[In this third part of John Owen’s series of sermons on Luke 13:1-5, (Part 2 is available here), he guides us on how to interpret the meaning of providential judgments in a Scriptural manner, such as the present Covid-19 visitation. They are (1) warnings, (2) calls to repentance, (3) if neglected, they become signs of much worse judgments to come. This is vital for us to heed at this time:
” When warnings for instruction are not received, they are tokens of destruction.”]
IV. Here is a sure rule given us of the interpretation of severe providences in such a season as that here intended; such, I mean, as we have had amongst us, in plague, and fire, and blood; and such as we have the signs and tokens of at this time in heaven and earth. For three things we are here taught safely to conclude concerning them:
First, That they are warnings from God. This our Saviour plainly declares in the interpretation and application of these two instances.
Secondly, That their voice and language is a call to repentance and reformation: “Except ye repent,” etc.
Thirdly, When they are neglected as warnings, calling to repentance, they change their nature, and become certain signs of approaching destruction.
And in the observation of these rules of interpretation of providential severities given us by our Saviour, we may be preserved from the excesses of neglecting, on the one hand, what is contained in them, and of rash judging of men or causes, on the other.
These things being premised for the opening of the words, the truth wherein we are instructed by them appears to be this:
When a land, a nation, a city, a church, is filled with sin, so as that God gives them warnings or indications of His displeasure by previous judgments, or other extraordinary signs, if they are not as warnings complied with by repentance and reformation, they are tokens of approaching judgments that shall not be avoided.
This is the sacred truth which our Lord Jesus Christ here recommends to our observation. It is the great rule of divine Providence, with the especial seal of our Lord Christ annexed to it, “I tell you, Nay; but, unless ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish.” When warnings for instruction are not received, they are tokens of destruction. This is a truth which almost none deny, and almost none believe. Had it been believed, many desolating judgments in former ages had been prevented; nations and cities should have abode in prosperity, which are now sunk into ruin, yea, into hell. See Luke 19:41-44; Matthew 11:23. And were it believed in the days wherein we live, it would be the means of saving a poor nation from otherwise inevitable ruin. The state is so with us, that, unless we repent, we shall perish.
I do not prescribe unto the sovereignty of God in His providential administrations. He can, if He please, suffer all His warnings to be despised, all His calls neglected, yea, scoffed at, and yet exercise forbearance towards us, as to a speedy execution of judgment. But woe unto them with whom He so deals; for it has only this end, that they may have a space to fill up the measure of their iniquities, and so be fitted for eternal destruction (Rom 9:22).
There is a threefold issue and event of the state we have described.
1. When a sinful church or nation so attend to God’s warnings in previous judgments, and other signs of His displeasure, as to comply with them by repentance and reformation. This is a blessed issue, which will certainly divert all impendent [approaching] judgments; as shall be afterward declared.
2. When, by reason of the neglect of them, and want of compliance with them, God brings distress and calamities upon a people in general. This is a sad event. But, however, under it God often preserves a seed and remnant which, being brought through the fire, and thereby purged and purified, though but as a poor and afflicted people, yet they shall be preserved as a seed and reserve for a better state of the church. See Zechariah 13:8,9; Isaiah 6:11-13, Isaiah 24:6,13; Zephaniah 3:12; Ezekiel 5:2,12.
3. When God utterly forsakes a people, He will regard them no more, but give them up to idolatry, false worship, and all sorts of wickedness. When He says, “Why should ye be stricken any more? ye will revolt more and more,” this is the sorest of judgments. “Woe also to them,” saith the Lord, “when I depart from them!” (Hos 9:12). Of such a people there shall be neither hope nor remnant (Ezek 47:11). Who would not rather see a nation suffering under some judgments, as the effects of God’s displeasure for the neglect of His warnings, whereby it may be purged and purified and restored, than to be left under idolatry and all manner of wickedness for ever?
But the way is here proposed for the avoidance of these evils. And these things will be more fully spoken to afterward.
I shall first give some evidences of the truth laid down, and then the reason of it; which will make way for what I principally intend.
I shall not insist on the especial kind of warnings or signs here mentioned, but only on the general nature of divine warnings, by the word or otherwise, in such a season as wherein an abounding of sin is accompanied with great evidences of approaching judgments.
1. According to this rule was the dealing of God with the old world; which is set forth to us for an example. See 1 Peter 3:20; 2 Peter 2:5. The men of the old world were a sinful, provoking generation. God gave them warning of His displeasure by the preaching of Noah and other ways. During his ministry, the longsuffering of God waited for their repentance and reformation; for this was the end both of the season and of the ministry granted to them therein: but when it was not complied withal, He brought the flood on those ungodly men.
2. So He dealt with the church under the Old Testament. A summary account is given of it in 2 Chronicles 36:15-17. After a contempt of all God’s previous warnings, with a neglect of repentance and reformation, the time came when there was no remedy, but the city and temple must be destroyed, and the people be partly slain and partly carried into captivity. Accordingly, there is a general rule established for all times and seasons in Proverbs 29:1.
3. Neither have His dealings been otherwise with the churches of the New Testament. All those of the first plantation have been ruined and destroyed by the sword of God’s displeasure, for impenitency under divine calls and warnings.
4. God gave an eminent instance hereof in the ministry of Jeremiah the prophet. He gives him the law of his prophecy: “At what instant I shall speak concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom, to pluck up, and to pull down, and to destroy it; if that nation, against whom I have pronounced, turn from their evil, I will repent of the evil that I thought to do unto them” (Jer 18:7,8). Here is the whole of the truth laid down represented unto us. The nation and kingdom especially intended was that of the people and church of the Jews. Concerning them it is supposed that they were evil – that sin abounded amongst them. In this state God gave them warning by the ministry of Jeremiah, as He did otherwise also. The voice of these warnings was that they should repent them of their evil, and reform their ways. On a supposition whereof He promises to remove the judgments which they had deserved, and which were impendent [approaching] over them. Upon their failure herein, He declares that fearful desolation should befall them; as it did afterward (Jer 18:15-17).
According to this rule, the prophet persisted in his ministry. The sum of his sermon was this:
It is a time of great sin and provocation; these and these are your sins; these are evident tokens of God’s displeasure against you, and of the near approaching of desolating judgments. In this state, repent, return, and reform your ways, and you shall be delivered. In case you do not, utter destruction shall come upon you.
But the princes, the priests, and generally all the people, set themselves against him herein, and would not believe his word. And by three things they countenanced themselves in their unbelief and impenitency, that they should be delivered; although they did not repent nor reform their ways:
First. By their privileges; that they were the only church and people of God, who had the temple and His worship amongst them: as if he should say, The best reformed church in the world. This they directly confront his ministry withal (Jer 7:3,4). They fear none of his threatenings, they despise his counsel for their safety, approve their ways and their doings, because they were the church, and had the temple for their security.
Secondly. By their own strength for war, and their defence against all their enemies. They gloried in their wisdom, their might, and their riches; as he intimates (Jer 9:23).
Thirdly. By the help and aid which they expected from others, especially from Egypt. And herein they thought once that they had prevailed against him, and utterly disproved his rule of safety by reformation only; for when the Chaldeans besieged the city, by whom the judgments he had threatened them withal were to be executed, Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, coming up against them, they departed from Jerusalem for fear of his army (Jer 37:5,11). Hereon, no doubt, they triumphed against him, and were satisfied that their own way for deliverance was better than that troublesome way of repentance and reformation which he prescribed unto them. But he knew from whom he had his message, and what would be the event of the false hopes and joys which they had entertained. So he tells them, “Deceive not yourselves, saying, The Chaldeans shall surely depart from us: for they shall not depart. For though ye had smitten the whole army of the Chaldeans that fight against you, and there remained but wounded men among them, yet should they rise up every man in his tent, and burn this city with fire” (Jer 37:9,10). Which accordingly came to pass.
And so it will be with any other people, against all pleas and pretences to the contrary.
Let the case be stated according as it is laid down in the proposition, and explained in the instance of Jeremiah.
Suppose a church or people do abound with provoking sins; that, during the time of God’s patience towards them, and warning of them, there are signs and tokens of His displeasure and of impendent [approaching] judgments; let them feed themselves so long as they please with hopes of deliverance and safety, unless they comply with the calls of God unto repentance and reformation, they will fall under desolating judgments, or be utterly forsaken of God for ever.
The grounds and reasons of this rule and order in divine dispensations are many, plain and obvious; which I shall not at large insist upon. I shall only at present mention some of them; because those of the most evidence and importance will accrue afterward unto our consideration:
1. This rule of proceeding is suited to the righteousness of God in the government of the world, in the inbred light of the minds of men.
This notion, that judgment or divine vengeance will overtake impenitent sinners, who have been previously warned of their sin, is that which we are not taught, which we do not learn from one another, which is not only the voice of divine revelation, but that which is born with us, which is inseparable from our nature; the light and conviction whereof, neither with respect unto ourselves or others, we can avoid. This is the voice of nature in mankind: Impenitent sinners, incurable by warnings, are the proper objects of divine displeasure. And the absolute impunity of such persons would be a great temptation to atheism, as the suspension of deserved judgments on provoking sinners is with some at this day. But ordinarily and finally, God will not act contrary to the inbred notions of His righteousness in the government of the world, which He Himself hath implanted in the minds of men. But as for the times, seasons, and ways of the execution of His judgments, He hath reserved them unto His own sovereignty.
2. It is needful unto the vindication of the faithfulness of God in His threatenings, given out by divine revelation. By this He has always, from the beginning of the world, testified unto His own holiness and righteousness, whereof they are the most proper expressions.
Those first recorded of them are in the prophecy of Enoch (Jude 14,15). And they have been since continued in all ages. But whereas the wisdom of God, acting in righteousness, has been accompanied with patience and forbearance in the accomplishment of these threatenings, there have been, and yet are, mockers and scoffers at these divine threatenings, as though they were a mere noise, of no efficacy or signification. So the apostle declares the thoughts of the minds of men profane and ungodly in 2 Peter 3:3,4. Wherefore, there is a condecency [appropriateness] unto the divine excellencies, that God, in Hs own way and time, should vindicate Hs faithfulness in all His threatenings.
3. God hereby manifests Himself to be a God hearing prayers, regarding the cries of Hs poor and distressed witnesses in the world.
When the world abounds in provoking sins, especially in blood and persecution, there is a conjunct [joint] cry unto God of those who have suffered, and those who do suffer, in heaven and earth, for vengeance on obstinate, impenitent sinners. See Luke 18:7,8; Revelation 6:10. The voices of all those, I say, who have suffered unto death in foregoing ages, for the testimony of Jesus, and are now in heaven, in a state of expectancy of complete glory, with all those of them whose sighs and groans under their oppressors do at present ascend unto the throne of God, have the sense in them, by divine interpretation, that punishment be inflicted on impenitent sinners; as is plainly expressed by our Saviour in that place of the gospel affirming that he will avenge His elect speedily, who cry unto Him day and night. Herein God will vindicate his glory, as the God that hears prayers.
4. A sense of this divine truth is a great and effectual means of God’s rule in the hearts of men in the world, setting bounds to their lusts, and restraining that superfluity of wickedness and villany which would otherwise take away the distinction, as to sin, between the earth and hell.
If men can at any time free themselves from the terror and restraining power of this consideration, that vengeance is always approaching towards impenitent sinners, there is nothing so vile, so profane, so flagitious, as that they would not wholly give up themselves unto it, “Because sentence against an evil work is not executed speedily, therefore the heart of the sons of men is fully set in them to do evil” (Eccl 8:11). And God knows, that if impunity in this world should always accompany provoking sinners, the temptation would be too strong and powerful for the faith of weak believers; which He will therefore relieve by frequent instances of His severity.
In a successive continuation of previous judgments on impenitent sinners, there is an uncontrollable evidence given of the certainty of that final judgment which all mankind shall be called unto. So the apostle proves it, and intimates that it is a foolish thing – the effect of obstinacy in sin – if men do not learn the certain determination and approach of the eternal judgment, from the drowning of the old world, the conflagration of Sodom, with the like instances of divine severity (2 Pet 3:3).
[Go to Part 4.]