7. The Captivating Power of Indwelling Sin
At the beginning of each chapter we take a minute to review where we’ve come from. So let’s do so now. In chapter’s one through three we learned that indwelling sin acts as a law within believers (cf. Rom 7:21). Specifically, it is in an inward, compelling law, not something external to us. It is powerful and constant, deriving much of its strength from the citadel in which it resides, namely, the heart. This is true because, as Jeremiah reminds us, the heart is the center of who we are, but tragically, it is also incurably deceitful and at the same time unsearchable (Jer 17:9).
In chapter four we saw that sin is, in its very essence, enmity against God. Indeed, it is opposed to God himself and everything and anything connected to him. Further, while its center of operations is in our heart, there is no part of our constitution as human beings that is not polluted by its presence. Thus, in short, indwelling sin produces enmity toward all of God in all of us.
In chapter’s five and six Owen begins to outline two ways in which sin is enmity against God and therefore powerful. In chapter five we saw that sin entangles both the emotions and the mind in hatred toward God. As Owen says, sin is “aversation” toward God. There are moments when the emotions loathe the duty of worship and prayer to God and the mind struggles to sustain good and accurate reflection on God. This happens in both our private and public lives and we are to take positive steps to reduce its strength and constancy. You may want to read again Owen’s suggestions regarding how to do this.
In chapter six we learned that not only does sin produce aversation toward God and the things of God, it also directly “opposes” God. It does so by lusting for evil and by fighting and warring against the principle of righteousness within believers. But, says Owen, there are still two more aspects to sin as enmity against God. Thus, in chapter seven we learn about indwelling sin’s power to captivate people and its success in doing so. There are many factors that bring this “captivity” about, including the work of Satan, but it can ultimately lead to what Owen calls a “rage and madness” that attends sin. This rage and madness is the fourth aspect. Let’s take a closer look at chapter seven now.
Though Owen’s focus is primarily on Romans 7:23, it is worthwhile to quote 7:21-25:
7:21 So, I find the law that when I want to do good, evil is present with me. 7:22 For I delight in the law of God in my inner being. 7:23 But I see a different law in my members waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that is in my members. 7:24 Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? 7:25 Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin (NET Bible; italics mine).
The utmost height to which sin reaches is to entangle a person to the point of making him/her captive to the law of sin. In reality, it is sin’s attempt to reverse the liberating power of our co-crucifixion and co-resurrection with Christ and the reign of grace in our hearts.
The Focus Is on the Success of the Law of Sin
Owen argues that Paul’s point in Romans 7:21-25 is not, strictly speaking, concerned with the power of (the law of) sin, per se, but rather its success. It is true that power is involved in having success at anything, but power is integral to Romans 7:21-25 only insofar as it explains sin’s success and victory. Owen says that
it is not directly the power and actings of the law of sin that are here [i.e., in Romans 7:21-25] expressed, but its success in and upon its actings. But success is the greatest evidence of power, and leading captive in war is the height of success. None can aim at greater success than to lead their enemies captive.55
Captivity to the Law of Sin
In this brief section Owen wants to clarify the difference between being captive to the law of sin and being dominated or captivated by any one particular sin.
God’s Present Design
Owen makes it clear at this point that when Paul speaks about the believer’s captivity to the law of sin, he is not speaking about captivity to particular sins, but rather to the law of sin, that is, every believer according to the good design of God, must “bear the presence and burden” of sin in this life. We cannot escape sin’s presence this side of death because God has designed it this way. This does not mean, however, that God ordains our captivity to particular sins. Instead he regularly and generally is pleased to supply whatever grace is necessary to prevent particular sins from dominating us.
God, for the most part, ordereth things so, and gives out such supplies of grace unto believers, as that they shall not be made a prey unto this or that particular sin, that it should prevail in them and compel them to serve it in the lusts thereof, that it should have dominion over them, that they should be captives and slaves unto it.56
The way a believer is instructed to deal with sin is expressed quite well by David in Psalm 19:12-13:
19:12 Who can avoid sinning? Please do not punish my unintentional sins. 19:13 Moreover, keep me from committing flagrant sins; do not allow such sins to control me. Then I will be blameless, and innocent of blatant rebellion.
Now there are some believers who think, especially after some “sweet enjoyment of God” or “deep humiliation” or “return from backsliding” that sin will never again be present in them, but this is to claim too much. Sin will soon raise its ugly head and give the lie to this error. It is better that the believer be aware of this before it happens and be prepared to work out holiness all the days of their lives.
But the fact remains, and Owen realizes this, that some believers look as if they’re dominated or captivated by some sins, at least for a season. This seems to have been the case with David when he “lay so long in his sin without repentance” (cf. Isa 57:17-18). How do we explain this? Owen says that when such a situation exists with believers we need to think through Satan’s involvement in the sin.
Satan’s Attempts to Ensnare
Owen says that when a certain sin prevails over a believer so as to dominate their experience, to cloud their judgment, and to incite them in acts of rebellion—so that they fail to respond to God’s dealings with them—we can be sure that Satan is at the root of it. He says that
…for the most part, when any lust or sin doth so prevail, it is from the advantage and furtherance that it hath got by some powerful temptation of Satan. He hath poisoned it, inflamed it, and entangled the soul. [Such people are] ‘in the snare of the devil, being taken captive by him at his will,’ 2 Tim ii 26. Though it were their own lusts that they served, yet they were brought into bondage thereunto by being entangled in some snare of Satan; and thence they are said to be ‘taken alive,’ as a poor beast in a toil.57
Owen wants to make two further points by way of clarification regarding the work of the devil. First, when a certain sin grows and captivates a person, yet the person has no background or constitution that would predispose him/her to that particular sin (as opposed to any other), then we can be sure that Satan has given it its “prevalency.” This is true because the law of sin does not necessarily elevate one sin above another, but one usually excels another due to the disposition, background, education, etc. of the person involved. So then, if there is a sin present that seems out of sorts with one’s background and constitution, we may conclude that the devil is integrally involved. So Owen counsels that,
if…a man find an importunate rage from any corruption that is not evidently seated in his nature, let him, as the Papists say, cross himself, or fly by faith to the cross of Christ, for the devil is nigh at hand.58
Second, Owen also says that when a sin is “prevalent unto captivity” and “where it brings in no advantage to the flesh,” it is from Satan. The law of sin serves the flesh, but where sin captivates to the point that there are no pleasures from it, then we can be sure that Satan is vigorously at work instigating it. To account for this kind of sin requires that we understand not only the lusts of the flesh, but also the temptations and wiles of our archenemy, the devil.
Captivity Is against the Renewed Will in Believers
The captivity that sin forces upon believers is against the principle of their renewed wills. That believers have a “renewed will” and thus resist sin’s captivity is clear from several texts:
Romans 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.
Romans 7:19 For I do not do the good I want, but I do the very evil I do not want! 7:20 Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer me doing it but sin that lives in me.
Galatians 5:17 For the flesh has desires that are opposed to the Spirit, and the Spirit has desires that are opposed to the flesh, for these are in opposition to each other, so that you cannot do what you want.
The text from Galatians clearly shows that the will is renewed in believers, that is, renewed in keeping with the work of the Spirit. Owen argues that
the spiritual habits of grace that are in the will do so resist and act against it; and the excitations of those habits by the Spirit are directed to the same purpose. This leading captive is contrary, I say, to the inclinations and actings of the renewed will. No man is made captive, but against his will.59
While men may not choose the captivity of sin itself—which is to choose pure misery and trouble—they nonetheless freely choose the causes and means to captivity and misery. Owen cites a text from the prophets as an example of what he means:
Hosea 5:11 Ephraim will be oppressed, crushed under judgment, because he was determined to pursue worthless idols.
Ephraim may not have chosen to be “crushed under judgment,” but he nonetheless chose idolatry knowing that it leads to judgment and oppression. In short, then, whatever consent the soul gives to sin—the means of captivity—it gives none to the captivity itself. Four things can be said, then, about this situation.
Captivity Implies That The Power of Sin Is Great
Throughout the chapters of this book, Owen has been trying to demonstrate the power and efficacy of indwelling sin. Its power can be seen from its prevalency to lead men and women captive. It is able to contend against the renewed will in believers, even the holiest of them. From this fact alone we learn of its power and success. “Its prevailing against diligence, activity, and watchfulness, the constant renitence of the will” evinces its power.
Captivity Entails Manifold Particular Successes
If the law of sin were not successful in particular sins, it could not be said to lead captive at all. It might rebel and attack, but, again, if it were never successful, it could not be said to lead captive. But the law of sin admits several degrees of success. Sometimes it leads to outward sin—and this is its ultimate aim—or sometimes it gets only as far as wearying and entangling the soul. In 1 Timothy 6:9-10, the apostle speaks about the varying degrees of success in terms of covetousness.
6:9 Those who long to be rich, however, stumble into temptation and a trap and many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. 6:10 For the love of money is the root of all evils. Some people in reaching for it have strayed from the faith and stabbed themselves with many pains.
Captivity Is Miserable and Wretched
How sad it is, Owen says, to be treated (by the law of sin) so maliciously against the judgment of one’s mind, and against one’s will, strivings, and efforts; this is truly a miserable and wretched condition.
When the soul is principled by grace unto a loathing of sin, of every evil way, to a hatred of the least discrepancy between itself and the holy will of God, then to be imposed on by this law of sin, with all that enmity and folly, that deadness and filth wherewith it is attended, what more dreadful condition?60
Captivity Is Peculiar to Believers
Those who are not regenerate, who do not know the re-creating presence of the indwelling Spirit, are never said to be led captive to the law of sin. They may, however, be forced to serve particular sins against their better judgment and convictions. Thus an adulterer may be convinced of the wrongness or evil of his behavior, as also the alcoholic, but both find the temptations too great and thus give in to sin’s power. But, neither of them are said to be led captive to the law of sin, only to particular sins. The reason they cannot be led captive to the law of sin is because they are willingly subject to it. It has a rightful dominion over them and they cannot oppose it, except when it erupts to some particular sin that grieves their consciences; unbelievers cannot really consider the nature of sin as sin, but only the disturbing and embarrassing consequences of it. But the very meaning of being brought into “captivity” suggests that it is against one’s will. This, however, can only be true of a believer, not a non-believer, for only a believer has a renewed will and only a believer can oppose the law of sin.
The Law of Sin as Madness and Rage against God
At the beginning of chapter six Owen outlined two chief ways in which sin produces enmity against God, namely, by force and by fraud. While fraud is dealt with in chapter eight, force is unpacked along four distinct yet related lines in chapter’s six and seven. In chapter six Owen shows how sin exerts its strength in that (1) it lusts; and (2) it fights or wars. Up to this point in chapter seven he has shown that sin demonstrates its strength by (3) bringing the soul into captivity. Now he wants to close off his discussion of sin’s power as enmity against God by showing that (4) its success leads to rage and madness.
Owen says that the last way in which the law of sin opposes the law of grace and God’s will is in its rage and madness. There is, he says, madness in its nature. He quotes Ecclesiastes 9:3:
9:3 This is the unfortunate thing about everything that happens on earth: the same fate awaits everyone; The hearts of all people are full of evil, and there is madness in their hearts during their lives—then they die.
This madness, bound up in the heart of all men, is well illustrated by the words of Jeremiah and Hosea:
Jeremiah 2:24 You are like a wild female donkey brought up in the wilderness. In her lust she sniffs the wind to get the scent of a male. No one can hold her back when she is in heat. None of the males need wear themselves out chasing after her. At mating time she is easy to find. 2:25 Israel, do not chase after other gods until your shoes wear out and your throats become dry. But you say, ‘It is useless for you to try and stop me! You cannot, because I love those foreign gods. I want to chase after them.’
Jeremiah 50:38 A drought will come upon her land and her rivers and canals will be dried up. All of this will happen because her land is filled with idols. Her people act like madmen because of those idols they fear.
Hosea 8:9 They have gone up to Assyria, like a wild donkey that wanders off. Ephraim has hired prostitutes as lovers.
Now there are three areas that Owen wants to touch on regarding the madness or rage of sin. They are: (1) its nature; (2) the causes of it, and (3) what accompanies it, as well as its effects, properties, and that which it produces.
The Nature of This Madness
The rage of sin consists in its persistent, importune, aggressive pressing toward evil. If it be denied the first time, it will try again. If it be denied still again, it will press itself in the imagination still more. It will not give way even when God brings chastisement in the form of punishment or desertion. Indeed, in spite of all this, men continue on in the mad and vain pursuit of their lusts. Owen says that this madness is
…the tearing and torturing of the soul by any sin to force its consent and to obtain satisfaction. It riseth up in the heart, is denied by the law of grace, and rebuked;—it returns and exerts its poison again…And if it be not able to take that course, it is foiled and hurried up and down through the mire and filth of foolish imaginations, corrupt and noisome lusts, which rend and tear it….God is angry with [such people], and discovereth [i.e., demonstrates] his wrath by all the ways and means that it was possible for them to made sensible…Doth this work the effect? No; they go on frowardly still, as men mad on their covetousness…This is plain madness and fury.61
The Causes of This Madness
Owen argues that sin does not rise “to this height ordinarily,” but only when it has a “double advantage.” First, he says that such madness grows and is provoked by some great temptation; Satan himself adds poison to the lust and inflames it with strength and deeper madness. This seems to have been the case with David and Bathsheba. David committed heinous sins of adultery, cruelty, lying, and murder for which it is reasonable to conclude that Satan himself was involved in tempting the king.
Though sin be always a fire in the bones, yet it flames not unless Satan come with his bellows to blow it up. And let anyone in whom the law of sin ariseth to this height of rage seriously consider, and he may find out where the devil stands and puts in in the business.62
The second reason why sin often achieves such heights of madness is that it has been countenanced and allowed to prevail in a person. Sin does not grow to such unmanageable proportions in its first assault. There must have been a yielding of the soul to its demands and such yielding over time has led to the present madness in the soul. But sin should be dealt with violently upon its first actings. It should be put to death immediately and not trifled with. We should rather die than yield even one step to it. We would do well to listen to Owen on this point:
If, through the deceit of sin, or the negligence of the soul, or its carnal confidence to give bounds to lust’s actings at other seasons, it makes any entrance into the soul, and finds any entertainment, it gets strength and power, and insensibly ariseth to the frame [i.e., state of affairs] under consideration.63
These then are the two conditions that often give rise to such heights of madness: (1) Satan’s temptations, and (2) previous “playing around” with sin so that it gains strength.
The Effects of This Madness
The rage in sin is at its greatest when it seeks to cast off, at least for a moment, the rule of grace in the believer’s heart. Because the believer is in Christ and indwelt by his Spirit, the rule of grace is now “on the throne,” but there are seasons in which its rule and dominion, though never completely rendered powerless, is for a moment or two seriously weakened as the law of sin “goes to work.” The influences of the law of grace may be intercepted for a season and its government weakened by the power of sin.
But how does sin do this? Owen says that we may understand this a bit better if we first understand how grace works in the soul. First, we need to realize that the seat and residence of grace is in the entire soul, including all of the mind, the will and the affections. Indeed, the whole soul is being renewed into the image of Christ (Eph 4:23-24). Thus the rule of grace impacts all these faculties of the soul as they come together in a single person with spiritual and moral powers.
Second, the interrupting of the operations of grace must come when the law of sin acts on these faculties of the soul in opposition to the law of grace. The law of sin disrupts the sanctifying work of grace and operates to cloud the mind with prejudice, error, and “false reasonings.” Thus the mind is led astray from its godly duty of guiding the will and affections into the likeness of Christ. The will, for its part, though enabled by grace to offer habitual obedience to Christ, is first weakened, then cast aside, and finally rendered useless through sin’s relentless solicitations and temptations. First, the will forfeits its hold on obedience, then debates with itself about the whole concept of obedience, and then finally relinquishes all control to the enemy. The affections, wherein sin often begins, torture the soul with the constant and contradictory desires for what is forbidden and “out of bounds.” This, then, is how the law of sin plies its trade in the soul and interrupts the law of grace, if only for a season.
The Madness of Sin Often Accompanied by Fearlessness
Now sin’s madness also has within it other properties such as fearlessness and a contempt of danger. All concern for what the consequences may be are cast off in favor of satisfying our lust. And this includes what God himself may do to us because of our sin. Indeed, the madness in sin despises God to the point that we are often willing to sacrifice our souls in order to fulfill our wicked desires.
But God deals with us in the context of our pursuit of sin. First, he gives grace to keep us within the proper bounds, but if our souls fail to respond and desire to break loose from his renewing presence, he gives preventing grace. This is what the prophet says:
Hosea 2:6 Therefore, I will soon fence her in with thorns; I will wall her in so that she cannot find her way. 2:7 Then she will pursue her lovers, but she will not catch them; she will seek them, but she will not find them. Then she will say, “I will go back to my husband, because I was better off then than I am now.”
The kind of obstacles (“fences”) that God puts in our paths are of two sorts, says Owen. First, God presents us with rational considerations and second, he sends providential dispensations. The rational considerations include punishment for sin, including death, judgment, and hell. God is able to set a hedge of terror about the soul and remind it also of the temporal issues flowing from sin: shame, reproach, scandal, punishments, and the like.
The Lord’s providential dispensations include both afflictions and mercies. They are well suited to work on the soul and cause it to desist from its pursuit of sin. Again, Owen cites the prophets (and Job) to substantiate his thesis:
Isaiah 57:16 For I will not be hostile forever or perpetually angry, for then man’s spirit would grow faint before me, the life-giving breath I created. 57:17 I was angry because of their sinful greed; I attacked them and angrily rejected them, yet they remained disobedient and stubborn. 57:18 I have seen their behavior, but I will heal them and give them rest, and I will once again console those who mourn.
Hosea 2:9 Therefore, I will take back my grain during the harvest time and my new wine when it ripens; I will take away my wool and my flax which I had provided in order to clothe her. 2:10 Soon I will expose her lewd nakedness in front of her lovers, and no one will be able to rescue her from me! 2:11 I will put an end to all her celebration: her annual religious festivals, monthly new moon celebrations, and weekly Sabbath festivities—all her appointed festivals.
Job 33:16 Then he gives a revelation to people, and terrifies them with warnings, 33:17 to turn a person from his sin, and to cover a person’s pride. 33:18 He spares a person’s life from corruption, his very life from crossing over the river. 33:19 Or a person is chastened by pain on his bed, and with the continual strife of his bones.
So then, by appealing to our minds directly and bringing circumstances about that cause us to reconsider our ways, God prevents us from going headlong into deeper and deeper sin. But again, there are seasons where sin’s madness violently lays hold of the soul and possesses the mind so that it casts off all restraint whatsoever and maintains its stubborn resolve to “venture all” upon the way of sin.
Indwelling sin acts as an inward, compelling law within believers. It gets its strength from that fact that it dwells in the heart which itself is deceitful above all things and beyond searching out. In its essence, indwelling sin is thoroughgoing enmity against all of God. It is enmity in that it loathes God’s presence, but also in that it stands in constant, unmitigated opposition to God. It opposes him in at least four ways, that is, by lusting, by fighting and warring, by bringing the soul under captivity, by generating madness and rage.
The purpose of this chapter has been to look more closely at the last two ways sin is enmity against God. Owen explained, based primarily on Romans 7:23, that the law of sin leads the soul captive, even against the renewed inclinations of the believer’s heart. He explained that the phrase “to lead captive” refers to the success of the law of sin in a person’s heart and that when a certain sin, which had no previous opportunities in a person’s life and/or brings no pleasure to the flesh, takes such a root, we may conclude that Satan is directly involved.
There is also a fearlessness and contempt for danger that accompanies such heightened sin. People in such a condition do not seem to care about what God will do or what people think; they simply move forward in their arduous pursuit of sin and gratification. Though God sends calm “reasonings and considerations” as well as “calamity and mercy,” there is often no response. Believers who act like this have thrown off the reign of grace for a season and are inviting the painful, chastening hand of God.
This chapter, then, beings to a close the idea of sin as enmity against God. In the next chapter Owen will look closely at the deception involved in sin. He will look closely at how the mind is affected through the deceitfulness of sin and how it is led astray from its holy duties.