[In this seventh part (see Part 6 here) of John Owen’s work on Luke 13:1-5, he deals with two matters:
1. The fairness of God’s method whereby nothing but repentance and reformation will turn away approaching judgments.
2. The reasons why such a reasonable way is so rarely complied with by men, whether magistrates, ministers or people. Owen says of ministers who attempt reformation:
“They perceive the opposition they shall meet withal from others. They find that they shall not only disoblige and provoke all sorts of persons, and lose many of their useful friends, but also expose themselves unto obloquy, scorn, contempt, and reproach of all sorts. He is a lost man in this world, who, without respect of persons, will engage seriously in this work; every day he shall find one or other displeased, if not provoked. This neither they nor their families can well bear withal. Indeed, the hardest and most difficult service that ever God called any of His ministers unto, excepting only Jesus Christ and His apostles, has been in the endeavouring the reformation of backsliding or spiritually-decayed churches. These are the two witnesses which, in all ages, have prophesied in sackcloth.”]
IV. That which, in the next place, we are to speak unto is, “The equity of this divine constitution, that, in the ordinary way of God’s rule and dispensation of His providence, repentance and reformation shall turn away impendent [approaching] judgments, and procure unto a people a blessed deliverance; and nothing else shall do it:” “Except ye repent, ye shall perish.”
That upon repentance they shall be saved and delivered, is intended in the same rule. This is the unalterable law of divine Providence: this shall do it, and nothing else shall so do. The wisdom and power of men shall not do it; fasting and prayer, whilst we continue in our sins, shall not do it. Repentance alone is made the condition of deliverance in this state of things.
Upon this rule did God vindicate the equity of His ways against repining Israel (Ezek 18:29-32). Can any thing be more just and equal? Ruin and utter desolation are ready to fall upon the whole people. This you have deserved by your iniquities and multiplied provocations. In strict justice, they ought immediately to come upon you. But “My ways are equal;” I will not deal with you in a way of strict justice; I will do it in equity, which is a meet temperature of justice and mercy. And this I make evident unto you herein, in that, whilst the execution of judgment is only threatened and suspended, if you make unto yourselves a new heart and a new spirit, in sincere repentance, if you cast away all your transgressions by thorough reformation of your lives, iniquity shall not be your ruin. What can be more just, righteous, and equal? Who can complain if, after all this, evil should overtake you, and you shall not escape? The same He pleads again, in Ezekiel 33:10,11, as in many other places.
That this divine constitution (namely, that repentance and reformation shall save a church, people, or nation, in the state before described, and that nothing else shall do so, however men may please and pride themselves in their own imaginations) is equal, just, and good, that it is meet it should be so, that it hath a condecency [appropriateness] unto the divine excellencies, and the rule of righteousness in government, is evident; for,
First. The notion of this rule is inbred in mankind by nature, as was mentioned before.
There is no man, unless he be atheistically profligate, but, when he apprehends that evil and ruin, especially as unto his life, is ready to overtake him, and seize upon him, but he reflects on his sins, and comes to some resolutions of forsaking them for the future, so he may be at present delivered from his deplorable condition. Now, all this arises from these indelible notions ingrafted on the minds of men: that all evil of punishment is from God; that it is for sin; that there is no way to avoid it but by repentance and reformation. And those who will not improve this natural light with respect unto the public, will be found, as it were, whether they will or no, to comply with it when it comes to be their own case in particular. Herein lies a thousand testimonies unto the equity of this divine constitution.
Secondly. When this rule is complied withal, when repentance and reformation do ensue upon divine warnings, whereby peace with God is in some measure attained, it will give men trust and confidence in him, with expectation of divine relief in their distress.
This is the most effectual means for men to be instrumental unto their own deliverance: and, on the other side, when it is neglected, when evil approaches, guilt and terror will haunt the minds of men, and they shall not be able to entertain one thought of divine help; which will render them heartless, helpless, senseless, and betray them into cowardice and pusillanimity [timidity], however they may boast at present. If these two sorts are opposed, ten shall chase a hundred, and a hundred put a thousand to flight.
And if any nation do openly refuse a compliance with this constitution, if God should send another to invade them, in a way of judgment, they would melt away before them as wax before the fire. When evils compass us about, and are ready to seize upon us, a reflection on the neglect of this rule will disturb our counsels, distract our thoughts, distress our minds, weaken our confidence in God, and dishearten the stoutest of the sons of men, giving them up a prey to their enemies.
Thirdly. This rule or constitution has an impression of all divine excellencies upon it; namely, of the goodness, patience, wisdom, righteousness, and holiness of God.
If, when judgments are approaching and deserved, men could divert them by their wisdom, courage, or diligence, it would reflect dishonour on God in the government of the world. See Isaiah 22:7-11. But in this way of the deliverance of any people, there is a salvo for the glory of all the divine excellencies, as is manifested unto all.
When, therefore, in this state, impendent [approaching] judgments are not absolutely determined, yet so deserved as that, upon a supposition of continuance in those sins whereby they are deserved, the glory of divine justice cannot be vindicated in the absolute impunity; and whereas God has now prepared all things, and made them ready for their execution, all means and instruments being girt unto the work, His sword is whetted, and His arrows are fixed in the bow, He will first give warning, then give space and time for repentance, and requires no more for the laying aside of all His preparations for destruction, surely His ways are equal, kind, and full of mercy.
If men will look for, if they will expect deliverance, without a compliance with these good, holy, just, gracious, equal terms, they will find themselves, in the issue, woefully deceived. And if, after all this, we in this nation should be found in a neglect hereof, if the nation should continue in its present frame, wherein, of all other means of safety, this seems to be least thought of or regarded, what shall we plead for ourselves? Who shall pity us in the day of distress? Most men now despise these things; but can their hearts endure, or can their hands be strong, in the day that the Lord shall deal with them?
V. Whereas this way, this means of deliverance, is so just, so equal, so reasonable, manifesting itself to the consciences and reason of mankind, owned by the very heathens, and fully confirmed by divine revelation, our next inquiry must be, Whence it is that there is such an unreadiness, such an unwillingness to comply with this duty as there is; that so many difficulties are esteemed to be in it, so as that there is little hope it will be found among us in a prevalent degree?
If men, especially such as are great, and esteem themselves to be wise, are told that this is the way to save and deliver the nation, they turn away in a wrath, as Naaman did when the prophet bid him wash and be clean, when he would have rather expected an injunction of some heroic exploits: These are thoughts for weak and pusillanimous [cowardly] souls, who understand nothing of state affairs. But it will ere long appear who is wisest, God or men. But a hard thing it is to prevail with any to think well of it, or to go about it, or to judge that it is the only balm for our wounds.
To find out the cause hereof, I shall briefly consider all sorts of persons who are concerned to plant this healing tree, whose root is repentance, and whose fruit is reformation of life. And they are of three sorts: 1. Magistrates; 2. Ministers; 3. The people themselves.
Unless there be a concurrence of the endeavours of them all, in their several places and duties, there will be no such public work of repentance and reformation wrought as is suited unto the turning away of public calamities. But yet, though it be the express duty of them all, though it be their interest, though it cannot be omitted but at their utmost peril, as unto temporal and eternal events, yet it is a marvellous hard and difficult work to prevail with any of them to engage vigorously in it. Some do not think it necessary; some, after conviction of its necessity, either know not how to go about it, or linger in its undertaking, or are quickly wearied; some wish it were done, so as that they may not be at the trouble of it.
Let us consider them distinctly:-
First. As unto magistrates.
When Jehoshaphat set himself to reform the church, or his kingdom, to escape the judgment that was denounced against them, he appointed for magistrates and judges men fearing God and hating covetousness. And his charge unto them was, “Let the fear of the Lord be upon you; take heed and do it. Thus shall ye do in the fear of the Lord, faithfully, and with a perfect heart” (2 Chron 19:7,9). Without this there will be no public reformation; and therefore the first difficulty of it arises from this sort of persons, and that upon two accounts:
1. That magistrates themselves do live in sin, and love it, and hate to be personally reformed; yea, take delight in them that openly live in sin also, which is the height of wickedness, Rom 1:32. When magistrates are profane swearers, or scoffers at the power of religion, or drunkards, or unclean persons, or covetous oppressors, a great obstruction must needs be laid in the way of public repentance and reformation; neither doth this difficulty at present arise merely from their personal sins and miscarriages, but also from the want of conviction, and a sense of their duty in their places, with the account which they must give thereof. For,
2. They seem not to believe that the attempting of this work is any part of their duty, or that they are concerned therein. Let it, therefore, be never so reasonable, so equal, so important, so necessary unto the deliverance and salvation of any people, if those who should further it in the first place do obstruct and hinder it, it will be at tended with difficulties. Ill examples and negligence have ruined this nation.
Wherefore, we may lay it down as an assured truth, which the text will confirm:-
That unless magistrates, who have the visible conduct of the people, are convinced that it is their duty to promote the work of repentance and reformation at this time, by their own example, and in the discharge of their offices, the case of this nation is deplorable, and not to be relieved but by sovereign grace and mercy. For what shall the people do, when they see their guides, unto whose pattern they conform themselves, utterly regardless of any such thing? This is one means of the difficulty which is found among us, of affecting the minds of men with this equal constitution.
Those who are principally concerned herein are ministers, or those who have the administration of the word and ordinances of the gospel committed unto them. Unto these is this work given in charge in an especial manner. They have the principal means of repentance and reformation committed to their management. From them is the beginning and carrying on of this work expected and required. Hereof, as unto their sincerity and diligence, they must give an account at the last day. And if this spring be stopped, whence should the refreshing waters of repentance and reformation arise? But yet herein the principal difficulty of the whole work doth consist. For,
1. Some there are, pretending unto this office, in whom lies no small part of the evil that is to be reformed; persons who labour among the most forward to fill up the measure of the iniquities of this nation; such as whose ignorance, negligence, profaneness, and debauchery, are, in all their effects, transfused and communicated unto all that are about them. Shall we expect that such persons will be instrumental in the reforming of others, who hate to be reformed themselves? (Jer 23:15). It was so of old. But,
2. There are very few of this sort of persons who will be at the charge of carrying on this work. They may quickly find what it will cost them; for unless they are exemplary in it themselves, it is in vain once to attempt the pressing of it upon others. They cannot go about it without great retrenchings of that which they have esteemed their liberty in the course of their conversations. All compliance with unreformed persons, for secular ends; all conformity unto the course of the world, in jollities and pride of life; all ostentation of riches, wealth, and power; all self-seeking and self- pleasing; all lightness and carnal confidences, must utterly be cast away.
And not only so, but unless, by incessant prayers and supplications, with earnestness and perseverance, they labour for fresh anointings with the Spirit of grace in their own souls, that faith, and love, and zeal for God, and compassion for the souls of men, and readiness for the cross, may revive and flourish in them, they will not be useful, nor instrumental in this work. And is it any wonder that the most of them think it better to suffer things to go on at the present rate, than to venture at that which will cost them so dear in its pursuit? The truth is, I know very few; if any, who are meet and fit to engage in this work in a visible eminent manner; – those who have the best, almost the only, opportunities for it, seem to be asleep.
3. Besides the charge they must be at themselves, they perceive the opposition they shall meet withal from others. They find that they shall not only disoblige and provoke all sorts of persons, and lose many of their useful friends, but also expose themselves unto obloquy, scorn, contempt, and reproach of all sorts. He is a lost man in this world, who, without respect of persons, will engage seriously in this work; every day he shall find one or other displeased, if not provoked. This neither they nor their families can well bear withal. Indeed, the hardest and most difficult service that ever God called any of His ministers unto, excepting only Jesus Christ and His apostles, has been in the endeavouring the reformation of backsliding or spiritually-decayed churches. These are the two witnesses which, in all ages, have prophesied in sackcloth.
Such was the ministry of Elijah, which brought him unto that conclusion, and an earnest longing to be delivered by death from his work and ministry, 1 Kings 19:4. So was that of Jeremiah, in the like season, whereof he so complains, Jer 15:10. John the Baptist, in the same work, lost first his liberty, then his life. And, in after ages, Chrysostom, for the same cause, was hated by the clergy, persecuted by the court, and at length driven into banishment, where he died. Most men care not how little a share they have in such a work as this, whose reward will reach them according to the proportion of their engagement in it. All churches, all persons almost, would willingly be let alone in the condition wherein they are; they that would press them unto due reformation, ever were, and ever will be, looked on as their troublers.
Hence, then, it is that our wound is incurable: Few of this sort are convinced of the present necessity of this duty; they hope things are indifferently well with them and their flocks, that they may endure their time well enough. Few are willing to undergo the charge and trouble of it, to put all their present circumstances into disorder. Few have received an anointing for the work; many are able to dispute against any attempts of it; and not a few have expectations of strange deliverances without it. What is left us in this case shall afterward be declared.
Thirdly. The people.
It is difficult also on the account of the people that are to be reformed. It is hard to convince them of its necessity, hard to persuade them to endeavour it, hard to get them to persevere in attempts for it.
Some of the reasons hereof we may briefly consider; as,
1. That self-justification and approbation of themselves which all sorts of persons, both by nature and by incurable prejudices, are inclined unto, lie at the bottom of this fatal negligence.
When they see all things amiss, they will grant that there is some reformation necessary; but that it is so for others, and not for them. Those that are worse than they (as there are but few who do not think, on one pretence or other, that there are many worse than themselves), they suppose this duty is necessary unto, but not unto them. And if there are none visibly so, yet they will make them, and judge them so to be. But whilst men have a form of godliness, though they deny the power thereof, they will justify themselves from all need of reformation. Churches will do so, and all sorts of professors of religion will do so, especially if they have any peculiar notion or practice which they value themselves upon. So was it with the Jews of old, Jer 7:9,10; and with the Pharisees in the days of our Saviour, John 9:40. It is so at this day; and it is a rare thing to meet with any who will own themselves to stand in need of real laborious reformation.
Hence it is that no churches would ever reform themselves; which has been the cause of all division and separation, whereby some have been saved from a general apostasy. They all approve themselves in their state and condition; which is come to that height in the papal church that they boast themselves infallible, and not capable of reformation in any thing. I pray God secure others from the like presumptions! It will be their ruin by whom they are entertained. Yet so it is at this day. Most churches think they need more revenues, more honour, more freedom from opposition, more submission of all men unto them; but they almost abhor the thought that they stand in need of any reformation.
2. The nature of the work itself renders it difficult; for it requires a general change of the course wherein men have been engaged; a thing as difficult as to cause the streams of a mighty river to change their course and run backward.
Vicious habits must be subdued, inclinations rivetted in the mind by long practice and custom be cast out, ways of conversation promoted and strengthened by all sorts of circumstances changed; which render the work unto some men impossible. So the prophet declares it, “Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots? then may ye also do good, that are accustomed to do evil” (Jer 13:23). Men cannot easily unlearn what they have been so taught or accustomed unto. The mighty power of God on the souls of men, both as unto individual persons and whole societies, is required unto this change. So it may be wrought, and not otherwise, Isa 11:6-9.
3. The advantage which many may make unto themselves by the present posture of things, and fear of alterations by reformation, is a mountain in the way, – a mighty obstacle against entertaining serious thoughts about it.
4. The Scripture most frequently casts the cause hereof on men’s security in their earthly enjoyments. This keeps them safe from hearing God’s calls, or taking notice of His warnings. And therefore it is laid down as the cause and constant forerunner of all desolating judgments. It is at large insisted upon by our Saviour himself, Matt 24:37-39; Luke 17:26-29.
Now, this security is like the disease in the body which is commonly called the scurvy; it is not any single distemper or disease, but a complication or concurrence of many prevalent distempers. Security is not the name of any one vicious habit or inclination of the mind, but it is a concurrent complication of many; spiritual stupidity and sloth, called a spirit of slumber, love of the world, carnal wisdom, groundless hopes of life, all proceeding from unbelief, do concur in its constitution. And if a practice in a course of sin have for some season ensued on these principles, whereby conscience comes to be seared, or is made senseless, the case of those in whom it is, is for the most part remediless. And not a few of this sort are amongst us.
And many other reasons there are rendering this work full of difficulty, though it be so necessary, so just and equal. As for those by whom all these things are despised, and even scoffed at, some thing shall be spoken afterward unto them, or concerning them.
But yet, this consideration ought not to deter any from endeavouring the discharge of their own duty herein. For, as we have seen it is indispensably necessary, that we and the nation may be saved from desolating judgments; so we shall see afterward how and by what means this difficulty may be surmounted, and those obstacles removed out of the way. However, happy will they be, be they never so few, never so poor, never so unknown to the world, whom God shall find so doing, when He arises out of His place to shake the earth terribly!