In chapter one we learned that according to Romans 7:21 indwelling sin acts as an inward compelling law—always present within believers—that is all the more recognizable whenever we would do good. There is by the Spirit of grace, however, a constant and ordinarily prevailing will of doing good despite the opposition brought on by sin. We saw in chapter two that the reference to indwelling sin as a “law” demonstrates its power. It constantly attempts to seize dominion over a person and has this efficacy (i.e., power to carry out its will) through its threats in terms of punishments and rewards.
In chapter three Owen moves on to give further evidence of the source of sin’s power within us. It comes, in part, because of the nature of the heart, wherein sin plies its trade, seeking uncontested enthronement. The heart is unsearchable and deceitful above all things and this gives sin much of its power and efficacy. In chapter four, carrying along the same theme, Owen teaches us that sin receives its power by virtue of its nature as pure enmity against God. Further, it is against all of God and has polluted all of us (i.e., every part of our being is stained with corruption).
In chapter five Owen begins to outline two more ways in which sin is enmity against God and therefore powerful. He says that enmity shows itself in sin’s aversation toward God (i.e., hatred and loathing toward God) and in its constant opposition to God. Owen says that this aversation lies in both the mind and the emotions, and affects us at both the private and public level. He then lists five ways “to prevent the fruits and effects of this aversation”: (1) maintain universal holiness in all of your obedience to God; (2) labor to prevent the very beginnings of aversation; (3) never let any one aversation prevail to a conquest; (4) carry about a constant humility because of the wretchedness of your soul in this regard, and (5) fill your mind with the excellency and beauty of spiritual things. Good advice indeed!
We come now to chapter six. We’ve talked about the aversation of indwelling sin in chapter five. Now, in chapter six, Owen wants to talk about the second way in which sin demonstrates its power, namely, through opposition toward God. Indwelling sin opposes God, generally, by constantly lusting for evil, and specifically, by fighting or warring. Two more points about the success and madness of sin will be dealt with in chapter seven.
Enmity will oppose and contend with that wherewith it is at enmity; it is so in things natural and moral. As light and darkness, heat and cold, so virtue and vice oppose each other. So is it with sin and grace; saith the apostle, “These are contrary one to the other,” Gal. v. 17;—ajllhloi" avntivkeitai. They are placed and set in mutual opposition, and that continually and constantly, as we shall see.45
The apostle Paul says in Galatians 5:17 that “the flesh has desires that are opposed to [i.e., lust against] the Spirit, and the Spirit has desires that are opposed to the flesh, for these are in opposition to each other…” Thus Owen concludes that just as the general operation of fire is to burn, so the general operation of sin is to lust. “All the actings of the law of sin whatever, in all the faculties and affections of the soul,” are firstly and foundationally lusts arising from the flesh (cf. Gal. 5:16; Rom 13:14). But these lusts arise not only in connection with the sensual aspect of man’s being, but also in his mind (Eph 2:3). They seek to defile our entire lives (2 Cor 7:1). Remaining clear of them is a good measure of our sanctification and leads to deliverance from the “old man” (1 Thess 5:23). There are two primary ways in which these lusts operate: (1) in a hidden close propensity to all evil, and (2) in their continuous striving toward evil.
The musings and thoughts of the unregenerate man, described in Genesis 6:5, involve only evil all the time. This is the habitual condition of his heart because sin knows no opposition, only free reign. He is under the complete dominion of sin. But we must a make difference with the regenerate man. His heart has been delivered by inward grace from the law and dominion of sin. The constant disposition of his heart is not to do evil, but to do the good. But, this does not mean that sin is not present and does not impact him constantly (“evil is present with me”). It does. Speaking of the regenerate man, Owen states:
But now, suppose that the springs of it [i.e., indwelling sin] are much dried up by regenerating grace, the streams or actings of it abated by holiness, yet whilst any thing remains of it, it will be pressing constantly to have vent, to press forward into actual sin; and this is its lusting.46
There are two primary ways in which this habitual tendency in the law of sin is often discovered: (1) it unexpectedly surprises the soul, and (2) it inclines habitually to follow through every temptation with full blown sin.
There are times when, through no obvious provocation or enticement, indwelling sin surprises the soul with foolish, unexpected, and sinful “figments and imaginations.” A similar thing is true concerning the movements of sanctifying grace in our souls. Through no determination on our part to stir up the grace of God we nonetheless find ourselves full of faith, love for people, and contentment in God.47 Thus both the law of sin and the principle of grace are at work within us. But, again, as concerns sin, it works while we are unaware, that is, without informing our minds of its plans and whereabouts. Sometimes, to show its strength and power, it secretly works against our Spirit-inspired efforts to mortify a particular sin. Owen comments:
Hence it is, that when the soul is oftentimes doing as it were quite another thing, engaged quite upon another design, sin starts that in the heart or imaginations of it that carries it away into that which is evil and sinful. Yea, to manifest its power, sometimes, when the soul is seriously engaged in the mortification of any sin, it will, by one means or other, lead it away into a dalliance [i.e., flirting] with that very sin whose ruin it is seeking, and whose mortification it is engaged in!48
Indwelling sin is habitually prepared and waiting to follow through on every temptation with the commensurate sin. There was nothing in Jesus, nor in Adam initially, however, that was enticed by the temptations from without. A city, whose inhabitants are all firmly and unalterably committed to the well-being of the city, is virtually impenetrable to attack. So it was with Christ. There was no division, hypocrisy, or secret sin in his soul and thus temptations from without could not find their way in. But we are another kind of city, for we have division and a vicious traitor living inside the gates. Thus temptation is able to find a friend in us and indwelling sin is always there to open the gate and give him free access. David says in Psalm 38:16-17 that his foot was “about to slip” and he “was about to stumble.” Indwelling sin is always attempting a complete victory even from the slightest temptation.
There is nothing so vain, foolish, ridiculous, fond, nothing so vile and abominable, nothing so atheistical or execrable, but, if it be proposed unto the soul in a way of temptation, there is that in this law of sin which is ready to answer it before it be decried by grace. And this is the first thing in this lusting of the law of sin,—it consists in its habitual propensity unto evil, manifesting itself by the involuntary surprisals of the soul unto sin, and its readiness, without dispute or consideration, to join in all temptations whatever.49
Indwelling sin not only continuously strives to “press after evil,” it also makes constant opposition to what is good. It is constantly tempting the saint to give way to the lusts it proposes to the mind and affections and to disregard the urgings of the Spirit. As James says, “Every man is tempted of his own lust” (1:14). Again, this is a constant, unrelenting fact inherent in its existence.
This is sin’s trade: jEpiqumei~—“It lusteth.” It is raising up in the heart, and proposing unto the mind and affections, that which is evil; trying, as it were, whether the soul will close with [i.e., carry out] its suggestions, or how far it will carry them on, though it do not wholly prevail.50
Now some temptations come from without and are not necessarily evil things in themselves. But others come from within and are inherently evil and represent the very work of the law of indwelling sin.
And this is the work of the law of sin,—it is restlessly and continuously raising up and proposing innumerable various forms and appearances of evil, in this or that kind, indeed in every kind that the nature of man is capable to exercise corruption in. Something or other, in matter, or manner, or circumstance, inordinate, unspiritual, unanswerable unto the rule, it hatcheth and proposeth unto the soul.51
These are the kinds of ideas expressed by the apostle Paul in 1 Thessalonians 5:22 and Isaiah in 57:20-21. The apostle warned the young church to “refrain from every hint/appearance of evil,” and the premier prophet claimed that the wicked are like “the tossing sea which cannot rest” and “whose waves constantly stir up mud and mire.” In fact, “there is no peace for the wicked,” says God through Isaiah.
This, then, is the first thing that sin makes in its opposition and enmity to God, that is, it lusts against God. It does so with a hidden, close propensity to all evil and with continual striving toward evil, “to close,” as Owen nicely puts it, with every temptation. But there is also a particular way in which sin opposes God, namely, it wars against him.
When Owen talks about indwelling sin fighting he means that it acts with the strength and violence of men in war. Whatever “proposals” (i.e., sinful ideas) it advances to the mind, through the affections, it pursues, urges, and presses with all the determination it can muster, vigorously and unashamedly warring until its victory be won. If this were not so, and all it did was to suggest sin to the mind, we would not have the struggle we do. But, it indeed marches, as it were, right into the capital demanding a complete and total surrender. It seeks to reign completely over us. The two ways in which it does its warring include rebelling against the principle of grace and contending for rule over the soul.
There are two contrary laws in believers. One is the law of sin and the other is the “law of the mind” or variously called “the law of grace” or “the law of the Spirit.” These two are in constant warfare with each other, but they cannot both be sovereign. Indeed, the law of the Spirit of life has set us free from complete subjection to the law of sin and death (Rom 8:1-2). We delight in the law of God in the inward man (Rom 7:22) and sin no longer has dominion over us for we are under grace (6:14). Grace has sovereignty in the will, understanding, and affections, but we do not always have victory. Owen asks “why” this is so. He says the answer lies in a recognition that the law of sin wars and rebels against the principle of grace in two ways: (1) it opposes the general purpose of the soul, and (2) it rebels in particular duties. Let’s take a brief look at these two.
If the Spirit of Christ dwells within a person, the general design and purpose of that person’s life is to walk in conformity to Christ in all things. This is what God told Abraham in Genesis 17:1:
When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to him and said, “I am the Sovereign God. Walk before me and be blameless.
Paul also said the same thing in Philippians 3:12-14:
3:12 Not that I have already attained this—that is, I have not already been perfected—but I strive to lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus also laid hold of me. 3:13 Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself to have attained this. Instead I am single-minded: forgetting the things that are behind and reaching out for the things that are ahead, 3:14 with this goal in mind, I strive toward the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.
With the language of “striving” and “reaching out” Paul expresses the regenerate soul’s universal pursuit of the heart after God. But even in the best of saints—so to speak—there still remains the actings of sin as it attempts to divide the heart, cause eruptions of carnal emotions, and foster unbelief. We have, as Owen says, a division, not of the heart, but in the heart. It is indwelling sin that opposes this general disposition of the soul unto a close walking with God.
Not only does indwelling sin constantly set itself against pure devotion to Christ in general, but it also rebels in respect to our particular duties before God. For example, prayer. Every Christian has both the privilege and responsibility to pray. But Christians often fail in this regard, either to pray in the first place, or to pray with the constancy and manner after which they have been taught in scripture. As Owen says, a Christian man might
‘pray in the spirit,’ fervently, ‘with sighs and groans that cannot be uttered;’ in faith, with love and delight, pouring forth his soul unto the Lord. This he aims at. Now, oftentimes he shall find a rebellion, a fighting of the law of sin in the matter. He shall find difficulty to get any thing done who thought to do all things. I do not say that it is thus always, but it is so when sin “wars and rebels;” which expresseth an especial acting its power.52
In short, there is no commandment of grace that is loved by the soul, approved of and aimed at, that does not in our experience of obedience, suffer an attack from indwelling sin.
Not only does indwelling sin rebel against the principle of grace deeply planted in us through our union with Christ and the personal, ever present ministry of the Spirit, but it also assaults the soul. Again, Owen, following scripture, highlights the language of war, strife, and battle. 1 Peter 2:11 says that sinful desires war against the soul. James says the same thing (James 4:1). Peter tells us what these sinful desires fight against, namely, the “regenerate soul.” James tells us what these urges fight with or by, namely, the corruption already present within us. The chief end of sin’s opposition is sovereignty and uncontested rule and supremacy. In reaching for this supremacy, sin assaults us in three ways: (1) it positively acts to bring it about; (2) it constantly urges us to sin, and (3) it entangles the affections and draws them into battle against the mind.
In Romans 7:24 Paul cries out, “Who will deliver me from this body of death.” When we pursue our enemy we do not cry out for deliverance, but for victory. But, when we are pursued by an enemy, we cry out for deliverance. Thus in Romans 7:24 Paul is picturing sin as an enemy pursuing him from whom he wants deliverance. Thus, perhaps through the vanity of our thinking, the folly of our imaginations, or the sensuality of our emotions, we are assaulted by sin. That is, sin did not rise up because we decided to walk with God in some particular duty, but rather it took advantage of our weakness and for no apparent reason rebelled.
Our enemy is restless and never content but to press forward and secure a victory against us. If we defeat it now, it will return a short time later. If we bring the cross of Christ against it, it falters, but will soon try another trick. If we meditate on the love of God, it tries even harder. If we remind it of hellfire, it rushes right into the flames! “Reproach it with its folly and madness; it knows no shame, but presseth on still.” A person tries to forget about a temptation and sin is right there to remind him. By this constant agitation it wearies the soul and unless the Spirit come to our rescue sin will ensue.
There is nothing more marvelous nor dreadful in the working of sin than this of its importunity. The soul knows not what to make of it; it dislikes, abhors, abominates the evil it tends unto; it despiseth the thoughts of it, hates them as hell; and yet is by itself imposed on with them, as if it were another person, an express enemy got within him.53
This is the thought Paul expresses in Romans 7:15-17:
7:15 For I don’t understand what I am doing. For I do not do what I want—instead, I do what I hate. 7:16 But if I do what I don’t want, I agree that the law is good. 7:17 But now it is no longer me doing it, but sin that lives in me.
Even though Paul hates the sin he commits, he faces the fact that he cannot simply be rid of it. Though he hate it, he cannot leave it alone and move on, as it were. This is true because it is no longer he that does it, but sin living in him. We too are in the same situation for in the “now time” of salvation, that is, during the time in which we possess the Spirit, but yet await our glorification, we too face this enemy within. We cannot simply get rid of him. He won’t go and God has willed that it be precisely this way. Those who profess to be completely and forever rid of sin are in essence claiming more than Scripture allows, falling prey to the deceitfulness of sin. In this regard they do not please God. They do not understand what they’re talking about.
Grace can lay hold of the mind and judgment of a person, but if that person allows indwelling sin to entangle the emotions or affections, sinful acts will erupt. Indeed, the emotions often prove to be a citadel from which sin can launch its vicious attacks. The great duty of mortification, then, is chiefly aimed at the affections as Paul says in Colossians 3:5:
So put to death whatever in your nature belongs to the earth: sexual immorality, impurity, shameful passion, evil desire, and greed which is idolatry.
Indwelling sin acts as enmity against God. We learned in chapter five that sin is enmity in terms of its constant and universal aversation against God. Here in chapter six we saw that sin is enmity against God in terms of its opposition to God.
Further, there are two general heads under which sin acts in opposition to God. First, its general inclination is to lust. This lusting consists in its hidden, close propensity to all evil and in the fact that it continually strives toward all evil. Indwelling sin strives to follow through with every temptation and bring forth full blown acts of sin. Second, indwelling sin’s particular way of contending is to fight or war by rebelling against the principle of grace God has rooted in us; it greedily desires to contend for ultimate and uncontested rule over our souls. Sin rebels against the principle of grace by opposing it generally and by rebelling when we seek to perform our God-given duties. Sin also contends for rule over the soul by taking us by surprise, by its constant, incessant, and soul draining attempts to usher forth sinful acts, and by entangling the emotions in sin and drawing the mind after it.
Our real duty, then, is to walk humbly before our God. We do this, says, Owen, by reflecting on God’s glory, holiness, majesty, power, and authority and at the same time our mean, abject, and sinful condition. This should lead to humility if done in the presence of Christ and for his glory. The fruit should be meekness, compassion, readiness to forgive others, and love. There will be no room for a judging, condemning, and hypocritical attitudes. As Owen says,
The man that understands the evil of his own heart, how vile it is, is the only useful, fruitful, and solid believing and obedient person.54
47 Owen is not suggesting by this that we should not strive “to fan into flame the grace of God,” but rather he is simply saying that there are times when through no obvious faith or inclination of ours, we sense God’s working in us (cf. Phil 2:12-13).