Providential changes, an argument for universal holiness, Part 1


by John Owen



“Seeing then that all these things shall be dissolved, what manner of persons ought ye to be in all holy conversation and godliness?”


2 Pet. iii. 11.



That this second epistle was written unto the same persons to whom the former was directed, the apostle himself informs us, 2 Pet. iii. 1. Who they were to whom the first was directed, he declares fully, 1 Epist. i. 1, 2, “Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, to the strangers scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia,” etc.


“Strangers” are taken two ways: First, In a large, general, and spiritual sense. So all believers are said to be strangers and pilgrims in this world, because they are not of the world, but they look for another country, another city, another house, whose framer and builder is God. Secondly, In a proper, natural sense, for those who abide or dwell in a land that is not their own, wherein they have not right of inheritance with the natives and citizens of it. In this sense the patriarchs were strangers in the land of Canaan before it came to be the possession of their posterity; and the children of Israel were strangers four hundred years in the land of Egypt.


Now, though the persons to whom the apostle wrote were strangers in the first sense, — pilgrims, whose conversation and country was in heaven, — yet they were no more so than all other believers in the world; so that there was no just cause of saluting them peculiarly under that style and title, were there not some other special reason of that appellation. They were, therefore, also strangers in the latter sense; — persons who had no inheritance in the place of their abode, that were not the free and privileged natives of the country where they dwelt and inhabited; that is, they were Jews scattered abroad in those parts of the world.


The people of Israel in those days were under various distributions and appellations. First, They were the natives of Jerusalem, and the parts adjacent; and these were in the gospel peculiarly called Jews. You have it often mentioned, that in our Saviour’s discourse with them, the Jews answered so and so; that is, the natives of Jerusalem, and places adjoining. Secondly, Those who inhabited the sea-coasts of the country, whom the others much despised, and called them, from the place of their habitation, as if they had been men of another nation, “Galileans.” Thirdly, Those who lived in several dispersions, up and down the world, among other nations. Of these there were two chief sorts:— 1. Those who lived in some parts of Europe, in Asia the less, also at Alexandria, and other Greek colonies. These are in the Scripture sometimes called Greeks, Acts xvii.; and elsewhere commonly termed Hellenists; because they used the Greek language, and the Greek Bible then in use. 2. Those who lived in the greater Asia, in and about Babylon; as also in the countries here enumerated by the apostle:— the Jews converted to the faith, that lived scatteredly up and down in those parts of Asia.


Peter being in a special manner designed by the Holy Ghost the apostle of the Circumcision, and being now at Babylon in the discharge of his apostolical office and duty, 1 Epist. v. 13; and being now nigh unto death, which he also knew, 2 Epist. i. 14; and not perhaps having time to pass through and personally visit these scattered believers, — he wrote unto them these two epistles, partly about the main and important truths of the gospel, and partly about their own particular and immediate concernment as to the temptations and afflictions wherewith they were exercised.


It is evident, front sundry places in the New Testament, what extreme oppositions the believing Jews met withal, all the world over, from their own countrymen, with and among whom they lived. They in the meantime, no doubt, warned them of the wrath of Christ against them for their cursed unbelief and persecutions; particularly letting them know, that Christ would come in vengeance ere long, according as he had threatened, to the ruin of his enemies. And because the persecuting Jews, all the world over, upbraided the believers with the temple and the holy city, Jerusalem, their worship and service instituted of God, which they had defiled; they were given to know that even all these things also should be destroyed, for their rejection of the Son of God. After some continuance of time, the threatening denounced being not yet accomplished, — as is the manner of profane persons and hardened sinners, Eccles. viii. 11, — they began to mock and scoff, as if they were all but the vain pretences, or loose, causeless fears of the Christians. That this was the state with them, or shortly would be, the apostle declares in this chapter, verses 3, 4. Because things continued in the old state, without alteration, and judgment was not speedily executed, they scoffed at all the threats about the coming of the Lord that had been denounced against them.


Hereupon the apostle undertakes these three things:—


First. He convinces the scoffers of folly by an instance of the like presumption in persons not unlike them, and the dealings of God in a case of the same nature.


Secondly. He instructs believers in the truth of what they had before been told concerning the coming of Christ, and the destruction of ungodly men.


Thirdly. He informs them in the due use and improvement that ought practically to be made of the certainty of this threatening of the coming’ of Christ.

For the first, he minds them, as I said, of the old world, verses 5, 6. Before the destruction of that world, God sent “Noah, a preacher of righteousness,” who, both in word and deed, effectually admonished men of the judgment of God that was ready to come upon them; but they scoffed at his preaching and practice, in building the ark, and persisted in their security. “Now,” saith he, “this they willingly are ignorant of;” — it is through the obstinacy and stubbornness of their will, they do not consider it; for otherwise they had the Scripture, and knew the story. There is no ignorance like that where men’s obstinacy and hardness in sin keeps them from a due improvement of what they ought to have improved to its proper purpose. They are to this day willingly ignorant of the flood, who live securely in sin under the denunciation of the judgments of God against sin.


I shall only observe, by the way, not to look into the difficulties of these verses, that I be not too long detained from my principal intendment, — that the apostle makes a distribution of the world into heaven and earth, and saith, they “were destroyed with water, and perished.” We know that neither the fabric or substance of the one or other was destroyed, but only men that lived on the earth; and the apostle tells us, verse 5, of the heavens and earth that were then, and were destroyed by water, distinct from the heavens and the earth that were now, and were to be consumed by fire: and yet, as to the visible fabric of heaven and earth, they were the same both before the flood and in the apostle’s time, and continue so to this day; when yet it is certain that the heavens and earth, whereof he speaks were to be destroyed and consumed by fire in that generation. We must, then, for the clearing our foundation, a little consider what the apostle intends by “the heavens and the earth” in these two places:—


1. It is certain, that what the apostle intends by the “world,” with its heavens and earth, verses 5, 6, which was destroyed by water; the same, or somewhat of that kind, he intends by “the heavens and the earth” that were to be consumed and destroyed by fire, verse 7. Otherwise there would be no coherence in the apostle’s discourse, nor any kind of argument, but a mere fallacy of words.


2. It is certain, that by the flood, the world, or the fabric of heaven and earth, was not destroyed, but only the inhabitants of the world; and therefore the destruction intimated to succeed by fire, is not of the substance of the heavens and the earth, which shall not be consumed until the last day, but of persons or men living in the world.


3. Then we must consider in what sense men living in the world are said to be the “world,” and the “heavens and earth” of it. I shall only insist on one instance to this purpose, among many that may be produced, Isa. li. 15, 16. The time when the work here mentioned, of planting the heavens, and laying the foundation of the earth, was performed by God, was when he “divided the sea,” verse 15, and gave the law, verse 16, and said to Zion, “Thou art my people;” — that is, when he took the children of Israel out of Egypt, and formed them in the wilderness into a church and state. Then he planted the heavens, and laid the foundation of the earth, — made the new world; that is, brought forth order, and government, and beauty, from the confusion wherein before they were. This is the planting of the heavens, and laying the foundation of the earth in the world. And hence it is, that when mention is made of the destruction of a state and government, it is in that language that seems to set forth the end of the world. So Isa. xxxiv. 4; which is yet but the destruction of the state of Edom. The like also is affirmed of the Roman empire, Rev. vi. 14; which the Jews constantly affirm to be intended by Edom in the prophets. And in our Saviour Christ’s prediction of the destruction of Jerusalem, Matt. xxiv., he sets it out by expressions of the same importance. It is evident, then, that, in the prophetical idiom and manner of speech, by “heavens” and “earth,” the civil and religious state and combination of men in the world, and the men of them, are often understood. So were the heavens and earth that world which then was destroyed by the flood.


4. On this foundation I affirm, that the heavens and earth here intended in this prophecy of Peter, the coming of the Lord, the day of judgment and perdition of ungodly men, mentioned in the destruction of that heaven and earth, do all of them relate, not to the last and final judgment of the world, but to that utter desolation and destruction that was to be made of the Judaical church and state; for which I shall offer these two reasons, of many that might be insisted on from the text:—


(1.) Because whatever is here mentioned was to have its peculiar influence on the men of that generation. He speaks of that wherein both the profane scoffers and those scoffed at were concerned, and that as Jews; — some of them believing, others opposing the faith. Now, there was no particular concernment of that generation in that sin, nor in that scoffing, as to the day of judgment in general; but there was a peculiar relief for the one and a peculiar dread for the other at hand, in the destruction of the Jewish nation; and, besides, an ample testimony, both to the one and the other, of the power and dominion of the Lord Jesus Christ; — which was the thing in question between them.


(2.) Peter tells them, that, after the destruction and judgment that he speaks of, verse 13, “We, according to his promise, look for new heavens and a new earth,” etc. They had this expectation. But what is that promise? where may we find it? Why, we have it in the very words and letter, Isa. lxv. 17. Now, when shall this be that God will create these “new heavens and new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness?” Saith Peter, “It shall be after the coming of the Lord, after that judgment and destruction of ungodly men, who obey not the gospel, that I foretell.” But now it is evident, from this place of Isaiah, with chap. lxvi. 21, 22, that this is a prophecy of gospel times only; and that the planting of these new heavens is nothing but the creation of gospel ordinances, to endure for ever. The same thing is so expressed, Heb. xii. 26–28.


This being, then, the design of the place, I shall not insist longer on the context, but briefly open the words proposed, and fix upon the truth contained in them:—


First, There is the foundation of the apostle’s inference and exhortation, Τούτων οὗν πάντων λυομένων. — “Seeing that I have evinced that all these things, however precious they seem, or what value soever any put upon them, shall be dissolved, — that is, destroyed; and that in that dreadful and fearful manner before mentioned, — in a way of judgment, wrath, and vengeance, by fire and sword; — let others mock at the threats of Christ’s coming, — he will come, he will not tarry; and then the heavens and earth that God himself planted, the sun, moon, and stars of the Judaical polity and church, — the whole old world of worship and worshippers, that stand out in their obstinacy against the Lord Christ, — shall be sensibly dissolved and destroyed. This, we know, shall be the end of these things, and that shortly.”


There is no outward constitution nor frame of things, in governments or nations, but it is subject to a dissolution, and may receive it, and that in a way of judgment. If any might plead exemption, that, on many accounts, of which the apostle was discoursing in prophetical terms (for it was not yet time to speak it openly to all) might interpose for its share. But that also, though of God’s creation, yet standing in the way of, and in opposition to, the interest of Christ, — that also shall be dissolved. And certainly there is no greater folly in the world, than for a mere human creation, a mere product of the sayings and the wisdom of men, to pretend for eternity, or any duration beyond the coincidence of its usefulness to the great ends that Christ hath to accomplish in the world. But this is not my business.


Secondly, There is the apostle’s inference from, or exhortation on this supposition, expressed emphatically by way of interrogation: “What manner?” Now, herein two things are included:—


1. The evidence of the inference. It follows necessarily, unavoidably; every one must needs make this conclusion, — so that he leaves it to themselves to determine whose concernment it is. So the apostle Paul, in another case, Heb. x. 29, leaves it to themselves to determine, as a case clear, plain, unquestionable. So here: and this is a most effectual way of insinuating an inference and conclusion, when the parties themselves who are pressed with it are made judges of its necessary consequence. “Judge ye whether holiness becomes not all them who are like to be concerned in such providential alterations.”


2. The extent and perfection of the duty, in its universality and compass, is, in this manner of expression, strongly insinuated: “What manner of persons?” — that is, “Such as, indeed, it is not easy to express what attainments in this kind we ought, on this account, to press after.” This apostle useth the same kind of expression to set forth the greatness and height of what he would deliver to the thoughts of men, 1 Pet. iv. 17, 18. There is in this kind of expression somewhat more insinuated to the mind than we know how to clothe with any words whatever.


Two things seem principally to be intended:—


(1.) That even the saints themselves, in such cases, ought to be other manner of men than usually they are, under ordinary dispensations of providence. Mistake not: our old measures will not serve; another manner of progress them as yet we have made is expected from us; it is not ordinary holiness and godliness that is expected from us under extraordinary calls from God and Christ.


(2.) That our endeavours to be godly and holy ought to be boundless and endless. No less is included in this apostrophe, “What manner of persons ought we to be!” — not resting in what we have attained, nor what may seem sufficient to keep our heads above water, — but an endless and boundless pressing on. Alas! it will hardly enter into our hearts to think what manner of men we ought to be.


Thirdly. For the matter of this exhortation and inference from the former principle, couched in this interrogation, — it is, “All holy conversation and godliness.” The word “all” is not in the original; but both the other words are in the plural number, — “In holy conversations and godlinesses.” Now, these expressions being not proper in our language, the translators have supplied the emphasis and force of them by the addition of the word “all.” And there is no just cause of quarrel with them for so doing; — only, in the original the words are more weighty and emphatical than that supply doth readily reach unto. That which is principally intended is, that all the concernments whatever of holiness and godliness are couched in the words. So that two things are in them:—


1. The two general parts of that universal duty that we owe to God; and they are these:— (1.) Holiness of conversation; which is comprehensive of all holiness and righteousness, both in principle and practice; for no conversation is holy but what comes from a holy heart, and is carried on to that great and holy end, — the glory of God. (2.) Godliness, or the worship of God according to the appointment and institution of Christ. This is the proper importance of εὐσέβεια as distinct from holiness of conversation, — a due adherence to, and observance of, the instituted worship of God.


2. The extent and compass of them both, and their degrees. It is not in this or that part of conversation, — to be holy in one thing and loose in another, — to be holy in one capacity, and vain in another, — to be godly as a private person, and ungodly or selfish as a magistrate; nor is it to observe one part of worship, and despise another: but in all concernments of conversation, in all parts of worship, doth this duty lie, — “In all holy conversation and godliness.”


Fourthly. There is the relation that we ought to bear to the universality of holiness and godliness. We ought to be “in” them; — δει ὑπάρχειν ὑμᾶς, — “You ought to be, to exist, in them.” In these things is your life. They are not to be followed now and then, as your leisure will serve; but in all that you do you ought to be still in these, as in the clothes that you wear, — the garment that is on you. Be what you will, or where you will, or employed as you are called, yet still you ought to be in holiness and godliness. And what persons you ought to be in them, or how, hath been declared.


Observation. Great providential alterations or destructions made upon the account of Christ and his church, call for eminency of universal holiness and godliness in all believers.


I esteem it my duty to speak somewhat to this proposition, as containing the direction of our great duty in this day. That we have had many providential alterations amongst us, is known to all. What light I have about their relation to Christ and his church, I shall make bold to communicate when I come to the application of the truth in hand, and thereby make way for the pressing of the duty of the text on ourselves in particular. For the present, I confess I am ashamed and astonished at the deportment of many who are professors in these days. They see and talk of the alterations and dissolutions that God is pleased to make; — but what is the improvement that is made hereof? Many take advantage to vent their lusts and passions, — some one way, some another: one rejoicing at the ruin of another, as if that were his duty; others repining at the exaltation of another, as if that were their duty; some contriving one form of outward constitutions, others for another. (I speak of private persons.) But who almost looks to that which is the special call of God under such dispensations? Let us, then, I pray you, take a little view of our duty, and the grounds of it; and who knows but that the Lord may by it enlarge and fix our hearts to the love and prosecution of it?


The two great providential alterations and dissolutions that have been and shall be made on the account of Christ and his church, to which all lesser are either consequent or do lie in a tendency, are that, first, of the Judaical church and state, whereof I have spoken; and, secondly, that of the Antichristian state and worship, whereunto all the shakings of these nations seem to tend, in the wisdom of God, although we are not able to discern their influence thereunto:—

1. Now, for the first of these, we may consider it in its coming as foretold, and as accomplished:—


(1.) As it was foretold and threatened by Christ. How were believers cautioned to be ready for it with eminent holiness and watchfulness therein! So Luke xxi. 34, 36, “Take heed to yourselves; watch, therefore.” Why so? “Christ is coming,” verse 27. When? “Why, in this generation,” verse 32. What to do? “Why, to dissolve heaven and earth,” verse 25; to “dissolve the Jewish church and state. Watch, therefore; give all diligence.” So also Matt. xxiv. 42. “Watch, therefore.” Oh! on this account what manner of persons ought we to be!


(2.) As accomplished. See what use the apostle upon it directs believers unto, Heb. xii. 26–28. This is the use, this the call of Providence, in all these mighty alterations: “Let us have grace,” — strive for it. The nature of the works of God call aloud for an eminent frame of holiness, and close adherence unto God in his worship. I could show how both the duties of my text are here expressed; but I need not.


2. So is it also in reference to that other great work of God in the world relating to Christ and his church, which is the ocean of providence whereinto all the rivulets of lesser alterations do run; I mean, the destruction of Antichrist and his Babylonish kingdom.


What a frame shall be in the saints on the close of that work, the Holy Ghost declares at large, Rev. xix., — all rejoicing and spiritual communion with God! and whilst the work is on the wheel, those whom God will own in it he sets his mark on as holy, called, and chosen.


The grounds hereof are, —


1. Because in every such providential alteration or dissolution of things on the account of Christ and his church, there is a peculiar coming of Christ himself. He cometh into the world for the work he hath to do; he cometh among his own to fulfil his pleasure among them. Hence such works are called “his coming;” and “the coming of his day.” Thus James exhorts these very Jews to whom Peter here writes, with reference to the same things, James v. 7–9, “Be patient unto the coming of the Lord.” But how could that generation extend their patience to the day of judgment? “Nay,” saith he, “that is not the work I design, but his coming to take vengeance on his stubborn adversaries;” which he saith, verse 8, “ ‘draweth nigh,’ is even, at hand; yea, Christ, ‘the judge, standeth before the door,’ ” verse 9, “ready to enter;” — which also he did within a few years. So upon or in the destruction of Jerusalem (the same work), Luke xxi. 27, the Son of man is said to “come in a cloud, with power and great glory;” — and they that escape in that desolation are said to “stand before the Son of man,” verse 36. So, in the ruin and destruction of the Roman empire, on the account of their persecution, it is said that “the day of the wrath of the Lamb was come,” Rev. vi. 16, 17.


In all such dispensations, then, there is a peculiar coming of Christ, a peculiar drawing nigh of him, to deal with all sorts of persons in a special manner. Though he be oftentimes encompassed with many clouds, and with much darkness, yet he is present, exerting his authority, power, wisdom, righteousness, and grace in an eminent manner. It is with him as it is with God in other works, Job ix. 11; though all “see him not, perceive him not,” yet “he goeth by,” and “passeth on.” The lusts, prejudices, corruptions, selfishness, injustice, oppressions of men, — the darkness, unbelief, fears, carnal wisdom, of the saints themselves, — the depth, compass, height, unsearchableness, of the path of the wisdom of Christ himself, — keep us in the dark as to his presence in this and that particular; but yet in such dispensations he is come, and passeth on towards the accomplishment of his work, though we perceive it not. Now, “what manner of persons ought we to be in all holy conversation and godliness,” to meet this great King of saints at his coming? What preparation ought there to be! what solemnity of universal holiness for his entertainment! He is in such dispensations continually nigh us, whether we take notice of it or not.


I say, then, if there be a special coming and a special meeting of Christ in such dispensations, I suppose I may leave the inference unto all holy conversation and godliness, with the apostle, to the breasts and judgment of them that are concerned. Are we in this work to meet the Lord Jesus? What manner of persons ought we to be!


It may be observed, that Christ puts very great weight on the present frame and course which he finds men in at his coming. Matt. xxiv. 46, “Blessed is that servant, whom his Lord when he cometh shall find so doing.” He annexes blessedness to the frame and course he finds men in at his coming; and [commends him that] waiteth for that hour, verse 42. Be not asleep when the thief comes to break up the house; take heed that that day take you not unprovided, — that you be not overtaken in the midst of the cares of this world. And he complains that when he comes he shall not “find faith on the earth,” Luke xviii. 8.


But you will say, “Is this enough, then, that we look to be found in all godliness and holiness at his coming? May we indulge ourselves and our lusts at other seasons, so we be sure to be then provided? Is not the command of duty equal and universal as to all times and seasons? or is it pointed only unto such dispensations?”

Ans. 1. The inference for preparedness for the coming of Christ is to universal holiness, at all seasons; and that upon the account of the uncertainty of it. This our Saviour presseth again and again. “You know not at all when it will be, nor how, — no, not in the least; you believe it not when it is come: ‘I shall not find faith of it on the earth,’ ” saith Christ. “Men will not take notice of it, nor acknowledge it, nor own it, as my coming; wherefore you have no way to be prepared for it, but by universal, perpetual watchfulness.”


Ans. 2. The exhortation lies not unto holiness and godliness in general, but as to the degrees of it, — what manner of men we ought to be in them. It is not a godly conversation at an ordinary rate, that may find acceptance at another time, which will suffice to meet Christ at his coming; and that on sundry accounts, afterward to be mentioned. I shall at present only treat of some grounds of it from his own person who cometh, and whom we are to meet; and speak of the work he hath to do in his coming afterward:—


(1.) On the account of his personal excellencies and holiness. Consider how he is described when he comes to walk among his churches, Rev. i. 13–17: He is full of beauty and glory. When Isaiah saw him, Isa. vi., he cries out, “I am undone, I am a man of unclean lips;” because of the dread and terror of his holiness. And Peter also, “Depart from me, Lord; for I am a sinful man.” They were not able to bear the thoughts of his glorious holiness so nigh to them. When the holy God of old was to come down among the people at the giving of the law, all the people were to sanctify themselves, and to wash their clothes, Exod. xix. 10, 11. And order was still taken that no unclean thing might be in the camp, because of the presence of the holy God, though but in a type and resemblance. Whether we observe it or no, if there be any dissolving dispensations among us that relate to Christ or his church, there is a Holy One in the midst of us; or there will be, when any such dispensations shall pass over us. And to think to have to do in the works and ways wherein he hath to do, with hearts unlike and unsuitable unto him, to act our lusts and follies immediately under the eye of his holiness, to set our defiled hands to his pure and holy hands, — his soul will abhor it. This is a boldness which he will revenge, — that we should bring our neglect and lusts into his holy presence. Christ is in every corner, — in every turn of our affairs; and it is incumbent on us to consider how it is for us to behave ourselves in his special presence.


(2.) Upon the account of his authority. He who thus comes is the King of saints, and he comes as the King of saints, — he comes to exert his regal power and authority, to give a testimony to it in the world. So Isa. lxiii. 1–4: He shows his glory, his might, his kingdom, and authority in this work. So Rev. xix. 12: When he comes to destroy his antichristian enemies, he hath many crowns on his head; he exerciseth his regal power and authority. What is the duty of saints when their King is so nigh them, when he is come into the midst of them, — whilst he puts forth the greatness of his power round about them? Will it become them to be neglective of him? to be each man in the pursuit of his own lusts, and ways, and works, in the presence of their King? Holiness and godliness hath a due regard to the authority of Christ. Wherever there is a due subjection of soul unto Christ, all holy conversation and godliness will ensue. To be neglective in or of any part of holy conversation, — to be careless of any part of worship, under the special eye of the Lord of our lives and our worship, is not to be borne with.


(3.) On the account of the present care, kindness, and love, that he is exerting in all such dispensations towards his. It is a time of care and love. The way of his working out the designs of his heart are, indeed, ofttimes dark and hid, and his own do not see so clearly how things lie in a tendency to the event and fruits of love; but so it is; — Christ comes not but with a design of love and pity towards his, — with his heart full of compassion for them. Now, what this calls for at their hands, seeing their holiness and worship is all that his soul is delighted in, is evident unto all.


Put, now, these things together:— Every such dispensation is a coming of Christ; — the coming of Christ, as it is trying in itself, so it is the coming of the holy King of saints in his love and pity towards them; yea, be the dispensation what it will, never so sharp and severe unto them, yet it is in love and compassion to their souls; — their work is to meet this their holy King in the works of his love and power: and “what manner of persons ought we to be?”


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