Powerful Deceit

I opened my mouth, and panted: for I longed for thy commandments.
~ Psalm 119:131

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

And in that day thou shalt say, O LORD, I will praise thee: though thou wast angry with me, thine anger is turned away, and thou comfortedst me.
~ Isaiah 12:1

Indwelling Sin Proved Powerful from its Deceit, by John Owen. The following contains an excerpt from Chapter Eight of his work, “The Nature, Power, Deceit and Prevalency of the Remainders of Indwelling Sin in Believers.

“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


Indwelling sin proved powerful from its deceit — Proved to be deceitful — The general nature of deceit — James 1:14, opened — How the mind is drawn off from its duty by the deceitfulness of sin — The principal duties of the mind in our obedience — The ways and means whereby it is turned from it.

THE second part of the evidence of the power of sin, from its manner of operation, is taken from its deceitfulness. It adds, in its working, deceit unto power. The efficacy of that must needs be great, and is carefully to be watched against by all such as value their souls, where power and deceit are combined, especially advantaged and assisted by all the ways and means before insisted on.

Before we come to show wherein the nature of this deceitfulness of sin doth consist, and how it prevaileth thereby, some testimonies shall be briefly given in unto the thing itself, and some light into the general nature of it.

That sin, indwelling sin, is deceitful, we have the express testimony of the Holy Ghost, as Hebrews 3:13, “Take heed that ye be not hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.” Deceitful it is; take heed of it, watch against it, or it will produce its utmost effect in hardening of the heart against God. It is on the account of sin that the heart is said to be “deceitful above all things,” Jeremiah 17:9. Take a man in other things, and, as Job speaks, though he “would be wise and crafty, he is like the wild ass’s colt,” Job 11:12, — a poor, vain, empty nothing; but consider his heart on the account of this law of sin, — it is crafty and deceitful above all things. “They are wise to do evil,” saith the prophet, “but to do good they have no knowledge,” Jeremiah 4:22. To the same purpose speaks the apostle, Ephesians 4:22, “The old man is corrupt according to the deceitful lusts.” Every lust, which is a branch of this law of sin, is deceitful; and where there is poison in every stream, the fountain must needs be corrupt. No particular lust hath any deceit in it, but what is communicated unto it from this fountain of all actual lust, this law of sin. And, 2 Thessalonians 2:10, the coming of the “man of sin” is said to be in and with the “deceivableness of unrighteousness.” Unrighteousness is a thing generally decried and evil spoken of amongst men, so that it is not easy to conceive how any man should prevail himself of a reputation thereby. But there is a deceivableness in it, whereby the minds of men are turned aside from a due consideration of it; as we shall manifest afterward. And thus the account which the apostle gives concerning those who are under the power of sin is, that they are “deceived,” Titus 3:3. And the life of evil men is nothing but “deceiving, and being deceived,” 2 Timothy 3:13. So that we have sufficient testimony given unto this qualification of the enemy with whom we have to deal. He is deceitful; which consideration of all things puts the mind of man to a loss in dealing with an adversary. He knows he can have no security against one that is deceitful, but in standing upon his own guard and defense all his days.

Farther to manifest the strength and advantage that sin hath by its deceit, we may observe that the Scripture places it for the most part as the head and spring of every sin, even as though there were no sin followed after but where deceit went before. So 1 Timothy 2:13, 14. The reason the apostle gives why Adam, though he was first formed, was not first in the transgression, is because he was not first deceived. The woman, though made last, yet being first deceived, was first in the sin. Even that first sin began in deceit, and until the mind was deceived the soul was safe. Eve, therefore, did truly express the matter, Genesis 3:13, though she did it not to a good end. “The serpent beguiled me,” saith she, “and I did eat.” She thought to extenuate her own crime by charging the serpent; and this was a new fruit of the sin she had cast herself into. But the matter of fact was true, — she was beguiled before she ate; deceit went before the transgression. And the apostle shows that sin and Satan still take the same course, 2 Corinthians 11:3. “There is,” saith he, “the same way of working towards actual sin as was of old: beguiling, deceiving goes before; and sin, that is, the actual accomplishment of it, followeth after.” Hence, all the great works that the devil doth in the world, to stir men up to an opposition unto the Lord Jesus Christ and his kingdom, he doth them by deceit: Revelation 12:9, “The devil, who deceiveth the whole world.” It were utterly impossible men should be prevailed on to abide in his service, acting his designs to their eternal, and sometimes their temporal ruin, were they not exceedingly deceived. See also chap. 20:10.

Hence are those manifold cautions that are given us to take heed that we be not deceived, if we would take heed that we do not sin. See Ephesians 5:6; 1 Corinthians 6:9, 15:33; Galatians 6:7; Luke 21:8. From all which testimonies we may learn the influence that deceit hath into sin, and consequently the advantage that the law of sin hath to put forth its power by its deceitfulness. Where it prevails to deceive, it fails not to bring forth its fruit.

The ground of this efficacy of sin by deceit is taken from the faculty of the soul affected with it. Deceit properly affects the mind; it is the mind that is deceived. When sin attempts any other way of entrance into the soul, as by the affections, the mind, retaining its right and sovereignty, is able to give check and control unto it. But where the mind is tainted, the prevalency must be great; for the mind or understanding is the leading faculty of the soul, and what that fixes on, the will and affections rush after, being capable of no consideration but what that presents unto them. Hence it is, that though the entanglement of the affections unto sin be ofttimes most troublesome, yet the deceit of the mind is always most dangerous, and that because of the place that it possesseth in the soul as unto all its operations. Its office is to guide, direct, choose, and lead; and “if the light that is in us be darkness, how great is that darkness!”

And this will farther appear if we consider the nature of deceit in general. It consists in presenting unto the soul, or mind, things otherwise than they are, either in their nature, causes, effects, or present respect unto the soul. This is the general nature of deceit, and it prevails many ways. It hides what ought to be seen and considered, conceals circumstances and consequences, presents what is not, or things as they axe not, as we shall afterward manifest in particular. It was showed before that Satan “beguiled” and “deceived” our first parents; that term the Holy Ghost gives unto his temptation and seduction. And how he did deceive them the Scripture relates, Genesis 3:4, 5. He did it by representing things otherwise than they were. The fruit was desirable; that was apparent unto the eye. Hence Satan takes advantage secretly to insinuate that it was merely an abridgment of their happiness that God aimed at in forbidding them to eat of it. That it was for the trial of their obedience, that certain though not immediate ruin would ensue upon the eating of it, he hides from them; only he proposeth the present advantage of knowledge, and so presents the whole case quite otherwise unto them than indeed it was. This is the nature of deceit; it is a representation of a matter under disguise, hiding that which is undesirable, proposing that which indeed is not in it, that the mind may make a false judgment of it: so Jacob deceived Isaac by his brother’s raiment and the skins on his hands and neck.

Again; deceit hath advantage by that way of management which is inseparable from it. It is always carried on by degrees, by little and little, that the whole of the design and aim in hand be not at once discovered. So dealt Satan in that great deceit before mentioned; he proceeds in it by steps and degrees, First, he takes off an objection, and tells them they shall not die; then proposeth the good of knowledge to them, and their being like to God thereby. To hide and conceal ends, to proceed by steps and degrees, to make use of what is obtained, and thence to press on to farther effects, is the true nature of deceit. Stephen tells us that the king of Egypt “dealt subtilly,” or deceitfully, “with their kindred,” Acts 7:19. How he did it we may see, Exodus 1 He did not at first fall to killing and slaying of them, but says, verse 10, “Come, let us deal wisely,” beginning to oppress them. This brings forth their bondage, verse 11. Having got this ground to make them slaves, he proceeds to destroy their children, verse 16. He fell not on them all at once, but by degrees. And this may suffice to show in general that sin is deceitful, and the advantages that it hath thereby.

For the way, and manner, and progress of sin in working by deceit, we have it fully expressed, James 1:14, 15, “Every man is tempted when he is drawn away of his own lust, and enticed. Then when lust hath conceived, it bringeth forth sin: and sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death.” This place, declaring the whole of what we aim at in this matter, must be particularly insisted on.

In the foregoing verse the apostle manifests that men are willing to drive the old trade, which our first parents at the entrance of sin set up withal, namely, of excusing themselves in their sins, and casting the occasion and blame of them on others. It is not, say they, from themselves, their own nature and inclinations, their own designings, that they have committed such and such evils, but merely from their temptations; and if they know not where to fix the evil of those temptations, they will lay them on God himself, rather than go without an excuse or extenuation of their guilt. This evil in the hearts of men the apostle rebuketh, verse 13, “Let no man say when he is tempted, I am tempted of God: for God cannot be tempted with evil, neither tempteth he any man.” And to show the justness of this reproof, in the words mentioned he discovers the true causes of the rise and whole progress of sin, manifesting that the whole guilt of it lies upon the sinner, and that the whole punishment of it, if not graciously prevented, will be his lot also.

We have, therefore, as was said, in these words the whole progress of lust or indwelling sin, by the way of subtlety, fraud, and deceit, expressed and limited by the Holy Ghost. And from hence we shall manifest the particular ways and means whereby it puts forth its power and efficacy in the hearts of men by deceitfulness and subtlety; and we may observe in the words, —

First, The utmost end aimed at in all the actings of sin, or the tendency of it in its own nature, and that is death: “Sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death,” the everlasting death of the sinner; pretend what it will, this is the end it aims at and tends unto. Hiding of ends and designs is the principal property of deceit. This sin doth to the uttermost; other things innumerable it pleads, but not once declares that it aims at the death, the everlasting death of the soul And a fixed apprehension of this end of every sin is a blessed means to prevent its prevalency in its way of deceit or beguiling.

Secondly, The general way of its acting towards that end is by temptation: “Every man is tempted of his own lust.” I purpose not to speak in general of the nature of temptations, it belongs not unto our present purpose; and, besides, I have done it elsewhere. It may suffice at present to observe, that the life of temptation lies in deceit; so that, in the business of sin, to be effectually tempted, and to be beguiled or deceived, are the same. Thus it was in the first temptation. It is everywhere called the serpent’s beguiling or deceiving, as was manifested before: “The serpent beguiled Eve;” that is, prevailed by his temptations upon her. So that every man is tempted, — that is, every man is beguiled or deceived, — by his own lust, or indwelling sin, which we have often declared to be the same.

The degrees whereby sin proceedeth in this work of tempting or deceiving are five; for we showed before that this belongs unto the nature of deceit, that it works by degrees, making its advantage by one step to gain another.

The first of these consists in drawing off or drawing away: “Every man is tempted when he is drawn away of his own lust.”

The second is in enticing: “And is enticed.”

The third in the conception of sin: “When lust hath conceived.” When the heart is enticed, then lust conceives in it.

The fourth is the bringing forth of sin in its actual accomplishment: “When lust hath conceived it bringeth forth sin.” In all which there is a secret allusion to an adulterous deviation from conjugal duties, and conceiving or bringing forth children of whoredom and fornication.

The fifth is the finishing of sin, the completing of it, the filling up of the measure of it, whereby the end originally designed by lust is brought about: “Sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death,” As lust conceiving naturally and necessarily bringeth forth sin, so sin finished infallibly procureth eternal death.

The first of these relates to the mind; that is drawn off or drawn away by the deceit of sin. The second unto the affection; they are enticed or entangled. The third to the will, wherein sin is conceived; the consent of the will being the formal conception of actual sin. The fourth to the conversation wherein sin is brought forth; it exerts itself in the lives and courses of men. The fifth respects an obdurate course in sinning, that finisheth, consummates, and shuts up the whole work of sin, whereon ensues death or eternal ruin.

I shall principally consider the three first, wherein the main strength of the deceit of sin doth lie; and that because in believers whose state and condition is principally proposed to consideration, God is pleased, for the most part, graciously to prevent the fourth instance, or the bringing forth of actual sins in their conversations; and the last always and wholly, or their being obdurate in a course of sin to the finishing of it. What ways God in his grace and faithfulness makes use of to stifle the conceptions of sin in the womb, and to hinder its actual production in the lives of men, must afterward be spoken unto. The first three instances, then, we shall insist upon fully, as those wherein the principal concernment of believers in this matter doth lie.

The first thing which sin is said to do, working in a way of deceit, is to draw away or to draw off; whence a man is said to be drawn off, or “drawn away” and diverted, — namely, from attending unto that course of obedience and holiness which, in opposition unto sin and the law thereof, he is bound with diligence to attend unto.

Now, it is the mind that this effect of the deceit of sin is wrought upon. The mind or understanding, as we have showed, is the guiding, conducting faculty of the soul It goes before in discerning, judging, and determining, to make the way of moral actions fair and smooth to the will and affections. It is to the soul what Moses told his father-in-law that he might be to the people in the wilderness, as “eyes to guide them,” and keep them from wandering in that desolate place. It is the eye of the soul, without whoso guidance the will and affections would perpetually wander in the wilderness of this world, according as any object, with an appearing present good, did offer or present itself unto them.

The first thing, therefore, that sin aims at in its deceitful working, is to draw off and divert the mind from the discharge of its duty.

There are two things which belong unto the duty of the mind in that special office which it hath in and about the obedience which God requireth: —

1. To keep itself and the whole soul in such a frame and posture as may render it ready unto all duties of obedience, and watchful against all enticements unto the conception of sin.

2. In particular, carefully to attend unto all particular actions, that they be performed as God requireth, for matter, manner, time and season, agreeably unto his will; as also for the obviating all particular tenders of sin in things forbidden. In these two things consists the whole duty of the mind of a believer; and from both of them doth indwelling sin endeavor to divert it and draw it off.

1. The first of these is the duty of the mind in reference unto the general frame and course of the whole soul; and hereof two things may be considered. That it is founded in a due, constant consideration, —

(1.) Of ourselves, of sin and its vileness;

(2.) Of God, of his grace and goodness: and both these doth sin labor to draw it off from.

2. In attending to those duties which are suited to obviate the working of the law of sin in an especial manner.

1. (1.) It endeavors to draw it off from a due consideration, apprehension, and sensibleness of its own vileness, and the danger wherewith it is attended. This, in the first place, we shall instance in. A due, constant consideration of sin, in its nature, in all its aggravating circumstances, in its end and tendency, especially as represented in the blood and cross of Christ, ought always to abide with us: Jeremiah 2:19,

“Know therefore and see that it is an evil thing and a bitter, that thou hast forsaken the LORD thy God.”

Every sin is a forsaking of the Lord our God. If the heart know not, if it consider not, that it is an evil thing and a bitter, — evil in itself, bitter in its effects, fruit, and event, — it will never be secured against it. Besides, that frame of heart which is most accepted with God in any sinner is the humble, contrite, self-abasing frame: Isaiah 57:15,

“Thus saith the high and lofty One that inhabiteth eternity, whose name is Holy; I dwell in the high and holy place, with him also that is of a contrite and bumble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the spirit of the contrite ones.”

See also Luke 18:13, 14. This becomes a sinner; no garment sits so decently about him. “Be clothed with humility,” saith the apostle, 1 Peter 5:5. It is that which becomes us, and it is the only safe frame. He that walketh humbly walketh safely. This is the design of Peter’s advice, 1 Peter 1:17, “Pass the time of your sojourning here in fear.” After that he himself had miscarried by another frame of mind, he gives this advice to all believers. It is not a bondage, servile fear, disquieting and perplexing the soul, but such a fear as may keep men constantly calling upon the Father, with reference unto the final judgment, that they may be preserved from sin, whereof they were in so great danger, which he advises them unto: “If ye call on the Father, who without respect of persons judgeth according to every man’s work, pass the time of your sojourning here in fear.” This is the humble frame of soul And how is this obtained? how is this preserved? No otherwise but by a constant, deep apprehension of the evil, vileness, and danger of sin. So was it wrought, so was it kept up, in the approved publican. “God be merciful,” saith he, “to me a sinner.” ‘Sense of sin kept him humble, and humility made way for his access unto a testimony of the pardon of sin.

And this is the great preservative through grace from sin, as we have an example in the instance of Joseph, Genesis 39:9. Upon the urgency of his great temptation, he recoils immediately into this frame of spirit. “How,” saith he, “can I do this thing, and sin against God?” A constant, steady sense of the evil of sin gives him such preservation, that he ventures liberty and life in opposition to it. To fear sin is to fear the Lord; so the holy man tells us that they are the same: Job 28:28,

“The fear of the Lord, that is wisdom; and to depart from evil, that is understanding.”

This, therefore, in the first place, in general, doth the law of sin put forth its deceit about, — namely, to draw the mind from this frame, which is the strongest fort of the soul’s defense and security. It labors to divert the mind from a due apprehension of the vileness, abomination, and danger of sin. It secretly and insensibly insinuates lessening, excusing, extenuating thoughts of it; or it draws it off from pondering upon it, from being conversant about it in its thoughts so much as it ought, and formerly hath been. And if, after the heart of a man hath, through the word, Spirit, and grace of Christ, been made tender, soft, deeply sensible of sin, it becomes on any account,, or by any means whatever, to have less, fewer, slighter, or less affecting thoughts of it or about it, the mind of that man is drawn away by the deceitfulness of sin.

There are two ways, amongst others, whereby the law of sin endeavors deceitfully to draw off the mind from this duty and frame ensuing thereon: —

[1.] It doth it by a horrible abuse of gospel grace. There is in the gospel a remedy provided against the whole evil of sin, the filth, the guilt of it, with all its dangerous consequents. It is the doctrine of the deliverance of the souls of men from sin and death, — a discovery of the gracious will of God towards sinners by Jesus Christ. What, now, is the genuine tendency of this doctrine, of this discovery of grace; and what ought we to use it and improve it unto? This the apostle declares, Titus 2:11, 12,

“The grace of God that bringeth salvation hath appeared to all men, teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly, in this present world.”

This it teacheth; this we ought to learn of it and by it. Hence universal holiness is called a “conversation that becometh the gospel,” Philippians 1:27. It becomes it, as that which is answerable unto its end, aim, and design, — as that which it requires, and which it ought to be improved unto. And accordingly it doth produce this effect where the word of it is received and preserved in a saving light, Romans 12:2; Ephesians 4:20-24. But herein doth the deceit of sin interpose itself: — It separates between the doctrine of grace and the use and end of it. It stays upon its notions, and intercepts its influences in its proper application. From the doctrine of the assured pardon of sin, it insinuates a regardlessness of sin. God in Christ makes the proposition, and Satan and sin make the conclusion. For that the deceitfulness of sin is apt to plead unto a regardlessness of it, from the grace of God whereby it is pardoned, the apostle declares in his reproof and detestation of such an insinuation: Romans 6:1, “What shall we say then? shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound? God forbid.” “Men’s deceitful hearts,” saith he, “are apt to make that conclusion; but far be it from us that we should give any entertainment unto it.” But yet that Some have evidently improved that deceit unto their own eternal ruin, Jude declares: Verse 4, “Ungodly men, turning the grace of God into lasciviousness.” And we have had dreadful instances of it in the days of temptation wherein we have lived.

Indeed, in opposition unto this deceit lies much of the wisdom of faith and power of gospel grace,. When the mind is fully possessed with, and cast habitually and firmly into, the mould of the notion and doctrine of gospel truth about the full and free forgiveness of all sins in the blood of Christ, then to be able to keep the heart always in a deep, humbling sense of sin, abhorrency of it, and self-abasement for it, is a great effect of gospel wisdom and grace. This is the trial and touchstone of gospel light: — If it keep the heart sensible of sin, humble, lowly, and broken on that account, — if it teach us to water a free pardon with tears, to detest forgiven sin, to watch diligently for the ruin of that which we are yet assured shall never ruin us, — it is divine, from above, of the Spirit of grace. If it secretly and insensibly make men loose and slight in their thoughts about sin, it is adulterate, selfish, false. If it will be all, answer all ends, it is nothing.

Hence it comes to pass that sometimes we see men walking in a bondage-frame of spirit all their days, low in their light, mean in their apprehensions of grace; so that it is hard to discern whether covenant in their principles they belong unto, — whether they are under the law or under grace; yet walk with a more conscientious tenderness of sinning than many who are advanced into higher degrees of light and knowledge than they; — not that the saving light of the gospel is not the only principle of saving holiness and obedience; but that, through the deceitfulness of sin, it is variously abused to countenance the soul in manifold neglect of duties, and to draw off the mind from a due consideration of the nature, desert, and danger of sin. And this is done several ways: —

1st. The soul, having frequent need of relief by gospel grace against a sense of the guilt of sin and accusation of the law, comes at length to make it a common and ordinary thing, and such as may be slightly performed. Having found a good medicine for its wounds, and such as it hath had experience of its efficacy, it comes to apply it slightly, and rather skinneth over than cureth its sores, A little less earnestness, a little less diligence, serves every time, until the soul, it may be, begins to secure itself of pardon in course; and this tends directly to draw off the mind from its constant and universal watchfulness against sin. He whose light hath made his way of access plain for the obtaining of pardon, if he be not very watchful, he is far more apt to become overly formal and careless in his work than he who, by reason of mists and darkness, beats about to find his way aright to the throne of grace; as a man that hath often traveled a road passeth on without regard or inquiry, but he who is a stranger unto it, observing all turnings and inquiring of all passengers, secures his journey beyond the other.

2dly. The deceitfulness of sin takes advantage from the doctrine of grace by many ways and means to extend the bounds of the soul’s liberty beyond what God hath assigned unto it. Some have never thought themselves free from a legal, bondage frame until they have been brought into the confines of sensuality, and some into the depths of it. How often will sin plead, “This strictness, this exactness, this solicitude is no ways needful; relief is provided in the gospel against such things! Would you live as though there were no need of the gospel? as though pardon of sin were to no purpose?” But concerning these pleas of sin from gospel grace, we shall have occasion to speak more hereafter in particular.

3dly. In times of temptation, this deceitfulness of sin will argue expressly for sin from gospel grace; at least, it will plead for these two things: —

(1st.) That there is not need of such a tenacious, severe contending against it, as the principle of the new creature is fixed on. If it cannot divert the soul or mind wholly from attending unto temptations to oppose them, yet it will endeavor to draw them off as to the manner of their attendance. They need not use that diligence which at first the soul apprehends to be necessary.

(2dly.) It will be tendering relief as to the event of sin, — that it shall not turn to the ruin or destruction of the soul, because it is, it will, or may be, pardoned by the grace of the gospel. And this is true; this is the great and only relief of the soul against sin, the guilt whereof it hath contracted already, — the blessed and only remedy for a guilty soul. But when it is pleaded and remembered by the deceitfulness of sin in compliance with temptation unto sin, then it is poison; poison is mixed in every drop of this balsam, to the danger, if not death, of the soul.