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Faith's Answer To Divine Reproofs

By John Owen

      Preached January 5, 1672.

      "I will stand upon my watch, and set me upon the tower, and will watch to see what he will say unto me, and what I shall answer when I am reproved. And the Lord answered me, and said, Write the vision, and make it plain upon tables, that he may run that readeth it. For the vision is yet for an appointed time, but at the end it shall speak, and not lie: though it tarry, wait for it; because it will surely come, it will not tarry. Behold, his soul which is lifted up is not upright in him: but the just shall live by his faith." -- Hab. ii. 1-4.

      I must look a little back into the first chapter. The title is, "The burden which Habakkuk the prophet did see." The burden is a burdensome prophecy, that should lade and burden them that were concerned in it. It is the burden which Habakkuk did see. Habakkuk, I do judge, is a proper name, though there is some question, because of the composition; and it signifies the "wrestler" or "striver." It is apparent he was a very great wrestler with God, a great pleader with God; as any man may discern, if he will but read the first and third chapters, where there is as great a spiritual conflict and wrestling in them both as is in the whole book of God. He may be so called because he was an eminent wrestler with God in those days, as Jacob was. And it is such to whom God gives visions. God gives visions of judgment and of peace (for they are both here in a principal manner) to those that are great wrestlers with him. I will not insist upon this, though I could prove it, because I am not so absolutely certain that the word here is not merely a proper name.

      The burden and vision he had was a grievous burden, a grievous vision, concerning the wasting of Jerusalem and of all the nations about by the Chaldeans. God doth frequently involve his church in common calamities; but he hath always a special design towards them in those common calamities. Alas! Nebuchadnezzar commanded the Chaldeans and the nations about; they saw no more in the wasting and destroying of Jerusalem titan in the wasting of Egypt and the countries about. God involves his church in general calamities with particular designs: for we know what particular design God had upon his people at that time; which, indeed, was the wheel within the wheel that caused the destruction of all the nations round about. Jerusalem was not destroyed because the nations were to be destroyed; but they were to be destroyed because Jerusalem was to be destroyed. And this was a great and dreadful period of time. God had set up his church, and had continued it now for four or five hundred years; but it had so many breaches, flaws, decays, that he saw there was no dealing with it, but to take the fabric down to the ground. It had been often repaired; in Josiah's and Hezekiah's times many reparations had been made of the fabric of the church. God saw it was grown so ruinous that it must be taken down to the ground; therefore he brought that universal devastation upon them by the Chaldeans, when their whole nation and church-state was ruined, and the people carried into captivity, and the temple burned with fire. I often compare it to God's dealing with the Christian church. When it had stood four or five hundred years after its erection, God saw it necessary to take it quite down; and turned in the Goths and Vandals, those barbarous nations, that ruined the church all the world over, the apostate church. And God let the church of Judah lie but seventy years before he repaired it; but he let the Christian church lie in rubbish seven times seventy years, before there was any vigorous attempt for its reformation. I only observe, it was a great period of time when this prophet had his vision; which gives great weight unto it. And he describes the matter of his vision in verses 6-11: "For, lo, I raise up the Chaldeans, that bitter and hasty nation, which shall march through the breadth of the land, to possess the dwelling-places that are not theirs. They are terrible and dreadful: their judgment and their dignity shall proceed of themselves. Their horses also are swifter than the leopards, and are more fierce than the evening wolves: and their horsemen shall spread themselves, and their horsemen shall come from far; they shall fly as the eagle that hasteth to eat. They shall come all for violence: their faces shall sup up as the east wind, and they shall gather the captivity as the sand. And they shall scoff at the kings, and the princes shall be a scorn unto them: they shall deride every stronghold; for they shall heap dust, and take it. Then shall his mind change, and he shall pass over, and offend, imputing this his power unto his god." Truly, a man would take it to be a description of another nation at this very day. And if I would insist thereon, I could show you how applicable the particulars are, in the hastiness, fury, pride, of that nation; in the multitude of their horsemen, and spoils, and captivities, and taking of forts; in their superstition and idolatry, imputing it to their gods, and standing upon their strength: but I will not do it.

      Upon the consideration hereof, that so great and mighty a nation should come and swallow up the people, and there would be no standing before them, upon the strangeness of it, the prophet falls under a double, deep temptation: and, let us do what we will or can, we shall find something of those temptations exercise our minds in a like dispensation. The first was, That notwithstanding all their profession, yet God has no regard unto his church and those that make profession of his name and truth; that he respects other men in the world more than them. "Wherefore," saith he, verse 13, "lookest thou upon them that deal treacherously, and holdest thy tongue when the wicked devoureth the man that is more righteous than he?" -- It is true, this poor people is a sinful people; but they are more righteous than the Chaldeans. Whence is this? I cannot understand it.' And so in verse 4, "The wicked doth compass about the righteous; therefore wrong judgment proceedeth." This was his first temptation. Secondly, He hath another temptation upon it that goes farther. Saith he, It may be God regards none of these things; that even throughout the world the strongest carries it:' Verse 14, "Thou makest men as the fishes of the sea;" the rule whereof is, that the greater devour the less. Thou makest all the inhabitants of the earth as the fishes of the sea, I can see nothing else [than] that those that have strength, power, and greatness, they devour the less.' And this twofold temptation is exceeding apt to insinuate itself into the minds of men in the time of such terrible dispensations. And thence there ariseth a twofold conclusion which the prophet maketh in verse 4, under his paroxysm; a dreadful conclusion:-- 1. That "the law is slacked." The word, the law, is ceased; there is an end of the law; it seems as though the law were come to an end; that is, the whole covenant of God, and the ordinances and presence of God with them, are come to an end, for the wicked devoureth the man that is more righteous than he, and, when it is done, imputes it to his god. There is an end of the law, the covenant, and institutions. 2. Saith he, There is no providence, then, in governing of the world, and judgment doth never go forth.' Dreadful conclusions the prophet was tempted unto, or tempted with, upon the consideration of this wonderful vision of the Chaldeans, that hasty and fierce nation, destroying the church of God, with the nations round about them, because terrible, strong, and many.

      To stay himself, in this first chapter he fixes upon two general conclusions, with which, in the midst of these great concussions and impressions that were upon him, he should stay himself:-- 1. That notwithstanding all this, God is holy and faithful, and always the same: Verse 12, "Art thou not from everlasting, O Lord my God, mine Holy One?" -- He is the Lord our God, and our Holy One, notwithstanding all these dispensations.' 2. The second conclusion he fixes upon is this, That correction is needful for the church of God, but it shall not be to their destruction: "We shall not die. O Lord, thou hast ordained them for judgment; and, O mighty God, thou hast established them for correction."

      These two general conclusions he lays down; and I would only observe, that it is good for us to retain some general principles, that we may be unshaken in whatever private, particular concussions our faith may have under God's dispensations; such as these: That God is from everlasting the same, the Holy One, and changeth not; secondly, That though the church of God need judgment and correction, yet they shall not die, God will not utterly destroy them.

      Having fixed these principles, the prophet knew it was not enough; but he goes to bring things to a particular issue, in the beginning of this second chapter, in the words I have read unto you.

      And there are four things in the words:-- 1. What he would do now, after all these shakings: "I will stand upon my watch, and set me upon the tower." 2. To what end he would do so. It is to "see what God will say unto me, and what I shall answer when I am reproved." 3. There is the event of it; God shows him a new vision: "The Lord answered and said, Write the vision, and make it plain upon tables." And, 4. There is the conclusion which he works all unto, and his own will unto, the issue of these things, in verse 4. This, then, must all come to, to put an end to all disputes, fears, temptations, "Behold, his soul which is lifted up is not upright in him: but the just shall live by his faith."

      For the opening of these words (which is the most I aim at, and some short observations from them), take notice that the prophet may be looked on under a double consideration, -- 1. As a public minister of the church, as a prophet; 2. As a particular believer, that had to deal with God about these things.

      First, He may be looked upon as a public minister of the church, and so having received a vision from God, it was his duty to observe what would be the issue of it, what would become of it.

      It is the duty of all public ministers of God, whether ordinary or extraordinary, to look after the event, and success, and issue of the visions which they receive from God, which they give out from him. So doth the prophet here: Well, I see not through to the end of this business; I will set me upon the tower, where God places the watchmen;' that is, he doth enjoin himself to have continual consideration of God's dealings and of God's works.

      In this posture he hath a vision; and you may consider, -- 1. The vision itself, and, 2. The nature of it.

      The vision itself is explained, Isa. xxi. 6-10. That and this put together explain well what this vision was "Thus hath the Lord said unto me, Go, set a watchman," set this Habakkuk, "and let him declare what he seeth. And he saw a chariot with a couple of horsemen, a chariot of asses, and a chariot of camels; and he hearkened diligently with much heed: and he cried, A lion: My lord, I stand continually upon the watch-tower in the daytime, and I am set in my ward whole nights: and, behold, here cometh a chariot of men, with a couple of horsemen." This the watchman tells God. "And God answered and said, Babylon is fallen, is fallen; and all the graven images of her gods he hath broken unto the ground. O my threshing, and the corn of my floor." God sets him upon the watch-tower in a vision, and he seeth all sorts of creatures come with tidings that Babylon is fallen, that God hath executed judgment upon these Chaldeans. All bring tidings that Babylon is fallen, the Chaldeans are destroyed. So here in this, when he comes to declare this vision. It is expressed in verses 5-8, "Because he transgresseth by wine, he is a proud man, neither keepeth at home, who enlargeth his desire as hell, and is as death, and cannot be satisfied, but gathereth unto him all nations, and heapeth unto him all people: shall not all these take up a parable against him, and a taunting proverb against him, and say, Woe to him that increaseth that which is not his! how long? and to him that ladeth himself with thick clay! Shall they not rise up suddenly that shall bite thee, and awake that shall vex thee, and thou shalt be for booties unto them? Because thou hast spoiled many nations, all the remnant of the people shall spoil thee; because of men's blood, and for the violence of the land, of the city, and of all that dwell therein." This is the vision God gave him concerning the Chaldeans. Let them spoil the people for a season, the watchman upon the tower sees, and tidings come unto him that Babylon is fallen, is fallen, the Chaldeans are destroyed by the nations whom they had destroyed and pillaged; because they enlarged their desire like hell and the grave, and nothing could satisfy them until they should gather all nations unto them. This is the vision. In the midst of the greatest distresses, there is a vision of the destruction of all Christ's enemies and the enemies of the church sufficiently recorded; and after a while he will declare the accomplishment of this vision, when we shall see chariots coming, one providence after another, declaring God is executing vengeance against Babylon, [and] the Chaldeans.

      Then we have the adjuncts of this vision, which I will but name:-- 1. It is certain: "Write it." It is a certain vision. 2. It is evident: "Make it plain upon tables, that he may run that readeth it." 3. It is determined: "The vision is yet for an appointed time; "you must not cause it to make haste. 4. That there will be a great many interposition, that will cause men to fear this vision will never be accomplished: "Though it tarry, wait for it; at the end it shall speak, and not lie." Men will think it is but a false vision, that it will lie; but wait, for it will not tarry beyond its appointed time.

      I could take observations from these adjuncts concerning the destruction of the adversaries of the church, but I shall say nothing to them, because there is something else I would speak unto.

      Secondly, Habakkuk may be considered not only as a public minister of the church, but as a private believer; and thence we may learn three or four things from his deportment in this case, as he was a private believer.

      1. In all that we have to do with God, we may justly fear and justly expect that we shall be reproved by him. Habakkuk had had dealings with God, and saith he, "Now I will watch to see what he will say unto me, and what I shall answer when I am reproved." Pray remember it, I say, in all wherein we have to do with God we may justly fear that we shall be reproved, that he will reprove us.

      Consider ourselves as men, poor creatures, consider ourselves as sinful men, we have reason to expect reproof from God.

      Consider ourselves as men: Job iv. 17-19, "Shall mortal man be more just than God? shall a man be more pure than his maker? Behold, he put no trust in his servants; and his angels he charged with folly: how much less in them that dwell in houses of clay, whose foundation is in the dust, which are crushed before the moth?" If God chargeth his very angels with folly, that is, an unanswerableness unto his infinite holiness and wisdom, -- what can poor mortal men expect, that dwell in houses of clay, that are crushed before the moth? Therefore, upon that very consideration, when Abraham spake unto God, Gen. xviii. 27, "Behold," saith he, "I have taken upon me to speak unto the Lord, who am but dust and ashes;" -- Let not God be angry that I, who am but dust and ashes, speak unto thee.' We may upon this consideration, but much more upon the consideration that we are sinful men, expect God will reprove us.

      We may refer the grounds whence we should be in a continual expectation of reproof from God unto these three heads:--

      (1.) The consideration of God's own holiness. This ground the prophet lays down, Hab. i. 13, "Thou art of purer eyes than to behold evil, and canst not look on iniquity;" and therefore I must consider what I shall say when I am reproved.' Such is the infinite purity and holiness of God, that we cannot expect but that we shall fall under reproof when he comes to deal with us. The reason why men think they shall not be reproved by God is, because they think God is such an one as themselves, having no regard to the holiness of God. But saith God, I will reprove thee, and manifest myself to be a holy God.'

      (2.) We may justly expect to be reproved, because of the defilement that is in the best of our duties, Poor Habakkuk here was a great wrestler with God, yet he had such defilements cleaving to the best of his duties that he might justly expect to be reproved by God upon that account. Isa. lxiv. 6, "All our righteousnesses are as filthy rags;" and if, in any thing we have to do with God, the best righteousness we have is but as filthy rags, may we not expect to be reproved?

      (3.) We have reason to fear upon the account of sin: Ps. cxxx. 3, "If thou, Lord, shouldest mark iniquities," what is done amiss, we have done so many things amiss, "who shall stand?" So Ps. cxliii. 2, "Enter not into judgment with thy servant;" he deprecates God's reproving of him: "for in thy sight shall no man living be justified."

      I say, it is good to apprehend upon all these accounts, of God's holiness, the imperfection of our best duties, the multiplication of our sins, that God will reprove us. Fear always. Blessed is the man that doth so.

      2. Observe from hence, also, that it is good to be well prepared with an answer to give unto God when we are reproved. Saith he, "I will watch to see what he will say unto me, and what I shall answer when I am reproved." It is good to be prepared with an answer to give unto God. Job thought so: Chap. xxiii. 3, 4, "Oh that I knew where I might find him! that I might come even to his seat! I would order my cause before him, and fill my mouth with arguments." You know who was reproved, and had nothing to answer; -- the poor creature that came in to the wedding, as we all do. Our profession is our coming in to the wedding. Christ comes and reproves him: "Friend, how camest thou in hither, not having a wedding garment?" The poor creature had nothing to answer, -- he was speechless. What then? "Bind him hand and foot, and cast him into outer darkness." If we have nothing to answer when God reproves us, that will be the issue with every one of us.

      And there is a fourfold evil answer that men betake themselves unto under God's reproof:--

      (1.) There is Adam's answer. "Hast thou eaten of the tree whereof I commanded thee that thou shouldest not eat?" "The woman whom thou gavest to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I did eat." Men think to answer God by palliating excuses. God will reprove them, and they will make palliating excuses in their own hearts. It is not so and so; there was this and that occasion of it.' This answer will not stand.

      (2.) There is Jonah's answer when he was reproved. "Doest thou well to be angry?" saith God to Jonah. He tenderly reproves him. "Yea, I do well to be angry, even unto death." Men [there are] that, under God's reproofs, will justify themselves in all their sins; like the man in Deut. xxix. 19, who when he heareth the words of the curse yet saith, "I shall have peace, though I add drunkenness to thirst;" -- Notwithstanding all these reproofs of God, I do well to go on in the way wherein I am.' This answer also will not stand.

      (3.) There is Israel's answer: Ps. lxxviii. 34-36, "When he slew them, then they sought him: and they returned and inquired early after God. And they remembered that God was their rock, and the high God their redeemer." But what then? "Nevertheless they did flatter him with their mouth, and they lied unto him with their tongues." False professors, upon God's reproofs, they humble themselves temporarily, and engage in false promises of reformation. This is the common answer mankind give to God's reproofs; but this answer will not pass when comes to reprove.

      (4.) There is men's answer at the last day: Matt. vii. 22, "Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works?" God comes and reproves them, and they plead their duties, their works. It will not do. "I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity," verse 23.

      These are the common answers men, in their souls, and consciences, and spirits, give to God, when he reproves them. Either they excuse themselves, with Adam; or justify themselves, with Jonah; or promise better things, with false, flattering Israel; or plead what good things they have done. All these things will fail us; which leads me to the last observation.

      3. There is but one answer that will hold, but one good answer that is to be made unto God when we are reproved by him; and that is this, -- free justification in the blood of Jesus Christ. What shall I answer when I am reproved? Truly this, "His soul which is lifted up is not upright in him: but the just shall live by fairly." And the apostle, in three or four several places, doth prove that this resolution of the prophet intends faith, that is the means of our free justification, in the blood of Jesus Christ. This is the great and only answer poor sinful souls can make unto God when reproved.

      I will a little open it unto you, by showing you how God reproves us, and whence it is that this is our only answer.

      God reproves us four ways:-- (1.) In general, by the curse of law: "Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them." This is God's great reproof of all sinners. Under this reproof we all lie. Truly, he that cannot answer this reproof of God will be cast out as a speechless, self-condemned person. (2.) God reproves us by particular applications of the word of the law, finding out our special sins; as when the prophet came to David, and told him, "Thou art the man." When in the preaching of the word there is application made unto the souls of men, that they are the persons that are guilty, that is a peculiar reproof of God. The general reproof is by the curse of the law, the sanction of the law; the particular reproof is by the application of the word to the conscience. (3.) God reproves us in general judgments: "O Lord, when thy judgments are in the earth, the inhabitants of the world will learn righteousness." All the dispensations of God that are dreadful and terrible in the world, we ought every one to take them as reproofs for sin, and not put the evil day far from us, nor think there are not any calls of God in them towards us. (4.) God reproves us by particular afflictions and trials, -- chastisements in our persons, in our relations, in things that befall us in this world. The end of them is to reprove us. The first language wherewith affliction upon a person or in a family opens its mouth in conscience is, Thou art a sinner;' as the woman, when her child died, said unto the prophet, "O thou man of God, art thou come unto me to call my sin to remembrance, and to slay my son?" 1 Kings xvii. 18. The brethren of Joseph, as soon as they' fell into trouble, said, God hath called our sin to remembrance.' One great end of affliction is to reprove for sin.

      Now, I say there is no other answer, when God thus reproves in conscience, to be given, but only the plea of pardon of sin and free justification of our souls by the blood of Jesus Christ. The apostle tells us so, Rom. iii. 19, "Now we know that what things soever the law saith, it saith to them who are under the law: that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God." God gives reproofs by the law; what is the issue? Every mouth is stopped; all the world becomes guilty before God. Must they lie always so? is there no answer to be given to God? no relief? No,' saith he; but we are "justified freely by his grace, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus," ' verse 24. Here the mouth of the sinner is opened again, here is something for him to plead. But take him by himself under God's reproofs by the law, and every mouth is stopped, and that to eternity, and that with a sense of guilt; all the world becomes guilty before God.

      The reasons hereof are these: There is no other answer, 1. Because in every other answer we should attempt the soul is lifted up. The prophet doth distribute all things that can be said to God when we are reproved under these two heads; -- one of them, "whose soul is lifted up, and that is not upright in him;' and the other pleads that "the just shall live by faith." There is an elation of mind, a lifting up of soul, which God abhors, in any other answer we can give him when we are reproved, whatever it be. This is the only answer, 2. Because, in truth, the Lord Jesus Christ hath really made this answer for us. The whole charge from God consists in the curse of the law, and in the application of it unto our souls in particular. If Jesus Christ hath answered to both these, where shall we have another answer? He hath answered the curse of the law, taken away the curse by "being made a curse for us," Gal. iii. 13; hath answered whatever the law required. "What the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh: that the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us." God reproves not but by the law. He speaks in the command and curse of the law, and reproves in both. Christ hath answered in both. He was made a curse, and answered that reproof. He fulfilled the righteousness of it, and answered that reproof, paying that which he took not. God reproves us in the particular application of the law to our souls for our sins Why, God hath made all our sins to meet upon him, Isa. liii. 6: which is the second reason why this is the only answer, -- because, indeed, Christ hath made this answer for us. 3. Because in all cases wherein we are reproved by God, Christ hath undertaken to be our advocate: 1 John ii. 1, "If any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous." It is upon the account of sin that we are reproved. God comes to reprove us, and we have set ourselves upon the watch-tower to see what we can answer him; for God must be answered when he reproves. Why, we have an Advocate. An advocate appears for a man, and pleads his cause. Shall we take the plea of Christ out of his mouth, and say, We can answer better for ourselves?' I think it is our wisdom to trust to our advocate. And he pleads his own righteousness; for he is a propitiation for us. He pleads the atonement unto all God's reproofs. When a man pleads nothing but pardon of sin through free justification by the blood of Christ, he saith nothing to God but what Jesus Christ pleads for him. The last reason is, 4. Because indeed we have nothing else to plead, no other answer to give. Our mouths are stopped, we are become guilty, and have not [any thing wherewith] to answer any reproof of God. We are apt to betake ourselves for relief unto excuses and promises, of what we are, and have done, or will do; but these answers will not do. I might easily go over the consideration of all we are apt to consider, our works before justification and after justification, to see if any of them will answer God when he comes to require a perfect righteousness of us, and to reprove us for every sin. What else will answer, what can we return else, but this righteousness of Christ? "The just shall live by faith."

      [As] for the use of it, it should keep our souls in an abhorrency of all those doctrines which pretend other pleas before God for our justification, that would make our own faith, our own obedience, our own works, to be the condition of our justification; that is, to make them to be our plea when we come to answer God when we are reproved of him. Do we think we can do such things when God charges upon us the curse of the law? Will our faith, our obedience, our works, be an answer to God? Nay, Lord, we have done thus and thus; we have obeyed in sincerity; we have performed these and those duties.' Shall we trust to it? Will the men of these doctrines trust to it themselves, when God comes indeed to deal with them? Can their hands be strong or their hearts endure upon these principles, when indeed God shall deal with them? when God speaks in the application of the law to their souls? Besides the great contempt cast therein upon Christ, we will not allow him to be our advocate. They will soon find their hearts cannot endure when they come to die, or when conscience is brought under a sense of his displeasure for sin.

      A second use of it is for instruction unto ourselves, that we should always have this answer in readiness. We know not how soon God may come with special reproofs unto us. Truly, besides those general ways, in the law and in the preaching of it, God hath particular applicatory ways, and works in the world in judgments and afflictions; and how soon he may enter into our consciences we know not. It is good to have an answer ready. And truly we see what the answer is, Lord, we are poor, lost, undone creatures. If thou wilt deal with us, we cannot answer thee for one of a thousand; if thou markest what is done amiss, none can stand.' What, then, have you to plead, or are you speechless?' No, Lord; yet there is a plea left, this great plea, "The just shall live by faith." Thou hast appointed a new way of interesting us in justification, by the way of believing in Christ; and that plea our souls advance.' Have this plea in readiness when sin is charged upon your souls and consciences, in all your troubles and fears. Nothing else will answer God when he reproves.

      I thought to have showed you what is required of us that we may be able to manage this plea aright, that it be not presumption in us; as, a stable self-condemnation without reservation, a prospect and view of the atonement made by Christ, and casting ourselves upon him to undertake for us.

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