What is a besetting sin?

This isn’t just a rhetorical discussion. It’s not just about the language and the Christian heritage. I am setting up a confession here. But I want to be clear on the definitions.

“Besetting sin” was common parlance in evangelical circles for several centuries until the last few decades. The concept derives from Hebrews 12:1 where this word makes its only appearance in the New Testament. “Therefore let us also, seeing we are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us.”

Thomas Hewitt argues for besetting sin as one that “clings so closely … to some … who, failing to break from it, were still at the starting-post of the Christian life.”9 E.K. Simpson writes that besetting can “be used in a pejorative acceptation of a state of beleagurement, or exigencies and straits … like … a “squeeze.'”10

John Calvin writes of besetting sin.

“This is the heaviest burden that impedes us. … He (the writer of Hebrews) speaks not of outward, or, as they say, of actual sins, but of the very fountain, even concupiescence or lust, which so possesses every part of us, that we feel that we are on every side held by its snares.”11

John Owen devotes three paragraphs to “besetting” in his Annotations to Calvin’s commentary on Hebrews.”12 He concludes in this way:

“The (Greek) word euperistaton means literally, ‘well-standing around’ … or ‘the readily surrounding sin,’ that is the sin which easily surrounds us, and thereby entangles us, so as to prevent us, like long garments, to run our courses. … If the word be taken in an active sense, then what is meant is the deceptive power of sin….

Noah Webster in his 1828 dictionary defines “beset” as “1) to surround; to inclose; to hem in; to besiege …; 2) to press on all sides, so as to perplex; to entangle, so as to render escape difficult or impossible.”13 As an adjective, he defines “besetting” as “habitually attending.”

The above is Dr. Frederick Payne, Jr.’s definition of besetting sin from the Journal of Biblical Ethics in Medicine. It is relevant to my confession.

Coming up, confession at nine. Or later.

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