Declensions from the Christian Religion or The Neglect of God's Law. John Owen's Preface to
I have seen an end of all perfection: but thy commandment is exceeding broad. Psalm 119:96
Many today are scornful of God's Law and scoff at those who strive for evangelical obedience to it. Indeed many within the Church are keen to relegate the Law to an historical peculiarity with many others being neglectful of the Law are keener to emphasis the Gospel and exclude the Law. Yet the Scriptures plainly teach that the Law and the Gospel do sweetly comply and the Psalmist proclaims that those are blessed who walk in the law of the LORD! Psalm 119:1
The Reformed Catholic view of the use of God's Law by Christians is set down at Questions 95 and 97 of the Larger Catechism:
Q. 95. Of what use is the moral law to all men?
A. The moral law is of use to all men, to inform them of the holy nature and the will of God, and of their duty, binding them to walk accordingly; to convince them of their disability to keep it, and of the sinful pollution of their nature, hearts, and lives: to humble them in the sense of their sin and misery, and thereby help them to a clearer sight of the need they have of Christ, and of the perfection of his obedience.
Q. 97. What special use is there of the moral law to the regenerate?
A. Although they that are regenerate, and believe in Christ, be delivered from the moral law as a covenant of works, so as thereby they are neither justified nor condemned; yet, besides the general uses thereof common to them with all men, it is of special use, to show them how much they are bound to Christ for his fulfilling it, and enduring the curse thereof in their stead, and for their good; and thereby to provoke them to more thankfulness, and to express the same in their greater care to conform themselves thereunto as the rule of their obedience.
It is with this understanding of God's Law that John Owen gives warning of the grave consequences of neglecting and denigrating God's Law in the preface to James Durham's The Law Unsealed: or, A Practical Exposition of the Ten Commandments, which we now present below.
To the Christian Reader
The decay of religion at this day in the world, is come to such an height, that it is observed by all who pretend unto any concernment therein, and complained of by many. By religion we understand the power of it in the hearts and lives of men, and not any outward profession of it only; much less the general pretence that is made unto it, in them by whom its power is openly denied. Neither is it manifest only in the fruits of sinful security and the flagitious lives of all sorts of men, but begins to be so also in its effects, in the present state of things in the world filled with misery and confusion: For the Wrath of God is many ways revealed from heaven against the ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness: and in many nations the visible tokens and demonstrations of it do abound. For, there is in them no peace; to them that go out, nor to them that come in; but great vexation is upon all their inhabitants. Nation is destroyed of nation, and city of city; for God does vex them with all adversity.
For whatever may be the thoughts and counsels of men in these things, the judgements of God are not merely subservient unto their lusts and passions; it is his own controversy with the world for neglect of the Gospel and opposition unto it that he pleads in them, neither can our present respite in the enjoyment of outward mercies be any evidence unto us, that we are not the objects of the same displeasure. All men are in the same condition among whom the same sins and the same relapses from the power of religion are sound; for God is no respecter of persons, it is indeed an effect of divine patience, which if abused unto security, will issue in a more sore revenge. In the mean time the voice of God unto us in all the miseries and desolations we hear of in the world, is, that unless we repent, we shall all likewise perish. Neither are we altogether left without pregnant warnings among ourselves in many severe dispensations of divine providence. And those who are not utterly hardened through the deceitfulnesse of sin, may easily see the hand of God lifted up in various intimations of his displeasure. But hitherto it must be acknowledged, and ought to be bewailed, that the security of the world seems to be unshaken, and the inundation of sin not to be stemmed in the least measure.
What are the reasons and causes of the present general defection, from the Truth, Power, Holiness and Glory of the Gospel or Christian Religion, I have enquired into and declared in a peculiar treatise designed unto that end. Some few things suited unto the present occasion may be here observed.
All decays in religion begin in individual persons, though it extend itself unto families, and so the infection spreads unto greater societies, ecclesiastical and national. For such also is the order in the genuine progress of the power of religion whereunto it is opposed. The testimony that God gave unto Abraham was, that keeping the way of the Lord himself, he taught and commanded his children and household after him so to do. And if the living power of godliness expressed in the history of Christ, and the Gospel in an holy conversation, be not preserved in individual persons; the profession of the purest religion in churches, or the highest pretence unto it in public, national Acts are neither useful to the souls of men, nor do any way tend unto the glory of God. And the sole use of all outward religious order and profession is lost, where they are not applied unto the generating and promoting of holiness, or evangelical obedience in particular persons. Wherefore if any revival of the power of religion in the world may be yet hoped for; if any stop may be put unto the fatal declension, which it suffers under, the forming and restoring of the principles of it in the hearts and consciences of such persons is the way whereby it must be attempted; from and by them must it be diffused into families, and greater societies: Here must all Reformation begin, or in the use of means suited thereunto.
The general and undoubted reason of all sins and miscarriages amongst men, is the neglect of the holy and perfect rule of obedience, or of the Law of God, without a recourse unto a diligent conscientious attendance thereunto, without a due sense of the authority of God therein; and of the account which they must shortly give of their regard unto it; there can be no just expectation of the re-introduction of the power and glory of religion. And many ways there are, whereby men are diverted from the due consideration of, and holy compliant with this rule.
First, false and corrupt interpretations of the Law, do countenance many in various lusts; and the neglect of manifold duties. The Pharisees of old representing the design and sense of the Law, as regarding outward acts and practices only, laid an axe to the root of all true holiness and religion in the apostatising Church of the Jews. Under a pretence of establishing a false legal righteousness, they destroyed the righteousness of the Law. And these things go together always. Those who plead for a righteousness of their own, as it were by the works of the Law, do constantly by false glosses and interpretations destroy the spirituality, and all animating principles of the Law itself. For, rightly to understand the sense of the law, and to seek for righteousness by it, or as it were by its works, are altogether inconsistent: whereas therefore, many men, partly by their natural blindness, are not able to discern the spiritual sense of the Law, and partly out of their dislike of, and enmity unto it, will not comply with the light which is tendered unto them, they have sought by false interpretations to accommodate the Law itself unto their own lust and inclination. So evidently was it with the Pharisees of old. Nor are the present apprehensions of many about those things much different from theirs. For such expositions of the Law are embraced, wherein there is little respect unto the spiritual frame of the heart, or the internal actings of the adverse principles of sin and obedience. The extent of the Commandment is also by many exceedingly strained, nor will any thing scarcely be allowed to be commanded or forbidden in it, but what the letter does plainly express. And it is evident how such apprehension, will insensibly weaken the sense of a necessity of universal mortification, and abate the diligence of the mind in endeavouring after a renewed spiritual frame of heart; by such means a declension from all true holiness and piety will be effectually promoted. For, when men once begin to satisfy themselves in the outward duties of divine worship and righteousness, which if alone, are but a dead carcass of religion, they will not long abide in a conscientious observation even of them.
Second, the separation of the duties of the Law from the grace of the Gospel, will have the like effect. For this will quickly issue in a pretence of morality, set up its opposition unto true evangelical obedience. And there is no way whereby the whole rule of duty can be rendered more ineffectual and useless unto the souls of men. For take away that reconciliation which is made in Christ between the Law and the Gospel, and it will prove a killing letter only. And so far as this imagination is gone about it quickly manifests itself in its fruits. For every attempt of men against the grace of God will issue in the ruin of morality among themselves.
Such apprehensions as these in a coincidence with abounding temptations suited unto the lusts of all sorts of men, cannot but promote the interest and prevalency of sin and Antichrist in the world. However manifest it is that that is a great neglect and contempt of the holy rule of obedience in the most, with great ignorance and misunderstanding of the design and sense of it in many. Wherefore an upright endeavour to declare and vindicate the authority and meaning of it, as also to make application of it unto the consciences of professed Christians, to direct them in, and press them unto the constant performance of obedience, cannot but be esteemed seasonable, and through the blessing of God may be singularly useful. So our Lord Jesus Christ himself observing the mischief that had befallen the Church by the false exposition of the Law, obtruded on the people by the Pharisees, began his prophetical ministry in the vindica∣tion of it from their corrupting glosses, restoring its pristine crown of purity and spirituality, as the Jews have yet a tradition, that it shall be so in the days of the Messiah.
Thy servant in the work of the LORD, John Owen.
Editor's note: The preface has been edited and reformatted.