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Posts Tagged ‘John Owen’

That Christ would desire to hear our prayers is a thought sometimes quite staggering and unbelievable to us. “O my dove in the clefts of the rock, in the hiding places on the mountainside, show me your face, let me hear your voice; for your voice is sweet, and your face is lovely” (Song 2:14). John Owen comments on this verse:

As if to say, ‘Do not hide yourself as one that flees to the clefts of the rocks. Do not be timid and fearful like one that hides in the secret places and is afraid to come out. Do not be cast down at the weakness of your prayers. Let me hear you sighing and groaning for me. They are sweet and delightful to my ears. Let me see your spiritual face seeking for and desiring heavenly things. A look from your brings great joy and delight to me.’ […]

And yet, it is not only that Christ desires our fellowship. His act of love enables us, and opens our hearts, to commune with him in return.

The soul loves Christ for his beauty, grace and all-sufficiency. The soul sees Christ as far to be preferred above all other beloveds whatever (Song 5:9). To the soul, Christ is ‘altogether lovely’ (Song 5:16)… The soul constantly prefers Christ to all else, counting everything else that seeks to possess the heart but rubbish in comparison to him. Beloved peace; beloved human relationship; beloved wisdom and learning; beloved righteousness; beloved duties are all but rubbish compared to Christ.

But this communion only takes place in light of the gospel. In fact, it is the message of free justification, apart from works, which allows us to come freely to Christ. Apart from this, there is no communion. And as we continue in the faith, the relationship of free justification remains the continual basis of our communion.

The soul willingly accepts Christ as its only Husband, Lord and Savior.  This is called ‘receiving’ Christ (John 1:12). This does not mean a once-for-all act of the will, but a continual receiving of Christ in abiding with him and owning him to be our Lord for ever. This is when the soul agrees to take Christ on his terms, for Christ to save him as and how he will and says, ‘Lord, I would have had you and salvation in my own way and on my own terms, partly by my own efforts, by my own good works, but now I am willing to receive you and to be saved in your way, merely by grace. I would have walked according to the dictates of my own mind, yet now I give up myself to be wholly ruled by your Spirit, for in you alone I have righteousness and strength. In you alone I am justified, and in you alone to I glory.’ In this way the soul has continual abiding communion with Christ in grace. This is what it means to receive Christ in his beauty and supreme glory. Let believers exercise their hearts abundantly in this communion. What joy they will find! – John Owen, Communion with God, (abridged version), 57-60.

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“He brought me to the banqueting house, and his banner over me was love. Sustain me with raisins; refresh me with apples, for I am sick with love.” – Song 2:4-5

John Owen comments:

This fellowship is like a delicious banquet. ‘He brought me to the banqueting house’ or ‘house of wine’. This fellowship is described under the images of the greatest sweetness and most delicious refreshment. ‘He entertains me,” says the Shulamite, ‘as if I was some great person’. Great persons, at great entertainments, are brought into the banqueting house, the house of wine and excellent food. These are the provisions of grace and mercy, love and kindness, and everything that is promised in the gospel, preached in the assembles of the saints, and revealed by the Spirit.   This ‘love is better than wine’ (Song 1:2). It is ‘not food and drink, but righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit’. Gospel promises are delicious morsels. Whether these houses symbolise the Scriptures, the gospel or the ordinances, or any wonderful revelation of special love, as banqueting is not done every day, nor used in ordinary entertaining, it does not matter. Wine that cheers the heart of man, that makes him forget his misery, that gives him a cheerful appearance is that which is promised (Prov. 31:6,7; Gal. 4:9, 12). The grace shown by Christ in his ordinances is refreshing, strengthening and full of comfort to the souls of the saints. Woe to such souls who loathe these honeycombs! But in this way, Christ makes all his assemblies banqueting houses. There he gives his saints rich entertainment. – Communion with God, (abridged version) 42-43.

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We often hear the phrase “pastor as scholar” used to describe the serious intellectual responsibilities tied to the ministry. A pastor should be well-versed in the original languages, master the trajectories of church history, and possess a solid grasp of the philosophical issues facing the church today (just to name a few).

And as important as these are, we must never forget that they are all, in the end, pastoral. In other words, theology is for ministry; it is for proclamation. It’s not so much that the pastor is a scholar but that the scholar is a pastor.

Carl Trueman gets at this in summarizing John Owen’s own study and practice.

In his work on the communion with the divine, Owen connects his theology, it its catholic, Protestant, and Reformed dimensions, to that most critical of Puritan concerns: the worship of God. And in so doing, Owen demonstrates that most delightful aspect of precritical theology: its essentially ecclesiastical and practical purpose. None of his theology was intended for its own sake, as some kind of glass-bead game to be played by an elite few in isolation from the world around. On the contrary: it was theology done within the church for the benefit of the church. As speculative and as metaphysical as many of the issues [were], for Owen none of it was purely abstract. Whether polemic, commentary, or doctrinal exposition, his work always connects to the life of the church and the health of Christians, individual and corporate. The divorce of theology as an academic discipline from the ecclesiastical context, so basic to the modern discipline, would have been inconceivable to Owen and is another point of basic continuity between his work and that of his predecessors. As the great patristic writers were capable of flights of intellectual brilliance in developing a theology which was basically concerned for the health of Christ’s flock; as the great medievals put their massive intellects to the service of the church and wrote both massive theological systems and profound and moving hymns and prayers; as Luther and Calvin always saw their theology as having a primarily ecclesiastical function and as terminating in the preaching of the word and the administrating of the sacraments; so Owen draws on that most Christian of doctrines, that of the Trinity, refracts it through a Reformed soteriology, and applies it to that most basic and universal aspect of the Christian faith, the devotional life. – Carl Trueman, “John Owen: Reformed Catholic, Renaissance Man,” (2007) p. 128.

Ministry, therefore, is not so much about “going up” into the rarified airs and untrammeled musings of theological exactitude, untouched and untroubled by the world below. Here we may feel impregnable, fully equipped to battle the problems of society. But “here” is not ministry. No, ministry is very much about “going down” into the very depths of peoples’ pain and confusion; to empathize with them; to appreciate their humanity (which is our humanity); to weep when they weep; to laugh when they laugh; indeed, to “become all things to all people” (1 Cor. 9:22).

Is this not what Christ did? Is this not what Paul did?

As such, the tools of the trade (i.e. a seminary education) are only valuable when we see them in this light: as eminently practical. It’s not so much about learning theological principles and philosophical abstractions which we can then later “apply” to reality down bellow. No, it is in our studies that reality itself is opened up to us! And we are sent plummeting to earth, our feet firmly striking the ground. It is here that our problems become apparent; that our nature and weaknesses strike us in the face. And then we realize that our problems are not just “down below,” but all around us. We all suffer from the same fallen humanity; and we are all weary pilgrims.

Thus a pastor doesn’t become a scholar to escape the vicissitudes of the mundane and the ordinary, to perch unassailable by the unpleasantries below. For here we will not find safety: only coldness, and finally death.


God demonstrates his character to us by stooping down to our nature, and “getting his hands dirty,” as it were, with our flesh and blood. Out of the dust of the earth he created them male and female (Gen. 1:27). And then, God, in the person of Christ, took this humanity upon himself, forever, identifying with us in the most empathetic and intimate way ever. And as under-shepherds, ministers are called to no less. Indeed, we must first loose our lives if we want to find them (Matt. 10:39). For there is no greater love than this (Jn. 15:13).

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The following is a satirical catechism put together by John Owen, highlighting the consequences of Socinian error.

Question 1: What is God?
Answer: God is a spirit, that hath a bodily shape, eyes, ears, hands, feet, like to us.

Question 2: Where is this God?
Answer: In a certain place in heaven, upon a throne, where a man may see from his right hand to his left.

Question 3: Doth he ever move out of that place?
Answer: I cannot tell what he doth ordinarily, but he hath formerly come down sometimes upon the earth.

Question 4: What doth he do in there in that place?
Answer: Among other things, he conjectures at what men will do here below.

Question 5: Doth he, then, not know what we do?
Answer: He doth know what we have done, but not what we will do.

Question 6: What frame is he upon his knowledge and conjecture?
Answer: Sometimes he is afraid, sometimes grieved, sometimes joyful, and sometimes troubled.

Question 7: What peace and comfort can I have in committing myself to his providence, if he knows not what will befall me tomorrow?
Answer: What is that to me? See you to that.

Wow! Owen wasn’t pulling any punches. How we think about God goes a long way in how we think about life and reality and whether we can find comfort in God’s providence. Carl Trueman observes:

[T]he issues at stake when it came to the doctrine of God had profound pastoral implications; and the Arminian and Socinian proposals were not simply intellectually disastrous; they were also disastrous for the economy of salvation, and thus for Christian pastoral practice, and for the experience and aspirations of the ordinary believer as well. – John Owen: Reformed Catholic, Renaissance Man, 66.

Doing theology isn’t merely an exercise in mental gymnastics. No, it’s immensely practical. In fact, it’s the only way we can explain and cope with reality in this beautiful, yet sad, world.

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Today one might often hear folks holding to the “authority of scripture” or Sola Scriptura (scripture alone) as proof of their Reformed (or more broadly, Christian) orthodoxy. The concept of biblical authority is considered that “safe all” category sufficient to always guide one home to truth. As long as we maintain Sola Scriptura, (it is assumed) we’ll be good. And we’ll always be reforming the church (semper reformanda).

But this is a dangerous misunderstanding, both of the Reformed distinctive (Sola Scriptura), as well as the nature of theology itself. And we see this mistake played out in history.

Carl Trueman observes how in John Owen’s day, “the Socinians appear to hold to a basic scripture principle in a formally similar manner to the orthodox.” That is, they held to a form of Sola Scritpura: Scripture alone was the sole and final authority in determining truth. For some odd reason, however, the Socinians couldn’t seem to find the doctrine of the Holy Trinity anywhere in Scripture!

What Owen labored to demonstrate, therefore, was that sola scriptura was not enough. It was not merely scripture’s authority that was all-important, but also its interpretation.

Trueman explains the difference between the two approaches:

The differences, in fact, are significant, and go straight to the heart of why Owen can see scripture as teaching the doctrine of the Trinity and the Socinians reject such a conclusion: the point at issue is not simply whether scripture is the authoritative noetic foundation for theology, but how that scripture is to be interpreted, a point which draws in matters of logic, of metaphysics, and of how individual passages of scripture are mutually related to the act of interpretation…

The radical biblicism of the Socinians was, in effect, cutting the very ground away from under the traditional doctrine and forcing its exponents to greater degrees of precisely the kind of conceptual and linguistic subtlety which the Socinians decried as betraying the straightforward teaching of scripture. – John Owen: Reformed Catholic, Renaissance Man, 48-49.

Notice the irony. And yet this is very helpful for us today since we often hear people arguing for a form of “biblicism” which lays claim to the Sola Scriptura principle, all-the-while ignoring the larger philosophical challenges inherent to scripture’s interpretation.

Theology free from metaphysics is impossible.

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Of Infant Baptism

by Dr. John Owen

“Dr. Owen was a renowned Puritan minister of the Independent (Congregational) persuasion, whose profound and edifying works are published by The Banner of Truth Trust. C. H. Spurgeon in the 19th century said of John Owen, “It is unnecessary to say that he is the prince of divines. To master his works is to be a profound theologian.” He was born in 1616, in Stadham, Oxfordshire, England, and he died 1683 in London.”

I. THE question is not whether professing believers, Jews or Gentiles, not baptized in their infancy, ought to be baptized; for this is by all confessed.

II. Neither is it whether, in such persons, the profession of saving faith and repentance ought not to go before baptism. This we plead for beyond what is the common practice of those who oppose us.

Wherefore, testimonies produced out of authors, ancient or modern, to confirm these things, which consist with the doctrine of infant baptism, are mere tergiversations, that belong not to this cause at all; and so are all arguments produced unto that end out of the Scriptures.

III. The question is not whether all infants are to be baptized or not; for, according to the will of God, some are not to be baptized, even such whose parents are strangers from the covenant. But hence it will follow that some are to be baptized, seeing an exception confirms both rule and right.

IV. The question is only concerning the children or infant seed of professing believers who are themselves baptized. And, –

First, They by whom this is denied can produce no testimony of Scripture wherein their negation is formally or in terms included, nor any one asserting what is inconsistent with that of their seed. But this is to be required of them who oppose infant baptism, that they produce such a testimony.

Secondly, No instance can be given from the Old or New Testament since the days of Abraham, none from the approved practice of the primitive church, of any person or persons born of professing, believing parents, who were themselves made partakers of the initial seal of the covenant, being then in infancy and designed to be brought up in the knowledge of God, who were not made partakers with them of the same sign and seal of the covenant.

Thirdly, A spiritual privilege once granted by God unto any cannot be changed, disannulled, or abrogated, without an especial divine revocation of it, or the substitution of a greater privilege and mercy in the room of it; for, –

1. Who shall disannul what God hath granted? What he hath put together who shall put asunder? To abolish or take away any grant of privilege made by him to the church, without his own express revocation of it, is to deny his sovereign authority.

2. To say a privilege so granted may be revoked, even by God himself, without the substitution of a greater privilege and mercy in the room of it, is contrary to the goodness of God, his love and care unto his church, [and] contrary to his constant course of proceeding with it from the foundation of the world, wherein he went on in the enlargement and increase of its privileges until the coming of Christ. And to suppose it under the gospel is contrary to all his promises, the honour of Christ, and a multitude of express testimonies of Scripture.

Thus was it with the privileges of the temple and the worship of it granted to the Jews; they were not, they could not be, taken away without an express revocation, and the substitution of a more glorious spiritual temple and worship in their room.

But now the spiritual privilege of a right unto and a participation of the initial seal of the covenant was granted by God unto the infant seed of Abraham, Gen. xvii. 10, 12.

This grant, therefore, must stand firm for ever, unless men can prove or produce, –

1. An express revocation of it by God himself; which none can do either directly or indirectly, in terms or any pretence of consequence.

2. An instance of a greater privilege or mercy granted unto them in the room of it; which they do not once pretend unto, but leave the seed of believers, whilst in their infant state, in the same condition with those of pagans and infidels; expressly contrary to God’s covenant.

All this contest, therefore, is to deprive the children of believers of a privilege once granted to them by God, never revoked, as to the substance of it, assigning nothing in its room; which is contrary to the goodness, love, and covenant of God, especially derogatory to the honour of Jesus Christ and the gospel.

Fourthly, They that have the thing signified have right unto the sign of it, or those who are partakers of the grace of baptism have a right to the administration of it: so Acts x. 47.

But the children of believers are all of them capable of the grace signified in baptism, and some of them are certainly partakers of it, namely, such as die in their infancy (which is all that can be said of professors): therefore they may and ought to be baptized. For, –

1. Infants are made for and are capable of eternal glory or misery, and must fall, dying infants, into one of these estates for ever.

2. All infants are born in a state of sin, wherein they are spiritually dead and under the curse.

3. Unless they are regenerated or born again, they must all perish inevitably, John iii. 3. Their regeneration is the grace whereof baptism is a sign or token. Wherever this is, there baptism ought to be administered.

Fifthly, God having appointed baptism as the sign and seal of regeneration, unto whom he denies it, he denies the grace signified by it. Why is it the will of God that unbelievers and impenitent sinners should not be baptized? It is because, not granting them the grace, he will not grant them the sign. If, therefore, God denies the sign unto the infant seed of believers, it must be because he denies them the grace of it; and then all the children of believing parents dying in their infancy must, without hope, be eternally damned. I do not say that all must be so who are not baptized, but all must be so whom God would not have baptized.

But this is contrary to the goodness and law [love?] of God, the nature and promises of the covenant, the testimony of Christ reckoning them to the kingdom of God, the faith of godly parents, and the belief of the church in all ages.

It follows hence unavoidably that infants who die in their infancy have the grace of regeneration, and consequently as good a right unto baptism as believers themselves.

Sixthly, All children in their infancy are reckoned unto the covenant of their parents, by virtue of the law of their creation.

For they are all made capable of eternal rewards and punishments, as hath been declared.

But in their own persons they are not capable of doing good or evil.

It is therefore contrary to the justice of God, and the law of the creation of human kind, wherein many die before they can discern between their right hand and their left, to deal with infants any otherwise but in and according to the covenant of their parents; and that he doth so, see Rom. v. 14.

Hence I argue, –

Those who, by God’s appointment, and by virtue of the law of their creation, are, and must of necessity be, included in the covenant of their parents, have the same right with them unto the privileges of that covenant, no express exception being put in against them. This right it is in the power of none to deprive them of, unless they can change the law of their creation.

Thus it is with the children of believers with respect unto the covenant of their parents, whence alone they are said to be holy, 1 Cor. vii. 14.

Seventhly, Christ is “the messenger of the covenant,” Mal. iii. 1, – that is, of the covenant of God made with Abraham; and he was the “minister of the circumcision for the truth of God, to confirm the promises made unto the fathers,” Rom. xv. 8. This covenant was, that he would be “a God unto Abraham and to his seed.”

Now if this be not so under the new testament, then was not Christ a faithful messenger, nor did confirm the truth of God in his promises.

This argument alone will bear the weight of the whole cause against all objections; for, –

1. Children are still in the same covenant with their parents, or the truth of the promises of God to the fathers was not confirmed by Christ.

2. The right unto the covenant, and interest in its promises, wherever it be, gives right unto the administration of its initial seal, that is, to baptism, as Peter expressly declares, Acts ii. 38, 39. Wherefore, –

The right of the infant seed of believers unto baptism, as the initial seal of the covenant, stands on the foundation of the faithfulness of Christ as the messenger of the covenant, and minister of God for the confirmation of the truth of his promises.

In brief, a participation of the seal of the covenant is a spiritual blessing. This the seed of believers was once solemnly invested in by God himself. This privilege he hath nowhere revoked, though he hath changed the outward sign; nor hath he granted unto our children any privilege or mercy in lieu of it now under the gospel, when all grace and privilege are enlarged to the utmost. His covenant promises concerning them, which are multiplied, were confirmed by Christ as a true messenger and minister; he gives the grace of baptism unto many of them, especially those that die in their infancy, owns children to belong unto his kingdom, esteems them disciples, appoints households to be baptized without exception. And who shall now rise up, and withhold water from them?

This argument may be thus further cleared and improved: –

Christ is “the messenger of the covenant,” Mal. iii. 1, – that is, the covenant of God with Abraham, Gen. xvii. 7; for, –

1. That covenant was with and unto Christ mystical, Gal. iii. 16; and he was the messenger of no covenant but that which was made with himself and his members.

2. He was sent, or was God’s messenger, to perform and accomplish the covenant and oath made with Abraham, Luke i. 72, 73.

3. The end of his message and of his coming was, that those to whom he was sent might be “blessed with faithful Abraham,” or that “the blessing of Abraham,” promised in the covenant, “might come upon them,” Gal. iii. 9, 14.

To deny this, overthrows the whole relation between the old testament and the new, the veracity of God in his promises, and all the properties of the covenant of grace, mentioned 2 Sam. xxiii. 5.

It was not the covenant of works, neither originally nor essentially, nor the covenant in its legal administration; for he confirmed and sealed that covenant whereof he was the messenger, but these he abolished.

Let it be named what covenant he was the messenger of, if not of this. Occasional additions of temporal promises do not in the least alter the nature of the covenant.

Herein he was the “minister of the circumcision for the truth of God, to confirm the promises made unto the fathers,” Rom. xv. 8; that is, undeniably, the covenant made with Abraham, enlarged and explained by following promises. This covenant was, that God would be “a God unto Abraham and to his seed;” which God himself explains to be his infant seed, Gen. xvii. 12, – that is, the infant seed of every one of his posterity who should lay hold on and avouch that covenant as Abraham did, and not else. This the whole church did solemnly for themselves and their posterity; whereon the covenant was confirmed and sealed to them all, Exod. xxiv. 7, 8. And every one was bound to do the same in his own person; which if he did not, he was to be cut off from the congregation, whereby he forfeited all privileges unto himself and his seed.

The covenant, therefore, was not granted in its administrations unto the carnal seed of Abraham as such, but unto his covenanted seed, those who entered into it and professedly stood to its terms.

And the promises made unto the fathers were, that their infant seed, their buds and offspring, should have an equal share in the covenant with them, Isa. xxii. 24, xliv. 3, lxi. 9. “They are the seed of the blessed of the LORD, and their offspring with them,” chap. lxv, 23. Not only themselves, who are the believing, professing seed of those who were blessed of the Lord, by a participation of the covenant, Gal. iii. 9, but their offspring also, their buds, their tender little ones, are in the same covenant with them.

To deny, therefore, that the children of believing, professing parents, who have avouched God’s covenant, as the church of Israel did, Exod. xxiv. 7, 8, have the same right and interest with their parents in the covenant, is plainly to deny the fidelity of Christ in the discharge of his office.

It may be it will be said, that although children have a right to the covenant, or do belong unto it, yet they have no right to the initial seal of it. This will not suffice; for, –

1. If they have any interest in it, it is either in its grace or in its administration. If they have the former, they have the latter also, as shall be proved at any time. If they have neither, they have no interest in it; – then the truth of the promises of God made unto the fathers was not confirmed by Christ.

2. That unto whom the covenant or promise doth belong, to them belongs the administration of the initial seal of it, is expressly declared by the apostle, Acts ii. 38, 39, be they who they will.

3. The truth of God’s promises is not confirmed if the sign and seal of them be denied; for that whereon they believed that God was a God unto their seed as well as unto themselves was this, that he granted the token of the covenant unto their seed as well as unto themselves. If this be taken away by Christ, their faith is overthrown, and the promise itself is not confirmed but weakened, as to the virtue it hath to beget faith and obedience.

Eighthly, Particular testimonies may be pleaded and vindicated, if need be, and the practice of the primitive church.1

(1) See also Dr Owen on the Hebrews, vol. i. Exercitation the sixth, and vol. ii. p. 256; in which place he gives further light into this truth of infant baptism.

[This note is appended by the editors of the folio edition of Owen’s Sermons and Tracts, published in 1721. The second passage referred to occurs in the exposition of chap. iv. ver. 9. – Ed.]

The Works of John Owen, Vol. 16, Banner of Truth 1991. pp 258-263. COPIED FROM CovenantofGrace.com

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“The truth is, so far as I can discern, the real difference that is at this day amongst us, about the doctrine of our justification before God, is the same that was between the apostle and the Jews, and no other. But controversies in religion make a great appearance of being new, when they are only varied and made different by the new terms and expressions that are introduced into the handling of them.”

“And all those things which men are pleased now to plead for, with respect unto a causality in our justification before God, under the names of preparations, conditions, dispositions, merit, with respect unto a first or second justification, are as effectually excluded by the apostle as if he had expressly named them every one; for in them all there is a management, according unto our conceptions and the terms of the learning passant in the present age, of the plea for our own personal righteousness, which the Jews maintained against the apostle. And the true understanding of what he intends by the law, the works and righteousness thereof, would be sufficient to determine this controversy, but that men are grown very skilful in the art of endless wrangling.”

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