by John Owen
“To say that we are able by our own efforts to think good thoughts or give God spiritual obedience before we are spiritually regenerate is to overthrow the gospel and the faith of the universal church in all ages.”
- John Owen
All men can be divided into two groups. They are either regenerate or unregenerate. All men are born unregenerate (John 3:3-8).
...Spiritual darkness is in all men and lies on all men until God, by an almighty work of the Spirit, shines into men’s hearts, or creates light in them (Matt 4:16; John 1:5; Act 26:18; Eph 5:8; Col 1:13; 1 Pet 2:9). ...The nature of this spiritual darkness must be understood. When men have no light to see by, then they are in darkness (Exod. 10:23). Blind men are in darkness, either by birth or by illness or accident (Psa. 69:23; Gen 19:11; Acts 13:11). A spiritually blind man is in spiritual darkness and is ignorant of spiritual things.
If the Holy Spirit does nothing more than present reasons, arguments and motives to conversion, the will of the unregenerate person will remain unmoved. If it is up to the unregenerate first to repent and believe before the Holy Spirit will do his work of regeneration, then this denies salvation to be of the sovereign grace of God. It is indeed true that the will of the unregenerate can resist and refuse the gospel and the grace that accompanies its preaching. But it is false to say that God is unable to effect a work of grace in us that cannot be resisted and will infallibly lead to conversion. It is false to say that the only work of grace God can do in us is that which can be resisted and rejected. It is false to say that the will of the unregenerate can make use of that grace of God or not, as it chooses. It is false to say that the power of conversion lies alone with the sinner, and that God cannot regenerate the sinner and bring him to conversion without the sinner first giving his consent. This is Pelagianism.
These things are false because this gives all the glory of our regeneration and conversion to ourselves and not to the sovereign grace of God. It is false also because it leaves man to decide who will be in heaven and who will not. In spite of God’s purpose to save, and in spite of Christ’s incarnation and redemption, nobody could be saved and God would be frustrated and disappointed of his sovereign will and purpose.
If regeneration is nothing more than persuading a person to be good, then no new, real, supernatural strength has been conferred on the soul, though prejudices may have been removed from the mind. According to this teaching, man has no need to such supernatural power, because he has been able by his own power, the power of his own will, to overcome his depraved, sinful, corrupt nature, remove all errors and prejudices from his mind and bring himself to such holiness of life as to make himself wholly acceptable to God. This is the power of free will which some have believed and taught. Such people deny that man must first be born again before he can do anything pleasing and acceptable to God.
Some teach that grace enlightens the mind, and that all man has to do is to choose the good which God’s grace has shown him, and then that grace will work along with his choosing and willing and so bring the soul to new birth. But all the grace of God is doing here is enlightening the mind, exciting the desires and helping the will, and this only by persuading the person to repent and believe. No real strength is imparted to the soul. The will is left perfectly free to cooperate with this grace or not, as it chooses. This also denies the whole grace of Christ and to make it of no use at all in salvation. It ascribes to man’s free will the honor for his conversion. It makes a man give birth to himself which is nonsense. It destroys the analogy between the work of the Holy Spirit in forming the natural body of Christ in the womb and the work of the Holy Spirit in the forming of his mystical body in regeneration. It makes the act of living to God by faith and obedience to be a mere natural human act and not the result of Christ’s mediation. It allows the Spirit of God no more power in regenerating us than is in a minister who preaches the Word or an orator who eloquently and feelingly persuades a person to turn from evil to doing good.
In regeneration a person the Holy Spirit makes use of the law and the gospel. There is not only a moral but also a direct nature-changing work of the Spirit on the minds or souls of men in regeneration. This is what we must hold on to, or all the glory of God’s grace is lost, and the grace which comes to us by Christ will be neglected. Paul tells us of this direct work of the Spirit: “That you may know ... what s the exceeding greatness of his power towards us who believe, according to the work of his mighty power which he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead’ (Eph 1:18:- 2). The power here mentioned has an exceeding greatness attributed to it, because by this power Christ was physically raised from the dead. Paul would have us know that the same mighty power which God worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead is the same mighty power which the Holy Spirit works when he raises us from spiritual death to spiritual life in regeneration. By this same mighty power we are kept by God to the day of salvation. It is because of his mighty power continually working in Christians that they are kept from ever falling away so as to be eternally lost.
Before the work of grace the heart is ‘stony’. It can do no more than a stone to please God. A stony heart is obstinate and stubborn. But God says that he will take away this stony heart (Ezek 11:19). He does not say he will try and take it away, or give us some power so that we can take it away ourselves, but that he will take it away. When God says he will take it away, he means that he will infallibly take it away and that noting can stop him taking it away. He promises to give us a new heart and a new spirit (Ezek 36:26).
There is an 'eye' in the understanding of man. This eye is the ability to see spiritual things. It is sometimes said to be blind, darkness, shut. By these descriptions we are taught that the natural mind cannot know God personally for salvation, and nor can it see, that is, discern spiritual things. It is the work of the Spirit of grace to open this eye (luke 4:18, Acts 26:18). He does this, firstly, by giving us the spirit of wisdom and revelation. Secondly, he gives us a heart to know him (Jer 24:7).
We are enabled to obey God firstly by an inward, spiritual, ruling principle of grace ... by virtue of the life and death of Jesus Christ according to the terms of the new covenant... by which God writes his laws in our hearts and enables us to obey them by the Holy Spirit.
Table of Contents
CHAPTER I: WORK OF THE HOLY SPIRIT IN THE NEW CREATION BY REGENERATION
CHAPTER II: WORKS OF THE HOLY SPIRIT PREPARATORY UNTO REGENERATION
CHAPTER III: CORRUPTION OR DEPRAVATION OF THE MIND BY SIN
CHAPTER IV: LIFE AND DEATH, NATURAL AND SPIRITUAL, COMPARED
CHAPTER V: THE NATURE, CAUSES, AND MEANS OF REGENERATION
CHAPTER VI: THE MANNER OF CONVERSION EXPLAINED IN THE INSTANCE OF AUGUSTINE
Excerpt from The Works of John Owen Volume 3