A TREATISE OF THE DOMINION OF SIN AND GRACE
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BY THE LATE PIOUS AND LEARNED MINISTER OF THE GOSPEL, JOHN OWEN, D.D.
IT appears that the following treatise was published by the widow of Owen, five years after his death; and we learn, from the preface which Isaac Chauncy prefixed to it, that the author had left it ready for the press.
The most important part of it relates to the evidence by which we ascertain whether or not sin holds dominion over the heart. In the description and sifting of this evidence, the author manifests all his singular powers of spiritual analysis and discrimination.
We have had access to a manuscript which belonged to Dr Owen’s friend, Sir John Hartopp, and which contains a large portion of this treatise. It serves to show how many obscure passages in the writings of Owen might have been elucidated and rendered perfectly clear, if the same advantage had been enjoyed in the preparation of his other works for this edition.
The following are some instances of important corrections made on the text, as it stood in all previous editions, by the aid of this manuscript. On its authority we have altered “disavow” into “avow;” “it is that act by which the mind loads itself,” into “it is that art by which the mind leads itself;” “mind” into “wind;” “sin hath not the dominion,” into “sin hath the dominion,” the sense of the passage, as is evident from the context, having been spoiled by the insertion of the negative; “invisible” into “irresistible;” “affairs” into “affections,” etc.
The treatise is founded on Romans 6:14, and three facts are presupposed in the discussion that follows: — that sin dwells in believers; seeks to renew its dominion over them; and endeavors to accomplish this object by deceit and force, chap. I.
Three leading inquiries are proposed: — I. Into the nature of this dominion; II. evidence by which we ascertain whether it exists in us; and III. The reason or ground of the assurance that it shall not have dominion over believers.
I. As to the nature of this dominion, — 1. It is evil and perverse, (1.) as usurped, and (2.) as exercised to evil ends. 2. It implies no force contrary to the human will 3. It implies that the soul is not under the influence of grace to any extent; and, 4. that it is sensible of the power of sin, II.
II. As to the evidence of this dominion, — 1. Some features of character are specified which, though seemingly, are not really inconsistent with the dominion of sin. 2. Certain things are mentioned which leave the case doubtful; as when sin takes hold of the imagination, when it prevails in the affections, when there is a neglect of the means by which it is mortified, when a reservation is made in favor of any known sin, and when hardness of heart is manifested, III. Hardness of heart is specially considered, and distinguished into natural, judicial, and partial or comparative; under the head of partial hardnes, there are mentioned, — (1.) Symptoms which, however evil in themselves, are not inconsistent with the existence of grace in the heart; and (2.) Symptoms which are hardly compatible with the reign of grace.
And, 3. Incontestable evidences that sin has dominion over the soul are briefly mentioned, IV.
III. The reason of the assurance that sin shall have no more dominion over believers is, that they are “not under the law, but under grace;” because, — whereas, 1. the law gives no strength against sin,2. confers no spiritual liberty, and, 3. supplies no motives to destroy the power of sin, and, 4. whereas Christ is not in the law, — grace imparts these blessings, and thus enables us to subdue sin, V. Two practical observations are enforced, — 1. The privilege of deliverance from the dominion of sin; and, 2. The importance of securing ourselves against the dominion of sin, and not suffering it to remain long doubtful whether or not we are under it, VI. —ED.
TO THE SERIOUS READER.
ONE of the great gospel inquiries that a Christian ought to be most critical and curious in resolving to himself, upon the most impartial examination of his own heart, concerning his spiritual state and standing in grace, is, whether he be in the faith or no: which doubt can be resolved but two ways; — either by faith itself closing with its true objects as offered in the gospel in its direct act (and so it evidenceth itself, being the evidence of things not seen, as all the natural senses evidence themselves by their own acts upon their proper objects, — for he that sees the sun hath argument enough to himself that he is not blind, but hath a seeing eye, and faith, therefore, is frequently represented to us by seeing, as John 6:40, and elsewhere; — which evidence is according to the degrees of faith, weaker or stronger, and hence carries lesser or greater assurances with it; but such as are of the highest and best nature, giving the greatest glory to the grace and truth of God, and the firmest stay to the soul in the greatest storms of temptation, being as an anchor fastened within the veil, sure and steadfast), or else additionally, that our joy may be full, and for farther confirmation, especially in such cases wherein our faith seems to fail us, and we are like Thomas, God hath, out of his abundant grade in the gospel, provided arguments for us to raise from spiritual sense to judge of our state and standing by. But this requires the teachings of the Spirit, and thence a spirit of discerning, experience of, and insight into, our own hearts and ways, with senses exercised by reason of use, that these grounds and arguments may be matter of comfort and establishment unto us.
I call these latter evidences subordinate ones, and additional to that of faith, [and they are] of great use by way of establishment and confirmation unto believers, provided they be not abused to sole resting and reliance upon them, to the great prejudice of our life of faith: for we live by faith (so must all repenting sinners when they have attained to the highest pitch of holiness in this life), and not by sense, no, not even spiritual sense; it is a good handmaid to faith, but no good mistress to it.
Moreover, trials of this nature are often of a marvellous awakening and convincing nature unto poor secure sinners, formal and hypocritical professors, for many of them hold true with great demonstration in the negative: 1 John 3:14, “He that loveth not his brother abideth in death;” and verse 10, “In this the children of God are manifest, and the children of the devil: whosoever doeth not righteousness is not of God, neither he that loveth not his brother.” Now, these tests come upon an unregenerate man as clear and strong convictions of his undone estate, when, by gospel light shining into his dark heart, it evidently appears that there is a total absence of such eminent graces as are inseparable from a child of God. But when a poor, broken-hearted, self-condemning sinner comes to try himself by these tests, especially under great temptation, he chargeth all that he finds in himself for hypocrisy, formality, and sin, sits altogether in darkness in respect of these sparks of internal light, and is fain at last, when he hath broken all his flints and worn out all his steel in compassing himself about with sparks of his own kindling, to turn unto Christ by faith, “as a prisoner of hope,” believing in hope against hope, and from him to fetch, by a direct act of faith, as from the Sun of righteousness, all his light of life and comfort; and then he will be able to light all his small tapers, yea, all inferior arguments of his good estate will flow in with much enlargement and increase of consolation, as streams of living water flowing forth of the fountain set open for sin and for uncleanness into the belly of the true believing sinner, receiving by faith of the fullness of Christ through the Spirit, abundantly supplying him with rivers of true, substantial, living graces and consolations, being filled with the fruits of righteousness, to the praise and glory of Christ.
Now, among disquisitions of this latter nature and use this is none of the least, whether we are under the dominion of sin or no . Either we are or are not. If we are, our state is most certainly dangerous, for such are under the law, and the law hath concluded all under wrath. If we are not under sin’s dominion, we are in a blessed and happy estate, being under grace. For these two dominions divide the world, and every son and daughter of Adam is under one or the other, and none can be under both at the same time. Now, our being under grace can be no way better evidenced than by our being in Christ by faith: for he that is so “is a new creature, is passed from death unto life,” will still be mortifying sin, the strong man in sin’s dominion being cast out; and therefore faith is said to be our “victory,” through the supply of all grace received from Jesus Christ. Indeed it calls for no small spiritual skill and understanding to pass a right judgment in these matters. Undoubtedly many are deceived in taking wrong measures to search out these deep things of God, taking them to belong to the mere faculties and endowments of a natural man, not considering that they are of the Spirit’s revelation only. And hence it is that many poor creatures in a bondage state under the law, and therefore under sin’s dominion, do work like slaves in the dunghill of their own hearts to find out some natural religion or moral goodness in themselves to recommend them unto God.
But such recommendation must be under the law, it cannot be under grace; and therefore such are under the dominion of sin infallibly, as the Israelites were, which “followed after the law of righteousness, but attained not to the law of righteousness. Wherefore? Because they sought it not by faith, but as it were by the works of the law. For they stumbled at that stumbling-stone,” Romans 9:31,32.
And it is greatly to be bewailed that many professors that sit under the means of grace are so tender of their secure and palliated consciences, that they cannot endure that the rays of true gospel light should shine directly into their hearts, being contented with a name only that they do live. They are loath to come to any narrow search or trial, lest they should be found out, and appear to themselves in their ugly shapes, whilst they are willing that all the world should have a good opinion of them; under which they cannot admit of any inward disturbances, but desire to sleep in a whole skin.
Others there are, sincere, broken-hearted believers, [who,] scared at the rock of presumption on which they see so many professors wrecked daily, are apt to fall upon the other extreme, and too wrongfully, to free grace, condemn themselves as being under the dominion of sin; and therefore censure themselves to be under the law and wrath, notwithstanding all their seeming faith and holiness, calling that presumption, and this hypocrisy. Hence, returning to a kind of “spirit of bondage again to fear,” their faith is shaken by prevailing unbelief, their peace is broken, and all gospel ordinances rendered ineffectual, as to their true ends, of profit, edification, and comfort. Hence, though they are truly under grace, they do not know, or rather, through temptation, will not acknowledge it; but “go mourning all the day long, because of the oppression of the enemy.” But I beseech such a poor soul to consider a little, and not to “receive the grace of God in vain.” Dost thou groan under the usurpation and oppression of remaining sin? And is this the dominion of it? is there no difference between sin’s dominion and sin’s tyranny and usurpation? Dominion is upon account of right of conquest or subjection. There is upon both that sin reigns in carnal and unregenerate men, who “yield their members as instruments of unrighteousness unto sin;” but you reckon yourselves dead unto sin,” having no joy in its prevalency, but grief, being planted in this respect “in the likeness of Christ’s death,” who “died unto sin once, but dieth no more.” Sin shall have no more dominion over him; “likewise reckon ye also yourselves dead indeed unto sin, but alive unto God through Jesus Christ our Lord;” — that is, to be under grace, to put yourself freely and joyfully under the conduct and dominion of Jesus Christ, and to keep up a continual fight and opposition against the prevailing power of sin. Indeed, sin will often: as an outlying watchful enemy, make its assaults and incursions on the best of God’s children, as it did on David, Hezekiah, Peter; and though it may make breaches upon them, it shall not have a dominion and set up a throne of iniquity in their hearts. Grace will beat out sin’s throne; for indeed the words of this text, — that is, the subject of the ensuing treatise, — carry the force of a promise to the saints, to animate and encourage them to fight against sin under the banner of our Lord Jesus, the captain of our salvation, made perfect through sufferings: “For sin shall not have dominion,” etc.
In treating of which text, this late learned and reverend author hath acted the part of a good workman that rightly divided the word of God (as in all his other writings of the like nature), giving every one their portion as it belongs to them, with so much perspicuity and demonstration, that if, Christian reader, thou wilt afford a little time and pains to read, meditate, dilate, and digest well, the truths here laid before thee, through the blessing of the God of all grace, thou wilt find much satisfaction and real spiritual advantage unto thy soul, either to awaken and recover thee from under the dominion of sin (the dangerous and palpable symptoms thereof being here plainly made manifest), or else to discover thy happy estate in being taken from “under the law,” and brought under the dominion of “grace,” whereby thou mayst assume great encouragement to thyself to proceed more cheerfully in “running the race set before thee.”
It is enough to say that the author hath left his encomium firmly rooted in the minds of all pious and learned men that are acquainted with his writings, polemic or practical; yea, his renown will always be great in after generations among the churches of Christ, and all true lovers of the great truths of the gospel. And that he is the author of this small tract is sufficient to recommend it to thy most serious perusal; taking this assurance, that it was left (among other writings of great value) thus perfected for the press by his own hand, and is now by his worthy relict published for the benefit of others besides herself. I doubt not but thou wilt say that it will answer the several lines that have been drawn in thy heart by sin or grace, “as in water face answereth to face;” and that this may be the effect of thy perusal thereof, in order to thy spiritual and eternal welfare, is the hearty desire and prayer of thy unfeigned wellwisher, J. C. f18