Captivating Sin

What prayer and supplication soever be made by any man, or by all thy people Israel, which shall know every man the plague of his own heart, and spread forth his hands toward this house:
~ 1 Kings 8:38

I am weary with my groaning; all the night make I my bed to swim; I water my couch with my tears.
~ Psalm 6:6

Saying, God hath forsaken him: persecute and take him; for there is none to deliver him.
~ Psalm 71:11

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised,
~ Luke 4:18

Knowing this, that our old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin.
~ Romans 6:6

For if ye live after the flesh, ye shall die: but if ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live.
~ Romans 8:13

The Captivating Power of Indwelling Sin, by John Owen. The following contains Chapter Seven of his work, “The Nature, Power, Deceit and Prevalency of the Remainders of Indwelling Sin in Believers, Together With the Ways of Its Working and Means of Prevention, Opened, Evinced and Applied, With a Resolution of Sundry Cases of Conscience Thereunto Appertaining”.

“O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?
I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord” – Romans 7:24, 25a


The captivating power of indwelling sin, wherein it consisteth — The prevalency of sin, when from itself, when from temptation — The rage and madness that is in sin.

THE third thing assigned unto this law of sin in its opposition unto God and the law of his grace is, that it leads the soul captive: Romans 7:23, “I find a law leading me captive” (captivating me) “unto the law of sin.” And this is the utmost height which the apostle in that place carries the opposition and warring of the remainders of indwelling sin unto; closing the consideration of it with a complaint of the state and condition of believers thereby, and an earnest prayer for deliverance from it: Verse 24, “O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from this body of death?” What is contained in this expression and intended by it shall be declared in the ensuing observations: —

1. It is not directly the power and actings of the law of sin that are here expressed, but its success in and upon its actings. But success is the greatest evidence of power, and leading captive in war is the height of success. None can aim at greater success than to lead their enemies captive; and it is a peculiar expression in the Scripture of great success. So the Lord Christ, on his victory over Satan, is said to “lead captivity captive,” Ephesians 4:8, — that is, to conquer him who had conquered and prevailed upon others; and this he did when “by death he destroyed him that had the power of death, that is, the devil,” Hebrews 2:14. Here, then, a great prevalency and power of sin in its warring against the soul is discovered. It so wars as to “lead captive;” which, had it not great power, it could not do, especially against that resistance of the soul which is included in this expression.

2. It is said that it leads the soul captive “unto the law of sin;” — not to this or that sin, particular sin, actual sin, but to the “law of sin.” God, for the most part, ordereth things so, and gives out such supplies of grace unto believers, as that they shall not be made a prey unto this or that particular sin, that it should prevail in them and compel them to serve it in the lusts thereof, that it should have dominion over them, that they should be captives and slaves unto it. This is that which David prays so earnestly against: Psalm 19:12, 13,

“Cleanse thou me from secret faults. Keep back thy servant also from presumptuous sins; let them not have dominion over me: then shall I be upright.”

He supposeth the continuance of the law of sin in him, verse 12, which will bring forth errors of life and secret sins; against which he findeth relief in pardoning and cleansing mercy, which he prays for. “This,” saith he, “will be my condition. But for sins of pride and boldness, such as all sins are that get dominion in a man, that make a captive of a man, the Lord restrain thy servant from them.” For what sin soever gets such power in a man, be it in its own nature small or great, it becomes in him in whom it is a sin of boldness, pride, and presumption; for these things are not reckoned from the nature or kind of the sin, but from its prevalency and customariness, wherein its pride, boldness, and contempt of God doth consist. To the same purpose, if I mistake not, prays Jabez: 1 Chronicles 4:10,

“Oh that thou wouldest bless me indeed, and enlarge my coast, and that thine hand might be with me, and that thou wouldest keep me from evil, that it may not grieve me!”

The holy man took occasion from his own name to pray against sin, that that might not be a grief and sorrow to him by its power and prevalency. I confess, sometimes it may come to this with a believer, that for a season he may be led captive by some particular sin; it may have so much prevalency in him as to have power over him. So it seems to have been with David, when he lay so long in his sin without repentance; and was plainly so with those in Isaiah 57:17, 18,

“For the iniquity of his covetousness was I wroth, and smote him: I hid me, and was wroth, and he went on frowardly in the way of his heart. I have seen his ways, and will heal him.”

They continued under the power of their covetousness, so that no dealings of God with them, for so long a time, could reclaim them. But, for the most part, when any lust or sin doth so prevail, it is from the advantage and furtherance that it hath got by some powerful temptation of Satan. He hath poisoned it, inflamed it, and entangled the soak So the apostle, speaking of such as through sin were fallen off from their holiness, says,

“They were in the snare of the devil, being taken captive by him at his will,” 2 Timothy 2:26.

Though it were their own lusts that they served, yet they were brought into bondage thereunto by being entangled in some snare of Satan; and thence they are said to be “taken alive,” as a poor beast in a toil.

And here, by the way, we may a little inquire, whether the prevailing power of a particular sin in any be from itself, or from the influence of temptation upon it; concerning which at present take only these two observations: —

(1.) Much of the prevalency of sin upon the soul is certainly from Satan, when the perplexing and captivating sin hath no peculiar footing nor advantage in the nature, constitution, or condition of the sinner. When any lust grows high and prevailing more than others, upon its own account, it is from the peculiar advantage that it hath in the natural constitution, or the station or condition of the person in the world; for otherwise the law of sin gives an equal propensity unto all evil, an equal vigor unto every lust. When, therefore, it cannot be discerned that the captivating sin is peculiarly fixed in the nature of the sinner, or is advantaged from his education or employment in the world, the prevalency of it is peculiarly from Satan. He hath got to the root of it, and hath given it poison and strength. Yea, perhaps, sometimes that which may seem to the soul to be the corrupt lusting of the heart, is nothing but Satan’s imposing his suggestions on the imagination. If, then, a man find an importunate rage from any corruption that is not evidently seated in his nature, let him, as the Papists say, cross himself, or fly by faith to the cross of Christ, for the devil is nigh at hand.

(2.) When a lust is prevalent unto captivity, where it brings in no advantage to the flesh, it is from Satan. All that the law of sin doth of itself is to serve the providence of the flesh, Romans 13:14; and it must bring in unto it somewhat of the profits and pleasures that are its object. Now, if the prevailing sin do not so act in itself, if it be more spiritual and inward, it is much from Satan by the imagination, more than the corruption of the heart itself. But this by the way.

I say, then, that the apostle treats not here of our being captivated unto this or that sin, but unto the law of sin; that is. we are compelled to bear its presence and burden whether we will or no. Sometimes the soul thinks or hopes that it may through grace be utterly freed from this troublesome inmate. Upon some sweet enjoyment of God, some full supply of grace, some return from wandering, some deep affliction, some thorough humiliation, the poor soul begins to hope that it shall now be freed from the law of sin; but after a while it perceives that it is quite otherwise. Sin acts again, makes good its old station; and the soul finds that, whether it will or no, it must bear its yoke. This makes it sigh and cry out for deliverance.

3. This leading captive argues a prevalency against the renitency or contrary actings of the will. This is intimated plainly in this expression, — namely, that the will opposeth and makes head, as it were, against the working of sin. This the apostle declares in those expressions which he uses, chap. 7:15, 19, 20. And herein consists the “lusting of the Spirit against the flesh,” Galatians 5:17; that is, the contending of grace to expel and subdue it. The spiritual habits of grace that are in the will do so resist and act against it; and the excitation of those habits by the Spirit are directed to the same purpose. This leading captive is contrary, I say, to the inclinations and actings of the renewed will. No man is made a captive but against his will. Captivity is misery and trouble, and no man willingly puts himself into trouble. Men choose it in its causes, and in the ways and means leading unto it, but not in itself. So the prophet informs us, Hosea 5:11, “Ephraim was,” not willingly, “oppressed and broken in judgment,” — that was his misery and trouble; but he “willingly walked after the commandment” of the idolatrous kings, which brought him thereunto. Whatever consent, then, the soul may give unto sin, which is the means of this captivity, it gives none to the captivity itself; that is against the will wholly. Hence these things ensue: —

(1.) That the power of sin is great, — which is that which we are in demonstration of; and this appears in its prevalency unto captivity against the actings and contendings of the will for liberty from it. Had it no opposition made unto it, or were its adversary weak, negligent, slothful, it were no great evidence of its power that it made captives; but its prevailing against diligence, activity, watchfulness, the constant renitency of the will, this evinceth its efficacy.

(2.) This leading captive intimates manifold particular successes. Had it not success in particular, it could not be said at all to lead captive. Rebel it might, assail it might; but it cannot be said to lead captive without some successes. And there are several degrees of the success of the law of sin in the soul. Sometimes it carries the person unto outward actual sin, which is its utmost aim; sometimes it obtaineth the consent of the will, but is cast out by grace, and proceeds no farther; sometimes it wearies and entangles the soul, that it turns aside, as it were, and leaves contending, — which is a success also. One or more, or all of these, must be, where captivity takes place. Such a kind of course doth the apostle ascribe unto covetousness, 1 Timothy 6:9, 10.

(3.) This leading captive manifests this condition to be miserable and wretched. To be thus yoked and dealt withal, against the judgment of the mind, the choice and consent of the will, its utmost strivings and contendings, how sad is it! When the neck is sore and tender with former pressures, to be compelled to bear the yoke again, this. pierces, this grieves, this even breaks the heart. When the soul is principled by grace unto a loathing of sin, of every evil way, to a hatred of the least discrepancy between itself and the holy will of God, then to be imposed on by this law of sin, with all that enmity and folly, that deadness and filth wherewith it is attended, what more dreadful condition? All captivity is dreadful in its own nature. The greatest aggravation of it is from the condition of the tyrant unto whom any one is captivated. Now, what can be worse than this law of sin? Hence the apostle, having once mentioned this captivity, cries out, as one quite weary and ready to faint, chap. 7:24.

(4.) This condition is peculiar to believers. Unregenerate men are not said to be led captive to the law of sin. They may, indeed, be led captive unto this or that particular sin or corruption, — that is, they may be forced to serve it against the power of their convictions. They are convinced of the evil of it, — an adulterer of his uncleanness, a drunkard of his abomination, — and make some resolutions, it may be, against it; but their lust is too hard for them, they cannot cease to sin, and so are made captives or slaves to this or that particular sin. But they cannot be said to be led captive to the law of sin, and that because they are willingly subject thereunto. It hath, as it were, a rightful dominion over them, and they oppose it not, but only when it hath irruptions to the disturbance of their consciences; and then the opposition they make unto it is not from their wills, but is the mere acting of an affrighted conscience and a convinced mind. They regard not the nature of sin, but its guilt and consequences. But to be brought into captivity is that which befalls a man against his will; which is all that shall be spoken unto this degree of the actings of the power of sin, manifesting itself in its success.

The fourth and last degree of the opposition made by the law of sin to God and the law of his will and grace, is in its rage and madness. There is madness in its nature: Ecclesiastes 9:3, “The heart of the sons of men is full of evil, and madness is in their heart.” The evil that the heart of man is full of by nature is that indwelling sin whereof we speak; and this is so in their heart, that it riseth up unto madness. The Holy Ghost expresseth this rage of sin by a fit similitude, which he useth in sundry places: as Jeremiah 2:24; Hosea 8:9. It maketh men as “a wild ass;” “she traverseth her ways,” and “snuffeth up the wind,” and runneth whither her mind or lust leads her. And he saith of idolaters, enraged with their lusts, that they are “mad upon their idols,” Jeremiah 50:38. We may a little consider what lies in this madness and rage of sin, and how it riseth up thereunto: —

1. For the nature of it; it seems to consist in a violent, heady, pertinacious pressing unto evil or sin. Violence, importunity, and pertinacy are in it. It is the tearing and torturing of the soul by any sin to force its consent and to obtain satisfaction. It riseth up in the heart, is denied by the law of grace, and rebuked; — it returns and exerts its poison again; the soul is startled, casts it off; — it returns again with new violence and importunity; the soul cries out for help and deliverance, looks round about to all springs of gospel grace and relief, trembles at the furious assaults of sin, and casts itself into the arms of Christ for deliverance. And if it be not able to take that course, it is foiled and hurried up and down through the mire and filth of foolish imaginations, corrupt and noisome lusts, which rend and tear it, as if they would devour its whole spiritual life and power. See 1 Timothy 6:9, 10; 2 Peter 2:14. It was not much otherwise with them whom we instanced in before, Isaiah 57:17. They had an inflamed, enraged lust working in them, even “covetousness,” or the love of this world; by which, as the apostle speaks, men “pierce themselves through with many sorrows.” God is angry with them, and discovereth his wrath by all the ways and means that it was possible for them to be made sensible thereof. He was “wroth, and smote them;” but though, it may be, this staggered them a little, yet they “went on.” He is angry, and “hides himself” from them, — deserts them as to his gracious, assisting, comforting presence. Doth this work the effect? No; they go on frowardly still, as men mad on their covetousuess. Nothing can put a stop to their raging lusts. This is plain madness and fury. We need not seek far for instances. We see men mad on their lusts every day; and, which is the worst kind of madness, their lusts do not rage so much in them, as they rage in the pursuit of them. Are those greedy pursuits of things in the world, which we see some men engaged in, though they have other pretences, indeed any thing else but plain madness in the pursuit of their lusts? God, who searcheth the hearts of men, knows that the most of things that are done with other pretences in the world, are nothing but the actings of men mad and furious in the pursuit of their lusts.

2. That sin ariseth not unto this height ordinarily, but when it hath got a double advantage: —

(1.) That it be provoked, enraged, and heightened by some great temptation. Though it be a poison in itself, yet, being inbred in nature, it grows not violently outrageous without the contribution of some new poison of Satan unto it, in a suitable temptation. It was the advantage that Satan got against David, by a suitable temptation, that raised his lust to that rage and madness which it went forth unto in the business of Bathsheba and Uriah. Though sin be always a fire in the bones, yet it flames not unless Satan come with his bellows to blow it up. And let any one in whom the law of sin ariseth to this height of rage seriously consider, and he may find out where the devil stands and puts in in the business.

(2.) It must be advantaged by some former entertainment and prevalency. Sin grows not to this height at its first assault. Had it not been suffered to make its entrance, had there not been some yielding in the soul, this had not come about.