Under Grace

Let Israel hope in the LORD: for with the LORD there is mercy, and with him is plenteous redemption. And he shall redeem Israel from all his iniquities. He will turn again, he will have compassion upon us; he will subdue our iniquities; and thou wilt cast all their sins into the depths of the sea. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, saith the Lord; I will put my laws into their mind, and write them in their hearts: and I will be to them a God, and they shall be to me a people:
~ Psalm 130:7-8, Micah 7:19, Hebrews 8:10

Moreover the law entered, that the offence might abound. But where sin abounded, grace did much more abound: That as sin hath reigned unto death, even so might grace reign through righteousness unto eternal life by Jesus Christ our Lord. What then? shall we sin, because we are not under the law, but under grace? God forbid. 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? Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, that ye should obey it in the lusts thereof.
~ Romans 5:20-21, Romans 6:15-16, Romans 6:12

For the law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath made me free from the law of sin and death.
~ John 1:17, Romans 8:2

If the Son therefore shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed.
~ John 8:36

A Treatise of the Dominion of Sin and Grace; Wherein Sin’s Reign is Discovered, In Whom It is, and In Whom It is Not; How the Law Supports It; How Grace Delivers from It, By Setting Up Its Dominion in the Heart.

For sin shall not have dominion over you: for ye are not under the law, but under grace.
~ Romans 6:14

By the late pious and learned minister of the gospel, John Owen, D.D.. London: 1688.

Chapter VI.

The practical observations drawn from, and application made of, the whole text.

Having opened the words, and made some improvement of them, I shall now take one or two observations from the design of them, and issue the whole in a word of application.

Obs. 1. It is an unspeakable mercy and privilege to be delivered from the dominion of sin. As such it is here proposed by the apostle; as such it is esteemed by them that believe. Nothing is more sweet, precious, and valuable, unto a soul conflicting with sin and temptation, than to hear that sin shall not have the dominion over it. Ah! what would some give that it might be spoken unto them with power, so as that they might steadfastly believe it and have the comfort of it? “Fools make a mock of sin,” and some glory in the service of it, which is their shame; but those who understand any thing aright, either of what is present or what is to come, do know that this freedom from its dominion is an invaluable mercy; and we may consider the grounds which evidence it so to be.

First, It appears so to be from the causes of it. It is that which no man can by his own power and the utmost of his endeavours attain unto. Men by them may grow rich, or wise, or learned; but no man by them can shake off the yoke of sin. If a man had all the wealth of the world, he could not by it purchase this liberty; it would be despised. And when sinners go hence to the place where the rich man was tormented, and have nothing more to do with this world, they would give it all, if they had it, for an interest in this liberty.

It is that which the law and all the duties of it cannot procure. The law and its duties, as we have declared, can never destroy the dominion of sin. All men will find the truth hereof that ever come to fall under the power of real conviction. When sin presseth on them, and they are afraid of its consequents, they will find that the law is weak, and the flesh is weak, and their duties are weak, and their resolutions and vows are weak; — all insufficient to relieve them. And if they think themselves freed one day, they shall find the next that they are under bondage. Sin, for all this, will rule over them with force and rigour. And in this condition do some spend all their days in this world. They kindle sparks of their own, and walk in the light of them, until they lie down in darkness and sorrow. They sin and promise amendment, and endeavour recompenses by some duties, yet can never extricate themselves from the yoke of sin. We may therefore learn the excellency of this privilege, first, from its causes, whereof I shall mention some only:—

1. The meritorious procuring cause of this liberty is the death and blood of Jesus Christ. So it is declared, 1 Pet. i. 18, 19; 1 Cor. vi. 20, ; vii. 23. Nothing else could purchase this freedom. Under the power and dominion of sin we were, and could not be delivered without a ransom. “Christ died, and rose, and revived,” that he might be our Lord, Rom. xiv. 9, and so deliver us from the power of all other lords whatever. It is true, there was no ransom due to sin or Satan who was the author of it. They were to be dethroned or destroyed by an act of power. Both the devil and sin, which is his work, are to be “destroyed,” not appeased, Heb. ii. 14, 1 John iii. 8. But “the strength of sin is the law,” 1 Cor. xv. 56; that is, through the righteous sentence of God, we were held by the law obnoxious unto the condemning power of sin. From that law we could not be delivered but by this price and ransom. Two things hence follow:—

(1.) Those who live in sin, who willingly abide in the service of it, and endure its dominion, do cast the utmost contempt on the wisdom, love, and grace of Christ. They despise that which cost him so dear; they judge that he made a very foolish purchase of this liberty for us with his dearest blood. Whatever it be, they prefer the present satisfaction of their lusts before it. This is the poison of unbelief. There is in it a high contempt of the wisdom and love of Christ. The language of men’s hearts that live in sin is, that the liberty which he purchased with his blood is not to be valued or esteemed. They flatter him with their lips in the outward performance of some duties; but in their hearts they despise him and the whole work of his mediation. But the time is approaching wherein they will learn the difference between the slavery of sin and the liberty wherewith Christ makes believers free. And this is that which is now tendered unto sinners in the dispensation of the gospel. Life and death are here set before you; choose life, that ye may live forever.

(2.) Let those that are believers, in all their conflicts with sin, live in the exercise of faith on this purchase of liberty made by the blood of Christ; for two things will hence ensue:— [1.] That they will have a weighty argument always in readiness to oppose unto the deceit and violence of sin. The soul will hereon say to itself, “Shall I forego and part with that which Christ purchased for me at so dear a rate, by giving place to the solicitations of lust or sin? shall I despise his purchase? God forbid!” See Rom. vi. 2. By such arguings is the mind frequently preserved from closing with the enticements and seductions of sin. [2.] It is an effectual argument for faith to use in its pleading for deliverance from the power of sin. We ask for nothing but what Christ hath purchased for us; and if this plea be pursued, it will be prevalent.

2. The internal efficient cause of this liberty, or that whereby the power and rule of sin is destroyed in us, is the Holy Spirit himself; which farther evinceth the greatness of this mercy. Every act for the mortification of sin is no less immediately from him than those positive graces are whereby we are sanctified. It is “through the Spirit” that we “mortify the deeds of the body,” Rom. viii. 13. Where he is, there, and there alone, is liberty. All attempts for the mortification of sin without his especial aids and operations are frustrate. And this manifests the extent of the dominion of sin in the world. He alone by whom it can be destroyed, and all these efficacious operations of his whereby it is so, are generally despised; and they must live and die slaves unto sin by whom they are so. Wherefore, a great part of our wisdom for the attaining and preserving this liberty consists in the acting of faith on that promise of our Saviour, that our heavenly Father will “give the Holy Spirit to them that ask him” of him. When sin in any instance, by any temptation, urgeth for power and rule in us, we are ready to turn into ourselves and our own resolutions, which in their place are not to be neglected; but immediate cries unto God for such supplies of his Spirit as without which sin will not be subdued, we shall find our best relief. Bear it in mind, try it on the next occasion, and God will bless it with success.

3. The instrumental cause of this freedom is the duty of believers themselves in and for the destruction of sin. And this also manifests the importance of this privilege. This is one of the principal ends of all our religious duties, — of prayer, of fasting, of meditation, of watchfulness unto all other duties of obedience; they are all designed to prevent and ruin the interest of sin in us. We are called into a theatre, to fight and contend; into a field, to be tried in a warfare. Our enemy is this sin, which strives and contends for the rule over us. This we are to resist even unto blood; that is, unto our utmost in doing and suffering. And certainly that is in itself and unto us of the highest importance, which, on divine appointment and command, is the great end of the constant endeavours of our whole lives.

Secondly, It appears so to be from the consideration of the bondage which we are delivered from thereby. Bondage is that which human nature is most averse from, until it be debased and debauched by sensual lusts. Men of ingenuous spirits have in all ages chosen rather to die than to be made slaves. But there is no such bondage as that which is under the dominion of sin. To be under the power of base lusts, as covetousness, uncleanness, drunkenness, ambition, pride, and the like, to make provision to fulfil their desires in the wills of the mind and the flesh, is the worst of slavery.

But we may say what we please on this subject; none think themselves so free, none make such an appearance of generous freedom unto others, as those who are avowed servants of sin. If those are not freemen who do what they please, and are for the most part approved in what they do, who puff at all their enemies, and scorn such as pusillanimous slaves who go not forth unto the same compass of excess with them, who shall be esteemed free? They plead, with the Pharisees, that they are the only freemen, and were never in bondage to any! The servile restraints of fear from divine judgment and future accounts they wholly despise! See the description, Ps. lxxiii. 4–11. Who so free, so joyous, as such persons! As for others, they are “plagued all the day long, and are chastened every morning,” verse 14; yea, they go heavily and mournfully under the oppression of this enemy, crying out continually for deliverance.

But the truth insisted on is not at all impeached by this observation. It is a great part of the slavery of such persons that they know not themselves to be slaves, and boast that they are free. They are born in a state of enmity against God and bondage under sin; and they like well of it, as all abject slaves do under the worst of tyrants: they know no better. But true liberty consists in inward peace, tranquillity of mind, designs for and inclinations unto the best things, the most noble objects of our natural, rational souls. All these they are utter strangers unto who spend their lives in the service of vile and base lusts. Envy not their gallantry, their glittering appearances, their heaps of wealth and treasures; they are, on the whole, vile and contemptible slaves. The apostle determines their case, Rom. vi. 17. It is a matter of eternal thankfulness unto God that we are delivered from being “the servants of sin.”

Yea, it is an evidence of grace, of a good frame of spirit, when a soul is made really sensible of the excellency of this freedom, when it finds the power and interest of sin to be so weakened as that it can rejoice in it, and be thankful to God for it, Rom. vii. 25.

Thirdly, It is so with respect unto the end of this bondage, or what it brings men unto. If, after all the base drudgery which sinful men are put unto in the service of their lusts; if, after all the conflicts which their consciences put them on, with fears and terrors in the world, — they could expect any thing of a future reward hereafter, something might be spoken to alleviate their present misery: but “the wages of sin is death;” eternal death, under the wrath of the great God, is all they are to look for. The end of the dominion of sin is to give them up unto the curse of the law and power of the devil for evermore.

Fourthly, It keeps men off from the participation of all real good, here and hereafter. What men under the power of sin do enjoy will quickly appear to be “a thing of nought.” In the meantime, they have not the least taste of the love of God; which alone takes out the poison of their enjoyments. They have not the least view of the glory of Christ; without which they live in perpetual darkness, like those who never behold the light nor sun. They have no experience of the sweetness and excellency of the gracious influences of life, and strength, and comfort, from the Holy Ghost, nor of that satisfaction and reward which is in holy obedience; nor shall ever come to the enjoyment of God.

All these things, and sundry others of the like sort, might be insisted on and enlarged, to manifest the greatness of the mercy and privilege which is in a freedom from the dominion of sin, as it is here proposed by the apostle; but the principal design I intended is accomplished, and I do but touch on these things.

I shall add one observation more, and with it put a close to this discourse:—

Obs. 2. It is the great interest of a soul conflicting with the power of sin to secure itself against its dominion, that it is not under its dominion, not to have the cause hang dubious in the mind. To clear the truth hereof we may observe the things that follow:—

First, The conflict with sin, making continual repentance and mortification absolutely necessary, will continue in us whilst we are in this world. Pretences of perfection here are contrary to the Scriptures, contrary to the universal experience of all believers, and contrary to the sense and conscience of them by whom they are pleaded, as they make it evident every day. We pray against it, strive against it, groan for deliverance from it; and that, by the grace of Christ healing our nature, not without success. Howbeit this success extends not unto its absolute abolition whilst we are in this world. It will abide in us until the union of the soul and body, wherein it hath incorporated itself, be dissolved. This is our lot and portion; this is the consequent of our apostasy from God, and of the depravation of our nature thereby.

You will say, then, “Whereto serves the gospel and the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ in this case, if it be not able to give us deliverance herein?” I answer, It doth give us a fourfold relief, which amounts virtually to a constant deliverance, though sin will abide in us whilst we are in this world:—

1. It is so ordered that the continuance of sin in us shall be the ground, reason, and occasion, of the exercise of all grace, and of putting a lustre on our obedience. Some excellent graces, as repentance and mortification, could have no exercise if it were otherwise; and whilst we are in this world, there is a beauty in them that is an overbalance for the evil of the remainders of sin. And the difficulty which is hereby put on our obedience, calling continually for the exercise and improvement of all grace, renders it the more valuable. Herein lies the spring of humility and self-resignation to the will of God. This makes us love and long for the enjoyment of Christ, putting an excellency on his mediation; whence the apostle, on the consideration of it, falls into that ejaculation, “I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” Rom. vii. 25. This sweetens unto us our future rest and reward. Wherefore, the continuance of us in this state and condition in this world, — a state of spiritual warfare, — is best for us, and highly suited unto divine wisdom, considering the office and care of our Lord Jesus Christ for our relief. Let us not complain, or repine, or faint, but go on with Christian fortitude unto the end, and we shall have success; for, —

2. There are, by the grace of Christ, such supplies and aids of spiritual strength granted unto believers, that sin shall never proceed farther in them than is useful and needful for the exercise of their graces. It shall never have its will upon them nor dominion over them, as we have before declared.

3. There is mercy administered in and by the gospel for the pardon of all that is evil in itself or in any of its effects: “There is no condemnation unto them that are in Christ Jesus.” Pardoning mercy, according to the tenor of the covenant, doth always disarm this sin in believers of its condemning power; so that, notwithstanding the utmost endeavours of it, “being justified by faith, they have peace with God.”

4. There is a season when, by the grace of Christ, it shall be utterly abolished, — namely, at death, when the course of our obedience is finished.

Wherefore, to affirm that this sin, and consequently a conflict with it, doth abide in believers whilst they are in this world, is no disparagement unto the grace of Christ, which gives such a blessed deliverance from it.

Secondly, There is a double conflict with and against sin. The one is in those that are unregenerate, consisting in the rebellion of light and conscience against the rule of sin in many particular instances; for although sin be enthroned in the will and affections, yet the knowledge of good and evil in the mind, excited by the hopes and fears of things eternal, will make head against it, as unto the performance of sundry duties and abstinence from sin. This conflict may be where sin is in the throne, and may deceive themselves, supposing it to be from the rule of grace, when it is only from the rebellion of light and the charge of a conscience yet unseared. But there is a conflict with sin where grace hath the rule and is enthroned; for although grace have the sovereignty in the mind and heart, yet the remainders of sin, especially in the corrupt affections, will be continually rebelling against it. Now this, we say, is the interest of all, namely, to inquire of what sort and kind that conflict with sin is which is in them. If it be of the first sort, they may yet be under the dominion of sin; if of the latter, they are freed from it. Wherefore, whilst the mind is dubious in this case and undetermined, many evil consequences it will be perplexed withal. I shall name some of them:—

1. Such a soul can have no solid peace, because it hath not satisfaction what state it doth belong unto. 2. It cannot receive refreshment by gospel consolations in any condition, for its just fears of the dominion of sin will defeat them all. 3. It will be dead and formal in all its duties, without spiritual courage and delight, which will at length make it weary of them. So, 4. All grace, especially faith, will be weakened and impaired under this frame continually. 5. Fear of death will hold the soul in bondage. Wherefore, it is highly necessary to have this case well stated and determined in our minds; whereto if the foregoing discourses may contribute any thing, it is what was designed in them.

There remains only to give some few directions how the prevalency of sin, unto such a degree as to render the case about its rule dubious in the mind, may be obviated and prevented. Some few of the many that might be given I shall propose:—

1. The great rule for preventing the increase and power of vicious habits is, watch against beginnings. Sin doth not attempt dominion but in particular instances, by one especial lust or another. Wherefore, if any sin or corrupt lust begin, as it were, to set up for a peculiar predominancy or interest in the mind and affections, if it be not entertained with severe mortification, it will ruin the peace, if not endanger the safety, of the soul. And when this is so, it may easily be discovered by any one who keepeth a diligent watch over his heart and ways; for no sin doth so entirely advance itself in the mind and affections, but it is promoted therein either by men’s natural inclinations, or by their circumstances on occasions of life, or by some temptation which they have exposed themselves unto, or by some such neglect wherein the frequency of acts has strengthened vicious inclinations. But these things may be easily discerned by those who are in any measure awake unto their soul’s concernments.

The strict charge given us by our Lord Jesus Christ to “watch,” and that of the wise man, “above all keepings to keep our heart,” have especial regard unto these beginnings of sin’s obtaining power in us. So soon as a discovery is made of its coincidence or conjunction with any of these ways of the promotion of its power, if it be not opposed with severe and diligent mortification, it will proceed in the method declared, James i. 14, 15.

Those who would be wise must familiarize wisdom unto their minds by a continual free converse with it. They must say unto wisdom, “Thou art my sister,” and call understanding their kinswoman, Prov. vii. 4. So will wisdom have power in and over their minds And if we suffer sin, by any of the advantages mentioned, to familiarize itself unto our minds, — if we say not unto it, “Get thee hence,” upon the first appearance of its activity for power in us, — it will put hard for the throne.

2. Carefully inquire and try whether such things which you may do or approve of in yourselves do not promote the power of sin, and help on its rule in you. This method David prescribes, Ps. xix. 12, 13. “Secret sins,” such as are not known to be sins, it may be, to ourselves, make way for those that are “presumptuous.” Thus pride may seem to be nothing but a frame of mind belonging unto our wealth and dignity, or our parts and abilities; sensuality may seem to be but a lawful participation of the good things of this life; passion and peevishness, but a due sense of the want of that respect which we suppose due unto us; covetousness, a necessary care of ourselves and our families. If the seeds of sin are covered with such pretences, they will in time spring up and bear bitter fruit in the minds and lives of men. And the beginnings of all apostasy, both in religion and morality, lie in such pretences. Men plead they can do so and so lawfully, until they can do things openly unlawful.

3. Keep your hearts always tender under the word. This is the true and only state of inconsistency with and repugnancy to the rule of sin. The loss hereof, or a decay herein, is that which hath opened the flood-gates of sin amongst us. Where this frame is a conscientious fear of sinning will always prevail in the soul; where it is lost, men will be bold in all sorts of follies And that this frame may be preserved, it is required, — (1.) That we cast out all vicious habits of mind that are contrary unto it, James i. 21; (2.) That we preserve an experience of its power and efficacy on our souls, 1 Pet. ii. 1–3; (3.) That we lay aside all prejudices against those that dispense it, Gal. iv. 16; (4.) That we keep the heart always humble, in which frame alone it is teachable, Ps. xxv. 9, — every thing in the preaching of the word comes cross and unpleasing to the minds of proud men; (5.) That we pray for a blessing on the ministry, which is the best preparation for receiving benefit by it.

4. Abhor that peace of mind which is consistent with any known sin. Men may have frequent surprisals into known sins, but if, whilst it is so with them, they refuse all inward peace but what comes in by most fervent and sincere desires of deliverance from them and repentance for them, they may be safe from the dominion of sin; but if men can on any hopes, or presumptions, or resolutions, preserve a kind of peace in their minds whilst they live in any known sin, they are nigh the borders of that security which is the territory wherein sin doth reign.

5. Make continual applications unto the Lord Christ, in all the acts of his mediation, for the ruin of sin, especially when it attempts a dominion in you, Heb. iv. 16. This is the life and soul of all directions in this case, which needs not here to be enlarged on; it is frequently spoken unto.

Lastly, Remember that a due sense of deliverance from the dominion of sin is the most effectual motive unto universal obedience and holiness; as such it is proposed and managed by the apostle, Rom. vi.