The Consuming Fire

out of [Christ] God on his part is a consuming fire, — we are as stubble fully dry, yet setting ourselves in battle array against that fire: if we are brought together we are consumed.

John Owen, Of Communion with God the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost1

Word pictures like this are why I love reading John Owen. The idea of God as a consuming fire is biblical (Deuteronomy 4:24; 9:3; Isaiah 33:14; Hebrews 12:29). So is the idea of God’s enemies being stubble (Exodus 15:7; Malachi 4:1). Indeed, God also paints a picture of people taking counsel together to overthrow God’s claims on their lives (Psalm 2). That’s not exactly the same as “setting ourselves in battle array,” but it’s close.

Owen brings these different word pictures together in a vivid way.

Those who rebel against God’s rule are not just pitting themselves against an unconquerable foe. A different example may have illustrated that idea: a tree trying to stop a landslide. It is the nature of one solid object to hinder or stop another. Had the tree been large enough—perhaps a mile wide and ten miles tall—it could have stopped the landslide. The tree only fails to halt the tumbling rocks because it is too weak.

In Owen’s illustration, the natures of the two opposing forces are different. It is the nature of fire to consume stubble. It is the nature of stubble to burn when it encounters a flame. Throwing stubble at fire can only end in the incineration of the stubble.2 Resisting God is as foolish as it is futile, and attempting to do so can only end badly. Only in Christ do we find a refuge from the consuming fire.

1 Of Communion with God the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost by John Owen. Public domain. Republished by CCEL. Accessed January 3, 2021.

2 Someone may object that dumping several tons of stubble on a candle would extinguish the candle. All of humanity together would not suffice to be a worthy opponent of God, though, so this objection doesn’t invalidate Owen’s illustration.