Happy New Year!
As we enter a New Year I want to share a wonderful sermon that John Owen preached on the 30th of April 1680. It is especially relevant to church, culture and context of today. A great message for New Years Day. We don’t know what is going to happen in the year ahead – and the trajectory for the church in the West is not good – but we live by faith. (The following is summary, abridgement, adaptation of the whole – which can be found in Owen’s works vol. 9. p.498).
The Use of Faith Under Reproaches and Persecutions:
The just shall live by his faith” Habakkuk 2:4
Psalm 97:2 “Clouds and thick darkness surround him; righteousness and justice are the foundation of his throne.” What is our special duty when clouds and darkness are around us – as they are at this time? I have been warning you for many years that these will fall first of all on the people of God. So how should faith react?
How we can live by faith when people are showing scorn and contempt to the ways of God we profess, the worship of God we are engaged in, and the order of the Gospel we observe?
As Paul was told in Rome “As for this sect, we know that everywhere it is spoken against” 28:32 (in todays UK biblical Christianity is the one religion which it is permitted to mock and abuse). Many Christians are not really concerned about this because it is well with them in their families, finances and work. So what if the ways of God are mocked? They cannot say as Christ said “the insults of those who insult you fall on me” (Psalm 69:9). For those of you who are not concerned about this scorn and contempt let me ask you these questions.
What evidence have you that you have a concern in God’s glory?
What evidence do you have that you have a love for the things of God? When Gods name is mocked you are not moved. Would you be the same if your wife and children were being lied about? We should be crying out to God like Nehemiah “Hear us, our God, for we are despised.Turn their insults back on their own heads.” (Nehemiah 4:4)
If you are not concerned about these ‘reproaches’ that are aimed against the ways of God, then persecution will awaken you – and either make you concerned or cause you to turn away from your profession of faith.
The apostle tells us in Hebrews 10:32-35 that we ‘endured great afflictions’ – ” Remember those earlier days after you had received the light, when you endured in a great conflict full of suffering. 33 Sometimes you were publicly exposed to insult and persecution; at other times you stood side by side with those who were so treated. 34 You suffered along with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property, because you knew that you yourselves had better and lasting possessions. 35 So do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded.” We are to stand by faith.
How does this faith work? What does it do?
Faith will give us such an experience of the power, efficacy, sweetness and benefit of gospel ordinances and gospel worship, which will cause us to despise all that the world can do in opposition to us.
We should not be confident of ourselves – we cannot keep and preserve ourselves. A well grounded opinion will not preserve you; love to a particular man’s ministry will not preserve you; that you are able to argue for your ways will not preserve you. Nothing can preserve you except a sense and experience of the usefulness and sweetness of Gospel administrations, according to the mind of Christ Jesus. This faith alone can give you. Desire the sincere milk of the word (! Peter 2:2). You have tasted it. Desire more. I desire when I preach the word to find a constant expectation that I would receive from God a sense of his love and a supply of his grace. If I do, 10,000 difficulties would never shake me from continuing to follow Christ’s way.
I am greatly concerned about this because if a poor worm like me can observe that there is a mighty coldness and indifference grown upon the spirits of men in attending to the worship of God. There is not that life, spirit, courage and delight as it has been in the past…if we continue like this God alone knows where it will end. I need to labour to stir up my own heart. Faith delights in God and his word.
2. Faith, in such a season, will bring the soul into such an experimental sense of the authority of Jesus Christ, as to make it despise all other things.
If it were not for the authority of Christ I would renounce all your meetings – they would have neither form or beauty in them that they should be desired.
The authority of Christ is essential because he is the great head and lawgiver of the church who alone has received all power from the Father to institute worship. We are to go and teach all people to observe everything he has commanded us (Matthew 28:18-20). Faith leads us to do what Christ says. It is authority of Christ that matters – all other authorities come to nothing.
Faith respects the authority of Christ because he is Lord of lords, and King of kings. He has the golden sceptre to rule his church and the iron rod to break his enemies. Once we realise this we lose fear of the powers that be. You cannot be carried before any magistrate but Christ is present there, greater than them all! Their breath, lives and ways are all in his hands. Faith will bring in the presence of Christ in such a season. Otherwise your hearts would fail for fear, you would be left to your own wisdom (which is folly) and your own strength (which is weakness).
If you have this faith you will be like the young men in Daniel “Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego replied to him, “King Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. 17 If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us from Your Majesty’s hand. 18 But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.” (Daniel 3:17-18) Faith will give us the same composure of spirit and the same resolution.
3. Faith, in such a case and condition, will bring to mind, and make effectual upon our souls, the examples of those who have gone before us in giving the same testimony we do, and in the sufferings they experienced on that account.
The whole of the 11th chapter of Hebrews and part of the 12th shows us this. There are so many examples in Scripture – like Moses. Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, 2 fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. 3 Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. (Hebrews 12:1-3). Faith recalls these examples and gives us great support under whatever trials we may face.
Where are we going? What do we hope for? We would be where Moses is, and where the prophets are. But how did they get there? Not by the increase of riches, or getting ‘lordships’ in the world, but by suffering and the cross. Through many tribulations we enter the kingdom of heaven.
4> Faith will receive the supplies that Christ has set aside for us in such a season.
Christ has made special provision for suffering saints. Firstly in his special presence with them – he is with them in the fire and the water. Secondly in the communication of the sense of God’s love to them. Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ,2 through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God. 3 Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; 4 perseverance, character; and character, hope. 5 And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us. (Romans 5:1-5) Faith brings all these things into the soul. But your minds must be spiritual or you cannot put forward one act of faith to bring in this special provision. Sear and make inquiry when you enter into troubles what sense faith has given you of the love of God, so that you can be carried through these difficulties.
5. It is faith alone that can relieve us when we think about the reward that awaits us.
Moses looked forward to his reward. By faith Moses, when he had grown up, refused to be known as the son of Pharaoh’s daughter. 25 He chose to be mistreated along with the people of God rather than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. 26 He regarded disgrace for the sake of Christ as of greater value than the treasures of Egypt, because he was looking ahead to his reward. (Hebrews 11:24-26). Our troubles are light and momentary compared to the far greater exceeding weight of glory that is waiting for us (2 Corinthians 4:17). Who knows but this year, in a few days, some of us may be taken into that incomprehensible glory, where we shall eternally be amazed that we ever put any weight on the things that trouble us here below?
6. Faith works by patience.
Heb. 10:36 You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God, you will receive what he has promised. It is through faith and patience that we inherit the promises.
I hope that all the above is seasonable and useful. In a time of reproaches and coming persecution I say that faith will help us to discover the efficacy, sweetness and power in spiritual ordinances, so much so that we would be willing to undergo anything for them. Faith will bring our souls into such subjection to the authority of Christ, as Head of the church, and Lord over the whole creation, that we shall not be terrified by what man can do to us. Faith will help us to see the examples of the saints of God, who he has assisted in the past and who are now crowned and at rest in heaven. Faith will help us to keep our eye fixed, not upon the things of this world, but upon the eternal reward of another world, and the glory in it. And faith will also work by patience, when difficulties are multiplied upon us.