An Evil Treasure


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In the third chapter of Indwelling Sin in Believers by John Owen, he moved on from describing how indwelling sin was a law to where it is located, what are its properties and how it operates.  First, Owen noted that everywhere in Scripture indwelling sin is said to have its “especial residence” in the heart. Citing Matthew 15:19, he listed how evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts and other sinful actions proceed from the heart. There are many outward temptations that excite and stir up these evils, but they merely open the vessel and let out what was already laid up and stored there. “The root, rise, and spring of all these things is in the heart. Temptations and occasions put nothing into a man, but only draw out what was in him before.”

From the very beginning, God saw that every intention of the human heart was “only evil continually” (Genesis 6:5). In Luke 6:45, Jesus referred to the evil treasure of the heart, which Owen said was “the prevailing principle of moral actions” in humanity. Note how the beginning of the verse also points to “the good treasure of the heart,” referring to the grace received from our Savior. This good treasure will never be exhausted. The more we draw out of this treasure, the more it grows! And their indwelling sin decreases. However, the more we exert and manifest the fruit of our lusts, the more they are increased in us. “It feeds upon itself, swallows up its own poison, and grows thereby.”

The more men sin, the more are they inclined unto sin. It is from the deceitfulness of this law of sin, whereof we shall speak afterward at large, that men persuade themselves that by this or that particular sin they shall so satisfy their lusts as that they shall need to sin no more. Every sin increaseth the principle, and fortifieth the habit of sinning. It is an evil treasure that increaseth by doing evil. And where doth this treasure lie? It is in the heart; there it is laid up, there it is kept in safety. All the men in the world, all the angels in heaven, cannot dispossess a man of this treasure, it is so safely stored in the heart.

As an aside Owen commented how the heart in Scripture has various meanings. Sometimes it refers to the mind and understanding; sometimes to the will, sometimes the emotions (or affections); and sometimes to the whole soul. It typically refers to the whole soul and all its faculties, but not always. However all these faculties act together as one principle when doing good or evil.

This is the subject, the seat, the dwelling-place of this law of sin,—the heart; as it is the entire principle of moral operations, of doing good or evil, as out of it proceed good or evil. Here dwells our enemy; this is the fort, the citadel of this tyrant, where it maintains a rebellion against God all our days. Sometimes it hath more strength, and consequently more success; sometimes less of the one and of the other; but it is always in rebellion whilst we live.

The properties of the heart include that it is unsearchable, except by the Lord (Jeremiah 17:9-10). Can anyone know the perfect measure of their own light and darkness? “We fight with an enemy whose secret strength we cannot discover.” Often we think sin is quite ruined, but after awhile we find it was merely out of sight. It has places to hide in an unsearchable heart where we cannot enter. We might persuade ourselves that all is well, when sin is safely hidden in the hidden darkness of our mind, or the will’s indisposition, or the disorder and carnality of the emotions.

The best of our wisdom is but to watch its first appearances, to catch its first under-earth heavings and workings, and to set ourselves in opposition to them; for to follow it into the secret corners of the heart, that we cannot do.

Not only is the heart unsearchable, it is also deceitful. The deceit we see in the world around us is nothing in comparison to the deceit in our hearts towards ourselves. “Now, incomparable deceitfulness, added to unsearchableness, gives a great addition and increase of strength to the law of sin, upon the account of its seat and subject.” Owen wants us to be clear that he speaks here of the deceitfulness of the heart, and not of sin itself. And this deceitfulness of the heart has two advantages in harboring sin.

First, it abounds in contradictions, so there is not any constant rule by which it proceeds. “The frame of the heart is ready to contradict itself every moment.” Whenever you think you have everything under control, you quickly discover it is “quite otherwise.” So no one knows what to expect from it. This is because of sin working upon all the faculties of the heart. Sometimes the mind is subjected to God’s will, as are the emotions, and the will is ready for its duty. But if the emotions rebel or an obstinate will arises and prevails, everything is changed.

This, I say, makes the heart deceitful above all things: it agrees not at all in itself, is not constant to itself, hath no order that it is constant unto, is under no certain conduct that is stable; but, if I may so say, hath a rotation in itself, where ofttimes the feet lead and guide the whole.

Second, its deceit lies in the initial appearance of things. Sometimes our emotions are moved and “the whole heart appears in a fair frame; all promiseth to be well.” But in a little while, the whole frame is changed—the mind was not affected or turned; the emotions played their part at first, and then wandered off; and all the fair promises of the heart left with them. Add this deceitfulness to the previously mentioned unsearchableness, and we find that the difficulty of dealing with sin is exceedingly increased. Who can cope with a deceived and heart? Particularly since it employs all its deceits in the service of sin.

All the disorder that is in the heart, all its false promises and fair appearances, promote the interest and advantages of sin. Hence God cautions the people to look to it, lest their own hearts should entice and deceive them.

Therefore it is not for nothing that the Lord says in Jeremiah 17:9 that “the heart is deceitful above all things and desperately sick.” So consider these things. First, never think that your work in contending against sin is at an end. It hides within the unsearchable places of our heart. So when we think we have thoroughly won, there is some reserve of sin remaining that we missed. Second, since our heart is changeable and deceitful, we should be perpetually watchful against it. Against an adversary that deals in deceit and treachery, only perpetual watchfulness will give you security. Third and finally, commit the whole matter to Him who can search and know your heart (Jeremiah 17:10). For there is no treacherous corner in your heart that He cannot search to its uttermost.

A digital copy of Owen’s work, Indwelling Sin in Believers, is available here.


Is It Well with Your Soul?

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© krsmanovic | stockfresh.com

Sometimes Puritan authors seem to put an entire introduction into their book titles. John Owen’s work, Indwelling Sin in Believers, is a good example of this tendency. It’s original title was: “The Nature, Power, Deceit, and Prevalency of the Remainders of Indwelling Sin in Believers; Together with the Way of Its Working and Means of Prevention, Opened, Evinced, and Applied: With a Resolution of Sundry Casts of Conscience Thereunto Appertaining.” In chapter two Owen discusses why and how indwelling sin is a law—“an inward effective principle.”

In chapter one, Owen argued why he sees Paul contemplating the existence of indwelling sin after his conversion in Romans 7. “Your enemy is not only upon you, as on Samson of old, but is in you also.” In chapter two Owen described why indwelling sin is properly understood in general to be a law, and then elaborated what is “peculiar and proper” in such a law.

The first thing that underlies any law is dominion. Owen pointed to Romans 7:1, where Paul said the law was binding (has dominion) over an individual. He suggested there are two aspects to this dominion. There is a moral authoritative dominion, and there is a real effective dominion. The first is an affection of the law of God; the second is an affection of the law of sin. Although the law of sin does not have any rightful moral dominion or authority over any person, “it hath that which is equivalent unto it.”  Owen sees indwelling sin as a usurper to the throne of grace that God intended for humanity when He made us in His image.

Because of the work of Christ, indwelling sin has lost its complete dominion over believers. Nevertheless, it still is a law in them. “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.” It does not have complete dominion, yet it will act with power and bind us with regard to some things. “Though it be weakened, yet its nature is not changed.”

Laws also have the ability to goad those who oppose it to obey what it requires through reward and punishment. All laws influence our minds through the rewards and punishments that accompany them. “The pleasures of sin are the rewards of sin;” ones that many people lose their souls to obtain. Owen sees the discussion of Moses in Hebrews 11 as an example of the contest in the minds of believers between the law of sin and the law of grace. Moses refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter, rejecting the pleasures that went along with it. “He considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward” (Hebrews 11:26).

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.”

The law of sin also has punishment for those who would oppose it, or who attempt to “cast off its yoke.” Whatever the evil, trouble, or danger that exists in the world when someone attempts to obey the gospel—whatever the hardships someone seeking to mortify their flesh faces—“sin makes use of.” Owen thought it was difficult to discern which approach was more effective, the pretended rewards or the pretended punishments of indwelling sin. But one thing was certain, whether it was by the promises of pleasures or the threats of temporal evils or the loss of pleasure, it has a great effect on the minds of believers and unbelievers alike.

Owen then turned to consider what was “peculiar and proper” in the law of sin.  He again asserted it is not an outward, written law. Such a law cannot compete with “an inbred, working, impelling urging” one. An inbred law is necessarily effectual. To illustrate his point, he pointed to how the law of God was at first naturally inbred to humanity. It had power to enable obedience, even to make this obedience easy and pleasant. Although this law (with regard to its rule and dominion) has been cast out of the soul, there are yet sparks that remain which are very powerful and effectual (Romans 2:14-15).

God renewed this law, writing it on tablets of stone. He knew as an outward, written law it could not enable us to perform the things it required. It would have to again become internal. It would have to turn from an outward moral rule into a real, inward principle. So God made His law internal again, implanting it in our hearts (Jeremiah 31:31-33). The written law, He knew, would not do it. “Mercies and deliverances from distress will not effect it; trials and afflictions will not accomplish it.” Therefore He turned the written law into “an internal living principle.”

The same applies to sin. “It is now an indwelling law.” It is in us. The flesh is its seat and throne. From this, we can see that it has some advantages for increasing its strength and furthering its power. It always abides in the soul. It is never absent. It is always ready to apply itself to every end and purpose that it serves. Because it is an indwelling law, it can easily apply itself with great ease.

It needs no doors to be opened unto it; it needs no engines to work by. . . . 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 hath an intimacy, an inwardness with the soul; and therefore, in all that we do, doth easily beset us. It possesseth those very faculties of the soul whereby we must do what we do, whatever it be, good or evil. Now, all these advantages it hath 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 the law Paul said he found within him. This is what he said remains even in believers. Owen said that from what he has described, if such a law is in believers, it is their duty to discover it. Upon this one hinge, finding and experiencing the law of sin, turns the whole course of our lives. Ignorance of it breeds “senselessness, carelessness, sloth, security, and pride.” All of this the Lord abhors. The eruptions of great, open scandalous sins are the result of a failure to consider 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, doth 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 proportionable to our danger.

Simply put, is it well with your soul?

A digital copy of Owen’s work, Indwelling Sin in Believers, is available here.


Who Will Deliver Me?

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© albund | stockfresh.com

The last half of the seventh chapter of Romans (7:13-25) has been a matter of theological debate from the time of the early church. Is Paul describing himself while under the law, before salvation or afterwards—his condition under the grace of salvation? The Puritan author John Owen can shed some light on the passage in his seminal work, Indwelling Sin in Believers. In the first chapter of Indwelling Sin, Owen acknowledged the dispute over how to understand the passage, but quickly declared the apostle was describing the condition of the regenerate person, “with respect to the remaining power of indwelling sin.” As if the title wasn’t a dead giveaway.

Clear thinking on this passage is essential, for we live in a time where there are renewed disputes about how to understand the doctrine of original sin. But before turning to Owen’s work, I want to note some of the biblical arguments for both positions. In his New American Commentary: Romans, Robert Mounce said that both positions could be persuasively argued. In support of Paul writing of his experience before conversion in 7:13-25 are several phrases throughout the passage. Paul said he was “sold under sin” (v. 14). He knew that nothing good dwelt in him (v. 18). He was “captive to the law of sin” (v. 23) and a wretched man in need of deliverance (v. 24).

The dramatic contrast of chapter seven with the victory of chapter eight in Romans is further evidence to argue for a preconversion setting. In chapter seven Paul was crying out for deliverance. In chapter eight, he said a believer was set free from the law of sin and death (v. 8:2) and controlled by the Spirit of God (v. 8:9). Another strong argument for Paul describing his spiritual experience before conversion in chapter seven is the “quagmire of impotence and misery” described there. “How could this be the abundant life that Jesus came to bring (John 10:10)?”

On the other hand, throughout the entire passage (7:13-25) Paul used the present tense—over twenty times. For example, in verse fifteen Paul said: “I do not understand my own actions.” If he was speaking of his life before conversion, would he not have said something like: “I don’t understand what I did.” Then there are statements that seem incompatible with the experience of a nonbeliever, as in verse 22: “For I delight in the law of God in my inner being.” Earlier, in Romans Paul said about those who were outside of Christ although they knew God, they sought to suppress the truth of God (1:18-21). There was no one who was righteous, who seeks God (3:10-12).

Mounce said he thought Paul was revealing his difficulty “meeting the radical demands of the Christian faith.” He used his own experience to describe the inevitability of spiritual defeat when a believer fails to trust in Christ for victory over their indwelling sin. Recognizing our inability to live up to our desire to do what is right (chapter 7), we know that in Christ, we are more than conquerors (chapter 8). “Sanctification is a gradual process that repeatedly takes the believer through this recurring sequence of failure through dependency upon self to triumph through the indwelling Spirit.”

Douglas Moo pointed out that most of the early church fathers thought the verses described a preconversion Paul. However, Augustine had a change of heart that seems to have been at least partly due to his battle with Pelagius over the freedom of the will. We see this in his work, A Treatise Against Two Letters of the Pelagians. Augustine wrote this treatise in response to two letters he received from Pope Boniface. One was from Julian and the other from eighteen bishops, including Julian. The letters challenged the catholic faith and attacked Augustine personally. In chapter 22 of book one, Augustine said he once thought that Paul was describing a man under the law (preconversion).

But afterwards I was constrained to give up the idea by those words where he says, “Now, then, it is no more I that do it.” For to this belongs what he says subsequently also: “There is, therefore, now no condemnation to them that are in Christ Jesus.” And because I do not see how a man under the law should say, “I delight in the law of God after the inward man;” since this very delight in good, by which, moreover, he does not consent to evil, not from fear of penalty, but from love of righteousness (for this is meant by “delighting”), can only be attributed to grace.

Almost all of the Reformers, particularly Luther, agreed with Augustine that the passage depicted a believer in Christ.  Writing in the century after the Reformation, Owen was clearly influenced by their thought. His opening declaration was:

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. This also is the great design of the apostle to manifest and evince in chap. 7 of the Epistle to the Romans.

Beginning with verse 7:21, “So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand,” Owen observed four things. First, Paul referred to indwelling sin as “a law.” Second, he experienced this law within himself. Third, despite the inhabitation of this law of sin, the general framework of believers is to do good. And fourth, when the believer would do good, evil is close at hand.

By calling indwelling sin a law, Owen thought Paul meant it was an inward principle that inclines and presses the believer towards actions agreeable and consistent with its own nature, namely that of sin. It is a law in them, but 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.”

In saying he found this law within him, Paul meant that he found it within himself. It is one thing to know in general there is a law of sin. It is entirely another thing to experience the power of the law of sin within your being. Owen saw this experience of the law of sin is the great preservative of divine truth in the soul. When we are taught it from the Scriptures and then find it exists within us, we truly know it. “He shall find the stream to be strong who swims against it, though he who rolls along with it be insensible of it.”

Notwithstanding the indwelling of the law of sin, the habitual inclination of believers is towards good. “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.” Good things come from the good treasures of the heart. But you can only see the evidence of this disposition by its fruits. “A will of doing good without doing good is but pretended.”

Whenever a believer would do good, they should consider two things. While there is a gracious principle residing within the will, there is also a contrary principle inclined towards evil. So then, “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.”

So this is a description of the person who is a believer and a sinner. And “everyone who is the former is the latter also.” Their actions and operations are implied in these expressions: “When I want to do right, evil lies close at hand” (Romans 7:21); and: “For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do” (Galatians 5:17).

Owen then concluded his first chapter for Indwelling Sin as follows:

Awake, therefore, all of you in whose hearts is any thing 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 dishonour 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!

So John Owen and Augustine see Paul speaking of life after conversion. Douglas Moo and others see him remembering his life before conversion. Personally, I find truth in both positions. Experientially, the truth of Owen’s metaphor of swimming against the stream rings true for me. Awareness of the stream of indwelling sin and the strength of its current within me is stronger now than before my conversion. But unconverted, that same stream would have swept me faster downstream, though I was insensible to it. Whether preconversion or postconversion, the answer is still the same: “Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”

A digital copy of Owen’s work, Indwelling Sin in Believers, is available here.