[This sixth part of John Owen’s treatment of Luke 13:1-5 deals with his third main heading, which asks what the evidences are that judgments are approaching. Part 5 is available here.]
III. Our third inquiry is, “What evidences we have at present, or what warnings we have had, of approaching judgments?”.
For this also belongs unto the indispensable necessity of repentance and reformation, upon the approaching of troubles. And they are the ordinances of God unto that end; which when they are despised, desolating judgments will ensue.
And we may, unto this end, observe these things:
First, Ordinarily, God doth not bring wasting, desolating judgments on any people, church, or nation, but that He gives them warnings of their approach.
I say, He doth not ordinarily do so; for He may, if He please, surprise a wicked, provoking generation of men with the most dreadful destructions; as He did Sodom and Gomorrah of old. And very many daily are so surprised, as unto their own apprehensions; though, really, God had given them signs of what was coming upon them, but they regarded them not, and so perished as in a moment. But ordinarily, before He executes great and severe judgments, He gives such indications, signs, and warnings of their coming, as that men should be forced to take notice of them, unless they be absolutely hardened and blinded. So He dealt with the old world, in the building of the ark, and the ministry of Noah; so He dealt with the church under the Old Testament, in and by the ministry of the prophets, see Amos 3:6-8; and so He has done with all others, who have had any knowledge of Him or of His ways. They that are wise may discern these things, (Hos 14:9; Matt 16:3; Mic 6:9; Dan 12:10). And in all heathen stories of the times that passed over them, we find remarks of strange indications of approaching desolations. And He does it for two ends:
1. For the satisfaction of His own goodness and love to mankind in the exercise of patience and forbearance unto the utmost (Hos 6:4); as also for the manifestation of the glory of His justice, when He comes to execute the severity of His wrath. When men are surprised with public calamities, they shall not be able to say, Would none tell us of their approach? Would none give us warning of them? Had we been told of the terror of the Lord in His judgments, we would have turned from our iniquities, that we might have escaped.
In this case, it is usual with God in the Scripture to call heaven and earth to witness against men, that He did warn them, by various means, of what would befall them in the end. This is our principal reason why this weak but sincere “Testimony for God” is published. And this shall be an aggravation of their misery in the day of their distress, when they shall seriously reflect upon themselves as unto their folly, guilt, and obstinacy, in despising the warnings which they had received; which is a great part of the punishment of the damned in hell (Ezek 39:23,24).
2. God doth it for the end under consideration; namely, that they may be a means to call a poor guilty people unto that repentance and reformation whereby impendent [approaching] judgments may be diverted.
Secondly. There are five ways whereby God gives warning of the approach of desolating judgments when a land is full of sin:
1. He doth it by lesser previous judgments and severities. So was it in the instances in the text. The destruction of some by the sword and the fall of a tower, was a warning to the whole nation of the approach of a public calamity, unless they repented. As particular instances are given us hereof in the Scripture, so we have a general account of this method of divine Providence, in Amos 7:1-9. First, God sent the judgment of the grasshoppers, which ate up all the grass of the land, and so occasioned a famine. This judgment being not improved unto repentance, He “called to contend by fire, and it devoured the great deep, and did eat up a part” or consumed their treasure, devouring a part of their substance. But when this also was neglected, then came the “plumb-line” of a levelling desolation.
2. He doth it by extraordinary and preternatural operations in the works of nature: such as are comets or blazing stars, fiery meteors, dreadful phantoms or appearances in the air, voices, predictions of uncertain original, mighty winds, earthquakes, stopping the course of rivers, and the like. An account of these things, as they were to foretell and fore-signify the fatal destruction of Jerusalem, is given us by our Saviour in Luke 21:25,26. And the story of the event in Josephus is an admirable exposition of this prophecy of our blessed Saviour. See Revelation 6:13,14. The frame of nature is, as it were, cast into a trembling disorder upon the approaches of God in His wrath and fury, and puts itself forth in extraordinary signs of its astonishment; trembling for the inhabitants of the earth, and calling on them to repent, before the wrath of the Terrible One seizes upon them.
So in the Scripture, the seas and rivers, mountains and hills, are represented as mourning, shaking, trembling at the presence of God, when He comes to execute His judgments. See Habakkuk 3:,6,8,10. He “drove asunder the nations; and the everlasting mountains were scattered, the perpetual hills did bow . . . Was the Lord displeased against the rivers? was Thine anger against the rivers? was Thy wrath against the sea? . . . The mountains saw Thee, and they trembled: the overflowing of the water passed by: the deep uttered his voice, and lifted up his hands on high.” The mountains, hills, seas, rivers bowed, trembled, and lifted up their hands, as crying for compassion. See Ps 97:2-6.
By these signs and tokens in heaven and earth God gives warnings of His coming to judge the inhabitants of the earth. God does not work these strange things in heaven above, and the earth beneath, that they should be gazed at only, and made a matter of talk; not that they should be subjects of some men’s curiosity, and of the scorn of others. There is a voice in them all, a voice of God; and it will be to their hurt by whom it is not heard and understood.
3. He does the same constantly, by the light of His word. The general rule of God’s ordinary dispensation of providence is fully laid down in the Scripture: God has “magnified [His] word above all [His] name” (Psalm 138:2); so as that no works of providence shall be unsuited to the rule of the word, much less contrary to it, or inconsistent with it. And if we were wise to make application of it unto present affairs and occasions, we should, in most instances, know in general what God is doing. Of old it was said, “Surely the Lord God will do nothing,” that is, in the way of judgments, “but He revealeth His secret unto His servants the prophets” (Amos 3:7). What they had by immediate revelation, we may have, in a measure, by the rule of the word, and the declaration which God has made therein how he will deal with a sinful, provoking people. So, having threatened various sorts of judgments, the prophet adds, “Seek ye out of the book of the Lord, and read: no one of these shall fail” (Isa 34:16). That this great means of divine warnings may be useful unto us, we are to consider,
(1.) What are the stable rules given in the Scripture concerning sin, repentance, impenitence, and judgments. Such rules abound in it: and no dispensations of Providence shall interfere with them. God will not give such a temptation unto faith that any of His works should be contradictions unto His word. And if we will learn our present condition from these rules, it will be an antidote against security.
(2.) Consider the instances recorded therein of God’s dealings with sinful, provoking nations and churches. This God Himself directed the people of old unto, when they boasted of their church privileges, sending them to Shiloh, which He had destroyed. And when we find a record in the book of God concerning His severity towards any nation in our circumstances, it is our duty to believe that He will deal so with us also in His time, unless we repent.
(3.) Always bear in mind our infallible guidance as unto God’s final dealing with impenitent sinners. This the whole Scripture constantly, equally, universally witnesses unto, that it shall be eternal destruction; and this will preserve us from distracting surprisals, when we find things fall out beyond our expectation in a way of severity.
(4.) Consider those signs, marks, and tokens of approaching judgments which are set up in the world; which whoso doth wisely consider, he will not fail in his prognostication of future events. Among these, abounding in sin with security, in such persons, nations, cities, and churches, as God is pleased by the gospel to take near unto Himself in a peculiar manner, is the most eminent. For those signs are buoys, fixed to show where we shall certainly make shipwreck if we approach unto them. When these rules are observed, when they are diligently attended unto and complied withal, so as that we receive instruction from them, I shall say with some confidence, that every believer shall know what God is doing in a way of judgment, so far as is necessary unto his guidance in his own duty, wherein he shall find acceptance, and not provoke God in the neglect of it.
4. God hath appointed the ministry of the word unto the same end. The principal end of the ministry under the gospel is the dispensation of the word of reconciliation. But neither is yet this work of giving warning of approaching judgments exempted from that office and duty. Christ Himself in His ministry preaches here on this subject. They are watchmen and overseers; and their duty herein is graphically expressed in Ezekiel 33:2-9. When God places any as a watchman for a people, one part of his duty is to look diligently after the approach of dangers and evils, such, I mean, as come on the account of sin; and thereon to awaken and stir up the people to take care of themselves that they be not destroyed. The shepherd is not only to provide good pasture for his sheep, but to keep them from danger. The watchman “hearkened diligently with much heed: and he cried, A lion” (Isa 21:7,8). Having made a discovery of approaching danger, he cries out to the people, to warn them of it.
But if the watchmen are slothful and sleepy; if they are dumb dogs, and cannot bark when evil cometh; if they are light and treacherous persons, blind guides that have no vision; if they also are under a spirit of slumber and security, so that the people are not warned by them of their danger, this is one of the most severe tokens of wrath approaching. It is a great warning, when God takes away the means of warning; when He says unto a people, “I will warn you no more”; by giving them such watchmen as are neither faithful nor able to warn them, and by taking away those that are.
5. God gives warnings hereof, by bringing a people into such a posture, condition, and circumstances, as do in their own nature tend unto ruin. Such are cross interests among themselves, incurable divisions, contrary and unsteady counsels, weakness in spirit and courage, mutual distrusts, effeminacy through luxury, with one or other insuperable entanglement; which are the ways and means whereby nations precipitate themselves into a calamitous condition. In general, as unto this previous warning of approaching judgments, God threatens to send among a people who are tending towards ruin, a “moth” and a “hornet.”
The moth He threatens (Isa 51:8 and Hos 5:12). Something shall eat up and devour the strength and sinews of the counsels of a nation, as a moth devours a garment. Whilst it lies still, it seems, it may be, to be sound and firm; hold it up to the light, and it appears full of holes, and is easily torn with the finger. So is it with a nation; whatever outward peace it seems to enjoy, when it is decayed in the wisdom and strength of its counsels, it is easily torn in pieces.
And in like manner He sends the hornet unto the same end (Exod 23:28 and Deut 7:20); that is, that which shall vex, disquiet, and torment them, that they shall be ready every one to strike himself, or the next that he meets with. And many of these hornets are at present among us.
These are some of the ways whereby God warns a people, church, or nation, of approaching judgments.
It concerns us now to inquire how it is, how it has been with us, with reference hereunto. And I say,
1. It is not necessary that God should use all these ways of warning of a sinful people of approaching desolations, if not prevented by repentance. It is enough, unto the ends of this dispensation of divine wisdom and goodness, if He make use of some of them, or of any one of them in an eminent manner. Wherefore, if any of them have been wanting among us, yet if we have had others of them, it is sufficient to render us inexcusable if we repent not. But,
2. The truth is, we have, upon the matter, had them all, and they have abounded amongst us.
We have had the previous judgments of plague, fire, and war.
Some may say they were desolating judgments themselves; and so indeed they were. But whereas sin still abounds, and no reformation ensued upon them in any places, among any sort of persons, they were but warnings of what is yet to come, if not prevented; and their language is, “Except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish.”
We have had a multiplication of signs, in the heaven above, and in the earth beneath; such as all mankind have ever esteemed forerunners of public calamities; and the more they are despised, the louder is their voice to the same purpose. God has continued hitherto His word amongst us, wherein the ordinary rule of His providence in these things is openly declared. And if those unto whom the declaration of the word of God, in the dispensation of it, is committed, have not faithfully warned the people of their danger, their blood may be found at their door. Herein, at present, lies our greatest strait. The efficacy of all other calls of God unto repentance depends much on the application of them unto the souls and consciences of men in the preaching of the word. But whilst by some this work is despised, at least counted unnecessary, by some it is neglected utterly; and others, by reason of their private capacities, whereby they are disenabled to speak unto magistrates, cities, or the community of the people, think not themselves concerned therein, [and] it is almost wholly laid aside. For what, will some say, doth this speaking unto a few in a retirement signify, as unto a general reformation of the people of the land? But whereas we have all sinned in our measures, churches, and all sorts of more strict professors of religion, it is every one’s duty to be pressing these warnings of God within his own bounds and precincts. And if each of us should prevail but with one to return effectually to God, it will be accepted with Him, who, in such a season, seeks for a man to stand in the gap, to turn away His wrath, and will save a city for the sake of ten, if they be found therein.
Let us not pretend that the repentance and reformation called for respect the public enormous sins of the nation, in atheism, profaneness, sensuality, luxury, pride, oppression, hatred of the truth, contempt of the ministry of the gospel, and the like. They do so, indeed, but not only; they respect also the decays in faith, love, zeal, with love of the world, conformity unto it, lukewarmness, that are found amongst the most eminent professors of religion. This is our present wound; here lies our weakness, namely, in the want of a quick, active, zealous ministry, to call and stir up magistrates and people to effectual repentance, and turning to God. Unless this be given unto us, I fear we cannot be saved.
If it be otherwise, if we have a ministry that really do attend unto their duty in this matter, I beg their pardon for other apprehensions: but then I shall think it the most pregnant sign of approaching destruction; seeing it is apparent unto all that their endeavours have neither fruit nor success.
So far have we proceeded with our proposition – namely, that sin abounds amongst us; that judgments are approaching; that God has given us manifold warnings of their so doing.