John Owen's (Surprising) Counsel to Struggling, Doubting Believers

In his masterful exposition of Psalm 130, the seventeenth-century Puritan John Owen gave the church  one of the most comprehensive theological and pastoral treatments of forgiveness of sin and assurance ever written. This is one of my favorite of Owen's books and one that I return to over and again.

Near the end of his exposition, Owen includes a wonderfully encouraging chapter for saints struggling with sin. Having already presented an extensive exposition of the nature of gospel forgiveness, Owen is now turning to objections. And among the objections he addresses are those "arising from the consideration of [the soul's] present state and condition as to actual holiness, duties, and sins." (Owen, Works 6:600). Owen further explains:
"Souls complain, when in darkness and under temptations, that they cannot find that holiness, nor those fruits of it in themselves, which they suppose an interest in pardoning mercy will produce. Their hearts they find are weak, and their duties worthless. If they were weighed in the balance, they would all be found too light. In the best of them there is such a mixture of self, hypocrisy, unbelief, vain-glory, that they are even ashamed and confounded with the remembrance of them."  (Works, 6:600, emphasis Owen's)
I suppose any earnest and honest Christian has experienced this: doubts regarding the reality of God's forgiveness, struggles with assurance, that are rooted in the consciousness of one's struggles with sin and weakness in holiness.

How do you suppose Owen responds?

Keep in mind that this is the author of that hard-hitting trilogy on mortification, temptation, and indwelling sin (which are, incidentally, bound in the same volume). This is the Puritan about which the Scottish professor John Duncan said to his students, "Prepare for the knife!" What do you think Owen would say to you when you are doubting your salvation because of your low-levels of holiness and on your ongoing battles with sin?

You might be surprised.

Don't just sit there, do something 

Owen first reminds his readers to "take heed of heartless complaints when vigorous actings of grace are expected at our hands." This is a reference back to one his previous directions for those who are waiting on God for assurance. His point is to counter an unbelieving kind of spiritual passivity. Think of the person who just blew it with anger or lust again, and so is again doubting his or her salvation. "I must not be a Christian at all," they conclude. Clouds of guilt hang overhead. But instead of seeking God's face, the struggling sinner starts channel-surfing. No bible-reading, no prayer, no waiting on God. To this person, Owen would say,
"why lie you on your faces? why do you not rise and put yourselves to the utmost, giving all diligence to add one grace to another, until you find yourselves in a better frame?" 
In other words, don't be passive: rouse yourself and seek the Lord!

But that is not all Owen says, for he knows that there are sincere, seeking saints who yet struggle with great discouragement over their sins. And it is to such persons that he now turns.

Don't trust in your sanctification for justification 

The next thing he does is show us that our remaining sins remind us that we are not justified by our holiness, but by grace alone: "known holiness is apt to degenerate into self-righteousness," he writes. "What God gives us on the account of sanctification we are ready enough to reckon on the score of justification...We have so much of the Pharisee in us by nature that it is sometimes well that our good is hid from us. We are ready to take our corn and wine and bestow them on other lovers."

What I think Owen means by this is that sometimes when we are doing well, we start looking at our holiness as if it were the righteousness that commends us to God. We trust in our sanctification as the basis of our justification. And when we're in this state of mind, indwelling sin brings us back to our senses and reminds us that we are saved wholly by grace.

Owen continues,
"Were there not in our hearts a spiritually sensible principle of corruption, and in our duties a discernible mixture of self, it would be impossible we should walk so humbly as is required of them who hold communion with God in a covenant of grace and pardoning mercy. It is a good life which is attended with a faith of righteousness and a sense of corruption." (Works, 6:600, emphasis mine)
In other words, Owen is saying, be humbled and remember that you are saved by grace.

Struggling against indwelling sin is an evidence of grace 

A couple of paragraphs later, Owen reminds us that,
"Oftentimes holiness in the heart is more known by the opposition that is made there to it, than by its own prevalent working. The Spirit's operation is known by the flesh's opposition. We find a man's strength by the burdens he carries, and not the pace that he goes. 'O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?' is a better evidence of grace and holiness than 'God, I thank thee that I am not as other men.'" (Works, 6:601, emphasis Owen's)
The nuancing that follows shows that Owen is not veering into antinomianism here. He doesn't mean that we should continue in sin that grace may abound. He is speaking not to the profligate who has turned grace into a license for sin, but to the those who know the "close, adhering power of indwelling sin, tempting, seducing, soliciting, hindering, captivating, conceiving, [and] restlessly disquieting." Only those who pursue holiness and fight the good fight of faith have really experienced this intense assault of indwelling sin. But as Owen says, "He may have more grace than another who brings not forth so much fruit as the other, because he hath more opposition, more temptation..."

God accepts your imperfect duties because of Christ 

Perhaps the most surprising thing Owen says is this:
"Know that God despiseth not small things. He takes notice of the least breathings of our hearts after him when we ourselves can see nor perceive no such thing. He knows the mind of the Spirit in those workings which are never formed to that height that we can reflect upon them with our observation. Everything that is of him is noted in his book, though not in our ours . . . even whilst his people are sinning, he can find something in their hearts, words or ways, that pleaseth him; much more in their duties. He is a skillful refiner, that can find much gold in that ore where we see nothing but lead or clay. He remembers the duties which we forget, and forgets the sins which we remember..."  (Works, 6:602-603; emphasis of last sentence mine)
How can God do this? Only because of Christ. "Jesus Christ takes whatever is evil and unsavory out of [our duties], and makes them acceptable . . . God accepts a little, and Christ makes our little a great deal."

Grow in faith in order to grow in holiness  

His final response is to exhort us to faith in Christ for sanctification. Read carefully what he says:
"The reason why thou art no more holy is because thou has no more faith. If thou hast no holiness, it is because thou has not faith. Holiness is the purifying of the heart by faith, or our obedience unto the truth. And the reason why thou art no more in duty, is because thou art no more in believing. The reason why thy duties are weak and imperfect is, because faith is weak and imperfect. Hast thou no holiness? believe, that thou mayest have. Hast thou but a little, or that which is imperceptible? -- be steadfast in believing, that thou mayest abound in obedience." (Works, 6:603)
These excerpts demonstrate once more John Owen's wisdom and skill in the art of soul surgery. Owen is a surefooted guide on the narrow road of gospel holiness, avoiding both the precipice of legalism on the left and gulf of antinomianism on the right. When he counsels the doubting Christian who is discouraged by the presence of indwelling sin, Owen does not simply tell them (us) to quit sinning and work harder at being holy (the legalistic approach). But neither does he say holiness doesn't matter (the antinomian approach).

He instead shows us that our failures should cause us to slay self-righteousness and grasp tenaciously to God's grace and mercy in Christ. He reminds us that genuine struggle against indwelling sin is itself an evidence of God's grace in our lives. He points us to God's mercy in Christ, reminding us that God mercifully receives even the imperfect obedience of all those who are accepted in his Son. And he exhorts us to deeper faith in Christ himself, since faith is the root of holiness.

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