THE LAW OF SIN AND THE SECRET OF ITS STRENGTH

THE LAW OF SIN AND THE SECRET OF ITS STRENGTH

John Owen

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 proceeds good or evil.

Here in the heart dwells our enemy; this is the fort, the citadel of this tyrant, where it maintains a rebellion against God all our days. Sometimes it has more strength, and consequently more success; sometimes it has less strength and less success; but while we live, it is always in rebellion.

That we may, in passing, take a little view of the strength and power of sin from this seat and subject of it, we will consider one or two properties of the heart that exceedingly contribute to it. It is like an enemy in war, whose strength and power lie not only in his numbers and force of men or arms, but also in the unconquerable forts that he possesses. And SUCH is the heart to this enemy of God and our souls. This will appear from its properties, of which one or two will be mentioned.

1. The heart is UNSEARCHABLE: Jer 17:9, 10, “Who can know the heart? I the LORD search it.” The heart of man is pervious (meaning – penetrable) only to God; hence He takes the honor of searching the heart as unique to himself: it as fully declares him to be God, as any other glorious attribute of his nature. We don’t know the hearts of one another; we don’t know our own hearts as we should. There are many who don’t know their hearts as to their general bent and disposition, whether it is good or bad, sincere and sound, or corrupt and naughty; but no one knows all the secret intrigues, windings and turnings, actings and aversions of his own heart. Has anyone the perfect measure of his own light and darkness? Can anyone know what actings of choosing or aversion his own will might produce, when an endless variety of objects are proposed to it for its exercise? Can anyone traverse the various changings of his afflictions? Do the secret springs of acting and of refusing in the soul, lie before the eyes of any man? Does anyone know what will be the motions of the mind or of the will in such and such conjunctions of things, in such a suiting of objects, in such a pretension of reasonings, in such an appearance of desirable things? All in heaven and earth are utterly ignorant of these things, except the infinite and all-seeing God.

In this unsearchable heart dwells the law of sin; and MUCH OF ITS SECURITY, AND CONSEQUENTLY OF ITS STRENGTH, LIES IN THIS: THAT IT IS PAST OUR FINDING OUT.

We fight with an enemy whose secret strength we cannot discover, and whom we cannot follow into its retirements. Hence, often, when we think sin is quite ruined, we find after a while that it was only out of sight. It has coverts and retreats in an unsearchable heart, where we cannot pursue it. The soul may persuade itself that all is well, when sin may be safe in the hidden darkness of the mind, where it is impossible for the soul to look into — for what makes sin manifest is light. It may suppose the will of sinning is utterly taken away, when there is yet an unsearchable reserve for a more suitable object, a more vigorous temptation than it has yet tried. Has a man had a contest with any lust, and a blessed victory over it by the Holy Ghost (as to that present trial) such that when he thinks it is utterly expelled, he finds before long that it had only retired out of sight? It can lie so close in the mind’s darkness, in the will’s indisposition, in the disorder and carnality of the affections, that no eye can discover it.

2. Just as the heart is UNSEARCHABLE, so it is DECEITFUL, as in the passage mentioned above: “It is deceitful above all things,” — incomparably so. The world is full of deceit and fraud. But all this is nothing compared to the deceit that is in a man’s heart towards himself, and not towards others; for that is the meaning of the expression in this place.

Now, incomparable deceitfulness, added to unsearchableness, gives a great addition and increase of strength to the law of sin, on account of its seat and subject. I do not yet speak of the deceitfulness of sin itself, but of the deceitfulness of the heart where it is seated. Pro 26:25, “There are seven abominations in the heart;” that is, not only many, but an absolute and complete number, as seven denotes. And they are abominations that consist in deceitfulness — so that the foregoing caution insinuates, ‘Do not trust him.’ For it is only deceit that would make us not trust in that degree and measure which the object of our search is capable of.

Who can mention the treacheries and deceits that lie in the heart of man? It is not for nothing that the Holy Ghost says, “It is deceitful above all things,” Jer 17.9 — it is uncertain in what it does, and false in what it promises. Moreover, this is why (among other causes), in the pursuit of our war against sin, we not only have the old work to do over and over, but still new work while we live in this world, still new stratagems and wiles to deal with, as the manner will be wherever unsearchableness and deceitfulness are to be contended with.

Never let us reckon that our work in contending against sin — in crucifying, mortifying, and subduing it — is at an end. The place of its habitation is unsearchable; and when we think we have thoroughly won the field, there is still some reserve remaining that we did not see, that we did not know of. Many conquerors have been ruined by their carelessness after a victory; and many believers have been spiritually wounded after great successes against this enemy. David was so wounded. His great surprise entry into sin was after a long profession, manifold experiences of God, and watchfully keeping himself from his iniquity. And hence it has come to pass in part, that the profession of many has declined in their old age, or at a riper time (this must be more distinctly addressed afterward). They have ABANDONED the work of mortifying sin before their work was at an end. There is no way for us to pursue sin in its unsearchable habitation, EXCEPT BY BEING ENDLESS IN OUR PURSUIT.

And on this account, that command of the apostle which we have in Col 3:5, is as necessary for those to observe who are towards the end of their race, as it is for those who are only at the beginning: “Mortify therefore your members which are upon the earth;” always be doing it while you live in this world. It is true, great ground is obtained when the work is vigorously and constantly carried on; sin is much weakened so that the soul presses forward towards perfection: yet the work must be endless — I mean, while we are in this world. If we give up, we will quickly see this enemy exerting itself with new strength and vigor. It may be under some great affliction, in some eminent enjoyment of God, or in the sense of the sweetness of blessed communion with Christ, that we have been ready to say there was an end of sin, that it was dead and gone forever. But have we not found it to be the contrary by experience? Hasn’t it been obvious that it was only retired into some unsearchable recesses of the heart, as to its in-being and nature, though maybe greatly weakened in its power? Let us then reckon on it: that there is no way to have our work done, except by always doing it; he who dies fighting in this warfare, dies assuredly a conqueror.

[This is just an excerpt from Owen classic, “The Remainder of Indwelling Sin in Believers”. I shall be posting more nuggets from this shortly. . . . Brother Mike]

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