Reading John Owen: How Sin Works

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How Sin Works

I’m a pretty big reader – I like novels and non-fiction alike (although I do struggle to find many novels worth reading). So I thought I would start a book review series in my blog to discuss things I have learnt from the books I have read. Maybe some of my readers will find this boring – I am sorry – I suppose this is really more for me than anyone else, to consolidate my own learning! But then again, maybe it will be interesting for someone J.


I’d like to kick off this blog post series with my thoughts on a book by John Owen called “Indwelling Sin in Believers”. I was introduced to John Owen through an article by Rosaria Butterfield on (John Piper’s website). This article was a life-changing read for me and I wanted to know more, so I followed up the reference made to John Owen’s writings and purchased a book called “Overcoming Sin and Temptation” – an edited version of three of Owen’s books on the subject (including Indwelling Sin in Believers). John Owen was a 17th century Puritan and theologian; many would argue one of the greatest who ever lived.  HOWEVER, his books are notoriously heavy and difficult to read, hence why I have not met many people who are familiar with them.


Feeling put off yet? Miraculously, I actually felt quite the opposite – I was excited for the challenge and ready to start digging in and finding the gold that is said to exist in Owen’s work. And there really is so much gold. Apart from the Bible, I would have to say that this book has taught me more about myself and the right way to walk before God than any I have read before it.

But enough introduction. Let’s get cracking.


The first thing to note is that this book is aimed at believers (those who have accepted Jesus as their Saviour and King). Having said that, Owen asserts that although the condemning power of sin has been dealt with in the believer (i.e. it no longer has the power to condemn us to death and hell), the indwelling power of sin still exists within us. It no longer exists in isolation – there is now the law of grace that dwells within us too – but nevertheless, it exists. This is the source of the battle that rages within every Christian: “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.” (Romans 7:18-19).

This is a complex topic in itself and Owen goes into a lot of detail to break it down for his readers. I don’t want to focus on that portion of his book though – I’d prefer to go on to what he later discusses, being how the indwelling power of sin works to 1) prevent the believer from doing good and 2) cause the believer to do evil instead.  


You may say at this point “This seems like a very negative subject. Why does it matter how sin works if God has already saved us from it? Isn’t it more productive to celebrate salvation itself rather than dwelling on what we have been saved from?”

To which Owen would reply:

“Most men love to hear of the doctrine of grace, of the pardon of sin, of free love, and suppose they find food therein [only]… But to be breaking up the fallow ground of their hearts, to be inquiring after the weeds and briars they delight not so much, though this be no less necessary than the other. This path is not so beaten as that of grace, nor so trod in, though it be the only way to come to a true knowledge of grace itself…. It were to be wished that we would all apply our hearts more to this work, even to come to a true understanding of the nature, power, and subtlety of this our adversary [sin], that our souls may be humbled…”

To summarise: studying indwelling sin is equally important to studying grace because it is only when we understand our sin that we can fully understand the grace we have been given. Not only this, but understanding our own sin achieves the dual purposes of:
  • being humble towards God, which is the only state God favours: “These are the ones I look on with favour: those who are humble and contrite in spirit, and who tremble at my word.” Isaiah 66:2.
  • being humble towards others, which leads to compassion and readiness to forgive (two other qualities we are commanded to have in the Scriptures).

Says Owen: “…such are we only when we have a due sense of our own vile condition.” 

Having hopefully convinced you of the necessity of this study, let's make a start on the meatier stuff - how sin actually works.


In general terms, sin works by deceit – it tricks the Christian into believing and then acting on a lie. Owen bases his discussion of this subject on 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.”

He makes the following observations and inferences from the above passage:
  • The end of sin is shown: death. This is what sin attempts to hide at all costs.
  • Temptation and deception are the same. To put it another way, Christians are tempted because they are deceived – we believe the lie that indwelling sin tells us. If we knew the vile monster we were cuddling, we would not touch it; it is only because we believe it to be a soft, adorable kitten that we embrace it.
  • The deceit of sin works in five steps:
    1. It draws away the mind.
    2. It entices the affections.
    3. Sin is conceived in the will.
    4. Sin is brought forth in the action (God often prevents this in the believer)
    5. Sin ends in death (God has saved believers from this aspect totally)

Owen writes many pages on each of these steps of deceit. In my next post, I’ll tackle the first one – the drawing away of the mind. I hope you’ll come on the journey with me.

How Sin Works

1 comment

  1. Woohoo, awesome summary! (perhaps I'll just read your summaries and that will save me the reading......... lol).
    BTW I love your new look!! xx


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