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



“I find then a law, that, when I would do good, evil is present with me.”
–Romans 7:21

There are four things observable in these words:  

First. The appellation he gives unto indwelling sin, whereby he expresses its power and efficacy: it is “a law;” for that which he terms “a law” in this verse, he calls in the foregoing, “sin that dwells in him.” 

Secondly. The way whereby he came to the discovery of this law; not absolutely and in its own nature, but in himself he found it: “I find a law.” 

Thirdly. The frame of his soul and inward man with this law of sin, and under its discovery: “he would do good.” 

Fourthly. The state and activity of this law when the soul is in that frame when it would do good: it “is present with him.” For what ends and purposes we shall show afterward. 

The first thing observable is the compilation here used by the apostle, he calls indwelling sin “a law.” 

First, it is a law. A law is taken either properly for a directive rule, or improperly for an operative effective principle, which seems to have the force of a law. In its first sense, it is a moral rule which directs and commands, and sundry ways moves and regulates, the mind and the will as to the things which it requires or forbids. This is evidently the general nature and work of a law. Some things it commands, some things it forbids, with rewards and penalties, which move and impel men to do the one and avoid the other. Hence, in a secondary sense, an inward principle that moves and inclines constantly unto any actions is called a law.

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 inclines and urges unto operations or actings suitable to itself is a law.

So, Romans 8:2, the powerful and effectual working of the Spirit and grace of Christ in the hearts of believers is called “The law of the Spirit of life.” And for this reason doth the apostle here calls indwelling sin a law. It is a powerful and effectual indwelling principle, inclining and pressing unto actions agreeable and suitable unto its own nature. This, and no other, is the intention of the apostle in this expression: for although that term, “a law,” may sometimes intend a state and condition, — and if here so used, the meaning of the words should be, “I find that this is my condition, this is the state of things with me, that when I would do good evil is present with me,’” which makes no great alteration in the principal intendment of the place, — yet properly it can denote nothing here but the chief subject treated of; for although the name of a law be variously used by the apostle in this chapter, yet when it relates unto sin it is nowhere applied by him to the condition of the person, but only to express either the nature or the power of sin itself. So, chap. 7:23, “I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members.” That which he here calls the “law of his mind,” from the principal subject and seat of it, is in itself no other but the “law of the Spirit of life which is in Christ Jesus,” chap. 8:2; or the effectual power of the Spirit of grace, as was said. But “the law,” as applied unto sin, hath a double sense: for as, in the first place, “I see a law in my members,” it denotes the being and nature of sin; so, in the latter, “Leading into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members,” it signifies its power and efficacy. And both these are comprised in the same name, singly used, chap. 7:21. Now, that which we observe from this name or term of a “law” attributed unto sin is, that there is an exceeding efficacy and power in the remainders of indwelling sin in believers, with a constant working towards evil.

Thus it is in believers; it is a law even in them, though not to them. Though its rule be broken, its strength weakened and impaired, its root mortified, yet it is a law still of great force and efficacy. There, where it is least felt, it is most powerful.

Carnal men, in reference unto spiritual and moral duties, are nothing but this law; they do nothing but from it and by it. It is in them a ruling and prevailing principle of all moral actions, with reference unto a supernatural and eternal end. I shall not consider it in them in whom it hath most power, but in them in whom its power is chiefly discovered and discerned, — that is, in believers; in the others only in order to the farther conviction and manifestation thereof.

The apostle proposes the way whereby he discovered this law in himself: Εὑρίσκω ἄρα τὸν νόμον, “I find then,” or therefore, “a law.” He found it. It had been told him there was such a law; it had been preached unto him. This convinced him that there was a law of sin. But it is one thing for a man to know in general that there is a law of sin; another thing for a man to have an experience of the power of this law of sin in himself. It is preached to all; all men that own the Scripture acknowledge it, as being declared therein. But they are but few that know it in themselves; we should else have more complaints of it than we have, and more contendings against it, and less fruits of it in the world. But this is that which the apostle affirms, — not that the doctrine of it had been preached unto him, but that he found it by experience in himself. “I find a law;” — “I have experience of its power and efficacy.” 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. And this experience is the great preservative of all divine truth in the soul. This it is to know a thing indeed, in reality, to know it for ourselves, when, as we are taught it from the word, so we find it in ourselves.

Hence we observe, secondly, 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. Whosoever contend against it shall know and find that it is present with them, that it is powerful in them. He shall find the stream to be strong who swims against it, though he who rolls along with it be insensible of it.

Thirdly, the general frame of believers, notwithstanding the inhabitation of this law of sin, is here also expressed. They “would do good.” This law is “present:” τῷ θέλοντι ἐμοὶ ποιεῖν τὸ καλὸν. The habitual inclination of their will is unto good. The law in them is not a law unto them, as it is to unbelievers. They are not wholly obnoxious to its power, nor morally unto its commands. Grace hath the sovereignty in their souls: this gives them a will unto good. They “would do good,” that is, always and constantly. 1 John 3:9, ἁμαρτίαν οὐ ποιεῖ, “To commit sin,” is to make a trade of sin, to make it a man’s business to sin. So it is said a believer “doth not commit sin;” and so ποιεῖν τὸ καλὸν, “to do that which is good.”

To will to do so — is to have the habitual bent and inclination of the will set on that which is good, — that is, morally and spiritually good, which is the proper subject treated of: whence is our third observation, — There is, and there is through grace, kept up in believers a constant and ordinarily prevailing will of doing good, notwithstanding the power and efficacy of indwelling sin to the contrary.

This, in their worst condition, distinguishes them from unbelievers in their best. The will in unbelievers is under the power of the law of sin. The opposition they make to sin, either in the root or branches of it, is from their light and their consciences; the will of sinning in them is never taken away.

Take away all other considerations and hindrances, whereof we shall treat afterward, and they would sin willingly always. Their faint endeavors to answer their convictions are far from a will of doing that which is good. They will plead, indeed, that they would leave their sins if they could, and they would fain do better than they do. But it is the working of their light and convictions, not any spiritual inclination of their wills, which they intend by that expression: for where there is a will of doing good, there is a choice of that which is good for its own excellency’s sake, — because it is desirable and suitable to the soul, and therefore to be preferred before that which is contrary. Now, this is not in any unbelievers. They do not, they cannot, so choose that which is spiritually good, nor is it so excellent or suitable unto any principle that is in them; only they have some desires to attain that end whereunto that which is good doth lead, and to avoid that evil which the neglect of it tends unto. And these also are for the most part so weak and languid in many of them, that they put them not upon any considerable endeavors. Witness that luxury, sloth, worldliness, and security, that the generality of men are even drowned in. But in believers there is a will of doing good, an habitual disposition and inclination in their wills unto that which is spiritually good; and where this is, it is accompanied with answerable effects. The will is the principle of our moral actions; and therefore unto the prevailing disposition thereof will the general course of our actings be suited. Good things will proceed from the good treasures of the heart. Nor can this disposition be evidenced to be in any but by its fruits. A will of doing good, without doing good, is but pretended.

Fourthly, there is yet another thing remaining in these words of the apostle, arising from that respect that the presence of sin hath unto the time and season of duty: “When I would do good,” saith he, “evil is present with me.” 

There are two things to be considered in the will of doing good that is in believers: — 

  1. There is its habitual residence in them. They have always an habitual inclination of will unto that which is good. And this habitual preparation for good is always present with them; as the apostle expresses it, verse 18 of this chapter.
  2. There are special times and seasons for the exercise of that principle. There is a “When I would do good,” — a season wherein this or that good, this or that duty, is to be performed and accomplished suitably unto the habitual preparation and inclination of the will.

Unto these two there are two things in indwelling sin opposed.

To the gracious principle residing in the will, inclining unto that which is spiritually good, it is opposed as it is a law, — that is, a contrary principle, inclining unto evil, with an aversion from that which is good. Unto the second, or the actual willing of this or that good in particular, unto this “When I would do good,” is opposed the presence of this law: “Evil is present with me,” — ὅτι ἐμοὶ τὸ κακὸν παράκειται evil is at hand, and ready to oppose the actual accomplishment of the good aimed at. Whence, fourthly, 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.

And this is the description of him who is a believer and a sinner, as everyone who is the former is the latter also. These are the contrary principles and the contrary operations that are in him. The principles are, a will of doing good on the one hand, from grace, and a law of sin on the other. Their adverse actings and operations are insinuated in these expressions: “When I would do good, evil is present with me.” And these both are more fully expressed by the apostle, Galatians 5:17, “For the flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: and these are contrary the one to the other; so that I cannot do the things that I would.”

And here lie the springs of the whole course of our obedience. An acquaintance with these several principles and their actings is the principal part of our wisdom. They are upon the matter, next to the free grace of God in our justification by the blood of Christ, the only things wherein the glory of God and our own souls are concerned. These are the springs of our holiness and our sins, of our joys and troubles, of our refreshments and sorrows. It is, then, all our concernments to be thoroughly acquainted with these things, who intend to walk with God and to glorify him in this world. 

And hence we may see what wisdom is required in the guiding and management of our hearts and ways before God. Where the subjects of a ruler are in feuds and oppositions one against another, unless great wisdom be used in the government of the whole, all things will quickly be ruinous in that state. There are these contrary principles in the hearts of believers. And if they labor not to be spiritually wise, how shall they be able to steer their course aright? Many men live in the dark to themselves all their days; whatever else they know, they know not themselves. They know their outward estates, how rich they are, and the condition of their bodies as to health and sickness they are careful to examine; but as to their inward man, and their principles as to God and eternity, they know little or nothing of themselves. Indeed, few labor to grow wise in this matter, few study themselves as they ought, are acquainted with the evils of their own hearts as they ought; on which yet the whole course of their obedience, and consequently of their eternal condition, doth depend. This, therefore, is our wisdom; and it is a needful wisdom, if we have any design to please God, or to avoid that which is a provocation to the eyes of his glory.

We shall find, also, in our inquiry hereinto, what diligence and watchfulness is required unto a Christian conversation. There is a constant enemy unto it in every one’s own heart; and what an enemy it is we shall afterward show, for this is our design, to discover him to the uttermost. In the meantime, we may well bewail the woeful sloth and negligence that is in the most, even in professors. They live and walk as though they intended to go to heaven hood-winked and asleep, as though they had no enemy to deal withal. Their mistake, therefore, and folly will be fully laid open in our progress.

Awake, therefore, all of you in whose hearts is anything of the ways of God! Your enemy is not only upon you, as on Samson of old, but is in you also. He is at work, by all ways of force and craft, as we shall see. Would you not dishonor God and his gospel; would you not scandalize the saints and ways of God; would you not wound your consciences and endanger your souls; would you not grieve the good and holy Spirit of God, the author of all your comforts; would you keep your garments undefiled, and escape the woeful temptations and pollutions of the days wherein we live; would you be preserved from the number of the apostates in these latter days; — awake to the consideration of this cursed enemy, which is the spring of all these and innumerable other evils, as also of the ruin of all the souls that perish in this world!