We learned in chapter’s one and two that according to Romans 7:21 the power of sin is still great within believers, so great that the apostle refers to it as a law. Indwelling sin constantly works in each Christian—especially when the Christian has set his heart on obedience—and it is only by the sheer grace of God that its force can be counteracted. “And though it [i.e., sin] have not a complete, and, as it were, a rightful dominion over them [i.e., Christians], yet it will have a domination as to some things in them.”34 Thus, as an indwelling law, it has a certain measure of dominion and “efficacy to provoke.” It continues to ply its trade even within the most sanctified hearts! To believe otherwise is to misunderstand both your experience and scripture, and to fall into delusion.
Having laid the foundation with general principles in chapter’s one and two, Owen begins in chapter’s three through five to give specific principles about the operation of indwelling sin. In chapter three, he argues that sin dwells in the citadel of a man’s being, that is, in his heart. And since the heart is both unsearchable and deceitful above all things, sin has great power there. In chapter four Owen gave another particular principle to help explain why sin has such great power in believers; it is because as pure enmity against God it pervades our entire being and is opposed to all of God; it is universal in its presence within us and in its operation against God. It infects all of the soul and has a hatred for all of God.
Now we arrive in chapter five. This chapter can be broken down into three basic parts. First, Owen will talk about further evidence for sin as enmity against God himself. This will be evident in its constant aversation (i.e., hatred or loathing) toward God in the emotions as well as in the mind. This constitutes Owen’s third particular principle (the first particular principle coming in chapter three and the second in chapter four). Second, sin as enmity against God, is seen in sin’s various oppositions to God. (Owen will deal with this element in the next chapter.) Third, and final, Owen gives five ways to prevent aversation caused by sin.
By way of review Owen says two things. First, indwelling sin hates God and is opposed to all of him in everything we do. There is not any spiritual good that I attempt that sin is not right there to hinder me.
All indisposition unto duty, wherein communion with God is to be obtained; all weariness of duty; all carnality, or formality unto duty,—it all springs from this root…Hast thou any spiritual duty to perform, and dost thou design the attaining of any communion with God? look to thyself, take care of thy affections; they will be gadding and wandering, and that from their aversation to what thou hast in mind…It will allow an outward, bodily presence unto the worship of God, wherein it is not concerned, but it keeps the heart quite away.35
Second, and by way of reminder, Owen deals with those people who claim to have complete liberty from struggles with indwelling sin. But he regards this so-called liberty as pretended, either founded upon ignorance of one’s true condition (they are in darkness not light) or arising from an unregenerate heart which knows neither Christ nor the power of indwelling sin (for sin is not concerned with them).
Thus, in what follows Owen is really concerned about those who truly know Christ and their experience with indwelling sin during the carrying out of their spiritual duties.
The enmity of indwelling sin against God shows itself repeated and constantly in our emotions, especially in those moments when we seek to draw near to God. Perhaps these emotions abate somewhat in times when the Spirit of God is powerfully upon us, but for the most part, even when we love God, want to obey him, and turn to him in communion, we see this loathing in our souls. Unfortunately we often give in to these “feelings” and so are distracted from our duty of drawing near to God. Owen says that while these inclinations to loath God are sometimes secret, they are at other times quite the opposite:
yea, sometimes there will be a violent inclination to the contrary, so that the soul had rather do anything, embrace any diversion, though it wound itself thereby, than vigorously apply itself unto that which in the inward man it breathes after. It is weary before it begins, and says, ‘When will the work be over?’…it is a great conquest to do what we would, though we come exceedingly short of what we should do.36
The law of sin finds itself in the mind also. Here we are commanded by God to come to him with words to plead our case before him and to deal with him concerning what’s on his mind. Owen cites three texts to support his contention.
Job 23:4 I would lay out my case before him and fill my mouth with arguments…
Isaiah 43:26 Remind me of what happened! Let’s debate! You, prove to me that you are right!
Hosea 14:2 Return to the Lord and repent! Say to him: “Completely forgive our iniquity; accept our penitential prayer, that we may offer the praise of our lips as sacrificial bulls.
The point that Owen wants to make from these texts is that when we come to God in prayer, our minds should be furnished with thoughts that God himself has about us and our condition (as well as his promises and memories of his dealings with us in the past). We should be ready to deal with God personally when we come to him, in accordance with the truths we have meditated upon and with which God has most recently addressed us. But often times we begin this process of prayerful meditation, for that is what it really is, only to wane half way through. It is true that many Christians remain infants in the faith because they have never learned to “deal” with God privately in this way, but their ignorance is not the root of the problem. Rather, it is indwelling sin that is at the heart of the matter. In the end, their apostasy is either caused by a certain terrible sin “which bloodied their conscience” or a gradual neglect of duties of communion with God. Concerning the latter cause, Owen comments:
And here hath been the beginning of the apostasy of many professors, and the source of many foolish, sensual opinions. Finding this aversation in their minds and affections from closeness and constancy in private spiritual duties, not knowing how to conquer and prevail against these difficulties through Him who enables us, they have at first been subdued to a neglect of them, first partial, then total, until, having lost all consciousness of them, they have had a door opened unto all sin and licentiousness, and so to a full and utter apostasy.37
Again, the cause of this apostasy is the power and deceitfulness of indwelling sin. When we give way to sin’s urgings, we give further strength to it. If we are not attempting to mortify sin, we are in fact allowing it to conquer us. There is no middle ground since sin always lives in us to bring us into subjection. “To let it alone, is to let it grow.”
Owen will deal with this truth at length in the next chapter. We cite it here for completeness’ sake, since he opened up this chapter commenting on it. Let us move on to examine five ways Owen says we can deal with the aversation sin produces in us.
The foundational principal in respect to warding off and dealing with the fruit and effects of aversation which arises from indwelling sin, is to keep one’s soul in a “universally holy frame.” What Owen means by this principle is simple: we must maintain purity and freedom from sin in all our duties—private and public—for to allow sin in one area is to give it opportunity to infect every area. There must be a harmony in our obedience. The result of universal holiness is the general weakening of the power of indwelling sin and thus its aversation (i.e., loathing and repulsiveness) in the affections and the mind.
As this [i.e., universal obedience] weakens the whole law of sin, so answerably all its properties, and particularly this aversation…A universal respect to all God’s commandments is the only preservative from shame; and nothing have we more reason to be ashamed of than the shameful miscarriages of our hearts in point of duty….38
We are taught by the apostle Peter to keep alert in prayer (1 Peter 4:7), that is, to make sure that nothing from within or without prevents us from actually praying. And, just as we “watch in prayer” so we are to watch in every other duty as well. We are to watch to prevent temptation and we are to watch against the aversation of sin. When it raises its ugly head, when we see its loathsome attitude toward God and holiness, especially as we seek to do the good (as Paul calls it), let us stir up all the graces39 we know in order to cut it off.
As we are not to give place to Satan, no more are we to sin. If it be not prevented in its first attempts it will prevail. My meaning is: Whatever good, as the apostle [Paul] speaks, we have to do, and find evil present with us…prevent its parleying with the soul, its insinuating of poison into the mind and affections, by a vigorous, holy, violent stirring up of the grace or graces that are to be acted and set at work peculiarly in that duty.40
Our first principle was to strive to grow and develop a holy frame in respect to all our obedience before God. In the process of doing that we saw in the second principle that we must prevent even the first actings of aversation toward God and his will. Now we come to the third related principle. If we see the aversation beginning to work in us and striving to keep us from our rightful duties to God, let us then prevent it from securing victory. And let us do this with diligence, lest the enemy within get the upper hand. As the writer of Hebrews says,
6:11 But we passionately want each of you to demonstrate the same eagerness for the fulfillment of your hope until the end, 6:12 so that you may not be sluggish, but imitators of those who through faith and perseverance inherit the promises.
Now there are many things that constantly attempt to divert us by clamoring for our attention. Some of us, Owen says, get sidetracked by business concerns, others of us by the power of temptations. Some just feel defeated all the time, discouraged by their own darkness. But whatever the source of our distractions, none are so dangerous, says Owen, as weariness caused by the aversation of sin. This is where the soul says to itself: “I am weary of the fight. Let sin have its way.” This, of course, leads to a hard heart and ruin in the end. Again, the writer to the Hebrews understood this problem.
12:3 Think of him who endured such opposition against himself by sinners, so that you may not grow weary in your souls and give up.
Owen says that the admonition to not allow the aversation of sin to govern our experience is consistent with Romans 12:12 and 6:12 where the apostle says, “therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its desires.” By preventing the aversation of indwelling sin, and cutting off its desire for a complete victory, we are seeing to it—under the Spirit’s direction and power—that sin does not reign in our mortal bodies.
To cease from duty, , in part or in whole, upon the aversation of sin unto its spirituality, is to give sin the rule, and to obey it in the lusts thereof. Yield not, then, unto it, but hold out the conflict; wait on God, and ye shall prevail, Isa. Xl. 31. ‘They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.’41
So convinced is Owen of our victory in this matter, provided we hold fast, he says, “But that which is now so difficult will increase in difficulty if we give way unto it; but if we abide in our station, we shall prevail. The mouth of the Lord hath spoken it.”42
The previous three directives have focused on (1) maintaining holiness in all our obedience to God; (2) laboring to prevent even the beginnings of aversation toward God and our spiritual duties, and (3) preventing aversation from gaining a conquest and stealing the victory. Now, in this fourth directive, Owen focuses on our need to cultivate a deep sense of humility and holy shame because of the aversation to spiritual things and holiness that yet persists in our nature.
Owen asks what means can be more effective for dealing with aversation toward God (i.e., in the affections and in the mind)—and can lead us to walk humbly with him—than to consider how constantly and effectively this aversation remains with us all the time. It is very humbling when we consider how much he has loved us, how far he went to secure our salvation, to what extent he continues each day to strive with us, and then to see how wretched our souls are and how little they care for him. Why, after he has shown us such precious kindness, should we treat him as treacherously as we do? Owen says it well:
What iniquity have we found in him? Hath he been a wilderness unto us, or a land of darkness? Did we ever lose any thing by drawing nigh unto him? nay, hath not therein lain all the rest and peace which we have obtained? Is not he the fountain and spring of all our mercies, of all our desirable things? Hath he not bid us welcome at our coming? Have we not received from him more than heart can conceive or tongue express? What ails, then, our foolish and wretched hearts, to harbour such a cursed secret dislike of him and his ways? Let us be ashamed and astonished at the consideration of it, and walk in an humbling sense of it all our days.43
Though we have talked very little in evangelical circles about the beauty and attractiveness of God, it is rightly pointed out by Owen that the soul will not cheerfully keep up its duties and struggles for holiness if it does not find an attraction of beauty in that which it worships, i.e., God. This is why men, who have lost all sense of the beauty of true spiritual worship, often invent [and continue to invent] “outwardly pompous and gorgeous ways of worship, in images, paintings, pictures” which they call ‘The beauties of holiness.’
Let, then, the soul labour to acquaint itself with the spiritual beauty of obedience, of communion with God, and of all duties of immediate approach to him, that it may be filled with delight in them.44
We learned in chapter’s one and two that according to Romans 7:21 indwelling sin is so constant in its working that the apostle refers to it as a law, an inward compelling law. In chapter three we learned that sin has such great power because the heart is unsearchable (only God fully understands it) and “deceitful above all things.” Then, in chapter four, Owen gives yet another particular reason for indwelling sin’s power, i.e., it pervades all of our soul and is at enmity with all of God; it is universal in its presence within us and in its operation against God.
In chapter five Owen gives yet another way in which sin acts as enmity against God. It does so by producing a constant aversation (i.e., hatred or loathing) toward God in both the affections and in the mind. In the affections it draws us away from our duties of prayer and communion with God. Many of us undoubtedly interpret these feelings as “God doesn’t really love me.” As infants in Christ we have not learned to recognize these feelings and see them for what they are—the first actings of indwelling sin to produce hatred for God and his will. But indwelling sin also labors to produce aversation toward God in the mind as well. We stop short of meditating on God’s thoughts as we should (i.e., in scripture), and dealing with him personally as we should, because our minds get distracted and led astray.
To end the chapter, Owen gives five ways we can labor to prevent the effects of this aversation produced by indwelling sin. First, we must keep ourselves in a universally holy frame; we must implicitly and cheerfully obey in all things, not just some things. Second, strive to prevent even the very beginnings of aversation, whether chiefly in the affections or in the mind. Stop it before it starts. Do not give it a foothold! Third, if it begins, do not let it have the victory. Do not get sidetracked from duties to God or allow discouragement to hinder you in prayer and communion. Push through to victory which is certainly yours through the Spirit who indwells you. Fourth, in light of the constancy and strength of the aversation that persists in our souls, even after we’re saved, let us walk in deep humility before God—our God, who loves us thoroughly and whose kindness is limitless. Humility of this sort will go a long way to defeating aversation and weakening indwelling sin. Fifth, and final, fill your mind with thoughts of the beauty and excellency of spiritual things and how glorious and attractive the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is. Seek to understand and meditate upon the beauty of his holiness and do not allow your worship to denigrate into some form of idolatry.
38 VI:185-86. This is an important point for the church in North America which has almost totally collapsed its obedience into an undirected spontaneity. As Christians, we have certain holy obligations to God whether they originate in feelings of spontaneity or not. We, who have the indwelling Spirit, are under the law of Christ, and must make grace inspired, Scripture directed gains in holiness for this is our election and calling (Rom 8:29; 2 Cor 7:1). We can never deeply depend upon and co-operate with the Spirit in transformation while working within a model of spiritual growth that elevates human freedom and spontaneity above all else. It is true that we have been set free, but it is sin that we have been freed from so that we might serve God acceptably and love people deeply. Freed from means nothing until one grasps freed to.
39 By “graces” Owen is probably thinking about such things as prayer, the word of God, meditation on the cross and the Spirit’s power, shame for sin, love for God, etc.