Last week we learned a bit about the life of John Owen, whose 400th birthday we’ve been celebrating in the now-dwindling year of 2016. We also learned about the existence of a little-known gem of a book he wrote that was originally titled Gospel Grounds and Evidences of the Faith of God’s Elect. In the conclusion of this two-part series, we examine four reasons why the book remains valuable to the church today.
A Unique Faith
First, in the book Owen highlighted the difference between gospel, or evangelical, Christianity and all other systems of religion. This difference is not always obvious, especially in books addressed to the practical lives of Christians. Many books (and sermons) abound with moral directions and practical exhortations, yet fail to distinguish gospel Christianity from mere religion.
It is now in vogue to use “gospel” as an adjective. Books on “gospel” holiness or being “gospel centered” or “gospel driven” fill our shelves. Some of us may imagine this is a recent development. Yet it is not uncommon to find “gospel” used as an adjective in Owen’s works. Indeed, he did so in this book at least nine times, as he wrote six times of “gospel holiness,” twice of “gospel repentance,” and once each of “gospel graces” and “gospel ordinances.” Owen predated the gospel-centered movement by three-and-a-half centuries!
John Owen was born in 1616, the same year that William Shakespeare died. While Shakespeare is justly famous as the greatest playwright in the history of the English language, Owen is arguably our greatest theologian. The son of a minister himself, Owen lived through both the highest and lowest points of the Puritan era. He served as Oliver Cromwell’s chaplain in the 1650s. He opposed the move to make Cromwell king in 1657. And after the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, he faced persecution for being a nonconformist, which significantly curtailed his influence and changed the course of the rest of his life and ministry.
Though he was raised in a Puritan household, Owen did not come to a settled assurance concerning his own salvation until 1642. He attended a church service at St. Mary Aldermanbury, London, and expected to hear the famous Edmund Calamy preach. But a substitute, whose name Owen never discovered, filled the pulpit instead and preached from the text “Why are ye fearful, O ye of little faith?” (Matt. 8:26 KJV) God used this sermon to bring Owen to assurance of his salvation.
In his masterful exposition of Psalm 130, the seventeenth-century Puritan John Owen gave the church one of the most comprehensive theological and pastoral treatments of forgiveness of sin and assurance ever written. This is one of my favorite of Owen’s books and one that I return to over and again.
Near the end of his exposition, Owen includes a wonderfully encouraging chapter for saints struggling with sin. Having already presented an extensive exposition of the nature of gospel forgiveness, Owen is now turning to objections. And among the objections he addresses are those “arising from the consideration of [the soul’s] present state and condition as to actual holiness, duties, and sins” (Owen, Works 6:600). Owen further explains:
Souls complain, when in darkness and under temptations, that they cannot find that holiness, nor those fruits of it in themselves, which they suppose an interest in pardoning mercy will produce. Their hearts they find are weak, and their duties worthless. If they were weighed in the balance, they would all be found too light. In the best of them there is such a mixture of self, hypocrisy, unbelief, vain-glory, that they are even ashamed and confounded with the remembrance of them” (Works, 6:600).
I suppose any earnest and honest Christian has experienced this: doubts regarding the reality of God’s forgiveness, struggles with assurance, that are rooted in the consciousness of one’s struggles with sin and weakness in holiness.
I’m not talking about the fleeting, seemingly benign thought of sin that holds initial allure but is easily dismissed. (Though we should be on guard against these kinds of thoughts, too).
No, I’m talking about that moment when you’ve savored the juicy morsel and relish the taste. You clamp down your jaws and suddenly feel the sharp, piercing desire for more, and a forceful tug towards deliberate, willful sin. You know that you’ve swallowed a hook. The angler is reeling you in. Your better judgment, and God’s Word, and the Holy Spirit are whispering “No!” but your appetites and emotions are screaming “Yes!”
You are like Peter in the courtyard, your heart frenzied by fear, about to commit an act of cowardice and treachery. Or David on the rooftop, seized by lust’s hot desire, teetering on the brink of adultery. Or Moses at the rock, boiling in anger, poised to open a valve that will erupt into a rebellious torrent of volcanic rage.
Can you still escape temptation when you’re in that deep?
John Owen, aka the “Prince of Puritans,” was born in 1616, the same year Shakespeare died. Owen has a reputation among Reformed folk for being hard on sin and even harder to read. The nineteenth century Scottish professor John Duncan is famous for assigning one of Owen’s books to his students with the warning, “Prepare for the Knife!” And theologian A.W.Pink said that one was more likely to find vinegar than honey in Owen’s writings.
But, while Owen is most famous for his trilogy on mortification, temptation, and indwelling sin, readers who dig deep actually discover a lot of honey in his writings. His books and sermons are well-seasoned with words such as “pleasant,” “satisfaction,” “sweetness,” and “delight.” For example, in his devotional meditation on communion with the Triune God, Owen says that God the Father’s love “ought to be looked on as the fountain from whence all other sweetnesses flow.” And in The Grace and Duty of Being Spiritually Minded, an extended meditation on Romans 8:6, Owen says that life and peace “comprise a holy frame of heart and mind, wherein the souls of believers do find rest, quietness, refreshment, and satisfaction in God, in the midst of temptations, afflictions, offences, and sufferings.”
These references, and dozens more, reveal Owen to be as deeply acquainted with the spiritual joys of fellowship with Christ as he was with the spiritual rigor required in killing sin. In fact, Owen did not merely acknowledge the presence and benefit of spiritual joy and delight; he also integrated such joy into his whole understanding of Christian experience. There are good reasons, then, to recognize John Owen (like Jonathan Edwards a century later) as a Puritan proponent of Christian Hedonism.
Here are three insights we can learn from Owen’s treatment of these themes.
One of the principal evidences of saving faith is the believer’s embrace of the gospel for both the glorification of God and the satisfaction of the soul.
In one of his most overlooked books, a slim volume called The Gospel Grounds and Evidences of the Faith of God’s Elect (now retitled as Gospel Evidences of Saving Faith), Owen discusses four important evidences of true faith. Owen doesn’t start where one might think: for example, with a vigorous call to mortify sin. He eventually gets there, but, for Owen, the first evidence of saving faith is “Choosing, Embracing, and Approving God’s Way of Saving Sinners through the Work of Christ Alone.”
True believers are those who not recognize themselves as sinners, but have embraced the good news of God’s mercy through Christ alone. Owen says that believers must embrace the gospel as that which most glorifies God, most satisfies our souls, and most honors God’s law.