Mortification Chapter 12

Overcoming Sin and Temptation by John Owen

Use and Exercise Yourself to Such Meditations as May Serve
to Fill You at All Times with Self-Abasement and Thoughts of
Your Own Vileness
Eighthly, use and exercise yourself to such meditations as may serve to fill you
at all times with self-abasement and thoughts of your own vileness, as:
Be much in thoughtfulness of the excellency of the majesty of God and
your infinite, inconceivable distance from him. Many thoughts of it cannot
but fill you with a sense of your own vileness, which strikes deep at the root
of any indwelling sin. When Job comes to a clear discovery of the greatness
and the excellency of God, he is filled with self-abhorrence and is pressed to
humiliation (Job 42:5-6). And in what state does the prophet Habakkuk
affirm himself to be cast upon the apprehension of the majesty of God [Hab.
3:16]? “With God,” says Job, “is terrible majesty” [Job 37:22]. Hence were
the thoughts of them of old, that when they had seen God they should die.
The Scripture abounds in this self-abasing consideration, comparing the men
of the earth to “grasshoppers,” to “vanity,” the “dust of the balance,” in
respect of God [Isa. 40:12-25]. Be much in thoughts of this nature, to abase
the pride of your heart, and to keep your soul humble within you. There is
nothing [that] will render you a greater indisposition58 to be imposed on by
the deceits of sin than such a frame of heart. Think greatly of the greatness
of God.
58 disinclination, unwillingness
Think much of your unacquaintedness with him. Though you know
enough to keep you low and humble, yet how little a portion is it that you
know of him! The contemplation hereof cast that wise man into that apprehension
of himself which he expresses:
Surely I am more brutish than any man, and have not the understanding
of a man. I neither learned wisdom, nor have the knowledge of the holy.
Who has ascended up into heaven, or descended? Who has gathered the
wind in his fists? Who has bound the waters in a garment? Who has established
the ends of the earth? What is his name, and what is his Son’s name,
if you can tell? (Prov. 30:2-4)
Labor with this also to take down the pride of your heart. What do you know
of God? How little a portion is it! How immense is he in his nature! Can you
look without terror into the abyss of eternity? You cannot bear the rays of
his glorious being.
Because I look on this consideration of great use in our walking with
God, so far as it may have a consistency with that filial59 boldness which is
given us in Jesus Christ to draw nigh to the throne of grace [Heb. 4:16], I shall
further insist upon it, to give an abiding impression of it to the souls of them
who desire to walk humbly with God.
Consider, then, I say, to keep your heart in continual awe of the
majesty of God, that persons of the most high and eminent attainment, of
the nearest and most familiar communion with God, do yet in this life know
but a very little of him and his glory. God reveals his name to Moses—the
most glorious attributes that he has manifested in the covenant of grace (Ex.
34:5-6); yet all are but the “back parts” of God. All that he knows by it is
but little, low, compared to the perfections of his glory. Hence it is with
peculiar reference to Moses that it is said, “No man has seen God at any
time” (John 1:18); of him in comparison with Christ does he speak (v. 17);
and of him it is here said, “No man,” no, not Moses, the most eminent
among them, “has seen God at any time.” We speak much of God, can talk
of him, his ways, his works, his counsels, all the day long; the truth is, we
know very little of him. Our thoughts, our meditations, our expressions of
him are low, many of them unworthy of his glory, none of them reaching
his perfections.
59 pertaining to a son or daughter
You will say that “Moses was under the law when God wrapped up himself
in darkness, and his mind in types and clouds and dark institutions—under
the glorious shining of the gospel, which has brought life and immortality to
light, God being revealed from his own bosom, we now know him much
more clearly, and as he is; we see his face now, and not his back parts only,
as Moses did.”
I acknowledge a vast and almost inconceivable difference between the
acquaintance we now have with God, after his speaking to us by his own Son
[Heb. 1:2], and that which the generality of the saints had under the law; for
although their eyes were as good, sharp, and clear as ours, their faith and spiritual
understanding not behind ours, the object as glorious unto them as unto
us, yet our day is more clear than theirs was, the clouds are blown away and
scattered [Song 4:6], the shadows of the night are gone and fled away, the sun
is risen, and the means of sight is made more eminent and clear than formerly.
That peculiar sight which Moses had of God (Exodus 34), was a gospelsight,
a sight of God as “gracious,” etc., and yet it is called but his “back parts,”
that is, but low and mean60 in comparison of his excellencies and perfections.
The apostle, exalting to the utmost this glory of light above that of the
law, manifesting that now the “veil” causing darkness is taken away [2 Cor.
3:13-16], so that with “open” or uncovered “face we behold the glory of the
Lord” (2 Cor. 3:18) tells us how: “as in a glass” (1 Cor 13:12). “In a glass”—
how is that? Clearly, perfectly? Alas, no! He tells you how that is: “We see
through a glass, darkly,” says he (1 Cor. 13:12). It is not a telescope that helps
us to see things afar off, concerning which the apostle speaks; and yet what
poor helps are! How short do we come of the truth of things notwithstanding
their assistance! It is a looking-glass whereunto he alludes (where are only
obscure species and images of things, and not the things themselves), and a
sight therein that he compares our knowledge to. He tells you also that all
that we do see, di esoptrou, “by” or “through this glass,” is in ainigmati—in
“a riddle,” in darkness and obscurity. And speaking of himself, who surely
was much more clear-sighted than any now living, he tells us that he saw but
ex merous—“in part.” He saw but the back parts of heavenly things (v. 12),
60 lowly, insignificant
and compares all the knowledge he had attained of God to that he had of
things when he was a child (v. 11). It is a meros,61 short of the to teleion,62
yea, such as katarg·th·setai—“it shall be destroyed,” or done away. We know
what weak, feeble, uncertain notions and apprehensions children have of
things of any abstruse63 consideration; how when they grow up with any
improvements of parts and abilities, those conceptions vanish, and they are
ashamed of them. It is the commendation of a child to love, honor, believe,
and obey his father; but for his science and notions, his father knows his childishness
and folly. Notwithstanding all our confidence of high attainments, all
our notions of God are but childish in respect of his infinite perfections. We
lisp and babble, and say we know not what, for the most part, in our most
accurate (as we think) conceptions and notions of God.64We may love, honor,
believe, and obey our Father; and therewith he accepts our childish thoughts,
for they are but childish. We see but his back parts; we know but little of him.
Hence is that promise wherewith we are so often supported and comforted
in our distress, “We shall see him as he is”; we shall see him “face to face”;
“know as we are known; comprehend that for which we are comprehended”
(1 Cor. 13:12; 1 John 3:2); and positively, “Now we see him not” [1 Pet.
1:8]—all concluding that here we see but his back parts; not as he is, but in
a dark, obscure representation; not in the perfection of his glory.
The queen of Sheba had heard much of Solomon, and framed many great
thoughts of his magnificence in her mind thereupon; but when she came and
saw his glory, she was forced to confess that the one half of the truth had not
been told her [1 Kings 10:7]. We may suppose that we have here attained
great knowledge, clear and high thoughts of God; but, alas! when he shall
bring us into his presence we shall cry out, “We never knew him as he is; the
thousandth part of his glory, and perfection, and blessedness, never entered
into our hearts.”
The apostle tells us that we know not what we ourselves shall be (1 John
3:2)—what we shall find ourselves in the issue; much less will it enter into
our hearts to conceive what God is and what we shall find him to be. Consider
either him who is to be known, or the way whereby we know him, and this
will further appear:
We know so little of God, because it is God who is thus to be known—
61 part
62 completion, fulfillment
63 hard to understand
64 Cf. Calvin, Institutes I.xiii.1: “. . . as nurses commonly do with infants, God is wont to ‘lisp’ in speaking
to us . . . not so much to express clearly what God is like as accommodate the knowledge of him to our
slight capacity.”
that is, he who has described himself to us very much by this, that we cannot
know him. What else does he intend where he calls himself invisible, incomprehensible,
and the like?—that is, he whom we do not, cannot, know as he
is. And our further progress consists more in knowing what he is not, than
what he is. Thus is he described to be immortal, infinite—that is, he is not,
as we are, mortal, finite, and limited. Hence is that glorious description of
him, “Who only has immortality, dwelling in the light which no man can
approach unto; whom no man has seen, nor can see” (1 Tim. 6:16). His light
is such as no creature can approach unto. He is not seen, not because he cannot
be seen, but because we cannot bear the sight of him. The light of God,
in whom is no darkness, forbids all access to him by any creature whatsoever.
We who cannot behold the sun in its glory are too weak to bear the
beams of infinite brightness. On this consideration, as was said, the wise man
professes himself “a very beast, and not to have the understanding of a man”
(Prov. 30:2)—that is, he knew nothing in comparison of God, so that he
seemed to have lost all his understanding when once he came to the consideration
of him, his work, and his ways.
In this consideration let our souls descend to some particulars:
For the being of God; we are so far from a knowledge of it, so as to be
able to instruct one another therein by words and expressions of it, as that
to frame any conceptions in our mind, with such species and impressions of
things as we receive the knowledge of all other things by, is to make an idol
to ourselves, and so to worship a god of our own making, and not the God
that made us. We may as well and as lawfully hew him out of wood or stone
as form him a being in our minds, suited to our apprehensions. The utmost
of the best of our thoughts of the being of God is that we can have no
thoughts of it. Our knowledge of a being is but low when it mounts no higher
but only to know that we know it not.
There [may] be some things of God which he himself has taught us to
speak of, and to regulate our expressions of them; but when we have so done,
we see not the things themselves; we know them not. To believe and admire
is all that we attain to. We profess, as we are taught, that God is infinite,
omnipotent, eternal; and we know what disputes and notions there are about
omnipresence, immensity, infiniteness, and eternity. We have, I say, words and
notions about these things; but as to the things themselves what do we know?
What do we comprehend of them? Can the mind of man do any more but
swallow itself up in an infinite abyss, which is as nothing; give itself up to
what it cannot conceive, much less express? Is not our understanding
“brutish” in the contemplation of such things, and is as if it were not? Yea,
the perfection of our understanding is not to understand, and to rest there.
They are but the back parts of eternity and infiniteness that we have a glimpse
of. What shall I say of the Trinity, or the subsistence of distinct persons in the
same individual essence—a mystery by many denied, because by none understood—
a mystery whose every letter is mysterious? Who can declare the generation
of the Son, the procession of the Spirit, or the difference of the one
from the other? But I shall not further instance in particulars. That infinite
and inconceivable distance that is between him and us keeps us in the dark
as to any sight of his face or clear apprehension of his perfections.
We know him rather by what he does than by what he is—by his doing
us good than by his essential goodness; and how little a portion of him, as
Job speaks, is hereby discovered!
We know little of God, because it is faith alone whereby here we know
him. I shall not now discourse about the remaining impressions on the hearts
of all men by nature that there is a God, nor what they may rationally be
taught concerning that God from the works of his creation and providence,
which they see and behold. It is confessedly, and that upon the woeful experience
of all ages, so weak, low, dark, confused, that none ever on that
account glorified God as they ought, but, notwithstanding all their knowledge
of God, were indeed “without God in the world” [Eph. 2:12].
The chief, and, upon the matter, almost only acquaintance we have with
God, and his dispensations of himself, is by faith. “He that comes to God
must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek
him” (Heb. 11:6). Our knowledge of him and his rewarding (the bottom65 of
our obedience or coming to him), is believing. “We walk by faith, and not by
sight” (2 Cor. 5:7)—dia pisteøs ou dia eidous by faith, and so by faith as not
to have any express idea, image, or species of that which we believe. Faith is
all the argument we have of “things not seen” (Heb. 11:1). I might here insist
upon the nature of it; and from all its concomitants66 and concerns manifest
that we know but the back parts of what we know by faith only. As to its
rise, it is built purely upon the testimony of him whom we have not seen:
as the apostle speaks, “How can you love him whom you have not seen?”
[1 Pet. 1:8]—that is, whom you know only by faith that he is. Faith receives
all upon his testimony, whom it receives to be only on his own testimony. As
to its nature, it is an assent upon testimony, not an evidence upon demonstration;
and the object of it is, as was said before, above us. Hence our faith,
65 basis, foundation
66 things that accompany
as was formerly observed, is called a “seeing darkly, as in a glass.” All that
we know this way (and all that we know of God we know this way) is but
low, and dark, and obscure.
But you will say, “All this is true, but yet it is only so to them that know not
God, perhaps, as he is revealed in Jesus Christ; with them who do so it is otherwise.
It is true, ‘No man has seen God at any time,’ but ‘the only-begotten
Son, he has revealed him’ (John 1:18); and ‘the Son of God is come, and has
given us an understanding, that we may know him that is true’ (1 John 5:20).
The illumination of ‘the glorious gospel of Christ, who is the image of God,’
shines upon believers (2 Cor. 4:4); yea, and ‘God, who commanded the light
to shine out of darkness, shines into their hearts, to give them the knowledge
of his glory in the face of his Son’ (v. 6). So that ‘though we were darkness,’
yet we are now ‘light in the Lord’ (Eph. 5:8). And the apostle says, ‘We all
with open face behold the glory of the Lord’ (2 Cor. 3:18); and we are now
so far from being in such darkness, or at such a distance from God, that ‘our
communion and our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son’ (1 John
1:3). The light of the gospel whereby now God is revealed is glorious; not a
star, but the sun in his beauty is risen upon us, and the veil is taken from our
faces. So that though unbelievers, yea, and perhaps some weak believers, may
be in some darkness, yet those of any growth or considerable attainments
have a clear sight and view of the face of God in Jesus Christ.”
To which I answer—
The truth is, we all of us know enough of him to love him more than we
do, to delight in him and serve him, believe him, obey him, put our trust in
him, above all that we have hitherto attained. Our darkness and weakness is
no plea for our negligence and disobedience. Who is it that has walked up to
the knowledge that he has had of the perfections, excellencies, and will of
God? God’s end in giving us any knowledge of himself here is that we may
“glorify him as God” [Rom. 1:21], that is, love him, serve him, believe and
obey him—give him all the honor and glory that is due from poor sinful creatures
to a sin-pardoning God and Creator. We must all acknowledge that we
were never thoroughly transformed into the image of that knowledge which
we have had. And had we used our talents well, we might have been trusted
with more.
Comparatively, that knowledge which we have of God by the revelation
of Jesus Christ in the gospel is exceeding eminent and glorious. It is so in comparison
of any knowledge of God that might otherwise be attained, or was
delivered in the law under the Old Testament, which had but the shadow of
good things, not the express image of them; this the apostle pursues at large
(2 Corinthians 3). Christ has now in these last days revealed the Father from
his own bosom, declared his name, made known his mind, will, and counsel
in a far more clear, eminent, distinct manner than he did formerly, while he
kept his people under the pedagogy of the law; and this is that which, for the
most part, is intended in the places before mentioned. The clear, perspicuous
delivery and declaration of God and his will in the gospel is expressly exalted
in comparison of any other way of revelation of himself.
The difference between believers and unbelievers as to knowledge is not
so much in the matter of their knowledge as in the manner of knowing.
Unbelievers, some of them, may know more and be able to say more of God,
his perfections, and his will, than many believers; but they know nothing as
they ought, nothing in a right manner, nothing spiritually and savingly, nothing
with a holy, heavenly light. The excellency of a believer is, not that he has
a large apprehension of things, but that what he does apprehend, which perhaps
may be very little, he sees it in the light of the Spirit of God, in a saving,
soul-transforming light; and this is that which gives us communion with God,
and not prying thoughts or curious-raised notions.
Jesus Christ by his word and Spirit reveals to the hearts of all his, God
as a Father, as a God in covenant, as a rewarder, every way sufficiently to
teach us to obey him here, and to lead us to his bosom, to lie down there in
the fruition of him to eternity. But yet now,
Notwithstanding all this, it is but a little portion we know of him; we see
but his back parts. For—
The intention of all gospel revelation is not to unveil God’s essential glory
that we should see him as he is, but merely to declare so much of him as he
knows sufficient to be a bottom of our faith, love, obedience, and coming to
him—that is, of the faith which here he expects from us; such services as
beseem67 poor creatures in the midst of temptations. But when he calls us to
eternal admiration and contemplation, without interruption, he will make a
new manner of discovery of himself, and the whole shape of things, as it now
lies before us, will depart as a shadow.
We are dull and slow of heart to receive the things that are in the word
67 suit, become, fit
revealed; God, by our infirmity and weakness, keeping us in continual dependence
on him for teachings and revelations of himself out of his word, never
in this world bringing any soul to the utmost of what is from the word to be
made out and discovered—so that although the way of revelation in the
gospel be clear and evident, yet we know little of the things themselves that
are revealed. Let us, then, revive the use and intention of this consideration:
will not a due apprehension of this inconceivable greatness of God, and that
infinite distance wherein we stand from him, fill the soul with a holy and
awful fear of him, so as to keep it in a frame unsuited to the thriving or flourishing
of any lust whatsoever? Let the soul be continually wonted to reverential
thoughts of God’s greatness and omnipresence, and it will be much
upon its watch as to any undue deportments.68 Consider him with whom you
have to do—even “our God is a consuming fire” [Heb. 12:29]—and in your
greatest abashments69 at his presence and eye, know that your very nature is
too narrow to bear apprehensions suitable to his essential glory.


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