Mortifying Sin: Bring Your Lust to the Gospel
by John Owen
Load Your Conscience with the Guilt of Sin
This is my third direction: Load your conscience with the guilt of it. Not only consider that it has a guilt, but load your conscience with the guilt of its actual eruptions and disturbances. For the right improvement of this rule I shall give some particular directions:
Take God’s method in it, and begin with generals, and so descend to particulars:
Charge your conscience with that guilt which appears in it from the rectitude and holiness of the law. Bring the holy law of God into your conscience, lay your corruption to it, pray that you may be affected with it. Consider the holiness, spirituality, fiery severity, inwardness, absoluteness of the law, and see how you can stand before it. Be much, I say, in affecting your conscience with the terror of the Lord in the law, and how righteous it is that every one of your transgressions should receive a recompense of reward. Perhaps your conscience will invent shifts and evasions to keep off the power of this consideration— as, that the condemning power of the law does not belong to you, you are set free from it, and the like; and so, though you be not conformable to it, yet you need not to be so much troubled at it. But—
Tell your conscience that it cannot manage any evidence to the purpose that you are free from the condemning power of sin, while your unmortified lust lies in your heart; so that, perhaps, the law may make good its plea against you for a full dominion, and then you are a lost creature. Wherefore it is best to ponder to the utmost what it has to say.
Assuredly, he that pleads in the most secret reserve of his heart that he is freed from the condemning power of the law, thereby secretly to countenance himself in giving the least allowance unto any sin or lust, is not able, on gospel
grounds, to manage any evidence, unto any tolerable spiritual security, that
indeed he is in a due manner freed from what he so pretends himself to be
Whatever be the issue, yet the law has commission from God to seize upon transgressors wherever it find them, and so bring them before his
throne, where they are to plead for themselves. This is your present case; the law has found you out, and before God it will bring you. If you can plead a pardon, well and good; if not, the law will do its work. However, this is the proper work of the law, to discover sin in the guilt of it, to awake and humble the soul for it, to be a glass to represent sin in its colors; and if you deny to deal with it on this account, it is not through faith, but through the hardness of your heart and the deceitfulness of sin.
This is a door that too many professors have gone out at unto open apostasy. Such a deliverance from the law they have pretended, as that they would consult its guidance and direction no more; they would measure their sin by it no more. By little and little this principle has insensibly, from the notion of it, proceeded to influence their practical understandings, and, having taken possession there, has turned the will and affections loose to all manner of abominations.
By such ways, I say, then, as these, persuade your conscience to hearken diligently to what the law speaks, in the name of the Lord, unto you about
your lust and corruption. Oh! If your ears be open, it will speak with a voice that shall make you tremble, that shall cast you to the ground and fill youwith astonishment. If ever you will mortify your corruptions, you must tie up your conscience to the law, shut it from all shifts and exceptions, until it owns its guilt with a clear and thorough apprehension; so that then, as David speaks, your “iniquity may ever be before you” [Ps. 51:3].
Bring your lust to the gospel—not for relief, but for further conviction of its guilt; look on him whom you have pierced [Zech. 12:10; John 19:37], and be in bitterness. Say to your soul:
What have I done? What love, what mercy, what blood, what grace have I despised and trampled on! Is this the return I make to the Father for his love, to the Son for his blood, to the Holy Ghost for his grace? Do I thus requite53 the Lord? Have I defiled the heart that Christ died to wash, that the blessed Spirit has chosen to dwell in? And can I keep myself out of the dust? What can I say to the dear Lord Jesus? How shall I hold up my head with any boldness before him? Do I account communion with him of so little value, that for this vile lust’s sake I have scarce left him any room in my heart? How shall I escape if I neglect so great salvation? In the meantime, what shall I say to the Lord? Love, mercy, grace, goodness, peace, joy, consolation—I have despised them all, and esteemed them as a thing of naught, that I might harbor a lust in my heart. Have I obtained a view of God’s fatherly countenance, that I might behold his face and provoke him to his face? Was my soul washed, that room might be made for new defilements? Shall I endeavor to disappoint the end of the death of Christ? Shall I daily grieve that Spirit whereby I am sealed to the day of redemption?
Entertain your conscience daily with this treaty. See if it can stand before this
aggravation of its guilt. If this make it not sink in some measure and melt, I
fear your case is dangerous.
Descend to particulars. As under the general head of the gospel all thebenefits of it are to be considered, as redemption, justification, and the like;
so, in particular, consider the management of the love of them toward your own soul, for the aggravation of the guilt of your corruption. As—
Consider the infinite patience and forbearance of God toward you in particular. Consider what advantages he might have taken against time, to have made you a shame and a reproach in this world, and an object of wrath forever; how you have dealt treacherously and falsely with him from time to time, flattered him with your lips, but broken all promises and engagements, and that by the means of that sin you are now in pursuit of; and yet he has spared you from time to time, although you seem boldly to have put it to the trial how long he could hold out. And will you yet sin against him? Will you yet weary him, and make him to serve with your corruptions? Have you not often been ready to conclude yourself that it was utterly impossible that he should bear any longer with you; that he would cast you off, and be gracious no more; that all his forbearance was exhausted, and hell and wrath was even ready prepared for you? And yet, above all your expectation, he has returned with visitations of love. And will you yet abide in the provocation of the eyes of his glory?
How often have you been at the door of being hardened by the deceitfulness
of sin, and by the infinite rich grace of God have been recovered to
communion with him again? Have you not found grace decaying; delight in duties, ordinances, prayer and meditation, vanishing; inclinations to loose careless walking, thriving; and they who before were entangled, almost beyond recovery? Have you not found yourself engaged in such ways, societies, companies, and that with delight, as God abhors? And will you venture any more to the brink of hardness?
All God’s gracious dealings with you, in providential dispensations, deliverances,
afflictions, mercies, enjoyments, all ought here to take place. By
these, I say, and the like means, load your conscience; and leave it not until it be thoroughly affected with the guilt of your indwelling corruption, until it is sensible of its wound, and lie in the dust before the Lord. Unless this be done to the purpose, all other endeavors are to no purpose. While the conscience has any means to alleviate the guilt of sin, the soul will never vigorously attempt its mortification.
Constantly Long and Breathe After Deliverance from the
Power of Sin
Fourthly, being thus affected with your sin, in the next place get a constant longing, breathing after deliverance from the power of it. Suffer not your heart one moment to be contented with your present frame and condition. Longing desires after anything, in things natural and civil, are of no value or consideration, any further but as they incite and stir up the person in whom they are to a diligent use of means for the bringing about the thing aimed at. In spiritual things it is otherwise. Longing, breathing, and panting after deliverance is a grace in itself, that has a mighty power to conform the soul into the likeness of the thing longed after. Hence the apostle, describing the repentance and godly sorrow of the Corinthians, reckons this as one eminent grace that was then set on work, “vehement desire” (2 Cor. 7:11). And in this case of indwelling sin and the power of it, what frame does he express himself to be in? His heart breaks out with longings into a most passionate expression of desire of deliverance (Rom. 7:24). Now, if this be the frame of saints upon the general consideration of indwelling sin, how is it to be heightened and increased when thereunto is added the perplexing rage and power of any particular lust and corruption! Assure yourself, unless you long for deliverance
you shall not have it.
This will make the heart watchful for all opportunities of advantage against its enemy, and ready to close with any assistances that are afforded
for its [enemy’s] destruction. Strong desires are the very life of that “praying always” [Luke 21:36] which is enjoined us in all conditions, and in none is more necessary than in this; they set faith and hope on work, and are the soul’s moving after the Lord.
Get your heart, then, into a panting and breathing frame; long, sigh, cry out. You know the example of David [Psalm 38 and 42]; I shall not need to
insist on it. Consider Whether the Distemper Is Rooted in Your Nature and
Increased by Your Constitution
The fifth direction is: Consider whether the distemper with which you are perplexed be not rooted in your nature, and cherished, fomented,54 and heightened from your constitution. A proneness to some sins may doubtless lie in the natural temper and disposition of men. In this case consider—
This is not in the least an extenuation of the guilt of your sin. Some, with an open profaneness, will ascribe gross enormities to their temper and disposition; and whether others may not relieve themselves from the pressing guilt of their distempers by the same consideration, I know not. It is from the fall, from the original depravation of our natures, that the fomes55 and nourishment of any sin abides in our natural temper. David reckons his being shapen in iniquity and conception in sin as an aggravation of his following sin, not a lessening or extenuation of it [Ps. 51:5]. That you are peculiarly inclined unto any sinful distemper is but a peculiar breaking out of original lust in your nature, which should peculiarly abase and humble you. That you have to fix upon on this account, in reference to your walking with God, is, that so great an advantage is given to sin, as also to Satan, by this your temper and disposition, that without extraordinary watchfulness, care, and diligence, they will assuredly prevail against your soul. Thousands have been on this account hurried headlong to hell, who otherwise, at least, might have gone at a more gentle, less provoking, less mischievous rate.
For the mortification of any distemper so rooted in the nature of a
man, unto all other ways and means already named or further to be
insisted on, there is one expedient peculiarly suited; this is that of the apostle,
“I discipline my body, and bring it into subjection” (1 Cor. 9:27). The
bringing of the very body into subjection is an ordinance of God tending
to the mortification of sin. This gives check unto the natural root of the
distemper and withers it by taking away its fatness56 of soil. Perhaps,
because the papists—men ignorant of the righteousness of Christ, the work
of his Spirit, and [the] whole business in hand—have laid the whole weight
and stress of mortification in voluntary services and penances, leading to
the subjection of the body, knowing indeed the true nature neither of sin
nor [of] mortification, it may, on the other side, be a temptation to some
to neglect some means of humiliation which by God himself are owned and appointed. The bringing of the body into subjection in the case
insisted on, by cutting short the natural appetite, by fasting, watching, and the like, is doubtless acceptable to God, so it be done with the ensuing
The outward weakening and impairing of the body should not be looked upon as a thing good in itself, or that any mortification does consist therein—which were again to bring us under carnal ordinances; but only as a means for the end proposed—the weakening of any distemper in its natural root and seat. A man may have leanness of body and soul together.
The means whereby this is done—namely, by fasting and watching, and the like—should be looked on as things that in themselves, and by virtue of
their own power, can not produce true mortification of any sin; for if they would, sin might be mortified without any help of the Spirit in any unregenerate person in the world. They are to be looked on only as ways whereby the Spirit may, and sometimes does, put forth strength for the accomplishing of his own work, especially in the case mentioned. Want of a right understanding and due improvement of these and the like considerations has raised a mortification among the papists that may be better applied to horses and other beasts of the field than to believers.
This is the sum of what has been spoken: When the distemper complained of seems to be rooted in the natural temper and constitution, in
applying our souls to a participation of the blood and Spirit of Christ, an endeavor is to be used to give check in the way of God to the natural root
of that distemper.
Consider the Occasions and Advantages Your Distemper Has Taken to Exert and Put Forth Itself, and Watch Against Them All
The sixth direction is: Consider what occasions, what advantages your distemper
has taken to exert and put forth itself, and watch against them all.
This is one part of that duty which our blessed Savior recommends to his disciples under the name of watching: “I say unto you all, Watch” (Mark
13:37); which, in Luke 21:34, is: “Take heed lest your hearts be overcharged.”
Watch against all eruptions of your corruptions. I mean that duty which David professed himself to be exercised unto. “I have,” says he, “kept
myself from mine iniquity” [Ps. 18:23]. He watched all the ways and workings of his iniquity, to prevent them, to rise up against them. This is that which we are called unto under the name of “considering our ways.” Consider what ways, what companies, what opportunities, what studies, what businesses, what conditions, have at any time given, or do usually give, advantages to your distempers, and set yourself heedfully against them all. Men will do this with respect unto their bodily infirmities and distempers. The seasons, the diet, the air that have proved offensive shall be avoided. Are the things of the soul of less importance? Know that he that dares to dally with occasions of sin will dare to sin. He that will venture upon temptations unto wickedness will venture upon wickedness. Hazael thought he should not be so wicked as the prophet told him he would be. To convince him, the prophet tells him no more but, “You shall be king of Syria” [2 Kings 8:13]. If he will venture on temptations unto cruelty, he will be cruel. Tell a man he shall commit such and such sins, he will startle at it. If you can convince him that he will venture on such occasions and temptations of them, he will have little ground left for his confidence.
Particular directions belonging to this head are many, not now to be insisted on. But because this head is of no less importance than the whole doctrine here handled, I have at large in another treatise, about entering into temptations, treated of it.
Rise Mightily Against the First Actings and Conceptions of
The seventh direction is: Rise mightily against the first actings of your distemper, its first conceptions; suffer it not to get the least ground. Do not say, “Thus far it shall go, and no farther.” If it have allowance for one step, it will take another. It is impossible to fix bounds to sin. It is like water in a channel— if it once break out, it will have its course. Its not acting is easier to be compassed than its bounding. Therefore does James give that gradation and process of lust (1:14-15), that we may stop at the entrance. Do you find your corruption to begin to entangle your thoughts? Rise up with all your strength against it, with no less indignation than if it had fully accomplished what it aims at. Consider what an unclean thought would have; it would have you roll yourself in folly and filth. Ask envy what it would have—murder and destruction is at the end of it. Set yourself against it with no less vigor than if it had utterly debased you to wickedness. Without this course you will not prevail. As sin gets ground in the affections to delight in, it gets also upon the understanding to slight it.
Use and Exercise Yourself to Such Meditations as May Serve
to Fill You at All Times with Self-Abasement and Thoughts of
Your Own Vileness
Eighthly, use and exercise yourself to such meditations as may serve to fill you at all times with self-abasement and thoughts of your own vileness, as: Be much in thoughtfulness of the excellency of the majesty of God and your infinite, inconceivable distance from him. Many thoughts of it cannot but fill you with a sense of your own vileness, which strikes deep at the root of any indwelling sin. When Job comes to a clear discovery of the greatness and the excellency of God, he is filled with self-abhorrence and is pressed to humiliation (Job 42:5-6). And in what state does the prophet Habakkuk affirm himself to be cast upon the apprehension of the majesty of God [Hab. 3:16]? “With God,” says Job, “is terrible majesty” [Job 37:22]. Hence were the thoughts of them of old, that when they had seen God they should die. The Scripture abounds in this self-abasing consideration, comparing the men of the earth to “grasshoppers,” to “vanity,” the “dust of the balance,” in respect of God [Isa. 40:12-25]. Be much in thoughts of this nature, to abase the pride of your heart, and to keep your soul humble within you. There is nothing [that] will render you a greater indisposition58 to be imposed on by the deceits of sin than such a frame of heart. Think greatly of the greatness of God.
Think much of your unacquaintedness with him. Though you know enough to keep you low and humble, yet how little a portion is it that you know of him! The contemplation hereof cast that wise man into that apprehension of himself which he expresses:
Surely I am more brutish than any man, and have not the understanding of a man. I neither learned wisdom, nor have the knowledge of the holy. Who has ascended up into heaven, or descended? Who has gathered the wind in his fists? Who has bound the waters in a garment? Who has established the ends of the earth? What is his name, and what is his Son’s name, if you can tell? (Prov. 30:2-4)
Labor with this also to take down the pride of your heart. What do you know
of God? How little a portion is it! How immense is he in his nature! Can you
look without terror into the abyss of eternity? You cannot bear the rays of
his glorious being. Because I look on this consideration of great use in our walking with God, so far as it may have a consistency with that filial59 boldness which isgiven us in Jesus Christ to draw nigh to the throne of grace [Heb. 4:16], I shall
further insist upon it, to give an abiding impression of it to the souls of them
who desire to walk humbly with God.
Consider, then, I say, to keep your heart in continual awe of the majesty of God, that persons of the most high and eminent attainment, of the nearest and most familiar communion with God, do yet in this life know but a very little of him and his glory. God reveals his name to Moses—the
most glorious attributes that he has manifested in the covenant of grace (Ex. 34:5-6); yet all are but the “back parts” of God. All that he knows by it is but little, low, compared to the perfections of his glory. Hence it is with peculiar reference to Moses that it is said, “No man has seen God at any
time” (John 1:18); of him in comparison with Christ does he speak (v. 17); and of him it is here said, “No man,” no, not Moses, the most eminent
among them, “has seen God at any time.” We speak much of God, can talk of him, his ways, his works, his counsels, all the day long; the truth is, we
know very little of him. Our thoughts, our meditations, our expressions of him are low, many of them unworthy of his glory, none of them reaching
You will say that “Moses was under the law when God wrapped up himself in darkness, and his mind in types and clouds and dark institutions—under the glorious shining of the gospel, which has brought life and immortality to light, God being revealed from his own bosom, we now know him much more clearly, and as he is; we see his face now, and not his back parts only, as Moses did.”
I acknowledge a vast and almost inconceivable difference between the acquaintance we now have with God, after his speaking to us by his own Son
[Heb. 1:2], and that which the generality of the saints had under the law; for although their eyes were as good, sharp, and clear as ours, their faith and spiritual understanding not behind ours, the object as glorious unto them as unto us, yet our day is more clear than theirs was, the clouds are blown away and scattered [Song 4:6], the shadows of the night are gone and fled away, the sun is risen, and the means of sight is made more eminent and clear than formerly. Yet—
That peculiar sight which Moses had of God (Exodus 34), was a gospelsight, a sight of God as “gracious,” etc., and yet it is called but his “back arts,”
that is, but low and mean60 in comparison of his excellencies and perfections. The apostle, exalting to the utmost this glory of light above that of the law, manifesting that now the “veil” causing darkness is taken away [2 Cor. 3:13-16], so that with “open” or uncovered “face we behold the glory of the Lord” (2 Cor. 3:18) tells us how: “as in a glass” (1 Cor 13:12). “In a glass”— how is that? Clearly, perfectly? Alas, no! He tells you how that is: “We see through a glass, darkly,” says he (1 Cor. 13:12). It is not a telescope that helps us to see things afar off, concerning which the apostle speaks; and yet what poor helps are! How short do we come of the truth of things notwithstanding their assistance! It is a looking-glass whereunto he alludes (where are only obscure species and images of things, and not the things themselves), and a sight therein that he compares our knowledge to. He tells you also that all that we do see, di esoptrou, “by” or “through this glass,” is in ainigmati—in “a riddle,” in darkness and obscurity. And speaking of himself, who surely was much more clear-sighted than any now living, he tells us that he saw but ex merous—“in part.” He saw but the back parts of heavenly things (v. 12),
and compares all the knowledge he had attained of God to that he had of
things when he was a child (v. 11). It is a meros,61 short of the to teleion,
yea, such as katarg·th·setai—“it shall be destroyed,” or done away. We know
what weak, feeble, uncertain notions and apprehensions children have of
things of any abstruse63 consideration; how when they grow up with any
improvements of parts and abilities, those conceptions vanish, and they are
ashamed of them. It is the commendation of a child to love, honor, believe,
and obey his father; but for his science and notions, his father knows his childishness
and folly. Notwithstanding all our confidence of high attainments, all
our notions of God are but childish in respect of his infinite perfections. We
lisp and babble, and say we know not what, for the most part, in our most
accurate (as we think) conceptions and notions of God.64We may love, honor,
believe, and obey our Father; and therewith he accepts our childish thoughts,
for they are but childish. We see but his back parts; we know but little of him.
Hence is that promise wherewith we are so often supported and comforted
in our distress, “We shall see him as he is”; we shall see him “face to face”;
“know as we are known; comprehend that for which we are comprehended”
(1 Cor. 13:12; 1 John 3:2); and positively, “Now we see him not” [1 Pet.
1:8]—all concluding that here we see but his back parts; not as he is, but in
a dark, obscure representation; not in the perfection of his glory.
The queen of Sheba had heard much of Solomon, and framed many great thoughts of his magnificence in her mind thereupon; but when she came and saw his glory, she was forced to confess that the one half of the truth had not been told her [1 Kings 10:7]. We may suppose that we have here attained great knowledge, clear and high thoughts of God; but, alas! when he shall bring us into his presence we shall cry out, “We never knew him as he is; the thousandth part of his glory, and perfection, and blessedness, never entered into our hearts.”
The apostle tells us that we know not what we ourselves shall be (1 John 3:2)—what we shall find ourselves in the issue; much less will it enter into
our hearts to conceive what God is and what we shall find him to be. Consider either him who is to be known, or the way whereby we know him, and this will further appear:
We know so little of God, because it is God who is thus to be known—that is, he who has described himself to us very much by this, that we cannot
know him. What else does he intend where he calls himself invisible, incomprehensible, and the like?—that is, he whom we do not, cannot, know as he is. And our further progress consists more in knowing what he is not, than what he is. Thus is he described to be immortal, infinite—that is, he is not, as we are, mortal, finite, and limited. Hence is that glorious description of him, “Who only has immortality, dwelling in the light which no man can approach unto; whom no man has seen, nor can see” (1 Tim. 6:16). His light is such as no creature can approach unto. He is not seen, not because he cannot be seen, but because we cannot bear the sight of him. The light of God, in whom is no darkness, forbids all access to him by any creature whatsoever.
We who cannot behold the sun in its glory are too weak to bear the
beams of infinite brightness. On this consideration, as was said, the wise man
professes himself “a very beast, and not to have the understanding of a man” (Prov. 30:2)—that is, he knew nothing in comparison of God, so that he seemed to have lost all his understanding when once he came to the consideration of him, his work, and his ways.
In this consideration let our souls descend to some particulars:
For the being of God; we are so far from a knowledge of it, so as to be able to instruct one another therein by words and expressions of it, as that
to frame any conceptions in our mind, with such species and impressions of things as we receive the knowledge of all other things by, is to make an idol to ourselves, and so to worship a god of our own making, and not the God that made us. We may as well and as lawfully hew him out of wood or stone as form him a being in our minds, suited to our apprehensions. The utmost of the best of our thoughts of the being of God is that we can have no thoughts of it. Our knowledge of a being is but low when it mounts no higher but only to know that we know it not.
There [may] be some things of God which he himself has taught us to speak of, and to regulate our expressions of them; but when we have so done,
we see not the things themselves; we know them not. To believe and admire is all that we attain to. We profess, as we are taught, that God is infinite,
omnipotent, eternal; and we know what disputes and notions there are about omnipresence, immensity, infiniteness, and eternity. We have, I say, words and notions about these things; but as to the things themselves what do we know? What do we comprehend of them? Can the mind of man do any more but swallow itself up in an infinite abyss, which is as nothing; give itself up to what it cannot conceive, much less express? Is not our understanding “brutish” in the contemplation of such things, and is as if it were not? Yea, the perfection of our understanding is not to understand, and to rest there.
They are but the back parts of eternity and infiniteness that we have a glimpse of. What shall I say of the Trinity, or the subsistence of distinct persons in the same individual essence—a mystery by many denied, because by none understood— a mystery whose every letter is mysterious? Who can declare the generation of the Son, the procession of the Spirit, or the difference of the one from the other? But I shall not further instance in particulars. That infinite and inconceivable distance that is between him and us keeps us in the dark as to any sight of his face or clear apprehension of his perfections.
We know him rather by what he does than by what he is—by his doing
us good than by his essential goodness; and how little a portion of him, as
Job speaks, is hereby discovered! We know little of God, because it is faith alone whereby here we know him. I shall not now discourse about the remaining impressions on the hearts of all men by nature that there is a God, nor what they may rationally be taught concerning that God from the works of his creation and providence, which they see and behold. It is confessedly, and that upon the woeful experience of all ages, so weak, low, dark, confused, that none ever on that account glorified God as they ought, but, notwithstanding all their knowledge of God, were indeed “without God in the world” [Eph. 2:12].
The chief, and, upon the matter, almost only acquaintance we have with God, and his dispensations of himself, is by faith. “He that comes to God
must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him” (Heb. 11:6). Our knowledge of him and his rewarding (the bottom of our obedience or coming to him), is believing. “We walk by faith, and not by sight” (2 Cor. 5:7)—dia pisteøs ou dia eidous by faith, and so by faith as not to have any express idea, image, or species of that which we believe. Faith is all the argument we have of “things not seen” (Heb. 11:1). I might here insist upon the nature of it; and from all its concomitants and concerns manifest that we know but the back parts of what we know by faith only. As to its rise, it is built purely upon the testimony of him whom we have not seen: as the apostle speaks, “How can you love him whom you have not seen?” [1 Pet. 1:8]—that is, whom you know only by faith that he is. Faith receives all upon his testimony, whom it receives to be only on his own testimony. As to its nature, it is an assent upon testimony, not an evidence upon demonstration; and the object of it is, as was said before, above us. Hence our faith, as was formerly observed, is called a “seeing darkly, as in a glass.” All that we know this way (and all that we know of God we know this way) is but low, and dark, and obscure.
But you will say, “All this is true, but yet it is only so to them that know not God, perhaps, as he is revealed in Jesus Christ; with them who do so it is otherwise. It is true, ‘No man has seen God at any time,’ but ‘the only-begotten Son, he has revealed him’ (John 1:18); and ‘the Son of God is come, and has given us an understanding, that we may know him that is true’ (1 John 5:20). The illumination of ‘the glorious gospel of Christ, who is the image of God,’ shines upon believers (2 Cor. 4:4); yea, and ‘God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, shines into their hearts, to give them the knowledge of his glory in the face of his Son’ (v. 6). So that ‘though we were darkness,’ yet we are now ‘light in the Lord’ (Eph. 5:8). And the apostle says, ‘We all with open face behold the glory of the Lord’ (2 Cor. 3:18); and we are now so far from being in such darkness, or at such a distance from God, that ‘our communion and our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son’ (1 John 1:3). The light of the gospel whereby now God is revealed is glorious; not a star, but the sun in his beauty is risen upon us, and the veil is taken from our faces. So that though unbelievers, yea, and perhaps some weak believers, may be in some darkness, yet those of any growth or considerable attainments have a clear sight and view of the face of God in Jesus Christ.”
To which I answer—
The truth is, we all of us know enough of him to love him more than we do, to delight in him and serve him, believe him, obey him, put our trust in
him, above all that we have hitherto attained. Our darkness and weakness is no plea for our negligence and disobedience. Who is it that has walked up to the knowledge that he has had of the perfections, excellencies, and will of God? God’s end in giving us any knowledge of himself here is that we may “glorify him as God” [Rom. 1:21], that is, love him, serve him, believe and obey him—give him all the honor and glory that is due from poor sinful creatures to a sin-pardoning God and Creator. We must all acknowledge that we were never thoroughly transformed into the image of that knowledge which we have had. And had we used our talents well, we might have been trusted with more.
Comparatively, that knowledge which we have of God by the revelation
of Jesus Christ in the gospel is exceeding eminent and glorious. It is so in comparison
of any knowledge of God that might otherwise be attained, or was
delivered in the law under the Old Testament, which had but the shadow of
good things, not the express image of them; this the apostle pursues at large
(2 Corinthians 3). Christ has now in these last days revealed the Father from
his own bosom, declared his name, made known his mind, will, and counsel
in a far more clear, eminent, distinct manner than he did formerly, while he
kept his people under the pedagogy of the law; and this is that which, for the
most part, is intended in the places before mentioned. The clear, perspicuous
delivery and declaration of God and his will in the gospel is expressly exalted
in comparison of any other way of revelation of himself.
The difference between believers and unbelievers as to knowledge is not so much in the matter of their knowledge as in the manner of knowing.
Unbelievers, some of them, may know more and be able to say more of God, his perfections, and his will, than many believers; but they know nothing as they ought, nothing in a right manner, nothing spiritually and savingly, nothing with a holy, heavenly light. The excellency of a believer is, not that he has a large apprehension of things, but that what he does apprehend, which perhaps may be very little, he sees it in the light of the Spirit of God, in a saving, soul-transforming light; and this is that which gives us communion with God, and not prying thoughts or curious-raised notions.
Jesus Christ by his word and Spirit reveals to the hearts of all his, God
as a Father, as a God in covenant, as a rewarder, every way sufficiently to
teach us to obey him here, and to lead us to his bosom, to lie down there in the fruition of him to eternity. But yet now, Notwithstanding all this, it is but a little portion we know of him; we see but his back parts. For— The intention of all gospel revelation is not to unveil God’s essential glory
that we should see him as he is, but merely to declare so much of him as he knows sufficient to be a bottom of our faith, love, obedience, and coming to him—that is, of the faith which here he expects from us; such services as beseem poor creatures in the midst of temptations. But when he calls us to eternal admiration and contemplation, without interruption, he will make a new manner of discovery of himself, and the whole shape of things, as it now lies before us, will depart as a shadow. We are dull and slow of heart to receive the things that are in the word revealed; God, by our infirmity and weakness, keeping us in continual dependence on him for teachings and revelations of himself out of his word, never in this world bringing any soul to the utmost of what is from the word to be made out and discovered—so that although the way of revelation in the gospel be clear and evident, yet we know little of the things themselves that are revealed. Let us, then, revive the use and intention of this consideration:
will not a due apprehension of this inconceivable greatness of God, and that infinite distance wherein we stand from him, fill the soul with a holy and awful fear of him, so as to keep it in a frame unsuited to the thriving or flourishing of any lust whatsoever? Let the soul be continually wonted to reverential thoughts of God’s greatness and omnipresence, and it will be much upon its watch as to any undue deportments.68 Consider him with whom you have to do—even “our God is a consuming fire” [Heb. 12:29]—and in your greatest abashments69 at his presence and eye, know that your very nature is too narrow to bear apprehensions suitable to his essential glory.
Excerpts from Overcoming Sin and Temptation by John Owen (Ch. 11 & 12)