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8. Indwelling Sin’s Power through Deceit


The apostle Paul says in Romans 7:21—Owen’s primary text for explaining the power of indwelling sin in believers—that he found “another law” at work in his members, waging war against the law of his mind and making him a prisoner of the law of sin. No better description can be found of the power of sin that still abides in the regenerate soul. Owen rightly refers to indwelling sin as an “operative effective principle, which seems to have the force of a law…with a constant working towards evil.”64

It has been the puritan’s point throughout this essay to demonstrate the power of indwelling sin in believers. Owen has shown that sin draws much strength from the fact that it dwells in the heart (which is deceitful and ultimately incomprehensible) and is pure enmity in all of the soul to all of God. Further, sin expresses its enmity in two related, yet distinct ways: (1) aversation or loathing against God, and (2) opposition to God.

Sin’s opposition to God is, itself, expressed in two ways. First, sin works by force to dethrone grace and secondly, by deceit. In terms of force, sin lusts, fights and wars, brings the soul into captivity, and leads to madness. We looked at these ideas in chapter’s six and seven.

We are now prepared to look at the second way in which sin works its opposition, namely, by deceit. This specific subject will occupy Owen for the next five chapters. In this chapter he will begin his discussion of how sin deceives the mind and lures it away from its two primary duties. The effect of sin’s deceitfulness on the mind will be further discussed in chapter’s nine and ten. The impact of sin on the affections will be discussed in chapter eleven, and its overthrowing of the will in chapter twelve. The last five chapters will be concerned with obstructing sin (chapter thirteen) and giving further evidence for the power of indwelling sin (chapter’s fourteen through seventeen).

A Detailed Discussion of the Argument of Chapter Eight

    The Fact of Sin’s Deceitfulness: Some Biblical Texts

Owen says,

The second part of the evidence of the power of sin, from its manner of operation, is taken from its deceitfulness. It adds, in its working, deceit unto power. The efficacy [power] of that must needs be great, as is carefully to be watched against by all such as value their souls, where power and deceit are combined, especially advantaged and assisted by all the ways and means before insisted on.65

There are several texts in scripture that reveal the connection between sin and deceit. Owen cites the following:

Hebrews 3:13 But exhort one another each day, as long as it is called “Today,” that none of you may become hardened by sin’s deception.

Jeremiah 17:9 The human mind is more deceitful than anything else. It is incurably bad. Who can understand it?

Jeremiah 4:22 The Lord answered, “This will happen because my people are foolish. They do not know me. They are like children who have no sense. They have no understanding. They are skilled at doing evil. They do not know how to do good.”

Job 11:12 But an empty man will become wise, when a wild donkey colt is born a human being.

Ephesians 4:22 You were taught with reference to your former life to lay aside the old man who is being corrupted in accordance with deceitful desires.

Even the coming of the “man of sin” in 2 Thessalonians 2 is said to be accompanied by deceitfulness and a disregard for the truth.

2 Thessalonians 2:9 The coming of the lawless one will be by Satan’s working with all kinds of miracles and signs and false wonders, 2:10 and with every kind of evil deception directed against those who are perishing, because they found no place in their hearts for the truth so as to be saved.

Indeed, the entire life of men who are under the dominion of the law of sin, is one of deceit and being deceived.

Titus 3:3 For we too were once foolish, disobedient, misled, enslaved to various passions and desires, spending our lives in evil and envy, hateful and hating one another.

2 Timothy 3:13 But evil people and charlatans will go from bad to worse, deceiving others and being deceived themselves.

    Sin’s Deceitfulness: The Source of Its Strength

Owen says that the power of sin may be understood from the fact that scripture places deceit “for the most part as the head and spring of every sin, even as though there were no sin followed after but where deceit went before.”66

      Deceit Given Primacy in Scriptural Accounts of Sin

The apostle Paul in 1 Timothy 2:13, 14 says that it was not Adam who sinned first but actually Eve. The reason, of course, is that Eve was deceived and then she ate. This is made clear by her own words in Genesis 3:13 as well: “The serpent deceived me and I ate.” Eve began the first sin in deceit, her soul being safe until her mind was led astray, and the same thing happens today. Using the example of Eve, Paul warned the Corinthians of Satan’s deceitful activity in 2 Cor 11:3:

But I am afraid that just as the serpent deceived Eve by his treachery, your minds may be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ.

Owen is not engaging here in blaming one sex as opposed to the other. He seeks, rather, to demonstrate that deceit precedes actual sin. The devil is a master of inducing deceit in order to lead men into sin, guilt, and death. Owen says,

Hence, all the great works that the devil doth in the world, to stir men up to an opposition unto the Lord Jesus Christ and his kingdom, he doth them by deceit: Rev xii. 9, “The devil who deceiveth the whole world.” It were utterly impossible men should be prevailed on to abide in his service, acting his designs to their eternal, and sometimes their temporal ruin, were they not exceedingly deceived.67

      Sin’s Deceitfulness Entails Caution on Our Part

Where sin fails not in its bid to deceive us, it fails not in bringing forth its fruit. Therefore, the Christian is warned numerous times throughout scripture to exercise caution lest he/she be deceived (Eph 5:6; 1 Cor 6:9; 15:33; Gal 6:7; Luke 21:8).

      Sin’s Initial Goal: Deceiving The Mind

The efficacy of sin by deceit can be understood from the faculty of the soul affected with it, i.e., the mind. When sin attempts to enter the soul by some other door, such as the emotions, the mind, retaining its right and sovereignty, can cast it down. But when the mind is deceived, the power of sin must be great because the emotions and the will simply run after its dictates. It is true that sin entangles the emotions and this is troublesome, but when it deceives the mind, this is dangerous, says Owen. The office of the mind is to “guide, direct, choose, and lead; and if the light that is in us be darkness, how great is that darkness.” When the mind is thoroughly deceived by sin, the impact on the person is devastating.

      The General Nature of Deceit and the First Temptation

Owen continues his point about the deceitfulness of sin by considering the nature of deceit.

[Deceit] consists in presenting unto the soul, or mind, things otherwise than they are, either in their nature, causes, effects, or present respect unto the soul. This is the general nature of deceit and it prevails many ways. It hides what ought to be seen and considered, conceals circumstances and consequences, presents what is not, or things as they are not….it is a representation of a matter under disguise, hiding that which is undesirable, proposing that which is indeed not in it, that the mind may make a false judgment of it.68

These various aspects of deceit can be seen, Owen says, in the first temptation. How did Satan manage to tempt our first parents? He did it by presenting things not as they really are. Eve saw the fruit and realized that it was desirable. Satan capitalized on this and in his temptations insinuated that God was short circuiting the couple’s happiness (i.e., he’s a capricious tyrant) by requiring that they not eat from that tree. Of course, Satan also hid from Adam and Eve the fact of ultimate spiritual and eternal ruin.

      Sin’s Deceitfulness Progresses Forward by Degrees

So far we’ve seen that deceit is given a prominent place in the biblical portrayal of sin. It attacks the leading faculty of the soul, namely, the mind, and seeks to present things other than they are so that the mind, thrown into error, will be led into the bondage of sin. “But,” Owen asks, “how does it do this?” In what manner? In short, it manages its course by degrees, i.e., little by little.

The deceit of sin always moves forward little by little making use of any advancement that has been gained. First, it deals with any objections to a particular sin, then it proposes some good to come from it, all the while withholding any thought of the consequences of the proposed act. It hides and conceals ends, moves forward by degrees, and constantly stands sure upon any ground already attained. This progression can be seen in James 1:14-15.

    Sin’s Deceitful Progression Outlined: James 1:14-15

The next few chapters are built in large measure on thoughts coming from James 1:13-15. Therefore, we will cite it in both the original as well as the NET Bible:

MhdeiV" peirazovmeno" legevtw o{ti ajpo qeou' peiravzomai: oJ gaVr qeoV" ajpeivrasto" ejstin kakw'n, peiravzei deV aujtoV" oujdevna. 14e{kasto" deV peiravzetai uJpoV th'" ijdiva" ejpiqumiva" ejxelkovmeno" kaiV deleazovmeno": 15ei a hJ ejpiqumiva sullabou'sa tivktei aJmartivan, hJ deV aJmartiva ajpotelesqei'sa ajpokuvei qavnaton.

1:13 Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted by evil,15 and he himself tempts no one. 1:14 But each one is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desires. 1:15 Then when desire conceives, it gives birth to sin, and when sin is full grown, it gives birth to death.

      Two General Observations from James 1:14-15

Owen wants to make two general observations about sin from this passage: (1) indwelling sin strives for the everlasting death of the sinner: “sin, when it is full grown, gives birth to death.” For a believer to be deceived about this is serious, yet to realize and be gripped by this fact is a great means by which to defeat sin; (2) the general way in which sin seeks to bring about its desires is by temptation: “each one is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desires.” Owen says that “the life of temptation lies in deceit; so that, in the business of sin, to be effectually tempted, and to be beguiled or deceived, are the same.”69

      Five Specific Observations from James 1:14-15

Owen argues from James 1:13-15 that there are five specific ways in which sin carries on its work of tempting or deceiving, that is, by: (1) drawing the mind away from its principal duties; (2) enticing; (3) conceiving sin; (4) bringing forth sin in its actual accomplishment, and (5) finishing or completing sin in death. Let’s take a closer look at the first of these.

    The Two Duties of the Mind

According to Owen. there are two duties of the mind—duties that are in keeping with the office of guide and director. First, the mind is to keep the whole soul in a frame of obedience. Second, the mind is to ensure that all our particular duties before God are performed in accordance with God’s desires, that is, all acts of obedience are done in the proper time, manner, and season. The rest of this chapter will be taken up with a consideration of the first duty.

      General: To Keep the Whole Soul Prepared for Obedience

The first duty of the mind is somewhat general compared to the second, more specific duty. In short, the first duty is to keep the whole soul in such a frame or posture as to be ready to obey the Lord in any particular act. The mind, therefore, must carefully watch for sin’s enticements.

Now there are, according to Owen, two aspects to this general duty of the mind. They are: (1) to consider ourselves, sin, and its vileness properly, and (2) to constantly dwell on God, his grace, and goodness. Indwelling sin labors to draw the mind away from these two elements of the first duty.

First, sin attempts to draw the mind away from a constant and proper consideration of its vileness and attending danger. Owen says that

…a due, constant consideration of sin, in its nature, in all its aggravating circumstances, in its end and tendency, especially as represented in the blood and cross of Christ, ought always to abide with us…Every sin is a forsaking of the Lord our God. If the heart know not, if it consider not, that it is an evil thing and a bitter,—evil in itself, bitter in its effects, fruit, and event,—it will never be secured against it.70

This “due” and “constant consideration” of sin’s vileness can only be achieved by those who walk humbly, in the fear of the Lord (Isa 57:15). This, of course, is what scripture enjoins by precept and example. Peter says that we should live our lives as strangers here in reverent fear—fear of sinning against God and suffering loss at the hands of the impartial Judge (1 Peter 1:17-19). Joseph is a classic example of someone, who when enticed to commit adultery, asked how he could do such a thing and sin against God (Gen 39:9; cf. Job 28:28).

Now sin attempts to draw the mind away from guarding the soul in this humble frame. It seeks to prevent the mind from considering sin, its developments, acts, and consequences, making no end of deceitful excuses. It does this in two ways: (1) by a “horrible abuse of gospel grace,” and (2) according to the state and condition of men in the world. Let’s explore these two ideas for a moment.

First, sin abuses the grace offered in the gospel. The gospel is the remedy for any and all sin and opens us up to the gracious will of God toward sinners. But some people, through the deceitfulness of sin, misunderstand the efficacious nature of grace and turn God’s favor into an opportunity for license. But this is definitely not the gospel of God’s grace. On the contrary, listen to what Paul says grace produces and the end for which it aims:

Titus 2:11 For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all people. 2:12 It trains us to reject godless ways and worldly desires and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, 2:13 as we wait for the happy fulfillment of our hope in the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ. 2:14 He gave himself for us to set us free from every kind of lawlessness and to purify for himself a people who are truly his, who are eager to do good.

Philippians 1:27 Only conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ so that—whether I come and see you or whether I remain absent—I should hear that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind, by contending side by side for the faith of the gospel.

Ephesians 4:20 But you did not learn about Christ like this, 4:21 if indeed you heard about him and were taught in him just as the truth is in Jesus. 4:22 You were taught with reference to your former life to lay aside the old man who is being corrupted in accordance with deceitful desires, 4:23 and to be renewed in the spirit of your mind, 4:24 and to put on the new man who has been created in God’s image—in righteousness and holiness that comes from truth.

It is clear from these passages that the grace of God expressed in and through the gospel leads to holiness, not license. Those who claim to know the gospel and yet walk habitually after the lusts of their flesh do not yet grasp the gospel. Such people often use the doctrine of God’s free and complete forgiveness as an occasion to sin. This, of course, is the deceit Paul exposes in Romans 6:1: “Shall we continue in sin so that grace may increase?” Paul rightly denounces such a thought: “May it never be.” Nonetheless, Jude says that there are some who pervert the grace of God into a doctrine of license (Jude 4). On the other hand, when reflection on God’s grace keeps the heart humble before God, circumspect, and hating sin, this is a true sign that genuine gospel light and wisdom has entered the soul.

To be more specific, sin abuses gospel grace in a number of ways. It leads us to treat lightly the relief offered in the gospel. The soul may become weary, needing as it does, to go to the throne of grace many times each day for pardon, mercy, and grace. As a result, it may begin to treat such duties lightly and with mere formalism. We need to be careful in this regard. Sin also urges the soul, on the basis of gospel mercy, to go beyond the boundaries God has set for us, especially boundaries having to do with sensuality. Finally, sin also attempts to draw the mind off from rightly contending against temptation. It often does this by holding God’s pardon before our eyes, all the while encouraging us to sin. It even perverts the knowledge that God will never cast us off; this too becomes an excuse to give way to temptation. Now the doctrine of God’s full and free pardon is true, but it does not lead, rightly understood, to antinomianism (i.e., lawlessness).

We move now to the second way in which sin attempts to keep us from a proper consideration of its vileness. This has to do with the changing condition of men as they grow older. In their younger days mens’ (by “men” Owen means all people) affections work more vigorously and with greater strength than they do later in life. But as affections begin to decrease in things natural, so also in things spiritual. So with the decay of these emotions also comes a diminishing of the sense of sin’s presence and guilt. The mind is thus diverted from a due consideration of the vileness and ugliness of sin through a diminishing of the affections. Owen says,

No sinner like him that hath sinned away his convictions of sin. What is the reason of this? Sense of sin was in their convictions, fixed on their affections. As it decayed in them, they took no care to have it deeply and graciously fixed on their minds. This the deceitfulness of sin deprived them of, and so ruined their souls. In some measure it is so with believers. If, as the sensibleness of the affections decay, if, as they grow heavy and obtuse, great wisdom and grace be not used to fix a due sense of sin upon the mind and judgment, which may provoke, excite, enliven, and stir up the affections every day, great decays will ensue.71

Second, sin attempts to divert the mind from its holy duty of dwelling on God and his grace which is the “spring-head of gospel obedience.” The way in which sin does this is by filling the mind with earthly things and considerations. Yet the apostle urged Christians to set their minds on things above, not on earthly things (Col 3:2). We cannot love both the world and the Lord. We must choose. John told us not to love the world or anything in the world (1 John 2:15).

Thus the mind must make a choice as to whom the master will be. But sin seeks to obfuscate this choice and lead the mind away from its proper attention to God and his grace. Now sin often uses that which is lawful and good to accomplish this end. For example, the people who failed to respond to Jesus’ message because they had to plow their fields or take care of their oxen serve as a pattern of those who allow good and proper responsibilities in this world to usurp the place of God in life. As Paul said, they failed to realize that the world is passing away and so were using it as if it were going to remain eternally.

      Specific: To Ensure That Particular Duties Are Performed as God Desires

The specific duties of the mind will be taken up in later chapters. This heading is included here so that the reader will more easily follow, and perhaps recall at later points, the outline of Owen’s argument.

Summary of Chapter Eight

Owen’s primary thesis in this essay is to demonstrate that indwelling sin works with great power in the Christian. He has argued that sin’s power comes largely from the fact that it is enmity against God, and resides in a deceitful, unsearchable heart. He says that it expresses this enmity in two ways: (1) in aversation or loathing against God, and (2) by opposing God. Now, he further adds that sin opposes God in two ways: (1) by force and, (2) by deceit. We’ve seen that force involves sin’s lusts, its fighting and warring, its attempts to take the soul captive, and its inherent madness. In this chapter we’ve begun to discuss the power that indwelling sin receives by virtue of its deceitfulness.

That sin plies its trade largely through deceit cannot be doubted. Many biblical texts make this clear. And this deceit begins in the mind and moves forward by degrees, always seeking death in the sinner and making its advancements through temptations. James 1:14-15 points to these realities.

So then, sin attempts to lure the leading faculty of the soul, i.e., the mind, away from fulfilling its two cardinal duties: (1) to keep the whole soul in a frame of obedience, and (2) to ensure that all our particular or specific duties before God are performed in accordance with God’s desires, that is, all acts of obedience are done in the proper time, manner, and season.

Now there are, according to Owen, two aspects to this first duty of keeping the entire soul in a frame of obedience. They are: (1) to consider ourselves, sin, and its vileness properly, and (2) to constantly dwell on God, his grace and goodness. It was Owen’s point in this chapter to deal only with these two aspects of the mind’s first duty. He will deal with other aspects of this first duty as well as the second duty in the following chapters.

As far as considering ourselves, sin, and its vileness is concerned, indwelling sin seeks to cause the mind to abuse grace (when we treat our duties lightly or we use mercy as an occasion to sin) and to divert its proper attention from a due consideration of sin’s vileness as we get older and our emotions diminish. Indwelling sin also leads the mind away from dwelling on God and his grace by filling it with earthly concerns—concerns which choke out God and his will for our lives. From this brief chapter, it is clear that Christians must watch carefully (but not with a fretful attitude) for the ways in which sin seeks to deceive the mind.

64 VI:158-59.

65 VI:211.

66 VI:212.

67 VI:213.

68 VI:213-14.

69 VI:215.

70 VI:217.

71 VI:222.

Related Topics: Hamartiology (Sin), Temptation

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