THE SIN AND JUDGEMENT OF SPIRITUAL BARRENNESS
A Sermon by John Owen
“But the miry places thereof, and the marshes thereof, shall not be healed;
they shall be given to salt”. Ezek. 47.11.
The beginning of this chapter sets out the way and means of the calling and gathering of gospel churches, whose worship is to be so glorious; and this is shewn under a vision of “water issuing out of the sanctuary” to heal and quicken all places to which they come. By the waters here mentioned is the preaching of the gospel intended and there are two effects mentioned – quickening and healing. In the words of the text you have the condition of those places where the waters come, but the effects are not produced. I shall lay open the parable to you: where the word of the gospel is, by the infinitely wise
disposal of God, preached to a place or persons, and they receive it not, they are usually, after a season, given up by the righteous judgement of God unto barrenness and everlasting ruin. To make this matter plain I shall show what I mean by the coming of the waters; what I mean by healing; and what I mean by barrenness and ruin.
By the coming of the healing waters of the sanctuary I intend not the occasional preaching of a sermon, but rather when God by His providence causes the word to be preached over some period, to the revelation of his whole counsel-as Paul being at Ephesus above a year – Acts 20.27. Nor do I mean any waters, but the waters of the sanctuary, that is, not any preaching, but the preaching of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. There is preaching, so called, in the world, wherein God and the souls of men are no more concerned than in an oration of an ancient heathen. Many undertake to be preachers who never “stood in the counsel of God” – Jer. 23.22, who never received of the Spirit of Christ, or knew His mind. I mean, therefore, a ministry of the word according to the mind of Christ; the due unfolding of the mystery of the Gospel.
For the effects of the waters of the sanctuary, it is not enough that men have their affections wrought upon, or their lives in some measure reformed. Unless they are quickened, unless they receive a new spiritual life by the word, they are as the unhealed places over which the curse here mentioned hangs. Where there is life there will be healing. Let not men pretend that they live spiritually, if their lusts be not healed. If men are proud, worldly, sensual, they are dead also. If men are not made holy, humble, believing, zealous; if they receive not the spirit of prayer and faith, they are not healed. This is the condition of the miry and marshy places here mentioned.
What is the lot and portion of such persons? “They shall be given unto salt,” to barrenness, fruitlessness and ruin. Woe to the “miry and marshy places”! Woe to the places and persons to whom the waters of the sanctuary have come, and they are not healed. This is the chief point of my sermon, and the Scripture abounds with testimony of it. Take Proverbs 1.25-31, “But ye have set at naught all my counsel, and would none of my reproof: I will also laugh at your calamity: I will mock when your fear cometh as desolation, and your destruction cometh as a whirlwind; when distress and anguish cometh upon you. Then shall they call upon me, but I will not answer, they shall seek me early, but they shall not find me; for that they hated
knowledge, and did not choose the fear of the LORD: they would none of my counsel, they despised all my reproof. Therefore shall they eat of the fruit of their own way, and be filled with their own devices.” For other scriptures read Prov. 29.1, Luke 13.6, Heb. 10.28-30, 2 Cor. 2.15, 16, Ezek. 10.18, 11.23; and this- “But that which beareth thorns and briers is rejected, and is nigh unto cursing: whose end is to be burned,” Heb. 6.8. But that which I shall principally insist on is to show the ways whereby God doth usually proceed in giving up such persons to barrenness, and so to everlasting ruin. He casts them out of His care. He leaves them to hardness and impenitency.
He casts them out of His care; He will be at no more charge or cost with them: the owner will take no more care or pains about such an unprofitable piece of land; he will till it no more, dress it no more, but leave it to its own barrenness. God is the great Husbandman, Jn. 15.1, and when a miry place is not healed He will cast it out of His husbandry. So it is in Ezek. 24.13: they have had their time and season and “are not purged,” therefore they “shall be purged no more.” So also in Jer. 6.29-30, “The bellows are burned, the lead is consumed of the fire: the founder melteth in vain, for the wicked are not plucked away. Reprobate silver shall men call them, because the LORD hath rejected them.” See also in Zech. 11.8, 9. A sad parting, the Lord knows! They give up Christ, He gives up them. Now this He does by several ways. He will sometimes utterly remove the Gospel from them, turn the stream of the waters of the sanctuary that they come to them no more, as He threatened the church at Ephesus, Rev. 2.5. They shall have right of the word no more. Ah! how many places lie under this woeful judgement of God, places that have enjoyed the word, or at least the opportunity to enjoy it, but continuing unprofitable under it, what is now their condition? God hath left them to that sore judgement that they themselves should be instruments to cast out the word from among them: and so they have got darkness for a vision, and they that would not rejoice in the truth and in the light do now, through the iudgement of God, boast in darkness, and in a thing of nought.
It is true that the gospel may be sometimes taken for a season from a people for their trial and exercise, not as a judgement; but these realize the displeasure of God, and greatly humble themselves. They say, as in Micah 7.9, “I will bear the indignation of the Lord, because I have sinned against
him, until he plead my cause and execute judgement for me.” They look on this as the greatest calamity and trial, whereas others, who lose the gospel in judgement, are either very little concerned about it, or even rejoice in it. Those that are deprived of the gospel in the way of trial have no rest, but are earnest with the Lord for the return of it, 1 Samuel 7.2. The ark was gone, and though they had peace and plenty, and all things else in abundance, yet all will not satisfy them; the ark is absent, that pledge of God’s presence, and they lamented after Him. So it is with these – let them have peace or liberty or prosperity, all is one: if they have not the ark, if they have not the gospel and ordinances of God, they can take no rest – Ps. 53.1,2, “O God thou art my God: early will I seek thee: my soul thirsteth for thee, my flesh longeth for thee in a dry and thirsty land where no water is.” But they from whom the word is taken in rejection, are no way troubled about it, nor do they long after it. They rejoice in what they have in the room of it, are exceedingly well pleased without it. Let them have an increase of corn and wine and oil, let them have their lusts and their sports, their formalities and follies, and they care not whether ever they hear of the word of the gospel any more. Such men are certainly entering into a condition of salt, of barrenness and ruin. They esteem the great, the mighty, the rich, the sensual, and they despise all who rejoice in the gospel or who mourn the lack of it. So you may see, some are humbled under the hand of the Lord, and are prepared for further mercies and a greater estimation of His word, and profit under it: but others, who rejoice and triumph in their distance from the gospel or at least are little tried by it, enter into their ruin. They are cast out of the care of God, and you never see such a people afterwards obtain mercy.
Sometimes God will cause the word to be continued unto them, but restrain the efficacy of it. Some poor souls amongst them are to be quickened or healed, or called, or edified, of that he will not turn away the course of these holy waters, but continues the dispensation of the gospel. But as for those who have withstood their season of healing. God will so order that the word shall have no power on them. Now, though the righteous judgement of God have a hand in this matter, yet by His permission their own lusts are the immediate cause of it. Perhaps they shall have some prejudices against them by whom the gospel is dispensed, which shall keep them from attending to, or profiting by their message. So in the days of Ahab there were 400 preachers that he had a mind to hear; but
they were all false prophets, teachers of lies, idolatrous and superstitious. There were only two prophets of the LORD, Elijah and Micaiah, and both of those Ahab looked on as his enemies, so that he would believe nothing of what they preached. 1 Kings 21.20, 22.8. So shall it befall many whom God will leave to salt; though the word be preached they shall have prejudices against the dispensers of it, so that they shall not profit by them. And little do they think that these prejudices and hard thoughts are chains and fetters to keep them in unto the judgement of the great day.
Some men God will suffer to be unconquerably hardened in the love of some sin or lust, which will keep off the power of the word from their hearts. So the ground here is said to be “miry and marshy” – such as has a mixture of filth incorporated with it sufficient to repel all virtue of the healing waters of the sanctuary. Thus we see men so furiously set upon their lusts, sports and sensuality that this keeps them from profiting by the word of the gospel. “They are given to salt.” God sends his word towards His own, and then it is always accompanied with His Spirit; but when He casts men out of his care, though the word may be preached to their ear, yet He hath said concerning them that His Spirit shall strive with them no more, and its healing virtue is withheld. Do not wonder if you see a diversity of success in preaching of the word. Marvel not that many refuse to hear the word, that they love lies: they are given up of God to their hearts’ lusts, and the tokens of their plague are upon them, in that they like their condition, rejoice and triumph in it, think none so happy as themselves and despise them that love the waters of the sanctuary. This is not an ordinary judgement; they are poor creatures, cast out of the care of God, “given to salt,” and it is a miracle of mercy if ever any of them be healed. Take that advice of the prophet Jer. 13.16, “Give glory to the Lord your God, before he cause darkness, and before your feet stumble upon the dark mountains, and while ye look for light, he turn it into the shadow of death and make it gross darkness.”
Surely, their condition is most woeful whom the preaching of the gospel hardeneth. God sending them rather blindness of mind and of understanding, obstinacy of will, sensuality of affections, and searedness of conscience. Their natural blindness and ignorance shall be increased and confirmed, for God will send them a spirit of slumber, Rom. 11.8. As men that slumber take little notice of what is spoken to them or about
them, hearing a noise, but not to any use or purpose, so it is with these. They hear the sound of the word, and, sometimes, it may be, take notice of some one thing or other – but to receive and understand, to ponder it and improve it, that they cannot do, they are under a spiritual slumber. God sends them a spirit of giddiness, causing them to err in their ways, Isa. 19.14, cp 2Thess. 2.10-12. The waters of the sanctuary came to them, and they were not healed: the gospel was preached unto them, but they withstood their season. How then doth God deal with them? Verse 11 – “they shall believe a lie,” that is false doctrine, false worship, superstition and idolatry. And this judgement, as it is already come upon many, so it lies at the door, I fear, of the most. We see men every day that have for some years, it may be, enjoyed the preaching of the gospel;
but not being healed, quickened, sanctified by it, are now with all greediness given up to follow after fables or superstitions. There is a spirit of giddiness from the Lord upon them. Obstinacy in the will, or hardness of heart, is in this judgement. See it in Isa. 6.10, and that which the apostle calls a “reprobate mind,” Rom. 1.28, that is a mind and heart that is good for nothing with regard to spiritual things. Whenever the word is preached unto them they rise up in their hearts with contempt, and rage against it, or, if they fall not into pride and rage, they grow utterly senseless and stupid and unconcerned in the things of God. Let the word thunder from heaven against their sins, they regard it not: let the still small voice of the gospel persuade them unto reconciliation, they attend not to it: let the judgements of God be abroad in the world, if they escape themselves, they are not concerned; if they are involved they have wrath and anger and vexation. But they cannot repent or turn to the Lord. “He gave them up to vile affections” – Rom. 1.26, and they please themselves in them, little thinking that this is part of the judgement whereunto they are given up of God for their unprofitableness under the word. “Having their conscience seared with a hot iron,” 1 Tim. 4.2, “Being past Feeling,” Eph. 4.19. Whatever sin they commit, or condition they fall into, conscience shall no more discharge its duty in them and towards them.
What of the result of this dealing of God? What is meant by the land’s becoming salt? Two things, barrenness in this world, and eternal ruin in the world to come. They shall never bear any fruit to God. This was the curse that our Saviour gave to the fig-tree, “never fruit grow on thee.” Man was made to bear fruit unto God. Now when God shall say to any, “Go your
“ways . . . you shall never bear fruit unto me,” whatsoever judgement can any man possibly fall under? Eternal ruin must follow, Prov. 29.1. “He that being often reproved, hardeneth his neck, shall suddenly be destroyed, and that without remedy.” “If a man abide not in me he is cast forth as a branch, and is withered, and men gather them and cast them into the fire, and they are burned” – John 15.6. 2 Thess. 2,12 – “That they all might be damned who believed not the truth, but had pleasure in unrighteousness.” “But that which beareth thorns and briers is rejected, and is nigh unto cursing, whose end is to be burned,” Heb. 6.8. It will do neither me nor you good to flatter you, and to put you into any better hope than your condition will admit of. See Ezek. 33.8. Did I not see the tokens of this judgement of God abroad in the world, I would not thus insist on it as I do.
Make use of your season that you fall not under this sore and inexpressible judgement. If you are not healed in your season, you can never be healed. We have ground everywhere evidently “left to salt”, though not yet burned up. Use your day! I speak not of your lives, which the Lord knows, are uncertain, but the day of the gospel may be over whilst the day of your lives continue. Remember the virgins that were shut out, and their cry at midnight! This ruin is very sore on gospel despisers.*
* The original sermon runs to some 9,400 words [Owen, works v. 9 pp. 179-197]. This version, condensed by Peter Hallihan, of Snailbeach, is about 2,800 words, but retains the essentials of the original sermon.