November 10, 2009

John Owen on the Willingness of God to Save and the Love in God's Words

I've been reluctant to post this since, as Stebbins rightly and critically says, "Owen is freer in his preaching than in his theologizing," particularly after his very early work on The Death of Death in the Death of Christ. See K. W. Stebbins, Christ Freely Offered (Lithgow NSW, Australia: Covenanter Press, 1996), 29. Nevertheless, this much is true: some Calvinists are so "stiff" (to borrow an expression from Phil Johnson) today that they are not even as free in their preaching as Owen was in his, so it becomes necessary to quote him on the will and love of God toward the lost. Iain Murray, after acknowledging that Calvin can speak of God's desire and wish for the salvation of all sinners, appeals to this section in Owen as well, and says that "Even ready to urge the willingness of Christ to receive all and to make clear that the blame for unbelief does not lie in any failure on God's part: 'the way is open and prepared, and it is not because men cannot enter, but because they will not', (see Works of John Owen, vol. 6, pp. 521–29)." See Murray's "Calvin and the Atonement," Banner of Truth 398 (November 1996): 19. Here is part of that section in Owen to which Murray appeals:
Hear, then, once more, poor sin-hardened, senseless souls, ye stout-hearted, that are far from righteousness. Is it nothing unto you that the great and holy God, whom ye have provoked all your days, and whom you yet continue to provoke,–who hath not the least need of you or your salvation,–who can, when he pleaseth, eternally glorify himself in your destruction,–should of his own accord send unto you, to let you know that he is willing to be at peace with you on the terms he had prepared? The enmity began on your part, the danger is on your part only, and he might justly expect that the message for peace should begin on your part also; but he begins with you. And shall he be rejected? The prophet well expresseth this, Isa. xxx. 15, "Thus said the Lord God, the Holy One of Israel; In returning and rest shall ye be saved; in quietness and in confidence shall be your strength: and ye would not." The love and condescension that is in these words, on the one hand, on the part of God, and the folly and ingratitude mentioned in them on the other hand, is inexpressible. They are fearful words, "But ye would not." Remember this against another day. As our Saviour says, in the like manner, to the Jews, "Ye will not come to me, that ye might have life." Whatever is pretended, it is will and stubbornness that lie at the bottom of this refusal.
John Owen, "Exposition Upon Psalm CXXX," in The Works of John Owen, ed. William H. Goold (Philadelphia: Leighton Publications, 1871), 6:521.

After extensively criticizing Owen's theological take on the Ezekiel passages, Stebbins said:
In preaching on Ezekiel 33:11 and 2 Cor. 5:20 he is able to proclaim "[God's] condescension that He may so entreat us–that He may exercise pity, pardon, goodness, kindness, mercy towards us. He is so full, that He is, as it were, pained until He can get us to Himself, that He may communicate of His love to us. . . .Says God, "O ye sons of men, why will ye die? I beseech you, be friends with Me; let us agree;–accept the atonement. I have love for you; take mercy, take pardon; do not destroy your own souls." ...He is of an infinite loving and tender nature; He entreats us to come to Him, and swears we shall not suffer by our so doing." (Works IX p41) Such preaching would warm the hardest heart, were it not the heart of unregenerate man. This fact Owen had in mind. He knew he could not reach the heart of the unregenerate. And so his preaching and promises were directed at those unconverted in whose hearts God was even yet working. His aim was to encourage their hearts and ours "in the belief of the promises". And therefore he freely applies the spiritual meaning of Ezekiel's plea for renewal.

It is a pity that in his theology he felt obliged to rationalise away the import of such passages by removing all spiritual value from them.
Stebbins, Christ Freely Offered, 29.

One could desire that some modern "stiff" Calvinists would at least imitate Owen's later and mature manner of preaching, but even more that they would return to Calvin's theology and preaching, as it is more akin to scripture on this subject, not system-driven.

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