Life and Death, Natural and Spiritual, Compared

by John Owen

Of death in sin — All unregenerate men are spiritually dead — Spiritual death is twofold: legal; metaphorical — Natural Life, what it is, and what it consists in — Natural Death, with its necessary consequents — The supernatural life of Adam in innocence, in its principle, acts, and power — Differences between that life and our spiritual life in Christ — Spiritual Death is a privation of the life we had in Adam; a negation of the life of Christ — It is privation of a principle of all life to God — Spiritual impotence in this — Differences between natural and spiritual death — The use of precepts, promises, and threatenings — No man perishes merely for lack of power — No vital acts in a state of death — The way of the communication of spiritual life — The nature of the best works of unregenerate persons— There is no disposition to spiritual life under the power of spiritual death.

Another description that the Scripture gives of unregenerate men as to their state and condition, is that they are spiritually dead; and hence, in like manner, it follows that there is a necessity for an internal, powerful, effectual work of the Holy Ghost on the souls of men, to deliver them out of this state and condition by regeneration. And this principally respects their wills and affections, just as the darkness and blindness described before, respects their minds and understandings. There is a spiritual life by which men live to God; being strangers to and alienated from this spiritual life, men are spiritually dead. The Scripture declares this concerning all unregenerate persons, partly in direct words, and partly in other assertions of the same importance. The testimonies of the first sort are many and express: Eph 2.1, "You were dead in trespasses and sins;" Eph 2.5, "When we were dead in sins;" Col 2.13, "And you being dead in your sins, and the uncircumcision of your flesh;" 2Cor 5.14, "If one died for all, then were all dead;" Rom 5.15, "Through the offense of one, many are dead;" Rom 5.12, "Death passed upon all men, for all have sinned." And the same thing is asserted in the second way, where the recovery and restoration of men by the grace of Christ is called their "quickening," or the bestowing of a new life upon them: for this supposes that they were dead, or destitute of that life which is communicated to them in this revivification; for only that which was dead before, can be said to be quickened. See Eph 2.5; John 5.21, 6.63.591

This death that unregenerate persons are under, is twofold:

1. Legal death, with reference to the sentence of the law. The sanction of the law was that, upon sinning, a man should die: "In the day that you eat of this you shall die the death," Gen 2.17. And upon this sentence Adam and all his posterity became dead in law, morally dead, or liable to death penally, and adjudged to it. This death is intended in some of the places mentioned before, such as Rom 5.12, and also 2Cor 5.14: For as Christ died, so all were dead. He died penally under the sentence of the law, and all were liable to death, or dead on that account. But this is not the death which I intend. Nor are we delivered from it by regeneration; rather, we are delivered by justification, Rom 5.1.592

2. Spiritual death, so called metaphorically, from the analogy and proportion that it bears to natural death. It is of great importance to know the true nature of this spiritual death, and because of it, how unregenerate men are utterly disabled from doing anything that is spiritually good, until they are quickened by the almighty power and irresistible efficacy of the Holy Ghost. Therefore, to declare this rightly, we must consider the nature of natural life and death, to which the spiritual estate of unregenerate men is an allusion.

Life in general, or the life of a living creature, is "The act of a quickening principle on a subject to be quickened, by virtue of their union." 593 And three things are to be considered in it:

1. The principle of life itself; in man this is the rational, "living soul," Heb. nephesh chayyah: Gen 2.7, "God breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living soul." Having formed the body of man from the dust of the earth, he designed for him a principle of life superior to that of brute creatures. Theirs is but the expression and spirit of their temperature and composition, even though particularly educed by the formative virtue and power of the Holy Ghost, as declared before. He creates for man, therefore, a separate, distinct, animating soul, and he infuses it into the matter prepared for its reception. As the Spirit did in the beginning in the creation of the species or kind of the human race in its first individuals, so he continues to do in the ordinary course of the works of his providence for continuing the human race. For having ordained the preparation of the body by generation, he immediately infuses into it the "living soul," the "breath of life," Heb. neshamah chayyah.

2. There is the "actus primus," 594 or the quickening act of this principle, on the principle quickened, in and by virtue of the union. Hereby the whole man becomes a "living soul;" Gr. psuchikos anthropos — a person quickened by a vital principle, and enabled for all naturally vital actions.

3. There are the acts of this life itself; and they are of two sorts:

(1.) Those which flow from life as life.

(2.) Those which proceed from life as such a life, from the principle of a rational soul.

The first sort are natural and necessary, such as all the actings and energies of the senses, and of the locomotive faculty, and also what belongs to receiving and making use of nutriment. These are acts of life, from which the psalmist proves that idols are dead things: from the lack of such acts. They are so far from having a divine life, as to have no life at all, Psa 115.4-7.595 These are acts of life as life; they are inseparable from it; and their end is to preserve the union of the whole between the quickening and quickened principles.

The second sort are acts of life that proceed from the special nature of this quickening principle. Such are all the elicit596 and imperate597 acts of our understandings and wills; all actions that are voluntary, rational, and uniquely human. These proceed from that special kind of life which is given by the special quickening principle of a rational soul.

Hence it is evident what natural death consists in; and three things may be considered in it:

1. The separation of the soul from the body. By this separation, the act of infusing the living soul ceases as to all its ends; for as a principle of life to the whole, it operates only by virtue of its union with the subject that is quickened by it.

2. A cessation of all vital actings in the quickened subject; for that union from which they proceeded is dissolved.

3. As a consequence of these, the body is impotent and inept as to all its vital operations. Not only do all operations of life actually cease, but the body is no longer able to effect them. There does indeed remain in it "potentia obedientialis,"598 a "passive power" to receive life again, if that life is communicated to it by an external efficient cause. Thus the body of Lazarus, though dead, had the receptive power of a living soul; but it did not have an active power to dispose itself to life again, nor to vital actions.

From these things we may gather, by a just analogy, what spiritual life and death consist of. And to that end, some things must be observed beforehand; such as —

1. Adam in the state of innocency, besides having his natural life by which he was a living soul, likewise had a supernatural life with respect to its end, by which he lived to God. This is called the "life of God," Eph 4.18. This is the life which men who are now in the state of nature, are alienated from — it is the life which God requires, and which has God for its object and end. And this life was in Adam supernaturally.

For although this life was concreated in and with the rational soul, as a perfection due to it in the state in which it was, and with respect to the end for which it was made, yet it did not naturally flow from the principles of the rational soul. Nor were its principles, faculties, or abilities inseparable from those of the soul itself, being only incidental perfections of them, inlaid in them by special grace. This life was necessary for him with respect to the state in which he was, and the end for which he was made. He was made to live to the living God, and that was in a particular manner: — he was to live to God's glory in this world by discharging the rational and moral obedience required of him; and he was to live afterward in God's glory and in the eternal enjoyment of Him, as his highest good and highest reward. He was enabled for this end by that life of God, which we are alienated from in the state of nature.

2. In this life, as in life in general, three things are to be considered: (1.) Its principle; (2.) Its operation; (3.) Its virtue; or its habit, act, and power.

(1.) There was a quickening principle belonging to it. For every life is an act of a quickening principle.599 In Adam, this was the image of God, or a habitual conformity to God, his mind and will, in which the holiness and righteousness of God himself was represented, Gen 1.26-27.600 He was created in this image, or it was concreated with him, as a perfection due to his nature in the condition in which he was made. This gave him a habitual disposition toward all duties of that obedience which was required of him; it was the rectitude of all the faculties of his soul with respect to his supernatural end, Ecc 7.29.601

(2.) There were continual actions belonging to it from this principle, or by virtue of it and suited to it. All the acts of Adam's life should have been subordinate to his great moral end. In all that he did, he should have lived to God, according to the law of that covenant in which he walked before Him. And living to God was Adam's acting in in all things suitably to the light in his mind, to the righteousness and holiness in his will and affections, and to that uprightness, or integrity, or order, that was in his soul.

(3.) Along with this, he had the power or ability to continue the principle of life in suitable acts of such a life, with respect to the whole obedience required of him. That is, Adam had sufficient ability to perform any duty, or all duties, that the covenant required.

The supernatural life of Adam in his innocence consisted in these three things; and this is what the life to which we are restored by Christ corresponds. It corresponds to it, I say, and it supplies its absence with respect to the end of living to God according to the new covenant that we are taken into. For the life of Adam would not be sufficient for us to live to God according to the terms of the new covenant; nor is the life of grace we now enjoy suited to the covenant in which Adam stood before God.

This is why there are some differences between these two lives,602 the principal difference of which may be reduced to two heads:

1. The principle of this life was wholly and entirely in man himself. It was the effect of another cause, which was outside himself — namely, the good-will and power of God; but it was left to grow on no other root than what was in man himself. It was wholly implanted in his nature, and its springs lie in this. It should have had actual excitations by the influence of power from God; for no principle of operation can subsist in independence from God, nor can it apply itself to operate without His concurrence. But in the life to which we are renewed by Jesus Christ, the fountain and principle of it is not in ourselves, but in Christ, as one common head to all those who are made partakers of him. He is "our life;" and our life (as to its spring and fountain) is hidden with him in God, Col 3.3-4; for he quickens us by his Spirit, Rom 8.11. And our spiritual life, as it exists in us, consists in the vital actings of this Spirit of his in us — for "without him we can do nothing," John 15.5. By virtue of this, we "walk in newness of life," Rom 6.4. We live by this, therefore; yet not so much we live, as "Christ lives in us," Gal 2.20.

2. There is a difference between these lives with respect to the object of their vital acts. For the life which we now lead by the faith of the Son of God has various objects of its actings, which the other life did not have. For all the actings of our faith and love (that is, all our obedience) respects the revelation that God makes of himself and his will to us. Because of this, there are now new revelations of God in Christ; and consequently there are new duties of obedience required of us; as will be apparent afterward.

And there are other such differences between them. The life we had in Adam at the beginning, and that life we are renewed to in Christ Jesus, are so much of the same nature and kind (as our apostle manifests in various places, Eph 4.23-24; Col 3.10),603 that they serve the same end and purpose.

There being, therefore, this twofold spiritual life, or ability of living to God — that which we had in Adam and that which we have in Christ — we must inquire with reference to which of these it is that unregenerate men are said to be spiritually dead, or dead in trespasses and sins. Now, in the first place, this respects the life we had in Adam; for that life was deprived in the sanction of the law, "You shall die the death." This spiritual death is comprised in the privation of that spiritual life, or life to God, which unregenerate men never had — neither de facto nor de jure 604— in any state or condition. This is why, with respect to this life, they are dead only negatively — they do not have it. But with respect to the life they had in Adam [prior to the fall], they are dead privatively — they have lost that power of living to God which they once had.

From what has been discussed, we may discover the nature of this spiritual death, under the power of which all unregenerate persons abide: for there are three things in it:

1. A privation of a principle of spiritual life enabling us to live to God;

2. A negation of all spiritual, vital acts — that is, of all acts and duties of holy obedience that are acceptable to God, and tend toward enjoying him;

3. A total defect and lack of power for any such acts whatsoever.

All of these are in that death which is a privation of life, which this spiritual death is.

First, There is a privation of a principle of spiritual life in it, namely, of that which we had before the entrance of sin, or a power of living to God according to the covenant of works; and there is a negation of that which we have by Christ, or a power of living to God according to the tenor of the covenant of grace. Therefore, those who are thus dead, have no principle or first power of living to God, or performing any duty which would be accepted by him, or enjoying him according to either covenant. It is with the spiritually dead as to all the acts and ends of spiritual life, as it is with the body as to all the acts and ends of natural life when the soul has departed from it. Why else are they said to be "dead"?

It is objected that, "There is a wide difference between natural and spiritual death. In natural death, the soul itself is utterly removed and taken from the body; but in spiritual death it continues. A man is still, notwithstanding this spiritual death, endowed with an understanding, will, and affections; and men are enabled by these to perform their duty to God, and yield the obedience required of them."

Ans. 1. In spiritual life, the soul is to the principle of that life, as the body is to the soul in natural life. For in natural life, the soul is the quickening principle, and the body is the principle quickened. When the soul departs, it leaves the body with all its own natural properties; but the body is utterly deprived of those properties which it had by virtue of its union with the soul. So too in spiritual life, the soul is not (in and by its essential properties) the quickening principle of that life, but it is the principle that is quickened. And when the quickening principle of spiritual life departs, it leaves the soul with all its natural properties entire as to their essence, even though they are morally corrupted; but it is deprived of all the power and abilities which it had by virtue of its union with a quickening principle of spiritual life. To deny such a quickening principle of spiritual life — superadded to us by the grace of Christ, distinct and separate from the natural faculties of the soul — is to renounce the whole gospel on this matter. It is the same as denying that Adam was created in the image of God, that he lost that image, and that we are renewed to the image of God by Jesus Christ. Hence,

Ans. 2. Whatever the soul acts in spiritual things by its understanding, will, and affections, as it is deprived of or not quickened by this principle of spiritual life, it does it naturally, not spiritually, as will instantly be made apparent.

There is, therefore, in the first place, a disability or impotence as to all spiritual things that are to be performed in a spiritual manner, in all persons who are not born again by the Spirit. This is because they are spiritually dead. Whatever they can do, or whatever men may call what they do, they can perform no spiritually vital act, no act of life by which we live to God, or that is absolutely accepted by Him, unless they are endowed with a quickening principle of grace. Hence it is said, "The carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be," Rom 8.7. So then, "those who are in the flesh cannot please God," verse 8. Men may quibble as they please about this carnal mind, and contend that it is only the sensitive part of the soul,605 or the affections as corrupted by prejudices and depraved habits of vice. Two things are plain in the text:

First, That this carnal mind is in all mankind, whoever they are — those who are not partakers of the Spirit of God and his quickening power;

Secondly, That where this carnal mind is, there is a disability to do anything that would please God.

This is the sum of what we contend for, and which men may deny with as little a disparagement of their modesty, as to reject the authority of the apostle. So our Savior, for instance, tells us that "no man can come to him unless the Father draws him," John 6.44. Thus it is affirmed about all men where their nature is figuratively compared to evil trees, that they cannot bring forth good fruit unless their nature is changed, Mat 7.18, 12.33.606 This disability to good is also compared by the prophet to those effects which are naturally impossible to accomplish, Jer 13.23.607 We do not contend about expressions. This is what the Scripture abundantly instructs us in.

With respect to our spiritual life to God, according to his will and our future enjoyment of him, there is no power in men by nature and of themselves, by which they are able to perceive, know, will, or do anything in such a way or manner that it should be accepted by God. And so, upon the mere proposal from the word of God that they have a duty of spiritual obedience — and despite receiving its exhortations to perform it, accompanied with all the motives that are fit and suited to prevail with them to perform it — there must yet be an efficacious infusion into them, or a creation in them, of a new gracious principle or habit enabling them to this duty. And this is accordingly wrought by the Holy Ghost in all those who believe, as we will afterward declare.

But it will be objected to this doctrine, as it has been since the days of Pelagius, that

"Supposing this is so, it would render vain and useless all exhortations, commands, promises, and threatenings, which comprise the whole way by which God's will is externally communicated to us. For to what purpose is it to exhort blind men to see, or dead men to live, or to promise rewards to them upon doing so? If men were to deal this way with stones, would it not be vain and ludicrous? For they are impotent to comply with any such proposals; and the same is supposed here in men, as to any ability in spiritual things."

Ans. 1. In the highest wisdom, there is nothing required in applying any means to produce an effect, unless they are suited to it in their own nature, and the subject on which they work is capable of being affected by them, as their nature requires.608 And thus exhortations, with the promises and threatenings, acting as moral instruments, are suited and proper in their kind to produce the effects of faith and obedience in the minds of men. And the faculties of their souls — their understandings, wills, and affections — are fit to be worked on by them to that end. For it is by men's rational abilities that they are able to discern their nature, and judge their tendency. And because these faculties are the principle and subject of all actual obedience, it is granted that in man there is a natural, remote, passive power to yield obedience to God, which nonetheless can never actually exert itself, without the effectual working of the grace of God, which not only enables but works in them to will and to do.Phi 2.13

Ans. 2. Exhortations, promises, and threatenings do not primarily respect our present ability, but our duty. Their end is to declare to us, not what we can do, but what we ought to do; and this is done fully in them. On the other hand, if you make it a general rule that we have power in and of ourselves to do what God commands or exhorts us to do, or we are able to do it ourselves — with promises made for our obedience, and threatenings for our disobedience — then you quite evacuate the grace of God.

Or at least you make grace only useful to more easily discharge our duty, but not necessary for the duty itself, This is the Pelagianism anathematized by so many councils of old. But up to now in the church, it has been believed that the command directs our duty, and the promise gives strength for its performance.

Ans. 3. God is pleased to make these exhortations and promises "means of grace" 609 — the means of communicating spiritual life and strength to men; and he has appointed them to this end because they are suited to this, considering the moral and intellectual faculties of the minds of men. Hence, these effects are ascribed to the word, but they are really worked by the grace communicated by it, Jas 1.18; 1Pet 1.23.610 And in their dispensation under the covenant of grace, this is their proper end. God may therefore wisely make use of them, and command them to be used towards men, notwithstanding men's disability to savingly comply with them — because He can, will, and does make them effectual to the end aimed at.

But it will be further objected that,

"If men are thus utterly devoid of a principle of spiritual life, of all power to live to God — that is, to repent, believe, and yield obedience — then is it righteous that men should perish eternally merely for their disability, for not doing what they are not able to do? This would be to require brick and to give no straw, indeed, to require much where nothing is given. But the Scripture everywhere charges the destruction of men to their willful sin, not their weakness or disability."

Ans. 1. Men's disability to live to God is their sin. Whatever therefore ensues from that, may be justly charged against them. It is what came upon us by the sin of our nature in our first parents; all their consequents are our sin and our misery, Rom 5.12. If this had befallen us without a guilt that is truly our own, according to the law of our creation and the covenant of our obedience, the case would have been otherwise; but on this supposition (sufficiently confirmed elsewhere), those who perish are only feeding on the fruit of their own ways.

Ans. 2. In the transactions between God and the souls of men, with respect to their obedience and salvation, none of them is without some degree and measures of power in various things to comply with His mind and will — things which they voluntarily neglect; and this of itself is sufficient to bear the charge of their eternal ruin. But —

Ans.3. No man is so unable to live to God, to do anything for him, that he is also unable to do anything against him.611 There is a depraved nature in all men, a vicious habit of mind in which they are alienated from the life of God. There is no command given to men for evangelical faith or obedience, that they cannot (and do) put forth a free positive act of their wills in rejecting it, either directly or interpretatively, and in preferring something else before it.

Just as "they cannot come to Christ unless the Father draws them," Joh 6.44 so "they will not come that they may have life." Joh 5.40 This is why their destruction is just, and of themselves.

This is the description which the Scripture gives us concerning the power, ability, or disability of men in the state of nature as to the performance of spiritual things. It is maligned by some as fanatical and senseless, which the Lord Christ must answer for. But it is not maligned by us, for we do nothing but plainly represent what he has expressed in his word. And if it is "foolishness" to anyone, the day will determine where the blame must lie.

Secondly, in this death there is an actual cessation of all vital acts. It is because of this defect of power, or the lack of a principle of spiritual life, that men in the state of nature can perform no vital act of spiritual obedience — nothing that is spiritually good, or saving, or acceptable with God, according to the tenor of the new covenant. We will explain this a little here.

The whole course of our obedience to God in Christ is the "life of God," Eph 4.18. Our end is that life which comes from him in a particular manner, and of which He is the special author, and by which we live to him. And the gospel, which is the rule of our obedience, is called "The words of this life," Acts 5.20 — it is what guides and directs us how to live to God. Hence all the duties of this life are vital acts, spiritually vital acts, acts of that life by which we live to God.

Therefore, where this life is not found, all the works of men are dead works. Where persons are dead in sin, their works are "dead works." All of them are dead, either in their own nature, or with respect to those who perform them, Heb 9.14.612 They are dead works because they do not proceed from a principle of life; they are unprofitable as dead things, Eph 5.11;613 and they end in eternal death, Jas 1.15.614

We may, then, consider how this spiritual life, which enables us for these vital acts, is derived and communicated to us:

1. The original spring and fountain of this life is with God: Psa 36.9, "With you is the fountain of life." The sole spring of our spiritual life is, in a special way and manner, in God. And hence our life is said to be "hidden with Christ in God," Col 3.3; that is, it is hidden as to its internal producing and preserving cause. But it is also hidden with respect to all life whatsoever. God is the "living God." All other things, in themselves, are but dead things. Their life, whatever it is, is efficiently and eminently in him, and it is purely derivative in them. This is why —

2. Our spiritual life, as to its special nature, is distinguished and discerned from a life of any other kind, in that its fulness is communicated to the Lord Christ as mediator, Col 1.19; and we receive it from his fullness, John 1.16. There is a principle of spiritual life communicated to us from his fullness of life, which is why he quickens whom he pleases. Hence he is said to be "our life," Col 3.4. And in our life, it is not so much we who live, as "Christ that lives in us," Gal 2.20; because we do nothing except as we are moved by virtue and power from him, 1Cor 15.10.615

3. Because the fountain of this life is in God, and the fullness of it is laid up in Christ for us, he communicates the power and principle of it to us by the Holy Ghost, Rom 8.11.616 We will afterward fully evince and declare that he is the immediate and efficient cause of this. Yet he does it so as to derive this life from Jesus Christ, and impart it to us, Eph 4.15-16.617 For he is "the life," and "without him," or the power communicated from him, "we can do nothing," John 15.5.

4. This spiritual life is communicated to us by the Holy Ghost, according to and in order for the ends of the new covenant; for this is the promise of it: that God will first write his law in our hearts, and then we will walk in his statutes.618 That is, the principle of life must precede all vital acts. From this principle of life, thus derived and conveyed to us, come all those vital acts by which we live to God. Where this is not found — as it is not found in any of those who are "dead in sins" (for, from the lack of this principle, they are designated "dead") — no act of obedience to God can be so performed that it will be an act of the "life of God." This is the way the Scripture expresses it. The same thing is intended when we say, in other words, that without an infused habit of internal inherent grace, received from Christ by an efficacious work of the Spirit, no man can believe or obey God, or perform any duty in a saving manner, that it should be accepted by him. And if we do not abide in this principle, then we let the whole poisonous flood of Pelagianism into the church. It overthrows the gospel and the faith of the catholic church in all ages to say that we have such a sufficiency in ourselves to think a good thought, or to do anything as we should — or to say that we have any power, any ability that is our own, or that is in us by nature, so as to believe or obey the gospel savingly in any one instance, however it may be externally excited and guided by motives, directions, reasons, or encouragements of whatever sort.

But it may be objected that,

"Because many unregenerate persons may and do perform many duties of religious obedience, if there is nothing of spiritual life in them, then are they all sins; and so they do not differ from the worst things that they can do in this world, which are clearly sins. And if this is so, then to what end should they take pains619 about them?

Would it not be as good for them to indulge their lusts and pleasures, seeing that it all comes to the same end? It is all sin, and nothing else. Why do the dispensers of the gospel press any duties upon those whom they know are in that estate? What advantage will they have by complying with them? Would it not be better to leave them to themselves, and wait for their conversion, than to spend time and labor on them to no purpose?"

Ans. 1. It must be granted that all the duties of such persons are in some sense sins. It was the saying of Austin620 that the virtues of unbelievers are splendida peccata, "grand sins." Some are now displeased with this; but it is easier to censure Austin than to confute him. Two things attend every duty that is properly a duty:

(1.) That it is accepted by God; and,

(2.) That it is sanctified in those who do it.

But neither of these is found in the duties of unregenerate men; for they lack faith, and "without faith it is impossible to please God," Heb 11.6. And the apostle also assures us that to the defiled and unbelieving — that is, to all unsanctified persons who are not purified by the Spirit of grace — all things are unclean, because their consciences and minds are defiled, Titus 1.15. So their praying is said to be an "abomination," Pro 28.9 and their plowing is called "sin." Pro 21.4 Therefore, it is not apparent what else is in them, or to them. But just as there are good duties which have sin adhering to them, Isa 64.6,621 so there are sins which have good in them; for "an action is good when it is good in every respect; it is wrong when it is wrong in any respect."622 Such are the duties of unregenerate men. Formally, and to them, these acts are sin; but materially, and in themselves, they are good. This makes them different from, and preferred above, those sins which are sinful in every way. As they are duties, they are good; as they are the duties of such persons, they are evil — because they are necessarily defective in what should preserve them from being evil. And on this ground, the unregenerate ought to attend to good duties, and they may be pressed to do so.

Ans.2. That which is good materially and in itself, even though vitiated623 from the relation which it has to the person who performs it, is approved, and it has its acceptance in its proper place; for duties may be performed in two ways:

(1.) In hypocrisy and pretense. So they are utterly abhorred by God, in matter and manner. That is such a poisonous ingredient as to vitiate the whole, Isa 1.11-15; Hos 1.4.624

(2.) In integrity, according to present light and conviction; these are approved as to their substance. And no man is to be exhorted to do anything in hypocrisy: see Mat 6.16.625

And also on this account (i.e., that the duties themselves are acceptable), men may be pressed to perform them. But —

Ans.3. It must be granted that the same duty, as to its substance in general, and performed according to the same rule as to its outward manner, may be accepted in or from one person, and rejected in or from another. So it was with the sacrifices of Cain and Abel.626 And not only so, but the same rejected duty may have degrees of evil for which it is rejected; and be more sinful in and for one person, than another. But we must observe that the difference does not relate merely to the different states of the persons by whom such duties are performed — the duties of one are not accepted because he is in the state of grace, and those of another rejected because he is in the state of nature. For although the acceptance of our persons is a necessary condition for the acceptance of our duties — as God first regarded Abel, and then his offering627 —there is always a real and specific difference between the duties themselves for which the one is accepted and the other rejected, even though it may be imperceptible to us in every way. In the offerings of Cain and Abel, Abel's was offered in faith, and that was the defect which caused the other to be refused. Therefore, suppose that duties are in every way the same as to their principles, rule, and ends, or whatever is necessary to render them good in their kind — they would all be equally accepted by God, by whomever they are performed, for he is "no respecter of persons." Act 10.34 But, this can only be where those who perform these duties are partakers of the same grace. It is therefore the wills of men alone that vitiate those duties which are required of them as good; and if they are good, they may justly be required of them. The defect is not immediately in their state, but in their wills and perversity.628

Ans.4. The will of God is the rule of all men's obedience. They are all bound to attend to it; and if what they do, through their own defect, eventually proves to be sin to them, yet the commandment itself is just and holy, and its observance is justly prescribed to them. The law is the moral cause of the performance of the duties that it requires; but it is not the cause of the sinful manner of their performance. God has not lost his right to command men, just because by their sin they have lost their power to fulfil his command. If the equity of the command arises from the proportion of strength that men have to respond to it, then the one who contracts the highest moral disability that depraved habits of mind can introduce, or that a course of sinning can produce in him, is freed from owing obedience to any of God's commands — seeing that everyone admits that such a habit of sin may be contracted, that it will deprive those in whom it is found, of all power to obey! Thus,

Ans.5. Preachers of the gospel and others have a sufficient warrant to press upon all men the duties of faith, repentance, and obedience, even though they know that these men, in themselves, do not have a sufficient ability for their due performance; for —

(1.) It is the will and command of God that they should duly perform them, and that is the rule of all our duties. They are not to consider what a man can do, or will do, but what God requires. To make a judgment about men's ability, and to accommodate the commands of God to them accordingly, is not committed to any of the sons of men.629

(2.) Preachers have a double end in pressing on men the observance of duties, even supposing there is the state of impotency described:

[1.] To prevent men from those courses of sin which would harden them, and so render their conversion more difficult, if not desperate.

[2.] To exercise a means appointed by God for their conversion, or the communication of saving grace to them.

Such are God's commands, and such are the duties required in them. God communicates his grace to the souls of men in and by these duties — not with respect to them as their duties, but as they are the ways that God has appointed and sanctified to attain such ends. And hence it follows that even those duties which are vitiated in their performance, are still an advantage to those who perform them; for —

1st. By attending to them, men are preserved from many sins.

2d. They are preserved in a special way from the great sin of despising God, which commonly ends in what is unpardonable.

3d. They are hereby made useful to others, and to many ends of God's glory in the world.

4th. They are kept in God's way, in which they may gradually be brought to a real conversion to him.

Thirdly, In this state of spiritual death, there is not found in those who are under its power, any active and inclining disposition to spiritual life. There is no such disposition in a dead carcass to natural life. It is a subject that is fit for an external power to introduce a living principle into it. So the dead body of Lazarus was quickened and animated again by the introduction of his soul; but in itself, it did not have the least active disposition nor inclination to this quickening. And it is no different with a soul that is dead in trespasses and sins. There is potentia obedientialis in it,630 a power rendering it fit to receive the communications of grace and spiritual life; but it does not have a disposition to this of itself. There is a remote power in it, in the nature of its faculties, that is fit to be worked on by the Spirit and grace of God; but it does not have a direct power, disposing and enabling it to spiritual acts.

And the reason is because natural corruption clings to it as an invincible, unmovable habit, constantly inducing it to evil, which is not consistent with the least disposition to spiritual good. In the soul there is, in the language of Scripture, "the body of the sins of the flesh," Col 2.11,631 (which some call "canting").632 Unless it is taken away by spiritual circumcision through the virtue of the death of Christ, that body will lie dead into eternity. Therefore, there is in us what may be quickened and saved; and this is all we have to boast of by nature. Though man by sin is made like the beasts that perish, being brutish and foolish in his mind and affections, yet he is not absolutely so. He retains that living soul, those intellectual faculties, which were the subject of original righteousness; and they are fit to receive again the renovation of the image of God by Jesus Christ.

But this also seems liable to an objection from instances given in Scripture, and which we have experienced, concerning various good duties performed by unregenerate men, indicating a tendency to live to God; this argues for a disposition to spiritual good. So Balaam desired to "die the death of the righteous;" Num 23.10 and Herod "heard John the Baptist gladly, and did many things willingly." Mar 6.20

"We find great endeavors in pursuit of conversion to God, in many of those who never attain to it. So to say that there is no disposition to spiritual life in any unregenerate person, is to make them all equal, which is contrary to experience."

Ans. 1. There is no doubt but that unregenerate men may perform many external duties which are good in themselves, and lie in the order of the outward disposition of the means of conversion. Nor is it questioned that they may have real designs, desires, and endeavors after that which is presented to them as their highest good. But to the extent that these desires or actings are merely natural, there is no disposition in them to spiritual life, or to what is spiritually good. And to the extent that they are supernatural, they are not of themselves; for —

Ans.2. Although there are no preparatory inclinations in men, there are preparatory works upon them. Those who do not have the word, may yet have convictions of good and evil from the authority of God in their consciences, Rom 2.14-15.633 In the dispensation of the law, men may be worked toward many duties of obedience, and much more may the gospel do so. But whatever effects are produced by that, they are worked by the power of God, exerted in the dispensation of the word. They are not drawn out of the natural faculties of the minds of men; rather, they are the effects of the power of God in them and upon them. For we know that "in the flesh there dwells no good thing;" Rom 7.18 and all unregenerate men are no more than flesh, for "that which is born of the flesh is flesh." Joh 3.6

Ans.3. The actings thus effected and produced in unregenerate men are neither fruits of, nor dispositions to, spiritual life. Men who are spiritually dead may have designs and desires to free themselves from dying eternally, but such a desire to be saved is not a saving disposition to life.


From Pneumatologia (Of the Holy Spirit) by John Owen

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