Providential changes, an argument for universal holiness
by John Owen
Use 1. Of trial or examination.
Hath Christ for many years now been in an especial manner come amongst us? Do these alterations relate to him and his interest, and so require universal holiness and godliness? Let us, then, in the first place, see whether, in their several stations, the men of this generation have walked answerable to such a dispensation. Christ, indeed, hath done his work; but have we done ours? He hath destroyed many of his enemies, judged false professors, hardened and blinded the wicked world, sent out his Spirit to plead with his people, and taken vengeance on their inventions; he hath given out plentiful measures of truth and light: but now the whole inquiry is, Whether all or any of us have answered the mind of Christ in these dispensations, and prepared ourselves to meet him as becometh his greatness and holiness?
For the generality of the people of the nation, Christ hath been pleading with them about their unbelief, worldliness, atheism, and contempt of the gospel. And what hath been the issue? Alas! he that was filthy is filthy still; he that was profane is so still; swearers, drunkards, and other vicious persons, are so still. Where is that man in a thousand in the nation that takes notice of any peculiar plea of Christ with him about his sin in any of these dispensations? One cries out of one party of men, another curses another party, — a third is angry with God himself; but as to the call of Christ in his mighty appearances, who almost takes any notice of it? The abominable pride, folly, vanity, luxury, that are found in this city, testify to their faces that the voice of Wisdom is not heard in the cry of fools. And whereas Christ’s peculiar controversy with this nation hath been about the contempt of the gospel, is there any ground got upon the generality of men? is any reformation wrought on this account among them? nay, may we not say freely, that there is a greater spirit of hatred, enmity, and opposition to Christ and the gospel, risen up in the nation than ever before? Light hath provoked and enraged them, so that they hate the gospel more than ever. How mad are the generality of the people on and after their idols, — their old superstitious ways of worship, which Christ hath witnessed against! What an enmity against the very doctrine of the gospel! what a combination in all places is there against the reforming dispensation of it! And is this any good omen of a comfortable issue of this dispensation? Is not Christ ready to say of such a people, “Why should you be smitten any more? you will revolt more and more?” and to swear in his wrath that they shall not enter into his rest? Nay, may he not justly take his gospel from us, and give it to a people that will bring forth fruit? O England! that in this thy day thou hadst known the things of thy peace! I fear they will be hidden from thee. The temptations of the day, the divisions of thy teachers, with other their miscarriages, and thine own lusts, have deceived thee, — and, without mercy, insuperable mercy, will ruin thee. Shall this shame be thy glory, — that Christ hath not conquered thee, — that thou hast hardened thyself against him?
But passing them, let us inquire, whether the mind of Christ hath, in these dispensations, been answered in a due manner by the saints themselves? — have they made it their business to meet him “in all holy conversation and godliness?” Indeed, to me the contrary appears, upon these considerations:— (1.) Their great differences among themselves about lesser things; (2.) Their little difference from the world in great things; (3.) The general miscarriage of them all in things prejudicial to the progress of the gospel; (4.) The particular deviation of some into ways of scandal and offence; (5.) The backsliding of most if not of all of them.
(1.) Consider their great differences among themselves about lesser things. I cannot insist on the weight that is laid by our Saviour on the union of his disciples, with the condescension and love which he requires of them to that purpose, — the motives and exhortations given by the Holy Ghost unto them on that account, — the provision of principles and means made in the gospel for it, — the necessity of it to the promotion of the interest of Christ in the world, — the benefit and advantage of it to the saints themselves, — the testimony given by it to the power of Christ and truth of his word, — the blasphemies and woeful, soul-ruining offences that ensue on the contrary frame, — the weakening of faith, hinderance of prayer, quenching of zeal, strengthening of the men of the world, that attend the neglect of it; — I must not, I say, insist on these things; but see John xvii. 21–23, and Phil. ii. 1–3, of a hundred places that might be mentioned. How little the mind of Christ, and his expectation at his coming, hath been answered by his saints in this particular, is evident unto all.
[1.] Who is there, almost, who, having got any private opinion, true or false, wherein he differs from all or any of his brethren, who is not ready to proclaim it, without due regard to scandal and division, and even to quarrel with and divide from all that will not think as he thinks, and speak as he speaks? Now, the pride, self-fulness, vanity of mind, unlikeness to Christ, folly, want of faith and love, that is in such a frame, can never be expressed, nor sufficiently lamented. Christ abhors such a frame of spirit as he doth the pollution of the world.
[2.] Neither is this all; but men will lay more weight on their mint and cummin, on the lesser things wherein they differ from their brethren, — spend more time about them, write more books of them, labour more in their prosecution, — than they will do in and about the weighty things of law and gospel; — all which will appear at length to have been but the laying of hay and stubble on the foundation that must be consumed.
[3.] And farther; — men fall to judging and censuring each other as to their interest in Christ, or their eternal condition. By what rule? — the everlasting gospel? — the covenant of grace? No; but of the disciples: “Master, they follow not with us.” They that believe not our opinion, we are apt to think believe not in Jesus Christ; and because we delight not in them, that Christ does not delight in them. This digs up the roots of love, weakens prayer, increases evil surmises (which are of the works of the flesh), genders strife and contempt; — things that the soul of Christ abhors.
[4.] The abomination of this wickedness ends not here; persecution, banishment, the blood of one another, hath on this account lain in the hearts and minds of some of the saints themselves. Not only have expressions to that purpose broken out from particular men, but it is to be feared that designs for it have been managed by parties and combinations. And are they not ready to dress up one another with such names and titles as may fit them for ruin? Sectaries, heretics, schismatics, on the one side; — priests, antichristian dogs, on the other: and all this while Christ is in the midst of us! And doth this answer the expectation of Christ? is this a preparation to meet him “in all holy conversation and godliness?” Can we render ourselves more unlike him, more unmeet for communion with him? Are not saints ready to join with the world against saints? — to take the vilest men into their bosom that will close with them in defaming, deriding, or, it may be, destroying their brethren? Doth Christ look for this usage in the house of his friends?
(2.) Consider their little difference from the world in great things. The great separation that Christ requires and commands of his saints is, from the world. He died to redeem them from it and out of it, — to deliver them from the present evil world, — the ways, works, fellowship, and ends of it; so providing that, in all holy conversation, his people should dwell alone, and not be reckoned among the nations.
Now, there are five things wherein Christ calls for his own to be differenced from the world and the men thereof:— [1.] In spirit; [2.] In principle; [3.] In conversation; [4.] In ends; [5.] In worship.
[1.] In spirit. He tells us everywhere, that it is one Spirit that is in his, — another that is in the world. 1 John iv. 4, “Greater is he that is in you, than he that is in the world.” “There is a ‘he’ in you, and a ‘he’ in the world; and they are different and opposite. There is dwelling in you the Spirit of truth, which the world cannot receive, nor doth it know him,” John xiv. 17. And when his disciples began to act in the power of a carnal spirit, he tells them they knew not what spirit they were of.
[2.] In principle. The principle that Christ requires in his saints is faith, working by love, and guided by that wisdom which is from above. 1 Tim. i. 5: Here are the saints’ principles (I mean, should be so) of all their operations. A pure heart, and love, which is the end of all faith, is their great principle. This cleanses the conscience, and so sets them on work; — by this they take in strength for operation from Christ, without whom they can do nothing, John xv. 5. By this they receive light and guidance from Christ, and that wisdom which is from above, enabling them to order their affairs with discretion, James iii. 17, 18. Now, the principle that is in the world is self, — self acted and guided by carnal wisdom; which is sensual and devilish; on the account whereof they despise the principle and actings of the saints, Ps. xiv. 6.
[3.] In conversation. He hath redeemed us from a vain conversation, 1 Pet. i. 18. There is a peculiar emphasis put upon a conversation that becomes the gospel. There is a twofold conversation; — one that becometh the world and the men of the world; another that becometh the gospel and the profession thereof. That these be kept unmixed is the great exhortation of the apostle, Rom. xii. 2. And if you would know wherein a worldly conversation consists, the apostle telleth us, 1 John ii. 16. A conversation wherein any of these things bear sway, is a conversation of this world. That all holiness, all manner of holiness, universal holiness and godliness, is in the gospel conversation, to which the saints are called, shall be afterward spoken unto.
[4.] In ends. There is a double end of men’s working and acting in this world:— 1st. General, which regulates the course of their lives and conversations; 2dly. Particular, which regulates their particular actings and works: and in both these are the saints and the world differenced:—
1st. The general end of the saints is the glory of God. This lies in their eye, in their design, — how God may be glorified by them, his name exalted, his interest promoted; this way the bent of their minds and spirits tends. The general end of the men of the world is self; all is resolved into self. Whatever they do or act in public or private, whatever their pretence be, yet self is their end; — self-admiration, self-ostentation, self-satisfaction, — all centres in self. Sometimes, indeed, they may perform things that seem to be of a public tendency, — for the good of mankind, the good of nations, yea, it may be, the good of the church; so that it is hard for themselves to discover, or for others to charge them, it may be, that they act for self: but there are these two things that will evince men to make self their general end and aim, even then when they act for public ends:—
(1st.) This is a rule that will not fail men:— whatever in public actings is not done with a single eye for the glory of God, is done for self. These two divide all the general ends of men; and where one is not enthroned, the other is. Now, though some men may so far proceed in public actings, that it may not be evident wherein their self-interest lies, — though that also be but seldom, — yet, if they do not eye the glory of God with a single eye in these their actings, it is all for self; — and so it will be found at the last day. Now, how few will be left not turning into self on this rule, now [that] pretences run so high of public aims, might be easily evinced. It were no hard matter to discover how, in things of a public tendency, men make some fleshly imagination or other the god they worship; — so that be enthroned, they are little solicitous about the glory of God himself.
(2dly.) The difference of these ends even in public actings may be seen from the ways, means, and frame of spirit in which they are carried on. Let men pretend what they will to public ends, yet if they press after them with a proud, carnal, wrathful, envious spirit, by the ways, wisdom, and in the spirit of the world, without faith and submission to God, it is self and not God that is their aim. And this also might be improved to strip men of glorying in their public designs, were that my present business. Jehu’s spirit spoiled his work.
2dly. There is a particular end that regulates the public actings of men. This in the saints is their doing the work of their generation; that, as Noah, they may walk with God in their generation. This is their integrity as to the special course of their lives, and their particular employment, — how they may fulfil the work of their generation. The special end of the men of the world is the satisfaction of one particular lust or other. “Will this increase my wealth, my power, my carnal interest in this world, my reputation for wisdom and ability, or give me advantage to grow in this or that corrupt end in particular?” This is the secret inquiry of their deceived hearts; this influences and regulates all their particular actings.
[5.] As to their separation in worship, I shall only point to that one place, and leave it, 2 Cor. vi. 14–18, and chap. vii. 1, which belongs to that discourse.
Now, I wish I had a more difficult task in hand, — I wish it were harder for me to manage any principle of conviction that we have not been prepared to meet Christ in his coming, from this consideration of our little difference from the world in these great things of principle, spirit, walking, ends, and worship. For, —
What a fleshly, wrathful, carnal, worldly spirit hath discovered itself in many professors; nay, in the most! — how little of the humble, lowly, meek, loving spirit of Christ! Many think it their glory to be unlike Christ in the spirit of their minds, — high, heady, self-full, proud, revengeful. What little difference between them and the men of the world! How like to one another! What oneness is found in them! Is this to learn Christ? to put on Christ? Is this the image of Christ that manifests itself in most professors? Nor, —
Are they at a distance from the world as to the principle of their walking and working. Do they walk by faith, and work by faith? are they guided by the wisdom that is from above? make they God their refuge? or are any men more dipped into a principle of carnal wisdom than most professors are? To seek counsel of God, to take the law of their proceedings at his mouth, to look up to him for guidance and direction, to derive strength from the Lord Christ by believing for the work of their employments, — in how few are these things found! Their own wisdom, their own counsel, their own contrivance, their own abilities, shall do their work. Carnal policy and fleshly wisdom are their net and drag.
Moreover, what is our conversation? How like the world in our persons, in our families, in our spirits, callings, — in whatever the world may properly call its own! Professors have jostled the men of the world, out of the possession of the ways of the world. How few are found walking in a world-condemning conversation! a gospel-glorifying conversation! a fruitful, holy conversation! We are known from the world by word more than by deed; which is not the way that James directs us unto.
I might go through with the rest of the considerations mentioned, and manifest that there is another evil found amongst us; for as we have great differences among ourselves about little things, so we have little difference from the world in those which are great and weighty.
(3.) Consider the general miscarriage almost of all professors in things prejudicial to the advancement of the gospel. The pretence whereof we have served ourselves all along, hath been, of the furtherance, propagation, and advancement of the gospel. Our Lord Christ hath sent out light, and given opportunities suitable unto such a design; — never greater advantages nor greater opportunities from the foundation of the world. If ever they be required at the hands of this generation, they will be found to have been so. Whence, then, hath it been that the work hath not gone on and prospered? why doth it yet stick? Hath it not been from the woeful miscarriage of those who were looked on as the means and instruments of carrying it on? Have there been a few saints in a place? It is odds [but] that they have been at variance among themselves, and made sport for the vain multitude by their divisions; or they have walked forwardly, provokingly, uselessly, worldly, [so] that their pretence for the gospel hath been despised because of their persons. Have they, as men concerned in the honour of Christ and the gospel, as men enjoying the blessed principle of his Spirit, laboured to be useful, fruitful, — to do good to all, to be meek, lowly, self-denying, charitable, abounding in good works, patient towards opposers, not reviling again, not returning evil for evil, bearing, suffering, committing all to Christ? Alas! how few are there who have so walked! Could some see believers making it their business to be like Christ in the world, — to deny themselves as he did, — to do good to all as he did, — to be patient under persecution and reproaches as he was, — to be tender, pitiful, merciful, like him, — to abide in faith and prayer as he did; what might we not expect, as to the advancement of the gospel amongst us? We complain of cold preaching among ministers, of dead and dull attendance in hearers, of contempt of the word in the most, whereby the power of the gospel is kept within narrow bounds. But the truth is, the prejudices that have been raised by the miscarriages of professors have had a greater influence unto that evil event than any of the rest. And hath this been to meet Christ in his coming?
(4.) Of the like nature are the scandalous offences of many. I shall not insist on the scandalous apostasies of many professors, who, some by one great sin, some by another, are fallen off from the profession of the gospel. I wish that too many other instances might not be found among them that remain. Are there not some proud unto scandal, or sensual unto scandal, or covetous unto scandal, or negligent of their families and relations unto scandal, or conformable to the ways, customs, and fashions of the world unto scandal? I wish no such things might be found among us.
(5.) Add hereunto the general backsliding, or going back from God, that is amongst professors. We scarce seem to be the same generation of men that we were fifteen or sixteen years ago:— some have utterly lost their principle. Zeal for God, reformation, purity of ordinances, interest of Christ in his saints, are things to be despised, things that have no concernment in our condition and affairs; as though we had no more need of Christ or his interest amongst us: and in the best, is not a fresh spirit of our present engagement almost lost?
But why should I insist farther on these things? Are not the things that have been spoken sufficient for a rebuke, or a conviction at least, that the professing people of Christ have not walked as though they had a just respect to his coming, or his peculiar presence amongst them? May we not justly fear, that our multiplied provocations may at length prevail with him to withdraw, to put a stop to his work that is upon the wheel; not only to leave us to manifold entanglements in the carrying of it on, but also utterly to forsake it, — to cast down the tower, and pluck up the hedge that he hath made about his vineyard, and leave it to be laid waste? He must have a heart like the flint in the rock of stone, that doth not tremble at it. But complaints will not be our relief. That which is incumbent on us, if yet there may be hope, is our answering the exhortation in my text. If, then, any sense do fall upon our spirits that Christ is come amongst us in a peculiar manner, in the providential alterations and dissolutions that have been among us; and that we have not hitherto demeaned ourselves as becometh them who are called to meet him, and to walk with him in such ways and paths as his amongst us have been; — then, I say, let us apply ourselves in our next use to the exhortation that lies before us, — to all manner of “holy conversation.”
Use 2. Of exhortation. That, I say, then, which we are now to attend unto, is the exhortation that is included in this expression, “What manner of persons ought we to be?” To further the efficacy of this exhortation, give me leave to premise some few things:—
First. There are general reasons of holiness and godliness, and there are special motives unto them. I am not now dealing upon the general reasons of holiness on the account of the covenant of grace; and so shall not press it on those considerations upon believers as such. But I speak of it in reference unto the peculiar motive mentioned in the text, — namely, the providential dissolution of temporal concernments; and so speak to believers as men interested therein, — as persons whom Christ hath a special regard unto in these his dispensations. It is one thing to say, “What manner of persons ought ye to be, whom God hath loved with an everlasting love, whom Christ hath washed in his own blood, — who have received the Spirit of Christ?” and another to say, “Ye that are loved with an everlasting love, are washed in the blood of Christ, and made partakers of the Holy Ghost, seeing that Christ is come amongst us to the dissolution of the great things of the nations, what manner of persons ought ye to be?” That is it in a peculiar pressing unto holiness on the account of the motive that is intended.
Secondly. There is a holiness and godliness that is required universally, at all times, in all places and seasons, and in all persons whatever, by the gospel; and there is a peculiar improvement of that holiness and godliness at some seasons, and in some persons, that is not required at other times, and of other persons. Christ hath work for all the grace of his people in this world; and, according as opportunities for that work are presented unto them, they ought to stir up their grace for it. In the times of Christ’s coming, he hath great work to do for and by the holiness and godliness of his people. A great testimony is to be given to himself thereby; his work is much to be promoted by it; the world to be convinced, condemned; his judgments against them justified in the sight of all; — and much more hath Christ to do with the holiness of his people at such a season. Now, it is this peculiar improvement of covenant, gospel holiness that is required; not only that holiness that is indispensably incumbent on us by the virtue of the covenant, but that heightening and improvement of it which the season wherein we live, and the work that Christ hath to do, do require of us.
These things being premised, let us now proceed to the management of our exhortation; and observe, —
(1.) That the apostle calls us to a consideration how this work may be effected: “What manner of persons ought ye to be?” Consider with yourselves the equity of the matter, the greatness of the motive, and the ways whereby it may be answered. The business is not now to be left at an ordinary rate, nor unto private meditations; it is to be made a matter of solemn consideration and design; it is to be managed with advice and counsel: consider, I say, “what manner of persons.” It is not about holiness in general that I speak; but about that holiness which becomes us in such a season. This, then, is the first part of this exhortation, — that as to the improvement of holiness answerable to the season of this coming of Christ, we would carry it on by design, by counsel, by deliberate consideration; not only labouring to be holy ourselves, but to promote the work of holiness, the eminency, the activity, the usefulness of it, in one another, — in all believers, — so far as our prayers, exhortations, and examples, can reach. This the apostle pleads for on the same account, Heb. iii. 13; and chap. x. 23, 24, to the same purpose. And we have the practice of it, Mal. iii. 16. It was such a time and season as that we treat of, Christ was coming to his temple, verses 1–3. The earth was full of wickedness and contempt of him. What do the saints do? Do they content themselves with their ordinary measures? Do they keep all close to themselves? No; they confer, advise, consult, and that frequently, how, wherein, whereby, the expectation of their coming Lord may be answered. The reasons, arguments, way of carrying on such a counsel and design, the apostle declares, Rom. xiii. 11–14, “The time requires it, the duty is urgent, temptations are many, failings have been great, — the Lord is nigh at hand.” Let, then, believers enter together into this plot, this design; draw as many as they can into it; promote it by all ways and means possible. Let them get together; make this their aim, their design, — engage in it as the duty of their day, of their time and season. This would be a plot that the men of the world would have more just cause to fear than ever they had of any, and yet dare not question, disturb, or interrupt; — a design that would blow up their contrivance, disappoint their counsel, ruin their interest, — shake heaven and earth. Let every one contribute the best of his counsel, the best of his grace, the best of his interest in heaven, the utmost of his self-denial, to the carrying of it on. Methinks we have dwelt long enough upon others’ failings, — fruitless, selfish designs; the world is full of the noise, the steam, the filth of them. Oh, that the stream of our endeavours might now be another way! Oh, that God would stir up some that might stand up and cry, “Who is for God? who is on our side for holiness now?” If ministers at their meetings, if Christians at theirs, would make this their business; if all would agree to sacrifice their lusts, their self-love, their by-opinions to this work, — what glory would redound to Christ! what salvation would be wrought in the earth! Why do any of us lie complaining? Let us up and be doing; there is no doubt, no question to be made. This is that which Christ lengthens his controversy with us about, that he will bring us to, or ruin us and destroy us as to this world. Ministers meet. What do they? Pray a while, and spend their time in and about differences, controversies, — how they may do this or that, which I shall not name. Christians meet, and pray, and go away as they came. Lusts are not sacrificed; faults are not confessed to one another; exhortations mutual are not used; — no ground is got for holiness or godliness, but things remain as they did, or rather grow worse and worse every day: at best, profession rises, and the power of religion falls and decreases.
I heartily wish professors would be persuaded to come together to advise, to consult for God, — for the glory of Christ and the gospel, and for their own interest in this thing; — to consider what are the pressing temptations of the days wherein we live; what are the corruptions and lusts that are apt to be provoked and excited by these temptations, or by the state of things amongst us; what duties seem to be neglected; and what are the common, visible failings and scandal of professors, wherein themselves, through party, or neglect, or selfishness, have been wanting: and to advise and pray for the remedying of all these evils. I wish they would seriously stir up and exhort one another to contend mightily for the crucifying of all their secret lusts and bosom sins, — for heart-purity and likeness to Christ in all things; that they would incite others, and draw all they can into their society and combination in all parts of the nation. In particular, let not us of this place stand still, expecting when others will begin the work. The meaner, poorer, worse we are, the more incumbent is it on us to rise and be doing. The water is moved, teaching [healing?] is in it, and we strive not who shall enter first, but rather stand striving, contesting with others, to put them before us!
This is the first direction:— Let us make the matter of holiness and godliness suited to the coming of Christ a business of design, counsel, and common engagement; whereunto every one may contribute of the store which from God he hath received. Blessed will be those servants whom their Master, when he cometh, shall find so doing!
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