The principle text from which John Owen builds his understanding of the power of indwelling sin in the life of the Christian—and from which his whole discussion of this issues springs—is Romans 7:21. He translates the passage as follows: “I find then a law, that, when I would do good, evil is present with me.” From this passage Owen gleans four general truths which he outlines in chapter one. They are: (1) there is an exceeding efficacy and power in the remainders of indwelling sin in the Christian and it constantly works toward evil; (2) believers do indeed experience the power and efficacy of indwelling sin; (3) by the sheer grace of God there is maintained and developed in the believer a desire to do the good, notwithstanding the power and efficacy of indwelling sin, and (4) indwelling sin is most operative and inclining to evil when the will of doing good is active in a particular manner and inclining toward obedience.
Having laid the groundwork in chapter one, Owen moves on in chapter two to discuss the power of indwelling sin according to Paul’s description of it as a “law.” A “law,” the Puritan says, has both “dominion” as well as “efficacy to provoke” (i.e., with thoughts of reward and punishment). Owen rightly nuances the concept of dominion by explaining that while the Christian is not under the complete and hopeless dominion of sin in the same way as a person who does not know Christ, indwelling sin is nonetheless a law in them, though not a controlling law unto them. He says:
But even in them it [sin] is a law still; though not a law unto them, yet, as was said, it is a law in them. 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. It is still a law, and that in them; so that all its actings are the actings of a law,—that is, it acts with power, though it have lost its complete power of ruling in them. Though it be weakened, yet its nature is not changed.28
In concluding chapter two, Owen lays stress on three facts that give indwelling sin its power: (1) it always abides in the soul; thus all claims to complete sanctification are mere delusions; (2) it is always ready to apply itself to sinful ends, and (3) since it is an indwelling law (and not something applied from without), it is able to ply its trade with ease and success. Thus in chapters one and two Owen gives general reasons indwelling sin is referred to as a “law.” In chapter’s three through five, he will develop three more particular reasons indwelling sin has such great power.
In chapter three Owen searches out another reason indwelling sin wars relentlessly with apparently endless power, namely, because of its connection to the heart. Indeed, the heart is the center of person’s moral and spiritual life and it is here that our enemy dwells; the heart is his fortress, the citadel from which he launches his attacks. But it is the nature of the fallen human heart that aggravates the situation.
There are two properties, in particular, of the heart, that enable sin to mount such vicious offensives. First, according to Jeremiah 17:9 the heart is unsearchable. No one can completely understand it, save God and him alone. Second, and in keeping with the first problem, the heart is deceitful, exceedingly so (cf. Gen 6:5). Its deceitfulness is seen in its numerous contradictions and false promises concerning full obedience to God. Regarded as such, the heart increases the strength of sin.
So, there’s a quick review of chapter’s one through three. In chapter four, Owen will discuss the nature of sin itself as enmity against God. We will see that indwelling sin infects all of the soul and has a hatred for all of God. If the seat and subject of sin (i.e., the heart) give it power, so also its malicious character.
In Romans 8:7 the apostle says that “the thoughts of the flesh are enmity against God.” The expression, “the thoughts of the flesh” (frovnhma th~" sarkov", phronema tes sarkos) is the same as “the law of sin.” Therefore, according to Owen, “the law of sin” is enmity against God. But what does the term “enmity” mean?
The meaning of “enmity” is not the same as “enemy.” An enemy can be reconciled, such as we were to God through the blood of Christ. Paul says as much in Romans 5:10-11:
5:10 For if, when we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! 5:11 Not only is this so, but we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.
Enmity, on the other hand, cannot be reconciled; it must be destroyed. Paul makes this clear in Ephesians 2:14-15:
2:14 For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of enmity, 2:15 by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace….
So the very nature of sin is enmity and that even in the very least degree of it. There are times when its force seems to abate for a moment, but let us not be fooled, it is still pure enmity against God. Owen says,
As every drop of poison is poison, and will infect, and every spark of fire is fire, and will burn; so is every thing of the law of sin, the last, the least of it,—it is enmity, it will poison, it will burn…The meanest [i.e., slightest] acting, the meanest and most imperceptible working of it, is the acting and working of enmity. Mortification abates of its force, but doth not change its nature. Grace changeth the nature of man, but nothing can change the nature of sin.29
Despite the fact that God is love, infinitely and eternally so, and that he is excellent and desirable above all things, we carry this enmity against him all the days of our lives. It cannot be cured, only destroyed—and some day God himself will do this. We are assured of this based on Christ's work on the cross and all the benefits that flow to us through it.
This, then, is where indwelling sin gets its power; it is pure enmity “to the last drop” and will admit of no peace, truce, or surrender until the bitter end. Thus it is foolish for men and women to think they will have any rest from their lust, except by its death. There is no self-help program for indwelling sin; it can never be reformed. Thus, those who indulge the flesh under the pretense of satisfying it are deluded. Just as large quantities of fuel cannot satisfy a fire, but only increase its intensity and power, so it is with indwelling sin. The more we feed it, the more its strength multiplies. There is no such thing as doing something evil, in order to “get it out of one's system.” A person cannot bargain with a fire, pleading that it only take so much of their house. The only way to stop it is by quenching it, that is, killing it. So it is with indwelling sin in the believer.
But it is not simply that sin is “enmity,” by its nature, but that it is enmity against God. It is true that indwelling sin opposes our very soul (1 Peter 2:11) as well as the principle of spiritual growth instilled within us by the constant operation of the Spirit of God (Gal 5:17), but indwelling sin is primarily opposed to God himself. It opposes the grace of God within us, but is primarily set against God himself.
It is its [i.e., indwelling sin] work to oppose grace; it is a consequent of its work to oppose our souls, which follows upon what it doth more than what it intends; but its nature and formal design is to oppose God,—God as lawgiver, God as holy, God as the author of the gospel, a way of salvation by grace, and not by works,—this is the direct object of the law of sin. 30
Owen then asks the question as to why indwelling sin opposes duty so that the good we would do, we are unable to do, either in the manner in which it should be done or in the matter itself? The answer, according to Owen, is because of its enmity to God. The formal reason that sin opposes the doing of the good is because of “the good’s” connection to God. Otherwise, this is not the case.
May a road, a trade, a way of duties be set up, where communion with God is not aimed at, but only the duty itself, as is the manner of men in most of their superstitious worship, the opposition that will lie against it from the law of sin will be very weak, easy, and gentle…And it is no wonder that men fight with carnal weapons for their superstitious worship without, when they have no fighting against it within; for God is not in it, and the law of sin makes not opposition to any duty, but to God in every duty.31
With greater insight Owen goes on further:
It is thus in respect of all propensity unto sin, as well as aversation from God. It is God himself that is aimed at. It is true, the pleasures, the wages of sin, do greatly influence the sensual, carnal affections of men: but it is the holiness and authority of God that sin itself rises up against; it hates the yoke of the Lord…Every act of sin is a fruit of being weary of God.32
Owen has made it quite clear to this point that sin in its greatest or minutest movements is enmity against God. In this section he develops the argument even further by indicating that indwelling sin is not only enmity against God, but against all of God. The soul might have a shelter from sin’s power if there were any part of God, any attribute or work of God, any duty of communion or obedience to God, etc. that it was not vehemently opposed to. But there simply isn’t. Sin is enmity to all of God and everything he represents, stands for, designs or commands. Now in keeping with this is the fact that indwelling sin exercises even greater enmity the closer we draw to God or the more we consciously aim for his holiness.
It is understandable that sin should oppose God’s law for sin is unable to keep the law and can only be judged by the law—and condemned. But sin shows an even greater enmity against the gospel wherein is seen God’s grace, mercy, and pardon. Owen says this is because more of God’s character and the excellencies of his attributes are manifest in the latter than in the former.
Sin has infected and taken hostage all the faculties of the soul. If this were not the case, perhaps it could be more easily subdued. But indeed, man is totally depraved and sin has polluted his entire being. So Christ must conquer sin at every point if he is to ever really own us. Owen says that,
…when Christ comes with his spiritual power on the soul, to conquer it to himself, he hath no quiet landing place. He can set foot on no ground, but what he must fight for and conquer. Not the mind, not an affection, not the will, but all is secured against him. And when grace hath made its entrance, yet sin will dwell in all its coastlands.33
The entire soul is thrown into sin. The mind has its darkness and confusion to deal with while the affections and emotions are battling hatred for God, sloth, and sensuality. The will, for its part, constantly wrestles with stubbornness, refusal to do God’s will, and perverseness. This is why our knowledge is corrupted, our obedience weak, and our love is stained with fear and rejection. We are in desperate need of a savior; otherwise we are completely and utterly lost.
Owen has hinted at and made mention of this point throughout the chapter, but spells it out specifically at the end. Sin has no thoughts of giving up, yielding or wavering for a moment. We would do well to keep this in mind and remain vigilant.
The point of this chapter was to move beyond chapter’s one through three and give yet further insight into the power and efficacy of indwelling sin in the believer. This was achieved by exploring the idea of sin as enmity against God (Rom 8:7). We saw that as enmity, sin is not, properly speaking, simply an enemy that can be reconciled. Indeed, it is enmity and must be destroyed. Every last drop of it is enmity, whether it be acting in a strong manner in the soul or in a hidden and weak manner. The kind of enmity is the same in an ounce as it is in a gallon!
We also saw that as enmity, sin is primarily directed against God. It may act against the soul and hinder spiritual growth, but its primary target in doing so is to oppose God himself. It hates him, his holiness, love, law, light and presence. Indeed it is opposed to all of him, not just certain attributes or demands. Further, it has polluted the entire human heart; there is no faculty in the soul that is not corrupted by the presence and power of indwelling sin. From these two considerations Owen strengthens the argument for the power of indwelling sin and awakens Christians’ hearts to its power and deceit.
Finally, Owen makes explicit reference to the ongoing constancy of indwelling. It never lets up, takes a reprieve, or yields for a moment. It is constantly opposing God and wreaking havoc against the gospel and God’s righteous demands.
29 Vi: 177.