[In this fourth part, (Part 3 is available here) John Owen sets out the eight questions which he will seek to answer in the remainder. The first of these is to ask when it is that sin has increased so much that a church or people must take to themselves Christ’s threatening in Luke 13:1-5, “Except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish.” In answering this he identifies four sins in particular that ripen us for severe judgment: atheism, losing the power of religion, contempt of the Holy Spirit, and uncleanness. His comments about his own days are very applicable to our own:
And some of these things at present are so prevalent among us, that they can never be sufficiently bewailed. It is no small evidence that the day of the Lord is nigh at hand, because the virgins are all slumbering. And it is not unlikely that judgment will begin at the house of God.]
My present inquiry hereon is, What is our own concern in these things, what are we, for our own good, to learn by the blessed instruction given us by our Lord Jesus Christ, in His interpretation of the providential occurrences mentioned in the text? And this I shall manifest by an impartial inquiry into the things ensuing:
I. When does a church, a nation, a people, or city, so abound in sin, as to be immediately and directly concerned in His divine warning; and what, in particular, is the case of the nation wherein we live, and our own therein?
II. Of what sort are those desolating judgments, which, in one way and sense or another, are impendent [approaching] with respect to such a church or nation, and, consequently, to ourselves, at this season?
III. What warnings, calls, and indications of divine displeasure, and the approach of calamitous distresses, does God usually grant, and what He has given, and is giving to us at present?
IV. What is the equity, and wherein does it consist, of the divine constitution here attested by our blessed Saviour, that in such a case repentance and reformation, and nothing else, shall save and deliver a church, a people, a nation, from ruin?
V. Whereas this rule is so holy, just, and equal, whence is it that all sorts of men are so unwilling to comply with it, even in the utmost extremity, when all other hopes do fail and perish; and whence is it so amongst ourselves at this day?
VI. What is required unto that reformation which may save any nation – this wherein we live – from desolating calamities when they are deserved?
VII. From what causes at present such a reformation may be expected, and by what means it may be begun and accomplished, so as to prevent our utter ruin?
VIII. What is the duty, what ought to be the frame of mind in true believers, what their walk and work, in such a season, that, in case all means of delivery do fail, they may be found of Christ in peace at his coming; for it is but “yet a little while, and He that shall come will come, and will not tarry” (Heb 10:37).
These things are necessary to be inquired into, that we may help to beat out the paths of truth and peace – the only ways that lead to our deliverance. The nation is filled with complaints and fears: mutual charges on one party and another, as to the causes of our present troubles and approaching dangers – various designs and contrivances, with vain hopes and vehement desires of this or that way or means of help and deliverance – cruel hatred and animosities on differences in religion, designing no less than the extirpation of all that is good therein – do abound in it, by all means rending itself in pieces, wearying itself in the largeness of its ways; and yet [it] says not that there is no hope.
But for the most part, the true causes of all our troubles and dangers, with the only remedy of them, are utterly neglected. The world is filled, yea, the better sort of men in it, with other designs, other discourses; we hear rarely of these things from the pulpits (which are filled with animosities about petty interests, and private difference in the approaches of public ruin), nor in the counsel of those who pretend to more wisdom. Some think they shall do great things by their wisdom and counsel, some by their authority and power, some by their number, some by owning the best cause, as they suppose; and with many such-like notions are the minds of men possessed. But the truth is, the land abounds in sin, God is angry, and risen out of His holy place, judgment lies at the door; and in vain shall we seek for remedy or healing any other way than that proposed. This, therefore, we shall inquire into.
The first thing supposed in the proposition before laid down was taken from the circumstance of the time wherein, and with reference whereunto, our Lord Jesus Christ delivered the rule of the necessity of repentance and reformation, unto an escape from total destruction; and this was a time when sin greatly abounded in the church and nation. And this supposition is the foundation of the truth of the whole assertion; for in other cases it may not always hold.
I. Our first inquiry must therefore be, “When is a people or nation so filled with sin, or when doth sin so abound among them, as, in conjunction with the things afterward to be insisted on, to render their salvation or deliverance impossible, without repentance and reformation?”
And it does so,
First. When all sorts of sin abound in it. I do not judge that every particular sin, or kind of sinning, that may be named, or may not be named, is required hereunto; nor is it so, that there should be the same outrage in public sins for instance, in blood and oppression as there has been at some times, and in some places of the world, the dark places of the earth being filled with habitations of cruelty; nor is it so, that sin reigns at that height, and rages at that rate, as it did before the flood, or in Sodom, or before the final destruction of Jerusalem, or as it does in the kingdom of Antichrist: for in that case there is no room or place either for repentance or reformation. God hides from them the things that concern their peace, that they may be utterly and irrecoverably destroyed.
But this, I will grant, is required hereunto, namely, that no known sin that is commonly passant [ongoing] in the world can be exempted from having a place in the public guilt of such a church or nation. If any such sin be omitted in the roll of the indictment, peace may yet dwell in the land.
It would be too long, and not to my purpose, to draw up a catalogue of sins from the highest atheism, through the vilest uncleanness, unto the lowest oppression that are found amongst us. I shall only say, on the other hand, that I know no provoking sin, condemned as such in the book of God, whereof instances may not be found in this nation.
Who dares make this a plea with God for it, namely, that yet it is free and innocent from such and such provoking sins? “Produce your cause, saith the Lord; bring forth your strong reasons, saith the King of Jacob” (Isa 41:21). Let us stand up, if we can, and plead for ourselves herein. But the only way whereby we may come to plead with God in this matter is fully described in Isaiah 1:16-20. It must be repentance and reformation, laying a ground for pleading and arguing with God for pardon and mercy, that must save this nation, if it be saved, and not a plea for exemption from judgments on the account of our innocency. This is that which, of all things, God most abhorred in the people of old, and which all the prophets testified against in them.
But yet, to speak somewhat more particularly to the first part of the proposition, in reference to ourselves, There are four sins or four sorts of sins, or ways in sinning, which, unless God prevent will be the ruin of this nation.
1. The first is atheism, an abomination that these parts of the world were unacquainted withal until these latter ages.
I do not speak concerning speculative or opinionative atheism, in them that deny the being of God, or, which is all one, His righteous government of the world; for it will not avail any man to believe that God is, unless withal he believe that “He is the rewarder of them that diligently seek him” (Heb 11:6); yet, of this sort it is to be feared that there are many amongst us; yea, some that make great advantages of religion, do live and talk as if they esteemed it all a fable. But I speak of that which is called practical atheism, when men live and act as if they were influenced by prevalent thoughts that there is no God. Such the nation is replenished withal, and it exerts itself especially two ways:
(1.) In cursed oaths and blasphemous execrations, whereby the highest contempt is cast on the divine name and being. The most excellent Thuanus, giving an account of the Parisian massacre, with the horrible desolations that ensued thereon, ascribes it, in the first place, to the anger of God revenging the horrid oaths and monstrous blasphemies which, from the court, had spread themselves over all the nation. Nor is it otherwise among us at present; though not generally amongst all, yet amongst many, and those unpunished.
(2.) Boldness, confidence, and security in sinning. Many are neither ashamed nor afraid to act, avow, yea, and boast of the vilest of sins. The awe that men have of the knowledge, conscience, and judgment of others, concerning their evil and filthy actions, is one means whereby God rules in the world for the restraint of sin. When the yoke hereof is utterly cast away, and men proclaim their sins like Sodom, it is the height of practical atheism. Nor, I think, did it ever more abound in any age than in that wherein we live.
2. The loss of the power of that religion whose outward form we retain.
We are all Protestants, and will abide to be of the Protestant religion. But wherein? In the Confession, and all the outward forms of the rule and worship of the church. But are men changed, renewed, converted to God, by the doctrine of this religion? Are they made humble, holy, zealous, fruitful in good works by it? Have they experience of the power of it in their own souls, in its transforming of them into the image of God? Without these things, it is of very little avail what religion men profess. This is that which is of evil abode to the professors of the Protestant religion at this day through the world. The glory, the power, the efficacy of it, are, if not lost and dead, yet greatly decayed; and an outward carcase of it, in articles of faith and forms of worship, doth only abide.
Hence have the Reformed Churches, most of them, a name to live but are dead; living only on a traditional knowledge, principles of education, advantages and interest; in all which the Roman religion doth every way exceed them, and will carry the victory, when the contest is reduced unto such principles only. And unless God be pleased, by some renewed effusion of His blessed Spirit from above, to revive and reintroduce a spirit of life, holiness, zeal, readiness for the cross, conformity unto Christ, and contempt of the world, in and among the churches which profess the Protestant religion, He will ere long take away the hedge of His protecting providence, which now for some ages He hath kept about them, and leave them for a spoil unto their enemies. So He threatens to do in the like case in Isaiah 5:5,6. Such is the state described in 2 Timothy 3:1-5.
3. Open contempt and reproach of the Spirit of God, in all His divine operations, is another sin of the same dreadful abode.
Our Lord Jesus Christ tells us, that he who “speaketh against the Holy Ghost, it shall not be forgiven him, neither in this world, neither in the world to come” (Matt 12:32); that is, those who persist in opposing or reproaching the Holy Ghost, and His dispensation and operations under the New Testament, shall not escape vengeance and punishment even in this world; for so it befell that generation unto whom He spake. For continuing to do despite unto the Spirit of grace, wrath at length came upon them, even in this world, unto the utmost; which is the sense of the place.
Now, scarcely, where the name of Christ was known, did this iniquity more abound than it doth at this day amongst us; for not only is the divine person of the Holy Spirit by some denied, and the substance of the preaching and writing of many is to oppose all His peculiar operations, but they are all made a scoff, a derision, and a reproach, openly and on all occasions, every day. Especially as He is a Spirit of regeneration and supplication, He is the object of multiplied sober blasphemies. This iniquity will be revenged.
4. The abounding of uncleanness, which, having broken forth from a corrupt fountain, hath overspread the land like a deluge.
These sins, I say, among others, have such a predominance among us, as to threaten perishing, without repentance.
Secondly. It is required, that all sorts and degrees of persons are concerned in the guilt of some of these provoking sins; for destruction is threatened unto all: “Ye shall all likewise perish;” all, not universally, “pro singulis generum;” but generally, “pro generibus singulorum.” Therefore all must be, in some way, guilty of them.
And this they may be three ways:
1. Personally, in their own hearts, lives, and practices; which includes a great multitude.
2. By not hindering and preventing these sins in others, so far as their duty leads and their power enables them unto. What number of magistrates, of ministers, of parents, of masters of families are comprised herein, is evident to all, especially ministers. See Malachi 2:7,8; Jeremiah 23:14,15.
3. By not mourning for what they cannot help or remedy; for it is such alone as shall be exempted from public calamities, Ezekiel 9; and this, in some measure, takes us all in. And the due consideration hereof is necessary upon a double account:
(1.) It is so unto the manifestation of the glory of God in public calamities and desolations, when the sword slays suddenly, and destroys the righteous with the wicked. One way or other, in one degree or another, we have all of us an access unto the guilt of those things whereby such judgments are procured. Who can say he is innocent? Who can complain of his share and interest in the calamities that are coming upon us? Who can plead that he ought to be exempted? There will be at last an eternal discrimination of persons; but as to temporal judgments, we must own the righteousness of God if we also fall under them. And,
(2.) It is so, for the humbling of our souls under a sense of sin; which would better become some of us, than feeding on the ashes of reserves for exemption in the day of distress.
Some may suppose, that, by reason of their personal freedom from those public provoking sins which abound in the nation, that on one account or other, by one means or other, they shall be safe, as in some high place, whence they may look down and behold others in distress and confusion. But it is to be feared their mistake will serve only to increase their surprisal and sorrow.
But yet farther; even the practice of provoking sins abounds among all sorts of persons. I do not say that all individuals amongst us are guilty of them; for were it so, our case were irreparable, like that of Sodom, when there were not ten righteous persons to be found in it, that is, such as were free from the guilt of those sins whose cry came up to heaven; for then there would be no room for repentance or reformation. But whereas there are several sorts and degrees of persons, some high and some low, some rulers and some ruled, some rich and some poor, there is no order, sort, or degree, in court, city, country, church, or commonwealth, that are free from provoking sins. Individuals of all sorts may be so, but no entire sort is so. And this farther entitles a nation unto the condition inquired after.
Thirdly. It is so when the world is full of such sins as are its own, as are proper to it; and the churches or professors, of such as are peculiar unto them. If either of these were free from their several provocations, there might be yet room for patience and mercy. And these are distinct.
The sins of the world are: “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life,” sensuality, luxury, uncleanness, covetousness, ambition, oppression, and the like, with security. In these things the nation is fertile towards its own ruin.
The sins peculiar unto churches and professors are intimated by our blessed Saviour in his charge on the Asian churches in Revelation 2 and 3: decays in grace, loss of faith and love, barrenness in good works, deadness, formality, coldness in profession, self-pleasing, pride, hypocrisy, want of zeal for God and delight in Him, divisions among themselves, and conformity unto the world. And some of these things at present are so prevalent among us, that they can never be sufficiently bewailed. It is no small evidence that the day of the Lord is nigh at hand, because the virgins are all slumbering. And it is not unlikely that judgment will begin at the house of God. All flesh hath corrupted its way; and therefore the end of all, as to its present condition, is at hand.
Fourthly. It is so when the sins of a people are accompanied with the highest aggravations that they are capable of in this world; and those arise from hence, when they are committed against warnings, mercies, and patience. These comprise the ways and means which God in His goodness and wisdom uses to reclaim and recall men from their sins; and by whomsoever they are despised, they treasure up unto themselves “wrath against the day of wrath, and the revelation of the righteous judgment of God” (Romans 2:4,5).
What can save a people, by whom the only remedies of their relief are despised? What warnings and previous judgments we have had in this nation shall be afterward spoken unto. That there hath been no effect, no fruit of them, is evident unto all. Their language is, “Except ye repent, ye shall perish.” Who has complied with the calls of God herein? What reformation has been engaged in on this account? Have we not turned a deaf ear to the calls of God? Who has mourned? Who has trembled? Who has sought for an entrance into the chambers of providence in the day of indignation? By some these warnings have been despised and scoffed at; by some, put off unto others, as their concern, not their own; by the most, neglected, or turned into matter of common discourse, without laying them to heart.
And as for mercies, the whole earth has been turned into a stage for the consumption of them on the lusts of men. The nation has been soaked with showers of mercies enough to have made it very fruitful unto God; but, through a vicious, malignant humour in the hearts of men, there have been truly brought forth nothing but pride, vanity, gallantry, luxury, and security, in city and country, everywhere. The pestilent, deceitful art of sin, has turned the means of our conversion unto God into instruments of rebellion against God. How will England answer for abused mercies in the day of visitation? And in all these things the patience also of God has been abused, which has been extended unto us beyond all thoughts and expectations. And yet, men of all sorts please themselves; as if that, were they over this or that difficulty, all would be well again, without any return unto God.
Fifthly. These things render [approaching] judgments inevitable, without repentance and reformation, when they are committed in a land of light and knowledge. Such the land has been; and wherein yet there is any defect therein, it is a part of the sin and punishment of the nation. See Isaiah 26:10. From the light that was in it, it might well be esteemed a “land of uprightness;” but how it has been rebelled against, hated, opposed, maligned, and persecuted, in all the fruits of it, is rather (for the sake of some) to be bewailed than declared.
And thus much may suffice to be spoken unto the first supposition in our proposition concerning the sins of a church, nation, or people, which unavoidably expose them unto desolating judgments, when God gives indication of their approach, unless they are prevented by repentance; and we have seen a little, and but a little, of what is our concern herein.
[Go to Part 5.]