by John Owen
TO THE READER.
An Exposition of Hebrews 6:4-6
I believe it is important to provide a brief explanation of the occasion and purpose of the following discourse, so that the reader can decide whether to continue reading or not, based on their own judgment.
It is widely acknowledged that the state of religion in many parts of the Christian world is lamentable in our present day. Even those who identify themselves with religion openly complain about the excessive misconduct of some individuals. These provocations, if not boldly addressed, contribute to the overall problems that are being lamented. However, there is general agreement that the glory and power of Christianity have faded and nearly disappeared among the majority of professed Christians. The specific reasons and causes for this decline, though, remain subjects of disagreement. While a few may believe that everything needed for a thriving religious state is already present and that the only requirement is to secure what they have and enjoy, the undeniable reality is that the world is filled with the devastating consequences of human desires and clear signs of divine displeasure. Both heavenly and earthly signs indicate the decline of our religious profession from its original beauty and splendor.
Religion itself remains unchanged; it is the conduct and misrepresentation of those who profess it that bring it into disrepute. Any disadvantage that religion faces in the world will ultimately be attributed to those whose false beliefs and practices have corrupted it. No one could display greater enmity or malice towards the gospel than someone who asserts or maintains that the faith, profession, lives, ways, and behavior of the majority of Christians accurately represent its truth and holiness. The apostle's description of people in their natural state, before they have experienced the transformative influence of the gospel's light, power, and grace, is far more applicable to them than any portrayal of disciples of Christ found in the entire Scriptures. They are described as "foolish, disobedient, deceived, serving various lusts and pleasures, living in malice and envy, hateful, and hating one another."
The paths and practices of genuine gospel faith, love, meekness, temperance, self-denial, kindness, humility, zeal, and contempt for the world's allurements, along with readiness to embrace the cross, have become overgrown and almost obliterated among people. They can hardly be discerned where they once flourished. Instead, the "works of the flesh" have created a wide and well-traveled road, which, though it may appear right in people's own eyes for a time, leads to destruction and the chambers of death. These "works of the flesh" are evident not only in their intrinsic nature but also in their open commission and destructive consequences. They include adultery, fornication, impurity, lewdness, idolatry, sorcery, hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambitions, dissensions, heresies, envy, murders, drunkenness, revelries, and the like, as enumerated by the apostle. It is undeniable that these sins have spread throughout the Christian world among all kinds of individuals, despite any claims to the contrary. The Scriptures explicitly and frequently foretell that this would occur in the last days, as will be further elaborated upon in the following discourse.
It is true that many individuals do not openly engage in such flagrant acts of wickedness. In the midst of the prevailing defection from the truth and holiness of the gospel, we should greatly admire the grace of God for the small remnants of piety, sobriety, modesty, and common usefulness that still exist among us. However, it is important to recognize that open immorality is not the only way in which people can deviate from and even renounce the power, grace, and wisdom of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Many who do not indulge in extreme excesses are nevertheless ignorant of the mysteries of the gospel, negligent or merely formal in divine worship, infected with pride, vanity, and love of the world, and indifferent to the glory of Christ and the honor of the gospel. It is challenging to find genuine Christian religion in the midst of those who profess to follow Christ or to observe the power of godliness among those who openly embrace its outward form.
As a result, Christianity has fallen into such neglect in the world that its cunning and formidable adversary is emboldened to undermine its very foundations, aiming to eradicate its very name from memory. When religion is stripped of its vital connection to the transformative power in the lives and minds of individuals and reduced to a mere outward and lifeless profession driven by secular interests, it cannot withstand the opposition it constantly faces. In this state, those who appear to have some concern for Christianity are too preoccupied with blaming one another for the decline, often based on insignificant differences in judgment that have little impact on the overall situation. As a result, there is a complete neglect of joining together in a collective effort to seek proper remedies for the prevailing spiritual decay.
Another aspect that contributes to the deplorable state of Christian religion in the world is the significance of sacred truth as the sole principle of evangelical obedience. Genuine obedience to God is rooted in and guided by the truth of the gospel, for it is the doctrine that leads to godliness, and all acceptable obedience is an expression of faith. Any form of supposed duty to God that does not have the truth of the gospel as its source and measure is not what God currently requires nor what He will eternally reward. Although many individuals, under the guise of professing the truth, may live in open rebellion against its transforming power, the wounds of religion are not beyond healing, and its stains can be washed away through the proper remedy, which only needs to be diligently applied.
However, if the truth itself is corrupted or abandoned, if its glorious mysteries are distorted or despised, if its vital doctrines are accused of error and falsehood, and if the vain imaginations and worldly reasoning of human intellect are substituted for them or exalted above them, then all hope of recovery is lost. The breach will continue to widen like the sea until there is no one left to heal it. If the very sources of the sanctifying waters of the gospel are poisoned from their very origins, they will not bring healing to the nations to whom they flow. When the doctrine of truth is corrupted, it cannot change the hearts of people or reform their lives.
It is widely acknowledged among those of us who are called Protestants how the apostasy of the Roman church has led multitudes of professed Christians astray. The corruption of the gospel's doctrine within that church has had a twofold effect: it has given rise to the depravity of people's conduct on one hand, and on the other hand, the wicked lives of the church's members have made the restoration of truth and genuine holiness increasingly difficult and seemingly impractical within their current framework. The discourses that follow partially explore this phenomenon, but a more detailed and comprehensive investigation is warranted.
In general, it is evident that error and superstition, existing within the minds of the church's teachers or leaders, along with sin and conformity to the ways and customs of the corrupt world, have mutually contributed to their simultaneous entrance into the profession and lives of Christians. Having established themselves within the visible church structures of numerous nations, these corruptions have become deeply intertwined with their interests, effectively excluding the presence of truth and holiness they have displaced. Moreover, by claiming infallibility, they have provided a pretext that, in their own perception, justifies and supports even the most egregious errors and flagrant disregard for the teachings of the gospel. Therefore, any hope of their recovery rests solely on the sovereign grace and almighty power of God.
It is also widely known and should be deeply lamented that there is another effort, pursuing the same general aim of corrupting the doctrine of the gospel, but in a different manner and to a different extreme, vigorously carried out in the world by the Socinians and those who align with their pernicious ways. This endeavor, too, is accompanied by various advantages that contribute to its success. The corruption of the gospel's doctrine within the Roman church, originating from the ignorance, darkness, superstition, and carnal affections of people's minds, is sustained by the same means. While these factors provided ample opportunity for its gradual introduction in past ages and regions, the principles of corruption have now become deeply embedded in the worldly interests of the majority of individuals in many European nations, securing its position and influence. Nevertheless, in this present age, characterized by the emancipation of reason from the bondage of superstition and tradition, and the freedom to rationally inquire into the true nature and causes of all things, which many claim to embrace, it may seem remarkable how this corruption has gained ground and expanded its reach. Unless it finds adherents who have been enticed away from their own rational faculties and independent thinking by certain external advantages that they consider valuable, its progress would be perplexing. The ensuing discourse explores the true reasons behind its advancement.
This new attempt, disregarding the discredited aids of superstition and carnal affections that were dominant and effective in previous eras, finds refuge in the guise of reason and the supposed compatibility of its proposals with the natural light and understanding of human beings. Regardless of the actual relationship between religion and reason, in an age where learning and discourse have flourished but true reverence for God has declined, reason has become an idol, eagerly worshipped. Anyone who presents an offering to this idol, even if it involves sacrificing the sacred mysteries of the gospel, will undoubtedly receive a warm reception and applause. Conversely, those who refuse to burn incense on its altar will be denounced as fools and enemies of humanity. If you tell people that there are aspects of religion that transcend the limits of finite and fallible reason, and that there are truths that may appear contrary to corrupted and depraved human understanding, they will respond (rightly so, although tragically misused) that their reason is the best and perhaps the only means they possess to discern truth from falsehood. Given that the liberty of individuals' own rational faculties has gained immense popularity in the world (as indeed it is the most excellent aspect of humanity in and of itself), it is foolish to expect that it would not be subject to pernicious abuse, as every valuable thing has always been when elevated to such esteem as to make it susceptible to corruption. No one will ever attempt to make use of that which others have no respect for or despise.
The advantage that the Socinians and their adherents have in their attempt to corrupt the doctrine of the gospel lies in their ability to exploit the general appeal of reason as the ultimate measure and standard of truth. By presenting themselves as champions of right reason and dismissing any exceptions or limitations to this proposal, they gain the favor of many who aspire to share in the reputation that reason has acquired in the world. Through the confident use of this artifice, and the absurd application of this principle to infinite and holy mysteries of divine revelation, they have gained the reputation of being the most rational interpreters of sacred things, despite their reasoning being as weak and insufficient as their predecessors in similar endeavors. Equipped with this advantage, when they proceed to present their specific opinions, they already have a predisposed audience and a favorable environment for their reception, leading to their frequent success.
Their opinions generally fall into two categories: First, the assertion that there is no reason to believe anything that reason cannot comprehend, thus concluding that whatever is beyond reason is contrary to it and should be rejected as destructive to the natural constitution of our souls. Second, the claim that the human mind, in its present condition, is fully capable of fulfilling all its intellectual and moral duties in relation to God and can meet all requirements placed upon it. Essentially, they purport to defend human nature, common reason, and the inherent morality of mankind against allegations of weakness, depravity, and corruption, which some level against it. Although this is contrary to the universal experience of the world, this design gains acceptance among many due to its alignment with the inclination of human nature to reject charges of its own depravity.
Furthermore, by appealing to the reputation that reason has attained in matters of God, and by encouraging contempt for others as weak and irrational, they cater to the depraved minds of individuals, making their progress in one form or another highly probable. The subtle enemy of our salvation takes advantage of the disposition, inclinations, and prevailing beliefs of each age and season. Without his influence, devotion in the past could have been practiced without superstition, and in this age, the use of reason could be defended without rejecting the necessity of supernatural illumination and the fundamental truths of the gospel. However, once he mixes his poison with something good, it becomes all the more pernicious.
It is unfortunate that the defection from the truth of the gospel is not limited to the instances previously mentioned, but has also affected Protestants to some extent. There is a weariness and dissatisfaction with the truths that have been professed since the time of the Reformation, including those very truths that sparked the Reformation itself. In addition to the extremes of error mentioned earlier, some have departed from the foundations of the reformed religion and compromised the essential truths upon which it was built. This has led to a confusion of harmful opinions and a loss of reputation for stability and usefulness.
As a result, divisions, debates, and animosities have multiplied over the core articles of our faith, causing internal conflicts among those who were originally united in preserving the Protestant profession. These divisions have weakened the collective voice of Protestants and made them vulnerable to the artifices and power of those who seek to impose their yoke once again upon the Christian world. Nothing would prepare the way for their success more than the undermining of the doctrinal consistency that the reformed churches maintained for a significant period of time, standing firm against all forms of opposition.
It is a sobering reality that throughout history, no church or nation that has embraced the profession of the gospel has been able to maintain its purity indefinitely. Sooner or later, either partially or completely, there has been a falling away from the revealed doctrine and required obedience of the gospel. Those who believe that the purity of religion can be preserved solely through confessions and canons deceive themselves. Unless there are vigilant efforts to preserve the truth and power of the gospel, while simultaneously opposing those who seek to corrupt it, the decline and defection will continue.
In the present age, the defection from the original pattern of Christianity is almost universal. The visible profession of Christianity does not adequately reflect the scriptural standard or the early believers' example. This raises a crucial question for thoughtful individuals: Should there be an immediate endeavor to bring as many people as possible back to the original standard in their profession, obedience, and worship? Or should we accommodate the present state of affairs to preserve the remaining fragments of religion among those who are not capable of a full restoration?
The differing opinions on this matter form the basis of various controversies and debates. However, it is likely that these disputes will only come to an end when God graciously brings about a fresh revival of evangelical faith, love, and holiness among all Christians. Until then, the differences in judgment regarding the path forward will persist.
After contemplating the state of affairs in the world and entertaining legitimate concerns that there may be further deterioration from the power and purity of evangelical truth, I embarked on a comprehensive investigation. I sought to uncover the hidden causes and reasons behind the propensity of individuals, throughout all generations, to apostatize from the genuine profession of the gospel in faith and obedience, as evidenced by the prevailing trends. This contemplation was prompted, in part, by my involvement in the exposition of the sixth chapter of the Epistle to the Hebrews. In that passage, the apostle vividly depicts the nature of complete apostasy and the ultimate judgment of apostates by God. Reflecting on the enormity of that sin and the consequent terror of the Lord, coupled with the escalating impiety, profanity, and detestable indulgences, along with the prevalence of ignorance, error, and superstition, I couldn't help but ponder the potential trajectory of these developments. These thoughts weighed heavily on my mind, despite my modest and inconspicuous position in the world, as I considered the glory of God, the honor of Christ and the gospel, and the eternal well-being of souls—all of which were at stake. I questioned how anyone could find contentment in their professed Christianity without a deep concern for and genuine sorrow over the suffering caused by this woeful apostasy. While I may not have reached the pinnacle of devotion in this regard, I can honestly and earnestly attest that my prayers and tears, though perhaps inadequate given the gravity of the situation, have been heartfelt and sincere.
I was well aware of the limitations and insignificance of my position in the world, coupled with the numerous obstacles that could undermine even the most sincere endeavors. Therefore, I did not harbor any illusions that I, with my humble status, could single-handedly bring relief to nations or national churches that are on the precipice of this disastrous evil. Nevertheless, privately mourning for them, fervently laboring in prayers and supplications for a greater outpouring of the Spirit of Christ upon them for their well-being, are actions that may be disregarded by some, yet they will be accepted by God when offered sincerely by the humblest of His servants who call upon His name. Those who have been granted greater opportunities and advantages will be held to a different standard. Undoubtedly, those who are entrusted with the task of opposing the rising tide of impiety and profanity and applying the effective remedies for these evils to the souls and consciences of people bear a tremendous responsibility. It will be a tragic outcome if they fail to diligently and openly risk all their earthly concerns in order to prevent this breach. A learned writer from the Church of England aptly noted two significant and odious sins of hypocrisy prevalent among others: Firstly, the belief that martyrdom is not relevant in a state that authorizes the true profession of the religion we, among many, deem most favorable and would choose for ourselves if given the opportunity. Secondly, the notion that errors in doctrine or opinion are more pernicious than indulgence in sinful practices, persistence in a life of sin, or blatant disobedience to God's commandments. Moreover, he declared that ministers of the gospel can deny Christ or reveal their shame of the gospel by failing to oppose sinful behavior as they should. He further emphasized that any era since the propagation of the Christian religion that lacked a sufficient number of martyrs should be attributed more to the negligence, ignorance, hypocrisy, or lack of courage among Christ's ambassadors or appointed pastors rather than the sincerity, gentleness, or faithfulness of the congregation, particularly its leaders. These insights, found in the writings of this author, deserve careful consideration by individuals before it is too late.
However, there is a responsibility to trade with even a single talent. If there is a willing heart, one's efforts are accepted based on what they have, not what they lack. It is this understanding that has motivated me to present my thoughts on the nature, causes, and occurrences of the current departure from the gospel and decline of holiness, along with the means to safeguard against its contamination and prevent its prevalence among individuals. It serves no purpose to confine our efforts to futile complaints or to confront the effects without a thorough understanding and consideration of their causes. Therefore, the investigation and exposition of the causes of this evil form the primary subject of the following discussions. If, through these efforts, I have only succeeded in inspiring individuals who possess greater insight and abilities to uncover the hidden sources of the deluge of sin and error in the Christian world, and who are better positioned to utilize their findings for the public good, then I will consider myself to have received a rich reward.
There is one important matter that I must bring to the attention of those readers who take an interest in my writings. The publication of this exposition on select verses from the sixth chapter of the Epistle to the Hebrews might give the impression that I am abandoning my original plan of providing a comprehensive exposition of the entire epistle. However, I cannot foresee what I may accomplish as I approach the inevitable time when I must depart from this earthly existence, a reality that constantly reminds me through my many weaknesses and limitations. Thus, as long as I am alive, I am determined to continue with that work to the best of my ability, relying on God's enablement and considering other pressing responsibilities. The only reason, apart from the perceived timeliness, why this particular portion of the exposition is being presented to the public is that the thoughts that arose from it became so extensive that including them within the context and purpose of the apostle's writing would have resulted in an excessive digression.