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The Divine Power Of The Gospel
by John Owen
"For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation, to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek." Rom. i. 16.
We are not to be ashamed of the professors of the gospel. Our Lord Christ hath laid it down as an everlasting rule, that in them he is honoured or dishonoured in the world. And it is the great rule whereby false professors will be tried at the last day, men who pretend a profession of the name of Christ; as you may see, Matt. xxv. 40, 45, "What you have done unto them, you have done unto me," saith he; "and what you have omitted that ought to have been done to them, you have omitted the doing of it unto me." it is those alone in whom Christ may be honoured or despised in this world; for he is in himself; in his own person, in that condition that our goodness, our honour, extends not immediately unto him: and for the contempt and despising of men, he is not concerned in it.
Hence this is reckoned as the great commendation of the faith of Moses, Heb. xi. 23 26, that he refused all the honours of the world, and all the reputation he might have had, to own and esteem the poor, reproached, despised, persecuted interest of Christ in the world; as he there calls it. He joined himself unto the professors of the faith, in opposition to all the world, and the greatness of it; which was his greatest commendation. And see the pathetical prayer of the apostle Paul for Onesiphorus upon the discharge of this duty, 2 Tim. i. 16 18, "The Lord," saith he, "give mercy to the house of Onesiphorus; for he oft refreshed me, and was not ashamed of my chain: but, when he was in Rome, he sought me out very diligently, and found me.
The Lord grant unto him that he may find mercy of the Lord in that day." Onesiphorus was a man of some credit and repute in the world; poor Paul was a prisoner bound with a chain, that he might have been ashamed to own him: but, instead of that, he sought him out; he was not ashamed of his chain. To be ashamed of the poor professors of the gospel, so in themselves, or made so by the power of oppressors, is to be ashamed of the gospel of Christ, his truths, his worship, and his people.
There is a special kind of profession, that, in its own nature, is exposed to reproach in the world. The apostle Paul tells us, 2 Tim. 1 2, "They that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution." There is (John xv. 4, 5) a being in Christ by profession, and not living godly: for there are branches in the vine by profession, that bring forth no fruit; men that have a profession wherewith they do not trouble the world, and for which the world will not trouble them ; that can go to that length in compliance with the world, and the ways of it, as that they shall not have one drop of the spirit of the witnesses of Christ, who torment the men of the earth.
But "they that will live godly," that is, engage in a profession that shall, upon all occasions, and in all instances, manifest the power of it, they "shall suffer persecution." We see many every day keep up a profession, but such a profession as will not provoke the world. Now, this is to be ashamed of the gospel, to be ashamed of the power and glory of it, to be ashamed of the Author of it. No man can put Jesus Christ to greater shame, than by professing the gospel without showing the power of it.
I shall now give the reasons why we ought not in any thing to be ashamed of the gospel of Christ. I speak unto persons that are under a conviction that such and such things belong unto the gospel. If we are not, what makes us here this day? I do not go to persuade any that this or that worship, or this or that way, is according to the gospel; but I suppose a conviction thereof to be upon us: upon a supposition of which conviction and persuasion I shall offer these reasons why we ought not to be ashamed of the gospel. And,
1. The first is this: Because Christ, the captain of our salvation, and the great example of our obedience, was not ashamed of all that he had to undergo for us.
There are two things that greatly aggravate things shameful, and press, if possible, shame upon a person:
(1.) The dignity of the person that is exposed to things shameful, It is more for a person honourable, noble, and in repute for wisdom in the world, to be exposed to indignities, reproaches, and things shameful, as the apostle speaks, than for beggars, poor vile persons of no repute. Now, consider the person of Christ, who he was, and what he was. He was the eternal Son of God, the "first-born of the whole creation:" and as, in his divine nature, he was " the express" (the essential) "image of the Father;" so in his whole person, as incarnate, he was the glory of all the works of God.
And the apostle, when he would set out the great condescension of Christ in submitting unto things shameful, doth at the same time describe the greatness and glory of his person, Phil. ii. 6 8, "He made himself;" says he, "of no reputation; he took upon him the form of a servant, and he was obedient unto the death of the cross;" which three things, as I could show you, are comprehensive of all that was shameful to Christ. But at the same time that he tells us what he did, how doth he describe him? When he did so, he was "in the form of God, and accounted it no robbery to be equal with God." He was the great God in his own person, and equal with the Father; yet then this honourable one condescended to all things shameful and reproachful in the world.
(2.) Shame is aggravated from the causes and matter of it There are various things that cause shame. Some are put to shame by reproaches, scandals, lies; some, by poverty; some, by imprisonment; and some, by death, made shameful by the ways, means, and preparations for it. By which of these was Christ now made an object of shame? By all of them, and inconceivably more than any heart is able to apprehend, or tongue to express. He was reproached as a wine-bibber and a glutton; as a seditious person and mover of sedition; as a fanatic, and one beside himself.
He was in that state of poverty, that, during the whole course of his ministry, he had not where to lay his head, nor any thing to live upon, but what good people administered unto him of their substance. In the midst of this course he was taken praying; when, he told them, they might have taken him at any time. "I was," says he, "in the temple openly; I sat daily with you teaching in the temple, and ye laid no hold on me." He was taken by soldiers with swords and staves, as a thief and malefactor; apprehended, carried away, and hanged upon a tree (the shamefulest death then in the world), in the midst of Jews and Gentiles; with both which sorts of men that kind of death was the most shameful.
The Romans put none to that sort of death but slaves, thieves and robbers, the worst malefactors: and among the Jews it was the only kind of death that was accursed, Deut.. xxi. 23, "He that is hanged on the tree is accursed of God; " which words our apostle repeats, and applies them to Christ, Gal. iii. 13. How did Christ behave himself now, as to all these shameful things that came upon him? Hear the prophet expressing of it in his name, Isa. 1. 6, 7, "I gave my back to the smiters, and my cheeks to them that plucked off the hair" (the usual way of dealing with persons in such cases; "I hid not my face from shame and spitting.
For the Lord GOD will help me; therefore shall I not be confounded: I know that I shall not be ashamed." Did he recoil, or go back from his work? did he repent of it? No; "'Thy law is written in my heart;' I am content 'to do thy will, O God." And in the issue of the whole, Heb. xii. 2, "He despised the shame, and endured the cross;" which made way for his glory.
Now, here lies the foundation of our reason: If the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, being engaged purely out of his own love in a work for us poor, vile, sinful worms of the earth, whom he might have left justly to perish under the wrath of God, which we had deserved, underwent all these shameful things, and never had a recoiling thought to draw back and leave us to ourselves; have we not an obligation of love, gratitude, and obedience, not to be ashamed of those few drops of this great storm that may possibly fall upon us in this world for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ?
Can we be disciples of Christ, and yet think in this matter to be above our Master? Can we be his servants, and think to be above our Lord? We are delicate and tender, and would fain have all men speak well of us; but we must come to another frame, if we intend to be the disciples of Christ. What would be the issue of our account at the last day, if he should inquire of us what we have done in reference to the profession of the gospel? whether we have observed all those duties that we have had a conviction upon our spirits and consciences we ought to observe and perform, in the assembling of ourselves, in the dispensation of the word, in the celebration of ordinances, in prayer, fasting, hearing the word, and all those things which the gospel requires of us?
Should we make that answer, "Truly, Lord, we thought all very good; but were afraid, if we engaged in them, we should have been exposed to all the reproach, contempt, and trouble in the world: it would have brought trouble upon our persons, and the spoiling of our goods; it would have brought us into great distress." What would then be the reply, according to the rule of the gospel, but, "Stand upon your own bottom. That was my day, these were things I required of you: you were ashamed of me; I am now ashamed of you"? Certainly this would be a woful issue of it. But,
2. The second reason is this: That whatsoever state or condition we may be brought into, upon the account of the gospel, the Lord Jesus Christ will not be ashamed of us in that state and condition. I told you before, in the opening of the words, that shame principally respects dishonour and disreputation; that the things we are engaged in are vile, contemptible, exposed to reproach. Now if a man, in any thing he is called in question about, have those who are great and honourable to abide by him, and own the cause wherein he is engaged, whatever other affections be may have, it will take off his shame.
Now, this great and honourable person will not be ashamed of us in any condition, Heb. ii. 11, "He is not ashamed to call them brethren." "But suppose they arc poor, and have nothing left them in this world ?" It is all one. "Suppose they are in prison ?" Christ will stand by them, and say, "These are my brethren." The word ejpaiscujnetai, "ashamed," is there used peculiarly in respect to those shameful things that may befall us in this world. Notwithstanding all these sufferings, yet "he is not ashamed to call them brethren." "Doth he go no farther ?" Yes: Heb. xi. 16, "Wherefore" (speaking directly to this cause in hand) "God is not ashamed to be called their God."
What is the reason it is so expressed? The words are emphatical. Look upon the two Parties that are in the world ; the one great, wise, glorious, powerful, and at liberty; the other poor, despised, contemned all the world over. God comes into the world and sees these two parties. Which, now, do you think he owns? Is it not a shame for the great and glorious God to own poor, despised, contemned, reproached, persecuted ones? No: God "is not ashamed to be called their God;" their God in particular, their God in covenant, one that owns them in opposition to all the world, with whom they have to conflict. Oh, that we would persuade our hearts in every duty that this is our state, that Jesus Christ stands by, and saith, "I am not ashamed of you!" God stands by, and saith, "I am not ashamed to be owned to be your God!" Is not this great encouragement?
3. The third reason is, Because in the profession of the gospel we are called to nothing at all that is shameful in the judgment of an sober, wise, rational, judicious man. If the profession of the gospel called us unto any thing that is vile, dishonourable, unholy, of ill report among men, certainly we had reason to be extremely cautious of our practising of it. But is it any shame to own God to be our God, to own Jesus Christ to be our Lord and Master, to profess we must yield obedience unto the commands of Christ?
Is there any shame in praying, in hearing of the word of God, in preaching of it according to his mind and will? Is there any shame in fasting, in godly conference? Let all the world be judge whether there be any thing shameful in these things, which are good, useful, honourable to all mankind. The gospel calls to nothing that is shameful. Therefore the old heathens were so wise that they would not, against the light of nature, oppress the assemblies of Christians, where there was nothing shameful; and therefore they charged all shameful things upon them. The whole vogue of the world was, that they met together to further promiscuous lusts and seditions.
They made that their pretence; they durst not disturb them merely upon the account of their profession. And it is so still. Men little know that we will not, dare not, cannot, take the name of our God in vain, and prostitute any ordinance of God, to give tile least semblance to any seditious practice. Whatsoever violence may come upon tile disciples of Christ, they had rather (lie than prostitute an ordinance of Christ, to give the least countenance or semblance to any such thing. The gospel calls us to nothing that bath any reproach in it.
If men will esteem the strict profession of the gospel praying, hearing the word, abstinence from sin to be shameful things; if they will count it strange that we run not out into the same excess of riot with themselves; shall we stand to the judgment of such sensualists, that live in a perpetual contradiction to themselves, who profess that they honour Christ, and at the same time reproach every thing of Christ in the world? We have no reason, then, to be ashamed of the gospel, which requires no shameful thing at our hands, nothing that is evil and hurtful to man. kind; nothing but what is good, holy, beautiful, commendable, and useful unto all societies of mankind. And we dare not prostitute the least part of an ordinance to the encouraging any disorder in this world, and therein take the name of our God in vain.
4. The fourth reason is that which the apostle gives us, Heb. xii 1, "We are compassed about with a cloud of witnesses," to this very end and purpose. In the preceding chapter he had given a catalogue of many under the Old Testament, patriarchs and prophets (time would have failed him to reckon up all), who signally manifested they were not ashamed of the gospel, and the promises of it, whatever difficulties did befall them. "And now," saith the apostle, "you have 'a cloud of witnesses,' the great examples of those holy souls that are now at rest with God, enjoying the triumphs of Christ over all his adversaries.
They were, as you are, conflicting in this world with reproaches, adversaries, persecution; and they had this issue by faith, they made a conquest over all" And James says, "You have, my brethren, the prophets and apostles for your examples." The Lord help us, to take the example they have set us, Acts v. 41, when they went away triumphing that they were counted worthy to suffer shame and reproach for the name of Christ! The Lord help us, that we dishonour not the gospel by giving the world reason to say, that there is a race of professors risen up now who have no manner of conformity to them who went before them in the profession of the gospel!
5. The next reason I shall insist upon is taken out of the text, the particular reason the apostle here gives why he was not ashamed of it. "I am not ashamed," saith he, "of the gospel of Christ; for it is the power of God to salvation to all that believe." We talk of profession of the gospel. "What is it," say some, "but canting among yourselves, speaking things unintelligible?" Such kind of expressions are cast upon it in the world. But, saith the apostle, "This gospel we profess is quite another thing than you dream or think of; and we profess it no other, nor ever will engage one day in the profession of the gospel any farther, than as it comes under this account, that 'it is the power of God unto salvation.'" Manifest to me that any way or parcel of the gospel which we do profess, or practise, hath not time power of God in it and upon it, towards the furtherance of salvation, and I will throw off that profession.
But you will ask, perhaps, "In what sense is the gospel the power of God ?" I answer, In a threefold sense:
(1.) Negatively: there is not any other power in it. The world saw that there was a great efficacy in the gospel, and they knew not whence it was; but they charged it upon two things: First, Upon the matter of it, that it was a cunningly-devised fable. So the apostle Peter tells us, 2 Epist. i. 16, "We have not followed cunningly devised fables, when we made known unto you the power of Christ" The. world charged it so, and thought that gave it its efficacy. Secondly, There was another thing to which they thought its efficacy was owing, and that was the eloquence and power of its preachers.
"The preachers of it were surely eloquent, excellent men, that they could so prevail upon the people, and win them over to the gospel." No; saith the apostle, 1 Cor. ii. 4, 5, "My speech and preaching was not with enticing words of man's wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit, and of power; that your faith should not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God." But let not men mistake; the efficacy of the gospel is owing to neither of these causes, but to the divine power that accompanies it.
(2.) It was the power of God declaratively; it made known the power of God. So our apostle declares in the very next words to the text. "For therein," saith he, "is the righteousness of God revealed." It bath made a revelation of the way whereby God will save men. It makes a revelation of that power which God puts forth for the salvation of men.
(3.) It is the power of God instrumentally. It is the instrument God puts forth to effect his great and mighty works in the world. Preaching is looked upon as a very foolish thing in the world. "We preach Christ crucified, to the Greeks foolishness," 1 Cor. i. 23. But God bath chosen this foolish thing to confound the wise. And though the preachers of it are very weak men, mere earthen vessels, God bath chosen this weak thing to bring to nought things that are strong and mighty, the things of this world. Therefore (Acts xx. 32) it is called "The word of God's grace, which is able to build us up, and to give us an inheritance among all them which are sanctified."
The plain preaching of it hath this power upon the souls of men, to convince them, convert them, draw them home to God; to expose them to all troubles in this world; to make them let go their reputation and livelihood, and expose themselves even to death itself. It is the power of God to these ends and purposes; God hath made it his instrument for that end. If it were the power of God to give peace and prosperity unto a nation, or to heal the sick, there is no man need or ought to be ashamed of it; but to be time power of God for so excellent an end as the eternal salvation of the souls of men, makes it much more glorious.
The gospel we profess, all the parts of it, every thing wherein it is engaged, is that whereby God puts forth his power to save our poor souls, and the souls of them who believe; and the Lord God never lay it to the charge of any who would hinder the dispensation of the gospel unto this end and purpose! It were sad for men to keep corn from the poor, physic from the sick, that lie a-dying; but to keep the word of God from the souls of men, that they might be saved, Lord, lay it not to the charge of any!
The Author of the gospel was not ashamed of his work he engaged in on our behalf; is not ashamed of us in any of our sufferings, in any of the shameful things we may undergo. The gospel requires no shameful thing at our hands, puts us upon no duty that can justly expose us to shame; the things are good, useful, honourable to men. We have a cloud of witnesses about us; and if any man require of us what this gospel is which we profess, and an account whereupon we profess it, we can make this answer, "'It is the power of God unto salvation;' and for that end alone do we profess it."
I might speak to some farther reasons, to show why this duty is indispensably necessary; for, as I said, it is not only that we ought not to be ashamed, but the duty is indispensable. And I thought to have spoken to those two heads, which alone make a duty indispensable, that we may not upon any account be against it; because it is necessary, as we say, "necessitate pręcepti," and likewise "necessitate medii;" that is, both upon the command of Christ, and upon the account of the order of the things themselves.
It is necessary upon the command of Christ, because he hath required it at our hands; and under that condition, that if ever we intend to be owned by him at the last day, we should own his gospel in the profession of it. All the world, and all our own things, and all the injunctions of the sons of men, cannot give a dispensation to our souls to exempt them from under the authority of the commands of Christ. Let us look unto ourselves; we are under the commands of Christ, and there is no one particular duty to be avoided but what must be accommodated to this rule. And not only so, But it is necessary also from the order of things: Christ bath appointed it as a means for that great end of bringing our souls to salvation. As well may a man arrive to a city, and never come into the way that leads unto it, as we go to rest with Christ, and never come to the profession of the gospel, nor abide by it: this is the way that leads unto it.
I have done with what I thought to deliver upon this doctrine; and among many uses that might he made, I shall only commend one unto you; without which it will he utterly impossible that any of us shall be able, at the long-run, to keep up to the profession of the gospel, or any duty of it. And that is this: Use. Get an experience of the power of the gospel, and all the ordinances of it, in and upon your own hearts, or all your profession is an expiring thing; unless, I say, you find the power of God upon your own hearts in every ordinance, expect not any continuance in your profession. If the preaching of the word be not effectual unto the renewing of your souls, the illuminating of your minds, the endearing of your hearts to God, if you do not find power in it, you will quickly reason with yourselves upon what account should you adventure trouble and reproach for it.
If you have an experience of this power upon your hearts, it will recover all your recoiling, wandering thoughts, when you find you cannot live without it. It is so as to every ordinance whatever; unless we can have some experience of the benefit of it, and of the power and efficacy of the grace of God in it, we can never expect to abide in our profession of it. What will you bear witness unto? an empty, bare profession, that neither honoureth God nor doth good to your own souls?
If you would, then, be established in this truth, of not being ashamed of the gospel, recall to your minds what benefit you have received by it. Have you received any advantage by hearing the word? hath it at any time restored your souls when you have been wandering? hath it comforted you when you have been cast down? hath it engaged your hearts unto God? Recall to mind what benefit and advantage you have had by it; and then ask what it hath done, that now you should forsake it. And in every ordinance that you are made partakers of; inquire diligently what power of God upon your own hearts goes forth in the dispensation of that ordinance. This will confirm and strengthen you; and without this all your profession is vain, and will signify nothing.