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The Spirit’s Conviction with Respect to Righteousness: Owen on John 16:8 and Law & Gospel, Part 1

10 October, 2008

When [the Spirit] comes, he will convict the world of guilt in regard to sin and righteousness and judgment…

Here is the first of two posts featuring an exploration from John Owen of the second of these three convictions Jesus mentioned. It’s long, but well worth the reading. His description of the law/gospel dynamic is really rich here. In this first post he talks of conviction of righteousness with respect to the law:

Knowing Ourselves in Reference to Righteousness

Righteousness is a second thing whereof the Spirit of Christ convinces the world, and the main thing that it is our wisdom to be acquainted with. This all men are persuaded of, that God is a most righteous God (that is a natural notion of God which Abraham insisted on: “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?” Gen 18:25). They “know that this is the judgment of God, that they who commit such things are worthy of death” (Rom 1:32); that “it is a righteous thing with him to recompense tribulation unto offenders” (2 Thess 1:6). He is “a God of purer eyes than to behold evil” (Hab 1:3); and therefore, “the ungodly cannot stand in judgment” (Ps 1:5). Hence the great inquiry of every one (who lies in any measure under the power of it), convinced of immorality and the judgment to come, is concerning the righteousness wherewith to appear in the presence of this righteous God….

Unto men set upon this inquiry, that which first and naturally presents itself, for their direction and assistance, assuredly promising them a righteousness that will abide the trial of God, provided they will follow its direction, is the law. The law has many fair pleas to prevail with a soul to close with it for a righteousness before God. It was given out from God himself for that end and purpose; it contains the whole obedience that God requires of any of the sons of men; it has the promise of life annexed to it: “Do this, and live” [Luke 10:28; Lev 18:5]; “The doers of the law are justified” [Rom 2:13]; and, “If you will enter into life, keep the commandments” [Matt 19:17] — yea, it is most certain that it must be wholly fulfilled, if we ever think to stand with boldness before God. This being some part of the plea of the law, there is no man that seeks after righteousness but does, one time or another, attend to it and attempt its direction. Many do it every day, who yet will not own that so they do. This, then, they set themselves about — laboring to correct their lives, amend their ways, perform the duties required, and so follow after a righteousness according to the prescript of the law. And in this course do many men continue long with much perplexity — sometimes hoping, oftener fearing; sometimes ready to give quite over; sometimes vowing to continue (their consciences being no way satisfied, nor righteousness in any measure attained) all their days.

After they have wearied themselves perhaps for a long season, in the largeness of their ways, they come at length, with fear, trembling, and disappointment, to that conclusion of the apostle: “By the works of the law no flesh is justified” [Gal 2:16]; and with dread cry that if God mark what is done amiss, there is no standing before him. That they have this issue, the apostle witnesses, Israel, who followed after the law of righteousness, has not attained to the law of righteousness. Wherefore? Because they sought it not by faith, but as it were by the works of the law (Rom 9:31-32). It was not solely for want of endeavor in themselves that they were disappointed, for they earnestly followed after the law of righteousness; but from the nature of the thing itself — it would not bear it.

Righteousness was not to be attained that way; “For,” says the apostle, “if they which are of the law be heirs, faith is made void, and the promise made of none effect; because the law works wrath” (Rom 4:14-15). The law itself is now such as that it cannot give life: “If there had been a law given which would have given life, verily righteousness should have been by the law” (Gal 3:21). And he gives the reason in the next verse why it could not give life; because “the Scripture concludes all under sin”; that is, it is very true, and the Scripture affirms it, that all men are sinners, and the law speaks not one word to sinners but death and destruction: therefore the apostle tells us plainly that God himself ‘found fault’ with this way of attaining righteousness (Heb 8:7-8 ). He complains of it; that is, he declares it insufficient for that end and purpose….

Wherefore, secondly: being thus disappointed by the severity and inexorableness of the law, men generally betake themselves to some other way, that may satisfy them as to those considerations which took them off from their former hopes; and this, for the most part, is by fixing themselves upon some ways of atonement to satisfy God, and helping out the rest with hopes of mercy….And [Paul] tells us what issue they have in this business: “Being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and going about to establish their own righteousness, they have not submitted themselves unto the righteousness of God” (Rom 10:3). They were by it enemies unto the righteousness of God. The ground of this going about to establish their own righteousness was that they were ignorant of the righteousness of God. Had they known the righteousness of God, and what exact conformity to his will he requires, they had never undertaken such a fruitless business as to have compassed it “as it were by the works of the law.”

Yet this many will stick on a long time. Something they do, something they hope for; some old faults they will buy off with new obedience. And this pacifies their consciences for a season; but when the Spirit comes to convince them of righteousness [John 16:8], neither will this hold.

Stay tuned for (the much more encouraging!) Part 2.

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