The sense of total war, and the carnage it generates, was graphically portrayed by Mel Gibson in the movie Hacksaw Ridge. And yet the movie’s hero was a man who did not fire a shot against his enemy. He trusted in God to deliver him. Puritan writers regularly used the imagery of warfare to describe our battle against the indwelling sin of our flesh. But John Owen intensified that imagery in his work Indwelling Sin, when he clearly portrayed our fight against sin as total war against the indwelling sin of our flesh.
In chapter four of Indwelling Sin, Owen said he would limit his reflections on the nature of indwelling sin to what Paul said in Romans 8:7, namely that the carnal mind (or the mind that is set on the flesh, as in the ESV) is hostile to God. After quoting the Greek phrase for “carnal mind”, Owen said this fleshly wisdom was the same as “the law of sin.” More than just an enemy of God, this mindset is hostile to God. It does not submit to God’s law, because it cannot. Owen said this enmity signifies there is no possibility for reconciliation.
There can be reconciliation with an enemy of God, as Paul wrote in Romans 5:10: “while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son.” But where there is enmity, there can be no reconciliation. As Owen said: “There is no way to deal with any enmity whatever but by its abolition or destruction.” The only way to reconcile enemies is to first destroy the enmity that exists between them, which Christ did by his death (Ephesians 2:15). And if even the smallest amount remains, it is still enmity; it is still poison.
Every spark of fire is still fire, and it will burn. The apostle Paul, who may have made as great a progress in subduing his flesh as any one on earth, still cried out for deliverance: “Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24) Mortification of the flesh will abate its force, but cannot change its nature. While grace changes the nature of a person, nothing can change the nature of sin. “Whatever effect be wrought upon it, there is no effect wrought in it, but that it is enmity still, sin still.”
God is love (1 John 4:8) and against this God we carry enmity all out days—an enmity that is incapable of cure or reconciliation. “Destroyed it may be, it shall be, but cured it cannot be.” When it is enmity against which a person struggles, nothing can be expected but continual fighting until one or the other is destroyed. “If it be not overcome and destroyed, it will overcome and destroy the soul.”
Here lies its power: there is never a truce or true peace. “It is never quiet, conquering nor conquered.” Some people try to quiet their corruptions by trying to satisfy them—to make provisions for their flesh by gratifying its desires (Romans 13:14). Yet this is but adding fuel to the fire. All the fuel in the world, everything that is combustible will not satisfy it, but will only increase it. So it is with trying to satisfy sin by sinning. You cannot bargain with a fire to only burn so much; you have to quench it.
It is so with this indwelling sin: whether it violently tumultuate [create great emotional or mental agitation], as it will do on provocations and temptations, it will be outrageous in the soul; or whether it seem to be pleased and contented, to be satisfied, all is one, there is no peace, no rest to be had with it or by it. Had it, then, been of any other nature, some other way might have been fixed on; but seeing it consists in enmity, all the relief the soul hath must lie in its ruin.
Although Scripture variously portrays this enmity as our enemy, it is ultimately “enmity against God.” Peter urged us to abstain from the passions of the flesh that war against our soul (1 Peter 2:11). Paul said the desires of the flesh and Spirit are opposed to one another to keep us from doing what we want to do in the flesh (Galatians 5:17). “It fights against the Spirit, or the spiritual principle that is in us, to conquer it; it fights against our souls, to destroy them.” Its nature and ultimate aim is to oppose God.
This is our state and condition: All the opposition that ariseth in us unto any thing that is spiritually good, whether it be from darkness in the mind, or aversation in the will, or sloth in the affections, all the secret arguings and reasonings that are in the soul in pursuit of them, the direct object of them is God himself. The enmity lies against him; which consideration surely should influence us to a perpetual, constant watchfulness over ourselves.
Every sin is opposition to God—an attempt to cast off His yoke. It is an attempt to break off the dependence the creature should have on the Creator. So here we may reflect back on the Genesis account of the Fall, where humankind sought to be like God, independently knowing what was good and what was evil (Genesis 3:5). The carnal mind is hostile to God because it will not subject itself to the will of God. “The soul wherein it is may be subject to the law of God; but this law of sin sets up in contrariety unto it, and will not be in subjection.” It is absolute and universal to all of God and all of the soul.
If there were anything of God that sin was not in enmity against, the soul could have a shelter and retreat there. But enmity lies against God himself. It is against everything that is of God—his nature, properties, mind or will, his law or gospel. The nearer anything is to God, the greater is enmity against it. “That which hath most of God hath most of its opposition.” The more spirituality and holiness is in a thing, the greater is the enmity against it.
Enmity is also universally against the soul. If this law of sin had been content to subdue one faculty of the soul, but leave another at liberty, “it might possibly have been with more ease opposed or subdued.” But when Christ comes with his spiritual power to the soul, he can find no quiet landing place. “He can set foot on no ground but what he must fight for and conquer.”
Everything is secured against him—the mind, the will and emotions. And when grace had made it’s landing, yet sin is entrenched from coast to coast. Had there been anything in the soul at perfect freedom and liberty, perhaps a stand to drive enmity out could be made. But it is universal and makes war throughout the soul.
The mind hath its own darkness and vanity to wrestle with,—the will its own stubbornness, obstinacy, and perverseness; every affection its own frowardness and aversation from God, and its sensuality, to deal withal: so that one cannot yield relief unto another as they ought; they have, as it were, their hands full at home. Hence it is that our knowledge is imperfect, our obedience weak, love not unmixed, fear not pure, delight not free and noble.
In Pilgrim’s Progress there is a battle between the pilgrim Christian and Apollyon that captured this sense of total war described by Owen. The narrator, who “dreamed the dream” of Christian’s journey had this to say:
In this combat no man can imagine, unless he had seen and heard as I did, what yelling and hideous roaring Apollyon made all the time of the fight—he spake life a dragon; and on the other side, what sighs and groans burst from Christian’s heart. I never saw him all the while give so much as one pleasant look, till he perceived he had wounded Apollyon with his two-edged sword; then, indeed, he did smile, and look upward; but it was the dreadfullest sight that ever I saw.
A digital copy of Owen’s work, Indwelling Sin in Believers, is available here.