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How John Owen can help us steer clear from the danger of apostasy.
John Owen was born four hundred years ago. As well as being the ‘Prince of Puritan Theology’, Owen is just about the most distinguished English-speaking theologian in all church history.
His writing has had an enormous influence on some of contemporary Evangelicalism’s best-known thinkers. Names such as Sinclair Ferguson, J.I. Packer, John Piper, Carl Trueman and the late Jerry Bridges quickly come to mind.
Today we want to revive the name of John Owen for two reasons: firstly, to draw the attention of the English-speaking Evangelical world back to that eminent servant of the Lord; and secondly, to help the twenty-first century church in its current battle against apostasy from the Gospel.
In his extensive exposition upon Hebrews 6:4-6 – “The Nature and Causes of Apostasy from the Gospel” (1676)- Owen concludes his book by listing seven ways in which the believer can defend him/ herself against the danger of apostasy. These forms of defence are as relevant now as they were when they were penned 340 years ago.
So, how can we defend ourselves against encroaching apostasy from Gospel doctrine, Gospel commands and Gospel worship? Here are Brother Owen’s words of advice.
1.- We must be first concerned for the glory of God.
As in the case of Moses (Numbers 14:11-19) and Joshua (Joshua 7:8-9), the believer must be first and foremost concerned about the glory of God in order to steer clear of apostasy. Without a pure zeal for the name of the Lord of hosts or a constant delight in savouring Gospel sweetness, the professing Christian will no doubt feel the great temptation to either head back to the superstitions of Roman Catholicism or to give the Evangelical faith up whilst turning to some other religious movement. “How many nations,” asks Owen, “that were once receptive to the Gospel are now overrun by Islam, paganism and atheism?”
Spiritual indifference will always produce evil fruit. So believers must be sure to cry unto the Lord over all the abominations that they see in their generation (Ezekiel 9:4). They must take a stand against apostasy and plead with the Lord to do something about it. “If we are concerned for the glory of the Lord’s holy name and mourn in secret over the abominable apostasy which, like a deadly epidemic, is destroying the spiritual lives of thousands and dishonouring God’s holy name, then we too shall be under His special care and protection, and He will keep us safe when apostasy seeks to tempt us away from the Gospel. His mark will be upon us”.
2.- We must pray continually, pleading the promises of revival.
Our prayer time should be immersed in crying out for the Lord to fulfil His great and precious promise of national and global awakening. Has not the Almighty solemnly sworn that He will make His Gospel a praise in all the Earth (Isaiah 62:6-7)? Is not the good Lord able to pour out such a measure of blessing that the nations will see His salvation (Isaiah 45:8)? Is there anything too difficult for the God of the Gospel? Could He not revive us by means of His sovereign and efficacious grace?
In the midst of an apostate generation that is falling away from the Good News, Christ’s disciples need to encourage themselves with the promise that God indeed can and will revive His work. “We must be like watchmen on the walls of Jerusalem who never hold their peace day or night”. Let’s cry! Let’s call out to the Lord! Let’s intercede laying a hold of the Lord’s precious promises!
3.- We must contend earnestly for the faith delivered to the saints.
Although many make a mockery of the Gospel in our day, we are called to defend the Word of our Lord and to rejoice in what the world so plainly rejects and ridicules. It is indeed true that we must stand for Scripture by means of our words but our lives too must line up with the teaching of Sacred Writ. The Lord desires us to be holy, God-fearing and fruitful (1 Peter 3:16). “We must give faithful testimony to it [the Gospel], not only by our words, but by our lives also”. This double-defence will root us more and more in the blessed truths of Christ’s glorious Gospel.
4.- We must keep a careful watch over our own hearts.
The apostate follows the leading of his/ her own heart without questioning anything. The believer, however, is always to watch over his/ her heart in obedience to Proverbs 4:23. The disciple knows just how wicked and perverse the heart is therefore it must be disciplined and tested according to Scripture (Hebrews 4:12-13).
This means that believers cannot rely upon their own strength to be strong in the Lord but to rest entirely upon Christ for spiritual vigour and prosperity (Revelation 3:10). “He who is not watchful over his own heart will be exposing himself to the danger of apostasy”.
5.- We must beware of trusting in the outward privileges of the church.
Instead of trusting in external signs, true believers are called to glory in the spiritual riches of Gospel-faith (2 Corinthians 3:10). Now, Evangelicals do of course celebrate the ordinances (baptism and the Lord’s Supper), but they know that their eternal salvation does not depend upon them. Ordinances are simply external signs of invisible grace, namely, regeneration in the case of baptism and the atoning death of Christ in the case of the Lord’s Supper.
Ordinances alone cannot save God’s people from apostasy. Neither can church attendance nor spiritual gifts nor their Scriptural knowledge. What makes the difference is spiritual fruit. Are we truly being sanctified and progressively transformed into the image of the blessed Lord Christ? This internal working of the Spirit of grace is the proof that the Gospel is fulfilling its mission deep down in our hearts. So rather than looking upon external privileges, the church must concentrate on the inner and spiritual realities.
6.- We must beware of national sins.
“Everybody does it!” This is a statement that religious hypocrites use time and time again to justify their transgressions. Nevertheless, the Bible makes it crystal clear that saints must depart from worldliness (2 Corinthians 6:17). “We must be among them but not of them and certainly not corrupted by them and by national sins”.
God’s will for His people is their sanctification. Therefore, it is only natural that they renounce pleasure and worldly vanity in order to be true disciples (1 John 2:15-17; James 1:27; 4:4). When the people of the Lord began to intermingle with pagan nations in the Old Testament, their downfall was certain. And now, under the New Covenant, “God’s true church is to be kept pure and holy by the Holy Spirit dwelling in them and among them”.
7.- We must carefully avoid those sins of professing Christians which alienate the minds of men from the Gospel.
There are many sins which may cause our worldly neighbours to curse the Gospel: our lack of love and acts of generosity towards others, spiritual pride, an overly censorious and critical spirit, etc. But God’s plan is for His church to silence the criticism of unbelievers by means of holy living (1 Peter 2:15; 3:16).
“Were all Christians meek, quiet, peaceable, sober, self-controlled, humble, useful, kind, gentle, willing to listen to all, cheerful in trails and troubles, always rejoicing in the Lord, then the world would not take offence at them, but wonder how any could live without them, and so be won over to them, making every effort to be like them. If honesty, sincerity and uprightness were seen among Christians on every occasion, how greatly it would glorify Christ!”
In the light of everything that our dear Brother John Owen pointed out, let us keep focused upon the glory of God above all else. We must pray fervently for revival, contend for the faith, watch over our hearts, refuse to trust in outward privileges and avoid both national sins and those iniquities which may even characterize our Christian brethren. If we do all the above, then we will be enabled to stay well away from any danger of apostasy from the glorious Gospel.