THE LAW OF INDWELLING SIN. Part Two; Dominance and Capacity

Taken and adapted from, “REMAINDERS OF INDWELLING SIN”
Written by John Owen, 1616 – 1683


There are in general two things attending every law, as such…

First, Dominion. Romans 7:1, “The law has dominion over a man whilst he lives:” κυριεύει τοῦ ἀνθρώπου — “It lords it over a man.” Where any law takes place, κυριεύει, it has dominion. It is properly the act of a superior, and it belongs to its nature to exact obedience by way of dominion. Now, there is a twofold dominion, as there is a twofold law. There is a moral authoritative dominion over a man, and there is a real effective dominion in a man. The first is an affection of the law of God, the latter of the law of sin. The law of sin has not in itself a moral dominion, — it has not a rightful dominion or authority over any man; but it has that which is equivalent unto it; whence it is said Μὴ οὖν βασιλευέτω ἁμαρτία ἐν, “to reign as a king,” is brought out –Romans 6:12, and  ἁμαρτία γὰρ ὑμῶν οὐ κυριεύσε “to lord it,” or have dominion, is seen verse 14, as a law in general is said to have, chapter 7:1. But because it has lost its complete dominion in reference unto believers, of whom alone we speak, I shall not insist upon it in this utmost extent of its power. But even in them it is a law still; though not a law unto them, yet, as was said, it is a law in them. And though it has not a complete, and, as it were, a rightful dominion over them, yet it will have a domination as to some things in them. It is still a law, and that in them; so that all its actings are the actings of a law, — that is, it acts with power, though it has lost its complete power of ruling in them. Though it be weakened, yet its nature is not thawed. It is a law still, and therefore powerful. And as its particular workings, which we shall afterward consider, are the ground of this appellation, so the term itself teaches us in general what we are to expect from it, and what endeavors it will use for dominion, to which it has been accustomed.

Secondly, A law, as a law, has the capacity to provoke those that are adamantly against it into the things that it requires. A law has rewards and punishments accompanying of it. These secretly prevail on them to whom they are proposed, though the things commanded be not much desirable. And generally all laws have their efficacy on the minds of men, from the rewards and punishments that are annexed unto them. Nor is this law without this spring of power: it has its rewards and punishments. The pleasures of sin are the rewards of sin; a reward that most men lose their souls to obtain. By this the law of sin contended in Moses against the law of grace. Hebrews 11:25, 26, “He chose rather to suffer affliction with the people of God, than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season; for he looked unto the recompense of reward.” The contest was in his mind between the law of sin and the law of grace. The motive on the part of the law of sin, wherewith it sought to draw him over, and wherewith it prevails on the most, was the reward that it proposed unto him, — namely, that he should have the present enjoyment of the pleasures of sin. By this it contended against the reward annexed unto the law of grace, called “the recompense of reward.”

By this sorry reward does this law keep the world in obedience to its commands; and experience shows us of what power it is to influence the minds of men. It has also punishments that it threatens men with who labor to cast off its yoke. Whatever evil, trouble, or danger in the world, attends gospel obedience, — whatever hardship or violence is to be offered to the sensual part of our natures in a strict course of mortification, — sin makes use of, as if they were punishments attending the neglect of its commands. By these it prevails on the “fearful,” who shall have no share in life eternal, Revelation 21:8. And it is hard to say by whether of these, its pretended rewards or pretended punishments, it does most prevail, in whether of them its greatest strength does lie. By its rewards it entices men to sins of commission, as they are called, in ways and actions tending to the satisfaction of its lusts. By its punishments it induces men to the omitting of duties; a course tending to no less a pernicious event than the former. By which of these the law of sin has its greatest success in and upon the souls of men is not evident; and that because they are seldom or never separated, but equally take place on the same persons. But this is certain, that by tenders and promises of the pleasures of sin on the one hand, by threats of the deprivation of all sensual contentments and the infliction of temporal evils on the other, it has an exceeding efficacy on the minds of men, oftentimes on believers themselves. Unless a man be prepared to reject the reasonings that will offer themselves from the one and the other of these, there is no standing before the power of the law. The world falls before them every day. With what deceit and violence, they are urged and imposed on the minds of men we shall afterward declare; as also what advantages they have to prevail upon them. Look on the generality of men, and you shall find them wholly by these means at sin’s disposal. Do the profits and pleasures of sin lie before them? — nothing can withhold them from reaching after them. Do difficulties and inconveniences attend the duties of the gospel? — they will have nothing to do with them; and so are wholly given up to the rule and dominion of this law. And this light in general we have into the power and efficacy of indwelling sin from the general nature of a law, whereof it is partaker.

We may consider, next, what kind of law in particular it is; which will extend our evidence regarding the capacity of its power and how it works, for it is not an outward, written, commanding, directing law, but an inbred, working, impelling, urging law. A law proposed unto us is not to be compared, for efficacy, to a law inbred in us. Adam had a law of sin proposed to him in his temptation; but because he had no law of sin inbred and working in him, he might have withstood it. An inbred law must needs be effectual. Let us take an example from that law which is contrary to this law of sin. The law of God was at first inbred and natural unto man; it was consecrated with his faculties, and was their rectitude, both in being and operation, in reference to his end of living unto God and glorifying of him. Hence it had an especial power in the whole soul to enable it unto all obedience, yea, and to make all obedience easy and pleasant. Such is the power of an inbred law. And though this law, as to the rule and dominion of it, be now by nature cast out of the soul, yet the remaining sparks of it, because they are inbred, are very powerful and effectual; as the apostle declares, Romans 2:14, 15. Afterward God renews this law, and writes it in tables of stone. But what is the efficacy of this law? Will it now, as it is external and proposed unto men, enable them to perform the things that it exacts and requires? Not at all. God knew it would not, unless it were turned to an internal law again; that is, until, of a moral outward rule, it be turned into an inward real principle. Wherefore God makes his law internal again, and implants it on the heart as it was at first, when he intends to give it power to produce obedience in his people: Jeremiah 31:31-33, “I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts.” This is that which God fixes on, as it were, upon a discovery of the insufficiency of an outward law leading men unto obedience. “The written law,” saith he, “will not do it; mercies and deliverances from distress will not affect it; trials and afflictions will not accomplish it.” “Then,” saith the Lord, “will I take another course: I will turn the written law into an internal living principle in their hearts; and that will have such an efficacy as shall assuredly make them my people, and keep them so.” Now, such is this law of sin. It is an indwelling law: Romans 7:17, “It is sin that dwells in me;” verse 20, “Sin that dwells in me;” verse 21, “It is present with me;” verse 23, “It is in my members;” — yea, it is so far in a man, as in some sense it is said to be the man himself; verse 18, “I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) dwells no good thing.” The flesh, which is the seat and throne of this law, yea, which indeed is this law, is in some sense the man himself, as grace also is the new man. Now, from this consideration of it, that it is an indwelling law inclining and moving to sin, as an inward habit or principle, it has sundry advantages increasing its strength and furthering its power; as,

  1. The indwelling law of sin always abides in the soul; –it is never absent. The apostle twice uses that expression, “It dwells in me.” There is its constant residence and habitation. If it came upon the soul only at certain seasons, much obedience might be perfectly accomplished in its absence; yea, and as they deal with usurping tyrants, whom they intend to thrust out of a city, the gates might be sometimes shut against it, that it might not return, — the soul might fortify itself against it. But the soul is its home; there it dwells, and is no wanderer. Wherever you are, whatever you are about, this law of sin is always in you; in the best that You do, and in the worst. Men little consider what a dangerous companion is always at home with them. When they are in company, when alone, by night or by day, all is one, sin is with them. There is a living coal continually in their houses; which, if it be not looked unto, will fire them, and it may be consume them. Oh, the woeful security of poor souls! How little do the most of men think of this inbred enemy that is never from home! How little, for the most part, does the watchfulness of any professors answer the danger of their state and condition!
  2. It is always ready to apply itself to every end and purpose that will serve it. “It does not only dwell in me,” saith the apostle, “but when I would do good, it is present with me.” There is somewhat more in that expression than mere indwelling. An inmate may dwell in a house, and yet not be always meddling with what the good-man of the house has to do (that so we may keep to the allusion of indwelling, used by the apostle): but it is so with this law, it does so dwell in us, as that it will be present with us in everything we do; yea, oftentimes when with most earnestness we desire to be quit of it, with most violence it will put itself upon us: “When I would do good, it is present with me.” Would you pray, would you hear, would you give alms, would you meditate, would you be in any duty acting faith on God and love towards him, would you work righteousness, would you resist temptations, — this troublesome, perplexing indweller will still more or less put itself upon you and be present with you; so that you cannot perfectly and completely accomplish the thing that is good, as our apostle speaks, verse 18. Sometimes men, by hearkening to their temptations, do stir up, excite, and provoke their lusts; and no wonder if then they find them present and active. But it will be so when with all our endeavors we labor to be free from them. This law of sin “dwells” in us; — that is, it adheres as a depraved principle, unto our minds in darkness and vanity, unto our affections in sensuality, unto our wills in a loathing of and aversion from that which is good; and by some, more, or all of these, is continually putting itself upon us, in inclinations, motions, or suggestions to evil, when we would be most gladly quit of it.
  3. It being an indwelling law, applies itself to its work with great ability and easiness, like “the sin that does so easily beset us,” Hebrews 12:1. It has a great facility and easiness in the application of itself unto its work; it needs no doors to be opened unto it; it needs no engines to work by. The soul cannot apply itself to any duty of a man but it must be by the exercise of those faculties wherein this law has its residence. Is the understanding or the mind to be applied unto anything? — there it is, in ignorance, darkness, vanity, folly, madness. Is the will to be engaged? — there it is also, in spiritual deadness, stubbornness, and the roots of obstinacy. Is the heart and affections to be set on work? — there it is, in inclinations to the world and present things, and sensuality, with proneness to all manner of defilements. Hence it is easy for it to insinuate itself into all that we do, and to hinder all that is good, and to further all sin and wickedness. It has an intimacy, an inwardness with the soul; and therefore, in all that we do, does easily beset us. It possesses those very faculties of the soul whereby we must do what we do, whatever it be, good or evil. Now, all these advantages it has as it is a law, as an indwelling law, which manifests its power and efficacy. It is always resident in the soul, it puts itself upon all its actings, and that with easiness and facility.

This is that law which the apostle affirms that he found in himself; this is the title that he gives unto the powerful and effectual remainder of indwelling sin even in believers; and these general evidences of its power, from that appellation, have we. Many there are in the world who find not this law in them, — who, whatever they have been taught in the word, have not a spiritual sense and experience of the power of indwelling sin; and that because they are wholly under the dominion of it. They find not that there is darkness and folly in their minds; because they are darkness itself, and darkness will discover nothing. They find not deadness and an indisposition in their hearts and wills to God; because they are dead wholly in trespasses and sins. They are at peace with their lusts, by being in bondage unto them. And this is the state of most men in the world; which makes them woefully despise all their eternal concernments. Whence is it that men follow and pursue the world with so much greediness, that they neglect heaven, and life, and immortality for it, every day? Whence is it that some pursue their sensuality with delight? — they will drink and revel, and have their sports, let others say what they please. Whence is it that so many live so unprofitably under the word, that they understand so little of what is spoken unto them, that they practice less of what they understand, and will by no means be stirred up to answer the mind of God in his calls unto them? It is all from this law of sin and the power of it, that rules and bears sway in men, that all these things do proceed; but it is not such persons of whom at present we particularly treat.

From what has been spoken it will ensure, that, if there be such a law in believers, it is doubtless their duty to find it out, and to find if it is true. The more they find its power, the less they will feel its effects. It will not at all advantage a man to have a heretical distemper and not to discover it, — a fire lying secretly in his house and not to know it. So much as men find of this law in them, so much they will abhor it and themselves, and no more. Proportionally also to their discovery of it will be their earnestness for grace, nor will it rise higher. All watchfulness and diligence in obedience will be answerable also thereunto. Upon this one hinge, or finding out and experiencing the power and the efficacy of this law of sin, turns the whole course of our lives. Ignorance of it breeds senselessness, carelessness, sloth, security, and pride; all which the Lord’s soul abhors. Eruptions into great, open, conscience-wasting, scandalous sins, are from want of a due spiritual consideration of this law.

Inquire, then, how it is with your souls. What do you find of this law? what experience have you of its power and efficacy? Do you find it dwelling in you, always present with you, exciting itself, or putting forth its poison with facility and easiness at all times, in all your duties, “when you would do good?” What humiliation, what self-abasement, what intenseness in prayer, what diligence, what watchfulness, does this call for at your hands! What spiritual wisdom do you stand in need of! What supplies of grace, what assistance of the Holy Ghost, will be hence also discovered! I fear we have few of us a diligence proportional to our danger.