[In this eighth part (see Part 7 here) of John Owen’s work on Luke 13:1-5, he deals with two matters:
1. The nature of repentance and reformation that God requires, so that we do not perish in His sore displeasure.
2. The causes of such repentance and reformation.]
VI. I shall, therefore, in the next place, to bring all things nearer home, inquire, What is the nature of that repentance and reformation which at this time God requires of us all, that we may not perish in His sore displeasure?
After a devastation made of the treasure of the Roman empire by sundry tyrants successively, Vespasian coming to the government, acquainted the senate that there was need of so many millions of money, that the empire might stand; not that it might flourish and grow vigorous, whereunto much more was required, but that it might be preserved from dissolution and ruin. And I shall propose, not what is requisite to render the church of God in this nation orderly, beautiful, and vigorous, but only what is necessary that it may stand and live, by a deliverance from desolating judgments. And,
First. The repentance which, in any case, God requires absolutely, is that which is internal and real, in sincere conversion unto Himself, accompanied with fruits meet for such repentance. So is it declared in Ezekiel 18:30,31, “Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, every one according to his ways, saith the Lord God. Repent, and turn yourselves from all your transgressions; so iniquity shall not be your ruin. Cast away from you all your transgressions, whereby ye have transgressed; and make you a new heart and a new spirit, for why will ye die, house of Israel?” A new heart and a new spirit, or real internal conversion unto God, by the grace of the covenant, is required in this repentance, as the renunciation and relinquishment of all iniquities must be the fruit of it. So also is it expressed in Isaiah 1:16,17. Internal purification of the heart, with the practice of universal obedience, and abstinence from all sin, is that which God requires.
This is that repentance which was the subject of the ministry of John the Baptist; on the neglect whereof he threatened the people with final excision; which, accordingly, not long after befell them, Matt 3:8-10. God does not require a feigned repentance, or that which is merely outward and temporary. In this case, see Joel 2:12,13. But,
Secondly. Where there is repentance and reformation that are real in the root or cause of them, which is an effectual conviction of sin, and sense of ensuing, approaching judgments, giving testimony of sincerity in its fruits, by an abstinence from open provoking sins, and the performance of known duties (unto its sincerity in both which a sense and reverence of God is owned), though it be not in many, in the most, it may be in few, absolutely sincere and holy, yet may it prevail to the turning away of threatened judgments, at least for a season.
These things, therefore, are required unto this repentance:
1. A real conviction of sin in them that are called unto it, or do make profession of it. If this lie not in the foundation, no expression of repentance, no profession of reformation, is of any value in the sight of God; yea, it is a mocking of Him; which is the highest provocation. Men without this conviction may be driven to somewhat that looks like repentance and reformation, as the keeping of days of fasting or humiliation by outward force or compulsion of law; but there is nothing in what they do of what we inquire after. By such days and ways they shall never save the nation, Jer 3:10.
2. A real sense of God’s displeasure, and the approach of desolating judgments. It is not enough that we have a conviction and sense of our own sins, but we must have them also of the sins of the nation, whereby God is provoked to anger; and apprehensions of His displeasure are to influence our minds in all that we go about herein. Unless these abide and dwell in our minds, unless they accompany us continually in all our ways and occasions, rise and lie down with us, we shall not cordially engage in this duty.
3. Real reformation, in an abstinence from all known sin, and the avowed fruits of a reformed conversation, are required hereunto, Matt 3:10.
4. That it be persisted in, Heb 6:1.
On these suppositions, that this repentance is useful unto the end proposed is made fully evident in the instances of Nineveh and of Ahab, 1 Kings 21:27-29. Ahab, in his repentance and humiliation, manifested a deep sense of the guilt of sin and divine displeasure. “Seest thou,” says God to Elijah, “how he humbleth himself?” It might easily be known and taken notice of. There is a humiliation described by the prophet in Isaiah 58:1-5, which God abhors, and which shall be profitable for nothing. Such have been the humiliations among us, for the most part. But although it be the duty of every man to endeavour that his repentance and reformation consist in a sincere, internal, cordial conversion unto God, which the divine calls do intend, without which it will not be of advantage unto his own soul, as unto his eternal condition; yet as unto the turning away of temporal calamities, at least as to the suspension of them, such a public repentance and reformation as evidence themselves in their fruits to proceed from a real sense of sin and judgment, may be useful and prevalent.
In brief, the repentance which God requires with respect to His covenant, that the souls of men may be saved, unto the glory of his grace by Jesus Christ, is internal, spiritual, supernatural, whereby the whole soul is renewed, changed, and turned unto Himself. But as God is the supreme governor of the world, in temporal things, with respect unto the dispensation of His providence in mercies and judgments, there may be a repentance and reformation wherein His glory is vindicated, in a visible compliance with His calls and warnings, and an acknowledgment of Him in His righteous judgments, which may be of use unto the end proposed. Besides, wherever there is a general reformation of life sincerely attempted, it is to be believed that in many it is spiritual and saving.
5. The repentance and reformation required must be suited unto the state and condition of those who are called thereunto. All are to consider what is amiss in them, as unto their own state and condition, “Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts” (Isa 55:7); everyone his own way and thoughts in their present condition.
Wherefore the persons intended in this call are of two sorts: (1.) Such as are wicked, as unto their state and condition, persons unconverted, unregenerate, not born of God; and, (2.) Such as are sincere believers, really converted unto God.
The call of God is unto both sorts, repentance and reformation are required of them both; and they are so in a suitableness unto their different conditions.
In each of these sorts there are various degrees of sin and provocation. Some of the first sort are openly flagitious, public, habitual sinners, such as whose sins “go beforehand unto judgment,” as the apostle speaks (1 Tim 5:24); and some are more sober in their outward conversation. The call of God respects them in all their several degrees of sinning: “Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts;” those which are his own, which are proper to him. None doubts, unless it be themselves, that the first sort ought to reform themselves; the generality of men cry out against them, and fear that for their sins, especially if they be persons in high places, the judgments of God will come upon the land.
But if those of the other sort also, who are apt to justify themselves because they run not out unto the same excess of riot with them, do not apply themselves unto the repentance and reformation which are proper unto their state and condition, the will of God is not answered in His warnings. Yet it is the impenitency of this sort of men that is the most dangerous symptom at this day in the nation. Their unshaken security keeps all that truly fear God in a trembling posture.
Thirdly. It is so with churches peculiarly reformed, and true believers in them; as also all other true believers who walk more at large. They also are called unto repentance and reformation, and that according to their state and their respective degrees therein; for some are more guilty than others in decays of faith, love, zeal, holiness, and fruitfulness in obedience, with conformity to the world. And if there should be a public reformation in the nation as to outward provoking sins, yet if these of this sort do not reform themselves, according as their condition doth require, the desired deliverance would scarcely be obtained. And woe be to such persons, if, through their neglect of their duty, the whole nation should be exposed to ruin! Wherefore,
Fourthly. The reformation called for, as the condition of escaping of impendent [approaching] judgments, must be universal, at least general, amongst all sorts and degrees, all orders and estates of men. All sorts have sinned, all sorts are threatened; and therefore repentance is required of all, if we would not perish. It is so of magistrates and ministers, of nobles and common people, in city and country; and that to be evidenced by its fruits, so as that it may be said of us, See you not how they humble themselves?
But if this be so, some may be apt to say, It seems, if all do not set their hearts and hands unto this work, if all sorts do not engage in it, there is no good effect to be hoped or looked for; but when shall we see any such thing? when shall we see the generality of all sorts of men in this nation cordially to go about this work of repentance and reformation? as good, therefore, let it alone as go about to attempt it.
I answer, 1. If you can be content to perish with the impenitent and unreformed, you may choose to do as they do. If you would avoid their punishment, you must avoid their sin, especially their refusal to turn on the call of God.
2. Some must begin this work, and be exemplary unto others; and blessed are they of the Lord who shall receive the grace and honour so to do. Let us not, then, sit looking on others, to see what they will do, but immediately engage unto our own duty.
3. The duty herein of no one private person, much less of whole churches, shall be lost, though the nation should not be reformed in general. For,
(1.) They shall deliver their own souls; and if they be not saved (as I believe they would be in an eminent manner) from somewhat of the outward part of a public calamity, yet they should be from all the wrath and displeasure of God in it.
(2.) A few – for aught I know, one man – may sometimes prevail with God for the suspending, at least, of judgments threatened unto a whole nation. And hereby,
(3.) They shall give unto others a farther season of repentance, which God can bless and make effectual unto them. There are, therefore, blessed encouragements unto all churches, unto all individual persons, to endeavour a compliance with the present calls of God, though the body of the people should not be gathered.
VII. Our next inquiry is, Whence or from what causes such a reformation may be expected as may be useful unto the turning away of impendent [approaching] judgments? And these causes are either supreme or subordinate.
1. The supreme cause hereof must be the sovereign grace of God, in fresh effusions of His Spirit on the souls of men, to turn them unto Himself. Without this, all other ways and means of attaining it will be in vain. This is everywhere in the Scripture attested unto as the only supreme, efficient cause of the conversion of men unto God. And unto that state are things come amongst us, that unless we are made partakers of it in a somewhat more than ordinary manner, our breaches cannot be healed. Whether we have grounds or no to expect any such thing, shall be afterward considered. At present there seems to be no other hopes of it, but only because it is a sovereign act of divine grace, which has been exemplified in the church of old. There seems, indeed, rather, as yet, to be a withdrawing of the communications of the Holy Spirit in effectually prevalent grace on the part of God, and a contempt of them on the part of men; but sovereignty can conquer all obstacles. This way did God heal and recover His church of old, when all other means, all mercies, afflictions, and judgments, failed, Ezek 36:22-28. And it may at present be for a lamentation, that this work of grace is so disregarded by the most, so despised by many, and so little cried for by the residue. But without it, in vain shall we use any other remedies; we shall not be healed. It is not the best projections [endeavours] of men for reformation by this or that order or state of things in church or state, that, without this, will be of advantage unto us.
2. The subordinate causes hereof must be the diligent discharge of their duty by magistrates and ministers. I shall but name these things, that I give no place to complaints or indignation, though just, and almost necessary. And,
First. As unto the furtherance of it by magistrates, it must consist in three things:
1. By evidencing that the promotion of it is their interest. Unless it be understood so to be, whatever else they do in the countenance of it will be of no use nor advantage. For this is that which the generality will conform unto or comply withal. And if it be once understood that reformation is what they desire, what they design, what they place their chief interest in, as it was with David, Hezekiah, Josiah,and others, it will have an influence on the people, not inferior unto what the design of Jeroboam, in pursuit of his corrupt interest, had on the people of Israel to sin. All other means are dead, unless they are enlivened by an evidence of reality in the minds of magistrates, and a high concern in the prosperity of their work. Let them make what laws and orders they please, appoint what outward means they can devise, unless it be made uncontrollably evident that it is their cordial design, and what they place their chief interest in, they will not be available. Add hereunto,
2. The due execution of laws against flagitious immoralities. And,
3. An encouraging example in their own persons; without which all things will grow worse and worse, whatever else be done. Men seem to be weary, in some measure, of the dismal effects of sin; but they seem not to be weary of sin. Unto this weariness they yet lack motives, encouragements, and examples. And it is strange unto me, that, in all our fears and dangers, in the divisions of our councils and confusions amongst all sorts of men, under a high profession of zeal for the Protestant religion in the nation, and the preservation of it, that this only expedient for our relief and safety lies wholly neglected.
Second, as unto ministers, the faithful discharge of their duty, in preaching, prayer, and example, is required hereunto. Should I stay to show the necessity hereof at this season; as also what is required thereunto, what care, what diligence, what watchfulness, what compassion, what zeal, what exercise of all gospel grace, with the over-neglect of these things among many, it would take up a volume, rather than become a place in this present inquiry.
But I proceed unto that which is more our immediate concern.