Article of the Month
from An Exposition Upon Psalm 130
by John Owen
“But there is forgiveness with you, that you may be feared.” (Psalm 130:4).
The faith and experience of the saints in this world give in testimony unto this truth: that “there is forgiveness with God” — and we know that their testimony in this matter is true. Let us, then, ask of them what they believe, what they have found, what they have experienced, as to the forgiveness of sin.
By pointing us to our own experience, God shows us that we may find relief and support in our distresses: “Have you not known? Have you not heard?” (Isaiah 40:21). What He is saying is, “Have not you yourself, as you cry out that you are lost and undone because God has forsaken you, found and known by experience the contrary, from His former dealings with you?” And if our own experiences may confirm us against the workings of our unbelief, so may the experiences of others also! This is what Eliphaz advises Job in Job 5:1: “Call out now; Is there anyone who will answer you? And to which of the saints will you turn?” Here he does not mean to ask them for help, nor does he suggest seeking the help of departed saints; rather, it is those referred to in Psalm 16:2, “The saints who are on the earth,” whose experiences Job is directed to inquire into and after. David also encourages the saints to wait upon God Himself, the God who hears our prayers, as others had done and found success: “This poor man cried, and the LORD heard him, and saved him out of all his troubles” (Ps 34:6). If he did so, and had that blessed response, why should not we do so also?
The experiences of one believer are used to confirm and establish of others. So it was with David: “Come, “ he says, “and hear, all you who fear God, and I will declare what he has done for my soul.” David is not content merely to remind his readers of the promises and providence of God. Though he and other writers of Scripture do that most frequently, they often add the encouragement and support of his own experience. So Paul tells us that he “was comforted by God in all his tribulation, so that he might be able to comfort them which are in any trouble, by the comfort with which he himself was comforted by God” (2 Corinthians 1:4); that is, that he might be able to communicate to them his own experience of God's dealing with him, and the satisfaction and assurance that he found in it. He points out how God made him an example of God's dealing with him in the pardon of his sins, as a great motive to others to believe: “However, for this reason I obtained mercy, that in me first Jesus Christ might show all longsuffering, as a pattern to those who are going to believe on Him for everlasting life” (1 Timothy 1:16). And this mutual communication among the saints of satisfying experiences in the things of God, as evidence of the power, efficacy, and reality of gospel truths, is of great value to all believers. So the same great apostle gives us his own example: “For I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift, so that you may be established - that is, that I may be encouraged together with you by the mutual faith both of you and me” (Romans 1:11-12). He longed not only to instruct them in the pursuit of the work of the ministry committed unto him, but to speak also with them about their mutual faith, and what experiences of the peace of God in believing they had attained.
We have in our case called in the testimony of the saints in heaven, with whom those on earth make up one family, a family in heaven and on earth that is called after the name of the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ (Ephesians 3:14-15). And they all agree in their testimony, as befits the family and children of God. We may deal personally with the testimony of those on earth, but we attain the witness of the other only from what is recorded concerning them, and from this record a number of things are to be observed:
1. Where there is not an inward experience of the power, virtue, and effectual power of gospel truths in their hearts, those living under a profession of religion, regardless of what they profess, are very near to atheism, or at least exposed to great temptations in that direction. If “they profess they know God, but in works deny him,” they are “abominable, and disobedient, and unto every good work reprobate,” Titus 1:16. Let such professors lay aside tradition and custom, let them give up themselves to a free and a rational consideration of things, and they will quickly find that all their profession is but a miserable self-deceiving, and that, indeed, they believe not one word of the religion which they profess: for of what their religion affirms to be in themselves they find not any thing true or real; and what reason have they, then, to believe that the things which it speaks of outside of themselves are one jot better? If they have no experience within of what it affirms to be, what confidence can they have of the reality of what it claims to be? John tells us that “he who saith he loves God whom he hath not seen, and doth not love his brother whom he hath seen, is a liar. “ Those who profess but do not even do the things which can be easily put to the test, are not to be believed in what they profess about greater things, which cannot so easily be tested. So he who does not believe, who does not experience the power of the religion he affirms to be in him, if he says he believes other things that he can have no experience of, he is a liar.
For instance, he who professes the gospel avows that the death of Christ crucifies sin; that faith purifies the heart; that the Holy Spirit makes alive and enables the soul unto duty; that God is good and gracious to all who come unto Him; that there is precious communion to be enjoyed with Christ; that there is great joy in believing. These things are plainly, openly, frequently insisted on in the gospel. Hence the apostle presses men to obedience on the account of them and, as it were, leaves them at liberty from it if they were not so (Philippians 2:1-2). Now, if people have lived long in the profession of these things, saying they are so, but indeed find nothing of truth, reality, or power in them, and have no experience of the effects of them in their own hearts or souls, what stable ground have they of believing any thing else in the gospel in which they cannot have experience?
For example, a man professes that the death of Christ will mortify sin and subdue corruption, and why does he believe it? Because it is so affirmed in the gospel. How, then, does he find it to be so? Does it have this effect upon his soul, in his own heart? Not at all; he finds no such thing in him. How, then, can this man believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God because it is affirmed in the gospel, seeing that he finds no real truth of that which it affirms to be in himself? So our Savior argues in John 3:12, “If I have told you earthly things, and ye believe not, how will ye believe if I tell you heavenly things?” If you do not believe the doctrine of regeneration, which you ought to have experience of, as a thing that is wrought in the hearts of individuals on the earth, how can you assent to those heavenly mysteries of the gospel which at first are to be received by a pure act of faith, without any present sense or experience?”
Of all dangers, therefore, in profession, let professors beware of that customary, traditional, or doctrinal owning such truths as ought to have their effects and accomplishment in themselves, while they have no true experience of the reality and effectiveness of them. This is plainly to have a form of godliness, and to deny the power thereof. And of this sort we see many becoming atheists, scoffers, and open apostates. They find in themselves that their profession was a lie, and that in truth they had none of those things which they talked of; and for what purpose should they continue any longer in avowing that which is not true in them? Besides, finding those things which they have professed to be in them not to be so, they think what they have believed about things beyond their experience to be of the same nature, and so they reject them altogether.
You will say, then, “What shall a person do who cannot find or obtain an experience in himself of what is affirmed in the Word? He cannot find the death of Christ crucifying sin in him, and he cannot find the Holy Ghost sanctifying his nature, or obtain joy in believing; what shall he, then, do? Shall he not believe or profess those things to be so, because he cannot obtain a blessed experience of them? Our Savior has given instructions in this case: “If any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of myself” (John 7:17). Continue in following after the things revealed in the doctrine of the gospel, and in time you shall have a satisfactory experience that they are true, and that they are of God. Cease not to act in faith on them, and you shall find their effects as well. Experience will ensue upon permanency in faith and obedience; yea, the first act of sincere believing will be accompanied with such a taste, will give the soul so much experience, as to produce a firm adherence unto the things believed. And this is the way to “prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect will of God,” which is revealed unto us (Romans 12:2).
2. Where there is an inward, spiritual experience of the power, reality, and efficacy of any supernatural truth, it gives great satisfaction, stability, and assurance unto the soul. It puts the soul out of danger or suspicion of being deceived, and gives it to have the testimony of God in itself. So John tells us, “He that believeth on the Son of God hath the witness in himself” (1John 5:10). The apostle had told us of the manifold testimony given in heaven by all the holy persons of the Trinity, and on earth by grace and ordinances, regarding the forgiveness of sin and eternal life to be obtained by Jesus Christ. And this record is true, firm, and stable, an abiding foundation for souls to rest upon, one which will never deceive them. But we may learn of all this while it is still outside of us, in that we have no experience of in ourselves; only we rest upon it because of the authority and faithfulness of them that gave it. But now he who actually believes, he now has the testimony in himself; he has by experience a real evidence and assurance of the filings testified unto—namely, “That God hath given to us eternal life, and this life is in his Son,” verse 11. Let us, then, consider for a moment what this evidence consists of, and from where this assurance arises. To this end some few things must be considered; as, —
(a) That there is a great correspondence between the heart of a believer and the truth that he believes. As the Word is in the gospel, so is grace in the heart; indeed, they are the same thing expressed in Romans 6:17: “Ye have obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine which was delivered you.” As our common translation does not, neither do I know how in so few words to express that which is emphatically insinuated here by the Holy Ghost. The meaning is that the doctrine of the gospel begets the form, figure, image, or likeness of itself in the hearts of them that believe, so they are cast into the mould of it. As is the one, so is the other. The principle of grace in the heart and grace in the Word are as children of the same parent, completely resembling and representing one another. Grace is a living word, and the word is figured, described as “grace.” As is regeneration, so is a regenerate heart; as is the doctrine of faith, so is a believer. And this gives great evidence and assurance of the things that are believed: “As we have heard it, so we have seen and found it.” Such a soul can produce the duplicate of the word, and so adjust all things by it.
(b) That the first original expression of divine truth is not in the Word, no, not even as given out from the infinite abyss of divine wisdom and truth, but it is first hidden, laid up, and expressed in the person of Christ. He is the first pattern of truth, which from Him is expressed in the Word, and from and by the Word impressed in the hearts of believers: so that as it hath pleased God that all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge should be in Him, dwell in Him, have their principal residence in Him (Colossians 2:3), so the whole Word is but a revelation of the truth in Christ, or an expression of His image and likeness to the sons of men. Thus we are said to learn “the truth as it is in Jesus,” (Ephesians 4:21). It is in Jesus originally and really; and from him it is communicated unto us by the Word. We are thereby taught and do learn it, for thereby, as the apostle proceeds, “we are renewed in the spirit of our mind, and do put on the new man, which after God is created in righteousness and true holiness,” verses 23-24. First, the truth is in Jesus, then it is expressed in the Word; this Word, learned and believed, becomes grace in the heart; and thus in every way answering unto the Lord Christ His image, from whom this transforming truth did thus proceed.
This is carried by the apostle yet higher, namely, unto God the Father himself, whose image Christ is, and believers His through the word: “We all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, as by the Spirit of the Lord” (2 Corinthians 3:18). To this add 2 Corinthians 4:6: “God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” The first pattern or example of all truth and holiness is God himself; whereof “Christ is the image,” verse 4. Christ is the image of God, “The brightness of his glory, and the express image of his person,” Hebrews 1:8; “The image of the invisible God,” (Colossians 1:15). Hence we are said to “see the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ,” because He, being His image, the love, grace, and truth of the Father are represented and made conspicuous in Him: for we are said to “behold it in his face,” because of the open and illustrious manifestation of the glory of God in Him. And how do we behold this glory? In a mirror — “As in a mirror”; that is, in the gospel, which has the image and likeness of Christ, who is the image of God, reflected upon it and communicated unto it. So have we traced truth and grace from the person of the Father unto the Son as a mediator, and thence transfused into the Word. It is essentially in the Father; originally and exemplarily in Jesus Christ; and in the Word as in a transcript or copy.
But does it remain there? No, for God, by the Word of the gospel, “shines in our hearts” (2 Corinthians 4:6), that is, He enlightens our minds with a saving light into it and apprehension of it. And what then ensues? The soul of a believer is “changed into the same image” by the effectual working of the Holy Ghost (2 Corinthians 3:18), that is, the likeness of Christ implanted on the Word is impressed on the soul itself, by which the soul is renewed into the image of God, unto which it was at first created. This brings all into a perfect harmony. There is not, where gospel truth is effectually received and experienced in the soul, merely a harmony between the soul and the Word, but between the soul and Christ by the Word, and between the soul and God by Christ. And this gives assured establishment unto the soul in the things that it believes. Divine truth thus conveyed unto us is firm, stable, and immovable; and we can say of it in a spiritual sense, “That which we have heard, that which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, of the Word of life,” we know to be true. Yea, a believer is a testimony to the certainty of truth in what he is, much beyond what he is in all that he says. Words may be pretended; real effects have their testimony inseparably attached to them.
(c) From this it appears that there must be great assurance of those truths which are thus received and believed; for hereby are “the senses exercised to discern both good and evil” (Heb 5:14). Where there is a spiritual sense of truth, of the good and evil found in doctrines, from an inward experience of what is good, and thus an aversion to the contrary, all obtained through a habitual frame of heart, there is strength, there is steadfastness and assurance. This is the teaching of the unction, which will not and cannot deceive. Hence many in bygone and in recent days who dispute, could yet die for the truth. When a soul has a real experience of the grace of God, of the pardon of sins, of the virtue and power of the death of Christ, of justification by His blood, and peace with God by believing, then let men, or devils, or angels from heaven oppose these things. Even if such a soul cannot answer their sophisms, yet he can rise up and walk —he can, with all holy confidence and assurance, set his own satisfying experience up against all their arguments and suggestions. An individual will not be disputed out of what he sees and feels; and a true believer will abide as firmly by his spiritual sense as any other man can by his natural sense.
This is the meaning of that prayer of the apostle in Colossians 2:2: “That your hearts might be comforted, being knit together in love, and unto all riches of the full assurance of understanding, to the acknowledgment of the mystery of God, and of the Father, and of Christ.” His hearers already had understanding in the mysteries of the gospel; but he prays that, by a farther experience of it, they might come to the “assurance of understanding.” To be true is the property of the doctrine itself; to be certain or assured, is the property of our minds. Now, this experience so unites the mind and truth that we say, “Such a truth is most certain,” meaning it is certain to us, for we have an assured knowledge of it by the experience we have of it. This is the assurance of understanding here mentioned. And he farther prays that we may come to the “riches” of this assurance, — that is, to an abundant, plentiful assurance; and that “to the acknowledgment of the mystery of God,” i.e., an owning it from a sense and experience of its excellency and worth.
And this is in the nature of all gospel truths: they are fitted and suited to be experienced by a believing soul. There is nothing in them so sublime and high, nothing so mysterious, nothing so seemingly low and outwardly contemptible, that a truly regenerate soul cannot experience their excellency, reality, and power.. For instance, look on that which concerns the order and worship of the gospel. This seems to many to be a mere external thing, whereof a soul can have no inward sense or relish. Notions there are many about it, and endless contentions, but what more? Why, let a believing soul, in simplicity and sincerity of spirit, give up himself to walk with Christ according to His appointment, and he shall quickly find such a taste and relish in the fellowship of the gospel, in the communion of saints, and of Christ amongst them, that he shall come up to such riches of assurance in the understanding and acknowledgment of the ways of the Lord, as others by their disputing can never attain unto.
Consider another example. What is so high, glorious, and mysterious as the doctrine of the ever-blessed Trinity? Some wise men have thought it necessary to keep it veiled from ordinary Christians, and some have delivered it in such terms that they can understand nothing by them. But take a believer who has tasted how gracious the Lord is, in the eternal love of the Father, the great undertaking of the Son in the work of mediation and redemption, with the almighty work of the Spirit creating grace and comfort in the soul, having had an experience of the love, holiness, and power of God in them all; and he will with more firm confidence adhere to this mysterious truth, being led into it and confirmed in it by just a few plain testimonies of the Word, than a thousand disputers will do who only have the notion of it in their minds. Let a real trial come, and this will appear. Few will be found to sacrifice their lives on bare speculations. Experience will give assurance and stability.
It is evident, on these grounds, that there is a great certainty in those truths whereof believers have experience. Where they communicate their power unto the heart, they give an unquestionable assurance of their truth; and when that is once realized in the soul, all disputes about it are put to silence. These things being so, let us inquire into the faith and experience of the saints on earth as to what they know of the truth proposed: namely, that there is forgiveness with God. Let us go to some poor soul who now walks comfortably under the light of God's countenance, and say unto him, “Did we not know you some time ago to be full of sadness and great anxiety of spirit; yea, sorrowful almost to death, and bitter in soul?”
“Yes,” he answers, “so it was, indeed. My days were consumed with mourning, and my life with sorrow; and I walked heavily, in fear and bitterness of spirit, all day long.”
“Why, what ailed you, what was the matter with you, seeing that in outward things you should have been at peace?”
“The law of God had laid hold upon me and slain me,” he answers. “By it, I found myself to be a woeful sinner, overwhelmed with the guilt of sin. Every moment I expected tribulation and wrath from the hand of God; my sore ran in the night and ceased not, and my soul refused comfort.”
“How is it, then, that you are thus delivered, that you are no longer sad? Where have you found ease and peace? Have you been delivered by any particular means, or did your trouble wear off and depart of its own accord?”
“Alas, no,” he says, “had I not met with an effective remedy, I would have sunk and everlastingly perished.”
“What course did you take?”
“I went unto Him by Jesus Christ against whom I have sinned, and have found Him better to me than I could expect or ever should have believed if He had not overpowered my heart by his Spirit! Instead of wrath, which I feared, and justly so, because I had deserved it, he said unto me in Christ, `Fury is not in me.' For a long time I thought it was impossible that there should be mercy and pardon for me, or such a one as I. But he still supported me, sometimes by one means, sometimes by another; until, taking my soul near to Himself, he caused me to see the folly of my unbelieving heart, and the vileness of my hard thoughts Indeed, there is with him forgiveness and plenteous redemption! This has taken away all my sorrows, and given me quietness, with rest and assurance.”
“But are you sure, now, that this is so? May you not possibly be deceived?”
“No,” says the soul, “I have not the least suspicion of any such matter; and if at any time anything arises to that purpose, it is quickly overcome.”
“But how are you confirmed in this persuasion?”
“That sense of it which I have in my heart; that sweetness and rest which I have experience of, that influence it has upon my soul, that obligation I find laid upon me by it unto all thankful obedience, that relief, support, and consolation that it has afforded me in trials and troubles, in the mouth of the grave and entrances of eternity — all of these confirming what is declared in the Word — will not allow me to be deceived. I could not, indeed, receive it until God was pleased to speak it unto me; but now, let Satan do his utmost, I shall never cease to bear this testimony, that there is mercy and forgiveness with him!”
How many thousands may we find of these in the world, who have had such a seal of this truth in their hearts that they can not only securely lay down their lives in the confirmation of it, if called to do so, but also cheerfully and triumphantly venture their eternal concerns upon it! Indeed, this is the rise of all that peace, serenity of mind, and strong consolation, which in this world they are made partakers of. God has not manifested this truth unto the saints, thus copying it out of His Word, and exemplified it in their souls, only to leave them under any possibility of being deceived.
John Owen was unquestionably one of the greatest Puritan divines. He was born at Stradhampton, Oxfordshire, the son of a country minister. At the age of twelve he entered Queen’s College, Oxford, receiving a B.A. in 1632 and M.A. in 1635. He was ordained in the Anglican church while still at Oxford, but he later refused to submit to William Laud’s High Church discipline. He left Oxford in 1637 and was a private chaplain for the next six years.
He went to Fordham, Essex, in 1643 when he was still Presbyterian (cf. his Duty of Pastors and People Distinguished ). Soon after taking the Presbyterian congregation at Coggeshall, Essex, Owen introduced and espoused independent church government. At about the same time (1646), he preached before Long Parliament, clearly advocating his Independent and Parliamentarian views. He continued to preach before Parliament, and at its request he preached there in 1649, the day after Charles I was executed. Owen eventually became the chaplain of Cromwell.
During these stormy years, Owen was actively involved in political affairs, and during the Protectorate he was at the head of Oxford University, appointed dean of Christ Church in 1651 and vice chancellor of the university in 1652. In 1653 he was awarded the D.D. by Oxford. In 1658, however, he separated from Cromwell, opposing Cromwell’s desire for kingship, and left Oxford to take a leading role in the Savoy Assembly. His contribution to the university had been the improvement of its scholarship and discipline.
During these years Owen poured forth volumes of sermons, tracts, controversial pamphlets, commentaries, and doctrinal studies. The value and significance of Owen’s writings is unsurpassed. After the Restoration in 1660, he was greatly respected by the royal government and became the leader of the Independents. After declining a call to the pastorate in Boston, Massachusetts, as well as an offer to be president of Harvard College, Owen became pastor in 1673 of a large congregation at Leadenhall Street Chapel and remained there until his death in 1683.
Among Owen’s main works were Display of Arminianism (1642), The Death of Death in the Death of Christ (1648), The Doctrine of the Saint’s Perseverance (1654), Vindiciae Evangelicae (1655), On the Mortification of Sin (1656), A Primer for Children (1660), the four-volume Exposition of the Epistle to the Hebrews (1668-1684), Discourse on the Holy Spirit (1674), Christology (1679), Vindication of the Nonconformists (1680), and True Nature of a Gospel Church (1689). Owen’s entire works were edited by William Orme and published in twenty-three volumes in 1820. A twenty-four-volume edition, edited by William Goold, was published in 1850 and reprinted by the Banner of Truth Trust of London from 1965 to 1968.
This article is taken from The Forgiveness of Sin: A Practical Exposition of Psalm 130, published by the Baker Book House.
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