Spirit & Structure–A New Year’s Agenda from John Owen

In a recent blog, I have been looking at the perennial tension between Spirit and structure. Lest any think I have erred in the direction of structure, let me share some thoughts from one of my favourite authors, the Puritan John Owen (1616-1683). And in this way indicate “my agenda” for the new year! In his own day Owen was known as the “Calvin of England” [Allen C. Guelzo, “John Owen, Puritan Pacesetter”, Christianity Today, 20, No. 17 (May 21, 1976), 14]. More recently, Roger Nicole has described Owen as “the greatest divine who ever wrote in English” and J. I. Packer says of him that during his career as a Christian theologian he was “England’s foremost bastion and champion of Reformed evangelical orthodoxy.” [Cited Guelzo, “John Owen, Puritan Pacesetter”, 14; J. I. Packer, A Quest for Godliness. The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, 1990), 81]. Owen’s chief interest, though, was not in producing theological treatises for their own sake, but in order to advance the personal holiness of God’s people.

For Owen, genuine spiritual experience is vital. Owen asserts that ultimately it is the Spirit who gives the believer such experience: “He gives unto believers a spiritual sense of the power and reality of the things believed, whereby their faith is greatly established…”[A Discourse Concerning the Holy Spirit (Works, 4:64)].

It is these inner experiences that motivate external attendance on the various ordinances of the Christian life. “Without the internal actings of the life of faith,” Owen writes, “external administrations of ordinances of worship are but dead things, nor can any believer obtain real satisfaction in them or refreshment by them without an inward experience of faith and love in them and by them.” [The Grace and Duty of Being Spiritually Minded (Works, 7:435).].

The importance that Owen placed on spiritual experience can be seen clearly and distinctly in the following quote—pardon its length:

“[L]et a gracious soul, in simplicity and sincerity of spirit, give up himself to walk with Christ according to his appointment, and he shall quickly find such a taste and relish in the fellowship of the gospel, in the communion of saints, and of Christ amongst them, as that he shall come up to such riches of assurance in the understanding and acknowledgment of the ways of the Lord, as others by their disputing can never attain unto. What is so high, glorious, and mysterious as the doctrine of the ever-blessed Trinity? Some wise men have thought meet to keep it veiled from ordinary Christians, and some have delivered it in such terms as that they can understand nothing by them. But take a believer who hath tasted how gracious the Lord is, in the eternal love of the Father, the great undertaking of the Son in the work of mediation and redemption, with the almighty work of the Spirit creating grace and comfort in the soul; and hath had an experience of the love, holiness, and power of God in them all; and he will with more firm confidence adhere to this mysterious truth, being led into it and confirmed in it by some few plain testimonies of the word, than a thousand disputers shall do who only have the notion of it in their minds. Let a real trial come, and this will appear. Few will be found to sacrifice their lives on bare speculations. Experience will give assurance and stability.” [A Practical Exposition Upon Psalm CXXX (Works, 6:458-459)].

Here then is a strong emphasis upon an experiential Christianity, one that is rooted in the Spirit’s application of biblical truth to the heart of the believer. And it is this sort of Christianity that we are seeking to promote to the honour and glory of the Triune God, one that preserves the biblical balance of Spirit and structure. May this God, the true and living Lord of the universe, enable in the year to come.