John Owen on Elements of Repentance & Sovereign Grace

In two discourses attached to The Glory of Christ John Owen writes to backsliders—or those in spiritual decay—so they might see how grasping hold of Christ through God’s gracious promises in repentance and faith is the means to see our hearts revived. God desires such and has provided the way for our renewal. “The work of recovering backsliders or believers from under their spiritual decays is an act of sovereign grace, wrought in us by virtue of divine promises….Because believers are liable to such declensions, backslidings, and decays, God has provided and given to us great and precious promises of a recovery, if we duly apply ourselves unto the means of it” (Owen, I:454-55).

Owen says this is recorded many places in Scripture but he parks himself in one text, Hosea 14:1-8. In this passage the disease and the remedy is treated. This promise in Hosea was made while Israel as a whole was in sin and had devoted themselves towards iniquity. This is to prove to us that no season or circumstance “shall obstruct sovereign grace, when God will exercise it towards his church” (I:455).

Prone to Wander
God provides the way for this and accomplishes it in us through repentance. “When God designs to heal the backsliding of his people by sovereign grace, he gives them effectual calls unto repentance, and the use of means for their healing; so he does here [in Hosea 14:2] by his prophet ‘O Israel, return, take with you words…’” (I:455). As he moves into his section on what repentance is and looks like he repeats with this header: “The means prescribed unto this end, that our backsliding may be healed in such a way suited unto the glory of God, is renewed repentance” (I:456). Here is what I wanted to bring up in this post, a few brief descriptions and comments by Owen as to the nature of repentance.

First, we come to God in repentance through heartfelt prayer, and the focus of that prayer is twofold. It is first focused on seeking “the pardon of all iniquity” and second focused on “gracious acceptation” (I:456). We ask God to pardon our sins out of his grace, love, and mercy. Then, taking God at His Word that we receive forgiveness through Christ when we genuinely and humbly ask for it, we receive it graciously. Owen writes, “After we have cast ourselves under tokens of thy displeasure, now let us know that we are freely accepted with thee” (I:456). The conviction that our sin brings God’s displeasure must give way for the conviction that God’s forgiveness extended and righteousness provided for in Christ bring God’s pleasure and acceptance with us. And this pleasure and acceptance of us is full and without any reservations and hesitations. Our past sins and remaining sinfulness isn’t sitting in the room reminding us of what we’ve done and keeping God at a safe distance. Our sin is atone for, completely removed, so that all we now is have through our justification in Christ is God’s open-armed acceptance and the smile of his grace towards us.

Second, going back to our confession of sin in seeking God’s pardon, Owen says this prayer should not be a general confession of sin but “Affectionate confessions of the sin wherein their backslidings did consist, or which were the occasions of them” (I:456). In Hosea 14:3 they are to confess their reliance upon Assyria rather than God and their worship of false gods. “Fleshly confidence and false worship were the two great sins that had now ruined the body of the people…Of these sings God expected a full and free confession, order unto our healing” (I:456). In other words, repentance should be specific rather than generic. A wronged person should expect “I’m sorry for (fill in the blank)” rather than a meaningless “I’m sorry” that has no action, words, or behavior in mind. Confession of specific sin means we’re aware of actually wrong committed and we’re naming that wrong as a sin.

Third, this confession includes “a renewed covenant agreement to renounce all other hopes and expectations, and to take to themselves their whole trust and confidence in him” (I:456). Repentance involves both the naming and turning from the sins committed but also a turning to God and embracing his grace, mercy, and righteous ways. We’re not only sorry for what we’ve done but we want to recommit ourselves, by his grace and help, to him. It’s not a mere ceasefire from sin but a peace-treaty rebuilding the relationship. The cause of this is God’s mercy and the effect is our praise and thanksgiving.


Reminders in Our Repentance
In this we might not have a comprehensive doctrine of repentance but we at least see better some of the elements of what heartfelt repentance might look like. A couple other quick reminders from Owen in this. We should remember that our repentance doesn’t earn God’s love and grace, but God’s love and grace is the cause of our repentance. This means our repentance is the means God uses to receive the grace and love he stands ready to offer but it’s not something that earns it, and it also reminds us that God’s grace is the initiating cause behind repairing our relationships and recovering our healing.

He has chosen repentance and faith to be the means and so we cannot receive grace apart from it, but the means leads us back to God himself as the source of grace and restoration. Owen says God’s free, undeserved love is the “principal moving cause” and his pardoning mercy is the “efficient cause” (I:457). God’s gracious love is the motivation behind his actual pouring out of mercy unto us. Here again we are reminded that repentance doesn’t mean getting an angry God off our back, and to do so only to think of Him as still distant and terrifying. Rather, repentance is where we forsake all other (false and corrupting) loves so that we truly experience God’s love for us. It is getting sin out of the way so we might again live under the smile of a gracious and loving God who invites us to draw near.

The second reminder is that all of this then leads to “much more abundant fruitfulness in holiness and obedience, in peace and love, than ever they had attained before” (I:458). Repentance pulls the weeds from out of the soil of our hearts that had been choking out any life and fruitfulness. As we are restored to God and find our hearts again resting in him we are made to flourish again, both inwardly in our affections and outwardly in our obedience.

And all of this is a hope that should not push the backslider away but pull him back to God. When we become aware of and see our sins we often despair of deliverance when we should be revived by such deliverance. “But we see that here is a promise of deliverance from them by pardoning mercy, and also of such fresh springs of grace as shall cause us to abound in holiness and fruitfulness. Who is it that is entangled with corruptions and temptations, that groans under a sense of a cold, lifeless, barren frame of heart? He may take in spiritual refreshment, if by faith he can make application of this promise unto himself” (I:458).

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