by John Owen
There are yet other testimonies which may be pleaded unto the same purpose; for unto this end is the Holy Ghost promised unto all believers: John xvi. 13, “When the Spirit of truth is come, he shall guide you into all truth.
The Holy Spirit is called “The Spirit of truth” principally on the same account as God absolutely is called “The God of truth;” he is so essentially. He is the first, absolute, divine, eternal verity. So he is originally called “The Holy Spirit” on the account of his essential holiness. But it is not on that account solely that he is here called “The Spirit of truth.” He is so as he is the revealer of all divine, supernatural truth unto the church, as he is also called “The Holy Spirit,” as he is author of all holiness in others; therefore is he here promised unto the church, as it is his work to lead us into all truth.
And two things are considerable in this promise:—1. What is intended by all truth; 2. How the Holy Spirit guides or leads us into it:—
1. With respect unto the object,—(1.) It is not all truth absolutely that is intended. There is truth in things natural and civil, and stories of things that are past; nothing of this nature is comprised in this promise. We see believers of all sorts as ignorant of, as unacquainted with, many of these things as any other sort of men whatever; yet doth not one word of the promise of Christ fall unto the ground. Wherefore, all that truth, or all truth of that nature, whereof our Saviour there speaketh is alone intended. The mysteries of the gospel, of the kingdom of heaven, the counsel of God about the salvation of the church by Christ, and concerning their faith and obedience, are the truth which he is promised to guide us into. This the apostle calleth “All the counsel of God,” Acts xx. 27,—namely, which respects all the ends of our faith and obedience, verse 21.
(2.) It admits of a limitation with respect unto the diversity of subjects, or the persons unto whom this truth is to be communicated. They are not all of them, as to the degrees of light and knowledge, equally to be led into all truth. Every one unto whom he is thus promised shall be so far led into the knowledge of it as is necessary unto his own estate and condition, his duty and his work; for “unto every one of us is given grace according to the measure of the gift of Christ,” Eph. iv. 7. It is Christ alone who, in the free gift of all grace, assigns the measures wherein every one shall be made partaker of it. In his sovereign will he hath allotted the measures of grace, light, and knowledge unto all the members of the church; and there is no less difference in these measures than in the knowledge of the most glorious apostle and that of the meanest believer in the world. The duty, work, and obedience of every one, is the rule of the measure of his receiving these gifts of Christ. None shall want any thing that is necessary unto him; none shall receive any thing that he is not to use and improve in a way of duty.
2. Our second inquiry is, how the Spirit doth thus lead us into all truth. The external revelation of truth is herein supposed. This he is promised to instruct us in the knowledge of in a spiritual manner; whereby I understand no more but so as it is required of us in a way of duty. To clear the truth hereof some things must be observed; as,—
(1.) The promises concerning the mission of the Holy Spirit in these chapters of the Gospel [by John], xiv. xv. xvi., are not to be confined unto the apostles, nor unto the first age or ages of the church. To do so is expressly contradictory unto the discourse and whole design of our Lord Jesus Christ unto that purpose; for he promiseth him in opposition unto his own temporary abode in the world, namely, that this of the Spirit should be for ever, chap, xiv 16,—that is, ews ths sunteleias tou aiwnos, ‘even unto the end of the world’, Matt, xxviii. 20, unto the consummation of the whole state of the church here below. And to suppose the contrary is to overthrow the foundation of all truth and comfort in the church: for their preservation in the one, and the administration of the other unto them, depend on the accomplishment of this promise alone; and so also do all the benefits of the intercession of Christ, which are no otherwise communicated unto us but by the Holy Spirit, as given in pursuit of this promise; for what herein he prayed for his apostles, he prayed for all them that should believe in him through their word unto the end of the world, John xvii. 20.
(2.) It is granted that sundry things in the promises of the Holy Ghost were peculiar unto the apostles, and had their accomplishment on the day of Pentecost, when he descended on them in that glorious, visible manner, Acts ii. 1-4; for as they were commanded by our Saviour to wait for this his coming before they engaged in the discharge of that office whereunto he had called them, Acts i. 4, so now they were fully empowered and enabled unto all that belonged thereunto. But their peculiar interest in these promises respected only things that were peculiar unto their office; such that mentioned in this place is not.
(3.) It is not an external guidance into the truth by the objective revelation of it that is intended, for such revelations are not granted unto all believers unto whom this promise is made, nor are they to look for them; and the revelation of truth, in the ministerial proposal of it, is common unto all the world unto whom the word is preached, and so is not the subject of an especial promise.
(4.) Wherefore, it is the internal teaching of the Holy Ghost, giving an understanding of the mind of God, of all sacred truths as revealed, that is intended: for,—[1.] It is the same with that other promise, “They shall be all taught of God;”for we are thus taught of God by the Spirit’s leading us into all truth, and no otherwise. [2.] This the word enforceth. “The Spirit of truth odhghsei umas, ‘shall lead and guide you’ in the right way to the knowledge of the truth.” So when Philip asked the eunuch whether he understood the things which he read out of the prophet Isaiah, he replied, “How can I, ean mh tis odhghsh me, ‘unless one lead me’ to the sense of it?”— that is, “by his interpretation give me an understanding of it,” Acts viii. 31. Thus the Holy Spirit leads us into all truth, by giving us that understanding of it which of ourselves we are not able to attain. And other interpretations the words will not admit. It is, therefore, his work to give us a useful, saving understanding of all sacred truth, or the mind of God as revealed in the Scripture. All spiritual, divine, supernatural truth is revealed in the Scripture. Herein all are agreed. The knowledge, the right understanding, of this truth as so revealed, is the duty of all, according unto the means which they enjoy and the duties that are required of them. Neither can this be denied. Unto this end, that they may do so, the Holy Spirit is here promised unto them that do believe. His divine aid and assistance is, therefore, necessary hereunto. And this we are to pray for, as it is promised. Wherefore, of ourselves, without his especial assistance and guidance, we cannot attain a due knowledge of and understanding in the truth revealed in the Scripture. As unto the especial nature of this assistance, it shall be spoken unto afterward.
This is again affirmed concerning a]l believers, 1 John ii. 20, 27, “Ye have an unction from the Holy One, and ye know all things. The anointing which ye have received of him abideth in you, and ye need not that any man teach you: but as the same anointing teacheth you of all things, and is truth, and is no lie, and even as it hath taught you, ye shall abide in it.”
1. That by the unction and anointing in this place, the Spirit of God and his work, with respect unto the end mentioned, are intended, is not questioned by any that are conversant about these things with sobriety. And it is plain in the text; for,—(1.) That the Holy Spirit in his especial operations is called an unction, or is said to anoint us, is evident in many places of the Scripture: see Heb. i. 9; 2 Cor. i. 21, 22. Neither is a spiritual unction ascribed unto any thing else in the whole Scripture. (2.) That expression, “Which ye have from the Holy One”(Acts iii. 14, Rev. iii. 7), that is, Jesus Christ, doth expressly answer unto the promise of Christ to send his Holy Spirit unto us, and that for the end here mentioned,—namely, to teach us, and lead us into all truth; whence he is called “The Spirit of the Lord,” or “of Christ,” 2 Cor. iii. 17, 18; Rom. viii. 9; Phil. i. 19, etc. (3.) That, also, of his “abiding in us” is nothing but an expression of the same promise of Christ that he shall “abide with us for ever,” John xiv. 16. (4.) The work here assigned unto this unction is expressly assigned unto the Holy Spirit: John xvi. 13, “The Spirit of truth will guide you into all truth.” (5.) What is said of it,—namely, not only that it is true, and not false, but that it is “truth, and is no lie,”—doth plainly intimate his essential verity. And I cannot but wonder that any persons should, against this open and plain evidence, ascribe the things here mentioned unto any thing else, and not exclusively unto the Holy Ghost; for so do some contend (Episcop. in loc. after Socin. on the same place), that by this unction the doctrine of the gospel only is intended. It is true that the doctrine of the gospel, in the preaching of it, is the means or instrumental cause of this teaching by the Holy Ghost; and on that account what is spoken of the teaching of the Spirit of God may be spoken, in its place, of the doctrine of the gospel, because he teacheth us thereby. But here it is spoken of objectively, as what we are to be taught, and not efficiently, as what it is that teacheth us. And to say, as they do, “It is the instruction which we have by the gospel that is intended,” is to assert the effect only, and to exclude the cause; for that signifies no more but the effect of the unction here ascribed unto believers, as that which they had received from the Holy One. Didymus, an ancient learned writer, interpreteth this unction to be the illuminating grace of the Spirit, and the Holy One to be the Spirit himself, lib. ii. de Spir. Sane. But the other interpretation is more proper and consonant unto the use of the Scripture. The expression is taken from the institution of God under the Old Testament whereby kings and priests were anointed with oil, to signify the gifts of the Spirit communicated unto them for the discharge of their office; and thence believers, who are real partakers of the internal unction in the graces and gifts of the Holy Ghost, are said to be “made kings and priests unto God.” It is, therefore, the work of the Holy Spirit that is here described. He alone, and his gifts, graces, and privileges that ensue thereon, are so expressed, here or anywhere else in the whole Scripture.
2. Two things are to be observed in what is here ascribed unto this unction:—(1.) What is the effect of his work in believers; (2.) What is the nature of it, or how he produceth that effect.
(1.) For the first, there is a double expression of it:—[1.] That they “know all things;” [2.] That they “need not that any should teach them;”—both which expressions admit of, yea require, their limitations.
[1.] The “all things” intended come under a double restriction,— the first taken from the nature of the things themselves, the other from the scope and circumstances of the place; or, the one from the general end, the other from the special design proposed.
lst. The general end proposed is, our abiding in Christ: “Ye shall abide in him;” which the apostle expresseth, 1 John ii. 24, by “continuing in the Son, and in the Father.” Wherefore, the all things here mentioned are all things necessary unto our ingrafting into and continuance in Christ. Such are all the fundamental, yea, important truths of the gospel. Whatever is needful unto our communion with Christ and our obedience to him, this all true believers are taught. However they may mistake in things of lesser moment, and be ignorant in the doctrine of some truths, or have but mean degrees of knowledge in any thing, yet shall they all know the mind and will of God as revealed in the Scripture, in all those things and truths which are necessary that they may believe unto righteousness and make confession unto salvation.
2dly. The especial end under consideration is, preservation and deliverance from the antichrists and seducers of those days, with the errors, lies, and false doctrines which they divulged concerning Christ and the gospel. The only way and means whereby we may be so preserved from the poisons and infections of such pernicious opinions and ways is, the assured knowledge of the truths of the gospel as they are revealed in the Scripture. All those truths which were any way needful to secure their faith and preserve them from mortal seductions, they were taught and did know. And where any man knows the truths which are required unto his implantation into Christ, and his continuance with him in faith and obedience, as also all those which may preserve him from the danger of seduction into pernicious errors, however he may fail and be mistaken in some things of less importance, yet is he secured as unto his present acceptable obedience and future blessedness. And to speak of it by the way, this giveth us the rule of our especial communion and love. Where any are taught these things, where they have the knowledge and make confession of that truth, or those articles of faith, whereby they may “abide in Christ,” and are preserved from pernicious seductions, although they may differ from us and the truth in some things of less moment, we are obliged not only to forbearance of them, but communion with them; for who shall refuse them whom Christ hath received? or doth Christ refuse any to whom he gives his Spirit, who have the unction from the Holy One? This, and no other, is the rule of our evangelical love and communion among ourselves. Whatever we require more of any as a necessary condition of our Christian society, in point of doctrine, is an unwarrantable imposition on their consciences or practice, or both.
[2.] It is said that they so know these things as that they “need not that any should teach them:” which also requireth a limitation or exposition; for,—
1st. It is only the things as before declared that respect is had unto. Now, besides these, there are many other things which believers stand in need to be taught continually, and whose knowledge belongs unto their edification. Many things are very useful unto us that are not absolutely necessary. In natural things, and such as belong unto this present life, men would be very unwilling to be without or part with sundry things, without which yet life might be preserved; because they value them, as of use unto themselves, so enabling them to be useful unto others. And they who understand the nature, use, and benefit, of evangelical truths will not be contented that their knowledge in them should be confined only unto those which are of absolute necessity unto the being of spiritual life: yea, they cannot be well supposed to know those truths themselves who pretend such a satisfaction in them as to look no farther; for all who are sincere in faith and knowledge do aim at that “perfect man in Christ,” which all the ordinances of God are designed to bring us unto, Col. i. 28. Wherefore, notwithstanding the knowledge of these things, there is still use and need of farther ministerial teaching in the church.
2dly. It is spoken of the things themselves absolutely, and not with respect unto the degrees of the knowledge of them. They did so know them as that there was no need that any man should teach them unto them, as unto their initial knowledge and substance of the things themselves; and so it may be said of all believers. But yet there are degrees of knowledge with respect unto those very things, which they may and ought to be carried on unto, as the apostle speaketh, Heb. vi. 1; and therefore doth the holy apostle himself who writes these things farther instruct them in them. And herein consists the principal part of the ministry of the church, even to carry on believers unto perfection in those things wherein, for the substance of them, they have been already instructed.
3dly. That which is principally intended is, that they need not that any should teach them, so as that they should depend on the light and authority of their instruction. Others may be helpers of their joy, but none can be lords of their faith. “Ye need no such teaching, because of the unction which ye have received.”
(2.) For the general nature of the work here ascribed unto this unction,—that is, the Holy Spirit,—it is teaching: “The unction teacheth you.” There are but two ways whereby the Spirit teacheth us, nor can any other be conceived. The one is by objective, the other by subjective revelations; for he teacheth us as a “Spirit of wisdom and revelation.” The first way of his teaching is by immediate inspiration, communicating new sacred truths from God immediately unto the minds of men. So he taught the prophets and apostles, and all the penmen of the Scripture. By him the word of the Lord came unto them; and they spake as they were acted by him, 1 Pet. i. 11, 12; 2 Pet. i. 21. This is not the way of teaching here intended, for the end of this teaching of the Holy Ghost is only to make men teachers of others, which is not here intended; nor doth the apostle discourse unto any such purpose, as though God would grant new revelations unto men to preserve them from errors and seductions, which he hath made sufficient provision for in the word, Isa. viii. 20; 2 Pet. i. 19. By this word were they to try all doctrines and pretended revelations, yea, those which were so really before they received them, 1 John iv. 1. Besides, what is here affirmed is ascribed unto all sorts of believers, under the distribution which they are cast into by the apostle,—namely, of “old men,” “young men,” and “babes,” which had not all of them received the Spirit of immediate revelation.
His other way of teaching is that which we have insisted on,— namely, his enabling us to discern, know, and understand the mind and will of God as revealed in the Scripture, or as declared in any divine revelation. This alone is or can be here intended. Wherefore, this is the design of the apostle in these words: All divine truths necessary to be known and to be believed, that we may live unto God in faith and obedience, or come unto and abide in Christ, as also be preserved from seducers, are contained in the Scripture, or proposed unto us in divine revelations. These of ourselves we cannot understand unto the ends mentioned; for if we could, there would be no need that we should be taught them by the Holy Spirit: but this is so; he teacheth us all these things, enabling us to discern, comprehend, and acknowledge them. And this is the whole of what we plead for.
For a close of our considerations on these words of the apostle, I shall only observe what assurance a man that is thus taught the truth may have that it is the truth which he is taught, and that he is not deceived in his apprehensions of it; for hereon depends the use of this instruction, especially in times of trial,—indeed, at all times and on all occasions. It is not enough that we know the truth, but we must be assured that so we do: see Eph. iv. 14; Col. ii. 2. And there was never a greater artifice in the world than that whereby the Roman church hath imposed an impregnable, obstinate credulity on all that adhere thereunto; for it doth first fix this in their minds that itself cannot err, and therefore whatever is by her authority proposed unto them is infallibly true. Hence it comes to pass that they will abide obstinate against all convictions and the highest evidence of truth in all particular instances, whilst this principle is firmly fixed in their minds, that the church which proposeth these things unto them cannot err nor be mistaken; yea, whilst this persuasion abides with them, they may be, and indeed accordingly are, obliged to believe contradictions, things most irrational and absurd, inconsistent with Christian piety and the peace of human society. However, they say well in this, that it is necessary that a man should have good assurance of the truth which he doth profess, or of his own understanding of it and conception about it. This the apostle calleth “The riches of the full assurance of understanding,” Col. ii. 2; whereof we shall speak afterward.
Wherefore, whereas the assurance of mind in other teachings depends much on the authority of them by whom they are taught, on a supposition that believers are taught the mind of God in the Scripture by the Holy Spirit, or are by him enabled to discern and know it, the inquiry is, how or by what means they have an assurance that they have a right understanding of the things which they are so taught, so as to abide in them and the profession of them against all opposition whatever, and so as to venture the eternal condition of their souls on that assurance they have of the truth; which every one must do whether he will or no. And this in the text is referred unto the author of this teaching: “The anointing is truth, and is no lie;” it is true, and infallibly so. There is no fear of, no possibility for, any man being deceived in what he is taught by this unction. And an assurance hereof ariseth in our minds partly from the manner of his teachings, and partly from the evidence of the things themselves that we are taught. The manner and way of his teaching us in and by the Scripture evidenceth unto us that what we are taught “is truth, and is no lie.” He giveth a secret witness unto what he teacheth in his teachings; for “it is the Spirit that beareth witness, because the Spirit is truth,” 1 John v. 6. And with respect unto the evidence which is so given us of the truth, it is said that the “unction” whereby we are taught “is truth, and is no lie;” that is, it is impossible any one should be deceived who is so taught. This will more fully appear when we have declared the whole of his work herein; something only may now be spoken, on occasion of this testimony.
There is a peculiar power accompanying the teaching of God by his Spirit: “Behold, God exalteth by his power: who teacheth like him?” Job xxxvi. 22. So our Saviour expoundeth that promise, “They shall be all taught of God.” “Every man therefore that hath heard,” saith he, “and hath learned of the Father, cometh unto me,” John vi. 45. There is such an efficacy accompanying God’s teaching, that whosoever is so taught doth certainly believe the things that he is taught, as having the evidence of the truth of them in himself.
When the Holy Ghost gave new revelations of old unto the prophets and penmen of the Scripture by immediate inspiration, he did therein and therewith communicate unto them an infallible evidence that they were from God; and when he doth illuminate our minds in the knowledge of what is revealed, he doth therein himself bear witness unto, and assure us of, the truth which we do understand. Hereby do we come to that which the apostle calleth “The full assurance of understanding, in the acknowledgment of the mystery of God.” He not only enableth our minds to apprehend the truth, but he shines into our hearts, the seat of spiritual experience, to “give us the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” And the assurance which believers have thereby is above that which any other evidence or demonstration whatever can give; and the meanest believer hath from this teaching a greater rest, satisfaction, and assurance in the knowledge of the mind of God, than any that can be attained by the most raised notions or profound disputations: for “he that believeth hath the witness in himself,” 1 John v. 10. And why should others think it strange that there should be such evidence of truth in the teaching of the Spirit, by the illumination of our minds in the knowledge of the Scripture, as to give us an assurance of the highest nature, seeing there is “none that teacheth like him?”
Want hereof is that which makes men to fluctuate in their conceptions of spiritual things, and so ready on every occasion to part with what they have received. The church of Rome hath, as we observed, rather craftily than wisely, provided against any inconvenience herein. The doctrines which it teacheth are many of them false, and so the things contained in them can give no evidence unto themselves in the minds of men; for there is nothing but imagination in error,—there is nothing of substance in it. And their way of teaching is not accompanied with any especial advantage; yea, it is the most vain that ever was in the world. They would have men suppose that they may advance at once in the true belief of a hundred things whereof they have no evidence, merely resting on the infallibility of the church, by which, they say, they are proposed. Wherefore, they teach men that although they receive no evidencing light in this way of their instruction, nor have any experience of the power or efficacy of truth in what they are taught, yet they may rest assuredly in the infallibility of the church. Hence the assurance they have of any thing they suppose truth is not an act of the mind in the embracing of the truth from any evidence that it gives of itself, but a presumption in general that the church is infallible by which these things are proposed unto them. The design is, to prevail with men to suppose that they believe all things, when, indeed, they believe nothing,—that they understand the mind and will of God, when, indeed, they understand nothing at all of them; for a man believes nothing but what is accompanied with an evidence whereon it ought to be believed. But this they pretend not unto, at least not such that should give them that assurance of the truth of it which is requisite; and therefore are all men by them referred for that unto the infallibility of the church. Persons weak, ignorant, credulous, or superstitious, either for interest or by the craft of seducers, may be prevailed on to make their resort unto this relief. Those who will not forego the rational conduct of their own souls, and leave themselves unto the guidance of others, knowing that it is they alone who must give an account of themselves to God, will not easily be induced thereunto.
Others will resolve all into their own rational conceptions of things, without any respect unto a superior infallible teacher; and the minds of many, influenced by this notion, that they have themselves alone to trust unto, are come unto the utmost uncertainty and instability in all things of religion. Nor can it otherwise be: for as the mind of man is in itself indifferent and undetermined unto any thing, as true or false (unless it be in its first notions of the common principles of reason) beyond the evidence that is proposed unto it; so also is it various, unsteady, and apt to fluctuate from one thing to another. And there are but two ways whereby it may be naturally ascertained and determined in its conceptions and assent. The first is by the use of the external senses, which will not deceive it. However, it cannot but receive, believe, and comply with what it comprehends by its senses; as what it sees, hears, and feels. The other is by reason, whereby it deduceth certain conclusions from propositions of necessary truth,—that is, by demonstration. But by neither of these ways can the mind be brought unto a stability and assurance in or about things spiritual or supernatural; for they are neither the objects of natural sense nor capable of a scientifical demonstration. Wherefore, a man can have nothing but a probability or conjectural knowledge concerning them, unless he have some certain, infallible teaching wherein he can acquiesce. And such is that of this “unction,” which “is truth, and is no lie.” In and by his teaching of us,—namely, the mind of God as revealed in the Scripture,—there is such evidence of truth communicated unto our minds and hearts as giveth us an immovable assurance of them, or the “full assurance of understanding;” for God therein “shines in our hearts, to give us the light of the knowledge of his glory in the face of Jesus Christ.”
Again, there is an evidence in the things themselves, unto spiritual sense and judgment, Phil. i. 9; Heb. v. 14. This is that which gives the mind the highest assurance of the truth of what it doth believe that it is capable of in this world; for when it finds in itself the power and efficacy of the truth wherein it is instructed, that it worketh, effecteth, and implanteth the things themselves upon it, giving and ascertaining unto it all the benefits and comforts which they promise or express, and is thereby united unto the soul, or hath a real, permanent, efficacious subsistence in it,—then, I say, hath the mind the utmost assurance in the truth of it which it doth or can desire in the things of this nature. But this belongs not unto our present design.
The testimonies pleaded are sufficient for the confirmation of our first general assertion,—namely, That it is the Holy Spirit who teacheth us to understand aright the mind and will of God in the Scripture; without whose aid and assistance we can never do so usefully nor profitably unto our own souls. Sundry others that speak unto the same purpose will be afterward on various occasions insisted on.
I might add unto these testimonies the faith and profession of the church in all ages,—they all believed and professed that the Scriptures could not be understood and interpreted without his assistance and inspiration by whom they were indited,—but it is not necessary so to do; for those who profess to trust unto their own reason and understanding only, cannot be so ignorant as not to know that they have no countenance given unto their persuasion in antiquity, unless it were by the Pelagians. But whereas there is no profitable handling of sacred truths on any pretence but with an eye unto the guidance of Christian practice,—and when that is manifest, it gives a great confirmation in our minds unto the truth itself,—I shall, before I proceed unto the consideration of the especial ways of the teaching of the Holy Spirit in this matter, and the especial duties required of us in compliance with them, that they may be effectual, divert a little unto some such considerations of that nature as derive from this general assertion.
It is the great promise of the New Testament that all believers shall be didaktoi tou qeou, “taught of God;” which our Saviour himself pleads as the only ground of their believing, John vi. 45. And so the apostle tells the Thessalonians that they were qeodidaktoi, “taught of God,” 1 Thess. iv. 9. No man is autodidaktos, “taught of himself,” his own teacher and guide in sacred things; neither can any man have a worse master, if he trust thereunto alone. The diligent use of all outward means appointed of God unto this end, that through the knowledge of the Scripture we may be made wise unto salvation, we always suppose. Amongst them the ministry of the church hath the first and chiefest place, Eph. iv. 12-15: for they are with me of no account who think it not worth the utmost of their diligence to attain the knowledge of those “wonderful things” that are in the word; yea, I should greatly admire at their stupidity who will not give so much credit unto the Scripture testifying of itself, and the suffrage of all good men with it, that there are “wonderful things” contained in it, so far as to inquire with their utmost diligence whether it be so or no, but that I know the reasons and causes of it. But a supreme teacher there must be, on whose wisdom, power, and authority, we ought principally to depend, as unto this end of being taught of God. And hereunto the use of our own reason, the utmost improvement of the rational abilities of our minds, is required. Those who would take away the use of our reason in spiritual things would deal with us, as we said before, as the Philistines did with Samson,—first put out our eyes, and then make us grind in their mill. The Scripture we own as the only rule of our faith, as the only treasury of all sacred truths. The knowledge we aim at is, the “full assurance of understanding” in the mind and will of God, revealed therein. The sole inquiry is, whether this supreme teacher be the Spirit of God instructing us in and by the Scripture, or whether it be the authority of this or that, any or all of the churches in the world, which either are so or pretend to be so. Which of these will it be our wisdom to choose and adhere unto? That the Holy Spirit hath taken this work upon himself we have already proved, and shall afterward farther demonstrate. Some churches, especially that of Rome, assume this office unto themselves; but it is too well known to the most to be trusted herein, and a great prejudice there lieth in this cause against that church at first. The Holy Spirit leaves unto us, yea, requires of us, the diligent use of the Scripture and exercise of our own reason, in subserviency unto his teaching; but this church requires us to renounce them both, in compliance with herself. And can it stand in competition with him? He is infallible; the unction “is truth, and is no lie;” the Spirit is truth. This also, indeed, that church pretends unto, but with such an open affront unto all evidence of truth as the world never underwent from any of its people before. He is absolutely, infinitely, eternally free from any design but the glory of God [in] the present and eternal good of them that are instructed by him. It will be very difficult for those of Rome to pretend hereunto; yea, it is apparent that all the exercise of their instructing authority lieth in a subserviency unto their own interest. When I see that men by a pretence hereof have gotten unto themselves wealth, power, principalities, dominions, with great revenues, and do use them all unto their own advantage, and mostly to the satisfaction of their lusts, pleasures, pride, ambition, and the like inordinate affections, I confess I cannot be free to deliver up blindfold the conduct of my soul unto them. He is full of divine love and care of the souls of them whom he doth instruct; is it so with them, or can any creature participate in his love and care? He is infinitely wise, and “knoweth all things, yea, the deep things of God,” and can make known what he pleaseth of them unto us; as the apostle discourseth, 1 Cor. ii. They who preside in that church are ignorant themselves, as all men are, and the less they know it the more ignorant they are: yea, for the most part, as unto sacred things, they are comparatively so with respect unto other ordinary men; as a late pope, when some of their divines waited for an infallible determination of a theological controversy among them, confessed that he had not studied those things, nor had the knowledge of them been his profession!
But yet, notwithstanding these and several other differences between these teachers, it is marvellous to consider how many betake themselves unto the latter of them, and how few unto the former; and the reason is, because of the different methods they take in teaching, and the different qualifications they require in them that are to be taught: for as unto them whom the Spirit of God undertaketh to instruct, he requireth that they be meek and humble; that they give themselves unto continual prayer, meditation, and study in the word day and night; above all, that they endeavour a conformity in their whole souls and lives unto the truths that he instructs them in. These are hard conditions unto flesh and blood; few there are who like them, and therefore few they are who apply themselves unto the school of God. We may be admitted scholars by the other teacher on far cheaper and easier rates. Men may be made “good Catholics,” as to faith and understanding, without the least cost in self-denial, or much trouble unto the flesh in any other duty. There is no qualification required for the admission of a man into the Catholic schools, and barely to be there is to be wise and knowing enough. Wherefore, although all advantages imaginable as unto the teachers lie on the one hand, yet the pretended easy way of learning casts the multitude on the other; for it requireth more wisdom than we have of ourselves to be at all that charge and pains in spiritual duty, and diligence in the use of all means for the right understanding of the mind of God, which is required in and of all them who will advantageously partake of the teaching of the Holy Spirit, when it is supposed we may have all the ends which we aim at thereby in an easy and naked assent unto the proposals of the church, without the least farther charge or trouble. But these are the measures of slothful and carnal minds, who prefer their ease, their lasts, and pleasures, before their souls. There is difficulty in all things that are excellent; neither can we partake of the excellency of any thing unless we will undertake its difficulty. But although the ways whereby we may come unto a participation of the teaching of the Holy Ghost seem at first rough and uneasy, yet unto all that engage in them they will be found to be “ways of pleasantness and paths of peace.”
It may be said, “That it is evident in common experience that many men do attain a great knowledge and skill in the things revealed in the Scripture, without any of that internal teaching by the illumination of their minds which is pleaded for, especially if it be to be obtained by the means now intimated, and afterward more fully to be declared: for they themselves do renounce the necessity of any such teaching, and esteem all that is spoken of it a vain imagination; and not only so, but live, some of them, in an open defiance of all those qualifications and duties which are required unto a participation of these teachings. Yet it is foolish to pretend they are not skilled in the knowledge of divinity, seeing it is plain that they excel most other men therein; and therefore do sufficiently despise all them who pretend unto any benefit by the supernatural illumination contended for.”
I answer briefly in this place, It is true there are, and ever were, some, yea many, who “profess that they know God, but in works deny him, being abominable and disobedient.” The knowledge which such men may attain, and which they make profession of, belongs not unto our inquiry; and we may easily discern both what it is in itself, and wherein it differs from that true knowledge of God which it is our duty to have: for,—
1. There is in the Scripture, with respect unto the mind and will of God revealed therein, with the mysteries of truth and grace, mention of gnosis and epignosis,—“knowledge” and “acknowledgment.” The former, if it be alone, affects only the speculative part of the mind with notions of truth; and it is of very little use, but subject unto the highest abuse: 1 Cor. viii. 1, ‘H gnosis fusioi. It is that which puffs up men into all their proud contentions about religion, which the world is filled withal. The other gives the mind an experience of the power and efficacy of the truth known or discovered, so as to transform the soul and all its affections into it, and thereby to give a “full assurance of understanding” unto the mind itself, Phil. i 9; Luke i. 4; Col. i. 6, 9,10, ii. 2, iii. 10; Rom. x. 2; Eph. i. 17, iv. 18; 1 Tim. ii. 4; 2 Tim. ii. 25, iii. 7; Tit. i. 1; 2 Pet. i. 2, 3, 8, ii 20. It is not worth disputing at all what knowledge of the first kind, or what degree therein, men, any men, the worst of men, may attain by their industry and skill in other common arts and sciences; for what if they should make such a proficiency therein as to be filled with pride in themselves, and to confound others with their subtile disputations, will any real profit redound hence unto themselves, or the world, or the church of God? It doth not, therefore, deserve the least contention about it. But that acknowledgment of the truth which affects the heart, and conforms the soul unto the will of God revealed, is not attainable in any degree without the saving illumination of the Spirit of God.
2. Men may have a knowledge of words, and the meaning of propositions in the Scripture, who have no knowledge of the things themselves designed in them. The things revealed in the Scripture are expressed in propositions whose words and terms are intelligible unto the common reason of mankind. Every rational man, especially if he be skilled in those common sciences and arts which all writings refer unto, may, without any especial aid of the Holy Ghost, know the meaning of the propositions that are laid down in, or drawn from the Scripture; yea, they can do so who believe not one word of it to be true, and they do so, as well as the best of them, who have no other help in the understanding of the Scripture but their own reason, let them profess to believe what they will. And whatever men understand of the meaning of the words, expressions, and propositions in the Scripture, if they believe not the things which they declare, they do not in any sense know the mind and will of God in them; for to know a thing as the mind of God, and not to assent unto its truth, implieth a contradiction. I shall never grant that a man understands the Scripture aright who understands the words of it only, and not the things which is the mind of God in them. For instance, the Jews understand the words of the Scripture of the Old Testament in its own original language, and they are able to perceive the grammatical sense and construction of the propositions contained in it,—they are unacquainted with them and their writings who will not acknowledge their skill, subtilty, and accuracy in these things,—yet will not any Christian say they understand the mind of God in the Old Testament. The apostle showeth the contrary, and giveth the reason for it, in the place before insisted on, 2 Cor. iii. Such a knowledge of the Scripture no wise man will value, let it be attained how it will.
3. This knowledge that may be thus attained doth only inform the mind in the way of an artificial science, but doth not really illuminate it; and to this end men have turned divinity into an art, like other common human arts and sciences, and so they learn it, instead of a spiritual wisdom and understanding of divine mysteries. It is true that the knowledge of common learned arts and sciences is of great use unto the understanding of the Scriptures, as unto what they have in common with other writings, and what they refer unto that is of human cognizance; but to bring in all the terms, notions, and rules of those arts and sciences into divinity, and by the mixture of them with it to compose a scheme of divine knowledge, is all one as if a man should design to make up his house of the scaffolds which he only useth in the building of it. Such is that knowledge of the mind of God in the Scripture which many aim at and content themselves withal; and it may be attained, as any other art or science may, without any supernatural aid of the Holy Spirit, and is sufficient to drive a trade with; which, as things are stated in the world, men may use and exercise unto their great advantage. But, as was said before, it is not that which we inquire after. That wisdom in the mystery of the gospel, that knowledge of the mind and will of God in the Scripture, which affects the heart, and transforms the mind in the renovation of it unto the approbation of the “good, and acceptable, and perfect will of God,” as the apostle speaks, Rom. xii. 2, is alone valuable and desirable, as unto all spiritual and eternal ends.
4. It doth not give panta plouton tas plhroforias ths sunesews eis epigrnosis tou musthriou tou qeou,—“all riches of the full assurance of understanding, to the acknowledgment of the mystery of God,” as the apostle speaks, Col. ii. 2. It gives unto men no other assurance of mind in the things that they know but what they have from acknowledged principles, and conclusions drawn from them, in any other science. But that knowledge which men have of the mysteries of the gospel by the teaching and illumination of the Holy Spirit gives them “the riches of assurance of understanding” of a higher nature, even the assurance of faith. That assurance, I say, which believers have in spiritual things is of another nature and kind than can be attained out of conclusions that are only rationally derived from the most evident principles; and therefore doth it produce effects of another nature, both in doing and in suffering: for this is that which effectually and infallibly puts them on all those duties and that obedience in self-denial and the mortification of sin which the world either knoweth not or despiseth; for “he that hath this hope in him purifieth himself, even as Christ is pure,” 1 John iii. 3. And this also enables them cheerfully and joyfully to suffer all that the world can inflict on them for the profession of those truths whereof they have that assurance. But nothing of this ensues on that common knowledge which men may have from themselves of sacred things; for,—
5. It doth not enable men to trust in God, and adhere firmly unto him by love. The psalmist, speaking unto God, saith, “They that know thy name will put their trust in thee,” Ps. ix. 10. To “know the name of God,” is to know the revelations that he hath made of himself, his mind and his will, in the Scripture. They that have this knowledge, he affirms, “will put their trust in him.” Therefore, it is certain that those who put not their trust in God have not the knowledge of him. There is a gnosis yeudwnumos, a “knowledge falsely so called,” which hath nothing of real spiritual knowledge but the name; and it is generally much given to disputing, or the maintaining of antitheses, or oppositions unto the truth, 1 Tim. vi. 20. But it is falsely called knowledge, inasmuch as those in whom it is do neither trust in God nor adhere unto him in love. And we shall not much inquire by what means such a knowledge may be acquired.
It remaineth, therefore, notwithstanding this objection, that all real useful knowledge of the “wonderful things” that are in the Scripture is an effect of God’s opening our eyes by the illuminating grace of his Holy Spirit.
1. And this will enable us to “try the spirits,” as we are commanded, of many amongst us; for some there are who at once have cast off a due respect unto their rule and guide, the Scripture and Holy Spirit of God. Some formerly have pretended unto such a guidance by the Spirit as that they have neglected or rejected the written word; and some pretend such an adherence unto the word, and such an ability in their own minds and reasons to understand it, as to despise the teaching of the Spirit. Others reject both the one and the other, betaking themselves unto another rule and guide, whereunto they ascribe all that belongs unto either or both of them; but a wandering light it hath proved unto them, that hath led them into a bog of many vain imaginations and corrupt opinions. And it is fallen out with them as might be expected; for although the Holy Spirit be promised to lead us into all truth, yet is he so in an especial manner as unto those which concern the person, offices, and grace of our Lord Jesus Christ immediately, whose Spirit he is: see John xvi. 13-15; 1 John ii. 20, 27. Those, therefore, who renounce a dependence on him for instruction out of the word are either left unto palpable ignorance about these things, or unto foolish, corrupt imaginations concerning them. Hence some of them openly deny, some faintly grant, but evidently corrupt, the truth concerning the person of Christ; and unto his offices and grace they seem to have little regard. And what else can be expected from such, who despise the teaching of that Spirit of Christ who is promised to lead us into all truth concerning him? Nor will the loudest pretences of some unto the Spirit in this matter relieve them; for we inquire not after every spirit that any one who will may make his boast of, but of that Spirit alone which instructs us in and by the written word. Until such men will return unto the only rule and guide of Christians, until they will own it their duty to seek for the knowledge of truth from the Scripture alone, and in their so doing depend not on any thing in themselves, but on the saving instructions of the Spirit of God, it is in vain to contend with them; for they and we build on diverse foundations, and their faith and ours are resolved into diverse principles,—ours into the Scripture, theirs into a light of their own. There are, therefore, no common acknowledged principles between us whereon we may convince each other. And this is the cause that disputes with such persons are generally fruitless, especially as intermixed with that intemperancy of reviling other men wherein they exceed; for if that be a way either of learning or teaching of the truth, it is what the Scripture hath not instructed us in. When the veil shall be taken from their eyes, and they turned unto the Lord, they will learn more modesty and humility. In the meantime, the issue between these men and us is this and no other: We persuade men to take the Scripture as the only rule, and the holy promised Spirit of God, sought by ardent prayers and supplications, in the use of all means appointed by Christ for that end, for their guide. They deal with men to turn into themselves, and to attend unto the light within them. Whilst we build on these most distant principles, the difference between us is irreconcilable, and will be eternal. Could we come to an agreement here, other things would fall away of themselves. If we shall renounce the Scripture, and the instruction given out of it unto the church by the Spirit of God, betaking ourselves unto our own light, we are sure it will teach us nothing but either what they profess, or other things altogether as corrupt. And if they, on the other hand, will forego their attendance to their pretended light, to hearken unto the voice of God in the Scripture only, and to beg sincerely the guidance of the Holy Spirit therein, they will learn from thence no other thing but what we profess. Until, therefore, they return unto “the law and testimony,”—without which, whatsoever is pretended, there is no light in any,—we have no more to do but, labouring to preserve the flock of Christ in the profession of the “faith once delivered unto the saints,” to commit the difference between the word and Spirit on the one hand, and the light within on the other, unto the decision of Jesus Christ at the last day.
2. It is from no other root that the contempt of the mysteries of the gospel, and the preferring of other doctrines before them, is sprung up into so much bitter fruit among us. It is by the “Spirit of wisdom and revelation” alone that our minds are enlightened to “know what is the hope of God’s calling, and what are the riches of his glorious grace.” What is his work herein upon our minds, and what upon the word itself, shall be afterward declared. At present, from what hath been proved, it is sufficiently evident that without his especial gracious aid and assistance, no man can discern, like, or approve of the mysteries of the gospel. And is it any wonder if persons who avowedly deny most of his blessed operations should be either unacquainted with or dislike those mysteries, so as to prefer that which is more suited unto their natural understanding and reason above them? for why should men esteem of those things which they do not understand, at least as they ought, nor will make use of the means whereby they may be enabled so to do? Wherefore, if there be persons of such a pride and profaneness as to undertake an inquiry into the Scriptures, to know the mind of God in them, and teach it unto others, without prayers and supplications for the teaching, leading, guidance, and assistance of the Holy Spirit, or, which is worse, who condemn and despise all those things as enthusiastical, it may not be expected that they should ever understand or approve of the mysteries that are contained therein. Is it not hence that both teachers and hearers make so slow a progress in the knowledge of the mysteries of the gospel, or grow so little in the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ? How many are there amongst us who, for the time and outward means, are become as babes, and have need of milk, and not of strong meat! Whence is it that so many teachers do so little endeavour to go on to perfection, but content themselves to dwell on the rudiments or first principles of our profession? Is there not great studying, and little profiting? great teaching, and little learning? much hearing, and little thriving? Do we abide in prayer, and abound in prayer as we ought, for that Spirit who alone can lead us into all truth? for that unction which teaches us all things with assurance and experience? I fear here lieth our defect. However, this I shall say, that there is no duty which in this world we perform unto God that is more acceptable unto him than fervent prayers for a right understanding of his mind and will in his word; for hereon all the glory we give unto him, and the due performance of all our obedience, do depend.
John Owen (1616-1683). No outline of Owen’s life can give an adequate impression of the stature and importance to which he attained in his own day. He was summoned to preach before Parliament on several occasions, most notably on the day after the execution of Charles I. During the Civil War, Owen’s merit was recognized by General Fairfax, then by Cromwell who took him as Chaplain to Ireland and Scotland. He was adviser to Cromwell, especially though not exclusively on ecclesiastical affairs, but fell from the Protector’s favour after opposing the move to make him King. In 1658 he was one of the most influential members of the Savoy Conference of ministers of Independent persuasion. After the Ejection he enjoyed some influence with Charles II who occasionally gave him money to distribute to impoverished ejected ministers. All in all, he was, with Richard Baxter, the most eminent Dissenter of his time.
This article is taken from Owen’s Works, vol. 4, “The Work of the Spirit”, pp. 142-160.
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