral dominion,—it hath not a rightful dominion or authority over any man; but it hath that which is equivalent unto it; whence it is said, basiluein, “to reign as king,” Rom vi. 12, and kurieuein, “to lord it,” or have dominion, verse 14, as a law in general is said to have, chap. vii.1.15
Owen is saying that the law of sin does not rightfully exercise dominion over us, but it nonetheless acts as a law within us. It is true that indwelling sin has not the same force in us as it has in those who do not know Christ’s liberating power, but again, Owen is quick to point out that it is a law in us. “And though it have not a complete, and, as it were, a rightful dominion over them, yet it will have a domination as to some things in them.”
This is a difficult point for many of us moderns to grasp and appreciate. We want quick-fixes, painless Christianity, perfect joy, and feelings of never ending bliss—in the here and now! But an implication of what Owen is saying is that this is not continuously possible in this life, for indwelling sin, though weakened considerably (through our co-crucifixion with Christ and the Spirit who now lives in our hearts), still acts with power as a law within us. The law still has efficacy!
“The Law Hath an Efficacy To Provoke”
The remainders of indwelling sin in the believer function as a law. Therefore, indwelling sin has power to act and to do so with a measure of ease. Indeed, as with any law, it exerts its power by enforcing rewards and punishments. It is precisely the rewards and punishments attached to sin that gives it its allurement and strength.
Owen uses the example of Moses to make his point. In Hebrews 11:24-27 the text says:
11:24 By faith, when he grew up, Moses refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, 11:25 choosing rather to be ill-treated with the people of God than to enjoy sin’s fleeting pleasure. 11:26 He regarded abuse suffered for Christ to be greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for his eyes were fixed on the reward. 11:27 By faith he left Egypt without fearing the king’s anger, for he persevered as though he could see the one who is invisible.
The way in which the law of sin tried to draw Moses over into a life of sin was through its reward, namely, the enjoyment of certain pleasures at the expense of doing God’s will. In this way, the “law of sin” contended against the “law of grace” and the reward of God’s peace and presence that it proposes. And indeed, this is the way sin works in all of us; hence, the writer’s use of this incident in Moses’ life.
It is by this sorry reward, as Owen calls it, that the law of sin keeps the world in its grip. But not only does the law of sin offer rewards for obedience, it also offers punishments—as any law does—for disobedience. These too ensnare men in sin.
Whatever evil, trouble, or danger in the world, attends gospel obedience,—whatever hardship or violence is to be offered to the sensual part of our natures in a strict course of mortification,—sin makes use of, as if they were punishments attending the neglect of its commands…And it is hard to say by whether [i.e., which] of these, its pretended rewards or pretended punishments, it doth most prevail, in whether of them its greatest strength doth lie.16
It is interesting to note, as Owen does, that it is generally through its rewards that it entices men to sins of commission and through its punishments—by exciting fear in people—that it leads men to sins of omission, i.e., they willfully shun necessary duties and skirt around God’s commands. In both cases, namely, sins of commission and sins of omission, the will is opposed to God and aligned with the law of sin. All too often we hear that serving God is too hard, that serving him involves “deprivation of all sensual contentments.” In this way, sin has laid hold of our hearts and is plying its trade with skill and proficiency. There is no way to stand before the power of the law of sin if a man is not willing to reject, as Moses did, the “reward-punishment” reasonings that flow from this law and instead, adopt as his measure, the will of God. The world is a perfect and ongoing example of the power of this law as men are continually unable to withstand the offer of its pseudo-rewards and punishments.
Thus indwelling sin is a law and functions as such in our experience, holding out rewards and punishments as it does. But it is not a law that comes from the outside, but a law that comes from within—and it is this fact which helps us understand more about its power. As Owen says:
It is not an outward, written, commanding, directing law, but an inbred, working, impelling, urging law. A law proposed unto us is not to be compared, for efficacy [i.e., power], to a law inbred in us. Adam had a law of sin proposed to him in his temptation; but because he had no law of sin inbred and working in him, he might have withstood it. An inbred law must needs be effectual.17
But the human race is no longer in a pre-fall state. All men are sinners, have a corrupt nature, are sold into slavery to sin, and nothing good lives in them, that is, in their flesh (Rom 7:17-23). No amount of painful circumstances, or joyous ones for that matter, and no law external to us, can extricate us from the dominion of the law of sin. Knowing that to be the case, God, in his infinite mercy and wisdom, designed a new covenant, which Jeremiah spoke about (Jer 31:31-34), in order to implant his law in our hearts in a way that would lead to our deliverance from sin’s reign and tyranny. But even under the new covenant, while the complete dominion of sin has been broken, it nonetheless still acts as a law in us. It does so in several ways that every Christian should understand if they want to successfully wage war against it (cf. 1 Pet 2:11).
It Always Abides in the Soul
The apostle Paul says repeatedly in Romans 7:17-18, 20 (cf. vv. 21, 23) that sin dwells in him and at no point does he even imply that any sanctification in this life will ever result in sinless perfection. The law of sin will always be present in us as long as we are in this body, this side of heaven. Now if sin were only to come upon us once and awhile, we might have greater success in mortification and might experience greater deliverance from its power. But the truth is—and it is often forgotten or overlooked—sin dwells in us constantly. There is a traitor in our hearts that lives there day-in and day-out. Speaking of indwelling sin Owen comments:
If it came upon the soul only at certain seasons, much obedience might be perfectly accomplished in its absence…But the soul is its home; there it dwells, and is no wanderer. Wherever you are, whatever you are about, this law of sin is always in you; in the best that you do, and in the worst. Men little consider what a dangerous companion is always at home with them…There is a living coal continually in their houses; which, if it be not looked unto, will fire [burn] them, and it may be consume them. Oh, the woful [sic] security of poor souls!18
It Is Always Ready To Apply Itself
Not only does the law of sin constantly, without any interruption, indwell us and inhabit our experience as Christians, “it is always ready to apply itself to every end and purpose that it serves unto.” The apostle Paul makes the interesting comment that “whenever I would do good, evil is right there with me” (Rom 7:21).
So it’s not just that the inmate lives in our quarters and nothing more. No. He not only lives there, but is constantly active, trying to trip us up as we move about. In fact, sometimes the more we try to do in terms of holiness, the more he tries to stop us and the worse the ensuing fight is. NOTE: There is hardly a truth more important to a committed Christian than the knowledge that she has a real enemy within who brings all sorts of trials and sinful emotions to bear on her in her zeal to serve the Lord and live a holy life. If a Christian does not realize that it is not that God hates them, but that they have a rebellious law at work in their members, she will eventually quit, claiming that it is simply too hard to serve God, be happy, and remain a sane person. She will constantly be arguing with God about why he doesn’t seem to help more than he does.
Go and pray. Share the gospel with someone. Seek to put down some lust in your soul by the power of the Spirit. Love the unlovely. Seek to obey God in some area of your life and you will find the power of this law at work It is only those who have never persevered in holiness who are oblivious to this fact. “When I would do good,” Paul says, “evil is right there with me.”
This law of sin “dwelleth in us,—that is, it adheres as a depraved principle, unto our minds in darkness and vanity, unto our affections in sensuality, unto our wills in a loathing of and aversation [sic] from that which is good…and…is continually putting itself upon us.19
It Applies Itself with Ease
Since indwelling sin acts as a law within believers it carries on its work with a level of ease. As the writer of Hebrews says, “Let us lay aside every encumbrance and the sin that so easily entangles (or “the sin that clings so closely”).” As was mentioned above, the law of sin exerts serious and continuous influence over the mind, bringing ignorance, darkness, vanity, folly, and madness. It affects the will bringing spiritual deadness, stubbornness, and obstinacy. It presses in on the affections and heart, bringing worldliness, an inordinate focus on material things and the present, increasing sensuality, and overall carnality. Therefore, as it is present in all that we are and do, it can easily bring its rewards and punishments to bear on us.
Now there are many people in the world who find no such law in themselves. Owen argues that there is a reason for this: they are wholly under the dominion of sin. They do not find darkness in their minds, because they are wholly dark and it requires some light to see the darkness! They do not find any deadness in their will toward God because they are wholly dead in their trespasses and sins and it requires at least some life to recognize deadness for what it is! In short, they are at peace with their lusts because they are in bondage to them. In this way they go through the world, greedy for what it has to offer, and gladly exchanging such temporal pleasures for eternal light, truth, and indeed, life itself.
Whence is it that so many live so unprofitably under the word, that they understand so little of what is spoken unto them, that they practice less of what they understand, and will by no means be stirred up to answer the mind of God in his calls unto them? It is all from this law of sin and the power of it, that rules and bears sway in men, that all these do proceed.20
Owen says that it is extremely important that men find this law at work in themselves so that they might abhor sin and cry out for grace. More grace Lord! Indeed, to the degree that a person sees this law at work in their members will be the degree to which they earnestly seek God for his mercy and grace. The whole course of our lives turns on our finding out this law in ourselves, for it alone is the hinge upon which our life’s direction turns.
Have you found this law at work in your experience as a Christian? If you are not a Christian and you see sin at work in your life, plying its trade with ease, come to Christ, trust him for forgiveness, cleansing, and power to overcome. If you’re a Christian already, ask God to open your eyes to your sin and the completeness of your need for grace. Let us have a diligence in this matter—diligence proportionate to our need and danger (John 15:5-6)!
The apostle Paul refers to the power of indwelling sin as a law. But it is not a law imposed from the outside, but rather an internal law impelling from within. Therefore, it has great power and efficacy in bringing about sin. As a law it offers rewards for obedience and punishments for disobedience. It always abides within us a believers (until death) and is ready at all times to ply its trade. Further, it does so with ease since it “possesses” our minds, emotions, and wills. It behooves us as Christians, then, to understand this reality because the whole course of our Christian experience is directly related to it. Our longing for, and deepening experience of God’s grace, is dependant upon our firsthand knowledge of this traitor in our souls.