Reading John Owen: Consenting to Sin


I have taken a little break from my John Owen blog post series recently but today I’d like to get back to it. I’ve been reading Owen’s book, “Indwelling Sin in Believers” and so much has stood out to me that I decided to write this series, partly for my own benefit in consolidating what I’ve learnt, but also for the benefit of my Christian readers as I really think every Christian can benefit from this study on the workings of sin.

To read my other posts in this series in chronological order, click on these links for the first, second, third and fourth. So far we have seen that sin operates generally through deceit, and specifically in five steps that can be identified in James 1:14-15:
“Every man is tempted when he is drawn away by his own lust, and enticed. Then, when lust has conceived, it brings forth sin: and sin, when it is finished, brings forth death.”
In my other posts I have described how sin firstly draws away the mind. Earthly distractions and temptations come along and the sin within us makes a friend of them and uses them to pull us away from thinking about God and heavenly things. Secondly, sin entices. It shows us the pleasure that the sin would bring us and does all it can to hide the dangers. We are dazzled by its promises and start to long for the fulfillment of them. This (more often than not) leads to the conception of sin in our will, which is what we will focus on today.


Acts of sin cannot be committed unless first there is a decision to commit them. These decisions occur in the part of our soul called “the will”. There are a couple of things to note about the will:
    • It is a rational appetite – rational because it is guided by the mind and an appetite because it is excited by the affections. Therefore it is influenced by both the mind and affections.
    • It will only choose that which appears to be good – good in itself, good at present, or good given the circumstances. Therefore, sin must present a case to the will that choosing it will be good in some way.

The indwelling law of sin makes use of both of these facts about the will to convince it to choose sin – this is why its first attacks are to draw off the mind and create a longing for the pleasures of sin in the affections. We have already discussed how it does this in my other posts, so I won’t repeat myself; suffice it to say that the whole purpose of these initial workings of sin is to deceive the will into choosing sin based on the pretense that it is good. Perhaps an example is in order.


Imagine that Martha’s beloved grandmother has given her a present for her birthday. She watches Martha as she opens it, to reveal a painting of a style that Martha hates. She then asks Martha excitedly, “What do you think? Don’t you just love it? I couldn’t help but think of you when I saw it!”

Martha is not sure at this point where the wires have been crossed, and how her grandmother came to believe that she would love this present, but she really doesn’t want to upset her. So the following thoughts run through her mind:

“If I tell her the truth, it will only upset her. She might never buy me a present again. She might be offended and that will harm our relationship, and she doesn’t have that many years left to live. Not to mention, it will be plain awkward to say how I really feel. What harm would it do if I just tell her that I love it like she thinks?”

Martha then imagines the scenario of lying to her grandmother and telling her that she loves the present. Martha imagines the look of delight on her face and the joy that delight will bring to herself. She imagines the relief she will feel at avoiding an awkward conversation. She imagines that her relationship will continue on as before, her being the favoured grandchild. Martha longs for all these things.

At that point she decides – this is the best thing to do. Then out of Martha’s mouth comes the following words, “Of course I love it, Grandma! You couldn’t have chosen anything better.” The anticipated look of delight spreads across her grandmother’s face and relief fills Martha’s heart.

Indwelling sin rubs its hands together in glee.


Martha’s will was truly convinced that telling a lie to her grandmother was the best thing to do, otherwise she would not have done it. But let’s think for a minute what was wrong with this decision process, in the light of what we’ve learnt so far.

  1. Martha’s mind was drawn away from God and she considered only the things in favour of telling a lie. Martha stopped thinking about God and his will. She failed to recall that he is truth itself, that he never tells a lie, yet he is also perfectly loving (therefore there must be a way for her to tell the truth in love also). She failed to consider God’s commandment “do not lie” and that she would grieve him by disobeying. She forgot that were it not for Jesus, this particular act of rebellion would be sufficient for God to condemn her to hell after death. She did not remember the sacrifice Jesus made in order to save her from lies and deceit, among other sins.
  2. Martha desired the pleasures that telling the lie would give her rather than the joy of obedience to God. She did not desire (enough) uninterrupted communion with God, or else she would not have been willing to break it in this sin. She was not filled with horror at the thought of disobeying her loving heavenly Father, saying “How then can I do this great wickedness and sin against God?” like Joseph did in his temptation (Genesis 39:9). Her heart was not filled with a desire for a relationship with her grandmother based on honesty and truth. No, instead the longing for pleasure and comfort overcame her.

Do you see now that indwelling sin painted only half of the picture to Martha? Being convinced of the testimony of that witness, without stopping to consider her other witness (the Holy Spirit), the judge of Martha’s soul (her will) passed its verdict and the sin was committed. The purpose of this example is really to show how deceitful sin can be in the way it uses both our minds and affections to obtain the consent to commit sin, causing us to believe we are choosing good all the while. .

(Disclaimer: I do not know any Marthas and this is purely a hypothetical example!)


The trouble with sin is that it often happens so quickly. The decision making process that was described in the example I used would have taken only seconds. Is there really enough time in the moment to consider all the right things that enable us to have a godly response rather than a sinful one? I think that often the answer is no, there isn’t enough time – if we aren’t already cultivating our thoughts and affections towards God at other times.

A point that Owen makes is that repeated acts of the consent of the will to sin often produce a predisposition in it to consent to similar acts without much persuasion. In other words, consent begets consent, and it gets easier and quicker every time (lying to get out of tricky situations can become habitual, for instance). But I think this works both ways – we can get more practiced at consenting to things of the Holy Spirit too. For instance, probably the first times we choose to speak truth over lies will be clumsy and perhaps awkward:

“Well I wouldn’t say I love it, Grandma, but I do appreciate the thought!” (arghhhhhh………)

But perhaps as we gain a greater understanding of how to speak the truth in love from God’s Word, we will get better and quicker at it when there are opportunities to put what we have learnt into practice:

“I really love that I come into your thoughts so easily, Grandma, that is so lovely. Although it’s not the usual style of painting I would choose, I am so touched that you wanted to get something nice for me.”


You’re probably seeing a common theme through all of these Owen posts by now. The best preservative we have from sin is to guard our thoughts and affections, keeping them focused on God and his will. As we practice thinking and desiring godly things, the deceit of sin becomes less effective because in the moment we are able to see straight through it. Our will is not convinced by the pretended good that sin proposes and can see and choose instead the true good of obedience to God. May God help us, because we are helpless to do this without him.


  1. This is so very awesome! It is so wonderful to know, the closer we grow to God the better able we are to listen to Him over our will. It is so hard, and you are right, it all happens so fast!

    Thanks for linking up @LiveLifeWell!



    1. It does happen fast, and I think that's what often frustrates me - before I've even realised it, I've bought whatever lie sin has told me and acted accordingly! But there is hope when we are daily drawing near to God and he is showing us the things in us that require change, and enabling us to change them. Thanks for stopping by :-)

  2. As usual, a wonderful summary of a challenging section in Owen's book. I can so relate to your last comment - "May God help us, because we are helpless to do this without him"! Yes, this, and every other good and right thing xx

    1. I think we have to be mindful that resisting sin and submitting to God is impossible without his help - this has to drive us to seek him continually. It is encouraging to know that it is always his will for us to resist sin though, so he will come powerfully to our aid when we beg him to. It's good to also have each other to provide encouragement along these lines :-).

  3. This post makes me want to go read this now. I desire to hear God clearly. To feel His presence. Sin is something that can block that or hinder it. I love the examples here and shining a light on just how clever sin can be. Thank you so much for sharing with us at #LiveLifeWell.

    1. It is a fantastic book Jessica and I would highly recommend it! My summaries don't do the content justice, it is so rich and full of wisdom. Owen has a knack for bringing me to tears over my sin and truly making me desire to follow God more purely and completely. I think every Christian would benefit immensely from reading his stuff. Xox


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