Thursday, July 23, 2009

...the Holy Spirit’s work in bringing sinners to faith in Christ

by John Owen

All men can be divided into two groups. They are either regenerate or unregenerate. All men are born unregenerate (John 3:3-8).

...Spiritual darkness is in all men and lies on all men until God, by an almighty work of the Spirit, shines into men’s hearts, or creates light in them (Matt 4:16; John 1:5; Act 26:18; Eph 5:8; Col 1:13; 1 Pet 2:9). ...The nature of this spiritual darkness must be understood. When men have no light to see by, then they are in darkness (Exod. 10:23). Blind men are in darkness, either by birth or by illness or accident (Psa. 69:23; Gen 19:11; Acts 13:11). A spiritually blind man is in spiritual darkness and is ignorant of spiritual things.

There is an outward darkness on men and an inward darkness in men.
Outward darkness is when men do not have that light by which they are enabled to see. So outward spiritual darkness is upon men when there is nothing to enlighten them about God and spiritual things (Matt 4:16; Psa 119:105; Psa. 19:1-4,8; 2 Pet 1:19; Rom 10:15, 18). It is the work of the Holy Spirit to remove this darkness by sending the light of the gospel (Acts 13:2, 4; 16:6-10; Psa. 147:19,20).

Inward darkness, on the other hand, arises from the natural depravity and corruption of the minds of men concerning spiritual things. Man’s mind is depraved and corrupted in things which are natural, civil, political, and moral, as well as in things which are spiritual, heavenly and evangelical. This depravity is often held back from having its full effects by the common grace of the Holy Spirit. So, man’s mind being darkened, he is unable to see, receive, understand or believe to the saving of his soul. Spiritual things, or the mysteries of the gospel, without the Holy Spirit first creating within the soul a new light by which they can see and receive those things, cannot bring salvation.
  • So the unregenerate ‘walk in the futility of their mind’ (Eph 4:17).
  • The natural inclination of the unregenerate mind is to seek those things that cannot satisfy (Gen 6:5).
  • It is an unstable mind (Prov. 7:11-12).
  • The unregenerate understanding is darkened and cannot judge things properly (John 1:5).
  • The unregenerate heart is blind. In Scripture the heart includes the will also.
Light is received by the mind, applied by the understanding and used by the heart. ‘But if the light within is darkness,’ said Jesus, ‘how great is that darkness.’

Paul tells us that the first Adam became a living being; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit (1 Cor 15:45). The natural man comes from the first Adam and the spiritual man comes from the last Adam. The natural man is one that has all that is or can be had from the first Adam. He has a rational soul and is well able to use it. The natural man trusts in his reasoning powers and sees no need for any spiritual help. He does not see that God has given him a soul in order that it might learn and receive what he, God, has to give. Man is never made to live independently of God. Eyes are beautiful and useful, but if they try to see without light, their beauty and power will be of no use and the eyes might even be damaged. And if the unconverted mind tries to see spiritual things without the help of the Spirit of God, it will only end up destroying itself.

In verse fourteen [1 Cor 2] we see things put to the natural man. These things are ‘the things of the Spirit of God’. Now what are these things of the Spirit of God which are put to the natural man? Here are some of them, all from 1 Cor chapter 2, ‘Jesus and him crucified’ (v.2). ‘The hidden wisdom which God ordained before the ages for our glory’ (v. 7). “The things that are freely given to us by God’ (v.12). ‘The mind of Christ’ (v. 16).

Two things can be said of the natural man
and the things of the Spirit of God.
he does not receive them:
secondly, he cannot know them.

In this double assertion we learn firstly that the power to receive spiritual things is denied the natural man (Rom 8:7). He cannot receive them because they are spiritually discerned. We learn secondly that the natural man willingly rejects them. This is implied in the words ‘does not receive the things of the Spirit of God’. And he rejects them because they appear to him to be foolish.

Paul teaches us the Christ ‘has delivered us from the power of darkness and translated us into the kingdom of the Son of his love’ (Col 1:13).

[Due to the corruption of nature] ...the darkness fills the mind with enmity against God and all the things of God ( Col 1:21; Rom 8:7). If God is great in goodness and beauty, why do men hate him? This hatred arises from this darkness which is the corruption and depravity of our nature.

This darkness fills the mind with prejudices against all spiritual things, and the mind is utterly unable to free itself from the prejudices. The darkened mind sees first the things that it lusts after. Then, later, it recognizes those lusts in itself. But when men are called to seek God above all other desires, then this is considered to be foolish, because to the unconverted mind things that are spiritual things will never bring contentment, happiness and satisfaction. In particular, the unregenerate mind has a special bias against the gospel.

The gospel...
shows that obedience can arise only from a regenerate heart that is no longer at enmity with God. It also shows that the whole purpose of obedience is to being glory to God. It shows that we cannot obey until we have been reconciled to God through Jesus Christ. All these things put moral duties into a new framework, the framework of the gospel. Secondly, by giving us his Spirit, God strengthens and enables us to obey according to the gospel framework.

If the mind is ignorant of the gospel, or is blinded by prejudice, then the heart will not be roused to desire Christ, nor the will be urged to embrace him. ...We see, therefore, how important are the words of Jesus when he said, ‘You must be born again.’

... As the body cannot live without the soul, so the soul cannot live to God without spiritual life. Without the spiritual life the soul becomes morally corrupt (Rom 8:7,8; John 6:44; Matt 7:18; 12:33; Jer. 13:23).

This inability to live to God is due to sin (Rom 5:12).
Unregenerate persons are able to do something towards regeneration, but this they neglect to do, so they willfully sin. Though they cannot live to God, they can and do resist God, because their depraved minds are alienated from the life of God. Unregenerate persons freely and wickedly choose to disobey God.

Jesus complained, ‘You will not come to me that you might have life’ (John 5:40). There is in this death a ceasing of all vital activities. Unregenerate persons cannot do any vital activity that could be called spiritual obedience. True spiritual obedience springs from the life of God (Eph 4:18).

...God is the origin of all life
and specifically spiritual life (Psa. 36:9).
So our life is ‘hid with Christ in God’(Col 3:3).

Our spiritual life differs from every other kind of life. It does not come to us directly from God, but it is first deposited in all its fullness in Christ our mediator (Col. 1:19). So it is out of his fullness that we receive this life (John 1:16). So Christ is our life (Col 3:4). It is, therefore, not so much we who live but Christ who lives in us (Gal 2:20). We can do nothing of ourselves but only by Christ’s power and virtue (1 Cor 15:10).

The origin of this life is in God
The fullness of this life is in Christ. And it is imparted to us by the Holy Spirit. We experience it as a new power and ruling principle in us (Rom 8:11; Eph 4:15, 16). Christ is our life and without him we can do nothing (John 15:5) [including believe the gospel with our own natural resources]. This spiritual life imparted to us by the Holy Spirit is still also in Christ. So, by this life we are joined to Christ as a branch is joined to the tree, derives its life from the tree and can never live independently of the tree (John 15:4).

This spiritual life is imparted to us by the Holy Spirit in order that we might be enabled to obey the terms of God’s holy covenant. By this new life, God writes his law in our hearts and then we are able to walk in obedience to his commandments. Without this ruling principle of spiritual life there can be not spiritual obedience. To say that we are able by our own efforts to think good thoughts or give God spiritual obedience before we are spiritually regenerate is to overthrow the gospel and the faith of the universal church in all ages. It does not matter how powerfully we are motivated and encouraged, without regeneration we can do no good works which are pleasing and acceptable to God. A religious, decent, moral life, derived from self and not ‘born of God’ is as sinful as the worst of sinful lives.

Preachers of the gospel and others have sufficient warrant to press on all men the duties of repentance, faith and obedience; although they know the unregenerate have no ability to do these things. They must show the unregenerate why they are unable and that it is their own fault they are unable to do these things. It is the will of God and the command of God that the unregenerate should be told his duties. We are not to consider what man can or will do, but what God says they should do. There are two good reasons why these duties should be pressed on the ungodly. The ungodly must be stopped from going further into sin and being more and more hardened, and these duties are the means appointed by God for their conversion. God’s grace working in due time …

Yes the Word of God is powerfully persuasive in itself, but until born again, unregenerate men cannot and will not be persuaded by it. The unregenerate must be persuaded that these are not ‘cunningly devised fables’ (2 Pet 1:16). Things in Scripture are not just truths, but divine truths. These are things that ‘the mouth of the Lord has spoken’. And only when a person is born again will he believe that.

The unregenerate must be persuaded that the things preached are good, lovely and excellent. They must be persuaded that only faith in God can bring them to the height of all happiness. They must be persuaded of the sinful depravity of their souls and their utter inability to do any good acceptable to God without first being born against by His Spirit. All these truths are divine truths, and therefore the person hearing them must be convinced that they have been revealed by one who has divine authority. Not only must the mind be persuaded but also the heart must be activated to desire and the will heartily to embrace these things for salvation.

...The real effectiveness of preaching
does not lie in the clever oratorical
ability of men, nor in the ability
to back up the preaching by
doing miracles. It lies in the
following two things. Firstly,
the preaching must have been instituted by God.
He has appointed the preaching of his Word
to be the only outward means
for the conversion of the souls of men
(1 Cor 1:17-20 Mark 16:15, 16; Rom 1:16).
Secondly, the power that makes
preaching effective in the hearts
of men for their salvation
is in God’s hands alone.

To some, preaching is made effective for salvation, to others for damnation. God also gives his appointed preachers special spiritual gifts and abilities to preach his Word (Eph 4:11-13). So the power to persuade a person to repent and believe the gospel by preaching lies in the sovereign will of God.

If regeneration is nothing more than persuading a person to be good, then no new, real, supernatural strength has been conferred on the soul, though prejudices may have been removed from the mind. According to this teaching, man has no need to such supernatural power, because he has been able by his own power, the power of his own will, to overcome his depraved, sinful, corrupt nature, remove all errors and prejudices from his mind and bring himself to such holiness of life as to make himself wholly acceptable to God. This is the power of free will which some have believed and taught. Such people deny that man must first be born again before he can do anything pleasing and acceptable to God.

Some teach that grace enlightens the mind, and that all man has to do is to choose the good which God’s grace has shown him, and then that grace will work along with his choosing and willing and so bring the soul to new birth. But all the grace of God is doing here is enlightening the mind, exciting the desires and helping the will, and this only by persuading the person to repent and believe. No real strength is imparted to the soul. The will is left perfectly free to cooperate with this grace or not, as it chooses. This also denies the whole grace of Christ and to make it of no use at all in salvation. It ascribes to man’s free will the honor for his conversion. It makes a man give birth to himself which is nonsense. It destroys the analogy between the work of the Holy Spirit in forming the natural body of Christ in the womb and the work of the Holy Spirit in the forming of his mystical body in regeneration. It makes the act of living to God by faith and obedience to be a mere natural human act and not the result of Christ’s mediation. It allows the Spirit of God no more power in regenerating us than is in a minister who preaches the Word or an orator who eloquently and feelingly persuades a person to turn from evil to doing good.

We do not pray to God for anything but for what he has promised to give us.
Does anyone then pray that God would merely persuade him or others to believe and obey? Do people pray to be converted or to convert themselves? The church of God has always prayed that God would work these things in us. Those who are truly concerned for their souls pray that God will bring them to true repentance and faith, that he will graciously work these things in their hearts. They pray that he will give them faith for Christ’s sake and increase it in them and that he will work in them by the exceeding greatness of his power both to will and to do according to his good pleasure.

To think that by all these prayers, and with all those examples of prayer given in Scripture, we desire nothing more than that God would persuade, excite and stir us up to act by our own power and ability to bring about the answers to our prayers by our own efforts, is contrary to all Christian experience. For a man to pray with importunity, earnestness and with fervent zeal for that which he is quite able to do by himself, and which cannot be done except he will it to be done by his own free choice, is ridiculous. They mock God who pray to him to do for them what they can do for themselves. Suppose a man has ability to believe and repent. Suppose that his ability to believe and repent lies only in his free will and that God cannot by his grace work in him, but only persuade him to repent and believe, and to give him good reasons why he should do so, what would be the purpose of praying to God. Why ask God to give him faith and repentance?

It is because many believe that they have it in their own power to repent and believe when they so choose, that they think Christian prayers are useless and foolish. But it is as easy to persuade a person to regenerate himself by persuading himself to repent and believe as it is to persuade a blind man to see, or a lame man to walk normally or a dead man to rise from the grave. Conclusion: The work of regeneration is not the Holy Spirit [merely] persuading sinners to repent and believe.

How Regeneration is Accomplished
In regeneration a person the Holy Spirit makes use of the law and the gospel. There is not only a moral but also a direct nature-changing work of the Spirit on the minds or souls of men in regeneration. This is what we must hold on to, or all the glory of God’s grace is lost, and the grace which comes to us by Christ will be neglected. Paul tells us of this direct work of the Spirit: “That you may know ... what s the exceeding greatness of his power towards us who believe, according to the work of his mighty power which he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead’ (Eph 1:18:- 2). The power here mentioned has an exceeding greatness attributed to it, because by this power Christ was physically raised from the dead. Paul would have us know that the same mighty power which God worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead is the same mighty power which the Holy Spirit works when he raises us from spiritual death to spiritual life in regeneration. By this same mighty power we are kept by God to the day of salvation. It is because of his mighty power continually working in Christians that they are kept from ever falling away so as to be eternally lost.

God Works in Us What He has Promised to Do
Before the work of grace the heart is ‘stony’. It can do no more than a stone to please God. A stony heart is obstinate and stubborn. But God says that he will take away this stony heart (Ezek 11:19). He does not say he will try and take it away, or give us some power so that we can take it away ourselves, but that he will take it away. When God says he will take it away, he means that he will infallibly take it away and that nothing can stop him taking it away. He promises to give us a new heart and a new spirit (Ezek 36:26).

There is an 'eye' in the understanding of man. This eye is the ability to see spiritual things. It is sometimes said to be blind, darkness, shut. By these descriptions we are taught that the natural mind cannot know God personally for salvation, and nor can it see, that is, discern spiritual things. It is the work of the Spirit of grace to open this eye (Luke 4:18, Acts 26:18). He does this, firstly, by giving us the spirit of wisdom and revelation. Secondly, he gives us a heart to know him (Jer 24:7).

We are enabled to obey God firstly by an inward, spiritual, ruling principle of grace ... by virtue of the life and death of Jesus Christ according to the terms of the new covenant... by which God writes his laws in our hearts and enables us to obey them by the Holy Spirit.


donsands said...

Thanks for the blogcast. i enjoyed the song, and i was blessed with your message.

John Owen gives too much credit to God. Just kidding.
Excellent teaching.

"All men are born unregenerate"

Except John the Baptist.

ann said...

Lucky me who had earphones on :) - or rather - lucky my family, because it is late here and they are all asleep:)

John Owen has been constantly recommended to me by my pastor.

Thank you for this text.

Robin said...

Thank you for this post, it has helped me in my understanding. But could someone help me with this statement,

"Unregenerate persons are able to do something towards regeneration, but this they neglect to do, so they willfully sin."

OK, what is the "something" that unregenerate persons are able to do towards regeneration? Is this "something" the thing that still makes us responsible for rejecting God even though we cannot love and desire God until he enables us to through regeneration?

Jade said...

Hi Steve,
if you don't mind me asking ... is this from an abridge version of one of John Owen's work? I've read some of his works and the reading of it isn't usually this "smooth" unless it's an abridge version. Just curious...

Darrin said...

Steve, The effectual power toward salvation "is in God's hands alone". True, and that's the part our wordly minds cringe at, isn't it? We want to have the control, don't we?

Owen is wonderful to read! I hope to go through one of his volumes on the Holy Spirit next.

Couple thoughts on the comments. Hope nobody minds:

Jade, I agree. Owen was brilliant, but a bit awkward in his literary style (though I greatly enjoy it). I would certainly think this is modernized.

Robin, that quote does seem a bit odd to me. I think the gist of it may be that God does not need to prevent men from seeking Him - by our own nature we willingly neglect that pursuit. Only God can accomplish regeneration, though He employs means which we are able to walk through when blessed with that grace. Regarding the oft-mentioned topic of man's responsibility, I believe the truth is this: man is responsible for his sin. Period. Whether able to change or not, he remains a sinner, willingly opposed to God's commands and righteousness, set on living for himself, completely fit to suffer the wrath of God.

By grace alone,