[In this fifth part of his treatment of Luke 13:1-5, Owen asks what kinds of judgments are approaching at times of great provocation to the Most High. Part 4 is available here.]
II. Our second inquiry is:
“Of what sort those judgments are, which, in a time of great provocation, are to be looked on as impendent [approaching], and ready to seize on us?”
And they are of three sorts:
First. Such as are absolute, decretory, and universal.
There is mention in the Scripture of judgments threatened, which God has, as it were, repented Him of, and changed the actings of His providence, that they should not be inflicted. See Amos 7:3,6. And there are judgments threatened, which have been diverted by the repentance of men; as it was in the case of Nineveh. But in this case, neither will God repent, nor shall man repent; but those judgments shall be universal and unavoidable. And of this sort we have three instances recorded in Scripture; two are past, and one is yet for to come:
1. The first is that of the old world.
It is said that, upon their provocations, God repented Him that he had made man on the earth (Gen 6:6); that is, He would deal with him as if He had done so, which must be by a universal destruction. He would not repent of the evil He had determined; but positively declared that “the end of all flesh was come before [Him]” (Gen 6:13). Nor did man repent; for, as our Saviour testifies, they continued in their security “until the day that Noah entered into the ark” (Matt 24:38). Yet it may be observed, that, after things were come to that pass that there was no possibility of turning away the judgment threatened, yet God exercised forbearance towards them, and gave them the outward means of repentance and reformation (1 Pet 3:20). They had amongst them the ministry of Noah, a preacher of righteousness, and that continued for a long season, in the patience of God.
(And let none please themselves, that they have the outward means of the ministry continued unto them; for notwithstanding that fruit of God’s patience, their destruction may be inevitable. For as God may grant it unto them to satisfy His own goodness, and glorify His patience; so unto them it may have no other end but the hardening of them in their sin, and the aggravation of their sins, as in Isaiah 6:9-12. And this example of the old world is frequently proposed, and that to Christians, to professors, to churches, to deliver them from security in a time of approaching judgments.)
2. The second instance hereof was in the Judaical church-state – the people, nation, temple, worship, and all that was valuable among them.
This judgment also, in its approach, was such as with respect whereunto God would not repent, and man could not repent, although a day, a time and space, of repentance was granted unto them. So it is declared by our Lord Jesus Christ in Luke 19:41-44. They had a day – it was theirs in a peculiar manner – a day of patience and of the means of conversion, in the ministry of Christ and his apostles. Yet, He says, the things of thy peace are now hid from thee; so as that they must irrecoverably and eternally perish. So is their state described by the apostle in 1 Thessalonians 2:14-16.
But it may be said, If their destruction was so absolutely determined that it was impossible it should be either longer suspended or diverted, unto what end did God grant them a day such a day of grace and patience which they could not make use of? I answer, He did it for the manifestation of the glory of His grace, righteousness, and severity; and that these two ways:
(1.) In the calling, conversion, and gathering of His elect out of the perishing multitude of them that were hardened. During the continuance of that day of grace and patience among them, for about the space of forty years, all the elect of that generation were converted to God, and delivered from the curse that came upon the church and nation. For although I will not say but some of them might suffer, yea, fall, in the outward public calamities of that season; yet they were all delivered from the wrath of God in them, and saved eternally.
Hereof the apostle gives an account in Romans 11:5-10. It is therefore, in a time of great provocations, no certain evidence that inevitable public judgments are not approaching, because the word and other means of grace are effectual to the conversion of some amongst us; for God may hereby be gathering of His own unto himself, that way may be made for the pouring out of his indignation on them that are hardened.
(2.) He did it that it might be an aggravation of their sin, and a space to fill up the measure of their iniquity; to the glory of His severity in their destruction. Towards “them that fell, severity” (Rom 11:22). They had time to contract all the guilt mentioned by the apostle in 1 Thessalonians 2:14-16; and were brought into the state and condition described by the same apostle in Hebrews 10:26-30. See Isaiah 6:10-12. Of this judgment and destruction, that of the old world was a precedent and token, which was despised by those obdurate sinners (2 Pet 3:5-7).
3. The third instance of a judgment of this nature, which is yet to come, is in the destruction of Antichrist, and the idolatrous kingdom of the great adulteress and the persecuting beast. With respect hereunto, also, God will not repent, nor shall men do so; so that it is inevitable. So is it declared, Rev 18:8. This God has determined, and it shall be accomplished in its appointed season; “for strong is the Lord God who “judgeth” them, and none shall deliver them out of His hand, because of the improbability of it, because of the great power of Babylon in itself, and in its allies, the kings and merchants of the earth. The omnipotency of God is engaged to secure the church of its destruction; “strong is the Lord God who judgeth her.”
She also has her day, wherein she will not, wherein she shall not, repent. When God begins to execute His plagues against her, none that belong to her will repent of any of their abominations (Rev 9:20,21, Rev 16:9,11). Yet is there a day of patience continued unto this idolatrous, persecuting church; partly that they may fill up the measure of their iniquities; and partly that God may, by the word and means of grace, gather out all His people from amongst them, according unto his call (Rev 18:4). And our slowness in coming forth from them is probably one means of prolonging the day of her desolation. And now the Lord Jesus Christ seems to say unto His people what the angel said unto Lot, when he led him out of Sodom, Make haste to escape, for I cannot do any thing until you are escaped (Gen 19:22). And I hope the time is approaching wherein He will deal with His people as the angel dealt with Lot (Gen 19:16). They are apt to linger, and know not how to leave the outward accommodation of the Babylonish state, nor clear themselves of innumerable prejudices received therein; but He, being merciful unto them, will at length lay hold on them by the word of His power, and take them out of the city in a complete relinquishment of that cursed state.
Now, unto this sort of judgments there are two things concurring:
1. That there is a determinate decree concerning them.
2. That there is a judicial obduration [hardening of heart] upon the people whom they are determined against, accompanying them; that no calls to repentance or reformation shall be complied withal so as to divert them. I am satisfied, upon such evidence as I shall give afterward, that this is not the condition of England; howbeit we have cause enough to tremble at the severest of divine judgments.
Secondly. The second sort of judgments are such as are deservedly threatened and determined, yet so as that no judicial hardness doth go along with them, to make utterly void the preceding day of grace and patience, and all reformation impossible.
They cannot, they shall not, be utterly removed, by a total deliverance from them; but yet they may have many alleviations and mitigations, and be sanctified unto them whom they do befall. A full instance hereof we have in the Babylonish captivity, as an account is given us of it in 2 Kings 23:25-27, “Like unto him was there no king before him, that turned to the Lord with all his heart, and with all his soul, and with all his might, according to all the law of Moses: neither after him arose there any like him. Notwithstanding the Lord turned not from the fierceness of His great wrath, wherewith his anger was kindled against Judah, because of all the provocations that Manasseh had provoked Him withal. And the Lord said, I will remove Judah also out of my sight, as I have removed Israel, and will cast off this city Jerusalem, which I have chosen, and the house of which I said, My name shall be there.”
God had decreed and determined to cast off Judah and Jerusalem for their sin, to bring a wasting desolation upon them. When this judgment was approaching, Josiah endeavours a thorough reformation of all things in the land, religious, civil, and moral; yet God would not revoke His sentence of a great calamity on the whole nation. The secret reason hereof was, that the body of the people was hypocritical in that reformation, and quickly returned unto their former abominations, “Judah hath not turned unto Me with her whole heart, but feignedly, saith the Lord” (Jer 3:10). See Jer 4:18. Howbeit, this reformation of Josiah was accepted with God, and had its influence into the mitigation or sanctification of the ensuing desolation.
And this sort of judgment is very different from that before insisted on. For,
1. It is but partial; there is a remnant always left among a people, that shall escape it. So was there in those days; there was an escape of it, a remnant whom God delivered and preserved; which were as a blessing in the cluster, on the account whereof the whole was not utterly destroyed. This the Scripture very much insists on, in Isaiah 65:6-8; Zechariah 13:8,9; Amos 9:8,9.
2. As it is not total, so it is not final. Even in the severity of His wrath, God designed the recovery of that people again in the appointed season, giving promises thereof unto them that feared Him. And so it came to pass, in the return of their captivity. See the history hereof in Jeremiah 31:32. God may have, for our sins, determined a desolating calamity on this nation; yet if there be not a judiciary hardness upon us, it may only be partial, and recoverable; not as it was with Israel in 1 Kings 14:10. See Jer 4:27, Jer 5:18, Jer 30, Jer 31, Jer 32.
3. It was sanctified and blessed unto them who were upright and sincere, and who endeavoured the removal of it by reformation, though they suffered in the outward calamity. The good figs, or those typed by them, were carried into captivity; but the dealing of God with them therein was in mercy. “I will,” saith God, “set Mine eyes upon them for good . . . and I will build them, and not pull them down . . . and I will give them an heart to know Me, that I am the Lord: and they shall be My people, and I will be their God” (Jer 24:6,7). Whatever was their outward condition, those internal, spiritual mercies and privileges made it sweet and useful unto them. The third part was brought through the fire, (Zech 13:8,9).
4. God makes this sort of judgment a means fully to reclaim and reform them, as many of those who in general suffer under them. They are God’s furnace, but not to burn; they purify and cleanse as silver is tried, and do not burn up as stubble is consumed. So was that church by their captivity purged from their idols for ever. And many other differences of the like nature might be assigned.
And in the consideration of this sort of judgments lies our concernment. Who knows but that God, for our horrible neglect and contempt of the gospel, with all the cursed immoralities and abominations which have ensued thereon, and the cold, dead frame of professors under various means of instruction, hath determined to bring a wasting calamity on this nation, and that he will not turn away from the fierceness of his wrath, but it shall overtake us? If there be a judicial hardness upon the land, so as that there is no repentance, no reformation endeavoured in this day of patience and forbearance which we yet enjoy, our desolation will be total, unsanctified, irrevocable; and though another people may be raised up to profess the gospel in the land, yet shall we be unconcerned in the mercy. So hath it been before in this nation, and in all the Christian nations of Europe. Woe unto us, if we thus betray the land of our nativity, if we thus give it up to be a hissing and astonishment! Hearken not unto vain words; this or that way we shall be delivered: it is the day of our trial, and who knows what will be the evening thereof?
But, on the other hand, although a public calamity should be determined irrevocably against us, if we use the day of forbearance unto the ends of it, in repentance and returning unto God, we shall at length have all the advantages before mentioned. It will be but partial; it will be but for a time; it will be sanctified; it will purify the church, and restore it unto a more glorious state than ever before.
Thirdly. There are judgments which are deserved and threatened, but not decreed and determined, which may be absolutely diverted and escaped.
This sort of judgments is frequently mentioned in the Scripture; and so also are frequent deliverances from them, by the ways and means of God’s appointment.
And concerning them we may observe,
1. That this threatening of approaching judgments, which yet may be averted, is a declaration of the ordinary rule of divine justice, according whereunto a nation or people, without an interposition of sovereign mercy, ought to be destroyed.
God doth not threaten, He doth not give warnings, signs, or indications of approaching judgments, but when they are deserved, and may righteously be executed; nor is there any known rule of the word to give an assurance of the contrary. All that can be said is, Who knows but that the Lord may repent, and turn from the fierceness of His wrath?
2. The threatening of them is an ordinance of God, to call us unto the use of such means as whereby they may be prevented. He foretells our destruction, that we may not be destroyed; as it was in the case of Nineveh.
And this is the only symptom whereby we find out and discern the nature of threatened impendent [approaching] judgments. If the consideration of them be an ordinance of God, stirring us up to the diligent use of the means whereby they may be prevented, the design of God is to give in deliverance in the issue. If it doth not, they are inevitable. God holds the balance yet in His hand, and we know not which way we incline. The best prognostication we can take, is from the frame of our own hearts under the threatenings of them.
Here lies the trial of this poor land and nation at this day; judgment is deserved, judgment is threatened, judgment is approaching, the clouds are the dust of His feet. If all sorts of men turn not to God by repentance, if we are not humbled for our contempt of the gospel and outrage against it, if we leave not our provoking sins, evil will overtake us, and we shall not escape. And yet, on the other hand, by a due application unto Him who holds the balance in His hand, mercy may glory against justice, and we may have deliverance.
Those great men who suppose all things pervious [accessible] to their wisdom, and conquerable by their industry, who have a thousand nattering contrivances for the safety of a nation, cannot more despise these things than I do all their counsels without them. And when they shall be at a loss, and shall find one disappointment following on the neck of another, those who attend unto the advice of God in this case shall find rest and peace in their own souls. And as for them who scoff at these things, and say, “Where is the promise of his coming?”– that is, in the way of judgment – “for since the fathers fell asleep, all things continue as they were from the . . . creation” (2 Pet 3:4); there needs no regard unto God in these things; trouble us not with the fooleries of your repentance and reformation – God will “laugh at [their] calamity,” etc (Prov 1:26-33).
This is the second thing we were to insist on, for the clearing and confirmation of the general proposition before laid down.
[Go to part 6.]