Death by Loving Worldly Things: An Excerpt by John Owen

Friends, I just wanted to share an excerpt from John Owen’s Spiritual Mindedness. I pray God uses Owen’s words to bless you as much as they have blessed me. May we all reflect on our hearts daily in the hopes of, by the Spirit’s power, exposing darkness within our deepest desires.
-Topher
The great battle raging in heaven and earth concerns the hearts and minds of men. That the world should fight for man’s heart is no wonder. Everything in the world has no greater aim than to possess the hearts and minds of men. But here lies the danger, for the world and everything in it lies under the curse of God. So there is no greater evil we can do to our souls than to give our hearts and mind to this world and the things of this world. But that the holy God should also plead for the hearts and minds of men is a wonder indeed.
God says to man, ‘My son, give me your heart’ (Prov. 23:26). God will not accept anything from us unless it is given from the depths of our hearts. The most costly sacrifice will not be accepted unless it is given from the heart. All the purposes of God’s grace, all the counsels of his will, are centred on one purpose and that is to bring back the hearts and minds of men to himself. He wants nothing else but that man should love him with all his heart and soul and mind and strength (Deut. 10:12). God has also revealed what he intends to do in order to bring back man’s heart and mind to himself. He will circumcise man’s heart so that man may once again love the Lord his God with all his heart and with all his soul, in order that he may live and not die (Deut. 30:6).
On the other hand, the world with painted face, seductive promises and glorious robes, and assisted by Satan, also seeks to draw and hold the hearts and minds of men. And if man prefers the world before God, he shall justly perish along with the world, and be rejected by the one whom he has rejected (Prov. 1:24-31).
Our hearts and minds are the only real things we have to give, the only power which our souls have by which we may give ourselves as a gift, in order that we may belong to another. Every other power which our souls possess, even the most noble of them, are only equipped to receive. But by our hearts and minds we can give away what we are and all that we have. So it is only by our hearts and minds that we can give ourselves to God as he requires.
The heart is like the helm of a ship. If it is controlled by a skilful hand, the ship will soon find itself in port. So if God has his almighty hand of grace on our hearts, he will turn our souls into his ways and bring us safely in the end to his eternal kingdom. He will hold our souls firm and steady against all winds and storms of temptations and bring us safely through the deadliest of dangers. A soul surrendered to God’s will is easily managed and moulded into the image of its Maker. But the heart with self and the world at its helm is stubborn, proud, and far from righteousness.
Our hearts are either ruled by the Spirit of God and therefore spiritual, or else they are ruled by the world and therefore worldly. Either God has our hearts or the world has them. It is God’s purpose to draw our hearts from the world and to himself, and this he does in the following ways.
First, God has in many different ways, shown his contempt for the things of this world by exalting everything that is spiritual and heavenly.
In the beginning, God declared his whole creation to be very good. Then the world and all that was in it was a blessing to man, for there was no danger of man being tempted away from God by it. Then the world and all that was in it was God’s ordinance to lead man to know and love God. But when sin entered, the world and all that was in it fell under God’s curse and into Satan’s power. The world was now used by Satan as bait to tempt men’s hearts and minds away from God. Therefore, those who love the world do not have the love of the Father in them (1 John 2:15-16).
The world, now being under the curse of God and being the tool of Satan to draw men’s foolish and sinful hearts from him, has, in various ways, been shown to be foolish, of no real worth, and utterly unsatisfying to men’s hearts, and so to be despised and rejected and not to be compared to spiritual and heavenly things.
God showed his contempt for the world and the things of the world, chiefly by the life, death and cross of Christ.
What is there in this world that can be loved or desired after the Son of God has lived in it? He had nowhere to lay his head and ended his life cruelly on the cross. If there had been anything of real value and worth to man’s soul, Jesus would most certainly have enjoyed it. But he never had more than his daily bread for which he taught us to pray (Matt. 6:11).
When Christ was crucified, the world revealed itself in its true colours for believers to see for all time. Nor is the world any more beautiful now than it was when it crucified Christ. The inference and conclusion which Paul drew from this he made clear: ‘God forbid’, he said, ‘that I should glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world’ (Gal. 6:14). As if he said, ‘Since I have believed, since I have fully realised the power and moral excellence of the cross of Christ, I have finished with the world and all that is in it. The world is like a dead corpse to me and I have no love for it at all.’
This is the great difference between the promises of the old covenant and the new. Under the Old Testament, many promises only concerned the things of this world, the things of time and not of eternity, the good things of this world and this life. But under the New Testament, the promises mostly concerned spiritual and eternal things. God would not wean the church away from earthly promises until he had sufficiently shown their emptiness, worthlessness, and insufficiency to fully satisfy men’s souls. And this God did by the cross of Christ (2 Cor. 4:16-18).
Why, then, is there so much effort and hard work given to get more of the things of this world? What is it all for? Is it to provide for one’s family? Is it to get a name and reputation in the world? I would never discourage any from working hard in their lawful callings. But with many, providing for one’s family is only an excuse to hide a shameful love for the things of the world.
How to draw our hearts away from the world.
To draw our hearts away from the world we must fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith (Heb. 12:2). We must see him as he is presented to us in the Gospels; poor, despised, reproached, persecuted, nailed to the cross, and all by this present evil world. If you truly believe in Christ, then you hope to be with him for ever. To him you must give account of what you have done in this world. Will he be pleased if you tell him that you spent your time gaining as much of the world’s things as you could? Did Christ spend his time on earth gaining as much of this world’s things as he could? Did he teach us by his example to love the world and the things of the world? How can any man set his heart on the things of this world who has taken Christ as his example and pattern of life? How can anyone who claims to live by the power of the cross of Christ set his heart on this world and the things of this world? If we truly love Christ and fully realise the truth that it was this world who crucified him, how can we love this world? So, if you find your heart growing in love for this world and the things of this world, turn aside for awhile and by faith meditate on Christ’s life and death. How can any of us love or think highly of the things of this world—its power, riches, honours and reputation—who have seen them in the light of the cross of Christ?
But wasn’t it necessary, because of the special nature of his work as Saviour and Redeemer of the church, for Christ to be poor, destitute, reproached, persecuted, and nailed to a cross? Does it therefore follow that we should be the same? No, it doesn’t. Therefore, I have all along made allowance for honest work in our various callings. But, nevertheless, the things which Christ did without and scorned for our sakes should not be loved by us. Nor can such love for the world take the supreme place in our hearts if Christ dwells there.
God showed his contempt for the world and the things of this world by the way he dealt with his apostles.
The laying of the foundation of the glorious kingdom of Christ was committed to the apostles. One would think, then, that God would have given them, if not principalities and popedoms, yet at least archbishoprics and bishoprics along with other chief positions in the church. By this they might have been made equal to worldly rulers and princes and been freed from the contempt they suffered. But infinite wisdom decreed otherwise. God was pleased to let them suffer the contempt of the people as well as persecutions, so that they did not enjoy their lives, living and dying in a state of poverty, distress, persecution, and reproach. God set them up as examples of light, grace, zeal, and holiness. In this way, God showed how little he cared for our happiness in this world; his love for us is not to be judged by how much he gives us of the things of this world (1 Cor. 4:9,11,13). If this does not convince us, yet it ought to be taken seriously by those who are called to preach the gospel as successors of the apostles. There can be nothing more absurd and shameful, nothing more detrimental to God’s wisdom, than for ministers to suggest that God treated his apostles abominably by seeking ambitiously for themselves, high positions, power, riches, and honour.
God continues to show his contempt for the world and the things of the world by giving the greatest part of it to the worst men and to those who are his greatest enemies.
Who will set any value on things thrown at pigs? And what value should we put on those things God has seen fit to throw to such monsters as Nero? And what value should we put on this world when great tracts are given to pagans, atheists, and Muslims who are being prepared for eternal destruction? See what a small portion of this world God gave to his people Israel in comparison to what he gave Egypt, Assyria, and Babylon.
Is it not clear that God does not value or think highly of this world? If this world were really worth having, would a holy and righteous God have distributed its lands in this way? How little of this world’s riches and honours do his faithful people have! Who would set his heart on things which God throws to the swine of this world? ‘What will it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose his own soul?’ This is the question Jesus puts to each and everyone of us.
God continues to pour contempt on the world and the things in the world by giving perpetual examples of how uncertain and unsatisfying is the world and all the things of the world.
How many who are rich and have everything are often the unhappiest of people. Solomon testified to this (cf. Eccles. 2).
Why should we, then, make ourselves unhappy by giving up our hearts and minds to the riches of this world? God has shown us that the world and the things of the world cannot bring us rest and happiness. So why, then, seek for rest and happiness from the world and the things of the world?
Secondly, God has added to the foolishness of loving the world and the things in the world by shortening the lives of men, so they do not have enough time to get any real benefit or joy from the things of the earth.
The Psalmist said, ‘Indeed, you have made my days as hand’s breadths, and my age is nothing before you.’ From this he draws two conclusions. The first is that ‘every man at his best state is vapour’, and that ‘every man walks about like a shadow, they busy themselves in vain; he heaps up riches and does not know who will gather them’ (Psa. 39:5-6). The uncertainty and shortness of life make all efforts to make oneself happy by earthly things both useless and foolish. When men lived for eight or nine hundred years, they had plenty of time and opportunity to suck out all the sweetness creature comforts could provide, to accumulate more worldly possessions, and to plan well ahead for future happiness. But what happened? The world was filled with violence, oppression, and wickedness, which provoked God to send the flood as a judgment on them. So by this we learn that the more worldly possessions men have and the longer they have to enjoy them, the more they will abound in wickedness and, unless the grace of God intervenes, bring upon themselves God’s severe judgments.
But after the flood, God shortened the lives of men to about seventy years. Those who were allowed to live longer only found increasing trouble and sorrow (Psa. 90:10). And if we think how long it is before men have a real taste for the things of this life, and how often they are frustrated in their efforts to find happiness and peace from the things of the world, and how quickly they are bored with newly acquired things, we shall see why the holy, wise God has left us such little time to enjoy the world as to value it in our hearts. And when we consider that we, who have such a short time to live, were made for eternity, for eternal happiness or misery, then we must forfeit all reason as well as defy the grace of God if we give ourselves to the things of this world.
Thirdly, God has clearly and fully declared the danger of worldliness.
How many multitudes of souls perish because they have loved the world and the things of the world more than they have loved God and the things of God. The world, with its seductive temptations, leads millions into eternal ruin. This is the fire which sets ablaze the lusts of men until their souls are consumed in hell.
Men under the power of spiritual convictions do not fall into sin and perish eternally, except when they succumb to the temptations of the world.
The only reason why men under the power of spiritual convictions fall into sin and perish eternally is because they give in to temptation. There are those who live and die under the power of a depraved nature, experiencing no spiritual convictions, not needing to be tempted but only given opportunities to satisfy their lusts. But if those who have some idea of sin, righteousness, and judgment fall into sin, it is because they have yielded to temptation, for whatever lures a man into sin is temptation.
Now, though there are many temptations and many ways by which temptation can gain the victory, yet all temptations that are eternally ruinous to the souls of men are from the world and the things in the world. Evil men use the world to corrupt others. All that sets ablaze the fires of sin and lust comes from the world and the things in the world. The things that are in the world tempt men in three ways. They promise to satisfy the lusts of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life (1 John 2:16). These three are the chief lusts in the hearts and minds of men and they are served by the things in the world. So everything in the world can be used to set ablaze the corrupt lusts in men. Everything that is desirable and considered of value in the world only serves in the end to satisfy one of these three chief lusts and so are temptations to sin.
But some claim that they use the world wisely and with moderation and so the world does not tempt them nor arouse sinful desires in them. They are not immoral, drunkards, oppressors, proud, or ambitious. But if their hearts are set on the things of this world, then the world becomes a temptation. So beware of foolishly setting your heart on the world and the things of the world.
Fourthly, God has so ordered all things in his wisdom that it is difficult for man to tell the difference between the right and wrong use of worldly things.
It is because men have not discerned between the right and the wrong use of worldly things that many will be cast out in the last day (Matt. 25:34-46).
There is a right use of worldly things, and there is an over-anxious care of them as well as an excessive love for them. But it is here that men deceive themselves into thinking that they are using the things of the world rightly, because they do not know how to test whether they are using the things of the world rightly or not. Some make their own desires the test of what is right and allowable; some follow the example of others; some follow the standards of the world; some their own real or pretended needs. But what influences them all is self-love.
So we have men seeing themselves as good stewards of their worldly possessions, while others see them as hard, covetous, earthly-minded, in no way sharing that which has been entrusted to them for the glory of God. Others do not see any wrong in living extravagantly, satisfying their pride or their sensual pleasures. They dress extravagantly and live extravagantly. So, in their dinner parties and banquets, they treat Christ’s rule with contempt, only inviting those who will invite them back again (Luke 14:12-14). Yet they still see nothing wrong in themselves and their behaviour.
But what about ourselves? Are we using the things of the world rightly? Men sailing at sea may have a fair wind, yet, instead of being brought to their destination, may be smashed to pieces on a hidden reef.
And what if that which we consider allowable, which we love and on which we spend much time and effort, proves to be nothing more than the fruit of earthly desires? What if that which we consider to be right and allowable in ourselves be considered by God as the sin of worldliness? What if his judgment is that we are of the world and therefore must perish with the world?
But if it is so difficult to tell the difference between the right and wrong use of worldly things, on which our eternal destiny depends, we must all our lives live in fear that we are not using earthly things rightly.
This is true. Therefore, learn how dangerous it is to set the desires of the heart on worldly pleasures, even in the slightest way. No wise man will walk on the very edge of a precipice.
When the soul is upright and sincere, there is no need for the mind to be filled with worry and concern over worldly things so that one is distracted from spiritual duties. But when the heart is ruled by self-love and by strong desires for the things of this world, then it is impossible for the mind to be filled with peace or be free from a guilty conscience when aroused from sleep to consider seriously its spiritual state.
But to those who sincerely want to know how to use worldly things rightly, without setting their hearts upon them, I give the following rules:
Always remember that you are only stewards of your possessions. They are not yours but God’s. As far as men are concerned, they are your possessions, but with God you are stewards.
Always remember that as stewards you will one day have to give account of your stewardship (Luke 16:1-2).
Always remember that if you lack wisdom to use aright the things of the world, you may ask of God who gives liberally and without reproach, and it will be given you (James 1:5). Spiritual wisdom will know the bounds of duty and whether getting, enjoying, or using worldly things are within those bounds or not. Men are not easily deceived unless they are under the grip of corrupt desires or will not listen to their own consciences. If we examine ourselves in the light of God’s word, it will greatly check our worldly desires and expose the foolishness of the excuses we make to justify our love for worldly things. It will also expose that self-love which is the root of all this evil.
Always remember to set your heart on things above and not on things of the earth. You may be diligent in the right use of worldly things. You may be generous in sharing them with others. You may be watchful against all selfish abuses of them. But if your heart is not set on things above, then the world still possesses your heart. If God and the things of God are not the chief love of your heart, then the world is. This is what Christ taught clearly (Luke 16:9-13).
Always remember to make every effort to mortify worldly desires. Corrupt nature sets its heart on the world and the things of the world, and nothing will ever tear corrupt nature away from worldliness unless those desires are mortified by the cross of Christ. Mortification alone will tear our hearts from earthly things. So Paul tells us to set our minds on things above and not on things of the earth (Col. 3:2). And how does Paul tell us to do it? ‘Therefore put to death your members which are on earth’ (verse 5). Worldly desires will not fall away of their own accord. Old age may abate their strength. Disappointments and sufferings may hold them in check. Desire for a good name may lead to generosity in giving to the poor. Convictions may drive the worldling to do many things gladly. But unless these earthly desires are mortified, they will always be there, lurking in the shadows of our lives (Gal. 6:14). So, unless you know something of this work of mortification, you can have no assurance that you are spiritually minded.
Always remember in everything you do in this world to be ruled and guided by the word of God and not by self, or by the latest fashion, or by the example of others.
Always remember that unless these things are found in you, you can have no assurance that you are not under the power of worldliness. Let it not be said of you that you are honest, reliable, hardworking, faithful in all religious duties, a good preacher, a man of sound principles and of blameless character, but that you love the world! If we prefer self above God, if we aim to satisfy self in everything we do, if we never live to glorify God in our use of earthly things, then we are worldly.
Always remember that it is even more dangerous if, through the pride of life, we dress and live to please the world, fearing to do anything that would make us unpopular. It will be useless to plead spiritual graces and experiences if by our behaviour we show we love the world. ‘If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him.’ Beware of refusing to follow the example of wiser and more experienced Christians.
Always remember that God has sufficiently warned us what worldliness can lead to by giving up the majority of men to filthy, abominable, ridiculous behaviour, that any man in his right senses cannot but treat with contempt. So the wise man prayed against riches in case he could not handle the temptations that went with them (Prov. 30:8-9).
Finally, always remember that God has shown quite clearly that if we would be worldly, he will have nothing to do with us (1 John 2:15; James 4:4). God says to the worldling, ‘Go, love the world and the things of the world; but know this, you do it to the eternal loss of your souls.
Author
John Owen (1616-1683). No outline of Owen’s life can give an adequate impression of the stature and importance to which he attained in his own day. He was summoned to preach before Parliament on several occasions, most notably on the day after the execution of Charles I. During the Civil War, Owen’s merit was recognized by General Fairfax, then by Cromwell who took him as Chaplain to Ireland and Scotland. He was adviser to Cromwell, especially though not exclusively on ecclesiastical affairs, but fell from the Protector’s favour after opposing the move to make him King. In 1658 he was one of the most influential members of the Savoy Conference of ministers of Independent persuasion. After the Ejection he enjoyed som influence with Charles II who occasionally gave him money to distribute to impoverished ejected ministers. All in all, he was, with Richard Baxter, the most eminent Dissenter of his time.
This article is taken from Spiritual Mindedness (abridged and made easy to read by R.J.K. Law), published by The Banner of Truth, pp. 133-148.

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