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RIGHTEOUS ZEAL ENCOURAGED BY DIVINE PROTECTION: WITH A Discourse About Toleration, And The Duty Of The Civil Magistrate About Religion, Thereunto Annexed.
The following sermon was preached before the House of Commons on January 31, 1648, which had been appointed as a day of solemn humiliation in connection with the event of the preceding day, — the decapitation of Charles I. Accordingly, no sermon of Owen has excited keener discussion. Because he consented to preach in these circumstances, he is held to have connived at a great crime, and actually invested it with the sanctions of religion. In the opinion of Dr. M’Crie (see “Miscellaneous Writings,” p. 501), his conduct in this instance was “the greatest blot on his public life,” and both his text and the title of his sermon could not fail to be interpreted as encouragement to those who had been accessory to the destruction of the unhappy monarch. On the other hand, some, like Mr. Orme, urge that Owen preached by command; that no sentiment of the sermon can be construed as approval of the regicide; and that the very passages (see paragraph at the foot of p. 134 and on p. 136) adduced in proof that Owen concurred in it, indicate his desire to keep free and aloof from the expression of any positive opinion on the subject. A bolder line of defense has been instituted, according to which Owen, like Milton, might have regarded the death of Charles as only the appropriate penalty for a long career of violence and duplicity, during which he had made the blood of the best subjects in the realm to flow like water; and that our author, in preaching on this occasion, might have acted under a sense of duty, while discharging a task solemn and painful certainly, but still a task to which he might feel himself bound by higher considerations than mere regard to the authority which enjoined it. The argument to this effect is stated with great point and ability in his “Life,” etc., volume 1, p. 40. This much is clear, that after the Restoration he was never called to account for his public appearance on this occasion by a government whose measures of vindictive retaliation against the Puritans are notorious. Asty’s explanation of the fact has obvious weight: — “His discourse was so modest and inoffensive, that his friends could make no just exception, nor his enemies take an advantage of his words another day.” — Memoirs, p. 8.
The only public expression of displeasure at this sermon was given in 1683, about a month before the grave closed over its author. In the school quadrangle of the University, — not too rich in honors to repudiate without serious loss the luster shed upon it from the name of its great Puritan Vice-Chancellor, — a document containing some positions, extracted from the sermon and denounced as pernicious and damnable, was publicly burned. He suffered in good company; for propositions from the works of Knox, Buchanan, Baxter, and others, were condemned in the same decree, and committed to the same flames. Some reparation for the insult offered in this mean revenge was made, too late to soothe his feelings, had he needed solace under the affront, but tending so far to rescue his memory from unjust reproach, when, in 1710, by an order from the House of Lords, the Oxford decree was burned by the hands of the common hangman.
It is strange, that the appendix to a sermon preached, as some think, in the very consummation of license and misrule, should be an earnest and able pleading for toleration, in a tone of calmness and moderation rare at any time in controversy, and especially rare in the controversies of that stormy age.
The entire body of the Independents have been blamed for consenting to the death of Charles I., because Owen, the chief ornament of their denomination, was called, in such critical and delicate circumstances, to preach before the House of Commons. Mr. Orme successfully disproves the justice of the charge. Whatever offense Owen may thus have committed, to visit it upon the religious body with which he generally acted, is in accordance neither with the principles of justice nor the facts of history. — ED. D ie Mercurii, 31 Januarii 1648.ORDERED by theCOMMONS assembled in Parliament, That Mr. Allen do give the thanks of this House to Mr. Owen for the great pains he took in his sermon preached before the House this day at Margaret’s, Westminster; and that he be desired to print his sermon at large; wherein he is to have the like privilege of printing it as others in the like kind usually have had. HEN. SCOBELL , Cler. Parl. Dom. Com.
TO THE RIGHT HONORABLE THE COMMONS OF ENGLAND, ASSEMBLED IN PARLIAMENT.
Sirs, IT hath always suited the wisdom of God to do great things in difficult seasons. He sets up walls in troublous times, Daniel 9:25. His builders must hold swords and spears, as well as instruments of labor, Nehemiah 4:16. Yea, while sin continueth in its course here (which began in heaven, and, having contemporized with the earth, shall live forever in hell), great works for God will cause great troubles amongst men. The holy, harmless Reconciler of heaven and earth bids us expect the sword to attend his undertakings for and way of making peace, Matthew 10:34. All the waves in the world arise to their height and roaring from the confronting of the breath of God’s Spirit and the vapors of men’s corruptions. Hence seasons receive their degrees of difficulty according to the greatness and weight of the works which in them God will accomplish. To their worth and excellency is man’s opposition proportioned. This the instruments of his glory in this generation shall continually find true, to their present trouble and future comfort.
As the days approach for the delivery of the decree, to the shaking of heaven and earth, and all the powers of the world, to make way for the establishment of that kingdom which shall not be given to another people (the great expectation of the saints of the Most High before the consummation of all); so tumults, troubles, vexations, and disquietness, must certainly grow and increase among the sons of men.
A dead woman (says the proverb) will not be carried out of her house under four men. Much less will living men of wisdom and power be easily and quietly dispossessed of that share and interest in the things of Christ which long-continued usurpation hath deluded them into an imagination of being their own inheritance. This, then, being shortly to be effected, and the scale being ready to turn against the man of sin, notwithstanding his balancing it, in opposition to the witness of Jesus, with the weight and poise of earthly power; no wonder if heaven, earth, sea, and dry land, be shaken, in their giving place to the things that cannot be moved. God Almighty having called you forth, right honorable, at his entrance to the rolling up of the nation’s heavens like a scroll, ( Isaiah 34:4,5.) to serve him in your generation in the high places of Armageddon, ( Revelation 16:16.) you shall be sure not to want experience of that opposition which is raised against the great work of the Lord, which generally swells most against the visible instruments thereof.
And would to God you had only the devoted sons of Babel to contend withal, — that the men of this shaking earth were your only antagonists, — that the malignity of the dragon’s tail had had no influence on the stars of heaven, to prevail with them to fight in their courses against you! ( Revelation 12:4.) But “jacta est alea,” — the providence of God must be served, according to the discovery made of his own unchangeable will, and not the mutable interests and passions of the sons of men. For verily “the Lord of hosts hath purposed to pollute the pride of all glory, and to bring into contempt all the honorable of the earth,” Isaiah 23:9.
The contradictions of sinners against all that walk in the paths of righteousness and peace, with the supportment which their spirits may receive (as being promised) who pursue those ways, notwithstanding those contradictions, are in part discovered in the ensuing sermon. The foundation of that whole transaction of things which is therein held out, in reference to the present dispensations of Providence, — being nothing but an entrance into the unraveling of the whole web of iniquity, interwoven of civil and ecclesiastical tyranny, in opposition to the kingdom of the Lord Jesus, — I chose not to mention. Neither shall I at present add any thing thereabout, but only my desire that it may be eyed as the granted basis of the following discourse. Only, by your very favorable acceptation of the making out those thoughts, — which were the hasty conception, and, like Jonah’s gourd, the child of a night or two (which, with prayer for a rooting in the hearts of them to whom they were delivered, had certainly withered in their own leaves, had they not received warmth and moisture from your commands in general, and the particular desires of many of you, to give them a life of a few days longer), — I am encouraged to the annexing of a few lines, as a free-will offering to attend the following product of obedience.
Now, this shall not be as to the opposition which you do and shall yet farther meet withal; but as to the causes, real or pretended, which are held forth as the bottom of that contradiction wherewith on every side you are encompassed.
The things in reference whereunto your procedence is laden with such criminations as these sad days of recompense have found to be comets portending no less than blood, are first civil, then religious.
For the first, as their being beyond the bounds of my calling gives them sanctuary from being called forth to my consideration; so neither have I the least thoughts with Absalom of a more orderly carrying on of affairs, might my desires have any influence into their disposal. Waiting at the throne of grace, that those whom God hath intrusted with, and enabled for, the transaction of these things, may be directed and supported in their employment, is the utmost of my undertaking herein.
For the other, or religious things, the general interest I have in them as a Christian, being improved by the superadded title of a minister of the gospel (though unworthy the one name and the other), gives me not only such boldness as accrueth from enjoyed favor, but also such a right as will support me to plead concerning them before the most impartial judicature.
And this I shall do (as I said before) merely in reference to those criminations which are laid by conjectural presumptions on your honorable assembly, and made a cause of much of that opposition and contradiction you meet withal. Now, in particular, it is the toleration of all religions, or invented ways of worship, — wherein your constitutions are confidently antedated in many places of the nation; the thing itself, withal, being held out as the most enormous apprehension, and desperate endeavor, for the destruction of truth and godliness, that ever entered the thoughts of men professing the one and the other. The contest hereabout being “adhuc sub judice,” and there being no doubt but that the whole matter, commonly phrased as above, hath (like other things) sinful and dangerous extremes, I deemed it not amiss to endeavor the pouring a little cold water upon the common flames which are kindled in the breasts of men about this thing.
And who knows whether the words of a weak nothing may not, by the power of the Fountain of beings, give some light into the determination and establishment of a thing of so great concernment and consequence as this is generally conceived to be? What is in this my weak undertaking of the Lord, I shall beg of him that it may be received; — what is of myself, I beg of you that it may be pardoned. That God Almighty would give you to prove all things that come unto you in his way, and to hold fast that which is good, granting you unconquerable assistance in constant perseverance, is the prayer of, Your devoted Servant In our dearest Lord, JOHN OWEN. COGGESHALL, Feb. 38.