Subject of Law

Neither yield ye your members as instruments of unrighteousness unto sin: but yield yourselves unto God, as those that are alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness unto God. For sin shall not have dominion over you: for ye are not under the law, but under grace.
~ Romans 6:13-14

Stand in awe, and sin not: commune with your own heart upon your bed, and be still. Selah.
~ Psalm 4:4

But God be thanked, that ye were the servants of sin, but ye have obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine which was delivered you.
~ Romans 6:17

But put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, to fulfil the lusts thereof.
~ Romans 13:14

The Seat or Subject of the Law of Sin is the Heart, by John Owen. The following contains Chapter Three of his work, “The Nature, Power, Deceit and Prevalence of the Remainders of Indwelling Sin in Believers”.


The seat or subject of the law of sin is the heart — What is meant by that— Properties of the heart as possessed by sin: unsearchable and deceitful — What that deceit arises from — Improvement of these considerations.

HAVING manifested indwelling sin, treating the remainders of it in believers as a law, and having evinced in general its power from that law, we will now proceed to give particular instances of its efficacy and advantages from some things that generally relate to it as such. And there are three of these: —

FIRST, Its seat and subject;

SECONDLY, Its natural properties (Chap. 4); and,

THIRDLY, Its operations and manner (Chap. 5); this is principally what we will aim at and attend to.

FIRST, For the seat and subject of this law of sin, the Scripture everywhere assigns it to the heart. Indwelling sin keeps its special residence there. It has invaded and possessed the throne of God himself:

Ecc 9:3, “Madness is in the heart of men while they live.”
This is their madness, or the root of all that madness which appears in their lives.

Mat 15:19, “Out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies,” etc.

There are many outward temptations and provocations that befall men, which excite and stir them up to these evils; but they merely open the vessel, as it were, and let out what is laid up and stored in it. The root, rise, and stirring of all these things, is in the heart. Temptations and occasions put nothing into a man, but only draw out what was in him before. From this comes that summary description of the whole work and effect of this law of sin: “Every imagination of the thoughts of man’s heart is only evil continually.” 1 The whole work of the law of sin, from its first rise, to its first coining of actual sin, is described here; and its seat, its work-house, is said to be the heart. And so it is called by our Saviour the evil treasure of the heart:

Luke 6:45, “An evil man, out of the evil treasure of his heart, brings forth evil things.”

This treasure is the prevailing principle of moral actions in men. So, in the beginning of the verse, our Saviour calls grace “The good treasure of the heart” of a good man, from which that which is good proceeds. It is a principle constantly and abundantly inciting and stirring up, and consequently producing actions that are like and conformable to it, of the same kind and nature as itself. And it is also called a treasure for its abundance. It will never be exhausted; it is not wasted by men’s spending it; indeed, the more lavish men are with this stock — the more they draw out of this treasure — the more it grows and abounds! Just as men do not spend their grace, but increase it by its exercise, no more do they spend their indwelling sin. The more men exercise their grace in duties of obedience, the more it is strengthened and increased; and the more men exert and put forth the fruits of their lust, the more that lust is enraged and increased in them — it feeds on itself, swallows up its own poison, and grows by it. The more men sin, the more they are inclined to sin. It is from the deceitfulness of this law of sin (which we will speak of at large afterward) that men persuade themselves that by this or that particular sin, they will so satisfy their lusts that they will need to sin no more. Every sin increases the principle, and
1 Gen 6:5. Also, Gen 8:21 Then the LORD said in His heart, “I will never again curse the ground for man’s sake, although the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth;

fortifies the habit of sinning. It is an evil treasure that increases by doing evil. And where does this treasure lie? It is in the heart; there it is laid up, there it is kept in safety. It is so safely stored in the heart, that all the men in the world, and all the angels in heaven, cannot dispossess a man of this treasure.

The heart in the Scripture is variously used: sometimes for the mind and understanding, sometimes for the will, sometimes for the affections, sometimes for the conscience, sometimes for the whole soul. Generally it denotes the whole soul of man, and all its faculties — not absolutely, but as they are all one principle of moral operations — as they all concur in our doing good or evil. The mind, as it inquires, discerns, and judges what is to be done, and what is to be refused; the will, as it chooses, or as it refuses and avoids; the affections, as they like or dislike, cling to or have an aversion to what is proposed to them; the conscience, as it warns and determines —all these together, are called the heart. And it is in this sense that we say the seat and subject of this law of sin is the heart of man. Only, we may add that the Scripture, speaking of the heart as the principle of men’s good or evil actions, usually insinuates with it two things belonging to the manner of their performance: —

1. A suitableness and pleasingness to the soul in the things that are done. When men take delight and are pleased in and with what they do, they are said to do it heartily, with their whole hearts. Thus, when God himself blesses his people in love and delight, he says he does it “with his whole heart, and with his whole soul,” Jer 32:41.

2. Resolution and constancy in such actions. And this is also denoted in the metaphorical expression used before of a treasure, from which men constantly take out the things which either they stand in need of, or intend to use.

This is the subject, the seat, the dwelling-place of this law of sin: the heart — as it is the entire principle of moral operations, of doing good or evil, as out of it proceeds good or evil. Here in the heart dwells our enemy; this is the fort, the citadel of this tyrant, where it maintains a rebellion against God all our days. Sometimes it has more strength, and consequently more success; sometimes it has less strength and less success; but while we live, it is always in rebellion.

That we may, in passing, take a little view of the strength and power of sin from this seat and subject of it, we will consider one or two properties of the heart that exceedingly contribute to it. It is like an enemy in war, whose strength and power lie not only in his numbers and force of men or arms, but also in the unconquerable forts that he possesses. And such is the heart to this enemy of God and our souls. This will appear from its properties, of which one or two will be mentioned.

1. The heart is unsearchable: Jer 17:9, 10, “Who can know the heart? I the LORD search it.” The heart of man is pervious1 only to God; hence he takes the honor of searching the heart as unique to himself: it as fully declares him to be God, as any other glorious attribute of his nature. We don’t know the hearts of one another; we don’t know our own hearts as we should. There are many who don’t know their hearts as to their general bent and disposition, whether it is good or bad, sincere and sound, or corrupt and naughty; but no one knows all the secret intrigues, windings and turnings, actings and aversions of his own heart. Has anyone the perfect measure of his own light and darkness? Can anyone know what actings of choosing or aversion his own will might produce, when an endless variety of objects are proposed to it for its exercise? Can anyone traverse the various changings of his afflictions? Do the secret springs of acting and of refusing in the soul, lie before the eyes of any man? Does anyone know what will be the motions of the mind or of the will in such and such conjunctions of things, in such a suiting of objects, in
1 Allowing passage or entrance.

such a pretension of reasonings, in such an appearance of desirable things? All in heaven and earth are utterly ignorant of these things, except the infinite and all-seeing God. In this unsearchable heart dwells the law of sin; and much of its security, and consequently of its strength, lies in this: that it is past our finding out.

We fight with an enemy whose secret strength we cannot discover, and whom we cannot follow into its retirements. Hence, often, when we think sin is quite ruined, we find after a while that it was only out of sight. It has coverts and retreats in an unsearchable heart, where we cannot pursue it. The soul may persuade itself that all is well, when sin may be safe in the hidden darkness of the mind, where it is impossible for the soul to look into — for what makes sin manifest is light. It may suppose the will of sinning is utterly taken away, when there is yet an unsearchable reserve for a more suitable object, a more vigorous temptation than it has yet tried. Has a man had a contest with any lust, and a blessed victory over it by the Holy Ghost (as to that present trial) such that when he thinks it is utterly expelled, he finds before long that it had only retired out of sight? It can lie so close in the mind’s darkness, in the will’s indisposition, in the disorder and carnality of the affections, that no eye can discover it. The best of our wisdom is but to watch for its first appearance, to catch its first under-earth heavings and workings, and to set ourselves in opposition to them; for we cannot follow it into the secret corners of the heart. It is true, there is still relief in this case — namely, the one to whom is principally committed the work of destroying the law of sin and the body of death in us: the Holy Ghost. He comes with his axe to the very root;1 nor is there anything in an unsearchable heart that is not “naked and open to him,” Heb 4:13. But we, in a way of duty, may see from this what an enemy we have to deal with.

2. Just as the heart is unsearchable, so it is deceitful, as in the passage mentioned above: “It is deceitful above all things,” — incomparably so. There is great deceit in the dealings of men in the world — in their counsels and contrivances; in reference to their affairs, both private and public; in their words and actings — the world is full of deceit and fraud. But all this is nothing compared to the deceit that is in a man’s heart towards himself, and not towards others; for that is the meaning of the expression in this place. Now, incomparable deceitfulness, added to unsearchableness, gives a great addition and increase of strength to the law of sin, on account of its seat and subject. I do not yet speak of the deceitfulness of sin itself, but of the deceitfulness of the heart where it is seated. Pro 26:25, “There are seven abominations in the heart;” that is, not only many, but an absolute and complete number, as seven denotes. And they are abominations that consist in deceitfulness — so that the foregoing caution insinuates, ‘Do not trust him.’ For it is only deceit that would make us not trust in that degree and measure which the object of our search is capable of.

Now, this deceitfulness of the heart, by which it has an exceeding advantage in harboring sin, lies chiefly in these two things: —

(1.) That it abounds in contradictions, so that it is not to be found and dealt with according to any constant rule and way of procedure. There are some men who, from a natural constitution or other causes, have much of this in their conversation. They seem to be made up of contradictions; sometimes they are very wise in their affairs, sometimes very foolish; very open, and very reserved; very facile, and very obstinate; very easy to be entreated, and very revengeful — all in a remarkable height. This is generally considered a bad character, and it is seldom found except when it proceeds from some notable and predominant lust. But, in general, in respect to moral good or evil, duty or sin, it is so with the heart of every man — it is flaming hot, and key cold; weak, and yet stubborn; obstinate, and facile. The frame of the
1 Mat 3:10 “And even now the ax is laid to the root of the trees. Therefore every tree which does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

heart is ready to contradict itself at every moment. Now you would think you had such a frame or such a way entirely; but shortly it is quite otherwise: so that none know what to expect from it. The rise of this is the disorder that is brought upon all the faculties by sin. God created them all in a perfect harmony and union. The mind and reason were in perfect subjection and subordination to God and his will; the will corresponded, in its choice of good, to the discovery made of good by the mind; the affections constantly and evenly followed the understanding and the will. The mind’s subjection to God was the spring of the orderly and harmonious motion of the soul and all the wheels in it.

The heart being disturbed by sin, the rest of the faculties act cross and contrary to one another. The will does not choose the good which the mind discovers; the affections do not delight in what the will chooses; but they all jar and interfere with, cross and rebel against each other. This we have gotten by falling from God. Hence sometimes the will leads, and the judgment follows. Indeed, the affections — which should serve the rest — commonly get sovereignty, and draw the whole soul captive after them. And this is why it is, as I said, that the heart is made up of so many contradictions in its actings. Sometimes the mind retains its sovereignty, and the affections are in subjection, and the will is ready for its duty. This puts a good face on things. But immediately the rebellion of the affections, or the obstinacy of the will, arise and prevail, and the whole scene is changed. This, I say, is what makes the heart deceitful above all things: it does not agree at all in itself; it is not constant to itself; there is no order to which it is constant; it has no certain conduct that is stable. Rather, if I may so say, it has a rotation in itself, where oftentimes the feet lead and guide the whole.

(2.) Its deceit lies in its full promises at the first appearance of things;1 and this proceeds from the same principle as the former. Sometimes the affections are touched and worked on; the whole heart appears in a fair frame; it promises all will be well. Within a short while, the whole frame is changed; the mind was not at all affected or turned; the affections acted their parts a little, but now have departed, and all the fair promises of the heart depart with them. Now add to this deceitfulness the unsearchableness mentioned before, and we will find at least, that the difficulty of dealing effectually with sin in its seat and throne, has exceedingly increased. Who can deal with a deceiving and a deceived heart? — especially considering that the heart employs all its deceits to the service of sin — contributes them all to its furtherance. All the disorder that is in the heart, all of its false promises and fair appearances, promote the interest and advantages of sin. Hence God cautions the people to look to it, lest “their own hearts entice and deceive them.” Deu 11.16

Who can mention the treacheries and deceits that lie in the heart of man? It is not for nothing that the Holy Ghost says, “It is deceitful above all things,” Jer 17.9 — it is uncertain in what it does, and false in what it promises. Moreover, this is why (among other causes), in the pursuit of our war against sin, we not only have the old work to do over and over, but still new work while we live in this world, still new stratagems and wiles to deal with, as the manner will be wherever unsearchableness and deceitfulness are to be contended with.

There are many other properties of this seat and subject of the law of sin which might be insisted on, to the same end and purpose; but that would too far divert us from our particular design. And therefore I will pass these over with a few considerations: —

First, Never let us reckon that our work in contending against sin — in crucifying, mortifying, and subduing it — is at an end. The place of its habitation is unsearchable; and when we think we have thoroughly won the field, there is still some reserve remaining that we did not see, that we did not know of. Many conquerors have been ruined by their carelessness after a victory; and many believers have been spiritually wounded after great successes against this enemy. David
1 That is, it promises more at the start, than it delivers at the end.

was so wounded. His great surprise entry into sin was after a long profession, manifold experiences of God, and watchfully keeping himself from his iniquity. And hence it has come to pass in part, that the profession of many has declined in their old age, or at a riper time (this must be more distinctly addressed afterward). They have abandoned the work of mortifying sin before their work was at an end. There is no way for us to pursue sin in its unsearchable habitation, except by being endless in our pursuit. And on this account, that command of the apostle which we have in Col 3:5, is as necessary for those to observe who are towards the end of their race, as it is for those who are only at the beginning: “Mortify therefore your members which are upon the earth;” always be doing it while you live in this world. It is true, great ground is obtained when the work is vigorously and constantly carried on; sin is much weakened so that the soul presses forward towards perfection: yet the work must be endless — I mean, while we are in this world. If we give up, we will quickly see this enemy exerting itself with new strength and vigor. It may be under some great affliction, in some eminent enjoyment of God, or in the sense of the sweetness of blessed communion with Christ, that we have been ready to say there was an end of sin, that it was dead and gone forever. But have we not found it to be the contrary by experience?

Hasn’t it been obvious that it was only retired into some unsearchable recesses of the heart, as to its in-being and nature, though maybe greatly weakened in its power? Let us then reckon on it: that there is no way to have our work done, except by always doing it; he who dies fighting in this warfare, dies assuredly a conqueror.

Secondly, Does it have its residence in what is various, inconstant, and deceitful above all things? Then this calls for perpetual watchfulness against it. An open enemy that deals only by violence, always gives some respite. You know where to have him and what he is doing, so that sometimes you may sleep quietly without fear. But against adversaries that deal by deceit and treachery (which are long swords that reach at the greatest distance) nothing will give security except perpetual watchfulness. It is impossible for us in this case to be too jealous, doubtful, suspicious, or watchful. The heart has a thousand wiles and deceits; and if we are the least off our watch, we may be sure to be surprised. Hence those reiterated commands and cautions are given for watching, for being circumspect, diligent, careful, and the like. There is no living for those who have to deal with an enemy that is deceitful above all things, unless they persist in such a frame. All cautions that are given in this case are necessary, especially this —“Remember not to believe.” Does the heart promise fair? — then do not rest on it, but say to the Lord Christ, “Lord, you undertake for me.” Does the sun shine fair in the morning? — do not reckon therefore on a fair day; the clouds may arise and fall. Though the morning gives a fair appearance of serenity and peace, turbulent affections may arise and cloud the soul with sin and darkness.

Thirdly then, commit the whole matter with all care and diligence to Him who can search the heart to the uttermost, and knows how to prevent all its treacheries and deceits. Our duty lies in the things mentioned before; but here lies our safety. There is no treacherous corner in our hearts that he cannot search to the uttermost. There is no deceit in them that he cannot disappoint. David takes this course in Psalm 139. After he sets forth the omnipresence of God and his omniscience, verses 1-10, he expands on it: verse 23, “Search me, O God, and try me” — as if he had said, ‘I know but little of my deceitful heart; only, I would be sincere. I would not have reserves for sin retained in it. Therefore You who are present with my heart, who know my thoughts long before I do, undertake this work; perform it thoroughly; for you alone are able to do so.’

There are still other arguments for evidencing the power and strength of indwelling sin, from which it is termed a “law,” but which we must take notice of according to the order in which we laid them down.