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The Grace and Duty of Being Spiritually Minded – Part III by John Owen

By April 10, 2011April 12th, 2016Christian Life

It may be said, that ‘if it be so difficult to distinguish between these things, — namely, the lawful use of things here below and their abuse, the allowable industry about them and the inordinate love of them, — on the knowledge whereof our eternal condition depends, it is impossible but men must spend their time in solicitous anxiety of mind, as not knowing when they have aright discharged their duty.’


1. I press these things at present no farther but only to show how dangerous a thing it is for any to incline in his affections unto the things of this world, wherein an excess is ruinous and hardly discoverable. Surely no wise man will venture freely and frequently unto the edge of such a precipice. He will be jealous of his measures, lest they will not hold by the rule of the word. And a due sense hereof is the best preservative of the soul from cleaving inordinately unto things below. And when God in any instance, by afflictions or otherwise, shows unto believers their transgression herein, and how they have exceeded, Job 36:8-9, it makes them careful for the future. They will now or never be diligent that they fall not under that peremptory rule, I John 2:15.

2. When the soul is upright and sincere, there is no need in this case of any more solicitousness or anxiety of mind than there is unto or about other duties; but when it is biased and acted by self-love, and its more strong inclinations unto things present, it is impossible men should enjoy solid peace, or be free from severe reflections on them by their own consciences, in such seasons wherein they are awakened unto their duty and the consideration of their state, nor have I anything to tender for their relief. With others it is not so, and therefore I shall so far digress in this place as to give some directions unto those who, in sincerity, would be satisfied in this lawful use and enjoyment of earthly things, so as not to adhere unto them with inordinate affection:

  1. 1. Remember always that you are not proprietors or absolute possessors of those things, but only stewards of them. With respect unto men, you are or may be just proprietors of what you enjoy; but with respect unto Him who is the great possessor of heaven and earth, you are but stewards. This stewardship we are to give an account of, as we are taught in the parable, Luke 16:1-2. This rule always attended unto will be a blessed guide in all instances and occasions of duty.

    But if a man be left in trust with houses and large possessions, as a steward for the right lord, owner, and proprietor of them, if he fall into a pleasing dream that they are all his own, and use them accordingly, it will be a woful surprisal unto him when he shall be called to account for all that he hath received and laid out, whether he will or no, and when indeed he hath nothing to pay. It will scarce be otherwise with them at the great day who forget the trust which is committed to them, and suppose they may do what they will with what they call their own.

  2. There is nothing, in the ways of getting, enjoying, or using of these things, but giveth its own evidence unto spiritual wisdom whether it be within the bounds of duty or no. Men are not lightly deceived herein, but when they are evidently under the power of corrupt affections, or will not at all attend unto themselves and the language of their own consciences. It is a man’s own fault alone if he know not wherein he doth exceed.

    A due examination of ourselves in the sight of God with respect unto these things, the frame and actings of our minds in them, will greatly give check unto our corrupt inclinations and discover the folly of those reasonings whereby we deceive ourselves into the love of earthly things, or justify ourselves therein, and bring to light the secret principle of self-love, which is the root of all this evil.

  3. If you would be able to make a right judgment in this case, be sure that you have another object for your affections, which hath a predominant interest in your minds, and which will evidence itself so to have on all occasions. Let a man be never so observant of himself as unto all outward duties required of him with respect unto those earthly things; let him be liberal in the disposal of them on all occasions; let him be watchful against all intemperance and excesses in the use of them, — yet if he hath not another object for his affections, which hath a prevailing influence upon them, if they are not set upon the things that are above, one way or other it is the world that hath the possession of his heart: for the affections of our minds will and must be placed in chief on things below or things above. There will be a predominant love in us; and therefore, although all our actions should testify another frame, yet if God and the things of God be not the principal object of our affections, by one way or other unto the world we do belong. This is that which is taught us so expressly by our Savior, Luke 16:9-13, ‘And I say unto you, Make to yourselves friends of the mammon of unrighteousness; that, when ye fail, they may receive you into everlasting habitations. He that is faithful in that which is least is faithful also in much: and he that is unjust in the least is unjust also in much. If therefore ye have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who will commit to your trust the true riches? And if ye have not been faithful in that which is another man’s, who shall give you that which is your own? No servant can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.’
  4. Labor continually for the mortification of your affections unto the things of this world. They are, in the state of corrupted nature, set and fixed on them, nor will any reasonings or considerations effectually divert them, or take them off in a due manner, unless they are mortified unto them by the cross of Christ. Whatever change be otherwise wrought in them, it will be of no advantage unto us. It is mortification alone that will take them off from earthly things unto the glory of God. Hence the apostle, having given us that charge, ‘Set your affection on things above, and not on things on the earth,’ Col. 3:2, adds this as the only way and means we may do so, ‘Mortify therefore your members which are upon the earth,’ verse 5. Let no man think that his affections will fall off from earthly things of their own accord. The keenness and sharpness of them in many things may be abated by the decay of their natural powers in age and the like; they may be mated by frequent disappointments, by sicknesses, pains, and afflictions, as we shall see immediately; they may be willing unto a distribution of earthly enjoyments, to have the reputation of it, wherein they still cleave unto the world, but under another shape and appearance; or they may be startled by convictions, so as to do many things gladly that belong to another frame: but, on one pretense or other, under one appearance or other, they will forever adhere or cleave unto earthly things, unless they are mortified unto them through faith in the blood and cross of Christ, Gal. 6:14. Whatever thoughts you may have of yourselves in this matter, unless you have the experience of a work of mortification on your affections, you can have no refreshing ground of assurance that you are in anything spiritually minded.
  5. In all the instances of duty belonging unto your stewardship of earthly things, attend diligently unto the rule of the word. Without this the grace exhorted unto may be abused. So of old, under a pretense of a relinquishment of the things of this world, because of the danger in adhering unto them, their own superstition and the craft of other men prevailed with many to part with all they had unto the service of others, not better, it may be not so good as themselves. This evil wholly arose from want of attendance unto the rule of truth, which gives no such direction in ordinary cases. But there is not much seen in these days of an excess in this kind; but, on the other hand, in all instances of duties of this nature, most men’s minds are habitually influenced with pretenses, reasonings, and considerations, that turn the scales as unto what they ought to do, in proportion in this duty, on the side of the world. If you would be safe, you must, in all instances of duty, — as in works of charity, piety, and compassion, — give authority in and over your souls unto the rule of the word. Let neither self, nor unbelief, nor the custom and example of others, be heard to speak; but let the rule alone be attended unto, and to what that speaks yield obedience.

Unless these things are found in us, none of us, no man living, if it be not so with him, can have any refreshing evidence or assurance that he is not under the power of an inordinate, yea, and predominant love unto this world.

And, indeed, to add a little farther on the occasion of this digression, it is a sad thing to have this exception made against the state of any man on just grounds, ‘Yea, but he loves the world.’ He is sober and industrious, he is constant in duties of religion; it may be, an earnest preacher of them; a man of sound principles, and blameless as unto the excesses of life; — ‘but he loves the world!’ The question is, How doth this appear? it may be, what you say is but one of those evil surmises which all things are filled withal. Wherefore, I speak it not at all to give countenance unto the rash judging of others, which none are more prone unto than those who, one way or other, are eminently guilty themselves; but I would have every man judge himself, that we be none of us condemned of the Lord. If, notwithstanding the things mentioned, any of us do center in self, which is supplied and filled with the world, — if we prefer self above all other things, do aim at the satisfaction of self in what we do well or ill, are useless unto the only good and blessed end of these earthly things, in supplying the wants of others according unto the proportions wherewith we are entrusted, — it is to be feared that the world and the things that are in it have the principal interest in our affections.

And the danger is yet greater with them who divert on the other extreme. Such are they who, in the pride of life, vanity in apparel, excess in drinking, pampering the flesh every day, tread close on the feels of the world, if they do not also fully keep company with it. Altogether in vain is it for such persons to countenance themselves with an appearance of other graces in them, or the sedulous performance of other duties. This one rule will eternally prevail against them: ‘If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him.’ And, by the way, let men take heed how they walk in any instance against the known judgment and practice of the wiser of more experienced sort of Christians, to their regret and sorrow, if not unto their offence and scandal, or in any way whereunto they win the consent of their own light and conscience by such reasonings and considerations as will not hold weight in the balance of the sanctuary. Yet thus and no otherwise is it with all them who, under a profession of religion, do indulge unto any excesses wherein they are conformed unto the world.

Fifthly, God makes a hedge against the excess of the affections of men rational and any way enlightened unto the things of this world, by suffering the generality of men to carry the use of them, and to be carried by the abuse of them, into actings so filthy, so abominable, so ridiculous, as reason itself cannot but abhor. Men by them transform themselves into beasts and monsters, as might be manifested by all sorts of instances. Hence the wise man prayed against riches, lest he should not be able to manage the temptations wherewith they are accompanied, Prov. 30:8-9.

Lastly, to close this matter, and to show us what we are to expect in case we set our affections on things here below, and they have thereby a predominant interest in our hearts, God hath positively determined and declared that if it be so, he will have nothing to do with us, nor will accept of those affections which we pretend we can and do spare for him and spiritual things. ‘If we abstain from open sins, if we abhor the lewdness and uncleanness of men in the world, if we are constant in religious duties, and give ourselves up to walk after the most strict sort in religion, like Paul in his Pharisaism, may we not,’ will some say or think, ‘find acceptance with God, though our hearts cleave inordinately unto the things of this world?’ I say, God hath peremptorily determined the contrary; and if other arguments will not prevail with us, he leaves us at last unto this, ‘Go, love the world and the things of it; but know assuredly you do it unto the eternal loss of your souls,’ I John 2:15; James 4:4.