Relief in God Alone

by John Owen


Out of the depths have I cried unto thee, O LORD.  Lord, hear my voice let thine ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications.” Psalm 130:1, 2


The words of these two first verses declare also the deportment of the soul in the condition that we have described that is, what is it doth and what course it steers for relief. “I have cried unto thee, O Lord; Lord, hear my voice, let thine ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications.”

There is in the words a general application for relief is here made, in which is first to be considered, to whom the application is made; and that is, Jehovah. I have cried unto thee, Jehovah. God gave that name to his people to confirm their faith in the stability of his promises. Exod. 3 Being to deal with God about the promises of grace he makes his application to him under this name. I call upon thee, Jehovah.

In the application it may he observed, that he prays that God would cause his ears to be attentive, after the manner of men, who seriously attend to what is spoken to them, when they turn aside from that which they regard not.

Also, the earnestness of the soul in this supplication, which is evident, both from the reduplication of his request, “Lord, hear my voice, let thine ears be attentive to my voice;” and the emphatical nature of the words he uses, “Let thine ears be (in the Hebrew, diligently) attentive.” The word signifies the most diligent heedfulness and close attention; let thine ears he very attentive, and unto what? “to the voice of my supplication;” generally say interpreters, of my deprecations, or earnest prayers for the averting of evil or punishment. But the word is, to he gracious or merciful; so that it signifies properly supplications for grace. “Be attentive, O Lord, to my supplications for grace and mercy,” which, according to my extreme necessity, I now make unto thee. And in these words the Psalmist sets forth, in general, the frame and working of a gracious soul cast into depths and darkness by sin. We hence derive these two propositions:

First, The only attempt of a sin-entangled soul for relief lies in an application to God alone. “To thee, Jehovah, have I cried; Lord, hear.”

Secondly, Depths of sin-entanglements will excite a gracious soul to intense and earnest supplications unto God. “Lord, hear; Lord, attend.” Dying men do not usually cry out slothfully for relief.

What may be thought necessary in general for the direction of a soul in the state and condition described, shall briefly be spoken unto from these two propositions—

I. Trouble, danger, disquietude arguing not only things evil, but a sense in the mind and soul of them, will of themselves put those in whom they are upon seeking relief. A drowning man needs no exhortation to endeavor his own deliverance and safety; and spiritual troubles, in like manner, put men on attempts for relief To seek for no remedy is to be senselessly obdurate, or wretchedly desperate, as Cain and Judas. We may suppose, then, that the principal business of every soul in depths, is to endeavor deliverance. They cannot rest in that condition wherein they have no rest. In this endeavor, what course a gracious soul takes is laid down in the first proposition, negatively and positively. He applies not to any thing but God-—he applies himself to God. An eminent instance of this we have in Hosea 14:3. “Asshur,” say those poor distressed, returning sinners, “shall not save us; we will not ride upon horses, neither will we say any more to the work of our hands, Ye are our gods; for in Thee the fatherless findeth mercy.” Their application to God is attended with a renunciation of every other way of relief.

Several things there are that sinners are apt to apply themselves to for relief in their perplexities, which prove as waters that fail. How many things have the Romanists invented to deceive souls! Saints and angels, the blessed virgin, the wood of the cross, confessions, penances, masses, pilgrimages, and dirges, purgatories, papal pardons, works of compensation, and the like, are made entrances for innumerable souls into everlasting ruin. Did they know the terror of the Lord, the nature of sin, and of the mediation of Christ, they would be ashamed and confounded in themselves for these abominations; they would not say to these idols, Ye are our gods, come and save us.

How short do their contrivances come of his, who would fain offer rivers of oil, “yea, the fruit of his body for the sin of his soul, his first-born for his transgression,” Micah 6:7; who yet gains nothing but an aggravation of his sin and misery thereby: yea, the heathen went beyond them in devotion and expense. It is no new inquiry, what course sin-perplexed souls should take for relief. From the foundation of the world, the minds of far the greatest part of mankind have been exercised in it. Among those who were ignorant of God, this inquiry brought forth all that diabolical superstition which spread over the face of the world. Gentilism being destroyed by the power and efficacy of the Gospel, the same inquiry working in the minds of darkened men, in conjunction with other lusts, brought forth the papacy. When men had lost a spiritual acquaintance with the covenant of grace and mystery of the Gospel, the design of eternal love and efficacy of the blood of Christ, they betook themselves for relief, under their entanglements, to the broken cisterns mentioned. This mistake is predominant in all that are under the law, that is, to seek for relief in sin-distresses by self endeavors, self-righteousness; hence many poor souls in straits apply but to themselves. They expect their cure from the same hand that wounded them. This was the life of Judaism, as the apostle informs us, Rom. 10:3; and all men under the law are still animated by the same principle: “They return, but not unto the Lord.” Finding themselves in distress for sin, what course do they take? They do this: as they have offended so they will amend, and expect their peace to spring from thence, as if God and they stood on equal terms. In this way some spend their days, sinning and amending, amending and sinning, without once coming to repentance and peace. This the souls of believers watch against. They look on themselves as fatherless, “in thee the fatherless findeth mercy;” that is, helpless, without the least ground of hope in themselves, or expectation from themselves: they know their repentance, their amendment, their supplications, their humiliations, their fastings, their mortifications will not relieve them. Repent they will, and amend they will, and pray, and fast, and humble their souls, for they know these things to be their duty; but they know that their goodness extends not to Him with whom they have to do, nor is he profited by their righteousness. They will be in the performance of all duties, but they expect not deliverance by any duty. It is God, they say, with whom we have to do; our busi ness is to hear what he will say unto us.

There are other ways whereby sinful souls destroy themselves by false reliefs. Diversion from their perplexing thoughtfulness, pleases them. They will fix on something that cannot cure their disease, but may make them forget that they are sick; as Cain, under the terror of his guilt, departed from the presence of the Lord and sought inward rest in outward labor and employment; he “went and built a city.” Gen. 4:17. Such courses Saul fixed on; first music, then a witch. Nothing is more common than for men thus to deal with their convictions. They see their sickness, feel their wound, and go to the Assyrian, Hos. 5:13; and this insensibly leads men into atheism. Frequent resort to creature-diversions from convictions of sin, is a great means of bringing on final impenitency. Some drunkards had, it may be, never been so, had they not been first convinced of other sins: they strive to stifle the guilt of one sin with another. They fly from themselves, from their consciences to their lusts, and seek for relief from sin by sinning. This is so far from believers, that they will not allow lawful things to be a diversion of their distress; use lawful things, they may and will—but not to divert their thoughts from their distresses; these they know must be issued between God and them; wear off they will not, but must be taken away. These rocks a gracious soul takes care to avoid. He knows it is God alone against whom he hath sinned; and God alone who can pardon his sin. “To Thee, O Lord, do I come;” thy word concerning me must stand; upon thee will I wait; if thou hast no delight in me, I must perish. Other remedies, I know, are vain; I intend not to spend my strength for that which is not bread. “Unto thee do I cry.” Here a sin-entangled soul is to fix itself: trouble excites it to look for relief; many things without present themselves as a diversion; many things within offer themselves for a remedy. Forget thy sorrow, say the former; ease thyself of it by us, say the latter: the soul refuses both, as physicians of no value; and to God alone makes its application. He has wounded, and he alone can heal. And until any one that is sensible of the guilt of sin will come off from all reserves to deal immediately with God, it is in vain for him to expect relief.

II. Herein it is intense, earnest, and, urgent; which was the second thing observed.. It is no time now to be slothful: the soul’s all, its greatest concerns are at stake. Dull, cold, formal applications to God will not serve the turn: ordinary actings of faith, love and fervency, usual seasons, opportunities, duties, answer not this condition. To do no more than ordinary now, is to do nothing at all. He that puts forth no more strength and activity for his deliverance when he is in depths ready to perish, than when he is at liberty in plain and smooth paths, is scarcely like to escape. Some in such conditions are careless and negligent; they think in ordinary course to wear off their difficulties; and that, though at present they are sensible of their danger, they shall have peace at last; in which frame there is much contempt of God. Some despond and languish under their distresses. Spiritual sloth influences both these classes. But the steadfast soul resolves, by whatsoever means, public or private, of communion with others, or solitary retiredness, Christ ever was or may be found, or peace be obtained, I will seek him, and not give over until I come to an enjoyment of him. And this frame, this resolution a soul in depths must come unto, if ever it expect deliverance. For the most part, “men’s wounds stink, and are corrupt, because of their foolishness.” As the Psalmist complains, Psalm 38:5, they are wounded by sin, and through spiritual sloth they neglect their cure; this weakens them, and disquiets them day by day; yet they endure all rather than they will come out of their carnal ease to deal effectually with God. It was otherwise with David, “Why,” saith he, “art thou so far from helping me, and from the words of my roaring? O my God, I cry in the day-time, and in the night season, and am not silent.” Psalm 22:1, 2. What ails the man? Can he not be quiet, night or day? never be silent, never hold his peace? And if he be somewhat disquieted, can he not contain himself, but he must roar and cry out; yea, must he roar thus “all the day long,” Psalm 32:3, and “groan all the night,” as Psalm 6:6? What is the cause of all this roaring, sighing, and tears? Ah! let him alone, his soul is bitter in him; he has fallen into depths; the Lord is withdrawn from him; yea, he is full of anxiety on account of sin; there is no quietness nor soundness in him; and he must thus earnestly and restlessly apply himself for relief. Alas! what strangers for the most part are men to this state of soul! How little of the workings of this spirit is found amongst us! And is not the reason of it, that we value the world more, and heaven and heavenly things less, than he did? that we think we can live without a sense of the love of God in Christ? and is it not hence that we see so many withering professors without communion with God, who will go on ready to perish, rather than, with this holy man, thus stir up themselves to meet the Lord. “My soul,” saith he, “is full of troubles, and my life draweth nigh unto the grave.” And how did he act in this heavy, disconsolate condition? “O Lord God of my salvation, I have cried day and night unto thee, let my prayer come before thee, incline thine ear unto my cry,” ver. 1, 2. Day and night he cries to the God of his salvation, and that with earnestness and importunity.

The greatest of men’s interests may well occasion this earnestness. Suppose a man of the world should have his house, wherein all his stock and riches are laid up, set on fire, would he be calm and quiet in the consideration of it? Would he not bestir himself with all his might, and call in all the help he could obtain; and that because his portion, his all, his great interest is at stake? And shall the soul be slothful, careless and secure, when the light of God’s countenance, which is more to him than the greatest increase of corn and wine can be to the men of the world, is removed from him? What a fatal sense of security did it argue in Jonah, that he was fast asleep when the ship was ready to be cast away for his sake. And will it be thought less in any soul, who being in a storm of wrath and displeasure from God sent out into the deep after him, shall neglect it, and sleep, as Solomon says, on the top of a mast in the midst of the sea? How did that poor creature, whose heart was mad on his idols, (Judges 18:24,) cry out, when he was deprived of them! “You have taken away my gods, and what have I more?” And shall a gracious soul, through his own folly, lose his God, the sense of his love, the consolation of his presence, and not with all his might follow hard after him? Can such forbear crying out with Job, “O that it were with us as in former days, when the candle of the Lord was upon our tabernacle!” chap. 29:2-4; and with David, “O Lord, restore unto me the joy of thy salvation!” Psalm 51:12. But suppose they might pass on in their pilgrimage whilst all is prosperous about them; what will they do in the time of outward trials and distresses, when deep calleth unto deep, and one trouble excites and sharpens another? Nothing then will support them, they know, but that which is now wanting.

Again, they have a deep sense of these their great concerns. All men equally need the love of God and pardon of sin. Every one has a soul of immortal constitution, capable of bliss and wo: yet most men are so stupidly sottish that they take little notice of these things. Neither the guilt of sin, nor the wrath of God, nor death, nor hell, can arouse them. But gracious souls have a quick, living sense of spiritual things.

They have a spiritual light, whereby they discern the true nature of sin and the terror of the Lord. For though they may now have lost the comforting, they lose not the sanctifying light of the Spirit, the light whereby they are enabled to discern spiritual things in a spiritual manner; this never utterly departs from them. By this they see sin to be “exceeding sinful,” by this they “know the terror of the Lord,” and that it is “a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” By this they discover the excellency of the love of God in Christ, which passeth knowledge, the present sense whereof they have lost. By this they are enabled to look within the veil, and to take a view of the blessed consolations which the saints enjoy, whose communion with God is never interrupted: this represents to them all the joy and peace which in former days they had whilst God was present with them in love; and they are taught to value all the fruits of the blood of Jesus Christ.

They remember what it cost them formerly to deal with God about sin; and hence they know it is no ordinary matter they have in hand. A recovery from depths is as a new conversion. Oft-times in it the whole work, as to the soul’s apprehension, is gone over afresh. This the soul knows to have been a work of dread, terror, and trouble, and trembles in itself at its new trials.

The Holy Ghost gives them a fresh sense of their deep concerns, on purpose to stir them up to these earnest applications to God. The whole work is his, and he carries it on by means suited to the end; and by these means is a gracious soul brought into the state mentioned. In this work several things concur.

1. A continual thoughtfulness about the sad condition of the soul in its depths. “Thine arrows stick fast in me, and thy hand presseth me sore; there is no soundness in my flesh, because of thine anger; neither is there any rest in my bones, because of my sin: for mine iniquities are gone over mine head; as a heavy burden, they are too heavy for me. My wounds stink, and are corrupt, because of my foolishness. I am troubled, I am bowed down, I go mourning all the day long. I am feeble and sore broken, I have roared for the disquietness of my heart.” Psalm 38:2-8. Restlessness, disquietness of heart, continual heaviness of soul, sorrow and anxiety, lie at the bottom of the applications we are speaking of. From these principles their prayers flow out, as David adds, verse 9, “Lord, all my desire is before thee, and my groaning is not hid from thee.” He prayed out of the abundance of his meditation and grief. Thoughts of their condition lie down with such persons, and rise with them, and accompany them all the day long. As Reuben cried, “The child is not; and I, whither shall I go?” so doth such a soul: The love of God is not, Christ is not; and I, whither shall I cause my sorrow to go? God is provoked, death is nigh at hand, relief is far away, darkness is about me; I have lost my peace, my joy, my song in the night: what do I think of duties? Can two walk together unless they be agreed? Can I walk with God in them while I have thus made him mine enemy? What do I think of ordinances? Will it do me any good to be at Jerusalem, and not see the face of the king; to live under ordinances, and not to meet in them with the King of saints? May I not justly fear that the Lord will take his Holy Spirit from me, until I be left without remedy? With such thoughts as these are sin-entangled souls exercised in all their applications to God.

2. We see the application itself consists in and is made by the prayer of faith, or crying unto God. Now, this is done with intenseness of mind which hath a twofold fruit or propriety,—(1st) Importunity and (2dly.) Constancy.

It is said of our blessed Saviour, that when he was in his depths about our sins, “he offered up prayers and supplications, with strong cries and tears,” Heb. 5:7. “Strong cries and tears” express the utmost intension of spirit. And David expresseth it by “roaring,” as we have seen before; as also by “sighing, groaning, and panting.” A soul in such a condition lies down before the Lord with sighs, groans, mouring, cries, tears, and roaring, according to the various working of his heart, and its being affected with the things that it has to do; and this produces,—

Importunity. The power of the importunity of our faith, our Savior hath marvellously set forth, Luke 11:8-10, as also chapter 18:1. Importunate prayer is prevailing; and importunity is, as it were, made up of these two things; frequency of interposition and variety of arguings. A man that is importunate will come to you seven times a day about the same business; and after all, if any new thought come into his mind, though he had resolved to the contrary, he will come again; and nothing can be imagined to relate to the business he has in hand, but he will turn it to the furtherance of his plea. So is it in this case. Men will use both frequency of interposition and variety of arguings. “I cry unto thee daily,” or rather all the day. Psalm 88:1. By this means we “give God no rest,” which is the very character of importunity. Such souls go to God; and they are not satisfied with what they have done, but they go again and again. What variety of arguments are pleaded with God I could show in the history of David. But it is known to all; there is hardly any thing that he does not make a plea of; the faithfulness, righteousness, name, mercy, goodness, and kindness of God in Jesus Christ; the concern of others in him, both the friends and foes of God; his own weakness and helplessness, yea, the greatness of sin itself: “Be merciful to my sin,” saith he, “for it is great.” Sometimes he begins with some arguments of this kind; and then, being a little diverted by other considerations, some new plea is suggested to him by the Spirit, and he returns immediately to his first employment and design—all arguing great intensity of mind and spirit.

Constancy also flows from intenseness. Such a soul will not give over until it obtains what it looks for, as we shall see in further considering this psalm. This is, in general, the deportment of a gracious soul in the condition here represented. As poor creatures love their peace, as they love their souls, as they value the glory of God, they must not be wanting in this duty. What is the reason that controversies hang so long between God and your souls that, it may be, you scarce see a good day all your lives? Is it not, for the most part, from your sloth and despondency of spirit? you will not gird up the loins of your mind in dealing with God, to put them to a speedy issue in the blood of Christ. You go on and off, begin and cease, try and give over; and for the most part, though your case be extraordinary, content yourselves with ordinary and customary applications to God. This makes you wither, become useless, and pine away .under your perplexities David did not so; but after many and many a breach made by sin, through quick, vigorous, restless actings of faith, all was repaired, so that he lived peaceably and died triumphantly. Up, then, and be doing; make thorough work of that which lies before you; be it long or difficult, if must be done, and is attended with safety.


John Owen was unquestionably one of the greatest Puritan divines. He was born at Stradhampton, Oxfordshire, the son of a country minister. At the age of twelve he entered Queen’s College, Oxford, receiving a B.A. in 1632 and M.A. in 1635. He was ordained in the Anglican church while still at Oxford, but he later refused to submit to William Laud’s High Church discipline. He left Oxford in 1637 and was a private chaplain for the next six years.

He went to Fordham, Essex, in 1643 when he was still Presbyterian (cf. his Duty of Pastors and People Distinguished [1643]). Soon after taking the Presbyterian congregation at Coggeshall, Essex, Owen introduced and espoused independent church government. At about the same time (1646), he preached before Long Parliament, clearly advocating his Independent and Parliamentarian views. He continued to preach before Parliament, and at its request he preached there in 1649, the day after Charles I was executed. Owen eventually became the chaplain of Cromwell.

During these stormy years, Owen was actively involved in political affairs, and during the Protectorate he was at the head of Oxford University, appointed dean of Christ Church in 1651 and vice chancellor of the university in 1652. In 1653 he was awarded the D.D. by Oxford. In 1658, however, he separated from Cromwell, opposing Cromwell’s desire for kingship, and left Oxford to take a leading role in the Savoy Assembly. His contribution to the university had been the improvement of its scholarship and discipline.

During these years Owen poured forth volumes of sermons, tracts, controversial pamphlets, commentaries, and doctrinal studies. The value and significance of Owen’s writings is unsurpassed. After the Restoration in 1660, he was greatly respected by the royal government and became the leader of the Independents. After declining a call to the pastorate in Boston, Massachusetts, as well as an offer to be president of Harvard College, Owen became pastor in 1673 of a large congregation at Leadenhall Street Chapel and remained there until his death in 1683.

Among Owen’s main works were Display of Arminianism (1642), The Death of Death in the Death of Christ (1648), The Doctrine of the Saint’s Perseverance (1654), Vindiciae Evangelicae (1655), On the Mortification of Sin (1656), A Primer for Children (1660), the four-volume Exposition of the Epistle to the Hebrews (1668-1684), Discourse on the Holy Spirit (1674), Christology (1679), Vindication of the Nonconformists (1680), and True Nature of a Gospel Church (1689). Owen’s entire works were edited by William Orme and published in twenty-three volumes in 1820. A twenty-four-volume edition, edited by William Goold, was published in 1850 and reprinted by the Banner of Truth Trust of London from 1965 to 1968.

This article is taken The Forgiveness of Sin: A Practical Exposition of Psalm 130, Baker Book House, pp. 36-47.

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