Tag Archives: John Owen

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

 

Preparing for Affliction

 

In his treatise exhorting believers to the duty of meditation, The Grace and Duty of Being Spiritually Minded, Puritan John Owen (1616-1683) sets forth the following proposition on the benefit of meditating on eternity,

“There is nothing more necessary unto believers at this season than to have their minds furnished with provision of such things as may prepare them for the cross and sufferings.  Various intimations of the mind of God, circumstances of providence, the present state of things in the world, with the instant peril of the latter days, do all call them hereunto.  If it be otherwise with them, they will at one time or another be woefully surprised, and think strange of their trials, as if some strange thing did befall them.  Nothing is more useful unto this end than constant thoughts and contemplations of eternal things and future glory.”

What he is saying here, in a way that only Owen does, is that for believers, key to preparing for the coming sufferings, afflictions, and trials of this world is continual meditations on eternity.

Similarly, note the words of God through the inspired pen of the Apostle Paul

“For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen.  For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.” 2 Corinthians 4:17-18

Here we see the relationship between affliction and eternity, namely that the former is preparatory for the latter.  How so?

  1. Affliction is preparatory because, as we have seen with Job, it is a refining, purifying act of God to further cleanse the believer of defilement, strengthen faith, and develop perseverance (see Romans 5:1-5).
  2. Affliction is preparatory because due to its temporary nature, we anticipate its conclusion, knowing that it will not last forever.  Therefore by their very nature afflictions cause us to look forward to a day when they will end and eternity will begin.  This is sometimes called having an eternal perspective.

Similarly, in this passage we see that our focus should not be on the temporary, earthly, and visible things of this world, instead our focus should be on the eternal, heavenly, and invisible (at present) things of the world to come.  Having this focus constantly and consistently, as Owen states, prepares us for the arrival of affliction. It therefore does not take us by surprise, nor does it sink us into depths of despair, though we certainly may have “fear of and aversation* from great, distressing sufferings, that are above the power of nature to bear.” Nevertheless we persevere knowing that the suffering and sorrow is only temporary.

Finally, moving from a general statement on the positive benefits of meditating on eternity to a more specific look at what exactly that entails, we may note at least three objects upon which to set our minds

  1. The Restoration of All Things
  2. The Renewal of our Earthly Bodies
  3. The Christ of Eternity

For our first point we note that we must allow our minds to fix upon the restoration of all things, namely that this world, which is fading away, will one day be restored such that it will no longer be subject to the fall.  20 For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” Romans 8:21-22 

Second, we must allow our minds to fix upon the renewal of our earthly bodies.  “50 I tell you this, brothers: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. 51 Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, 52 in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. 53 For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. 54 When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written:

“Death is swallowed up in victory.”
55 “O death, where is your victory?
    O death, where is your sting?”” 1 Cor. 15:50-55

Finally, and most importantly, we must allow our minds to fix upon the Christ of eternity, for we shall finally see Him as He is.  “Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is.” 1 John 3:2

Our best preparation for affliction is to meditate on our eternal state in glory, as such it is also the best object of our meditations during affliction. Turning to Owen for the final word, we read,

“Eternal glory is set before us also; it is the design of God’s wisdom and grace that by the contemplation of it we should relieve ourselves in all our sufferings, yea, and rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory.”

 

*turning away in dislike

For additional study and meditation, read Revelation 21.

The Deceitfulness of Sin

 

Hebrews 3:13 “…that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.”

“Sin aims always at the utmost; every time it rises up to tempt or entice, if it has its own way it will go out to the utmost sin in that kind. Every unclean thought or glance would be adultery if it could, every thought of unbelief would be atheism if allowed to develop. Every rise of lust, if it has its way reaches the height of villainy; it is like the grave that is never satisfied. The deceitfulness of sin is seen in that it is modest in its first proposals but when it prevails it hardens mens’ hearts, and brings them to ruin.”[1]

These words from John Owen, in his masterful treatise on The Mortification of Sin, highlight for us the deception through which sin operates in the heart of men. Sin is a deceiver and has been a deceiver of man since the fall in garden. In the passage from Hebrews 3:13, the Preacher instructs his hearers to avoid hardness of heart brought about through the deceitfulness of sin. We may ask, in what ways does sin deceive? In answering this question, it seems reasonable to first turn to the occurrence of the original sin, alluded to earlier, to find out its modus operandi.

From Genesis 3 and the Serpent’s encounter with Adam and Eve we read,

1Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the Lord God had made.

He said to the woman, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’” But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate.”

In this original sin, how did sin deceive? Observe four particular ways, though certainly more may be discovered:

  1. Sin distorts the Word of God in calling Him a liar (vs. 1, 4)
  2. Sin distorts the law of God in calling what is evil, good (vs. 3-5).
  3. Sin distorts the grace of God in calling what is good, evil (vs. 3,5).
  4. Sin distorts inherent desires by promising what it cannot deliver, satisfaction (vs. 6).

In our passage from Hebrews, we see that this original sin, though foundational and perhaps a typical pattern for future sins, was not called into recollection as the basis for the exhortation. Instead, he draws upon a rebellion more fully discussed on the pages of Scripture and perhaps more relevant to his exposition on the comparison and contrasts of the Old and New Covenants.

In this particular passage he turns to the wilderness generation of Exodus through Deuteronomy, specifically noting their history of rebellion and lack of faith culminating in a disinheritance of the Promised Land. His citation in Hebrews 3:7-12 comes from Psalm 95 but has much of the Torah for its background concluding in Numbers 14 with the curse brought on that generation of disobedience.

Observing the deceitfulness of sin in this account, we see much overlap from the Edenic sin and that in the “Wilderness of Sin.” It is likely there can be no greater contrast between the “Garden of Eden” and the “Wilderness of Sin” than in their physical appearance. One was lush with vegetation the other a desert with thorns and thistles. In one the animals are submissive to man, in the other wild beasts run rampant. These dissimilarities aside, the common denominator is man, specifically his rebellious heart against God. Note the summary given in Hebrews 3:7-12:

7Therefore, as the Holy Spirit says,

“Today, if you hear his voice,
8 do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion,
on the day of testing in the wilderness,
9 where your fathers put me to the test
and saw my works for forty years.
10 Therefore I was provoked with that generation,
and said, ‘They always go astray in their heart;
they have not known my ways.’
11 As I swore in my wrath,
‘They shall not enter my rest.’”

Israel has sometimes been referred to as a type of corporate Adam, this is fitting given the failure of each in their own “garden”. However, unlike Adam’s single rebellious act, Israel’s repeated testing (10 times – Numbers 14:22) of the Lord reached its culmination on the threshold of the Promised Land. In their testing, noted above, they were recipients of God’s grace in provision over the course of the exodus from Egypt on the way to promised land. Yet this was not enough to prevent the swelling of rebellion in their hearts.

The citation from Psalm 95 indicates that the “hardness of hearts” took place in Meribah (rebellion) and the day of testing was in Massah (wilderness). Turning to these occurrences in their Old Testament context, we arrive at Exodus 17:7, And he called the name of the place Massah and Meribah, because of the quarreling of the people of Israel, and because they tested the Lord by saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?” Specifically, this particular episode of quarreling and questioning of God by Israel was in relation to their lack of water, which would eventually be resolved by Moses’ striking of the rock at God’s command (Exodus 17:6; 1 Corinthians 10:4). Notice however the central thesis of the Israelite murmur, “Is the Lord among us or not?” Fundamentally, this is an example of premise #1 from above on the deceitfulness of sin in the garden, Sin distorts the Word of God in calling Him a liar.

God’s initial commissioning of Moses included the promise below:

“Go and gather the elders of Israel together and say to them, ‘The Lord, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob, has appeared to me, saying, ‘I have observed you and what has been done to you in Egypt, 17 and I promise that I will bring you up out of the affliction of Egypt to the land of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, a land flowing with milk and honey.’’” Exodus 3:16-17

We are told in Exodus 4:30 that the Word of God was given to the people, via Aaron. Therefore, when we read of their murmuring and questioning whether God was with them, they were in essence doubting the promise of God and by doing so calling Him a liar. Thus the deceitfulness of sin.

Much more could be said regarding this Wilderness Generation and their rebellion against God, specifically as it relates to the deceitfulness of sin. The author of Hebrews uses their experience as a negative example of those who have heard the Word of God, but didn’t believe it and didn’t obey it.

Sin misrepresents reality. It removes or distorts the corrective lens of God’s Word to prevent clearly seeing it, along with its dangers and deceptions. Owen offers some helpful comments on the deceitfulness of sin. He writes:

“It [sin’s deception] consists in presenting unto the soul, or mind, things otherwise than they are, either in their nature, causes, effects, or present respect unto the soul. It hides what ought to be seen and considered, conceals circumstances and consequences, presents what is not, or things as they are not, as we shall afterward manifest in particular. This is the nature of deceit; it is a representation of a matter under disguise, hiding that which is undesirable, proposing that which indeed is not in it, that the mind may make a false judgment of it.”[2]

Venning notes that sin is crimen laesae Majestatis “high treason against the majesty of God”[3]. Sin in its deception is likewise high treason against the authority of the Sovereign King. Fundamentally, its purpose is to distort the Word of God. Its power is in its deception because it promises what it cannot deliver. Sin promises satisfaction; it promises the fulfillment of our most intimate, innate desires, yet it has no power to deliver on these promises. In the end, sin is a flash in the pan though in reality it is fool’s gold. It always leaves the sinner wanting more, hungering for the wrong things because it can never satisfy and quench the desires that man has.

Only God, through His Son Jesus Christ can satisfy every desire that we have. It is Christ that promised the woman at the well “living water” so that she would never thirst again. It is Christ who declared Himself to be the bread from heaven, satisfying the inmost hunger pangs of the soul. Understanding the deceitfulness of sin and the satisfaction that can only come in Christ serves believers well as a precious remedy against sin’s deception.

Like sand grains hardened into stone through the internal workings of cementation and the external pressures from nature, so too is the heart hardened through the internal workings of sin’s deceitfulness and the external temptations of the world. Be vigilant in your perseverance dear saints, that your hearts be not hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.

 

[1] John Owen Volume 6 pg. 12

[2] John Owen, Volume 6, Pg. 213-214 This is compilation of various quotes from Owen on the subject.

[3] Ralph Venning The Sinfulness of Sin