Our Wills: Created and Corrupted (Owen)

The Works of John Owen, Vol. 10: The Death of Christ In Reformed theology, following Augustine and ultimately Paul/Scripture, we deny the Arminian position that all people have free will which gives them the power and innate ability to believe in Christ as they wish.  John Owen brilliantly countered this Arminian position of free will in his book, A Display of ArminianismBelow is a section of chapter 12 where he discusses the nature and power of free will.  Notice how Owen refutes the Arminian position by noting that our wills are created (therefore dependent) and corrupt (therefore in bondage to sin):

That, then, which the Arminians claim here in behalf of their free-will is, an absolute independence on God’s providence in doing any thing, and of his grace in doing that which is good,—a self-sufficiency in all its operations, a plenary indifferency of doing what we will, this or that, as being neither determined to the one nor inclined to the other by any overruling influence from heaven. So that the good acts of our wills have no dependence on God’s providence as they are acts, nor on his grace as they are good; but in both regards proceed from such a principle within us as is no way moved by any superior agent.

Now, the first of these we deny unto our wills, because they are created; and the second, because they are corrupted. Their creation hinders them from doing any thing of themselves without the assistance of God’s providence; and their corruption, from doing any thing that is good without his grace. A self-sufficiency for operation, without the effectual motion of Almighty God, the first cause of all things, we can allow neither to men nor angels, unless we intend to make them gods; and a power of doing good, equal unto that they have of doing evil, we must not grant to man by nature, unless we will deny the fall of Adam, and fancy ourselves still in paradise

John Owen, The Works of John Owen, ed. William H. Goold, vol. 10 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, n.d.), 118–119.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

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Inquiring after the Weeds (Owen)

The Works of John Owen (24 vols.) I appreciate this section in John Owen’s “Of The Mortification of Sin in Believers”:

There are two things that are suited to humble the souls of men, and they are, first, a due consideration of God, and then of themselves; of God, in his greatness, glory, holiness, power, majesty, and authority; of ourselves, in our mean, abject, and sinful condition. Now, of all things in our condition, there is nothing so suited unto this end and purpose as that which lies before us; namely, the vile remainders of enmity against God which are yet in our hearts and natures.

And it is no small evidence of a gracious soul when it is willing to search itself in this matter, and to be helped therein from a word of truth; when it is willing that the word should dive into the secret parts of the heart, and rip open whatever of evil and corruption lies therein. The prophet says of Ephraim, Hos. 10:11, “He loved to tread out the corn” he loved to work when he might eat, to have always the corn before him: but God, says he, would “cause him to plough;” a labor no less needful, though at present not so delightful. Most men love to hear of the doctrine of grace, of the pardon of sin, of free love, and suppose they find food therein; however, it is evident that they grow and thrive in the life and notion of them. But to be breaking up the fallow ground of their hearts, to be inquiring after the weeds and briers that grow in them, they delight not so much, though this be no less necessary than the other.

This path is not so beaten as that of grace, nor so trod in, though it be the only way to come to a true knowledge of grace itself. It may be some, who are wise and grown in other truths, may yet be so little skilled in searching their own hearts, that they may be slow in the perception and understanding of these things. But this sloth and neglect is to be shaken off, if we have any regard unto our own souls

 Owen, J. (n.d.). The works of John Owen. (W. H. Goold, Ed.) (Vol. 6, pp. 200–201). Edinburgh: T&T Clark.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

Gospel Promises and Perseverance (Owen)

The Works of John Owen, Vol. 11: Continuing in the Faith One of John Owen’s many volumes is called “The Doctrine of the Saints’ Perseverance Explained and Confirmed.”  As you might guess, it’s a great exposition of the “P” In “TULIP.”  I haven’t read it all yet, but so far it’s been very helpful and edifying.  Below is one section I ran across this morning.  It’s about gospel promises which are one more assurance that God will preserve his people.  Note how Owen distinguishes between law (covenant of works) and gospel (covenant of grace):

Gospel promises, then, are: 1. The free and gracious dispensations, and, 2. discoveries of God’s good-will and love, to, 3. sinners, 4. through Christ, 5. in a covenant of grace; 6. wherein, upon his truth and faithfulness, he engageth himself to be their God, to give his Son unto them and for them, and his Holy Spirit to abide with them, with all things that are either required in them or are necessary for them to make them accepted before him, and to bring them to an enjoyment of him.

I call them gospel promises, not as though they were only contained in the books of the New Testament, or given only by Christ after his coming in the flesh, [for they were given from the beginning of the world, or first entrance of sin, and the Lord made plentiful provision of them and by them for his people under the old testament,] but only to distinguish them from the promises of the law, which hold out a word of truth and faithfulness, engaged for a reward of life to them that yield obedience thereunto (there being an indissolvable connection between entering into life and keeping the commandments), and so to manifest that they all belong to the gospel properly so-called, or the tidings of that peace for sinners which was wrought out and manifested by Jesus Christ (Gal 3:12, Luke 2:10, Eph. 2:15, Is. 52:7).

After these paragraphs Owen goes on to expound on his definition (the opening numbered sentence above) in some detail. If you have access to this, I’d recommend it.  It’ll give you confidence in the promises of God and joy in his preserving grace!

The above quote is found in: Owen, J. (n.d.). The works of John Owen. (W. H. Goold, Ed.) (Vol. 11, p. 227). Edinburgh: T&T Clark.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015

The Old Covenant Has Come to an End (Owen)

The Works of John Owen (17 vols.) Hebrews 8:13 says that the Old Covenant is “obsolete”: “When He said, “A new covenant,” He has made the first obsolete. But whatever is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to disappear” (NASB).  In this context, the Old Covenant had to do with the priesthood, sacrifices, and Moses’ law (broadly speaking).  The Old Covenant was the covenant God made with Israel after he rescued them from Egypt (Heb. 8:9).

Based on Hebrews 8 and other texts such as Ephesians 2:15-16 and Acts 11:2-10, Reformed theology teaches that the ceremonial laws of the Old Covenant have been “abrogated” (WCF 19.3).  Furthermore, Reformed theology also says that Israel’s judicial laws in the Old Covenant have “expired together with the state of that people” (WCF 19.4).  This abrogation and expiration is due to the fact that the Messiah has come and enacted a new and better covenant, as Hebrews says so clearly.

I appreciate John Owen’s explanation of Hebrews 8:13.  He noted that some 1st Century Christians believed that the Old Covenant was still in force.  Owen then said that the author of Hebrews “knew that this persuasion was destructive to the faith of the gospel, and would, if pertinaciously adhered unto, prove ruinous to their own souls.”  Therefore the author of Hebrews gives many reasons and examples how and why the Old Covenant is no longer in force.

Owen wrote that God, in his providence, broke in upon and weakened the administration of the Old Covenant by showing that it was “decaying”:

Immediately after the giving of this promise [Jer 31:31 – Heb 8:8ff], the Babylonian captivity gave a total intercision and interruption unto the whole administration of it [the Old Covenant] for seventy years. This, having never before fallen out from the making of it on mount Sinai, was an evident token of its approaching period, and that God would have the church to live without it.

In other words, during the Babylonian captivity the Old Covenant was interrupted.  This showed Israel that it wasn’t going to last forever.  Or we could say that the Old Covenant had built-in limitations and a built-in time limit.  Here’s Owen again:

Upon the return of the people from their captivity, neither the temple, nor the worship of it, nor any of the administrations of the covenant, nor the priesthood, were ever restored unto their pristine beauty and glory. And whereas the people in general were much distressed at the apprehension of its decay, God comforts them, not with any intimation that things under that covenant should ever be brought into a better condition, but only with an expectation of His coming amongst them who would put an utter end unto all the administrations of it, Hag. 2:6–9. And from that time forward it were easy to trace the whole process of it, and to manifest how it continually declined towards its end.

Owen then wrote that no institution of God will ever decay or perish “unless it be disannuled by God himself. Length of time will not consume divine institutions; nor can the sins of man abate their force.  He only that sets them up can take them down.”  Owen ends with this wonderful statement:

All the glorious institutions of the law were at best but as stars in the firmament of the church, and therefore were all to disappear at the rising of the Sun of Righteousness.

You can find these quotes and the entire commentary on Hebrews 8:13 in John Owen, (1854). An Exposition of the Epistle to the Hebrews. (W. H. Goold, Ed.) (Vol. 23, p. 175). Edinburgh: Johnstone and Hunter.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015

“Some Pastors and Teachers” – Not for Pastors Only

 I recently started reading Sinclair Ferguson’s newest book, Some Pastors and Teachers.  I have to admit I am a bit disappointed to find out it is mostly a collection of previously published material.  Around 30 of the 39 chapters have been published elsewhere (Baker, Christian Focus, IVP, P&R, Ligonier, etc.).  I was expecting this book to be a book on pastoral theology.  However, the topics are more along these lines: around half of the book is historical theology (summaries of John Calvin, John Owen, and John Murray’s various teachings), the rest of the book is on systematic theology (Scripture, the atonement, justification, etc.) and there’s a section on preaching (preaching the atonement, exegetical preaching, etc.).  So it’s not exactly a book on pastoral theology, and I don’t think the title and subtitle are accurate.  Its title should have something to do with a collection or anthology or something along those lines.

Having said that, and having already read some of this material in other publications, I can say the content is solid and helpful.  There is a wealth of Christian truth in it!   This book really isn’t just for pastors; it’s for anyone who wants a good Reformed resource for learning more about Calvin, Owen, and Murray’s theology and other Reformed topics like justification, faith alone, repentance, and so forth.  Some Pastors and Teachers contains just under 800 pages of good theology that is also practical theology.

I’ll come back and mention parts of this book in the near future as I read the chapters I haven’t already read elsewhere.  For now, if you’re interested in a collection (or anthology?) of articles by Sinclair Ferguson on historical theology, systematic theology, and preaching, you’ll for sure want to check this one out: Some Pastors and Teachers.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015

Apostasy in Hebrews 6:4-6 (Owen)

Scripture teaches that those whom God loves, he never leaves.  Whom he predestines, he preserves.  Those he effectually calls, he effectually keeps.  Whom he regenerates, he never rejects.  The ones he forgives, he never forsakes (Ps. 37:28, John 10:28-29, Rom. 8:35-39, Phil. 1:6, 1 Cor. 1:7b-8a, etc.).  The perseverance of the saints is a clear – and comforting! – teaching of Scripture.

There are, however, some verses that might make one pause when it comes to perseverance.  One such text is Hebrews 6:4-6: For in the case of those who have once been enlightened and have tasted of the heavenly gift and have been made partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, it is impossible to renew them again to repentance, since they again crucify to themselves the Son of God and put Him to open shame (NASB).

We can’t just throw those verses out if we don’t like them!  At the same time, we must realize they won’t contradict other teachings in Scripture.  I appreciate how John Owen handled these verses in his commentary on them.  Here’s a helpful excerpt which I’ve edited very slightly:

That the people here  intended (in Heb. 6:4-6) are not true and sincere believers, in the strict and proper sense of that name, at least they are not described here as such; so that from this nothing can be concluded concerning them that are so, as to the possibility of their total and final apostasy.

For, (1.) There is  no mention of faith in their full and large description, or believing, either expressly or in equivalent terms; and in no other place in the Scripture are such intended, but they are mentioned by what belongs essentially to their state.

And, (2.) There is not any thing ascribed to these persons that is peculiar to them as such, or discriminative of them, as taken either from their special relation unto God in Christ, or any such property of their own as is not communicable unto others. For instance, they are not said to be called according to God’s purpose; to be born again, not of man, nor of the will of flesh, but of God; nor to be justified, or sanctified, or united unto Christ, or to be the sons of God by adoption; nor do they have any other characteristical note of true believers ascribed to them.

(3.) They are in the following verses compared to the ground on which the rain often falls, and beareth nothing but thorns and briers. But this is not so with true believers.  For faith itself is an herb peculiar to the enclosed garden of Christ, and fit for him by whom we are dressed.

(4.) The apostle afterwards discoursing of true believers, does in many particulars distinguish them from such as may be apostates; which is supposed of the persons here intended, as was before declared. For, [A.] He ascribes to true believers in general “better things, and such as accompany salvation,” verse 9. [B.] He ascribes to true believers a “work and labor of love,” as it is true faith alone which worketh by love, verse 10; whereof he speaks not one word concerning these. [C.] He asserts their preservation; 1st, On the account of the righteousness and faithfulness of God in verse 10; 2nd, of the immutability of his counsel concerning them, in verses 17 and 18. In all these and many other instances he puts a difference between these apostates and true believers. And whereas the apostle intends to declare the aggravation of the apostates’ sin in falling away by the principal privileges whereof they were made partakers, here is not one word, in name or thing, of those which he expressly assigns to be the chief privileges of true believers, Rom. 8:27–30.

John Owen, An Exposition of the Epistle to the Hebrews, ed. W. H. Goold, vol. 22, Works of John Owen (Edinburgh: Johnstone and Hunter, 1855), 84.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

 

Our Foundation of Grace (Owen)

In one part of his exposition of Psalm 130, John Owen discussed receiving forgiveness and being assured of it.  One of his “rules” was this: “Mix not foundation and building-work together.”  By this Owen meant that the Christian’s foundation of forgiveness and acceptance with God is not by works, but by grace alone and found in Christ alone.  Here’s what he wrote:

“Our foundation in dealing with God is Christ alone, mere grace and pardon in him.  Our building is by holiness and obedience, as the fruits of that faith by which we have received the atonement.

And great mistakes there are in this matter, which bring great entanglements on the souls of men. Some are all their days laying the foundation, and are never able to build upon it any comfort to themselves or usefulness to others; and the reason is, because they are mixing with the foundation stones that are fit only for the building. They will be bringing their obedience, duties, mortification of sin, and the like, to the foundation. These are precious stones to build with, but unmeet to be first laid, to bear upon them the whole weight of the building.

The foundation is to be laid, as was said, in mere grace, mercy, and pardon in the blood of Christ. This the soul is to accept of and to rest in as mere grace, without the consideration of any thing in itself, but that it is sinful and obnoxious unto ruin. This it finds a difficulty in, and would gladly have something of its own to mix with it. It cannot tell how to fix these foundation-stones without some cement of its own endeavors and duty; and because these things will not mix, they spend a fruitless labor about it all their days.

But if the foundation be of grace, it is not at all of works; for “otherwise grace is no more grace. ” If any thing of our own be mixed with grace in this matter, it utterly destroys the nature of grace; which if it be not alone, it does not exist at all….

This, then, is the soul to do who would come to peace and settlement.  Let it let go of all former endeavors, if it has been engaged unto any of that kind, and let it alone receive, admit of, and adhere to, mere grace, mercy, and pardon, with a full sense that in itself it has nothing for which it should have an interest in them, but that all is of mere grace through Jesus Christ: ‘Other foundation can no man lay.’ Depart not hence until this work be well over. Cease not from an earnest endeavor with your own heart to acquiesce in this righteousness of God, and to bring your souls unto a comfortable persuasion that “God for Christ’s sake hath freely forgiven you all your sins. “

This is a great reminder of that biblical truth that we are justified, forgiven, and accepted by God only through Christ and only because of God’s grace (Rom 3-4, Gal 2-3, Eph 2, etc.).  Our justification, forgiveness, and acceptance are not in any way dependent upon our works, deeds, or merits.  As we begin to grow in understanding of this foundational truth, our assurance also grows and we learn more about what it means to give God all the glory.

The above quote is found in John Owen’s exposition of Psalm 130, chapter 13, rule 7.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI