July 7, 2009

John Howe (1630–1705) on Anthropopathic Speech, God's Will and His Compassion

IV. If with any that have lived under the gospel, their day is quite expired, and the things of their peace now for ever hid from their eyes, this is in itself a most deplorable case, and much lamented by our Lord Jesus Christ himself.–That the case is in itself most deplorable, who sees not? A soul lost! A creature capable of God, upon its way to him, near to the kingdom of God–shipwrecked in the port! O sinner, from how high a hope art thou fallen; into what depths of misery and woe!

And that it was lamented by our Lord, is in the text. He "beheld the city,"–very generally, we have reason to apprehend, inhabited by such wretched creatures,–"and wept over it." This was a very affectionate lamentation. We lament often, very heartily, many a sad case, for which we do not shed tears. But tears,–such tears,–falling from such eyes,–the issues of the purest and best-governed passion that ever was,–showed the true greatness of the cause. Here could be no exorbitancy or unjust excess, nothing more than was proportionable to the occasion. There needs no other proof that this is a sad case, than that our Lord lamented it with tears; which that he did we are plainly told, so that touching that there is no place for doubt. All that is liable to question is, whether we are to conceive in him any like resentments of such cases in the present glorified state?

Indeed we cannot think heaven a place or state of sadness or lamentation; and must take heed of conceiving anything there, especially on the throne of glory, unsuitable to the most perfect nature and the most glorious state. We are not to imagine tears there, which in that happy region are wiped away from inferior eyes; no grief, sorrow, or sighing, which are all fled away and shall be no more, as there can be no other turbid passion of any kind. But when expressions that import anger or grief are used, even concerning God himself, we must sever in our conception everything of imperfection and ascribe everything real perfection. We are not to think such expressions signify nothing; that they have no meaning or that nothing at all is to be attributed to him under them.

Nor are we, again, to think they signify the same thing with what we find in ourselves and are wont to express by those names. In the Divine nature, there may be real and yet most serene complacency and displacency,–namely, that are unaccompanied with the least commotion, and import nothing of imperfection, but perfection rather; as it is a perfection to apprehend things suitably to what in themselves they are. The Holy Scriptures frequently speak of God as angry and grieved for the sins of men, and their miseries which ensue therefrom; and a real aversion and dislike is signified thereby, and by many other expressions which in us would signify vehement agitations of affection that we are sure can have no place in him. We ought, therefore, in our own thoughts, to ascribe to him that calm aversion of will in reference to the sins and miseries of men in general; and in our own apprehensions to remove to the utmost distance from him all such agitations of passion or affection; even though some expressions that occur carry a great appearance thereof, should they be understood according to human measures, as they are human forms of speech: as,–to instance in what is said by the glorious God himself, and very near in sense to what we have in the text,–what can be more pathetic than that lamenting wish, "Oh that my people had hearkened unto me, and Israel had walked in my ways!"

But we must take heed lest, under the pretense that we cannot ascribe everything to God that such expressions seem to import, we therefore ascribe nothing. We ascribe nothing, if we do not ascribe to him a real unwillingness that men should sin on and perish; and consequently, a real willingness that they should turn to him and live, which so many plain texts assert. And therefore it is unavoidably imposed upon us, to believe that God is truly willing of some things, which he doth not think fit to interpose his omnipotency to hinder, and is truly willing of some things which he doth not put forth his omnipotency to effect: that he most fitly makes this the ordinary course of his dispensations towards men,– to govern them by laws, and promises, and threatenings, (made most express to them that live under the gospel,) to work upon their minds, their hope and their fear; affording them the ordinary assistances of supernatural light and influence with which he requires them to comply, and which, upon their refusing to do so, he may most righteously withhold, and give them the victory to their own ruin; though oftentimes he doth, from a sovereignty of grace, put forth that greater power upon others, equally negligent and obstinate, not to enforce, but effectually to incline, their wills, and gain a victory over them to their salvation.

Nor is his will towards the rest altogether ineffectual, though it have not this effect. For whatsoever thou art that livest under the gospel, though thou dost not know that God so wills thy conversion and salvation as to effect it whatsoever resistance thou now makest; though thou art not sure he will finally overcome all thy resistance and pluck thee as a firebrand out of the mouth of hell; yet thou canst not say his good-will towards thee hath been without any effect at all tending thereto. He hath often called upon thee in his gospel to repent and turn to him through Christ; he hath waited on thee with long patience, and given thee time and space of repentance; he hath within that time been often at work with thy soul. Hath he not many times let in beams of light upon thee, shown thee the evil of thy ways, convinced thee, awakened thee, half persuaded thee? And thou never hadst reason to doubt but that, if thou hadst set thyself with serious diligence "to work out thy own salvation," he would have wrought on, so as to have brought things to a blessed issue for thy soul.

Thou mightest discern his mind towards thee to be agreeable to his word, wherein he hath testified to thee he desired not the death of sinners, that he "hath no pleasure in the death of him that dieth," or in the death of the wicked, "but that he should turn and live;" exhorted thee; expostulated with thee and others in thy condition, "Turn ye, turn ye, why will ye die?" He hath told thee expressly thy stubbornness and contending against him did "grieve" him, and "vex his Spirit;" that thy sin wherein thou hast indulged thyself hath been "an abomination to him," that it was "the abominable thing which his soul hated,"–that he was "broken with the whorish heart" of such as thou, and "pressed therewith as a cart that was full of sheaves."

Now, such expressions as these, though they are borrowed from man, must be understood suitably to God; though they do not signify the same thing with him as they do in us, yet they do not signify nothing. As, when hands and eyes are attributed to God, they do not signify as they do with us, yet they signify somewhat correspondent,–as active and visive power; so these expressions, though they signify not in God such unquiet motions and passions as they would in us, they do signify a mind and will really, though with the most perfect calmness and tranquillity, set against sin and the horrid consequences of it; which yet, for greater reasons than we can understand, he may not see fit to do all he can to prevent. And if we know not how to reconcile such a will in God with some of our notions concerning the Divine nature, shall we, for what we have thought of him, deny what he hath so expressly said of himself or pretend to understand his nature better than he himself doth?

And when we see, from such express sayings in Scripture (reduced to a sense becoming to God), how God's mind stands in reference to sinners and their self-destroying ways, we may thence apprehend what temper of mind our Lord Jesus also bears towards them in the like case, even in his glorified state. For can you think there is a disagreement between him and the Father about these things? And whereas we find our blessed Lord, in the days of his flesh, one while complaining men "would not come to him that they might have life;" elsewhere grieved at the "hardness of their hearts;" and here scattering tears over sinning and perishing Jerusalem,–we cannot doubt but that–the innocent perturbation which his earthly state did admit being severed–his mind is still the same in reference to cases of the same nature; for can we think there is any disagreement between him and himself? We cannot therefore doubt but that,—

1. He distinctly comprehends the truth of any such case. He beholds from the throne of his glory above, all the treaties which are held and managed with sinners in his name, and what their deportments are therein. "His eyes are as a flame of fire," wherewith he "searcheth hearts and trieth reins" He hath seen, therefore, sinner, all along, every time an offer of grace hath been made to thee, and been rejected; when thou hast slighted counsels and warnings that have been given thee, exhortations and entreaties that have been pressed upon thee, for many years together; and how thou hast hardened thy heart against reproofs and threatenings, against promises and allurements; and beholds the tendency of all this, what is like to come of it,–and that, if thou persist, it will be bitterness in the end.

2. That he hath a real dislike of the sinfulness of thy course. It is not indifferent to him whether thou obeyest or disobeyest the gospel,–whether thou turn and repent, or no; that he is truly displeased at thy trifling, sloth, negligence, impenitency, hardness of heart, stubborn obstinacy and contempt of his grace; and takes real offence at them.

3. He hath real kind propensions towards thee, and is ready to receive thy returning soul, and effectually to mediate with the offended Majesty of heaven for thee as long as there is any hope in thy case.

4. When he sees there is no hope, he pities thee, while thou seest it not, and dost not pity thyself. Pity and mercy above are not names only; it is a great reality that is signified by them, and that hath place there in far higher excellency and perfection than it can with us poor mortals here below. Ours is but borrowed and participated from that first fountain and original above. Thou dost not perish unlamented, even with the purest heavenly pity, though thou hast made thy case incapable of remedy: as the well-tempered judge bewails the sad end of the malefactor, whom justice obliges him not to spare or save.
John Howe, "The Redeemer's Tears Wept Over Lost Souls," in The Works of John Howe (London: The Religious Tract Society, 1862), 2:315–320.


Part of this is cited with approval by Iain H. Murray in "The Cross: The Pulpit of God's Love Part 2," Banner of Truth 495 (December 2004): 14. In Murray's article, he strongly affirms God's love for all men and God's desire that all men be saved, citing Howe (and others) to sustain his case historically.


Anonymous said...

May I ask you a question? Do you know where I can find a document online of John Howe with therein a sermon about Ezekiel 39:29? It's about the conversion of the Jews and a glorious state of the church at that time.

Nice blog!


Tony Byrne said...

Hi Jos,

Thanks for visiting and for the compliment.

As for that material by John Howe, I couldn't tell you which volume of his works contains what you're looking for. Your best bet would be to download all of his works at archive.org and check the table of contents. The volumes at archive.org are also fully searchable, so you can search for particular terms [or the Ezekiel text] and find what you need that way.

Grace to you,

Anonymous said...

Hi Tony,

A late reply, but just to let you know: I found it. Thanks for your help. He wrote 15 sermons about Ezekiel 39:29, and they were added later to All the Works of John Howe. So in earlier copies they are missing. Please see my latest post for an article about it.