EXHORTATIONS TO BELIEVE
Extracts from the exposition of Psalm 130 by John Owen 1616-1683*
“But there is forgiveness with thee, that thou mayest be feared.” Psalm 130.4.
We shall now proceed unto the direct uses of this great truth; for having laid our foundation in the word that will not fail, and having given, as we hope, sufficient evidence unto the truth of it, our last work is to make that improvement of it unto the good of the souls of men which all along was aimed at. The persons concerned in this truth are all sinners whatever. No sort of sinners are unconcerned in it, none are excluded from it. And we may cast them all under two leads:Â—
First, Such as never yet sincerely closed with the promise of grace, nor have ever yet received forgiveness from God in a way of relieving. These we have already endeavoured to undeceive, and to discover those false presumptions whereby they are apt to ruin and destroy their own souls. These we would guide now into safe and pleasant paths, wherein they may find assured rest and peace.
Secondly, Others there are who have received it, but being again entangled by sin, or clouded by darkness and temptations, or weakened by unbelief, know not how to improve it to their peace and comfort. This is the condition of the soul represented in this
psalm, and which we shall therefore apply ourselves unto in an especial manner in its proper place.
Our exhortation, then, is unto both:Â—to the first, that they would receive it, that they may have life; to the latter, that they would improve it, that they may have peace;Â—to the former, that they would not overlook, disregard, or neglect so great salvation as is tendered unto them; to the latter, that they would stir up the grace of God that is in them, to mix with the grace of God that is declared unto them.
I shall begin with the first sort,Â—those who are yet utter strangers from the covenant of grace, who never yet upon saving grounds believed this forgiveness, who never yet once tasted of gospel pardon. Poor sinners! this word is unto you…..
Notwithstanding all your sins, all the evil that your own hearts know you to be guilty of, and that hidden mass or evil treasure of sin which is in you, which you are not able to look into; notwithstanding that charge that lies upon you from your own consciences, and that dreadful sentence and curse of the law which you are obnoxious unto; notwithstanding all the just grounds that you have to apprehend that God is your enemy, and will be so unto eternity;Â— yet there are terms of peace and reconciliation provided and proposed between Him and your souls. This, in the first place, is spoken out by the word we have insisted on. Whatever else it informs us of, this it positively asserts,Â—namely, that there is a way whereby sinners may come to be accepted with God; for “there is forgiveness with him, that he may be feared.” And we hope that we have not confirmed it by so many testimonies, by so many evidences, in vain…..
Wherefore, it is God Himself who proposeth these terms; and not only proposeth them, but invites, exhorts, and persuades you to accept them. This the whole Scriptures testify unto. It is fully expressed, 2 Cor. 5.18-20. He hath provided them. He hath proposed them, and makes use only of men, of ministers, to act in His name. And excuse us if we are a little earnest with you in this matter. Alas! our utmost that we can do, by zeal for His glory or compassion unto your souls, to raise our thoughts, minds, spirits, words unto, comes infinitely short of His own pressing earnestness herein. See Isa. 55.1-4. Oh, infinite condescension! Oh, blessed grace! Who is this that thus bespeaks you? He against whom you have sinned, of whom you are justly afraid; He whose laws you have broken, and whose name you have dishonoured; He who needs not you, nor your love, nor your friendship, nor your salvation! It is He who proposeth unto you these terms of reconciliation and peace! Consider the exhortation of the apostle upon this consideration:
Heb. 12.25, “See that ye refuse not him that speaketh from
heaven.” It is God that speaks unto you in this matter, and He speaks unto you from heaven. And He doth therein forego all the advantage that He hath against you for your destruction. Woe would be unto your souls, and that for ever, if you should refuse Him…..
Consider that you are sinners, great sinners, cursed sinners; some of you, it may be, worse than innumerable of your fellow-sinners were who are now in hell. God might long since have cast you off everlastingly from all expectation of mercy, and have caused all your hopes to perish; or He might have left you alive, and yet have refused to deal with you any more. He could have caused your sun to go down at noon-day, and have given you darkness instead of vision. He would respite your lives for a season, and yet “swear in his wrath that you should never enter into his rest.” It is now otherwise. How long it may be so, nor you nor I know any thing at all. God only knows what will be your time, what your continuance. We are to speak whilst it is called “To-day.” And this is that for the present which I have to offer unto you:Â—God declares that there is forgiveness with Him, that your condition is not desperate nor helpless. There are yet terms of peace proposed unto you. Methinks it cannot but seem strange that poor sinners should not at least stir up themselves to inquire after them. When a poor man had sold himself of old and his children to be servants, and parted with the land of his inheritance unto another, because of his poverty, with what heart do you think did he hear the sound of the trumpet when it began to proclaim the year of jubilee, wherein he and all his were to go out at liberty, and to return unto his possession and inheritance? And shall not poor servants of sin, slaves unto Satan, that have forfeited all their inheritance in this world and that which is to come, attend unto any proclamation of the year of rest, of the acceptable year of the Lord? And this is done in the tender of terms of peace with God in this matter. Do not put it off; this belongs unto you; the great concernment of your souls lies in it…..
Hear, then, once more, poor sin-hardened, senseless souls, ye stout-hearted, that are far from righteousness. Is it nothing unto you that the great and holy God, whom ye have provoked all your days, and whom you yet continue to provoke,Â—who hath not the least need of you or your salvation,Â—who can, when He pleaseth, eternally glorify Himself in your destruction,Â—should of His own accord send unto you, to let you know that He is willing to be at peace with you on the terms He had prepared? The enmity began on your part, the danger is on your part only, and He might justly expect that the message for peace should begin on your part also;
but He begins with you. And shall He be rejected? The prophet well expresseth this, Isa. 30.15, “Thus saith the Lord GOD, the Holy One
of Israel; In returning and rest shall ye be saved; in quietness and in confidence shall be your strength: and ye would not.” The love and condescension that is in these words, on the one hand, on the part of God, and the folly and ingratitude mentioned in them on the other hand, is inexpressible. They are fearful words, “But ye would not.” remember this against another day. As our Saviour says, in the like manner, to the Jews, “Ye will not come to me, that ye might have life.” Whatever is pretended, it is will and stubbornness that lie at the bottom of this refusal….
The terms provided for you, and proposed unto you, are equal, holy, righteous, yea, pleasant and easy…..
See here on what foundation we preach the gospel. Many disputes there are whether Christ died for all individuals of mankind or no. If we say, “No, but only for the elect, who are some of all sorts;” some then tell us we cannot invite all men promiscuously to believe. But why so? We invite not men as all men, no man as one of all men, but all men as sinners; and we know that Christ died for sinners. But is this the first thing that we are, in the dispensation of the gospel, to propose to the soul of a sinner under the law, that Christ died for him ‘n particular? Is that the beginning of our message unto him? Were not this a ready way to induce him to conclude, “Let me, then, continue in sin, that grace may abound?”Â—No; but this is in order of nature our first work, even that which we have had in hand; this is the “beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ;” this is “the voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord:”Â— ‘There is a way of reconciliation provided. ‘God is in Christ reconciling the world to himself.’ There is a way of acceptance;
there is forgiveness with Him to be obtained.” At this threshold of the Lord’s house doth the greatest part of men to whom the gospel is preached fall and perish, never looking in to see the treasures that are in the house itself, never coming into any such state and condition wherein they have any ground or bottom to inquire whether Christ died for them in particular or no. They believe not this report, nor take any serious notice of it. This was the ministry of the Baptist, and they who received it not “rejected the counsel of God” concerning their salvation, Luke 7.10, and so perished in their sins. This is the sum of the blessed invitation given by Wisdom, Prov. 9.1-5. And here men stumble, fall, and perish, chap. 1.29,30…..
This is the way that above all others tends directly and immediately to the glory of God. God hath managed and ordered all things in this way of forgiveness, so as “no flesh should glory in his presence,” but that “he that glorieth should glory in the Lord,” 1 Cor. 1.29,31. “Where is boasting then? It is excluded. By what law? by the law of works? Nay; but by the law of faith,” Rom. 3.27. It might be easily manifested that God hath so laid the design of saving sinners by
forgiveness according to the law of faith, that it is utterly impossible that any soul should, on any account whatever, have the least ground of glorying or boasting in itself, either absolutely or in comparison with them that perish. “If Abraham,” saith the same apostle, “were justified by works, he had whereof to glory; but not before God,” chap. 4.2. The obedience of works would have been so infinitely disproportionate to the reward, which was God Himself, that there had been no glorying before God, but therein His goodness and grace must be acknowledged; yet in comparison with others who yielded not the obedience required, he would have had wherein to glory: but now this also is cut off by the way of forgiveness, and no pretence is left for any to claim the least share in the glory of it but God alone. And herein lies the excellency of faith, that it “gives glory to God,” chap. 4.20; the denial whereof, under various pretences, is the issue of proud unbelief. And this is that which God will bring all unto, or they shall perish, Â—namely, that shame be ours, and the whole glory of our salvation be His alone. So He expresseth His design, Isa. 45.22-25. Verse 22, He proposeth Himself as the only relief for sinners: “Look unto me,” saith He, ‘and be saved, all the ends of the earth. “But what if men take some other course, and look well to themselves, and so decline this way of mere mercy and grace? Why, saith He, verse 23, “I have sworn by myself, the word is gone out of my mouth in righteousness, and shall not return, That unto me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear.” Look you unto that, “But I have sworn that you shall either do so, or answer your disobedience at the day of judgment;” whereunto Paul applies those words, Rom. 14.11. What do the saints hereupon? Isa. 45.24,25, “Surely, shall one say, in the LORD have I righteousness and strength. In the LORD shall all the seed of Israel be justified, and shall glory.” They bring their hearts to accept of all righteousness from Him, and to give all glory unto Him…..
Consider that if this way of salvation be refused, there is no other way for you. We do not propose this way of forgiveness as the best and most pleasant, but as the only way. There is no other name given but that of Christ; no other way but this of forgiveness. Here lies your choice; take this path, or perish for ever. It is a shame, indeed, unto our cursed nature that there should be any need to use this argument,Â—that we will neither submit to God’s sovereignty nor delight in His glory; but seeing it must be used, let it be so. I intend neither to flatter men nor to frighten them, but to tell them the truth as it is. If you continue in your present state and condition;
if you rest on what you do or what you hope to do; if you support yourselves with general hopes of mercy, mixed with your own endeavours and obedience; if you come not up to a thorough gospel-closure with this way of God; if you make it not your all, giving glory
to God therein,Â—perish you will, you must, and that to eternity. There remains no sacrifice for your sins, nor way of escape to invite you, but the absolute, indispensable necessity of this way to enforce you. And now, let me add that I am glad this word is spoken, is written unto you. You and I must one day be accountable for this discourse. That word that hath already been spoken, if neglected, will prove a sore testimony against you. It will not fare with you as with other men who have not heard the joyful sound. All those words that shall be found consonant to the gospel, if they are not turned to grace in your hearts here, will turn into torment unto your souls hereafter. Choose not any other way; it will be in vain for you;
it will not profit you. And take heed lest you suppose you embrace this way when indeed you do not; about which I have given caution before.
This way is free and open for and unto sinners. He that fled to the city of refuge might well have many perplexed thoughts, whether he should find the gates of it opened unto him or no, and whether the avenger of blood might not overtake and slay him whilst he was calling for entrance. Or if the gates were always open, yet some crimes excluded men thence, Numb. 35.16. It is not so here, Acts 13.38,39.
This is the voice of God, even the Father: “Come,” saith He, “to the marriage, for all things are prepared,”Â—no fear of want of entertainment, Matt. 22.4; whence the preachers of the gospel are said in His stead to beseech men to be reconciled, 2 Cor. 5.20. And
It is the voice of the Son: “Whosoever,” saith He, “cometh to God by me, ‘I will in no wise cast out,'” John 6.37. Whoever he be that comes shall assuredly find entertainment. The same is His call and invitation in other places, as Matt. 9.28; John 7.37. And
This is the voice of the Spirit, and of the church, and of all believers: Rev. 22.17, “The Spirit and the bride say. Come. And let him that heareth say. Come. And let him that is athirst come. And whosoever will, let him take the water of life freely.” All centre in this, that sinners may come freely to the grace of the gospel. And
It is the known voice of the gospel itself, as lsa. 55.1-3;Prov. 9.1-5. And
It is the voice of all the saints in heaven and earth, who have been made partakers of forgiveness; they all testify that they received it freely…..
Again: it is such a way, so excellent, so precious, so near the heart of God, so relating to the blood of Christ, that the neglect of it will assuredly be sorely revenged of the Lord. Let not men think that they shall despise the wisdom and love of the Father, the blood of the Son, and the promises of the gospel, at an easy rate. Let us in a very few words take a view of what the Holy Ghost speaks to this
purpose. There are three ways whereby the vengeance due to the neglect of closing with forgiveness or gospel grace is expressed:Â—
(1) That is done positively: “He that believeth not shall be DAMNED,” Mark 16.16. That is a hard word; many men cannot endure to hear of it. They would not have it named by their good wills, and are ready to fly in the face of Him from whose mouth it proceeds. But let not men deceive themselves; this is the softest word that mercy and love itself, that Christ, that the gospel speaks to despisers of forgiveness. It is Christ who is this legal terrifying preacher; it is He that cries out, “If you believe not, you shall be damned;” and He will come Himself “in flaming fire, to take vengeance on them that obey not the gospel,” 2 Thess. 2.8. This is the end of the disobedient, if God, if Christ, if the gospel may be believed.
(2) Comparatively, in reference unto the vengeance due to the breach of the law, 2 Cor. 2.16. We are in the preaching of forgiveness by Christ, unto them that perish, “a savour of death unto death,” a deep death, a sore condemnation. So Heb. 10.29, “‘Of how much sorer punishment suppose ye shall he be thought worthy?” sorer than ever was threatened by the law, or inflicted for the breach of it,Â—not as to the kind of punishment but as to the degrees of it; hence ariseth the addition of “Many stripes.”
(3) By the way of admiration at the inexpressibleness and unavoidableness of the punishment due unto such sinners: Heb. 2.3, “How shall we escape, if we neglect so great salvation!”Â—”Surely there is no way for men to escape, they shall unavoidably perish, who neglect so great salvation.” So the Holy Ghost says, 1 Pet. 4.17, ‘What shall the end be of them that obey not the gospel?”Â—”What understanding can reach to an apprehension of their miserable and woeful condition?” “None can,” saith the Holy Ghost, “nor can it be spoken to their capacity.” Ah! what shall their end be? There remains nothing but “a certain fearful looking for of judgment and fiery indignation, which shall devour the adversaries,” Heb. 10.27,Â—a certain fearful expectation of astonishable things, that cannot be comprehended.
And these are the enforcements of the exhortation in hand which I shall insist upon. On these foundations, on the consideration of these principles, let us now a little confer together, with the words of truth and sobriety. I speak to such poor souls as, having deceived themselves, or neglected utterly their eternal condition, are not as yet really and in truth made partakers of this forgiveness. Your present state is sad and deplorable. There is nothing but the woeful uncertainty of a dying life between you and eternal ruin. That persuasion you have of forgiveness is good for nothing but to harden you and destroy you. It is not the forgiveness that is with God, nor
have you taken it up on gospel grounds or evidences. You have stolen painted beads, and take yourselves to be lawful possessors of pearls and jewels. As you are, then, any way concerned in your own eternal condition, which you are entering into (and how soon you shall be engaged in it you know not), prevail with yourselves to attend a little unto the exhortation that lies before you; it is your own business that you are entreated to have regard unto…..
If you resolve to continue in the neglect of this salvation, and shall do so accordingly, then cursed be you of the Lord, with all the curses that are written in the law, and all the curses that are denounced against despisers of the gospel. Yea, be you Anathema Maranatha,Â—cursed in this world always, until the coming of the Lord;
and when the Lord comes, be ye cursed from His presence into everlasting destruction. Yea, curse them, all ye holy angels of God, as the obstinate enemies of your King and Head, the Lord Jesus Christ. Curse them, all ye churches of Christ, as despisers of that love and mercy which is your portion, your life, your inheritance. Let all the saints of God, all that love the Lord, curse them, and rejoice to see the Lord coming forth mightily and prevailing against them, to their everlasting ruin. Why should any one have a thought of compassion towards them who despise the compassion of God, or of mercy towards them who trample on the blood of Christ? Whilst there is yet hope, we desire to have continual sorrow for you, and to travail in soul for your conversion to God; but if you be hardened in your way, shall we join with you against Him? shall we prefer you above His glory? shall we desire your salvation with the despoiling God of His honour? Nay, God forbid. We hope to rejoice in seeing all that vengeance and indignation that is in the right hand of God poured out unto eternity upon your souls, Prov. 1.24-33.
24 Because I have called, and ye refused; I have stretched out my hand, and no man regarded;
25 But ye have set at nought all my counsel, and would none of my reproof:
26 I also will laugh at your calamity; I will mock when your fear cometh;
27 When your fear cometh as desolation, and your destruction cometh as a whirlwind; when distress and anguish cometh upon you.
28 Then shall they call upon me, but I will not answer; they shall seek me early, but they shall not find me:
29 For that they hated knowledge, and did not choose the fear of the LORD: .
30 They would none of my counsel: they despised all my reproof.
31 Therefore shall they eat of the fruit of their own way, and be filled with their own devices.
32 For the turning away of the simple shall slay them, and the
prosperity of fools shall destroy them.
33 But whoso hearkeneth unto me shall dwell safely, and shall be
quiet from fear of evil.
From Vol. 6. pages 515-541 in the Banner of Truth (1966) edition of John Owen’s works.