John Owen, How He Pursued Holiness

I know that this is a long quote, and quotes within a quote, but seriously, it will be good for your soul to read of it carefully, particularly drinking in Owen’s measured remarks.  May God gift the church and the world with a generation of Christians and servants of the Lord who do so pursue communion with God, and personal and universal holiness as did John Owen.

How Did He Pursue Holiness?

Owen humbled himself under the mighty hand of God.

Though he was one of the most influential and well-known men of his day his view of his own place in God’s economy was sober and humble. Two days before he died he wrote in a letter to Charles Fleetwood, “I am leaving the ship of the Church in a storm, but while the great Pilot is in it the loss of a poor under-rower will be inconsiderable” (see note 47).

Packer says that “Owen, [though] a proud man by nature, had been brought low in and by his conversion, and thereafter he kept himself low by recurring contemplation of his inbred sinfulness” (see note 48). What Owen wrote illustrates this:

To keep our souls in a constant state of mourning and self-abasement is the most necessary part of our wisdom … and it is so far from having any inconsistency with those consolations and joys, which the gospel tenders unto us in believer, as that it is the only way to let them into the soul in a due manner (see note 49).

With regard to his immense learning and the tremendous insight he had into the things of God he seems to have a humbler attitude toward his achievements because he had climbed high enough to see over the first ridge of revelation into the endless mysteries of God.

I make no pretence of searching into the bottom or depths of any part of this “great mystery of godliness, God manifest in the flesh.” They are altogether unsearchable, unto the [limit] of the most enlightened minds, in this life. What we shall farther comprehend of them in the other world, God only knows (see note 50).

This humility opened Owen’s soul to the greatest visions of Christ in the Scriptures. And he believed with all his heart the truth of 2 Corinthians 3:18 that by contemplating the glory of Christ “we may be gradually transformed into the same glory” (see note 51). And that is nothing other than holiness.

Owen grew in knowledge of God by obeying what he knew already.

In other words Owen recognized that holiness was not merely the goal of all true learning; it is also the means of more true learning. This elevated holiness even higher in his life: it was the aim of his life and, in large measure, the means of getting there.

The true notion of holy evangelical truths will not live, at least not flourish, where they are divided from a holy conversation (=life). As we learn all to practice [!!!], so we learn much by practice … and herein alone can we come unto the assurance, that what we know and learn is indeed the truth [cf. John 7:17] … And hereby will they be led continually into farther degrees of knowledge. For the mind of man is capable of receiving continual supplies in the increase of light and knowledge … if … they are improved unto their proper end in obedience unto God. but without this the mind will be quickly stuffed with notions so that no streams can descend into it from the fountain of truth (see note 52).

Thus Owen kept the streams of the fountain of truth open by making personal obedience the effect of all that he learned, and the means of more.

Owen passionately pursued a personal communion with God.

It is incredible that Owen was able to keep writing edifying and weighty books and pamphlets under the pressures of his life. The key was his personal communion with God. Andrew Thomson, one of his biographers wrote,

It is interesting to find the ample evidence which [his work on Mortification] affords, that amid the din of theological controversy, the engrossing and perplexing activities of a high public station, and the chilling damps of a university, he was yet living near God, and like Jacob amid the stones of the wilderness, maintaining secret intercourse with the eternal and invisible (see note 53).

Packer says that the Puritans differ from evangelicals today because with them,

” … communion with God was a great thing, to evangelicals today it is a comparativelysmall thing. The Puritans were concerned about communion with God in a way that we are not. The measure of our unconcern is the little that we say about it. When Christians meet, they talk to each other about their Christian work and Christian interests, their Christian acquaintances, the state of the churches, and the problems of theology—but rarely of their daily experience of God” (see note 54).

But God was seeing to it that Owen and the suffering Puritans of his day lived closer to God and sought after communion with God more earnestly than we. Writing a letter during an illness in 1674 he said to a friend, “Christ is our best friend, and ere long will be our only friend. I pray God will all my heart that I may be weary of everything else but converse and communion with Him” (see note 55). God was using illness and all the other pressures of Owen’s life to drive him into communion with God and not away form it.

But Owen was also very intentional about his communion with God. He said, “Friendship is most maintained and kept up by visits; and these, the more free and less occasioned by urgent business (see note 56) …” In other words, in the midst of all his academic and political and ecclesiastical labors he made many visits to his Friend, Jesus Christ.

And when he went he did not just go with petitions for things or even for deliverance in his many hardships. He went to see his glorious friend and to contemplate his greatness. The last book he wrote—he was finishing it as he died—is called Meditations on the Glory of Christ. That says a great deal about the focus and outcome of Owen’s life. In it he said,

The revelation … of Christ … deserves the severest of our thoughts, the best of our meditations and our utmost diligence in them … What better preparation can there be for [our future enjoyment of the glory of Christ] than in a constant previous contemplation of that glory in the revelation that is made in the Gospel (see note 57).

The contemplation Owen has in mind is made up of at least two things: on the one hand there is what he called his “severest thoughts” and “best meditations” or in another place “assiduous meditations,” and on the other had relentless prayer. The two are illustrated in his work on Hebrews.

One of his greatest achievements was his seven volume commentary on Hebrews. When he finished it near the end of his life he said, “Now my work is done: it is time for me to die” (see note 58). How did he do it? We get a glimpse from the preface:

I must now say, that, after all my searching and reading, prayer and assiduous meditation have been my only resort, and by far the most useful means of light and assistance. By these have my thoughts been freed from many an entanglement (see note 59).

His aim in all he did was to grasp the mind of Christ and reflect it in his behavior. This means that the quest for holiness was always bound up with a quest for true knowledge of God. That’s why prayer and study and meditation always went together.

I suppose … this may be fixed on as a common principle of Christianity; namely, that constant and fervent prayer for the divine assistance of the Holy Spirit, is such an indispensable means for … attaining the knowledge of the mind of God in the Scripture, as that without it all others will not [avail] (see note 60).

Owen gives us a glimpse into the struggle that we all have in this regard lest anyone think he was above the battle. He wrote to John Eliot in New England,

I do acknowledge unto you that I have a dry and barren spirit, and I do heartily beg your prayers that the Holy One would, notwithstanding all my sinful provocations, water me from above. (see note 61).

In other words the prayers of others were essential not just his own.

The chief source of all that Owen preached and wrote was this “assiduous meditation” onScripture and prayer. Which leads us to the fourth way that Owen achieved such holiness in his immensely busy and productive life.

Owen was authentic in commending in public only what he had experienced in private.

One great hindrance to holiness in the ministry of the word is that we are prone to preach and write without pressing into the things we say and making them real to our own souls. Over the years words begin to come easy, and we find we can speak of mysteries without standing in awe; we can speak of purity without feeling pure; we can speak of zeal without spiritual passion; we can speak of God’s holiness without trembling; we can speak of sin without sorrow; we can speak of heaven without eagerness. And the result is a terrible hardening of the spiritual life.

Words came easy for Owen, but he set himself against this terrible disease of unauthenticity and secured his growth in holiness. He began with the premise: “Our happiness consisteth not in the knowing the things of the gospel, but in the doing of them” (see note 61). Doing, not just knowing, was the goal of all his studies.

As a means to this authentic doing he labored to experience every truth he preached. He said,

I hold myself bound in conscience and in honor, not even to imagine that I have attained a proper knowledge of any one article of truth, much less to publish it, unless through the Holy Spirit I have had such a taste of it, in its spiritual sense, that I may be able, from the heart, to say with the psalmist, ‘I have believed, and therefore I have spoken’ (see note 62).

So for example his Exposition of Psalm 130 (320 pages on eight verses) is the laying open not only of the Psalm but of his own heart. Andrew Thomson says,

When Owen … laid open the book of God, he laid open at the same time the book of his own heart and of his own history, and produced a book which … is rich in golden thoughts, and instinct with the living experience of ‘one who spake what he knew, and testified what he had seen’ (see note 63).

The same biographer said of Owen’s On The Grace and Duty of Being Spiritually Minded (1681) that he “first preached [it] to his own heart, and then to a private congregation; and which reveals to us the almost untouched and untrodden eminences on which Owen walked in the last years of his pilgrimage” (see note 64).

This was the conviction that controlled Owen:

A man preacheth that sermon only well unto others which preacheth itself in his own soul. And he that doth not feed on and thrive in the digestion of the food which he provides for others will scarce make it savoury unto them; yea, he knows not but the food he hath provided may bd poison, unless he have really tasted of it himself. If the word do not dwell with power in us, it will not pass with power from us (see note 65).

It was this conviction that sustained Owen in his immensely busy public life of controversy and conflict. Whenever he undertook to defend a truth, he sought first of all to take that truth deeply into his heart and gain a real spiritual experience of it so that there would be no artificiality in the debate and no mere posturing or gamesmanship. He was made steady in the battle because he had come to experience the truth at the personal level of the fruits of holiness and knew that God was in it. Here is the way he put it in the Preface to The Mystery of the Gospel Vindicated (1655):

When the heart is cast indeed into the mould of the doctrine that the mind embraceth,—when the evidence and necessity of the truth abides in us,—when not the sense of the words only is in our heads, but the sense of the thing abides in our hearts—when we have communion with God in the doctrine we contend for—then shall we be garrisoned by the grace of God against all the assaults of men (see note 66).

That, I think, was the key to Owen’s life and ministry, so renown for holiness —”when we have communion with God in the doctrine we contend for—then shall we be garrisoned by the grace of God against all the assaults of men.”

The last thing Owen was doing at the end of his life came was communing with Christ in a work that was later published as Meditations on the Glory of Christ. His friend William Payne was helping him edit the work. Near the end Owen said, “O, brother Payne, the long-wished for day is come at last, in which I shall see the glory in another manner than I have ever done or was capable of doing in this world” (see note 67).

But Owen saw more glory than most of us see, and that is why he was known for his holiness, because Paul taught us plainly and Owen believed, “We all with unveiled face beholding the glory of the Lord are being changed into that same image from one degree of glory to the next.”

-John Piper, The Chief Design of My Life: Mortification and Universal Holiness – Reflections on the Life and Thought of John Owen.

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