John Owen on Assurance

John Owen on Assurance

I cannot even begin to tell how much I appreciate John Owen. I’ve been slowly working my way through Volume 6 of his works over the last year or so, and it’s no exaggeration to say that it has been life-changing. That an English Puritan who lived in the 1600’s can have such an effect on someone today, is amazing to say the least. But when the foundation for his writing is the timeless word of God, the years have no effect when the subject matter is solidly based on that word and Him who never changes.

One of the areas that Owen and the rest of the Puritans often wrote about was the subject of assurance – how can we know we are loved by God when our own sin testifies against us? In his writing on verse 4 of Psalm 130, he gives 4 rules to guide us when considering this very question. Here is part of what he writes in the first rule:

If you look to have such an evidence, light into, and absolute conviction of, this matter [of assurance], as shall admit of no doubts, fears, questionings, just occasions and causes of new trials, teachings, and self-examinations, you will be greatly deceived. Regeneration induceth a new principle into the soul, but it doth not utterly expel the old; some would have security, not assurance. The principle of sin and unbelief will still abide in us, and still work in us. Their abiding and their acting must needs put the soul upon a severe inquiry, whether they are not prevalent in it beyond what the condition of regeneration will admit. The constant conflicts we must have with sin will not suffer us to have always so clear an evidence of our condition as we would desire.

I like how Owen views assurance as being different from security. I believe that what most of us think of when we think of assurance is not really assurance, but security. This security is similar to what we think of when we think of financial security – I’ve got this much money in this secure place and I don’t really have to think about it, because it takes cares of itself. But the Scripture never views our salvation in that way – that’s why there are so many warnings to those who believe. The warnings are there not because you don’t believe, but because you do believe!

When we consider that all of Paul’s exhortations to mortifying the deeds of the flesh were addressed to churches, not the lost world, we must assume that the members of those churches had things in their lives that needed mortification. They were not already perfect and neither are we.

Our perfection is in Jesus Christ, not ourselves. Even though our felt assurance of his love may fluctuate, his actual love for us does not. In that only may we be secure.

The Christian Calling is Easy in Theory

The Christian Calling is Easy in Theory

Surely He who showed us mercy before we asked for it, will not withhold it now He has taught us how to plead for it agreeably to his own will. Though sin has abounded in us, grace has super-abounded in him. Though our enemies are many and mighty, Jesus is above them all. Though He may hide himself from us at times for a moment, He has given us a warrant to trust in him, even while we walk in darkness, and has promised to return and gather us with everlasting mercies.

The Christian calling, like many others, is easy and clear in theory, but not without much care and difficulty to be reduced to practice… We think at setting out that we sit down and count the cost, but alas! our views are so superficial at first, that we have occasion to correct our estimate daily. For every day shows us some new thing in the heart, or some new turn in the management of the war against us which we were not aware of. And upon these accounts, discouragements may arise so high as to bring us (I speak for myself) to the very point of throwing downs our arms and making either a tame surrender or a shameful flight.

– John Newton, in a letter to William Cowper, July 30, 1767

Rutherford on Providence

Rutherford on Providence

One practice that I learned to value while going through cancer treatment was a regular, systematic reading of Scripture each day. This was something I had had problems with in the past – not so much reading the Bible, but the regular, daily reading. I had been rather haphazard and random before.

Along with that also came other daily reading, especially from the Puritans. And one book has been very helpful over the last year, especially – Voices from the Past, edited by Richard Rushing. Mr. Rushing has compiled short, daily readings from a variety of Puritan writers that always seem to have a timely message. The one for today, September 28, is from Samuel Rutherford, and is particularly pertinent for me, going through the challenges of the last few months. Here it is:

My Father is the vine-dresser… Every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. – John 15: 1,2

The great Master Gardener in his wonderful providence has planted me in this part of his vineyard by his grace, and here I grow and abide till the great Master of the vineyard thinks it fit to transplant me. Give him leave to take his own way of dispensations with you. His people must be content with what he carves out for them. Christ and his followers suffered before they reached the top of the mountain, but our soft nature desires heaven with ease. All who have gone before have found sharp storms that took the hide off their face, and many enemies in the way. His ways are far above me, with windings we cannot see. Obstacles are written in the Lord’s book by his wise and unerring providence. We see only the outside of things. It is a well-spent journey to crawl hands and feet to enjoy him at the well-head. Let us not be weary; we are closer than when we first believed. Do not focus your thoughts among the confused wheels of secondary causes, as – ‘O if this had been, this had not followed!’ Look up to the master motion of the first wheel. In building, we see hewn stones and timbers under hammers and axes, yet the house in its beauty we do not see at the present, but it is in the mind of the builder. We also see unbroken clods, furrows, and stones, but we do not see the summer lilies, roses, and the beauty of a garden. Even so we do not presently see the outcome of God’s decrees with his blessed purpose. It is hard to believe when his purposes is hidden and under the ground. Providence has a thousand keys to deliver his own even when all hope is gone. Let us be faithful and care for our own part, which is to do and suffer for him, and lay Christ’s part on himself, and leave it there; duties are ours, events are the Lord’s.

– Samuel Rutherford

Assumptions

Assumptions

Everyone has assumptions. In fact, we live most of our lives based on assumptions. We usually don’t think about things like breathing, food, water, shelter, electricity, law and order, gravity, or basic communication with each other, we just assume it. We don’t prove that we need to breathe before we take each breath, we just do it. The only time we question our assumptions is when they’re not working – we flip the light switch, but the light doesn’t come on; the shelves at the grocery store are bare; or, a storm has just blown away our home.

In considering what we believe about the Bible and theology, we also have some assumptions. These are things we don’t attempt to prove, because it seems obvious to us. That’s not to say that everyone agrees with us about what we assume, but everyone does assume some sort of foundational beliefs for living. And usually we don’t question these things until something isn’t working right (at least to our way of thinking).

Christians have always believed that God exists. One reason for this is from the light of nature and another reason is from the Bible. Life itself seems to indicate the presence of an almighty power that has created all things and guides all things. When we read the first few verses of Genesis, we see that belief echoed – “In the beginning God created…” Scripture itself assumes God’s existence. This assumption is so strong, that it’s taken as an obvious fact, which, if you don’t believe, you’re thought to be a fool (Psalm 14).

Since the belief in God is assumed, we also assume the truth of His word. We believe that God can reveal, and has revealed, Himself in the scriptures of the Old and New Testament. It’s assumed that God is powerful enough to make His will known to us, in spite of our failings and shortcomings. So, even though all men are sinful, God can still communicate truth through men, because He has the power to do it.

Because this truth accurately comes from God, it can safely be trusted as a rule for our lives and a final standard of authority. This authority doesn’t change, because God Himself doesn’t change. And this is what changeable people need – a firm, authoritative foundation from which they can build their lives and make sense of the world around them.

We also assume that God is our Creator. We are not the product of mindless evolutionary processes, but created in the image of God for a purpose and with meaning. This is why people matter. This is why everyone is concerned with justice. Those who doubt God’s existence must somehow explain the reality of purpose, meaning, and value in a universe with no God and no justice. Most, if not all, people live with these assumptions whether they believe in God or not.

Therefore, instead of questioning God’s existence or questioning His word, we accept it and assume it. And if things don’t seem to go our way or make sense, rather than doubting God or His word, we doubt ourselves and our understanding of God and seek further understanding of His will.

For information on how this plays out in apologetics, see the article on Presuppositionalism.

Be not judges of your own condition, but let Christ judge

Be not judges of your own condition, but let Christ judge

Be not judges of your own condition, but let Christ judge. You are invited to take the comfort of this gospel truth, that “there is forgiveness with God.” You say, not for you. So said Jacob, “My way is hid from the LORD,” Isaiah 40:27; and Zion said so too, Isaiah 44:14, “The LORD hath forsaken me, and my Lord hath forgotten me.” But did they make a right judgment of themselves? We find in those places God was otherwise minded. This false judgment, made by souls in their entanglements, of their own condition, is oft times a most unconquerable hindrance unto the bettering of it. They fill themselves with thoughts of their own about it, and on them they dwell, instead of looking out for a remedy. Misgiving thoughts of their distempers are commonly a great part of some men’s sickness. Many diseases are apt to cloud the thoughts, and to cause misapprehensions concerning their own nature and danger. And these delusions are a real part of the person’s sickness. Nature is no less impaired and weakened by them, the efficacy of remedies no less obstructed, than by any other real distemper. In such cases we persuade men to acquiesce in the judgment of their skillful physician; not always to be wasting themselves in and by their own tainted imaginations, and so despond upon their own mistakes, but to rest in what is informed them by him who is acquainted with the causes and tendency of their indisposition better than themselves. It is ofttimes one part of the soul’s depths to have false apprehensions of its condition. Sin is a madness (Ecclesiastes 9:3); so far as anyone is under the power of it, he is under the power of madness. Madness doth not sooner nor more effectually discover itself in any way or any thing than in possessing them in whom it is with strange conceits and apprehensions of themselves. So doth this madness of sin, according to its degrees and prevalency. Hence some cry, “Peace, peace,” when “sudden destruction is at hand” (1 Thessalonians 5:3). It is that madness, under whose power they are, which gives them such groundless imaginations of themselves and their own condition. And some say they are lost forever, when God is with them.

Do you, then, your duty and let Christ judge of your state. Your concernment is too great to make a reasonable demand to commit the judgment of your condition to any other. When eternal welfare or woe are at the stake, for a man to renounce his own thoughts, to give up himself implicitly to the judgment of men and liars like himself, is stupidity. But there is no danger of being deceived by the sentence of Christ. The truth is, whether we will or no, he will judge; and according as he determines, so shall things be found at the last day, (John 5:22) “The Father judgeth no man” (that is,immediately and in his own person), “but hath committed all judgment unto the Son.” All judgment that respects eternity, whether it be to be passed in this world or in that to come, is committed unto him. Accordingly in that place he judgeth both of things and persons. Things he determines upon, verse 24, “He that heareth my word, and believeth on him that sent me, hath everlasting life, and shall not come into condemnation; but is passed from death unto life.” Let me say what they please, this sentence shall stand; faith and eternal life are inseparably conjoined. And so of persons, verse 38, “Ye have not” (saith he to the Pharisees, who were much otherwise minded) “the word of God abiding in you.”

Take not, then, the office and prerogative of Christ out of his hand, by making a judgment, upon your own reasonings and conclusions and deductions, of your estate and condition.

– John Owen, Works, Volume 6, pages 542-542.