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.