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Indwelling Sin and Romans 7:21

Introduction

Owen is usually very clear at the outset regarding what he wants to talk about and the point he wishes to make good to his readers. His essay concerning “indwelling sin” is true to form. He begins by saying,

It is of indwelling sin, and that in the remainders of it in persons after their conversion to God, with its power, efficacy, and effects, that we intend to treat.1

In order to talk about the power of indwelling sin in believers, Owen has chosen Romans 7:21 as his text. While He has decided not to “get lost” in the disputes and “contests” about the principal scope of the apostle in Romans 72, he nonetheless takes the passage (i.e., 7:21) as referring to the power of indwelling sin in a regenerate person for whom the apostle is an example:

I shall not at present enter into that dispute, but take that for granted which may be undeniably proved and evinced,—namely, that it is the condition of a regenerate person, with respect unto the remaining power of indwelling sin which is there proposed and exemplified, by and in the person of the apostle himself.3

We need now to present Romans 7:13-254 in both Greek and English Bibles (NET Bible):

13ToV ou ajgaqoVn ejmoiV ejgevneto qavnato"; mhV gevnoito: ajllaV hJ aJmartiva, i{na fanh'/ aJmartiva, diaV tou' ajgaqou' moi katergazomevnh qavnaton, i{na gevnhtai kaq* uJperbolhVn aJmartwloV" hJ aJmartiva diaV th'" ejntolh'". 14Oi[damen gaVr o{ti oJ novmo" pneumatikov" ejstin, ejgwV deV savrkino" eijmi pepramevno" uJpoV thVn aJmartivan. 15o} gaVr katergavzomai ouj ginwvskw: ouj gaVr o} qevlw tou'to pravssw, ajll* o} misw' tou'to poiw'. 16eij deV o} ouj qevlw tou'to poiw', suvmfhmi tw'/ novmw/ o{ti kalov". 17nuniV deV oujkevti ejgwV katergavzomai aujtoV ajllaV hJ oijkou'sa ejn ejmoiV aJmartiva. 18Oida gaVr o{ti oujk oijkei' ejn ejmoiv, tou't* e[stin ejn th'/ sarkiv mou, ajgaqovn: toV gaVr qevlein paravkeitai moi, toV deV katergavzesqai toV kaloVn ou[: 19ouj gaVr o} qevlw poiw' ajgaqovn, ajllaV o} ouj qevlw kakoVn tou'to pravssw. 20eij deV o} ouj qevlw ejgwV tou'to poiw', oujkevti ejgwV katergavzomai aujtoV ajllaV hJ oijkou'sa ejn ejmoiV aJmartiva. 21euJrivskw a[ra toVn novmon, tw'/ qevlonti ejmoiV poiei'n toV kalovn, o{ti ejmoiV toV kakoVn paravkeitai: 22sunhvdomai gaVr tw'/ novmw/ tou' qeou' kataV toVn e[sw a[nqrwpon, 23blevpw deV e{teron novmon ejn toi'" mevlesin mou ajntistrateuovmenon tw'/ novmw/ tou' noov" mou kaiV aijcmalwtivzonta me ejn tw'/ novmw/ th'" aJmartiva" tw'/ o[nti ejn toi'" mevlesin mou. 24Talaivpwro" ejgwV a[nqrwpo": tiv" me rJuvsetai ejk tou' swvmato" tou' qanavtou touvtou; 25cavri" deV tw'/ qew'/ diaV *Ihsou' Cristou' tou' kurivou hJmw'n. [Ara ou aujtoV" ejgwV tw'/ meVn noiV douleuvw novmw/ qeou' th'/ deV sarkiV novmw/ aJmartiva".

7:13 Did that which is good, then, become death to me? Absolutely not! But sin, so that it would be shown to be sin, produced death in me through what is good, so that through the commandment sin would become utterly sinful. 7:14 For we know that the law is spiritual—but I am unspiritual, sold into slavery to sin. 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. 7:18 For I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my flesh. For I want to do the good, but I cannot do it. 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. 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.

A Detailed Discussion of the Argument of Chapter One

There are basically four points that Owen wants to make good from an examination of Romans 7:21. They are: (1) indwelling sin in believers exerts power and has efficacy. This is evidenced by the fact that the apostle refers to it as a “law” (cf. also v. 23); (2) the way in which Paul came to the discovery of this law, i.e., “he found it”; (3) the disposition or attitude of Paul’s heart when he found this law of sin, i.e., he wanted to do good,” and (4) the state and activity of this law when the soul wants to do good, i.e., Paul says “it is present with me.”

    Paul’s View of Indwelling Sin: It Is a Law

    Paul says that he finds sin as a “law.” What does he mean by this? Well, says Owen, there are two ways in which we can understand the term “law.” First, a law often refers to a directive or rule. That is, “law” conceived as such refers to moral commands which direct a person to do one thing and refrain from another. Law viewed from this angle, while it directs inwardly is itself external to the person.

    But there is another and related way to talk about “law.” That is, it can be viewed as something moral and inward, a principle if you will, that constantly inclines a person to act one way or another. Owen says,

The principle that is in the nature of everything, moving and carrying it towards its own end and rest, is called the law of nature. In this respect, every inward principle that inclineth and urgeth unto operations or actings suitable to itself is a law.5

    Foe this reason Paul refers to the sanctifying work of the Spirit in the life of the believer as a law (Rom 8:2) in that it is constant, effectual, and presses us into beliefs and actions in agreement with that working, i.e., beliefs and actions commensurate with and directed toward holiness.

    Now it is true, as Owen points out, that the term “law” is used in different ways in Romans 7. Some might argue that what Paul means here by “law” is simply “condition” or “state.” But this does nothing to really change the meaning Owen is advancing for Romans 7:21. In other words, to say that Paul’s experience was to find “sin as an existing condition when he would do good” does not seriously alter the meaning. However, it is important to note that in Romans 7 each occurrence of the term law used in collocation with the term sin points to the nature or power of sin itself. Sin acts like a law within us and is powerful to bring about its ends.

    From a quick look at Romans 7:23 we get a clearer sense of what the term law means when used in connection with sin in Romans 7. The passage says, “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.” When Paul says he sees a “different law in [his] members” he is referring to the being and nature of indwelling sin and when he says “making me captive to the law of sin that is in [my] members” he is referring to the power and efficacy of sin. Both of these ideas, according to Owen, are to be found in the term “law” as it appears in Romans 7:21.

    The point that Owen wants to draw from all this is that there is “an exceeding efficacy and power in the remainders of indwelling sin in believers, with a constant working towards evil.”6 Though sin is a law in them it is not a law to them; its power has been broken, though it is still a law nonetheless—a law that is all the more deadly when it lies quiet in the soul. But more of this in the following sections.

    Paul’s Discovery of Indwelling Sin as a Law

    In this section Owen explains the way in which Paul came to the realization of indwelling sin as a “law.” The apostle knew of the concept and had undoubtedly heard it spoken of and taught before. But Owen says that this is not the kind of knowing Paul is referring to. He is not talking about knowing about something, like knowing about a person, but having never met them. Rather, he is talking about knowing of “something,” i.e., by personal, firsthand, experience. The truth is, he found the law at work in himself. Owen explains:

…it is one thing for a man to know in general that there is a law of sin; [it is] another thing for a man to have an experience of the power of this law of sin in himself. It is preached to all…But they are few that know it in themselves…But this is that which the apostle affirms,—not that the doctrine of it had been preached unto him, but that he had found it by experience in himself…For a man to find his sickness, and danger thereon from its effects, is another thing than to hear a discourse about a disease from its causes.7

    The privilege of knowing firsthand the experience of indwelling sin as a law belongs solely to Christians—and Christians that are sensitive spiritually. The Christian who constantly gives in to sinful urges knows much less experientially of its power and efficacy than the Christian, who by the power of the Spirit (Rom 8:13), consistently wars against it.8 So important is the Christian’s recognition of sin as “a law with great force” that Owen says it is the “great preservative of all divine truth in the soul.” If we lose sight of this, we lost sight of who we are and thus we lose sight of God’s grace and mercy and our need of him. Owen completes this section with a statement of his second principle, namely,

Believers have experience of the power and efficacy of indwelling sin. They find it in themselves; they find it as a law. It hath a self evidencing efficacy to them that are alive to discern it. They that find not its power are under its dominion.9

    The way for Christians to realize the presence, power, and efficacy of indwelling sin is to try, by the Spirit, the word, prayer and fellowship, to keep the moral law of God. If Christians have properly understood and applied this law of God—such as we see expounded in the Sermon on the Mount and applied by Paul and the other apostles—they will soon realize the power of the contrary “law” within them.

    The General Disposition of Believers and Sin as a Law

    So the law of sin is exactly that in believers—a law attempting to exert its power, influence, and penalties. But it needs to be pointed out with clarity that the law of sin is a law in believers, but it is no longer a law unto them (like it is with unbelievers). They are not wholly given over to its demands at any time. Thus Owen says that there is another (and higher) law in believers, planted there and maintained by God (cf. Rom 8:1-2). Paul refers to it when he says that “he would do good.” This statement refers to the constant and abiding desire in every believer’s heart to will to do the good. Owen makes this point clear:

To will to do so [i.e., to will the good] is to have the habitual bent and inclination of the will set on that which is good,—that is, morally and spiritually good.10

    From this truth Owen states his third principle, namely, that there is, and there is through grace, kept up in believers a constant and ordinarily prevailing will of doing good, notwithstanding the power of efficacy of indwelling sin to the contrary.11

    This indicates that the position of the believer is to be seen in contradistinction to the unbeliever. The unbeliever has no such God created disposition within him. He is dead in sin (Eph 2:1-3) and his will is always aligned with sin (Rom 8:7). This does not mean that he never tries to do good, but what good he does achieve is due to the light he possesses12 and the conscience that pricks at him, even gnawing at times. Owen says that unbelievers’ faint endeavors at doing good are far from a will of doing the good. They do not choose to do “the good” because of the excellency of the thing chosen and its value to the betterment of the soul, for such reasoning, apprehension, and action (i.e., will) is not within the ability of the non-Christian (i.e., a person unaided by God’s Spirit).

    The Conflict with Indwelling Sin: When I Would Do Good Sin Is Right There With Me

    There are two points to make clear regarding the “will to do good” that is in every believer. First, according to Romans 7:18 the will to do good is habitually and permanently within believers. Second, there are times and seasons for its exercise. Paul’s says, “when I would do good,” referring to specific seasons wherein this or that good is to be done or that duty performed.

    Now it needs to be meditated upon and understood by the Christian that the will to do good will be met by a indwelling sin’s counteroffensive and this struggle is, per se, normal to the Christian life. When there is no experience of struggle, then we have a problem! Indwelling sin acts against both the gracious disposition that constantly abides in the believer (through the Spirit) as well as when the believer attempts to do the good. Evil, Paul says, is right there present with him when he acts to do the good, i.e., obey the Lord. This leads to Owen’s fourth point, namely, indwelling sin is effectually operative in rebelling and inclining to evil, when the will of doing good is in a particular manner active and inclining unto obedience.13

    The apostle Paul described the conflict in believers in Galatians 5:17:

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 “truth and consequences” of this reality of living in the “now/not yet”14 is supremely important for the Christian to understand and recognize in their own experience. Owen regards this truth as the “principle part of our wisdom” and, given Paul’s focus on it—in one way or another throughout his writings—he is certainly correct. There will be no real and permanent growth in holiness without at least a basic understanding of this principle. If we are to cooperate with the Spirit in sanctification—which is not to say that he does 50% and we do 50%, but is rather to say that we learn to respond to his urging, trust his leading and obey his summoning—then we must understand what is going on inside us and why we wrestle so often with indwelling sin. There is a war. Let us not forget that (1 Peter 2:12)!

Summary of Chapter One

In this first of his chapters on “indwelling sin” Owen has sought to make good on four principles which together form the foundation of insight into Paul’s doctrine and also form the foundation of the rest of Owen’s argument. Let’s take a moment and review them in preparation for the next chapter on the nature of indwelling sin as a law. In abbreviated form, here are the four principles again: (1) the remainder of indwelling sin in believers still maintains great efficacy and power and constantly tries to incline them to evil; (2) believers have firsthand experience of the power of indwelling sin; (3) by grace there is kept up in believers a constant and ordinarily prevailing will of doing good in spite of the presence and contrary activity of indwelling sin, and (4) indwelling sin is effectually operative in rebelling and inclining to evil when the will of doing good is in a particular manner active and inclining unto obedience.


1 John Owen, The Works of John Owen: The Nature, Power, Deceit and Prevalency of the Remainders of Indwelling Sin in Believers, ed. William H. Goold, vol. VI (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1967), VI:157.

2 There has been much discussion and dispute over the precise identification of the “I” in Romans 7:14-25. Some have argued that Paul is not referring to himself at all, though most, if not all, major commentators from Augustine on have correctly rejected this view. Since it is most certain that Paul is referring, at least initially, to himself, the question then remains does he mean himself as the Pharisee in his unconverted state, in which case he represents man in Adam, or is he referring to himself as Paul the Christian, in which case he represents all believers (surely we can agree that we are looking at universalized experience and not just that of the apostle). For further discussion and detailed arguments demonstrating that Paul is here referring to himself as a believer (and therefore his discussion refers to all believers), see J. I. Packer, Keep in Step with the Spirit (Grand Rapids: Revell, 1984), 263-70; John Calvin, The Epistles of Paul to the Romans and Thessalonians, Calvin’s New Testament Commentaries, trans. R. MacKenzie, ed. David W. Torrance and Thomas F. Torrance (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1960), 148; C. E. B. Cranfield, Romans: A Shorter Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985), 164; James R. Edwards, Romans, NIBC (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1992), 190-91.

3 VI:157.

4 We include the material surrounding 7:21 so that the reader can get a feel for the immediate context in which v. 21 appears.

5 VI:158.

6 VI:159.

7 VI:159.

8 Owen is not here setting up a “two-class” Christianity—as the Keswick higher life erroneously sought to establish from 1 Cor 3:1ff—but is rather saying that in the experience of every Christian, giving in to sin repeatedly creates an inability to distinguish truth from error and a concomitant weakness to deal ruthlessly with sin. The question is one of degree, not kind. For the difference between giving in to sin, on the one hand, and saying “no” to sin and “yes” to righteousness on the other, think of the difference between floating downstream (i.e., giving in to sin) and trying to paddle upstream (say “no” to sin and “yes” to righteousness). Only the latter person really understands the force of the water! Again, it is one thing to ride downhill, quite another to go uphill. Only those who have gone uphill really know this firsthand.

9 VI:159.

10 VI:160.

11 VI:160.

12 Owen seems to be appealing here to the fact that men and women are made in the image of God and that many also have the influence of Biblical preaching as well as the testimony of Christians’ godly lives.

13 VI:161.

14 The expression “now/not yet” underlies all of New Testament soteriological thought and is a convenient way of summarizing our current experience of salvation in contrast to what is yet to be accomplished at glorification. We can expect God to do great things in and through us now (Eph 3:20), and we must never lose sight of this, but the kingdom of God awaits still a future consummation; it is only at that time, when the Son returns and ultimately ushers in the eternal state, that we will no longer struggle with sin. All pretensions to the contrary are just that, pretensions.

Related Topics: Hamartiology (Sin), Sanctification