What Is Indwelling Sin?

In 1616, ninety-nine years after Martin Luther began his reforming work in Wittenberg, John Owen was born in Oxford, England. John Owen, it may be said, contributed as much to the theological landscape of the 17th century and Martin Luther did in the century prior. 

Like Luther, Owen’s life and work were set within and shaped by a complicated period of political, theological, and, ecclesiastical upheaval. Like Luther, Owen was also deeply concerned with the doctrine of justification by faith and the corresponding theological implications. Where Owen differed from his 16th-century counterpart was in his theological emphasis on the moral, spiritual, and practical implications of the doctrine of justification. Owen, like most of his fellow Puritans, had a special concern for the practical effect of theology on the Christian life.

Perhaps in no area is this more evident than in his work on the Christian’s struggle with indwelling sin. As Owen himself, speaking about the importance of the doctrine of indwelling sin, states in his introduction to Indwelling Sin in Believers,

“Without this doctrine, none of the great truths concerning the Person of Christ, his mediation, the fruits and effects of it, and our partaking of them, can be rightly known or savingly believed.”[1] 

For Owen, if one does not grasp the importance of understanding, identifying, and mortifying indwelling sin it is nearly impossible that one has taken hold of the true gospel of Jesus Christ. 

This holds true today. To have a confused view of indwelling sin is to have a confused view of the gospel. Right now in my own denomination (PCA), the question of the nature and mortification of indwelling sin is at the center of several important ecclesiastical conversations. Specifically, the questions “what is indwelling sin?”  and “is there actual hope for mortifying any and every sin?”  are of particular consequence.

I will seek to address the former question in this post. In doing so, I will review the doctrine of indwelling sin which was central to Owen’s understanding of the Christian life. My goal will be to show how his doctrine of indwelling sin is deeply influenced by the theology of the Reformation and a Reformed understanding of the Gospel — and why it is essential to us as Christians today. 

What is Indwelling Sin?

Owen’s work on indwelling sin was significantly influenced by his own meditations on and experience of his sin. As Andrew Thompson states in his biography, 

“Nothing is more certain than that some of the most precious treasures in our religious literature have thus come forth from the seven-times-heated furnace of mental suffering.”[2] 

For Owen, the “seven-times-heated” furnace was most likely his own struggle with weakness and sin despite his academic and theological prowess. This led to Owen penning such deep devotional works such as his Exposition of the 130th Psalm which was, in many respects, an autobiography of his own struggle with sin and God’s mercy.[3] 

This personal struggle also led Owen to write Indwelling Sin in Believers. While much has been written on the sinful state of man prior to conversion, Owen’s treatise is a deep exploration of the nature and effects of sin in those who belong to the community of faith. Far from being a purely academic treatise, Owen’s goal throughout this work is the devotional and spiritual health of the reader. As he states at the onset,

“How much it should concern believers to have a full and clear acquaintance with the power of indwelling sin — to stir them up to watchfulness, diligence, faith, and prayer, and to call them to repentance, humility, and self-abasement.”[4]

This section of our discussion, then, will be concerned with Owen’s text on indwelling sin, with a focus on the nature of indwelling sin and the implications of this study to the life of the believer.

The Law of Sin

The textual center of Indwelling Sin is Romans 7:21 — “So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand.” According to Owen, the “law” spoken of by Paul here refers back to “the sin that dwells within me” in Romans 7:20. For Owen, indwelling sin is best understood as a law, which he defines as, “an inward principle that moves and inclines constantly to any action.”[5] This means that, according to Owen, “there is a great efficacy and power in the remains of indwelling sin in believers, and that its constant working is towards evil.”[6] 

This understanding of sin, rooted in Romans 7, clarifies the nature of the Christian life. Rather than sin being something that the Christian experiences momentarily and intermittently from without, sin lives in the heart of the believer as a law within — influencing and impacting all their efforts and energies in this life.

Does this mean that Christians are still slaves to sin? Are we not free in Christ, as the next chapter of Romans states? This is certainly true, and Owen states clearly how the presence of the law of sin in the heart of the Christian relates to their freedom in Christ. He writes,

“This is the way indwelling sin works in believers. It is a law in them, but not to them. Its rule is broken, its strength weakened and impaired, its root mortified, but it is still a law of great force and efficacy.”[7]

The law of sin, while never exercising absolute power over the believer, is nonetheless present and efficacious in the heart of the believer. Sin, while it can never condemn a true believer, can certainly harass them and cause them harm. 

This theological construct, indwelling sin as a law, is central to understanding Owen’s theology of indwelling sin, both its nature and mortification. Sin exists as a law within the Christian, resisting the work of grace that was begun at regeneration and justification. As the Christian grows in grace and in sanctification, the Christian life is one of resisting the law of sin. 

But the Christian does not resist the law of sin alone, and this truth is equally essential to understanding Owen’s theology of indwelling sin. The Christian resists the law of sin by the power of another law: the law of the Spirit. Owen cites Paul in Galatians 5:17 to establish this truth,

“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.” 

The law of sin does not fight from a position of strength within a believer. It is antagonistic, attacking the Gospel forts held by the law of the Spirit. Yet the law of the Spirit, which is dealt with more fully in Romans 8 and in Owen’s The Mortification of Sin, has the final word in the life of the believer. The law of the Spirit is the vehicle for resisting the law of sin and for obeying Christ. According to Owen, it is this struggle, between the law of sin (often described as "the flesh") and the law of the Spirit which makes up much of the Christian life.

And, according to Owen, it is only when the law of sin is resisted that it is actually seen for what it is. He writes, “He that swims against the stream finds it to be strong, but he that rolls along with it is insensible to it.”[8] This is why it is so important to resist the law of sin, lest the believer be swept away by the stream of indwelling sin while thinking themselves safe. 

Owen goes on to say that, like any other law, the law of sin exercises dominion over those under its jurisdiction. Sin exercises this dominion like any other law: with rewards and punishments. Owen writes,

“The pleasures of sin are the rewards of the law of sin — rewards that most men lose their souls to obtain… Whatever trouble or danger in the world attends gospel obedience, whatever hardship or violence to the sensual part of our natures is involved in a strict course of mortification, the law of sin makes use of these as if they were punishments for neglecting sins commands.”[9]

This dominion of the law of sin, exercised by rewards and punishments, is compounded by the internal nature of the law of sin. The law of sin is not an external, commanding law, but an internal compelling law. As Owen writes, “A law proposed to us from the outside is much weaker than a law bred into us.”[10] Because the law of sin is bred into the believer, while it is weakened and can never ultimately control them, it is still vicious and powerful in them.

Here we see how Owen connects his theology of indwelling sin with his understanding of the Gospel. To paraphrase his thoughts: The law of God was once inbred and innate to the heart of man, it made right worship and obedience of God possible. Because of Adam’s first sin, the law of God was cast out of the heart of man such that they became unable to worship or obey God rightly.[11] The eschatological hope of the Gospel, promised in Jeremiah 31 and Ezekiel 36, is that God would one day make his law internal again, implanting it on our hearts by the regeneration of the Holy Spirit.

The law of Spirit of life is God’s law dwelling in the hearts of believers which allows them to worship and obey him rightly. This is one of the principal truths of the Gospel: God’s people are set free from the power of the law of sin so that they might worship, obey, and love him with all their hearts. The law of sin, which is now dethroned in the heart of the believer, still wages war against this law of the Spirit. The Christian life, then, is living in the Spirit and by the Spirit waging war against the law of sin. 

So, what is the nature of indwelling sin?

The Enmity of Sin

Indwelling sin is a law that operates within us and exercises dominion. It is also enmity against God. As Owen puts it, “It is not only an enemy, but enmity itself.”[12] We are not God’s enemies; Christ has made peace between us and God by his blood.[13] Sin is the enemy of God, and by its nature is against him. This is to say that sin exists in opposition to the will of God. It cannot be bargained with or mollified — it can only be destroyed. In this we see sin for how dangerous and powerful it really is. As Owen writes,

“When a man has enmity itself to deal with, nothing is to be expected but continual fighting, to the destruction of one of the parties. If it is not overcome and destroyed, it will overcome and destroy the soul… You cannot bargain with fire to take only part of your house; all you can do is put the fire out.”[14]

As Christians, we love to placate and appease our sinful nature. We say, “I will go this far, and no further”, and sin makes a fool of us. To make allowances for sin to keep it at bay is, as Owen puts it, “to douse a fire using combustible materials.”[15]

The enmity of sin works itself out in the life of a believer as an aversion to everything good. As Owen states, “Whenever we seek to do anything spiritually good, we will find this aversion working.”[16] This is the aversion spoken of in Romans 7:21, that when we would seek to do good, we find the law of sin present in our hearts, averse to the workings of the law of the Spirit. 

This understanding of the aversive nature of sin should lead us to watchfulness over our own hearts and lives. Owen gives us two areas in which we should be on guard against the aversive nature of sin: our affections and our minds. 

First, we see this aversion in the affections. As Owen writes, “There will be a secret opposition to close and warm dealings with God, unless the Spirit strongly influences the soul.”[17] No doubt we have all felt this aversion in our own affections toward God. It feels as though whenever we seek to draw near to God in our hearts, there is something working against our efforts. This is the enmity of sin, which is averse to God and so is averse to our drawing near to him with our whole hearts.

Second, we see this aversion in our mind. We struggle to pray and meditate as we ought. We struggle to focus on the Word of God. When we would pursue God with our minds, we find there this secret aversion. This leaves us in a sorry and perilous state. As Owen says of this danger, “Not knowing how to overcome their secret aversion, they neglect private prayer, first partially, then totally, until, having lost all conscience about it, they go on to all kinds of sin and looseness, and finally to complete apostasy.”[18] The first step in fighting against the aversion of sin in our affections and our minds is to keep watch and to acknowledge the reality of our condition. 

That is the nature of indwelling sin: it is a law within us—though not to us—and it is a grievous enemy which wages war against the law of the Spirit at work within us. In the next post, I will continue on with what hope there is for the Christian as they wage war against the law and enmity of sin.


Daniel B. Miller serves as the Assistant Pastor at First Church, PCA in Lansing, IL.


Related Links

"The Pure Pursuit" by Ben Franks

"Sanctification: The Definitive Aspect" by David Smith

"Keep Advancing!" by Joel Wood

"The Gospel for Bruised Reeds" by Dan Doriani

Growing in Grace, ed. by Joel Beeke

Sanctification: The Long Journey Home, with Derek Thomas and Greg Gilbert


Footnotes      

[1] John Owen, Indwelling Sin in Believers, Reprint edition. (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2010), iv.

[2] Andrew Thomson, John Owen: Prince of Puritans (Christian Focus Publications, 2016), 24.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Owen, Indwelling Sin in Believers, viii. 

[5] Owen, Indwelling Sin in Believers, 1. 

[6] Owen, Indwelling Sin in Believers, 2.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Owen, Indwelling Sin in Believers, 2.

[9] Owen, Indwelling Sin in Believers, 8.

[10] Owen, Indwelling Sin in Believers, 9.

[11] Ibid., 9

[12] Owen, Indwelling Sin in Believers, 21.

[13] Romans 5:10

[14] Owen, Indwelling Sin in Believers, 22. 

[15] Ibid.

[16] Owen, Indwelling Sin in Believers, 27. 

[17] Owen, Indwelling Sin in Believers, 27.

[18] Owen, Indwelling Sin in Believers, 28.