Here in chapter 12, Owen presents us with his 8th Direction for mortifying sin, which is to “use and exercise thyself to such meditations as may serve to fill thee at all times with self-abasement, and thoughts of thine own vileness” (119). This is to build up within us a hatred against the sin that longs to destroy us. For this, Owen has one subject of meditation chiefly in mind: God.
First, Owen says, “be much in thoughtfulness of the excellency of the majesty of God and thine infinite, inconceivable distance from him. Many thoughts of it cannot but fill thee with a sense of thine own vileness, which strikes deep at the root of any indwelling sin” (119). He notes that scriptural accounts of men encountering the glory of the LORD always result in their own self-abasement. In the radiant light of God’s holy purity, human pride is made humble. We must, therefore, “think greatly of the greatness of God” (120).
When was the last time that you set apart only meditate upon the greatness of God?
He then spends the remainder of the chapter explaining and clarifying his second suggestion for meditating on God: “Think much of thine unacquaintedness with him: though thou knowest enough to keep thee low and humble, yet how little a portion is it that thou knowest of him” (120)! He explains that this consideration is “of great use in our walking with God” as long as it is held beside the boldness that we have in Christ to come to God (120), for even the greatest of saints (he uses Moses as a particular example) “yet in this life know but a very little of him and his glory” (121)
We speak much of God; can talk of him, his ways, his works, his counsels, all the day long: the truth is, we know very little of him; our thoughts, our meditations, our expressions of him, are low, many of them unworthy of his glory, none of them reaching his perfections.121
But we are in a significantly different place than Moses was. Moses was given the revelation of God’s law, but we have now received the gospel of Christ, who is the image of the invisible God. Since we have the greater revelation of Christ, can we still say that we “know but a very little of him and his glory”?
Owen’s answer is threefold. First, he acknowledges that the revelation of God that we have in Christ is greater by far than God’s revelation to the saints of the Old Testament. Second, he argues that the “peculiar sight which Moses had of God (Exod. 34) was a gospel sight, a sight of God as gracious, etc., while still it is called but his back parts” (122). Third, he cites Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 13:12 that “for now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.” Indeed, referencing the previous verse (1 Corinthians 13:11), Owen states that “we, for the most part, but lisp and babble, and say we know not what, in our most accurate (as we think) conceptions and notions of God. We may love, honour, believe and obey our Father; and therewith he accepts our childish thoughts, for they are but childish” (123). One day our childish understandings of God begin to fade away as we behold His glory face to face, but until that day, we must recognize our childish understandings of who God is.
Continuing to spur us further into meditating on how little we really know of God, Owen asks us to consider two more points. First, “we know so little of God, because it is God who is thus to be known” (124). How can we who are finite ever hope to fully know the Infinite One. “The utmost of the best of our thoughts of the being of God, is that we can have no thoughts of it. Our knowledge of a being is but low, when it mounts no higher than only to know that we know it not” (125). God, of course, graciously reveals Himself to us through His Word; however, we do not truly grasp all that He tells us. We are children repeating what our Father says.
Second, “we know little of God, because it is faith alone whereby here we know him” (126). As 2 Corinthians 5:7 says, “we walk by faith, not by sight.” This, of course, means that the object of our faith remains unseen to us. We do not yet have a clear vision of God because we behold Him by faith.
Owen then presents another objection: “But you will say, all this is true, yet it is only so to them that, perhaps, know not God as he is revealed in Jesus Christ” (127). His answer this time is fivefold. First, “the truth is, we all of us know enough of him to love him more than we do, to delight in him and serve him, obey him, put our trust in him, above all that we have hitherto attained” (128). Second, while the revelation of God through the gospel of Christ is far more glorious than His revelation through the law, it does not show us the fullness of God as we will one day see Him. Third, (this one is worth quoting in its entirety):
The difference between believers and nonbelievers as to knowledge, is not so much in the matter of their knowledge, as in the manner of knowing. Unbelievers, some of them, may know more, and be able to say more, of God, his perfections and his will than many believers; but they know nothing as they ought, nothing in a right manner, nothing spiritually and savingly, nothing with a holy, heavenly light. The excellency of a believer is not that he hath a large apprehension of things; but that what he doth apprehend, which perhaps may be very little, he sees in the light of the Spirit of God, in a saving, soul-transforming, and this is that which gives us communion with God, and not prying thoughts, or curious raised questions.129
Fourth, he admits fully that Christ reveals God so that we may know Him as our Father and obey Him here until, at last, we spend our eternity with Him; however, for his fifth answer, “it is but a little portion we know of him” (129). He notes that it is not the purpose of the gospel to always unveil God’s essence to us; rather, it reveals enough of Him to enable us to walk with Him by faith. Furthermore, “we are dull and slow of heart to receive the things that are in the Word revealed” (130).
How does God’s revelation in Christ differ from God’s revelation through Moses?
Even so, why have we still only seen God’s back parts?
But what does all of this have to do with mortifying sin? “Will not a due apprehension of this inconceivable greatness of God, and that infinite distance wherein we stand from him, fill the soul with a holy and awful fear of him, so as to keep it in a frame unsuited to the thriving or flourishing of any lust whatever” (130)? Indeed, by gazing long upon the holiness of God, we will inevitably see ourselves and our sin as we really are.
How does beholding the greatness of God fight against our sin?
Note: page numbers are for this edition of the book.