Reading John Owen (Part 5): How Sin Entices the Affections

I am continuing to benefit from reading and meditating on the writings of John Owen. Continuing on with my previous posts on Owen's book, Indwelling Sin in Believers, today I want to highlight his insights on how sin entangles the affections.

Owen uses James 1:13-15 to discuss the steps by which sin deceives us. The first step is to draw away the mind from watchfulness, obedience, and holiness. But then sin entices and entangles the affections. Owen unpacks this dimension of sin's work by showing three things: 1. What it is to be enticed; 2. How sin does this; and 3. How we may escape.

1. What it is to be enticed by sin

This is where Owen does some of his best spiritual diagnosis. He points out three evidences of being enticed by sin. I have found these helpful to use in self examination. I will paraphrase Owen and give them to you in the form of three sets of questions.

(a) Do you find yourself frequently thinking about something sinful? Is your imagination possessed by some sinful object, attraction, or desire? Peter speaks of those whose eyes are full of adultery and cannot cease from sin (2 Pet. 2:14). John warns us against the lusts or desires of the eyes (1 John 2:16). And both Eve and Achan were enticed to sin because of what they saw.

(b) Do you dwell on sin with secret pleasure? When you think about some temptation to sin, do you taste its sweetness with the tongue of the soul? It may be an illicit sexual desire, a lust for getting even, or some secret self-indulgence. It may even be something that you would never dream of actually doing. But the thought of it still gives you pleasure.

(c) Do you rationalize? Do you find yourself arguing against conviction? "It's just a little sin." "No one is perfect." "God will forgive me." "I won't go too far." "I'll give this up soon." This is what Owen calls, "sin's language in a deceived heart." He goes on: "When the soul is willing to be tempted, to be courted by sin, to listen to its proposals, it has lost its marriage affection to Christ, and is ensnared."

2. How sin entices us

Owen also shows us four strategies that sin uses to entice, entangle, and ensnare our affections.

(a) Sin distracts us from watchfulness by pointing out our recent victories. If you recently escaped some temptation or another, watch out. Sin is preparing the third assault. (The second assault has already happened: it's how good you feel about yourself for having defeated the first assault.)

(b) Sin presents itself as desirable and satisfying. It appeals to our most corrupt affections and desires. It uses what Scripture calls "the fleeting pleasures of sin" (Heb. 11:25).

(c) Sin shows the bait, but hides the hook. This is actually the language of another Puritan, Thomas Brooks, from his book Precious Remedies Against Satan's Devices. But Owen makes the same point when he says, "Sin deceitfully hides the danger that attends sin. It covers it, just as the bait covers the hook." Sin uses what Owen calls "a thousand subterfuges" to hide the true outcome of sin. The art of seduction is the art of diversion. Sin diverts us from its true danger.

(d) Finally, sin argues with us. Like a slick lawyer, sin presents a case for itself.

3. How to escape the enticements of sin

So, how do we escape the enticements of sin? Owen gives two basic answers.

(a) We must guard the object of our affections.

In general, this means that we must keep our affections fixed on "things above" (Colossians 3:2). Only then can we truly put sin to death (verse 5). Owen briefly discusses what these "things above" are: God, his beauty and glory, the Lord Jesus Christ, grace, glory, the mysteries revealed in the gospel, and the blessings promised by the gospel. "If our affections were filled, possessed with these things, as it is our duty that they should be, and our happiness when they are, what access could sin, with its painted pleasures, its sugared poisons, its envenomed baits, have to our souls?"

But more specifically, Owen points us to Christ himself, exhorting us to "set your affections on the cross of Christ." This may be my favorite paragraph in the entire book. Owen says,

Set your affections on the cross of Christ. This is eminently effective in frustrating the whole work of indwelling sin. The apostle gloried and rejoiced in the cross of Christ. His heart was set on it. It crucified the world to him, making it a dead and undesirable thing (Gal. 6:14). The baits and pleasures of sin are all things in the world, “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life.” By these sin entices and entangles our souls. If the heart is filled with the cross of Christ, it casts death and undesirability on them all, leaving no seeming beauty, pleasure, or comeliness in them. Again, Paul says, “It crucifies me to the world and makes my heart, my affections, and my desires dead to all these things. It roots up corrupt lusts and affections, and leaves no desire to go and make provision for the flesh to fulfill its lusts.” Labour, therefore, to fill your hearts with the cross of Christ.

(b) We must keep our affections for heavenly things in full vigor. "If they are not constantly attended to, stirred up, directed, and warned, they are apt to decay, and sin lies ready in wait to take every advantage it can against them."

So, how are your affections? Are they fixed on Christ or entangled with sin? Look to him, brothers and sisters. Fill your affections with the cross of Christ, that there may be no room for sin.

[Note, all quotations are taken from chapter 11 of Indwelling Sin in Believers].

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