Law and Sin

For I was alive without the law once: but when the commandment came, sin revived, and I died.
~ Romans 7:9

What shall we say then? Is the law sin? God forbid. Nay, I had not known sin, but by the law: for I had not known lust, except the law had said, Thou shalt not covet.
~ Romans 7:7

Knowing that Christ being raised from the dead dieth no more; death hath no more dominion over him. For in that he died, he died unto sin once: but in that he liveth, he liveth unto God. Likewise reckon ye also yourselves to be dead indeed unto sin, but alive unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord. Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, that ye should obey it in the lusts thereof.
~ Romans 6:9-12

Know ye not, that to whom ye yield yourselves servants to obey, his servants ye are to whom ye obey; whether of sin unto death, or of obedience unto righteousness?
~ Romans 6:16

Indwelling Sin and the Law, by John Owen. The following contains Chapter Two of his work, “The Nature, Power, Deceit and Prevalence of the Remainders of Indwelling Sin in Believers”.


Indwelling sin is a law — In what sense it is called a law — What kind of law it is — An inward effective principle called a law — The power of sin evinced from that.

What we have proposed for consideration is the power and efficacy of indwelling sin. The ways by which it may be proved are many. I will begin with the term used in the verse mentioned before. It is a law. “I find a law,” says the apostle. It is because of its power and efficacy that it is called a law. So too, the principle of grace in believers is a law: “the law of the Spirit of life,” Rom 8:2, as we observed before — “which is the exceeding greatness of the power of God in them,” Eph 1:19. Where there is a law, there is power.

We will therefore show both what belongs to it as a law, in general, and also what is particular or proper in it, being the sort of law we have described.

There are in general two things attending every law as such: — dominion and efficacy. First, dominion.

Rom 7:1, “The law has dominion over a man while he lives:”1

That is, “It lords it over a man.” Where any law is in effect, it has dominion.2 It is properly the act of a superior, and its nature is to exact obedience by way of dominion. Now, there is a twofold dominion, just as there is a twofold law. There is a moral authoritative dominion over a man, and there is a real effective dominion in a man. The first is an affection for the law of God; the latter for the law of sin. The law of sin doesn’t have, in itself, moral dominion — it doesn’t have rightful dominion or authority over any man. But it does have what is equivalent to it, and for which it is said “to reign as a king,”3 Rom 6:12, and to lord it over,4 or “have dominion,” verse 14, just as a law in general is said to have (chap. 7:1). But because it has lost its complete dominion in reference to believers, of whom alone we speak, I will not insist on this utmost extent of its power. But even in believers, it is still a law, even though it is not a law to them — yet, as was said, it is a law in them. And though it doesn’t have a complete, and as it were, rightful dominion over them, yet it will have domination over some things in them. It is still a law, and it is a law in them; so that all its actings are the actings of a law — that is, it acts with power, even though it has lost its complete power of ruling in them. Even though it is weakened, its nature is not thawed. It is still a law, and therefore it is powerful. And because its particular workings (which we will consider afterward) are the ground of this appellation, so the term itself teaches us in general what we are to expect from it, and what endeavors it will use for dominion — a dominion to which it has been accustomed.5

Secondly, a law, as a law, has an efficacy to provoke those who are opposed to it, to do the things it requires. A law has rewards and punishments accompanying it. These secretly prevail on those to whom they are proposed, even though the things commanded are not very desirable. Generally, all laws have their efficacy on the minds of men, from the rewards and punishments that are annexed to them. Nor is this law without this spring of power: it has its rewards and punishments. The pleasures of sin are the rewards of sin; a reward that most men lose their souls to obtain. By this means, the law of sin contended in Moses against the law of grace.
1 νόμος Kurieu,ei tou/ avnqrw,ou —nomos Kurieuei tou anthruuou (NT:3551,2961,444), or anthropa (man). 2 kurieu,ei kurieuei (NT:2961)
3 basileu,ein, basileuein (NT:936)
4 kurieu,ein kurieuein (NT:2961)
5 That is, the power of sin is broken, but the habit (the custom) of sin remains.

Heb 11:25, 26, “He chose rather to suffer affliction with the people of God, than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season; for he looked to the recompense of reward.”

The contest was in his mind between the law of sin and the law of grace. The motive on the part of the law of sin, with which it sought to draw him over, and with which it prevails on most, was the reward that it proposed to him — namely, that he would have the present enjoyment of the pleasures of sin. By this, it contended against the reward annexed to the law of grace, called “the recompense of reward.”

By this sorry reward, this law keeps the world in obedience to its commands; and experience shows us what power it has to influence the minds of men. It also has punishments that it threatens men with who labor to cast off its yoke. Whatever evil, trouble, or danger in the world, attends gospel obedience — whatever hardship or violence is to be offered to the sensual part of our natures in a strict course of mortification — sin makes use of, as if they were punishments attending the neglect of its commands. By these it prevails on the “fearful,” who will have no share in eternal life, Rev 21:8.1 And it is hard to say by which of these — whether its pretended rewards or pretended punishments — it most prevails, or which of them its greatest strength lies. By its rewards it entices men to sins of commission, as they are called, in ways and actions tending to satisfy its lusts. By its punishments it induces men to omit their duties; a course tending no less to a pernicious event than the former. By which of these the law of sin has its greatest success in and upon the souls of men, is not evident; and that is because they are seldom if ever separated, but equally act on the same persons. But this is certain: that by tenders and promises of the pleasures of sin on the one hand, and by threats of the deprivation of all sensual contentment and the infliction of temporal evils on the other, it has an exceeding efficacy on the minds of men, and often on believers. Unless a man is prepared to reject the reasonings that offer themselves from the one and the other of these, there is no standing before the power of the law. The world falls before them every day. Afterward we will declare with what deceit and violence they are urged and imposed on the minds of men; and also what advantages they have to prevail upon them. Look at men in general, and you will find them wholly at sin’s disposal by these means. Do the profits and pleasures of sin lie before them? — Nothing can keep them from reaching after them. Do difficulties and inconveniences attend the duties of the gospel? — They will have nothing to do with them; and so they are wholly given up to the rule and dominion of this law.

And so we have this light,2 in general, as to the power and efficacy of indwelling sin, from the general nature of a law, of which it partakes.

NEXT we may consider what kind of law in particular it is; which will further evidence its power which we are inquiring about. It is not an outward, written, commanding, directing law, but an inbred, working, impelling, urging law. A law proposed to us is not to be compared, for efficacy, to a law inbred in us. Adam had a law of sin proposed to him in his temptation; but because he had no law of sin inbred and working in him, he might have withstood it. An inbred law must necessarily be effectual. Let us take an example from that law which is contrary to this law of sin. The law of God was at first inbred and natural to man; it was co-created with his faculties, and it was their rectitude, both in its being and operation, in reference to his end of living to God and glorifying him. Hence it had an especial power in the whole soul to enable it for all obedience, yes, and to make all obedience easy and pleasant. Such is the power of an inbred law. And though this law, as to its rule and dominion, is now by nature cast out of the soul, its remaining sparks, because they are inbred, are very powerful and effectual; as the apostle declares, Rom
1 Rev 21:8 But the cowardly, unbelieving, abominable, murderers, sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars shall have their part in the lake which burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death.
2 That is, insight.

2:14-15.1 Afterward God renews this law, and writes it in tablets of stone. But what is the efficacy of this law? Will it now, as it is external and proposed to men, enable them to perform the things that it exacts and requires? Not at all. God knew it would not, unless it were turned to an internal law again; that is, until from a moral outward rule, it is turned into an inward real principle.

Which is why God makes his law internal again, and implants it in the heart as it was at first, when he intends to give it power to produce obedience in his people:

Jer 31:31-33, “I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts.”

This is what God fixes on, as it were: a discovery of the insufficiency of an outward law leading men to obedience. ‘The written law,’ he says, ‘will not do it; mercies and deliverances from distress will not effect it; trials and afflictions will not accomplish it. Then,’ says the Lord, ‘I will take another course: I will turn the written law into an internal living principle in their hearts; that will have such an efficacy that it will assuredly make them my people, and keep them so.’

Now, such is this law of sin: it is an indwelling law. Rom 7:17, “It is sin that dwells in me;” verse 20, “Sin that dwells in me;” verse 21, “It is present with me;” verse 23, “It is in my members;” — indeed, it is so far in a man, that in some sense it is said to be the man himself; verse 18, “I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) dwells no good thing.” The flesh, which is the seat and throne of this law, yes, which indeed is this law, is in some sense the man himself, just as grace is also the new man. Now, from this consideration — that it is an indwelling law inclining and moving us toward sin, just as an inward habit or principle does — it has various advantages that increase its strength and further its power; such as,

1. It always abides in the soul — it is never absent. The apostle twice uses that expression, “It dwells in me.” There is its constant residence and habitation. If it came upon the soul only at certain seasons, much obedience might be perfectly accomplished in its absence; yes, and just as they deal with usurping tyrants whom they intend to thrust out of a city, the gates might be shut against it sometimes, so that it might not return — the soul might fortify itself against it. But the soul is its home; there it dwells, and it is no wanderer. Wherever you are, whatever you are about, this law of sin is always in you — in the best that you do, and in the worst. Men little consider what a dangerous companion is always at home with them. When they are in company, when alone, by night or by day, all is one: sin is with them. There is a living coal continually in their houses; which, if it is not looked after, will set them on fire, and maybe consume them. Oh, the woeful security of poor souls! How little do most men think about this inbred enemy that is never away from home! How little, for the most part, does the watchfulness of any professor correspond to the danger of his state and condition!

2. It is always ready to apply itself to every end and purpose which it serves. “It not only dwells in me,” says the apostle, “but when I would do good, it is present with me.” There is something more in that expression than mere indwelling. An inmate may dwell in a house, and yet not always meddle with what the good man of the house is doing (so we may keep to the allusion of indwelling, used by the apostle). But it is so with this law: it so dwells in us, that it is present with us in everything we do; yes, oftentimes when, with the most earnestness, we desire to be rid of it, it will push itself upon us with the most force: “When I would do good, it is present with me.” Rom 7.21 Would you pray; would you hear; would you give alms; would you meditate; would you in any duty act out your faith in God and love towards him; would you work righteousness; would you
1 Rom 2:14 for when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do the things in the law, these, although not having the law, are a law to themselves, 15 who show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and between themselves their thoughts accusing or else excusing them)…

resist temptations — if so, this troublesome, perplexing indweller will still more or less force itself upon you, and be present with you, so that you cannot perfectly and completely accomplish the thing that is good, as our apostle speaks of it in verse 18.1 Sometimes men, by hearkening to their temptations, stir up, excite, and provoke their lusts; no wonder then, that they find them present and active. But it will be so when we labor with all our endeavors to be free from them. This law of sin “dwells” in us. That is, it adheres to us as a depraved principle: to our minds in darkness and vanity; to our affections in sensuality; to our wills in a loathing of and aversion to what is good; and by some, more, or all of these, is continually forcing itself upon us, in inclinations, motions, or suggestions to evil, when we would most gladly be rid of it.

3. It being an indwelling law, it applies itself to its work with great facility and easiness, like “the sin that so easily besets us,” Heb 12:1. It has a great facility and easiness in applying itself to its work; it needs no doors to be opened to it; it needs no engines to work by. The soul cannot apply itself to any duty of a man, unless it is by exercising those faculties in which this law has its residence. Is the understanding or the mind to be applied to anything? — there it is: in ignorance, darkness, vanity, folly, and madness. Is the will to be engaged? — there it is also: in spiritual deadness, stubbornness, and the roots of obstinacy. Are the heart and affections to be set to work? — there it is: in inclinations to the world and present things, and to sensuality, with proneness to all manner of defilements. 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 has an intimacy, an inwardness with the soul; and therefore, in all that we do, it easily besets us. It possesses those very faculties of the soul by which we must do what we do, whatever it is, good or evil. Now, it has all these advantages because it is a law, an indwelling law, which manifests its power and efficacy. It is always resident in the soul; it enforces itself upon all its actings, and it does that with easiness and facility.

This is that law which the apostle affirms that he found in himself; this is that title which he gives to the powerful and effectual remainder of indwelling sin even in believers; and from that appellation, we have these general evidences of its power. There are many in the world who do not find this law in them — who, whatever they have been taught in the word, do not have a spiritual sense and experience of the power of indwelling sin; and that is because they are wholly under its dominion. They do not find that there is darkness and folly in their minds, because they are darkness itself, and darkness will discover nothing. They do not find deadness and an indisposition in their hearts and wills to God; because they are wholly dead in trespasses and sins. They are at peace with their lusts, by being in bondage to them. And this is the state of most men in the world; which makes them woefully despise all their eternal concerns. Why is it that men follow and pursue the world with so much greediness, that they neglect heaven, and life, and immortality for it, every day? Why is it that some pursue their sensuality with delight? — they will drink and revel, and have their sports, let others say what they please. Why is it that so many live so unprofitably under the word — that they understand so little of what is spoken to them — that they practice less of what they understand — and that they will by no means be stirred up to respond to the mind of God in his calls to them? It is all from this law of sin, and the power of it that rules and bears sway in men, that all these things proceed. But it is not about such persons that we particularly speak at present.

From what has been said, it will ensue that, if there is such a law in believers, it is doubtless their duty to find it out, and find it to be so.

The more they find its power, the less they will feel its effects. It will not at all advantage a man to have a hectic distemper and not discover it — or have a fire burning secretly in his house, and
1 Rom 7:18 …for to will is present with me, but how to perform what is good, I do not find. Rom 7:21 I find then a law, that evil is present with me, the one who wills to do good.

not know it. As much as men find of this law in them, they will abhor it and themselves, and no more. Also proportionate to their discovery of this law, will be their earnestness for grace — nor will it rise any higher than that. All watchfulness and diligence in obedience will correspond to it also. On this one hinge — finding out and experiencing the power and the efficacy of this law of sin — turns the whole course of our lives. Ignorance of it breeds senselessness, carelessness, sloth, security, and pride; all of which the Lord’s soul abhors. Eruptions into great, open, conscience-destroying, scandalous sins, are from lack of a due spiritual consideration of this law. Inquire, then, how it is with your souls. What do you find of this law? What experience do you have of its power and efficacy? Do you find that it dwells in you, that it is always present with you, exciting itself, spreading its poison with facility and ease 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, this calls for at your hands! What spiritual wisdom you stand in need of! What supplies of grace, what assistance of the Holy Ghost will also be discovered from this! I fear that few of us have a diligence that is proportionate to our danger.