This is a short chapter-by-chapter summary of John Owen’s The Nature, Power, Deceit, and Prevalency of Indwelling Sin.
Why should we bother understanding the nature of sin that dwells within us? It creates a humble and contrite frame of mind that will enable the believer to walk appropriately with God and other men. With God, he will gain a due sense of reverence and thankfulness for the great mercy shown in the Gospel. With men, he will be ready to forgive and overlook their sins. “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” (Pg 282-3).
There are two contrary principles at work within believers – the law of sin and the law of the Spirit of life. Unbelievers are wholly under the law of sin, for they do not have an overall inclination for doing good that the believer has. The law of sin is a principle/tendency in a person inclining/pressing/causing him to act according to its nature. The believer is wise to be acquainted with the law of sin, its nature and actings, so that he may fight well. The aim of this acquaintance is that he might walk with God and glorify him in this world.
The law of sin is like any other, it promises rewards upon obedience and punishments upon disobedience. The pleasures of sin are its rewards; the the afflictions, suffering, difficult duties involved in avoiding sin are its punishments. It is an internal law that is at work in all men, and hence it applies itself with ease on the will and affections of men. It is always present, even during the best actions of saints. Few men know its presence and the associated dangers, as a result they do not seek grace, help of the Spirit, self-abasement, humiliation, intenseness in prayer and so on.
The heart of man is the seat of the law of sin. The more we feed a sin the stronger it becomes. The heart is too deep to be known, and its God alone who knows it (Jer 17:9-10). Not only is it unsearchable, but it is deceitful above all things. It is full of contradictions, false promises, and fair appearances. The fight against indwelling sin is an ongoing on till death, but the one who dies fighting is a conqueror. We are to be watchful in all seasons. We must commit the whole matter to him who can search our hearts and can prevent its treacheries and deceits.
In the law of sin, we carry about enmity against the God who is love (1 Jn 4:8) all our days. One may be reconciled to an enemy, but enmity (Rom 8:7) must be completely destroyed. Enmity will never have enough “all the fuel in the world, all the fabric of the creation that is combustible, being cast into the fire, will not at all satisfy it, but increase it, so it is with satisfaction given to sin by sinning”. This enmity is against God himself, and it opposes every work of grace in the believer’s soul (Gal 5:17; 1 Pet 2:11). Every sin is an expression of this enmity within against God. It is being weary of God (Is 43:22) and asking of him to depart from us (Jb 21:14; 22:17).
Sin creates an aversion and opposition towards the things of God. When we engage in private or public worship, sin makes us loath these things. Apostasy many times begins with a putting off of private duties because of such aversion towards spiritual things. We counter such aversion by 1) being diligent to maintain holy frame in all duties, 2) fight aversions at their very outset. Don’t give up because of the constancy of this aversion, but wait on the Lord and persevere. Use the knowledge of this aversion against a merciful God to humble yourself. Weakening of these aversions can only come about through experiencing the beauty and excellency of spiritual things.
Sin opposes God and the work of his grace in believers by its lustings (Gal 5:17), fightings (Rom 7:23), captivity, and “madness” upon success (Eccl 9:3). It lusts appear by its sudden surprises even when the soul is engaged in good things. Although the heart is ruled by grace in the believer, there is a general inclination towards sinning because of sin’s lusts. It fights against Christian strivings to good and against duties.
There is a law that seeks to make me captive to the law of sin (Rom 7:23). Captivity is the height of this opposition. Sometimes this can be from devil himself, if it is something that arises not from our usual dispositions, personality and constitution. This captivity happens through degrees of success. This law that leads to captivity is what makes Paul cry with weariness ‘Wretched man that I am!’. The law of sin heads towards madness and rages when left unchecked. “Die rather than yield one step unto it” At times, the rule of the law of grace is cast off temporarily, when the soul finds itself under reign of sin (Rom 6:12). God’s restraining grace is what keeps the soul from apostasy when his renewing grace is put off; considerations of hell, judgment, and death rather than the love of Christ (2 Cor 5:14) keeps the soul.
Sin is deceitful, and the utmost effect of its deceitfulness is hardness of heart (Heb 3:13). Satan uses deceit in keeping the whole world under his sway (Rev 12:9); no man would choose to be under his yoke, a yoke that leads to eternal and temporary ruin, if he were not deceived. This deceitfulness is present in our minds, the very thing that’s office is to guide, lead and choose (Mt 6:23). Sin acts in this order: 1) draws away, 2) entices, 3) conception of sin, 4) accomplishment of sin, 5) completion (Jam 1:14-15). Sin even abuses the gospel and seeks to convince the heart to carry on with it due to the forgiveness available. If a person does not maintain a constant sensibility to sin, the law of sin will slowly wear out convictions regarding sin and make him take it lightly. One must also set his eyes on things above and maintain a “holy consideration of God and his grace”.
Christian duties that oppose the being and life of indwelling sin – meditation and prayer. We aim for conformity to the mind and will of God through this. Watchfulness through prayer against sin, and spotting deceitful reasons for ignoring these duties are important. Being steadfast in duties will result in unmovableness and fruitful obedience. Three parts of this steadfastness of the mind: “1. full purpose of cleaving to God in all things; 2. a daily renovation and quickening of the heart unto a discharge of this purpose; 3. resolutions against all dalliances or parleys about negligences in that discharge”
Duties must be done in a proper manner. It is not enough to blindly do them anymore than piling wood to build a house. They must be done in faith; in a conscious recognition of strength from Christ (Jn 15:5; Gal 2:20). All things must be done with a single eye to the glory of God and not just a general vague idea of doing it for his glory. One must not be content in merely having performed duties, but aim at pleasing God. When duties are done with great aversion they are not done to God (Am 5:25). With regards to sin, consider the sovereign Lord whose commands you defy, consider the dread of falling into his hands, consider his love and kindness, his special tokens of mercy and love, the blood and mediation of Christ, the inhabitation of the Spirit. Sin causes spiritual sloth, negligence, fear of difficulties involved in duties.
What? Sin draws and entices a man through persistent imaginations and vain thoughts. The lusts of the world (1 Jn 2:16) bring secret delight to him. When the person gives weak excuses and quick relief from the gospel to justify his sin, he is in a state of being enticed and drawn away. How? By hiding the dangers that accompany sin, its momentary pleasures are used to appeal to the corrupt mind. Keeping one’s heart with all diligence (Pro 4:23) is then the most important task. One may keep his reputation, his family, his estate, but if he fails to keep his heart, what does it profit him? He must fix his affections on things above; he must consider the world and its pleasures crucified to him and him to the world (Gal 6:14). Nothing less than the sight of God in all his beauty and glory, and the loveliness of Jesus Christ, will prevent him from being enticed by sin.
Sin has been conceived once it obtains the consent of the will. Corrupt reasonings and affections plead the will for consent. It is the will where a man has chosen to obey or not; the remaining physical action done to carry out the sin is merely consequential. The fight is lost or won in the heart; in the will. Though the believer’s will may consent to sin, it does so reluctantly (Rom 7). The believer does not whole-heartedly consent to sin. However, repeated allowance of sin will gradually reduce the reluctance and bring the believer to a dangerous position.
God prevents a man from sinning either through works of providence or grace. By providence, Owen means external circumstances and restraints that will hinder the sin. By grace, he refers to God working internally on the will of the person. God might using restraining grace or renewing grace. The latter applicable specifically for saints, while the former may apply to unbelievers as well. The believer ought to pray that God providentially and graciously prevents him from entering into any sin that will displease God.
Even men who have experienced God’s grace in plenty may fall under the power of indwelling sin. Thus we see the likes of David, Noah, Lot and Hezekiah sin after enjoying so many spiritual advantages they had. It is no exception in the life of the ordinary believer. Indwelling sin is an ever present tumor which may rise with sudden unexpected tides during seasons of spiritual refreshments and knock the believer down. But Christians are supplied with all they need in Christ to overcome and be watchful against sin.
How does indwelling sin have it ways? It works through sloth and negligence. It works by encouraging sloppiness in means of grace which would have otherwise brought about genuine affections towards God. It draws from bad examples of professing believers, and weakens the initial zeal a new born believer might have had. It works through a secret sin that causes spiritual decay, and hence weakening spiritual strength, confidence in God in faith and prayer, making the knees feeble, and hands hanging down in dealing with God. One secret sin can become cancerous to the soul. It strikes at the central life-sustaining duty of communion with God. Mere knowledge of truths without an experiential knowledge accompanying it is another effective tool in the hands of indwelling sin.
Indwelling sin makes unbelievers do that which is totally contrary to nature. For instance, it is natural even with wild beasts to take care of their own, but sin causes a man to murder his own offspring or parent. It is indwelling sin that opposes all the reasonableness and gracious work of God in the invitation to receive the Gospel. It makes men run headlong towards their own destruction, while God’s gracious invitation to live stands.
It so powerful that it withstands the law. The law alone cannot save. It may seem to have been curbed for a short season under the working of the law, but it remains and thrives once again in due time. The spring of sin is not dried up; it is merely hidden for the moment and will break out for certain. Taking vows and strict life measures and resolutions will not disarm sin or its power. A new nature is needed which God creates in a man who comes to Christ. The Spirit of Christ alone then enables a believer to habitually weaken the power of indwelling sin through the work of mortification. Having studied the Nature of Indwelling Sin, the reader will do well to study what it means to mortify it through Owen’s work on Of the Mortification of Sin in Believers.