Owen on the rare discovery that there is forgiveness with God

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Ed Walsh

Puritan Board Senior
Greetings all,

From John Owen's masterful work in volume six on Psalm 130.

EDIT: I want to add two things as a preface.

One - You should know that this treatise on Psalm 130 was from a near-death experience of Owen. At times he was quite sure this was the sickness he would die from. And during that time, he experienced the depths of despair spoken of in the first verse. "Out of the depths have I cried unto thee, O Lord." Psalm 130 is the fruit of Owens's most personal, heartfelt meditations on life and death and the next life. Owens's Spirit-drenched meditations could be likened to that expression, forgiveness with God is "as serious as a heart attack."

Two - This work of Owen's on Psalm 130 is my favorite of all of his works. Why? About 40 years ago, God used it to deliver me from those same depths. How could I but love this work.

Verse 4 -
But there is forgiveness with thee,
That thou mayest be feared.

Feel free to read as much or as little of this as you like. Even the first full paragraph would give you a flavor. I've chosen the section where you will not get too far without understanding his thesis that the discovery of forgiveness and God is a rare thing, even among professing Christians.

Owen believed the 4th verse was the heart of the Psalm. He commented on the verse from pages 379- 618. (239 pages) I skipped the protracted introduction where Owen expounds the meaning of the words from the original text. It's very technical and probably something you should read someday.

Verse 4 - But there is forgiveness with thee, That thou mayest be feared.

(I'm starting with page 386)

Greatness and rareness of the discovery of forgiveness in God—Reasons of it—Testimonies of conscience and law against it, etc.

Secondly, this discovery of forgiveness in God is great, holy, and mysterious, and very few on gospel grounds do attain unto.

All men, indeed, say there is; most men are persuaded that they think so. Only men in great and desperate extremities, like Cain or Spira, seem to call it into question. But their thoughts are empty, groundless, yea, for the most part wicked and atheistical. Elihu tells us, that to declare this aright to a sinful soul, it is the work of “a messenger, an interpreter, one among a thousand,” Job 33:23; that is, indeed, of Christ himself. The common thoughts of men about this thing are slight and foolish, and may be resolved into those mentioned by the psalmist, Ps. 50:21. They think that “God is altogether such an one as themselves;” that, indeed, he takes little or no care about these things, but passeth them over as slightly as they do themselves. That, notwithstanding all their pretences, the most of men never had indeed any real discovery of forgiveness, shall be afterward undeniably evinced; and I shall speedily show the Difference that is between their vain credulity and a gracious gospel discovery of forgiveness in God. For it must be observed, that by this discovery I intend both the revelation of it made by God and our understanding and reception of that revelation to our own advantage; as shall be showed immediately.

Now, the grounds of the difficulty intimated consist partly in the hinderances that lie in the way of this discovery, and partly in the nature of the thing itself that is discovered; of both which I shall briefly treat.

But here, before I proceed, somewhat must be premised to show what it is that I particularly intend by a discovery of forgiveness. It may, then, be considered two ways:—
1. For a doctrinal, objective discovery of it in its truth.

2. An experimental, subjective discovery of it in its power. In the first sense, forgiveness in God hath been discovered ever since the giving out of the first promise: or it could never have been known; as shall be afterward declared. In this sense, after many lesser degrees and advancements of the light of it, it was fully and gloriously brought forth by the Lord Jesus Christ in his own person, and is now revealed and preached in the gospel, and by them to whom the word of reconciliation is committed; and to declare this is the principal work of the ministers of the gospel. Herein lie those unsearchable treasures and riches of Christ, which the apostle esteemed as his chiefest honour and privilege that he was intrusted with the declaration and dispensation of, Eph. 3:8, 9. I know by many it is despised, by many traduced, whose ignorance and blindness is to be lamented; but the day is coming which will manifest every man’s work of what sort it is. In the latter sense, how it is made by faith in the soul, shall in its proper place be farther opened and made known. Here many men mistake and deceive themselves. Because it is so in the book, they think it is so in them also. Because they have been taught it, they think they believe it. But it is not so; they have not heard this voice of God at any time, nor seen his shape. It hath not been revealed unto them in its power.

To have this done is a great work; for,—

First, The constant voice of conscience lies against it. Conscience, if not seared, inexorably condemneth and pronounceth wrath and anger upon the soul that hath the least guilt cleaving to it. Now, it hath this advantage, it lieth close to the soul, and by importunity and loud speaking it will be heard in what it hath to say; it will make the whole soul attend, or it will speak like thunder. And its constant voice is, that where there is guilt there must be judgment, Rom. 2:14, 15. Conscience naturally knows nothing of forgiveness; yea, it is against its very trust, work, and office to hear any thing of it. If a man of courage and honesty be intrusted to keep a garrison against an enemy, let one come and tell him that there is peace made between those whom he serves and their enemies, so that he may leave his guard, and set open the gates, and cease his watchfulness; how wary will he be, lest under this pretence he be betrayed! “No,” saith he; “I will keep my hold until I have express order from my superiors.” Conscience is intrusted with the power of God in the soul of a sinner, with command to keep all in subjection with reference unto the judgment to come. It will not betray its trust in believing every report of peace. No; but this it says, and it speaks in the name of God, “Guilt and punishment are inseparable twins; if the soul sin, God will judge. What tell you me of forgiveness? I know what my commission is, and that I will abide by. You shall not bring in a superior commander, a cross principle, into my trust; for if this be so, it seems I must let go my throne,—another lord must come in;” not knowing, as yet, how this whole business is compounded in the blood of Christ. Now, whom should a man believe if not his own conscience, which, as it will not flatter him, so it intends not to affright him, but to speak the truth as the matter requireth? Conscience hath two works in reference unto sin,—one to condemn the acts of sin, another to judge the person of the sinner; both with reference to the judgment of God. When forgiveness comes, it would sever and part these employments, and take one of them out of the hand of conscience; it would divide the spoil with this strong one. It shall condemn the fact, or every sin: but it shall no more condemn the sinner, the person of the sinner; that shall be freed from its sentence. Here conscience labours with all its might to keep its whole dominion, and to keep out the power of forgiveness from being enthroned in the soul. It will allow men to talk of forgiveness, to hear it preached, though they abuse it every day; but to receive it in its power, that stands up in direct opposition to its dominion. “In the kingdom,” saith conscience, “I will be greater than thou;” and in many, in the most, it keeps its possession, and will not be deposed.

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