Think Like a Puritan About Indwelling Sin

“The best prayer I ever prayed had enough sin to damn the whole world.” Have you ever come across this quote? Whether you’ve heard it before or you just read it for the first time, I bet it didn’t make you feel all warm inside. It probably wasn’t like spiritually stopping to smell the roses on a sunny day. The quote is attributed to the puritan John Bunyan, and although it may sound like he was most comfortable brooding in a dark basement, he deeply believed and preached the gospel of God’s great love. Perhaps that doesn’t seem like it fits, but it does, and I think when believers embrace the truth in Bunyan’s quote, they will be led to greater trust in Christ as they seek to follow Him.

How can this be? We need to come to terms with the reality that we are worse than we realize, even as Spirit-indwelt, born-again Christians. It is true that we are new creatures in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17) and that God began a good work in us (Philippians 1:6). But Paul also tells us of the war inside us between the Spirit and the flesh: “For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do” (Galatians 5:17). It is crucial for us to grasp the truth that sin still dwells within us as believers, which means that the devil is our enemy on the outside, but sin is “the enemy within.”¹

This is crucial to grasp because we need to eliminate all potential for self-sufficiency in our thinking. Recognizing the enemy within points us away from ourselves as we seek to live faithful lives. The spirit of our world is in rebellion against God, Satan is prowling around seeking to devour us, and our sinful flesh yearns to break God’s law. This means that, contrary to the world’s mantra, we must never look to our hearts to guide us or give us strength.

If we’re honest, we all still have vestiges of self-reliance inside us, pockets of headspace where we still tell ourselves, “I got this.” But how does that square with what Paul says in Ephesians 4:22, when he calls us to put off the old self, which is “corrupt through deceitful desires”? And how can we tolerate trusting in ourselves when Solomon tells us, “Do not lean on your own understanding” (Proverbs 3:5)?

None of this is meant to lead the Christian to despair, because, while there is no hope in us, we know the One whom Peter calls “the God of all grace” (1 Peter 5:10). The reality of indwelling sin points us away from self-reliance to reliance on God. “Trust in the Lord with all your heart,” Solomon says (Proverbs 3:5). And think of what Jesus says to His disciples as He approaches the time of His departure. To comfort them, He doesn’t tell them to follow their hearts or trust their guts, but rather, “Believe in God; believe also in me” (John 14:1).

It is when we realize that we cannot be trusted that we are primed and ready to put the weight of our faith on the One whose love is infinitely strong. A quote by Jack Miller captures well this reality: “Cheer up! You're a worse sinner than you ever dared imagine, and you're more loved than you ever dared hope.” The first half of the quote propels us away from self-reliance and the second half propels us toward reliance on God, the One who loves us in Christ without measure. Believing what the Bible says about indwelling sin cuts the anchor of self-trust so that we are free to sail ahead in the glory of trusting the Lord.

Note: This article originally appeared on We encourage you to visit the Center for Biblical  Counseling and Discipleship where you can find helpful, biblical resources by a number of trusted pastors and authors.

¹ This is the title of Kris Lundgaard’s book on the mortification of sin.

Brent Osterberg




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