We have come to the next-to-last chapter in John Owen’s book: Overcoming Sin and Temptation (originally titled: Of the Mortification of Sin in Believers)
The thrust of this chapter is a warning not to deceive ourselves that all is well in our fellowship with God when it is not! Owen puts it this way: “Do not speak peace to yourself before God speaks it”.
In an age of many false spiritualities where everyone has advice on finding peace and learning to hear God speak, Owen’s age old wisdom remains apropos. Not all ‘peace’ men claim is God-given. Not all hearing from God is truly God speaking. Consider Owen’s bits of advice:
This chapter is a call to humility and waiting for God to speak peace to our consciences.
If we rush to assure ourselves all is well, we may short-circuit His desires for us to detest our sin and our sinfulness. It will be like putting a band-aid on an infected sore so as not to see it. The wound will only fester and grow worse. Sin lightly confessed, without deep conviction of its wickedness has a similar effect.
Nor will a mere rational acknowledgment of our sin and claiming of a fitting promise do. It is the Spirit’s work to convince us of sin, and righteousness and judgment (Jn.16:8) We cannot run ahead of God in dealing with our sin, but we are assured that the ‘meek he will guide in judgment and teach them his way’ (Ps.25:9)
God desires for us to wait on Him in faith for the soul-healing we need, not to rush in with our formulas and declare ourselves healed and forgiven. He will speak peace in His time. “When God speaks, there is not only truth in his words, that may answer the conviction of our understandings, but also they do good; they bring that which is sweet, and good, and desirable to the will and affections; by them the ‘soul returns unto its rest.'”
And best of all, when God speaks peace it has a lasting effect on our propensity to sin. The sweetness of His love in dealing with our sin will be strong incentive not to desire to sin further. When God speaks peace faith is kindled to believe His promises in a way that will keep us from returning straightway to our sins.
Owen lastly warns that we should not be hasty in claiming to be at peace with God on account of our consciences being clear regarding some specific sin, while there are multiple other sins which we have not confessed to God. For instance the Spirit of God may be grieved by our worldliness or pride while we are quite oblivious to it. “God will justify us from our sins, but he will not justify the least sin in us.” “He is a God of purer eyes than to behold iniquity.” Hab.1:13
What I perceive Owen to be saying here is that a conviction of peace with God will always be accompanied by a humble heart, quick to acknowledge our sins and repent of them. We will never be free of sin while living in these bodies, but we can walk in peace with God as we live humbly repentant lives with hearts bent on knowing and reflecting God’s heart. Agreeing with God about our sin is essential to a life of peace with God. To live in sin with a cocky assurance that we are at peace with God is a dangerous position. Sin is deceitful and will harden us from hearing God’s voice.
Having given these warnings, Owen now turns to assurances and instruction on how we can know it is God that is speaking peace to our souls and not our own false sense of assurance.
“There is not anything that, in our communion with him, the Lord is more troubled with us for, if I may so say, than our unbelieving fears, that keep us off from receiving that strong consolation which he is so willing to give to us.”
“… but how shall we know when he speaks?”
Answer: “Faith leaps in the heart when Christ indeed draws nigh to it. ‘My sheep,’ says Christ, ‘know my voice.’ (Jn.10:4)…’they are used to the sound of it,’ and they know when his lips are opened to them and are full of grace.”
“If you exercise yourselves to acquaintance and communion with him, you will easily discern between his voice and the voice of a stranger.”
We can recognize when Christ has spoken by these two criterion:
–when Christ speaks to our hearts He speaks not as a man, but with power, so that our hearts will know in one way or another that He has spoken. Owen cites as an example the two on their way to Emmaus: ‘Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures.’ (Luke 24:32) This is not some mystical ‘burning in the heart’ that even pagans and cults claim to experience, but a firm rising of faith in the soul that convicts of the truth.
–when Christ speaks, we will know it by the effect of His word on our souls. His word will always do our souls good. That is, it will humble, cleanse and accomplish what His promises are intended to accomplish in us, namely a softening and moving toward obedience and self-emptying. God’s word rightly heard will produce humility and a turning away from our sin and from reliance on ourselves. Beware when people claim to have heard from God but are full of themselves. This is not the fruit of the Spirit’s working.
God’s peace is humbling peace, melting peace. When God speaks hard hearts are melted, we are brought to repentance and faith is ignited to walk in new obedience.