For thy name’s sake, O LORD, pardon mine iniquity; for it is great.
~ Psalm 25:11
Come now, and let us reason together, saith the LORD: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.
~ Isaiah 1:18
Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts: and let him return unto the LORD, and he will have mercy upon him; and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.
~ Isaiah 55:7
To the Lord our God belong mercies and forgivenesses, though we have rebelled against him;
~ Daniel 9:9
Serve the LORD with fear, and rejoice with trembling. Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and ye perish from the way, when his wrath is kindled but a little. Blessed are all they that put their trust in him.
~ Psalm 2:11-12
Then hear thou in heaven thy dwelling place, and forgive, and do, and give to every man according to his ways, whose heart thou knowest; (for thou, even thou only, knowest the hearts of all the children of men) That they may fear thee all the days that they live in the land which thou gavest unto our fathers.
~ 1 Kings 8:39-40
And to Jesus the mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling, that speaketh better things than that of Abel. See that ye refuse not him that speaketh. For if they escaped not who refused him that spake on earth, much more shall not we escape, if we turn away from him that speaketh from heaven: Whose voice then shook the earth: but now he hath promised, saying, Yet once more I shake not the earth only, but also heaven. And this word, Yet once more, signifieth the removing of those things that are shaken, as of things that are made, that those things which cannot be shaken may remain. Wherefore we receiving a kingdom which cannot be moved, let us have grace, whereby we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear:
~ Hebrews 12:24-28
Rules to be Observed by Them Who Would Come to Stability in Obedience, by John Owen. The following contains an exposition on Psalm 130, Verse 4, “The Forgiveness of Sin, A Practical Exposition Upon Psalm 130”.
But there is forgiveness with thee, that thou mayest be feared.
Rules to be observed by them who would come to stability in obedience.
That which remaineth to be farther carried on, upon the principles laid down, is to persuade with souls more or less entangled in the depths of sin to close with this forgiveness by believing, unto their peace and consolation. And because such persons are full of pleas and objections against themselves, I shall chiefly, in what I have to say, endeavour to obviate these objections, so to encourage them unto believing and bring them unto settlement. And herein whatever I have to offer flows naturally from the doctrine at large laid down and asserted. Yet I shall not in all particulars apply myself thereunto, but in general fix on those things that may tend to the establishment and consolation of both distressed and doubting souls. And I shall do what I purpose these two ways:—
FIRST, I shall lay down such general rules as are necessary to be observed by all those who intend to come to gospel peace and comfort. And then, SECONDLY, shall consider some such objections as seem to be most comprehensive of those special reasonings wherewith distressed persons do usually entangle themselves.
I shall begin with general rules, which, through the grace of Christ and supplies of his Spirit, may be of use unto believers in the condition under consideration.
Christ the only infallible judge of our spiritual condition—How he judgeth by his word and Spirit.
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,” Isa. 40:27; and Zion said so too, chap. 49:14, “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 that God was otherwise minded. This false judgment, made by souls in their entanglements, of their own condition, is ofttimes a most unconquerable hinderance unto the bettering of it. They fill themselves with thoughts of their own about it, and on them they dwell, instead of looking out after 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 skilful 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, Eccles. 9:3; so far as any one 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 thing than in possessing them in whom it is with strange conceits and apprehensions of themselves. So doth this madness of sin, according unto its degrees and prevalency. Hence some cry, “Peace, peace,” when “sudden destruction is at hand,” 1 Thess. 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 for ever, when God is with them.
Do you, then, your duty, and let Christ judge of your state. Your concernment is too great to make it 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 fallible 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 men 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. You will find that he oftentimes, both on the one hand and on the other, determines quite contrary to what men judge of themselves, as also to what others judge of them. Some he judgeth to be in an evil condition, who are very confident that it is well with them, and who please themselves in the thoughts of many to the same purpose. And he judgeth the state of some to be good, who are diffident in themselves, and, it may be, despised by others. We may single out an example or two in each kind:—
1. Laodicea’s judgment of herself and her spiritual state we have, Rev. 3:17: “I am rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing.” A fair state it seems, a blessed condition! She wants nothing that may contribute to her rest, peace, and reputation: she is orthodox, and numerous, and flourishing; makes a fair profession, and all is well within! So she believes, so she reports of herself; wherein there is a secret reflection also upon others whom she despiseth: “Let them shift as they list, I am thus as I say.” But was it so with her indeed? was that her true condition, whereof she was so persuaded as to profess it unto all? Let Jesus Christ be heard to speak in this cause, let him come and judge. “I will do so,” saith he: verse 14, “Thus saith the Amen, the faithful and true Witness.” Coming to give sentence in a case of this importance, he gives himself this title, that we may know his word is to be acquiesced in. “Every man,” saith he, “is a liar; their testimony is of no value, let them pronounce what they will of themselves or of one another, ‘I am the Amen,’ and I will see whose word shall stand, mine or theirs.” What, then, saith he of Laodicea? “Thou art wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked.” Oh, woful and sad disappointment! Oh, dreadful surprisal! Ah! how many Laodicean churches have we in the world! how many professors are members of these churches! not to mention the generality of men that live under the means of grace; all which have good hopes of their eternal condition, whilst they are despised and abhorred by the only Judge. Among professors themselves, it is dreadful to think how many will be found light when they come to be weighed in this balance.
2. Again: he judgeth some to be in a good condition, be they themselves never so diffident. Rev. 2:9, saith he to the church of Smyrna, “I know thy poverty.” Smyrna was complaining that she was a poor, contemptible congregation, not fit for him to take any notice of. “Well,” saith he, “fear not. ‘I know thy poverty,’ whereof thou complainest; ‘but thou art rich.’ That is my judgment, testimony, and sentence, concerning thee and thy condition.” Such will be his judgment at the last day, when both those on the one hand and on the other shall be surprised with his sentence,—the one with joy at the riches of his grace, the other with terror at the severity of his justice, Matt. 25:37–40, 44, 45. This case is directly stated in both the places mentioned in the entrance of this discourse; as in that, for instance, Isa. 49:14, “Zion said, The LORD hath forsaken me.” That is Zion’s judgment of herself, and her state and condition; a sad report and conclusion. But doth Christ agree with Zion in this sentence? The next verse gives us his resolution of this matter: “Can,” saith he, “a woman forget her sucking child, that she should not have compassion on the son of her womb? yea, they may forget, yet will I not forget thee.” The state of things, in truth, is as much otherwise as can possibly be thought or imagined.
To what purpose is it for men to be passing a judgment upon themselves, when there is no manner of certainty in their determinations, and when their proceeding thereon will probably lead them to farther entanglements, if not to eternal ruin? The judging of souls, as to their spiritual state and condition, is the work of Jesus Christ, especially as to the end now under inquiry. Men may, men do, take many ways to make a judgment of themselves. Some do it on slight and trivial conjectures; some on bold and wicked presumptions; some on desperate atheistical notions, as Deut. 29:19; some, with more sobriety and sense of eternity, lay down principles that may be good and true in themselves, from them they draw conclusions, arguing from one thing unto another, and in the end ofttimes either deceive themselves, or sit down no less in the dark than they were at the entrance of their self-debate and examination. A man’s judgment upon his own reasonings is seldom true, more seldom permanent. I speak not of self-examination, with a due discussion of graces and actions, but of the final sentence as to state and condition, wherein the soul is to acquiesce. This belongs unto Christ.
Now, there are two ways whereby the Lord Jesus Christ gives forth his decretory sentence in this matter:—
(1.) By his word. He determines, in the word of the gospel, of the state and condition of all men indefinitely. Each individual coming to that word receives his own sentence and doom. He told the Jews that Moses accused them, John 5:45. His law accused and condemned the transgressors of it. And so doth he acquit every one that is discharged by the word of the gospel. And our self-judging is but our receiving by faith his sentence in the word. His process herein we have recorded: Job 33:22, 23, “His soul” (that is, of the sinner) “draweth near unto the grave, and his life to the destroyers.” This seems to be his state; it is so indeed: he is at the very brink of the grave and hell.
What then? Why, if there be with him or stand over him מֵלִיץִ מַלְאַךְ, the angel interpreting, or the angel of the covenant, who alone is אָחָך מִנִּי־אָלֶף, the “one of a thousand,” what shall he do? “He shall shew ,ִמִנּי־אֶָלף unto him his uprightness.” He shall give unto him a right determination of his interest in God, and of the state and frame of his heart towards God; whereupon God shall speak peace unto his soul, and deliver him from his entanglements, verse 24. Jesus Christ hath, in the word of the gospel, stated the condition of every man. He tells us that sinners, of what sort soever they are, that believe, are accepted with him, and shall receive forgiveness from God,—that none shall be refused or cast off that come unto God by him. The soul of whom we are treating is now upon the work of coming unto God for forgiveness by Jesus Christ. Many and weighty objections it hath in and against itself why it should not come, why it shall not be accepted. Our Lord Jesus, the wisdom of God, foresaw all these objections, he foreknew what could be said in the case, and yet he hath determined the matter as hath been declared. In general, men’s arguings against themselves arise from sin and the law. Christ knows what is in them both. He tried them to the uttermost, as to their penalties, and yet he hath so determined as we have showed. Their particular objections are from particular considerations of sin,—their greatness, their number, their aggravations. Christ knows all these also, and yet stands to his former determination. Upon the whole matter, then, it is meet his word should stand. I know, when a soul brings itself to be judged by the word of the gospel, it doth not always in a like manner receive and rest in the sentence given. But when Christ is pleased to speak the word with power to men, they shall “hear the voice of the Son of God,” and be concluded by it. Let the soul, then, that is rising out of depths and pressing towards a sense of forgiveness, lay itself down before the word of Christ in the gospel. Let him attend to what he speaks; and if for a while it hath not power upon him to quiet his heart, let him wait a season, and light shall arise unto him out of darkness. Christ will give in his sentence into his conscience with that power and efficacy as he shall find rest and peace in it.
(2.) Christ also judgeth by his Spirit, not only in making this sentence of the gospel to be received effectually in the soul, but in and by peculiar actings of his upon the heart and soul of a believer: 1 Cor. 2:12, “We have received the Spirit which is of God, that we might know the things that are freely given to us of God.” The Spirit of Christ acquaints the soul that this and that grace is from him, that this or that duty was performed in his strength. He brings to mind what at such and such times was wrought in men by himself, to give them supportment and relief in the times of depths and darkness. And when it hath been clearly discovered unto the soul at any time by the Holy Ghost, that any thing wrought in it or done by it hath been truly saving, the comfort of it will abide in the midst of many shakings and temptations.
3. He also by his Spirit bears witness with our spirits as to our state and condition. Of this I have spoken largely elsewhere, and therefore shall now pass it by.
This, then, is our first general rule and direction:—Self- determinations concerning men’s spiritual state and condition, because their minds are usually influenced by their distempers, are seldom right end according to rule; mistakes in such determinations are exceedingly prejudicial to a soul seeking out after relief and sense of forgiveness: let Christ, then, be the judge in this case by his word and Spirit, as hath been directed.
Self-condemnation and abhorrency for sin consistent with gospel justification and peace—The nature of gospel assurance—What is consistent with it—What are the effects of it.
Self-condemnation and abhorrency do very well consist with gospel justification and peace. Some men have no peace, because they have that without which it is impossible they should have peace. Because they cannot but condemn themselves, they cannot entertain a sense that God doth acquit them. But this is the mystery of the gospel, which unbelief is a stranger unto; nothing but faith can give a real subsistence unto these things in the same soul, at the same time. It is easy to learn the notion of it, but it is not easy to experience the power of it. For a man to have a sight of that within him which would condemn him, for which he is troubled, and at the same time to have a discovery of that without him which will justify him, and to rejoice therein, is that which he is not led unto but by faith in the mystery of the gospel. We are now under a law for justification which excludes all boasting, Rom. 3:27; so that though we have joy enough in another, yet we may have, we always have, sufficient cause of humiliation in ourselves. The gospel will teach a man to feel sin and believe righteousness at the same time. Faith will carry heaven in one hand and hell in the other; showing the one deserved, the other purchased. A man may see enough of his own sin and folly to bring “gehennam è cœlo,”—a hell of wrath out of heaven; and yet see Christ bring “cœlum ex inferno,”—a heaven of blessedness out of a hell of punishment. And these must needs produce very divers, yea, contrary effects and operations in the soul; and he who knows not how to assign them their proper duties and seasons must needs be perplexed. The work of self-condemnation, then, which men in these depths cannot but abound with, is, in the disposition of the covenant of grace, no way inconsistent with nor unsuited unto justification and the enjoyment of peace in the sense of it. There may be a deep sense of sin on other considerations besides hell. David was never more humbled for sin than when Nathan told him it was forgiven. And there may be a view of hell as deserved, which yet the soul may know itself freed from as to the issue.
To evidence our intendment in this discourse, I shall briefly consider what we intend by gospel assurance of forgiveness, that the soul may not be solicitous and perplexed about the utter want of that which, perhaps, it is already in some enjoyment of.
Some men seem to place gospel assurance in a high, unassaulted confidence of acceptance with God. They think it is in none but such as, if a man should go to them and ask them, “Are you certain you shall be saved?” have boldness, and confidence, and ostentation to answer presently, “Yea, they are certain they shall be saved.” But as the blessed truth of assurance hath been reproached in the world under such a notion of it, so such expressions become not them who know what it is to have to do with the holy God, who is “a consuming fire.” Hence some conclude that there are very few believers who have any assurance, because they have not this confidence, or are more free to mention the opposition they meet with than the supportment they enjoy. And thus it is rendered a matter not greatly to be desired, because it is so rarely to be obtained, most of the saints serving God and going to heaven well enough without it. But the matter is otherwise. The importance of it, not only as it is our life of comfort and joy, but also as it is the principal means of the flourishing of our life of holiness, hath been declared before, and might be farther manifested, were that our present business; yea, and in times of trial, which are the proper seasons for the effectual working and manifestation of assurance, it will and doth appear that many, yea, that most of the saints of God are made partakers of this grace and privilege.