Category Archives: Mornings with Owen

The Gap between Head and Heart

 

“But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first.” Revelation 2:4

One of the well-known pitfalls of studying theology is the possibility of treating it as an end in itself, rather than as means to an end.  The goal of theology, the study of God, should be doxology, the worship of God.  When we treat theology as an end, simply the acquisition of doctrinal knowledge, theological pride becomes a very real danger.  Additionally, should theological pride be avoided (which is ever-present), another danger exists.  Doctrinal knowledge apart from Doxological practice is bound to deaden the heart’s affections toward God.

Because of the recent resurgence of interest in the Reformers, the doctrines of grace, etc., particularly among 20 and 30-somethings, the net for this trap has been cast far and wide.  While certainly any so-called denomination or group can easily fall prey to this, it seems most prevalent among those who hold claim to hold to reformed theology.  Once the Scriptures have been opened to illuminate the mind to the sovereignty of God over all things including, particularly or perhaps especially, the salvation of sinners, the flesh is easily tempted to revel in newfound knowledge that others have yet to learn.  Thus the trap for theological pride is set.

However, as we alluded to earlier, there is another trap, perhaps more deadly because it has less to do theological debates or waxing eloquently on this or that doctrine and everything to do with the affections of the heart towards God.

In his book, Grace and Duty of Being Spiritually Minded, John Owen comments specifically on this danger

“It is unimaginable how the subtile [sic] disquisitions and disputes of men about the nature, properties and counsels of God, have been corrupted, rendered sapless and useless, by vain curiosity, and striving for an artificial accuracy in the expression of men’s apprehensions.  When the wits and minds of men are engaged in such thoughts, ‘God is not in all their thoughts,’ even when all their thoughts are concerning him.  When once men are got into their metaphysical curiosities and logical niceties in their contemplations about God and his divine properties, they bid farewell, for the most part, unto all godly fear and reverence.”

When we divorce doxology from theology we engage in nothing more than an exercise of the flesh; it’s not only futile, but it’s sinful.  Studying theology is good, but it is good because it gives us a better understanding of the nature of God and His Son Jesus Christ, which ultimately leads us to worship of God.

Despite recent attempts to marginalize and discount their value, the Puritans were the quintessential pattern for how theology leads to doxology.  They were often described as fire and ice.  They had running through their veins the ice of doctrinal precision and steadfastness in the face of opposition along with the burning fire of affection for God that boiled in the bowels of their soul.

Below is further exhortation on the dangers particularly facing the young and reformed.  There, Paul Washer suggests a safeguard to avoiding them, namely the increase of prayer.

 

The Grace and Duty of Being Spiritual Minded

 

“I have set the Lord always before me”

In Psalm 16:8, we read of the Psalmist’s declaration that he has kept the Lord always before him.

Practically what would this look like in our day?

Setting the Lord before oneself is akin to meditating upon Him.  This oft-neglected practice involves literally setting the mind upon God, thinking of Him, His attributes and character, His commands and deeds, or how He has worked in our lives.

In his book, The Grace and Duty of Being Spiritually Minded, Puritan John Owen provides 3 objects of meditations upon God on which we may draw our minds.

The first is the being and existence of God.  Owen calls this the foundation of “all our relation and access unto him”, the “first object of faith” and the “first act of reason”.  Allowing our minds to be drawn upon the fact that God exists is the foundation of all our meditations.  Among other things, its chief concern is to combat atheism, whether doubts may be welling up in our minds or whether practically we live as though God does not exist.

The second is the omniscience and omnipresence of God. To this, Owen adds, “we cannot take one step in a walk before him unless we remember that always and in all places he is present with us.”  God’s omniscience means that He is all-knowing.  He not only knows our day to day happenings, but He knows our thoughts, our hearts, and our motivations.  His omnipresence refers to His existence in all places simultaneously.   Whether in our most joyous of days or our darkest of hours, we may take comfort in knowing that He is there.  Reflecting upon these attributes of God together provide a great hedge against temptation to sin.  Considering that He both knows our thoughts and is present with us during temptation, and even sin for that matter, is a great motivation to flee them.

The third is the omnipotency of God. On this final object of meditation, Owen writes, “It is utterly impossible we should walk before God, unto his glory, or with any real peace, comfort, or satisfaction in our own souls unless our minds are continually exercised with thoughts of his almighty power.”  God’s omnipotency means that He is all-powerful.  God is not, contrary to many modern beliefs, engaged in a battle with Satan, sin, or evil.  He has no equal and their is no opposition that is not already under the sovereignty of God, submissive to His power.  Consider this, even Satan, as in the case of Job and Peter (including the other disciples) must seek permission before afflicting God’s people.  This meditation is a great comfort, knowing that all things are in His powerful hands which serves to specifically combat fear and anxieties in the face of affliction.

By setting the Lord always before us it serves as a spiritual exercise that strengthens our faith, restrains against sin and temptation, and comforts us in our times of distress.

But, setting the Lord before us takes effort, you simply cannot in any fashion perform this duty while coasting or vegging out.  There are no off days or vacation days in Christianity.  It is an active duty, nevertheless the product of grace working in the heart.

Let us desire and then delight to have the Lord set ever before us.  And may our meditations be done unto the glory of God for the good of our souls.

We conclude with a final word from Owen

“Men may be in the performance of outward duties; they may escape the pollutions that are in the world through lust, and not run out into the same compass of excess and riot with other men: yet may they be strangers unto inward thoughts of God with delight and complacency.  I cannot understand how it can be otherwise with them whose minds are over and over filled with earthly things, however they may satisfy themselves with pretences of their callings and lawful enjoyments, or that they are not any way inordinately set on the pleasures or profits of the world.

To ‘walk with God,’ to ‘live with him,’ is not merely to be found in an abstinence from outward sins, and in the performance of outward duties, though with diligence in the multiplication of them. All this may be done upon such principles, for such ends, with such a frame of heart, as to find no acceptance with God.  It is our hearts that he requireth, and we can no way give them unto him but by our affections and holy thoughts of him with delight.  This it is to be spiritually minded, this it is to walk with God.  Let no man deceive himself; unless he thus abound in holy thoughts of God, unless our meditation of him be sweet unto us, all that we else pretend unto will fail us in the day of our trial.” Vol. 7 pg. 378-379

 

The Unsafe God

 

Recently my daughter and I finished up the second of C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia novels, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.  In that volume, there is a striking dialogue that leaves us with one of the more memorable statements about the lion, Aslan, a Christ-like figure who is king of Narnia.

The scene is a discussion between a little girl named Lucy, her sister Susan, and Mr. and Mrs. Beaver.  Lucy and her brothers and sister learn that a figure named Aslan is king of Narnia and has been awaiting their arrival.  As the details unfold, Lucy learns that Aslan is not human, but a lion, which brings up a whole host of questions and thoughts for her.  The movie does not capture the scene well, however below is the dialogue from the book

Susan: “Is Aslan quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.”

“That you will dearie, and no mistake,” said Mrs. Beaver. “If there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or just plain silly.”

“Then he isn’t safe?” said Lucy.

“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver; “don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? Of course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

Because Aslan is portrayed as a Christ-like figure, it’s not difficult to make the parallel with our Lord.  As my daughter and I read this section, it presented a teaching moment that like Aslan, God is not safe, but He is good.

What do we mean by making such an assertion?

First, by saying He is not safe, we are asserting that there is something that makes Him unsafe.  It might well be easy enough to say that His omnipotence makes Him unsafe, or perhaps His omniscience.  But this is not what is chiefly causing God to be unsafe.  It is His holiness.

The Lord God dwells in unapproachable light (1 Tim. 6:16), in the splendor and majesty (Ps. 104:2) of His holiness, with a garment of glory (Job 37:22), the beams of which radiate to all His creation.  As Stephen Charnock writes, “if God had a body more luminous and glorious than that of the sun, he would be as well visible to us as the sun, though the immensity of that light would dazzle our eyes, and forbid any close inspection into him by the virtue of our sense.”  The holiness of God is both the premise and starting point of man’s recognition of his sinfulness as well as the platform for growth in the knowledge and understanding of God.  True personal holiness cannot even begin to be an aspiration apart from reverence to the One who calls men to be holy (1 Peter 1:15).

In addition, as the Apostle informs us, “God is light, and in him there is no darkness at all.”  When we allow our minds to dwell upon this, we must come to rest in the fact that by light we do not mean simply a 60W light bulb, nor do we necessarily mean the sun as we may enjoy it on a summer day.  No, we mean infinitely purer, infinitely brighter than the brightest sunnny day, as Charnock alluded.  We mean an all-consuming fire.  A light so pure and holy that for man to stand in its presence he would simply evaporate.

When we see this in application from such passages as Moses at Sinai, Isaiah’s vision, Ezekiel’s vision, etc. it underscores this reality and from it we can better understand that we cannot simply demand nor presume an audience with God.  It is His holiness that lends itself to saying that God is unsafe.

Second, by saying He is good, we are assuming that by virtue of His holiness, God is not simply unrestrained fury against all sinfulness.  No, by way of His goodness, God is merciful and has allowed the medium, through which His mercy should flow, to be His only begotten Son, specifically through faith in His Christ, who gave His life on the cross for sinners.

If God were only unsafe, then He could not be trusted.  But because He is likewise good, we know that He is just and will always do what is right.  Therefore, though we may tremble at the majesty of God we know that He has created the means by which we may enter into His presence.

I fear that modern evangelicalism is far too much like those who approach God without fear, whom Mrs. Beaver says are either brave or just plain silly, and I do not think we have an overabundance of bravery.  It seems as though the majority of evangelicalism over the last century have fashioned in their minds a god who is both safe and good.  But this is not the God of Scripture.  As God reveals Himself, it is clear that His holiness is a defining characteristic that influences all else that we know about Him.  This attribute of God demands we view Him with awe and reverence, or what is biblically known as fear of God.

Fear of God is a pervasive theme in Scripture from commands given to Israel in the Old Testament, Deut. 6:24, to the familiar Proverbs, Prov. 9:10, to our Lord’s birth announcement, Luke 1:50, and His second coming where unbelievers will call out for rocks to crush them in order to be spared from the wrath of the Lamb, Rev. 6:16 (Luke 23:30).

Writing on the issue of godly fear dominating our meditations, John Owen (vol. 7) writes,

There is scarce any duty that ought at present to be more pressed on the consciences of men than this of keeping up a constant holy reverence of God in all wherein they have to do with him, both in private and public, in their inward thoughts and outward communication. Formality hath so prevailed on religion, and that under the most effectual means of its suppression, that very many do manifest that they have little or no reverence of God in the most solemn duties of his worship, and less, it may be, in their secret thoughts. Some ways that have been found out to keep up a pretense and appearance of it have been and are destructive unto it.

But herein consists the very life of all religion. The fear of God is, in the Old Testament, the usual expression of all the due respect of our souls unto him, and that because where that is not in exercise, nothing is accepted with him. And hence the whole of our wisdom is said to consist therein; and if it be not in a prevalent exercise in all wherein we have to do with him immediately, all our duties are utterly lost, as to the ends of his glory and the spiritual advantage of our own souls.

Our thoughts of God cannot be allowed to morph into viewing God as a safe, cuddly kitten.  He is after all more like a lion, though a good lion.  This statement about God being both unsafe and good is a balancing one that maintains the tension between God’s absolute purity in holiness and His condescension in goodness to provide a way of salvation from His wrath.  This can only be fully realized through repentance and faith in Jesus Christ.

My personal prayer is that my heart would daily grow more in the fear of God.  That it would act both as a restraint against sin and the propellant to proclaim the word of God with boldness.