Of Walking Humbly with God, Part 3
by John Owen
What it is to walk with God hath been declared.
II. What is added thereunto of duty, in this qualification, comes nextly to be considered.
Amongst the many eminent qualifications of the obedience of believers, we shall find, in the issue, this to stand in the forefront, among the chiefest (the words in the original are, וְהַצְנֵעַ לֶכֶת): To “humble thyself in walking,” or, to “walk with God.”
A man would think that it is such an honour and advancement, that a poor sinful creature should be taken into the company of the great God, to walk with him, that he had need be exhorted to take upon him great thoughts of himself, that he may be prepared for it. “Is it a light matter,” says David, “to be son-in-law to a king?” “Is it a light matter to walk with God? How had the heart of a man need to be lifted up, which hath such apprehensions of its condition!” The matter is quite otherwise. He that would have his heart exalted up to God, must bring it down in itself. There is a pride in every man’s heart by nature, lifting him up, and swelling him until he is too high and big for God to walk with.
Now, whereas there are two things in our walking with God considerable:— first, The inward power of it; and, secondly, The outward privilege of it, in an orderly admittance to the duties of it; — the former alone is that which edifieth us in this duty; the latter puffeth up. These Jews here, and their successors the Pharisees, having the privilege of performing the outward duty of walking with God, were, as Capernaum, lifted up unto heaven; and, trusting in themselves that they were righteous, they despised others; — of all men, therefore, they were most abhorred of God. This is that which the Holy Ghost beats them from, — resting in the privilege to come up to the power. God tells us of the prince of Tyrus, that he set his heart as the heart of God, Ezek. xxviii. 6; — he would be on even terms with him, independent, the author of his own good, fearless. So, in some measure, is the heart of every man by nature; which, indeed, is not to be like God, but the devil.
To prevent this evil, I shall inquire, what it is that is here required of us, under these two heads:— 1. What it is in reference whereunto we are to humble ourselves in walking with God; 2. How we are to do it:—
1. There are two things that we are to humble ourselves unto in our walking with God:— (1.) The law of his grace? (2.) The law of his providence:—
(1.) In all our walking with God, we are to humble ourselves in bowing to the law and rule of his grace; which is the way that he hath revealed wherein he will walk with sinners. The apostle tells us of the Jews in sundry places, that they had a mind to walk with God; they had “a zeal for God.” So he had himself in his Pharisaism, Phil. iii. 6. He “was zealous towards God,” Acts xxii. 3; and so were the Jews, Rom. x. 2, “I bear them record, they have a zeal of God.” And they followed after righteousness, “the law of righteousness,” chap. ix. 31; they took pains to “establish their righteousness,” chap. x. 3. What can be more required to walking with God than a zeal for him, — for his laws and ways, and a diligent endeavour to attain a righteousness before him? How few do we see attain thus much! What repute have they in the world that do so? But yet, saith the apostle, they did not attain to walk with God, nor the righteousness they sought after, chap. ix. 31. But what is the reason of it? Why, in their attempt to walk with God, they did not bow themselves to the law of his grace. So chap. x. 3; they went about to establish their own righteousness, and did not submit themselves to the righteousness of God. What righteousness is that? Why, “the righteousness of faith,” according to the law of grace, Rom. i. 17. “They sought it not by faith, but as it were by the works of the law,” chap. ix. 32. And the ground of all this is discovered, verse 33. Behold, here are two effects of Christ towards several persons: some stumble at him, and so are not able to walk on with God. Who are they? He tells you, verse 32. Some are not ashamed. Who are they? They that believe, and so submit to the law of God’s grace. It is evident, then, that men may labour to walk with God, and yet stumble and fall, for want of this humbling themselves to the law of his grace.
Let us see, then, how that may be done, and what is required thereunto. It is, then, required, —
[1.] That the bottom of all a man’s obedience lie in this, — that in himself he is a lost, undone creature, an object of wrath, and that whatever he have of God in any kind, he must have it in a way of mere mercy and grace. To this apprehension of himself must proud man, that would fain have something of his own, humble himself. God abhors every one that he sees coming towards him on any other account. Our Saviour Christ lets men know what they are, and what they must be, if they will come to God by him. “I came,” saith he, “to save that which was lost,” Matt. xviii. 11. “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance,” Matt. ix. 13. Verse 12, “The whole have no need of a physician, but they that are sick.” “I came into the world,” says he, “that they that are blind may see, and that they which see might be made blind,” John ix. 39. This is the sum: “If you intend to have any thing to do with God by me, know yourselves to be lost sinners, blind, sick, — dead; so that whatever you have, you must have it in a way of mere grace.”
And how was this direction followed by Paul? Will you see the foundation of his obedience? You have it, 1 Tim. i. 13–15, “I was thus and thus: I am the chief of sinners; ‘but I obtained mercy.’ It is mere mercy and grace upon the account whereof I have any thing from God:” — which principle he improves to the height, Phil. iii. 7–9, “All loss, all dung; Christ is all in all.” This the proud Pharisees could not submit unto. It is the subject of much of their disputes with our Saviour. To be lost, blind, nothing, — they could not endure to hear. Were they not children of Abraham? Did they not do so and so? To tell them that they are lost and nothing, is but to speak out of envy. And on this rock do thousands split themselves, in the days wherein we live. When they are overpowered by any conviction to an apprehension of a necessity of walking with God (as more or less, at one time or other, by one means or other, most men are), they then set themselves on the performance of the duties they have neglected, and of the obedience which they think acceptable, abiding in that course whilst their conviction abides; but never humbling themselves to this part of the law of God’s grace, — to be vile, miserable, lost, cursed, hopeless in themselves; — never making thorough work of it. They lay the foundation of their obedience in a quagmire, whose bottom should have been digged into; and stumble at the stumbling-stone, in their first attempt to walk with God.
Now, there are two evils attending the mere performance of this duty, which utterly disappoint all men’s attempts for walking with God:—
1st. That men without it will go forth, somewhat, at least, in their own strength, to walk with God. “Why,” say the Pharisees, “can we do nothing? ‘Are we blind also?’” Acting in the power of self will cleave to such a one, so as not to be separated; it will steal upon him in every duty he goes about. Now, nothing is more universally opposite to the whole nature of gospel obedience than this, that a man should perform the least of it in his own strength, without an actual influence of life and power from God in Christ. “Without me,” says Christ, “ye can do nothing,” John xv. 5. All that is done without strength from him, is nothing. God works in us “to will and to do of his good pleasure,” Phil. ii. 13. Whatever a man doth, which God works not in him, which he receives not strength for from Christ, is all lost, all perishing. Now, our fetching in of strength from Christ for every duty, is founded wholly in that subjection to the law of grace whereof we speak.
2dly. His obedience will build him up in that state wherein he is, or edify him towards hell and destruction:— of which more afterward.
[2.] The second thing that we are to humble ourselves unto in the law of grace is, a firm persuasion, exerting itself effectually in all our obedience, that there is not a righteousness to be obtained before God by the performance of any duties or obedience of ours whatever. That this lies in the law of the grace of God, the apostle disputes at large, Rom. iv. 13–15, “If,” saith he, “righteousness be by the law,” — that is, by our obedience to God according to the law, — “then faith and the promise serve to no purpose;” there is an inconsistency between the law of grace (that is, of faith and the promise) and the obtaining of a righteousness before God by our obedience. So Gal. ii. 21, “If righteousness were by the law, then Christ is dead in vain.” “You would walk with God according to his mind; you would please him in Jesus Christ. What do you do? You strive to perform the duties required at your hand, that on their account you may be accepted as righteous with God. I tell you,” saith the apostle, “if this be the state of things, ‘Christ is dead in vain:’ if this be a righteousness before God to be obtained by any thing you can do, the gospel is to no purpose.”
And this, also, is the proud heart of man to humble himself to, if he will walk with God; — he must obey, he must perform duties, he must be holy, he must abstain from every sin; and that, all, under a quick, living, energetical persuasion, that by these things a righteousness before God is not to be obtained. This is to influence all your duties, to steer you in your whole course of obedience, and to accompany you in every act of it. How few are influenced with this persuasion in their walking with God! Do not most men proceed on other practical principles? “Is not their great reserve for their appearance before God hewed out of their own obedience? God knows they walk not with him.
[3.] In the midst of all our obedience which is our own, we must believe and accept of a righteousness which is not our own, nor at all wrought or procured by us; of which we have no assurance that there is any such thing, but by the faith we have in the promise of God: and thereupon, renouncing all that is in or of ourselves, we must merely and solely rest on that for righteousness and acceptance with God. This the apostle affirms his heart to be humbled unto, Phil. iii. 7–9, the place before mentioned. He reckons up all his own duties, — is encompassed with them, — sees them lying in great abundance on every hand; every one of them offering its assistance, perhaps painting its face, and crying that it is “gain;” but saith the apostle, “ ‘You are all loss and dung;’ I look for another righteousness than any you can give me.”
Man sees and knows his own duty, his own righteousness and walking with God; he seeth what it costs and stands him in; he knows what pains he hath taken about it; what waiting, fasting, labouring, praying it hath cost him; how he hath cut himself short of his natural desires, and mortified his flesh in abstinence from sin. These are the things of a man, wrought in him, performed by him; and the spirit of a man knows them; and they will promise fair to the heart of a man that hath been sincere in them, for any end and purpose that he shall use them. But now, for the righteousness of Christ, — that is without him; he seeth it not, experiences it not; the spirit that is within him knows nothing of it; he hath no acquaintance with it, but merely as it is revealed and proposed in the promises, wherein yet it is nowhere said to him, in particular, that it is his, and was provided for him, but only that it is so, to and for believers. Now, for a man to cast away that which he hath seen, for that which he hath not seen; to refuse that which promises to give him a fair entertainment and supportment in the presence of God, and which he is sure is his own, and cannot be taken from him, for that which he must venture on upon the word of promise, against ten thousand doubts, and fears, and temptations that it belongs not to him; — this requires humbling of the soul before God; and this the heart of a man is not easily brought unto. Every man must make a venture for his future state and condition. The question only is, upon what he shall venture it? Our own obedience is at hand, and promises fairly to give assistance and help: for a man, therefore, wholly to cast it aside upon the naked promise of God to receive him in Christ, is a thing that the heart of man must be humbled unto. There is nothing in a man that will not dispute against this captivity of itself: innumerable proud reasonings and imaginations are set up against it; and when the mind and discursive, notional part of the soul is overpowered with the truth, yet the practical principle of the will and the affections will exceedingly tumultuate against it. But this is the law of God’s grace, which must be submitted unto, if we will walk with him; — the most holy, wise, and zealous, who have yielded the most constant obedience unto God, — whose good works and godly conversation have shone as lights in the world, — must cast down all these crowns at the foot of Jesus, renounce all for him, and the righteousness that he hath wrought out for us. All must be sold for the pearl; — all parted with for Christ. In the strictest course of exactest obedience in us, we are to look for a righteousness wholly without us.
[4.] We must humble ourselves to place our obedience on a new foot of account, and yet to pursue it with no less diligence than if it stood upon the old. Eph. ii. 8–10, “By grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: not of works, lest any man should boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.” “If not of works, then what need of works any more? The first end appointed to our obedience was, that, we might be saved. This end, it seems, is taken away: our works and duties are excluded from any efficiency in compassing of that end; for if it be of works, ‘then grace is no more grace,’ Gal. ii. 21. Then let us lay all works and obedience aside, and sin, that grace may abound.” That many did, that many do, make this use of the grace of God, is most evident; so turning it into lasciviousness. “But,” saith the apostle, “there is more to be said about works than so. Their legal end is changed, and the old foundation they stood upon is taken away. But there is a new constitution making them necessary, — a new obligation, requiring them no less exactly of us than the former did, before it was disannulled.” So Eph. ii. 10, “ ‘We are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works.’ God saving us by grace, hath, on that account, appointed that we should walk in obedience. There is this difference:— before, I was to perform good works because I was to be saved by them; now, because I am saved without them.” God saving us in Christ, by grace, hath appointed that we shall perform that in a way of acknowledgment of our free salvation, which before we were to do to be saved. Though works left no room at all for grace, yet grace leaves room for works, though not the same they had before grace came. This, then, are we to humble ourselves to, — to be as diligent in good works, and all duties of obedience, because we are saved without them, as we could be to be saved by them. He that walks with God must humble his soul to place all his obedience on this foot of account. He hath saved us freely; only let our conversation be as beseemeth the gospel. How this principle is effectual in believers, as to the crucifying of all sin, Paul declares, Rom. vi. 14, “Sin shall not have dominion over you: for ye are not under the law, but under grace.” The argument to carnal reason would lie quite contrary. “If we are not under the law, — that is, the condemning power of the law, — then let sin have its dominion, power, sway. Did not the law forbid sin, under pain of damnation? — ‘Cursed is every one that continueth not,’ etc. Did not the law command obedience with the promise of salvation? — ‘The man that doth the things of it shall live therein.’ If, then, the law be taken away from having power over us to these ends and purposes, as to forbid sin with terror of damnation, and command obedience for righteousness and salvation, what need we perform the one or avoid the other? “Why, upon this account,” saith the apostle, “that we are under grace; which, with new ends, and on new motives and considerations, requires the one and forbids the other.”
Have we now, or do we constantly humble ourselves to this part of the law of God’s grace, — that we build up and establish our obedience on grace, and not on the law; on motives of love, not fear; from what God hath done for us in Christ, rather than from what we expect, — because” eternal life is the gift of God, through Jesus Christ our Lord?”
[5.] We are to humble ourselves to this, — that we address ourselves to the performance of the greatest duties, being fully persuaded that we have no strength for the least. This is that which lies so cross to flesh and blood, that our souls must be humbled to it if ever we are brought to it; and yet without this there is no walking with God. There are great and mighty duties to be performed in our walking with God in a way of gospel obedience: there is cutting off right hands, plucking out right eyes; denying, yea, comparatively, hating father, mother, and all relations; dying for Christ, laying down our lives for the brethren; crucifying the flesh, cutting short all earthly desires, keeping the body in subjection, bearing the cross, self-denial, and the like; — which, when they come to be put in practice, will be found to be great and mighty duties. This is required in the law of grace, — that we undertake and go through with these all our days, with a full assurance and persuasion that we have not strength of ourselves, or in ourselves, to perform the least of them. “We are not sufficient of ourselves,” saith the apostle, 2 Cor. iii. 5. We cannot think a good thought. Without Christ we can do nothing, John xv. 5. This, to a carnal heart, looks like making of brick without straw. “A hard saying it is, who can bear it?” May not men sit down and say, “Why doth he yet complain? Is he not austere, reaping where he hath not sown? Are his ways equal?” Yea, most equal, righteous, and gracious; for this is the design of his thus dealing with us, that upon our addressing ourselves to any duty, we should look to him from whom are all our supplies, and thereby receive strength for what we have to do. How unable was Peter to walk upon the water! Yet, when Christ bids him come, he ventures in the midst of the sea; and with the command hath strength communicated to support him. God may call us to do or suffer what he pleases, so that his call have an efficacy with it to communicate strength for the performance of what he calls us to, Phil. i. 29.
This, I say, are we to humble ourselves unto, — not only in the general to reckon that the duties that are required of us are not proportioned to the strength residing in us, but to the supply laid up for us in Christ; but also to lie under such an actual conclusion in every particular duty that we address ourselves to. This, in civil and natural things, were the greatest madness in the world; nor is it needful that you should add any farther discouragement to a man from attempting any thing, than to convince him that he hath no strength or ability to perform or go through with it. Once persuade him of that, and there is an end of all endeavours; for who will wear out himself about that which it is impossible he should attain? It is otherwise in spirituals: God may require any thing of us that there is strength laid up in Christ for, enough to enable us to perform it; and we may by faith attempt any duty, though never so great, if there be grace to be obtained for it from Christ. Hence is that enumeration of the great things done by believers through faith, — utterly beyond their own strength and power, Heb. xi. 33, 34, “Out of weakness were made strong.” When they entered upon the duty, they were weakness itself; but in the performance of it grew strong, by the supply that was administered. So we are said to come to Christ to “find grace to help in time of need,” Heb. iv. 16, — when we need it, as going about that which we have no might nor power for.
This is the way to walk with God, — to be ready and willing to undergo any duty, though never so much above or beyond our strength, so we can see that in Christ there is a supply. The truth is, he that shall consider what God requires of believers, would think them to have a stock of spiritual strength like that of Samson’s, since they are to fight with principalities and powers, contend against the world, and self, and what not; and he that shall look upon them will quickly see their weakness and inability. Here lies the mystery of it, — the duties required of them are proportioned to the grace laid up for them in Christ, — not to what they are at any time themselves intrusted withal.
[6.] This, also, is another thing we are to humble ourselves unto, — to be contented to have the sharpest afflictions accompanying and attending the strictest obedience. Men walking closely with God, may perhaps have some secret reserves for freedom from trouble in this life: hence they are apt to think strange of a fiery trial, 1 Pet. iv. 12; and therefore, when it comes upon them, they are troubled, perplexed, and know not what it means; especially if they see others prospering, and at rest in the land, who know not God. Their estates are ruined, names blasted, bodies afflicted with violent diseases, children taken away, or turning profligate and rebellious, life in danger every hour, — perhaps killed all the day long: hereupon they are ready to cry, with Hezekiah, Isa. xxxviii. 3, “Lord, remember;” or to contend about the business, as Job did, being troubled that he was disappointed in his expectation, of dying in his nest. But this frame is utterly contrary to the law of the grace of God; which is, that the children that he receives are to be chastised, Heb. xii. 6; that they are to undergo whatever chastening he will call them to: for, having made the Captain of their salvation perfect through all manner of sufferings, he will make his conformable to him. This, I say, is part of the law of the grace of God, that in the choicest obedience we willingly undergo the greatest afflictions. The management of this principle between God and Job were worth while to consider; for although he disputed long, yet God left him not until he brought him to own it, and to submit unto it with all his heart. This will farther appear in our second head, about submitting to the law of the providence of God. The truth is, to help our poor weak hearts in this business, to prevent all sinful repinings, disputes, and the like, he hath laid in such provision of principles as may render the receiving of it sweet and easy to us; as, —
1st. That he doth not correct us for his pleasure, but that he may make us partakers of his holiness: so that we are not in heaviness unless it be needful for us; which we may rest upon, when we neither see the cause nor the particular of our visitation; — then, on this account we may rest on his sovereign will and wisdom.
2dly. That he will make all things work together for our good. This takes the poison out of every cup we are to drink, yea, all the bitterness of it. We have concernments that lie above all that here we can undergo or suffer; and if all work for our advantage and improvement, why should they not be welcome to us?
3dly. That conformity and likeness to Jesus Christ is hereby to be attained; and sundry other principles there are given out, to prevail with our hearts to submit and humble our souls to this part of the law of God’s grace: which is a thing that the devil never thought Job would have done, and was therefore restless until it was put to the trial; but he was disappointed and conquered, and his condemnation aggravated.
And this is the first thing required of us, — namely, that we humble ourselves to the law of the grace of God.
Use 1. Let us now take some brief account of ourselves, whether we do so or no. We perform duties, and so seem to walk with God; but, —
(1.) Is the bottom of our obedience a deep apprehension and a full conviction of our own vileness and nothingness, — of our being the chief of sinners, lost and undone; so that we always lie at the foot of sovereign grace and mercy? Is it so? Then, when, how, by what means, was this apprehension brought upon us? I intend not a general notion that we are sinners; but a particular apprehension of our lost, undone condition, with suitable affections thereunto. Do we cry to the Lord out of the depths? or is the end of our obedience to keep ourselves out of such a condition? I am afraid many amongst us, could we, or themselves, by any means dive into the depths of their hearts, would be found to yield their obedience unto God merely on the account of keeping them out of the condition which they must be brought unto before they can yield any acceptable obedience to him. If we think at all to walk with God, let us be clear in this, that such a sense and apprehension of ourselves lies at the bottom of it, — “Of sinners I am chief.”
(2.) Doth this always abide in our thoughts, and upon our spirits, — that, by all we have done, do, or can do, we cannot obtain righteousness to stand in the presence of God; so that in the secret reserves of our hearts we place none of our righteousness on that account? Can we be content to suffer loss in all our obedience, as to an end of righteousness? and do we appear before God simply on another head, as if there were no such thing as our own obedience in the world? Herein, indeed, lies the great mystery of gospel obedience, — that we pursue it with all our strength and might, with all the vigour of our souls, and labour to abound in it, like the angels in theirs, — perfecting holiness in the fear of the Lord; and yet, in point of the acceptation of our persons, to have no more regard unto it than if we had yielded no more obedience than the thief on the cross.
(3.) Do we, then, humble ourselves to accept of the righteousness that God in Christ hath provided for us? It is a common working of the heart of them whom God is drawing to himself; — they dare not close with the promise, they dare not accept of Christ and his righteousness, — it would be presumption in them. And the answer is common, — that indeed this is not fear and humility, but pride. Men know not how to humble themselves to a righteousness purely without them, on the testimony of God: the heart is not willing to it; we would willingly establish our own righteousness, and not submit to the righteousness of God. But how is it with our souls? Are we clear in this great point, or no? If we are not, we are at best shuffling with God; — we walk not with him. He admits none into his company, but expressly on the terms of taking this righteousness that he hath provided; and his soul loathes them that would tender him any thing in the room thereof, as men engaged to set up their wisdom and righteousness against his. But I must conclude.
Use 2. If all these things are required to our walking with God, where shall they appear, what shall be their lot and portion, who take no thought about these things? Some we see visibly to walk contrary to him, having no regard to him at all, nor considering their latter end. Others have some checks of conscience, — that think to cure these distempers and eruptions of sin with a loose cry of “God be merciful to them.” Some go a little farther, — to take care of the performance of duties; but they seek not God in a due manner, and he will make a breach upon them. The Lord awaken them all before it be too late!
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