Six ways that sin disguises its power
The Westminster Assembly was an advisory body of theologians to the English Parliament which met at Westminster from 1643 to 1648. It produced a new range of standards for church order and government, worship and doctrine for the churches of England, Scotland and Ireland that have been used ever since by Presbyterian churches across the world.
23 Nov, 2023

Am I under grace or under sin? In one of the epistles, sin is personified as a tyrant that keeps us under its cruel dominion. This tyrant is cunning enough to disguise the shackles that bind the sinner, so that we may imagine we have escaped when in reality we have never been set free to serve righteousness instead. In the following updated extract, Obadiah Sedgwick (who contributed to the Westminster Assembly) exposes six of the lies that we tell ourselves about our sin, which lull us into a false sense of freedom. It should make us highly value the divine work of making us free from sin to serve God, resulting in sanctification and eternal life.

People may delude their own hearts, and deceive themselves about the dominion of sin. Therefore it is convenient to test ourselves whether or not sin really has dominion. There are many things we may erroneously think are good signs, and so deceive ourselves that sin does not have dominion over us. Here are six.

I don’t feel my sin is very powerful

One is being unconscious of the power of sin. A man may feel no violent sinful inclination, no stirrings, no opposition, no commands, but there is a calm and quietness in his spirit and in his way, and he thinks this would not be possible if sin had dominion over him.

But this is a deceit. For one thing, it is most probable that sin has the strongest dominion, where the heart is least aware of the rule and demands of sin. When the strong man keeps the house, all is quiet, said our Saviour. Where subjection is peaceable, there the dominion is (in all likelihood) most absolute and complete. What is certain, is that where Christ sets up His sceptre (which casts down the dominion of sin) is the greatest stir. The law of the mind will war against the law of the members (Rom. 7:23), and the spirit will lust against the flesh (Gal. 5:17).

For another thing, this unawareness and quietness may arise, partly from the uniqueness of sin, and partly from our ignorance of our sinful condition, and partly from the habitual custom of sin. Whether the sun is shining or not, there is still the same number of motes flying in the room. There they are really, though we are not aware of them till the light comes in to make them manifest. So someone may be utterly unaware of sin for lack of saving light and the holy experience which arises from a new nature.

The hand which is used to iron, and nettles, does not feel them. So the frequent actings of sin may suppress the inward sense of sinning. Much sinning adds to the strength of sin, and disables the sense of the sinner, sears their conscience, and makes their mind reprobate, and as it were without feeling.

I don’t do many very sinful things

Another thing that may deceive us may be that we are free from many kinds of sinful behaviours. Someone may not live in all sorts of wickedness, and indeed, their ways may seem to keep clear of various iniquities.

Yet, though you do not do all evil, and your ways or patterns of behaviour are not universally spreading in all the kinds of sinning, still sin may rule in you, and have dominion.

Being subject in one detail is sufficient to establish that you are under dominion. A servant has only one master, and is not the servant of everyone in the parish, yet he is a true servant in respect of that one master. A subject does not obey every prince in the world, yet if he obeys any one, it is enough to prove that he is a subject. So, though the sinner is not at the command of every lust, yet if he is the servant of any one lust, sin has the dominion over him. It is not the multitude of sins which absolutely and necessarily concur to dominion, but subjection to the power of any one.

One person may do all the service to one sin which others do to many sins. That person may devise ways to fulfil it, cheerfully and greedily receive its commands, heartily love it, and go on in it, and for its sake oppose the sceptre and dominion of Christ, and consecrate all their strength to the obedience of it.

As in politics, there are several forms of government, such as democracy, and aristocracy, and monarchy. Sometimes the dominion is exercised by many, sometimes by one alone, yet subjection to any of them is true subjection, and sets up dominion. So though in some people, many sins rule, and in other people, one sin only, yet whether the heart obeys many, or few, or one, it is enough to say that sin has dominion. Subjection to no sin, indeed, denies dominion, but if the dispute is over many sins versus few sins, then either way, subjection to any shows that sin has dominion.

There are plenty sins I’m opposed to

Someone may also think, ‘I’m actually opposed to many sins — this cannot possibly be consistent with being under the dominion of sin.’

Yet there may be notable deceit in this also, for it is not so much the greatness of the sins as the power of sin which means it is reigning. The least sin granted house room, loved, served, is sufficient to mean that you are under sin’s dominion.

Also, there are different kinds of opposition to sin.

In your professional life you may be opposed to certain kinds of sin, but indulge them in private life. A justice of the peace may oppose many sins on the bench, yet lie in those same sins at home in his own house and dealings.

Or, it is one thing to be opposed to sin simply because it is sin, and another thing to be opposed to sin because it is shame. This latter may well befall someone who is under the dominion of sin.

Once more, it is possible to be opposed to sin because it is against God’s will, rather than because it is against another sinful way and inclination. All sin has a contrariety to the law of God, yet some sins have a contrariety among themselves; prodigality is contrary to covetousness, for example. It is possible for someone to oppose a sin, not on account of its natural vileness, but on account of his own personal inclination, because it is a way of sinning that would overthrow that other sin which he loves, and in which he is resolved to walk.

In a word, it is not opposition to particular sins, but universal opposition to all known sin, which shows that you are not under the dominion of sin.

I have grievous heart-trouble after I commit a sin

Something else that may deceive us depends on the troubles which we may feel after some sinful actings. A person’s soul may be grievously heavy and perplexed, and on this basis he may conclude that sin does not have dominion over him, because he thinks that the dominion of sin excludes all trouble for sin.

Nevertheless, although hardness of heart after sin is just as bad a symptom of wickedness as impudence before sin, yet trouble for committing sin is not an infallible argument of sin’s dominion.

Even the worst of men may have after-troubles for former sinnings, and partake of great anguishes and troubles of conscience. I refer you to Ahab and to Judas, and to those of whom he speaks in Job, that “the terrors of God did drive them to their feet.”

Trouble for sin in respect of the conscience only, is only a judicial act, part of the wages of sin. Trouble in the affections (which theologians call ‘godly sorrow’) is indeed an effect of grace, but not mere trouble in the conscience, which consists in the sense and accusation that God brings on the sinner for his transgressions. God awakens the conscience after sin to accuse for sinning, even though the directions and checks of conscience could not avail to prevent that person from sinning. This is how a person whose heart is in no measure changed by grace (and is therefore of necessity under sin’s dominion) may be filled with extreme bitterness; the very terrors of hell may shake and confound his soul. Although grace is required to raise godly sorrow, yet conscience, awakened and actuated only by light and divine command, is abundantly sufficient to accuse, condemn, vex and trouble the sinner.

I only sin occasionally

There may be spaces, or interim periods, between sinning. People do not every moment, or every day, indulge in their sin, but there are often some pauses and distances of time between sinning and sinning. They may therefore conjecture that sin does not have dominion over them, thinking that where sin has dominion, then the person sells himself to sin, and wallows in sinning, and makes it his trade, at which he spends his life and strength.

But sin may yet have dominion, though there are some respites between sinning and sinning. Some respites do not arise from a nature which refuses to subject itself to sin, but only from lack of opportunities to sin. A thief may not steal because he is sick, and there is nothing convenient to take.

So we cannot identify the dominion of sin by an uninterrupted propagation of sinful acts — the drunkard is under the power of drunkenness, although he is sober from time to time — but by the disposition of the heart. If sin is the main thing you intend, and what you yield up your heart to, then it is immaterial whether you are always or only sometimes committing it.

In fact, to give no respite to your sinful actings would go against the wisdom of the flesh. Though the propensity to sin is constant, and the love of sin is great, yet the actings of sin may often vary, and depend on private reasons and considerations (such as safety, or quiet, or profit, or pleasure, etc).

I do plenty things which are good

Finally, someone may practice some actions which are contrary to all outwards sinnings. Let’s say a man is perhaps a constant church attender, and has a course of duties (such as they are) in his family, and makes many vows, and can condemn sin effectively. Surely sin has lost its dominion in that man?

Not necessarily, because the dominion of sin is inward. It may coexist with many visible acts of piety. A hypocrite may step out into all outward conformities, yet there is no visible act of impiety which a hypocrite either does not, or may not, perform.

Although acts which are materially good are formally opposite to sinful acts, yet we identify a Christian and a sinner alike more from the affections than from the actions. Indeed, it is the disposition of the heart which defines and decides what has dominion — the heart may be really rotten and false, and the true harbour of a sin, though the person manages to perform some visible duties of piety. There must be more than external performances in duty to show that sin does not have dominion over you.

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