Remaining 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

And the LORD said unto him, Go through the midst of the city, through the midst of Jerusalem, and set a mark upon the foreheads of the men that sigh and that cry for all the abominations that be done in the midst thereof.
~ Ezekiel 9:4

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

But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members.
~ Romans 7:23

The Nature of Indwelling Sin in Believers, Treated by the Apostle in Rom 7:21, by John Owen. The following contains Chapter One of his work, “The Nature, Power, Deceit and Prevalence 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.
—Rom 7:24, 25


The Nature of indwelling sin in believers, treated by the apostle in Rom 7:21; Illustrated. We intend to address indwelling sin and its remainders in believers after their conversion to God, along with its power, efficacy, and effects. This is also the great design of the apostle in chap. 7 of the Epistle to the Romans: to manifest and evince these things. Many, indeed, are the contests about the principal scope of the apostle in that chapter, and in what state the person is under the law or under grace, whose condition he describes there. I will not at present enter into that dispute, but take for granted what may be undeniably proved and evinced — namely, that it is the condition of a regenerate person, with respect to the remaining power of indwelling sin which is proposed and exemplified there, by and in the person of the apostle himself. In that discourse of his, therefore, the foundation will be laid for what we have to offer on this subject. Not that I will proceed in an exposition of his revelation of this truth as it lies in its own context, but only make use of what is delivered by him as occasion offers itself. And here first occurs that which he affirms in verse 21: “I find then a law, that, when I would do good, evil is present with me.”

There are four things observable in these words: —

First, the label he gives to indwelling sin, whereby he expresses its power and efficacy: it is “a law;” for what he terms “a law” in this verse, he calls in the foregoing, “sin that dwells in him.” Secondly, the way by which he came to discover this law; not absolutely and in its own nature, but he found it in himself: “I find a law.”

Thirdly, the frame of his soul and inward man with this law of sin, and under its discovery: “he would do good.”1

Fourthly, the state and activity of this law when the soul is in that frame when it would do good: it “is present with him.” For what ends and purposes we will show afterward.

The First thing observable is the designation used here by the apostle: he calls indwelling sin “a law.” It is a law.

A law is taken either properly as a directive rule, or improperly as an operative effective principle which seems to have the force of a law. In its FIRST SENSE, it is a moral rule which directs and commands, and in various ways moves and regulates, the mind and the will to do the things which it requires or forbids. This is obviously the general nature and work of a law. Some things it commands, some things it forbids, with rewards and penalties that move and impel men to do the one, and avoid the other. Hence, in a SECONDARY SENSE, an inward principle that constantly moves and inclines someone toward any actions, is called a law. The principle that is in the nature of a thing, moving and carrying it towards its own end and rest, is called the law of nature. In this respect, every inward principle that inclines and urges something to operate or act in a way suitable to itself, is a law:

Rom 8:2, “For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has made me free from the law of sin and death.”

The powerful and effectual working of the Spirit and grace of Christ in the hearts of believers is called “The law of the Spirit of life.” And for this reason, the apostle here calls indwelling sin a law. It is a powerful and effectual indwelling principle, inclining and pressing toward actions that are agreeable and suitable to its own nature. This, and no other, is the intention of the
1 That is, he wills to do good; and yet he does not.

apostle in this expression. That term, “a law,” may sometimes mean a state and condition — and if used here in this way, the meaning of the words would be, ‘I find that this is my condition, this is the state of things with me: that when I would do good, evil is present with me;’ this makes no great alteration in the principal intent of the passage. Yet, properly, it can denote nothing here but the chief subject addressed. For even though the term “law” is variously used by the apostle in this chapter, yet when it relates to sin, it is nowhere applied by him to the condition of the person, but it is used only to express either the nature or the power of sin itself. So,

Rom. 7:23, “I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members.”

What he calls here the law of his mind, from the principal subject and seat of it, is in itself none other than the “law of the Spirit of life which is in Christ Jesus,” Rom. 8:2; or it is the effectual power of the Spirit of grace, as was said. But “the law,” as applied to sin, has a double sense: for as it is used in the first place, “I see a law in my members,” it denotes the being and nature of sin; and in the latter place, “Leading into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members,” it signifies sin’s power and efficacy. Both of these are comprised in the same name, singly used:

Rom. 7:20, “Now if I do what I would not, it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwells in me.” Now, what we observe from this name or term “law,” as it is attributed to sin, is this: that there is an exceeding efficacy and power in the remainders of indwelling sin in believers, with a constant working towards evil.

This is how it is in believers: it is a law in them, even though it is not a law to them. Though its rule is broken, its strength is weakened and impaired, and its root is mortified, yet it is a law that still has great force and efficacy in them. There, where it is least felt, it is most powerful. Carnal men, in reference to their spiritual and moral duties, are nothing but this law; they do nothing unless it is from it, and by it. In them, it is a ruling and prevailing principle of all moral actions, with reference to a supernatural and eternal end. I will not consider it in those in whom it has the most power, but only in those in whom its power is chiefly discovered and discerned — that is, in believers; in the others, it is only considered to further convict them of it, and manifest it.

Secondly, the apostle proposes the way by which he discovered this law in himself: “I find then (or therefore), a law.” 1 He found it. It had been told to him that there was such a law; it had been preached to him. This convinced him that there was a law of sin. But it is one thing for a man to know in general that there is a law of sin; another thing for a man to experience the power of this law of sin in himself. It is preached to all; all men admit that the Scriptures acknowledge it, that it is declared in them; but there are few who know it in themselves. We would otherwise have more complaints of it than we have, and more contentions against it, and less fruits of it in the world. But this is what the apostle affirms — not that the doctrine of it had been preached to him, but that he found it in himself by experience. “I find a law;” — “I have experienced its power and efficacy.” For a man to find his sickness, and the danger thus arising from its effects, is different than hearing a discourse about a disease arising from its causes. And this experience is the great preservative of all divine truth in the soul. This is what it means to know a thing indeed, and in reality — to know it for ourselves — when, as we are taught it from the word, so we find it in ourselves.

Hence we observe further, that believers experience the power and efficacy of indwelling sin. They find it in themselves; they find it as a law. It has a self-evidencing efficacy to those who are alive to discern it. Those who do not find its power, are under its dominion. Whoever contends against it, will know and find that it is present with them, that it is powerful in them. The one
1 Euvri,skw a;ra to.n no,mon, heurisko ara tou nomos (NT:2147, 686, 3551)

who swims against the current will find the stream is strong; but the one who floats along with it, will be insensible of it.

Thirdly, the general frame of believers, notwithstanding the indwelling of this law of sin, is also expressed here. They “would do good.” This law is “present:” 1 The habitual inclination of their will is to good. The law in them is not a law to them as it is to unbelievers. They are not wholly susceptible to its power, nor morally to its commands. Grace has sovereignty in their souls: this gives them a will to do good. They “would do good,” that is, always and constantly. In 1Joh 3:9, “To commit sin,”2 is to make a trade of sin, to make it a man’s business to sin. So it is said that a believer “does not commit sin;” and so he wills “to do what is good.”3 To will to do so is to have the habitual bent and inclination of the will, set on what is good — that is, morally and spiritually good — which is the proper subject addressed here.

From this comes our third observation: There is, through grace kept up in believers, a constant and ordinarily prevailing will to do good, notwithstanding the power and efficacy of indwelling sin to the contrary.

This, in their worst condition, distinguishes believers from unbelievers at their best. The will in unbelievers is under the power of the law of sin. The opposition they make to sin, either in its root or branches, is from their light and their consciences; the will to sin in them is never taken away. Take away all other considerations and hinderances, which we will address afterward, and they would sin willingly always. Their faint endeavors to answer their convictions are far from a will to do what is good. They will plead, indeed, that they would leave their sins if they could, and they would gladly do better than they do. But it is the working of their light and convictions, and not any spiritual inclination of their wills, which they intend by that expression: for where there is a will to do good, there is a choice of what is good for the sake of its own excellence — because it is desirable and suitable to the soul — and therefore it is to be preferred before what is contrary. Now, this is not in any unbelievers. They do not, they cannot, so choose that which is spiritually good, nor is it so excellent or suitable to any principle that is in them; they only have some desires to attain that end to which a good leads, and to avoid that evil which its neglect tends toward. And these desires are also, for the most part, so weak and languid in many of them, that they do not make any considerable endeavors towards them. Witness the luxury, sloth, worldliness, and security that most men are drowned in.

But in believers there is a will to do good, a habitual disposition and inclination in their wills toward what is spiritually good; and where this is found, it is accompanied by corresponding effects. The will is the principle of our moral actions; and therefore the general course of our actions will be suited to its prevailing disposition. Good things proceed from the good treasures of the heart.4 Nor can this disposition be evidenced by anything except its fruits. A will to do good, without doing good, is but pretended.

Fourthly, there is yet another thing remaining in these words of the apostle, arising from that respect that the presence of sin has to the time and season of our duty: “When I would do good,” he says, “evil is present with me.”

There are two things to be considered in the will of doing the good that is in believers: —
1 Qe,lonti evmoi. poiei/n to. kalo,n thelonti emoi poiein to kalon (NT:2309,1698,4160,2570)
2 Poiei/n a ‘marti,an poiein hamartian (NT:4160,266)
3 poiei/n to. kalo,n, poiein to kalon (NT :4160,2570)
4 Luk 6:45 A good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth good;

1. There is its habitual residence in them. They always have a habitual inclination of will to what is good. And this habitual preparation for good is always present with them, as the apostle expresses it in Rom. 7.18.1

2. There are special times and seasons for the exercise of that principle. There is “when I would do good,” — a season in which this or that good, this or that duty, is to be performed and accomplished suitably to the habitual preparation and inclination of the will. To these two, are opposed two other things in indwelling sin. To the gracious principle residing in the will (inclining to what is spiritually good), is opposed a law, that is, a contrary principle, inclining to evil, along with an aversion to what is good. To the second, or the actual willing of this or that good in particular (“When I would do good”) is opposed the presence of this law: “Evil is present with me,”2 — evil is at hand, and ready to oppose the actual accomplishment of the good aimed at. This is why indwelling sin is effectually operative in rebelling and inclining to evil, when the will to do good is, in a particular manner, active and inclining to obedience.

And this is the description of someone who is a believer and a sinner, as every one who is a believer is also a sinner. These are the contrary principles, and the contrary operations, that are in the believer. The principles are, on the one hand, a will to do good proceeding from grace, and on the other hand, a law of sin. Their adverse actings and operations are insinuated in these expressions: “When I would do good, evil is present with me.” And these both are more fully expressed by the apostle in Gal 5:17, “For the flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: and these are contrary to one another; so that I cannot do the things that I would.”

And here lie the springs of the whole course of our obedience. An acquaintance with these several principles and their actings is the principal part of our wisdom. As to their matter, next to the free grace of God in our justification by the blood of Christ, they are the only things in which the glory of God and our own souls are concerned. These are the springs of our holiness and our sins, of our joys and troubles, of our refreshments and sorrows. It is then, the concern of all those who intend to walk with God and to glorify him in this world, to be thoroughly acquainted with these things.

And hence we may see what wisdom is required in guiding and managing our hearts and ways before God. Where the subjects of a ruler are in feuds and oppositions against one another, unless great wisdom is used in the government of the whole, all things will quickly be ruinous in that state. There are these contrary principles in the hearts of believers. And if they do not labor to be spiritually wise, how will they be able to steer their course correctly? Many men live in the dark as to themselves all their days; whatever else they know, they don’t know themselves. They know their outward estates, how rich they are, and they are careful to examine the condition of their bodies as to their health and sickness; but as to their inward man, and their principles as to God and eternity, they know little or nothing of themselves. Indeed, few labor to grow wise in this matter; few study themselves as they should; few are acquainted with the evils of their own hearts as they should — yet the whole course of their obedience, and consequently of their eternal condition, depends these. This, therefore, is our wisdom; and it is a necessary wisdom if we have any design to please God, or to avoid what is a provocation to the eyes of his glory.

We will also find in our inquiry into this, what diligence and watchfulness is required for a Christian conversation.3 There is a constant enemy to it in everyone’s own heart; and we will later show what an enemy it is, for it is our design to reveal him to the uttermost. In the
1 Rom 7:18 For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells; for to will is present with me, but how to perform what is good I do not find. (i.e., good is known, even if not in the flesh, but not how to do it.)
2 Emo.i to. kako.n para,keitai Emoi to kakon parakeitai (NT: 1698,2556,3873)
3 Conversation: the conduct of our life in public; our way of life.

meantime, we may well bewail the woeful sloth and negligence that is in most people, even in professors of Christ. They live and walk as though they intended to go to heaven hood-winked and asleep — as though they had no enemy to deal with. Their mistake and folly will therefore be fully laid open in our progress.

What I will principally fix upon, in reference to our present design from this verse of the apostle, is what was first laid down — namely, that there is an exceeding efficacy and power in the remainder of indwelling sin in believers, with a constant inclination and working towards evil.

Awake, therefore, all of you in whose hearts is anything of the ways of God! Your enemy is not only upon you, as on Samson of old, but he is in you also. He is at work, by all ways of force and craft, as we will see. Would you not dishonor God and his gospel; would you not scandalize the saints and ways of God; would you not wound your consciences and endanger your souls; would you not grieve the good and holy Spirit of God, the author of all your comforts; would you keep your garments undefiled, and escape the woeful temptations and pollutions of the days in which we live; would you be preserved from the number of apostates in these latter days? Then awake to the consideration of this cursed enemy, which is the spring of all these and innumerable other evils, and also the ruin of all the souls that perish in this world!