Temptation and Sin: A Practical Exposition Upon Psalm 130 Book Review
Together in 2019, we have been exploring John Owen’s Volume 6: Temptation and Sin and discovering why Owen is known as “the Prince of the Puritans,” the foremost Puritan writer. Up to this point, we have investigated the first three books in Volume 6:
- On the Mortification of Sin in Believers
- On Temptation
- On Indwelling Sin in Believers
- A Practical Exposition Upon Psalm 130
This month our exploration concludes with the fourth and final work, A Practical Exposition Upon Psalm 130, a study in forgiveness and assurance.
Part 4 of 4: A Practical Exposition Upon Psalm 130
Psalm 130 held special significance in Owen’s experience as a Christian. When speaking with Pastor Richard Davis, Owen shared:
I myself preached Christ some years, when I had but very little, if any experimental acquaintance with access to God through Christ; until the Lord was pleased to visit me with sore affliction, whereby I was brought to the mouth of the grave, and under which my soul was oppressed with horror and darkness; but God graciously relieved my spirit by a powerful application of Psalm 130:4, "But there is forgiveness with thee, that thou mayest be feared;" from whence I received special instruction, peace, and comfort, in drawing near to God through the Mediator, and preached thereupon immediately after my recovery. (i)
In this exchange with Pastor Davis, we catch a glimpse into the depths Owen’s soul was brought to when contemplating his sin.
Often, we view gifted theologians, such as John Owen or John Calvin, as spiritual titans who parse God’s Word with expert clarity and precision; however, we forget that these men shared the same struggles, perplexities, and weaknesses that every follower of Christ does. Owen’s acute awareness of his sin, united with his keen ability to expound Scripture with profundity and depth, make his writings a treasure. When reading his works, you get the sense that a friend who cares about your soul is speaking to you. For Owen, the end of the knowledge of God and the study of doctrine consists in actual practice—in worshipping, serving, and glorifying the Triune God.
As one who experienced sorrow over his sin and sought assurance of forgiveness, Owen penned A Practical Exposition Upon Psalm 130 (from here on called Exposition) and published it in 1668. In 325 pages, he delves into the eight verses of Psalm 130, but the crowning point of this work is he devotes close to three-quarters of it to mining the treasure of God’s Fatherly wisdom in verse 4: “But there is forgiveness with thee, that thou mayest be feared.” In this verse, Owen found a spring of refreshment for his thirsty soul. He devotes the majority of this treatise to it to communicate to the Christian reader the manifold peace and consolation found in the knowledge that there is forgiveness with God.
Understanding that there is forgiveness with God because of the finished work of Christ, is the central jewel of the Gospel. As Christians, we spend a lifetime comprehending the breadth and length, the height and depth, of God’s love for us in Christ. Ephesians 4:19 tells us that this love surpasses knowledge. So, in light of the enormous sacrifice of God’s only Son to purchase our salvation, why do we struggle to trust God with simple daily worries? Why do our outward afflictions perplex us so? John Owen explores the answers to these questions by studying Psalm 130 and opens with an investigation into the state and condition of the psalmist’s soul.
Experiencing the Depths
In verse 1, the psalmist laments, “Out of the depths have I cried unto thee, O Lord.” What are these depths? Owen shares that “depths” in Hebrew can be understood as “profundis,” a term which is “commonly used for valleys, or any deep places whatever, but especially of waters.” (ii) In well-known Psalm 23, we read of “the valley of the shadow of death” and know that valleys are commonly used in Scripture as a word picture for trials and hard providences, times of intense loneliness and trouble. Owen argues that understanding the state of the psalmist’s soul is the hinge upon which Psalm 130 turns. The psalmist’s great perplexity at being in “the depths” is the reason for why he cries out to God.
Owen takes great pains to explain the state and condition of the psalmist’s soul. To give you an idea of Owen’s thoroughness, he summarizes ancient writers, such as early church father Chrysostom’s opposing views of what it means to be in “the depths.” He also includes the Greek rendering of Psalm 130 and often isolates particular words or phrases in the Greek to further expound on the passage. I imagine that pastors or laymen who have knowledge of the Greek language will benefit greatly from Owen’s careful and scholarly labor.
While Owen’s work is marked by scholarship, it is not impersonal or dry. He communicates biblical truth with great pastoral care. Having wrestled with his own indwelling sin and written an entire work on the subject, Owen understands the wandering human heart and always aims to have God’s Word shepherd the heart.
Seeking Jehovah Earnestly
After establishing the psalmist’s despondency, Owen shows that the foremost business of a soul in “the depths” is to seek God earnestly. In verse 2, the psalmist fervently prays, “Lord, hear my voice; let thine ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications.” Here, the psalmist calls upon God with the name “Jehovah,” and Owen highlights the significance of using this name which is unique to the God of the Bible. Jehovah is the name God used to describe himself to his people in Exodus 3 when he assured Moses that he was intimately concerned with his people being slaves in Egypt, and he was coming to save them. Thus, Jehovah is God’s covenant name between himself and his people. In this special name, God declares his self-existence and eternal nature, and also reveals he is a personal God concerned with the welfare of his people. Learning that Jehovah is the name the psalmist uses to call upon God, teaches us how we can ponder God’s name and its meaning in prayer and therefore grow in our private prayer lives.
Next, in the third verse Owen brings our attention to another name used to describe God: “If thou, Lord, shouldest mark iniquities, O Lord, who shall stand?” In this question, the name used for God is “Jah,” a name that has the same root as Jehovah yet expresses another facet of God’s character. While the name Jah is seldom used, Owen explains that it denotes the terrible majesty of God as seen in Psalm 68:4: “He rideth on the heavens, and is extolled by his name Jah.” Understanding that Jah is the name used in Psalm 130:3 is key to understanding the thrust of this verse because it shows that as the psalmist is considering his sin, he is keenly aware of the terrible majesty of God. This leads the psalmist to ask the rhetorical question, “If God counts sin against us, who can stand?” Owen helps us understand the rhetorical nature of this query by expounding, “This ‘who,’ is none; no man; not one in the world.” (iii)
Verse three demonstrates the psalmist’s conviction over his sin, and at this point, Owen takes the opportunity to caution the Christian reader of common pitfalls facing persons convicted in sin. When the Holy Spirit convicts us of sin, we are not to remain desponding over the vileness of our sin but instead should go to Christ for forgiveness. Like a friend who cares for our souls, Owen pastorally warns that to rest in self-abasement is to rest in self-righteousness. We are not to place our trust or comfort in our humiliation over our sin, rather, we are to go to Christ and fully lean and trust in him for “Christ is the only rest of our souls.” (iv)
Discovering Forgiveness Belongs to God
Subsequently, verse four reveals the psalmist does not remain desponding in sin and reaches the spring of refreshment Owen found, “But there is forgiveness with thee, that thou mayest be feared.” At this climactic point, the design and scope of Psalm 130 is realized, and as a result, it is no surprise that Owen devotes nearly three-quarters of Exposition to plumbing the depths of the mysteries of God’s forgiveness. Owen analyzes verse four in a series of discourses totaling 227 pages. How can this much material be written for one single verse? My speculation is after writing on the sobering topics of mortification of sin, temptation, and indwelling sin, Owen relishes the opportunity to study and inquire into God’s forgiveness, including the abundant peace and consolation it provides to the earnest, seeking soul.
Owen starts off by explaining the original Hebrew word for forgiveness is a “word of favour,” (v) pregnant in meaning, and can be rendered as propitiation, grace, pardon. This word denotes three ideas: (1) it reveals God’s gracious, tender, merciful heart and will to forgive and pardon, (2) the propitiation of Christ is the substance and fulfillment of this gracious heart of God, and (3) it teaches actual forgiveness itself for the sinner in that God forgives by an act of grace and we passively receive this forgiveness and become partakers of it.
Following on the idea of forgiveness, Owen further expounds verse four by highlighting the metonymy contained in the second half of the verse: “that thou mayest be feared.” A metonymy is a figure of speech in which a thing or concept is referred to by an attribute or adjunct of that original thing or concept. So, for example, “suit” can be used to stand for business executive and “crown” for king. A more complex example is: “Milton can be used to signify the writings of John Milton (‘I have read all of Milton’).” (vi) Thus, in verse four, the smaller adjunct “that thou mayest be feared” expresses the larger idea of “that thou mayest be served, worshipped; that I, who am ready to faint and give over on the account of sin, may yet be encouraged unto, and yet continue in, that obedience which thou requirest at my hands.” (vii) Consequently, to fear God is a comprehensive expression of his entire worship and all our duty to him.
After opening up the basic structure of verse four, Owen launches into several discourses on forgiveness and assurance. In these discourses, the substance and marrow of Exposition is found. While it is not the purpose of a book review to summarize them all, I will include a few details about my favorites to give you a taste of what to expect. As was the custom in Owen’s day, the title of each discourse is a lengthy sentence.
A stirring one includes: “The true nature of gospel forgiveness—Its relation to the goodness, grace, and will of God; to the blood of Christ; to the promise of the gospel—The considerations of faith about it.” Here, Owen connects the dots between the gospel, forgiveness, the goodness of God, the blood of Christ, and the promise of the gospel. He emphasizes how forgiveness springs from God’s infinite goodness and explains, “All the acts of his will are the effects of his nature.” (viii) Thus, the act of forgiveness flows forth from God’s gracious nature.
In discovering forgiveness, the sinner learns God’s heart for him—that the God of all creation has poured out his wrath on his only Son to adopt enemies into his family. In this incomprehensible act of grace, the Father sent his Son to be the great means of procuring and purchasing forgiveness, and thus Christ is the central focal point of the gospel. As we ponder God’s forgiveness, we inquire into his gracious nature, the good pleasure of his will, the purpose of his grace, and the infinite mystery of sacrificing his Son. God’s gracious heart and actual pardon meet in the atonement of Christ. Consequently, our faith fixes on the mediatorial work of Christ, and therein we behold the infinite goodness of God. These are the thoughts we need to bathe our minds in, inquire into, and exercise in our hearts. They counterpose our sorrows, our perplexities, our losses; and when we find ourselves in the depths, these precious truths lead us home to Christ, the lover of our souls.
For the Christian seeking gospel peace and assurance, Owen includes a discourse titled: “Spend not time in heartless complaints.” This chapter has an “old-school” feel to it, and Owen does not mince words. He instructs the follower of Christ not to waste time in faithless complaints, but instead to be industrious and active in seeking God. To this end, he exhorts the believer to engage in earnest prayer and vigorous spiritual diligence, and also cautions against walking slothfully and carelessly. Furthermore, he warns that participating in heartless complaints while making excuses to keep from diligent use of the means of grace (being in the Word and prayer) is not the way towards peace and assurance.
Three Reasons to Read Owen
Owen’s Volume 6: Temptation and Sin is a comprehensive work in understanding the ongoing battle Christians have against sin and the great forgiveness God gives to his children because of the perfect sacrifice of his son, Jesus. Owen wrote the four books contained in this volume in the 1600’s; however, it was not until the 1800’s that these books were organized into the single Volume 6: Temptation and Sin by Scottish Presbyterian William H. Goold.
When Goold compiled The Works of John Owen, he divided them into three categories: Doctrinal, Practical, and Controversial (polemical). Volume 6: Temptation and Sin marks the first work in the “Practical” category, and this provides Reason #1 to read Owen: his works are supremely practical. For Owen, the purpose of the study of God is to worship, love, and serve the Triune God. Reason #2: his works are marked by profundity and depth. Owen’s exegesis of Scripture is thorough and thought-provoking, always he writes with the purpose of having God’s Word mold and shape the Christian’s mind and heart, and propelling the believer onward towards maturity in Christ. And finally, Reason #3: his works are classics. Owen went home to the Lord on August 24, 1683; yet over 300 years later, his works have endured. In reading Owen, you will find that he desires his reader to not just have cognitive knowledge of God but to have the truths from the Bible penetrate into one’s soul, and thereby, to experience the strong hope and consolation that comes through the discovery that there is forgiveness with God—ultimately, this is why his works are classics.
i John Owen, The Works of John Owen Volume VI (Johnstone & Hunter, 1850-1853; repr., Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1967), 324.
ii Owen, The Works of John Owen Volume VI, 330.
iii Owen, The Works of John Owen Volume VI, 360.
iv Owen, The Works of John Owen Volume VI, 379.
v Owen, The Works of John Owen Volume VI, 381.
vi M.H. Abrams, A Glossary of Literary Terms Sixth Edition (Orlando, FL: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1993), 69.
vii Owen, The Works of John Owen Volume VI, 383.
viii Owen, The Works of John Owen Volume VI, 399.
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