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Sermons of John Owen
« Prev Sermon XX. God the saint’s rock. Psalm lxi. 2. Next »

Sermon XX.374374    This sermon was preached November 25, 1670.

“From the end of the earth will I cry unto thee, when my heart is overwhelmed: lead me to the rock that is higher than I.” — Ps. lxi. 2.

In my former discourse upon this text, I told you that there were three reasons why faith betakes itself to the nature of God for relief in overwhelming distresses. The first was taken from the circumstances of those distresses; the second from the nature of them; and the third from the nature of faith itself. I mentioned four circumstances in such distresses, that nothing can relieve the souls of men against, but the consideration of God’s essential, properties; which I shall not here repeat, but proceed to the second reason:—

[2.] There are some distresses that, in their own nature, refuse all relief that you can tender them, but only what is derived from the fountain itself, — the nature of God. Zion’s distress did so, Isa. xlix. 14, “Zion said, The Lord hath forsaken me.” And chap. xl. 27, “My way is hid from the Lord, and my judgment is passed over from my God.” She was in that distress, that nothing but the nature of God could give her relief. God therefore proposeth that unto her, “Hast thou not known? hast thou not heard, that the everlasting God, the Lord, the Creator of the ends of the earth, fainteth not?” verse 28. A man would think, sometimes, it was no difficult thing to answer those objections which believing souls charge against themselves, even such as we are well and comfortably persuaded are believers. But it frequently falls out quite otherwise; and nothing will bring them to an issue, but the consideration of the infinite grace and goodness that is in God.

Nay, there may be temporal distresses that, in their own nature, will admit of no other relief; — as when the whole church of God is in extreme calamity in the world, which nothing can remove but infinite power, goodness, and wisdom. You know how Moses was put to it when God told him he would deliver Israel out of Egypt. He looked upon it as impossible, and raised objections till it came to that, Exod. iii. 13, — “If it must be so, tell me thy name.” And God revealed his name: “I am that I am.” Till God confirmed him with his name, — that is, with his nature, — Moses could see no way possible how the church should be delivered. And so it falls out with us as with Moses. When God did not appear, Moses thought he could have delivered them himself, and goes and kills the Egyptian; but when God appeared, he could not believe that God himself could do it, till he gave him his name.

But some may object, “When faith comes to approach unto God to find relief, as God proposes himself in his name, it will find other things in God besides his goodness, grace, and mercy. There is severity, justice, righteousness in God; which will give as much discouragement on the one hand as the other properties will give encouragement on the other. To come to God, and see him glorious in holiness, and infinite in severity and righteousness, — here will be discouragement.”

I shall answer this briefly, and so pass on:—

1st. It is most true that God is so. He is no less infinitely holy than infinitely patient and condescending; no less infinitely righteous than infinitely merciful and gracious: but these properties of God’s nature shall not be immediately glorified upon their persons who go unto him and make their addresses in faith; though he will be so to others. There is nothing but faith can take a proper view of God. Wicked men’s thoughts of God are referred unto these two heads:—First, They think, wickedly, “that God is altogether such an one as themselves,” Ps. l. 21. While under the power of their corruptions and temptations, while in pursuit of their lusts, they have no thoughts of God, but such as these. The meaning of which is, — that he is not much displeased with them in what they do; but hath the same care of them in the way of their sins, as of the holiest in the world. Secondly, Their other thoughts are (commonly when it is too late, and God lets his terrors into their souls) what the prophet saith in Isaiah, “Who of us shall dwell with eternal fire?”

2dly. God hath given believers assurance that he will not deal with them according to the strictness of his holiness and severity of his justice. So speaks Job, chap. xxiii. 3, 4, “Oh that I knew where I might find him! that I might come to his seat! I would order my cause before him, and fill my mouth with arguments.” But doth he know of whom he speaks? and what this great and holy One will speak when he appears? Yes; verse 6, “Will he plead against me with his great power? No; but he will put strength in me.” “God will not plead with me by his dread, and terror, and great severity; but he will put strength in me.” Therefore, Isa. xxvii. 5, he bids them “lay hold on his arm.” Who dare lay hold on God’s arm? “Let them lay hold upon my arm, that they may have peace; and they shall have peace.” Poor creatures are afraid to go to God, because of his power; but “Fury is not in me,” saith God.

3dly. It is impossible for faith ever to consider the nature of God, but it hath a secret respect unto Jesus Christ, as the days-man or umpire between God and the soul, and as him by whom — as to all that concerns these properties of his nature — his severity and justice are already manifested and glorified.

[3.] There is one reason more why the soul will thus, in overwhelming distresses, betake itself unto the nature of God, as manifested by his name; and that is taken from the nature of faith itself. The formal reason of faith is the veracity of God’s word. What we believe with divine faith, we believe upon this account, — that God hath revealed and spoken it. And the ultimate object of faith is God’s all-sufficiency. And whatsoever you act faith immediately upon, it will not rest and be satisfied till it comes, as it were, to be immersed in the all-sufficiency of God; like the stream of a river that runs with great swiftness, and presses on till it comes to the ocean, where it is swallowed up. It is said, 1 Pet. i. 21, that “through Christ we believe in God.” Christ is the immediate object of faith; but God in his all-sufficiency is the ultimate object of faith.

Again: faith acts thus, because it is the great principle of that divine nature which God hath inlaid in our souls, created in us, and whereof he is the Father; for “of his own will he hath begotten us, by the word of truth.” Faith, therefore, as it is the child of God, — the new nature that God hath ingrafted in us, — has a natural tendency towards God; so that it is working in and through all to God himself, who is its Father. This is the first thing that the soul considers in God, that faith makes its application unto for relief.

2. In an overwhelming condition, faith finds relief in sovereign grace; that is, grace as it is absolutely free. What I mean by it, is that which is mentioned, Exod. xxxiii. 19, “I will be gracious unto whom I will be gracious, and I will show mercy upon whom I will show mercy.” The things we stand in need of are grace and mercy; the principle from whence they flow, and are bestowed, is the sovereign will and pleasure of God. God refers the dispensation of all grace and mercy merely unto his own sovereign will and pleasure. Now, when the soul can find nothing in the promise, nothing in any evidence of the love of God, or in the experience that it hath formerly had, it betakes itself unto the sovereignty of grace. And in sovereign grace there are two things:—

(1.) That God is able to give relief in the state and condition wherein we are; whatever we stand in need of, — mercy, life, salvation, — God is able to give it: whatsoever he will do, he can do. And this in the Scripture is made a great encouragement of rest upon God. Thus, Dan. iii. 17, when Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were in that great and overwhelming distress, what did they relieve themselves withal? “If it be so,” say they, “our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of thine hand, O king. But if not, be it known unto thee, O king, that we will not serve thy gods, nor worship the golden image which thou hast set up.” “If God will not:” it is not, “If God cannot;” for he can do what he will. If he had not been able, they would not have worshipped him. There is nothing for these sixteen hundred years that hath seemed harder to be effected, than the call of the Jews; but the apostle gives us this ground yet to fix our hopes upon, in the expectation of it:— “They may be grafted in; ‘for God is able to graft them in again,’ ” Rom. xi. 23. The very power of God — that he is able to do whatever he pleases — is a foundation for faith to act upon, and relieve itself by. And therefore God pleads it emphatically, Isa. l. 2, 3, where he tells them that his hand is not shortened that it cannot save, but he is still able to do it. “Is my hand shortened at all,” saith he, “that it cannot redeem? or have I no power to deliver? Behold, at my rebuke I dry up the sea: I make the rivers a wilderness: I clothe the heavens with blackness, and I make sackcloth their covering.”

Now, there are four things that are included in this very apprehension of faith that God is able to do this, whatever our condition be:—

[1.] There is nothing contrary to his own nature in it. There are things that are contrary to the nature of God, and these things God cannot do. “God cannot lie,” Tit. i. 2; Heb. vi. 18. It is one part of God’s infinite perfection, that he can do nothing contrary unto his own nature. So that whatever I believe is of God’s sovereign grace, which he is able to do, I believe there is nothing in it contrary unto the nature of God. Whatever apprehensions we have of pardon of sin, it includes an atonement; for without an atonement God is not able to pardon our sins: God cannot do it without satisfaction unto his justice. So that every soul that hath an apprehension that there is sovereign grace in God, whereby he is able to relieve and help him, he includes in that apprehension the belief of an atonement; without which God cannot do it. “He cannot deny himself.” It is the judgment of God, that “they that commit sin are worthy of death.”

[2.] If God be able, there is nothing in it contrary to any decree of God. There are many things that may be contrary to God’s decree, that in themselves were not contrary unto his nature; for the decree of God is a free act of his will, which might have been, or not have been. But when the decree of God is engaged, if any thing be contrary unto it, God cannot do it; for he is not changeable.

Now, the decree of God may be taken two ways:—

1st. For his eternal purpose concerning this or that person or thing. But this I intend not.

2dly. The decree of God signifies “sententia lata,” “a determinate sentence,’ that God hath pronounced against any person or thing; contrary to which God will not proceed. So, Zeph. ii. 2, we are invited to “seek the Lord, before the decree bring forth;” that is, before God hath passed an absolute and determinate sentence in that matter and case. When Daniel would assure Nebuchadnezzar of his doom, he tells him it was “the decree of the Most High,” chap. iv. 24. So in the case of Saul. “The Lord hath rejected thee,” saith Samuel, 1 Sam. xv. 26. But will he not call it back? No; “The Strength of Israel will not lie,” verse 29. The sentence is gone forth, and it shall stand. God rejected the house of Eli from the priesthood, 1 Sam. ii. But will he not return again? No; “The iniquity of the house of Eli shall not be purged with sacrifice nor offering for ever,” chap. iii. 14. So it was with them of whom God “sware in his wrath they should never enter into his rest.” Now, while there is faith in God’s sovereignty, if there be no decree in the case, there is hope. But if God had decreed, and put forth his oath, he would not have raised my faith to look after sovereign grace; — which declares an ability in God, that he can do it.

[3.] It includes this, That there is nothing in it contrary unto the glory of God; for this is the measure of all that God doth in all his dealings with us, — he aims in all things at the manifestation of his glory. And we are not to desire any thing that is contrary to the glory of God. We are not to desire that God would not be holy and righteous because of us, — that we might be saved in our sins, and while we are obstinate in them. This is to desire that God would not be God, that we might live. But now, to save an humble, broken, contrite sinner, — a poor guilty creature, that lies at his feet for mercy — to deliver poor distressed believers from ruin and oppression, — is not inconsistent with the glory of God. God can do this for the advancement of his glory. I have known it go well with some poor souls when they could come to believe this, that to save and pardon them was not contrary to God’s nature, decree, and glory.

[4.] There is this in it also, That if there be need of power, God can put it forth, that power which carried Abraham through all difficulties. Gen. xviii. 14, “Is any thing too hard for the Lord?’ What is your difficulty? it may be an overwhelming guilt of sin? “Is any thing too hard for God?” What is your distress? a wicked, prevailing corruption? “Is any thing too hard for God?” In outward distresses that lie upon the church of God, there is this relief in sovereign grace: “Is any thing too hard for God?” Every thing is too hard for us; but nothing is too hard for God. This is the first thing in sovereign grace, — that God is able.

(2.) If it be so, then all that we have to do is resolved into the will of God; so that all I have to do in this world is but to go to God, as the leper did unto Christ: “Lord, if thou wilt, thou canst make me clean.” If God will, he can pardon, sanctify, save me. And if God will, he can deliver his church and people. Here lies the whole question, — it is all resolved into his will.

Now, two things ensue after once a poor soul hath resolved all his concerns into the will of God:—

[1.] There will be an end put unto all other entangling disputes and dark thoughts, which overwhelm the mind: “For now,” saith the soul, “it is come to this, that my whole condition depends upon God’s sovereign pleasure.” David somewhere makes his complaint, that he was in the mire. A poor creature is bemired; and the more he plungeth, the faster he sticks. When a soul is in this condition, saith God, “Be still, and know that I am God,” Ps. xlvi. 10. And now all is rolled upon the will of God.

[2.] When once we can resolve our conditions absolutely, without farther dispute, into the will of God, innumerable arguments will arise to persuade the soul that God will be willing. I will name some of them:—

1st. One is taken from that goodness and graciousness of his nature which we have been before considering and proposing unto you, and doth now properly in this place occur unto us. Suppose any of us had a business with a man whom we believe to be a good man, — a man that hath something of the image of God upon him, — and the matter is to us of great importance (it may be, as much as our lives are worth), and he can easily do it, without any prejudice or disadvantage unto himself, with one word; — can we cast a greater reflection upon this man, than to think he will not be willing to do it? — that, merely to do us a mischief and spite, he will change his own nature, and act contrary to his own principles? Shall we, then, question the good-will of God? Shall we question, when all is resolved into his will, that he will not give us out grace and mercy in time of need? Our Saviour presses this argument, Luke xi. 11–13, and in other places, where he brings the issue as near as possible; telling us, it is not to be expected that a child, who finds nothing but his father’s will to hinder, will mistrust his giving him bread. “And if ye, being evil,” saith he, “know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to them that ask him?” And when we can bring the concerns of God’s church and people merely to his will, his own nature will supply us with arguments enough to confirm our expectation that he will do it.

2dly. There is another great argument, when all is brought to the sovereignty of the will of God, which is mentioned, Rom. viii. 32, “He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up unto death for us all, how shall he not with him also freely give us all things?” Shall I question whether God will do this thing or no, considering this great instance of his will? It was his will to send Jesus Christ to die for poor sinners. He did not send him to die in vain, and that his death should be lost. If God were not willing to give out grace and mercy to sinners, wherefore did he send Jesus Christ? why did he give his own Son out of his bosom? why did he not spare him, and cause our iniquities to meet upon ourselves? Can God give a greater sign of his readiness to spare sinners than his dealing with Jesus Christ? That is the second thing which faith considers, when it comes unto God for relief in an overwhelming condition, — sovereign grace, that God is able, all things are resolved into his will.

3dly. Faith in this matter takes into consideration that one particular property of the grace of God in Christ which is mentioned, Eph. iii. 8, “The unsearchable riches of Christ.” Saith faith, “There is more grace and more mercy too in God (for these are God’s riches that are here intended) than possibly I can see and look into. Will the mercy that hath been declared unto my faith, the promises that have been discovered and revealed unto me, give me satisfaction? No, they will not. I cannot be satisfied with what I have received, with what discoveries have been made unto me of the grace of God.” But, saith the soul, “There lie behind unsearchable riches of grace, which I can by no means conceive; which all the world, or all the angels in heaven cannot find out.” This is a great relief in an overwhelming condition.

4thly. Once more: faith in such a condition learns to resolve former experiences, not into its own present condition, but into the unchangeableness of God. And this one thing being wisely managed, is enough to relieve our souls under many overwhelming distresses that do befall us. The psalmist doth so, Ps. lxxvii. He had experience of God, verse 6, “I call to remembrance my song in the night.” Compare it with that in Job xxxv. 10, “Where is God my maker, who giveth songs in the night?” David intends some such intimation of the love and good-will of God as made him rejoice in the night season. But what is his state now? He tells you, verse 2, that it is the “day of his trouble;” that “his sores run in the night and cease not; his soul refuses to be comforted.” And, verses 7, 8, etc, “Will the Lord cast off for ever? and will he be favourable no more? Is his mercy clean gone for ever? doth his promise fail for evermore? Hath God forgotten to be gracious? hath he in anger shut up his tender mercies?” In this grand and overwhelming distress where doth he find relief? He resolves his experience into the unchangeableness of God, verse 10, “This is my infirmity; but I will remember the years of the right hand of the Most High.” “He that gave me that former song in the night season, though now I am nothing but darkness, and ready to fear his mercy is quite gone for ever; yet he is the same, and he will give in the like experience again: though I am changed, he is not.”

3. I should go farther, to show what respect faith in such a condition hath unto the covenant of God; but I cannot now insist upon it.

IV. I thought to have shown you also, in the last place, the difference between the faith of the godly and that of unbelievers, — that which the worst of men will have in God in the time of their distresses, and that relief which true evangelical faith finds in an overwhelming condition; but I see it would take up too much time.

One word of use, and I have done.

Use. This is an overwhelming time, — a time wherein many are at the ends of the earth literally, and many metaphorically, — a time and season wherein most that fear the Lord are obnoxious to some overwhelming distress or other. Suppose that God hath not let forth upon many at this day an overwhelming sense of guilt, — that there are not many tempted, wounded, and troubled (though some there are, whom we meet with every day); yet I have great reason to fear that, if we were all rightly awakened, an overwhelming distress would come upon the minds of men, from the want of humility, holiness, fruitfulness, faith, and love; which ourselves have sometimes enjoyed, and are proposed unto us, and which the examples of them who are gone before us lead us to inquire after. Are none overwhelmed with the hardness of their hearts, instability of their spirits? — overgrown with careless, empty, light, worldly frames? Truly, more or less, we have all reason to be overwhelmed; and we have showed you a little where our relief lies in this state and condition.

Are we ready to be overwhelmed with the calamitous condition of the people of God all over the world, and as to ourselves, our goods, and personal concerns, — any thing that is near and dear unto us? I pray God make our hearts jealous over it, especially those that are at ease in their health and prosperity. When God throws others of his people into the furnace, such have great reason to be jealous lest he deal more severely with them than the poorest saint that wants a morsel of bread. Well, you see the way of relief in this case also. It is God alone unto whom we must make our application. He is willing to receive us, because of the goodness of his nature; and he is able to save us, because of the abundance of his grace and power.


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