Category Archives: John Owen
A man may love another as his own soul, yet perhaps that love of his cannot help him. He may thereby pity him in prison, but not relieve him; bemoan him in misery, but not help him; suffer with him in trouble, but not ease him. We cannot love grace into a child, nor mercy into a friend; we cannot love them into heaven, though it may be the greatest desire of our soul. … But now the love of Christ, being the love of God, is effectual and fruitful in producing all the good things which he wills unto his beloved. He loves life, grace, and holiness into us; he loves us also into covenant, loves us into heaven.
Through his works, Puritan John Owen has become for me a reminder of the glorious person of Jesus Christ. Whatever we comprehend of Christ by faith now is but a mere outline of the glory of His person. Owen’s subtle reminders—and sometimes not-so-subtle reminders—turn my eyes to gaze upon the glorious person of Jesus Christ and to anticipate the day I’ll see him face-to-face. In other words, the cross should point our gaze heavenward, to set our minds above, where Christ is.
In the 12th chapter of Meditations and Discourses on the Glory of Christ, Owen argues that the gospel message is a telescope that makes Christ visible, but provides us only with an imperfect outline of the glory of the person of Christ. This obscurity is due, not to the gospel’s lack of clarity, but due to the limits of faith and due to our personal sin and weakness. Owen uses this to stoke anticipation in us for the day when our faith in Jesus will be replaced by the sight of Jesus’ pure glory.
If I understand him correctly, Owen is telling us that to if we rightly understand the gospel, it will fuel in us a heartfelt desire to see Jesus. Owen seems to be saying to me, “Tony, don’t merely rejoice in justification and the wonderful doctrines of the gospel and all the benefits of Christ’s death. Look in closer. Look for Jesus. Rejoice in Him, and anticipate the day you will see Him with your own eyes.”
Hear directly from Owen:
The view which we have of the glory of Christ by faith in this world is obscure, dark, and reflexive. So the apostle says in 1 Corinthians 13:12, “now we see in a mirror dimly,”—“through” or by “a glass, in a riddle,” a parable, a dark saying. …
The shadow or image of this glory of Christ is drawn in the gospel, and therein we behold it as the likeness of a man represented unto us in a glass; and although it be obscure and imperfect in comparison of his own real, substantial glory, which is the object of vision in heaven, yet is it the only image and representation of himself which he has left, and given unto us in this world. But by this figurative expression of seeing in a glass, the apostle declares the comparative imperfection of our present view of the glory of Christ.
But the allusion may be taken from a telescope, whereby the sight of the eye is helped in beholding things at a great distance. By the aid of such glasses, men will discover stars or heavenly lights, which, by reason of their distance from us, the eye of itself is no way able to discern.
And those which we do see are more fully represented, though remote enough from being so perfectly. Such a glass is the gospel, without which we can make no discovery of Christ at all; but in the use of it we are far enough from beholding him in the just dimensions of his glory. …
But here it must be observed, that the description and representation of the Lord Christ and his glory in the gospel is not absolutely or in itself either dark or obscure; yea, it is perspicuous, plain, and direct. Christ is therein evidently set forth crucified, exalted, glorified. But the apostle does not here discourse concerning the way or means of the revelation of it unto us, but of the means or instrument whereby we comprehend that revelation. This is our faith, which, as it is in us, being weak and imperfect, we comprehend the representation that is made unto us of the glory of Christ as men do the sense of a dark saying, a riddle, a parable; that is imperfectly, and with difficulty.
On the account hereof we may say at present, how little a portion is it that we know of him! How imperfect are our conceptions of him! How weak are our minds in their management! There is no part of his glory that we can fully comprehend. And what we do comprehend,—there is a comprehension in faith, Ephesians 3:18,—we cannot abide in the steady contemplation of. For ever blessed be that sovereign grace, whence it is that He who “commanded light to shine out of darkness has shined into our hearts, to give us the light of the knowledge of his own glory in the face of Jesus Christ,” and therein of the glory of Christ himself;—that he has so revealed him unto us, as that we may love him, admire him, and obey him: but constantly, steadily, and clearly to behold his glory in this life we are not able; “for we walk by faith, and not by sight.”
Hence our sight of him here is as it were by glances, liable to be clouded and blocked. “Behold, there he stands behind our wall, gazing through the windows, looking through the lattice” (Song of Solomon 2:9). There is a great interposition between him and us, as a wall; and the means of the discovery of himself unto us, as through a window and lattice, include a great instability and imperfection in our view and apprehension of him. There is a wall between him and us, which yet he standeth behind. Our present mortal state is this wall, which must be demolished before we can see him as he is.
In the meantime he looketh through the windows of the ordinances of the Gospel. He gives us sometimes, when he is pleased to stand in those windows, a view of himself; but it is imperfect, as is our sight of a man through a window. The appearances of him at these windows are full of refreshment unto the souls of them that do believe. But our view of them is imperfect, transient, and does not abide—we are for the most part quickly left to bemoan what we have lost. And then our best is but to cry, “the heart panteth after the waterbrooks, so panteth my soul after thee, O God. My soul thirsteth for God, for the living God: when shall I come and appear before thee?” When wilt thou again give me to see thee, though but as through the windows alas! What distress do we ofttimes sit down in, after these views of Christ and his glory! But he proceeds farther yet; and flourishes himself through the lattices. This displaying of the glory of Christ, called the flourishing of himself, is by the promises of the Gospel, as they are explained in the ministry of the Word. In them are represented unto us the desirable beauties and glories of Christ. How precious, how amiable is he, as represented in them! How are the souls of believers ravished with the views of them! Yet is this discovery of him also but as through a lattice. We see him but by parts, unsteadily and unevenly.
Such, I say, is the sight of the glory of Christ which we have in this world by faith. It is dark, it is but in part. It is but weak, transient, imperfect, partial.
—John Owen, Meditations and Discourses on the Glory of Christ. Chapter 12. Works 1:374-389.
It was a joy to attend my first Ligonier Conference in Orlando this past week. The conference is well organized and very enjoyable and it was great meeting so many TSS readers. Thanks for the encouragement.
I want to pass along several highlights from the conference.
The first note I wanted to pass along was from a message by Dr Sinclair Ferguson. He said John Owen’s book, The Doctrine of Justification By Faith, Through the Imputation of the Righteousness of Christ; Explained, Confirmed, and Vindicated, is one of the best treatments on the topic of justification (vol. 5 of Works).
Ferguson especially centered his attention on chapter 15 (“Of Faith Alone”). Owen here makes the following observations about the nature of saving faith:
1. That faith whereby we are justified is most frequently in the New Testament expressed by receiving.
2. Faith is expressed by looking.
3. It is, in like manner, frequently expressed by coming unto Christ.
4. It is expressed by fleeing for refuge.
5. It is a leaning on God, or casting ourselves and our burden on the Lord.
I would recommend reading the (surprisingly short) chapter here.
Reformed Theological Seminary has blessed the wider Church by offering many class lectures for online download. These are available trough the iTunes store and come through your computer (for free!). Recently RTS may have added their best resource yet – History and Theology of the Puritans, a 16-part series delivered by Dr. J.I. Packer. [Packer penned the popular, A Quest For Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life (Crossway: 1994).]
In over 11 hours of lectures, Packer covers …
1. The Puritan Identity – pt. 1 (45:14)
2. The Puritan Identity – pt. 2 (33:10)
3. Puritan Theological Concerns – pt. 1 (45:54)
4. Puritan Theological Concerns – pt. 2 (45:03)
5. The Bible in Puritan Theology – pt. 1 (46:53)
6. The Bible in Puritan Theology – pt. 2 (46:01)
7. Salvation by Grace – pt. 1 (46:41)
8. Salvation by Grace – pt. 2 (46:37)
9. Faith and Assurance – pt. 1 (46:32)
10. Faith and Assurance – pt. 2 (46:16)
11. The Good Fight – pt. 1 (46:22)
12. The Good Fight – pt. 2 (31:45)
13. Conscience (44:06)
14. Reformed Monasticism (43:01)
15. The Christian Minister (44:22)
16. Worship, Fellowship, and Discipline in the Church (27:40)
I hear you asking, So how do I enjoy this yummy goodness?
1. First, install the program iTunes on your computer by clicking here and following directions. Check first because there is a chance iTunes is already installed on your computer.
2. Once you have iTunes loaded you need to go to this website and click on the button under “Click to launch RTS on iTunes.”
3. You should now be in the RTS page in the iTunes store. Under “RTS Virtual Courses” click on “Church History.”
4. Then click on “History and Theology of the Puritans.” This will take you to the page for downloads.
5. To download just click the button “Get tracks” on the top (to get them all at once) or the button “Get” on the right side of each track (for individual downloads). The audio files will be downloaded into iTunes on your computer and from here you can listen to the mp3s, burn them to audio CDs, etc.
6. And be sure to download a PDF copy of the course syllabus.
And that, my Puritan friends, is how you get the yummy goodness of Packer on the Puritans into your computer and into your head!
Happy listening. And thank you to the gracious folks at RTS!
I’ll never forget the glorious day God opened my eyes to see that everything in the Christian life centers around the Cross. It was reminiscent of viewing the massive Rocky Mountains for the first time — having my breath taken away by the size and grandeur of their jagged features, snow-topped summits, and cloud-ripping peaks.
About four years after my conversion, I was preparing to deliver a short message on Titus 3:4-7. The intention was to study this passage to prepare an evangelistic message on a local college campus. The passage reads:
4 But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, 5 he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, 6 whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, 7 so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.
God’s glorious grace saves us purely on the basis of His own mercy, apart from anything we could ever merit from Him. The works we do in ‘righteousness’ are nothing in His sight. We are redeemed in Christ alone, and we can be justified in Him alone. On the basis of the Cross and God’s grace alone, we can possess the hope of eternal life.
These glorious truths sounds pretty evangelistic. Well, kinda.
As an expositor I was trying to come to grips with this passage and the context (which did not seem evangelistic). These passages are embedded between a call for obedience before and a call for obedience after. Listen to the next verse: “The saying is trustworthy, and I want you to insist on these things, so that those who have believed in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works. These things are excellent and profitable for people” (v. 8).
Over the course of that week of study and meditation, God kindly revealed to me that the Cross is bigger than evangelism and conversion! Being reminded of the Cross is for “those who have believed.” From here God showed me the dangers of forgetting the Cross and how the Cross is central to the everyday life of the Christian, producing joy and earnest obedience.
As you can imagine, I was shocked and surprised at these discoveries. Preparation on the passage continued but within a new understanding of the Cross in the Christian life. I would later title the message, A Gospel Tract for Believers.
When I want to be amazed at the Cross, I return to Titus.
The Purchase of the Cross
Recently I was back in Titus, being amazed again. This time our gracious God opened my eyes to the beauty of the completed work of Christ on the Cross. Listen to Titus 2:11-14:
11 For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, 12 training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, 13 waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, 14 who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.
That final verse made my jaw drop because here Paul unfolds the purchase of Christ at the Cross. These are what Christ bought in His sacrificial death for sinners! We are told that Christ “gave Himself” in order to redeem and purify a people zealous for good works. In other words, our redemption, sanctification and even our zeal-ification were all purchased in the Cross!
1. Purchased holiness
Titus 2 seems to parallel Ephesians 5:25-26, “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word.” Here is Christ purifying His Bride (the Church). This model for husbands in the spiritual leadership of their wives shows that our sanctification is not merely the fruit of hard work. Our sanctification is the fruit of Christ’s direct work.
Puritan John Owen recognized a pattern in the NT picture of sanctification, that our washing/sanctification is through blood (Heb. 9:13-14; 1 John 1:7; Rev. 1:5). Not only at the beginning of the Christian life and in justification does blood cleanse us, but at all points of sanctification Christ’s blood sanctifies us. Which means the Cross is ever at the center of our sanctification.
And so in his commentary on Hebrews 2, Owen attacks those who believe holiness is attained merely by following the moral example of Christ. “And they who place this sanctification merely on the doctrine and example of Christ, besides that they consider not at all the design and scope of the place, so they reject the principal end and the most blessed effect of the death and blood-shedding of the Lord Jesus.”
Christ is certainly our example, but all of our moral purity is (most importantly) the purchase of Christ on the Cross!
I find it interesting that this theme of Christ purchasing our sanctification is not a major one in Owen’s works on mortification and indwelling sin, nor a major theme in Communion with God or the Glory of Christ. The theme does find prominence – of all places – in Owen’s classic defense of definite atonement in The Death of Death.
To show the atonement cannot have been achieved for all sinners, Owen argues the application of the atonement would also be applied to all. “So that our sanctification, with all other effects of free grace, are the immediate procurement of the death of Christ. And of the things that have been spoken this is the sum: Sanctification and holiness is the certain fruit and effect of the death of Christ in all them for whom he died.”
I know some of you will disagree with Owen’s overall argument on limited atonement. What I want you to see instead here is the precious wisdom Owen understands so well — that the work of the atonement reaches far beyond mere redemption and justification. Whoever Christ died for will be sanctified and will be holy because this sanctification and holiness has been purchased at the Cross.
Thus we can say with Paul, Christ is our righteousness and sanctification (1 Cor. 1:30). Christ purchased it all.
2. Purchased zeal-ification
And not only our sanctification and mortification (death to sin), but all of our Christian zeal was also purchased in the Cross!
Jonathan Edwards preached a sermon on Titus 2:14 and his overall point was to reveal that all genuine Christians are zealous people. At the beginning he says, “Zeal is an essential virtue of a Christian. This is evident from the text because in the text it is mentioned as what belongs to the description of a true Christian and part of his distinguishing character. Also because it’s mentioned as a virtue that Christ purchased for all his elect.”
Edwards understood that ministry zeal is not the product of our self-sustained efforts, nor the effect of getting ourselves emotionally pumped up before a sermon, or pep-talking a congregation into service and evangelism. Ultimately, all zeal in the Christian life is purchased at the Cross.
How sad is our tendency to separate the work of Christ on the Cross from our ministry zeal and faithfulness. I know I’m guilty here. Examples of this can be seen in contemporary writings. On 1 Thessalonians 2:19, one author writes:
“This is why, when Paul looks ahead to the future and asks, as well one might, what God will say on the last day, he holds up as his joy and crown, not the merits and death of Jesus, but the churches he has planted who remain faithful to the gospel. The path from initial faith to final resurrection (and resurrection we must remind ourselves, constitutes rescue, that is salvation, from death itself) lies through holy and faithful Spirit-led service, including suffering” (N.T. Wright, Fresh Perspective, 148).
This could not be further from the truth. Paul understood the faithful ministry zeal of churches to be the working out of a zeal Christ purchased at the Cross. The Cross will be forever the centerpiece of glory because without it there would be no ministry zeal, no successful church plants, no faithfulness to the message of the Cross. We must resist the temptation to disconnect the merits of Christ from our ministry zeal.
Without the Cross, there is no zeal.
1. Self-sufficiency abated. This understanding of our mortification, sanctification and zeal-ification protects us from self-sufficiency. Our sufficiency is from God (2 Cor. 3:5). Or to put it another way, our sufficiency is in God’s grace, by His Spirit, and through the work of His Son on the Cross.
2. Confidence engendered. Few things more encourage ministry zeal and the pursuit of sanctification than the knowledge that Christ already purchased these gifts of grace! We have the confidence to pursue and kill sin because we are being washed in His blood. We have the confidence to pray for fervent zeal because it’s a zeal already fully purchased by Christ.
3. Legalism killed. Legalism is seeking to appease God through personal obedience. At its heart is the awful idea that I bring to God something I’ve achieved in my own strength that pleases Him more than His Son. This legalism is killed when we reflect on the Cross of Christ, where He purchased all our holiness and zeal.
It sounds awkward, but the bottom line is that we are simply becoming what’s already been paid for. We should continue praying for holiness, sanctification, victory over indwelling sin, and that God would inflame our passions and zeal. But in these prayers we are merely asking that God would apply, by His Holy Spirit, what Christ has already purchased for us on the Cross.
Related post: What is Legalism? (a very simple, working definition)
Related post: Cross-centered obedience (how the diligent pursuit of personal obedience presses us into the Cross and comforts our souls)
Puritan John Owen (1616-1683) is an esteemed and prolific Christian author. His complete works of 24 volumes rightly remain in print today. On topics like the identification and mortification of remaining sin in the believer’s heart, or the glory of Christ, or communion with God in His Triunity, Owen is a giant in Church history. Likewise, Owen’s defense of justification by faith alone and particular atonement are classics that remain in print in various forms.
Over the past several years, John Owen has become a small publishing industry unto himself. Just in 2007 we’ve seen Kelly Kapic’s Communion with God: The Divine and the Human in the Theology of John Owen (Baker Academic) and Carl Trueman’s John Owen: Reformed Catholic, Renaissance Man (Ashgate). Reformation Heritage Books reprinted The Doctrine of Justification by Faith by John Owen with an intro essay by Trueman (this edition is not retypeset). And this Fall, two publishers released retypeset and edited (though unabridged) versions of Owen’s classic, Communion with God including Communion with God (Christian Focus) and Communion with the Triune God (Crossway).
That’s quite a lot of volumes published in one year about, or by, a Puritan born nearly 400 years ago!
This year I’ve received a lot of emails from readers asking me to compare and contrast the two editions of Communion with God and that’s my intention today.
But first, let me say I am grateful to publishers like the Banner of Truth, Christian Focus, and Crossway for continuing to publish Owen’s older works and abridgments (Banner and CF) and for those retypsetting and editing Owen’s works for a new generation (CF and Crossway). These are hardly endeavors that will land big publishing profits, and the editors can tell you how tough and time-consuming a project Owen proves to be. So from TSS we thank each of you for your diligent work!
Now, let’s compare the two volumes strictly by the numbers (notice the volumes are ordered different than the above photo):
Both volumes are relatively close in size, price and construction quality. In both volumes the text has been edited and updated very well, and they read very similarly. Both works are the product of laborious editing.
Christian Focus edition
In the Christian focus edition, there are a few omissions (listed above) and one obvious weakness — Owen should never be dressed in pink and purple! Apart from that, there are some rather strong features to the Christian Focus edition. Especially noteworthy are the frequent headings and subheadings that break up the long text and help the reader along, making the text more visually appealing. And the Christian Focus edition has chosen to keep the Greek and Hebrew fonts whereas the Crossway edition has transliterated all the Greek and Hebrew (depending upon your view, this may be a strength or weakness). Albeit stripped of some features we see in the other volume, Christian Focus has produced a nice, high quality and very readable edition of Communion.
But in a straight comparison, the Crossway volume impresses on many levels. The long introduction by Kelly Kapic is exceptional. The extensive (33 page!) outline is very helpful to browse Owen’s arguments and digressions. The footnotes provide helpful clarifications throughout, as does the glossary of terms in the back. But what really separates the two volumes are the indexes at the end. Crossway has made certain to include a detailed Scriptural index and lengthy topical index, making Owen’s classic more accessible than ever before. As a bonus, if you buy through Crossway they include a free electronic PDF version of the book that can be searched on your computer. Never has John Owen been more accessible and searchable.
Following in the footsteps of last year’s Overcoming Sin and Temptation (2006) Crossway is setting new standards for excellence in the publishing of John Owen works — making their books easier to navigate, useful for busy pastors, and exceptionally well outlined to help readers trace Owen’s arguments. Other publishers of Puritan works should make special note their priority on Scriptural and topical indexes. But where Crossway has not ventured, the Christian Focus works remain the best unabridged, retypeset editions of Owen available (these volumes include The Glory of Christ and The Holy Spirit). Both publishers are to be commended for their work, but we hope in the future their efforts will not be so unfortunately duplicated.
Related: Read our full review of Communion with the Triune God (Crossway: 2007).
Related: Read our interview with Derek Thomas on the topic of John Owen and Communion with God.
Related: It’s not just Justin Taylor and Kelly Kapic! Another excellent Puritan reprint will be found in James Durham’s classic, Christ Crucified, recently reprinted by Naphtali. More info here.
This morning I noticed that hard copies of Owen’s Communion with the Triune God are now being shipped from Crossway. I had planned to take time and highlight some of Owen’s strengths but then TSS took to the road and time passed so quickly. I noticed another blogger was doing essentially the same thing I had in mind. So if you want more about Owen’s classic, I will point you towards Adrian Warnock’s blog. He has done an excellent job in pointing to the highlights.
John Owen and Communion with the Triune God
Interview with Dr. Derek Thomas
What comes to mind when you think of communion? Bread, wine, and religious ordinance? The following interview is for fellow 21st century pilgrims unfamiliar with the term ‘communion’ and specifically ‘communion’ with God.
October 12th is the scheduled release date of Justin Taylor and Kelly Kapic’s newest volume in the writings of Puritan John Owen, Communion with the Triune God (Crossway: 2007). Communion was first published in 1657. The original edition is in the public domain, has been printed in various shapes and sizes, and is available for free online. In the past 50 years this work has been known as the second volume of The Works of John Owen (Banner of Truth).
The 2007 Crossway edition includes several enhancements like helpful indexing, introductions, extensive outline and glossary. Owen’s work has never been more accessible for readers (see our review here).
Dr. Thomas is from Wales and currently serves as John E. Richards Professor of Systematic and Practical Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi. After pastoring for 17 years in Belfast, Northern Ireland, Dr. Thomas returned to the United States in 1996 and also serves as the Minister of Teaching at First Presbyterian Church in Jackson. He has lectured extensively on Owen (listen to his lectures on Owen here).
TSS: Dr. Thomas, it is always an honor to have you join us here on The Shepherd’s Scrapbook! Being a scholar of John Owen and well-acquainted with his works, what are your initial thoughts of this classic, Communion with the Triune God?
DT: Thank you, Tony. It is a great honor for me to join you here at The Shepherd’s Scrapbook. It is one of my favorite sites to visit.
I am also delighted to speak about John Owen. Along with John Calvin, he has been the most influential theologian in my life (at least, among dead ones!). I think I “commune” with him most days about something. That’s the great value of books. The authors may have died, but their writings live on.
I’m as excited as you about the forthcoming publication of Communion with the Triune God, after the splendid job they did with Overcoming Sin and Temptation (Crossway, 2006).
What comes to mind about Owen’s volume, Communion with the Triune God, is its essential Trinitarianism. Owen does a number of things that are important for us to see.
First, he is thoroughly indebted to Calvin and the Fathers in his Trinitarian theology. In an age when the church would find it difficult to expound the Trinity in any meaningful way, Owen assumes a line of theological continuity from the early centuries to his own day (thereby removing the charge made by Rome that Protestantism was ‘new’ and therefore suspect). He cites, for example, the classic formula of Augustine that the external acts of the Trinity cannot be divided (opera ad extra Trinitatis indivisa sunt) without any embarrassment! And, if my memory serves me correctly, we’re only a few pages into the volume!
The second thing about this volume is not only its catholicity (linking with the Fathers), but its centrality. In focusing on the believer’s fellowship with God (Father, Son and Holy Spirit), Owen is picking up what Calvin had insisted lay at the heart of the all theology – union with Christ. Owen is doing so in a more overtly Trinitarian fashion than perhaps Calvin did; but he is bringing to surface what is at the heart of God’s covenant relationship with redeemed sinners. In doing so, of course, Owen can’t help but be experiential in his theology. In that sense, Owen is a perfect example of the puritan oeuvre.
TSS: At first glance of the title people may confuse this book as a long work on prayer or the spiritual disciplines. Or it may be shelved in bookstores with purely subjective books on how to experience some divine warm-fuzzy. Communion with the Triune God is very unique. What does Owen mean when he talks about “communion”?
DT: This is a really good question! And if the publication of this volume can do something to displace these unhelpful books to which you refer, then all the better for it!
Why is the reformed church so confused about reformed spirituality? This is where a volume like Owen’s Communion with the Triune God is so valuable at this present time.
Owen has a fairly complicated view of what communion in this context means. It begins with the idea of what “communion” or “fellowship” in Greek (koinia) means: to share in common with. This raises some important theological (and practical) distinctions: union and communion are not synonyms for Owen. Our union with Christ, brought about by God’s initiative and covenant. It introduces into a status from which flows (as fruit) communion with God. Kelly Kapic summarizes it this way:
- God communicates of himself to us.
- Union with Christ establishes our relationship with God.
- The resulting overflow of union is our returning unto God what is both required and accepted by him (i.e. communion). [endnote 1]
The union with Christ is brought about unilaterally; the communion on the other hand is a bi-lateral issue. Our communion with God can be affected by our sin, unresponsiveness, and especially neglect of the ordinary means of grace.
It is Owen’s Trinitarian emphasis, based to be sure on a disputed text (1 John 5:7), that enables him to expound a multi-faceted dimension to communion. Communing with the Father helps us appreciate the nature of love and reciprocate it; fellowshipping with the Son helps us appreciate and reciprocate grace; fellowshipping with the Holy Spirit encourages assurance as he draws us back to the embrace of Jesus Christ offered to us in the gospel of the Father’s love.
TSS: Communion with the Triune God is rightly hailed as a masterpiece on the Triunity of God. Why is this Triune distinction important in Owen’s understanding of communion?
DT: I have preempted this question somewhat already. But allow me to narrow the focus a little.
The obvious place to begin is to state that for Owen God is Trinitarian in nature. The only fellowship with God that is possible is with the entirety of the Godhead and therefore with each Person that constitutes the One God. If the place of any of the three persons is misconceived or denied, the gospel falls. Thus Jehovah’s Witnesses or Mormons or liberal Protestants who deny the Trinity as empty verbiage can never state the gospel properly because their view of God is all wrong.
The gospel in both its accomplishment and application involves a salvation planned, an atonement made and a salvation applied and none of these are possible apart from the work of all three Persons. For Owen, then, communion with all three keeps the gospel straight and the Christian life in good shape. From it flowed all manner of issues relating to the assurance of salvation – too often argued subjectively without recourse to the nature of salvation itself.
TSS: I’ve watched enough YouTube videos to notice that a large segment of professing Christianity in America dogmatically assert that Christianity is a relationship whereas theology is peripheral. For Owen, experiencing God personally and knowing God accurately are inseparable. Can you explain further how this is revealed in Owen’s thought and why this is important for us to grasp today?
DT: I’ll have to take your word about YouTube, but it is time for us to announce a Declaration of War against the creeping influence of Schleiermacher on modern evangelicalism.
I draw your attention to an essay by Carl Trueman called “John Owen as a Theologian” in a volume of essays on Owen, John Owen: The Man and His Theology (P&R and EP, 2002). These were lectures delivered at a conference on Owen in 2000. It says everything that needs to be said, first of all, about Owen’s distinctive theological emphases, and secondly why theology must be in the service of the experiential and not vice versa.
Owen was no different here than his Calvinstic predecessors, or for that matter, John Calvin himself. From Calvin’s opening sentence of the Institutes, which declared that nearly all the wisdom we possess consists in knowing God and knowing ourselves, comes the distinction that knowledge of God is more than knowing about God. There is a difference between knowledge by description and knowledge by acquaintance.
I had a student in my office recently who obviously loves Sinclair Ferguson. He had listened to what sounded like hundreds of Ferguson’s taped messages. I listened with interest and then (half anticipating the reaction), I said with cool detachment, “I’ve known Sinclair for 30 years and he’s a close, personal friend.” There was an awed silence! “Really!”
Well, Owen would say, Christians brought into a saving relationship with God through faith in Jesus Christ can say, “I know God – personally.” True, the descriptive “personally” is a modern one and not one the seventeenth century would have employed in quite the same way, but the intent is precisely the same.
For Owen, as for Calvin, there is no sense in trying to talk about knowing God by experience if we don’t know how to articulate who God is! The only God there is has revealed himself to us in creation and providence, but supremely in the Scriptures and in his Son’s incarnation. But to have those things clear in our minds and be able to articulate them is not yet to know God. To know God, cognitio Dei is relational knowledge, knowledge that comes to us, in the relationship of faith.
TSS: You mention the “personal” aspects of a relationship with God would have been stated differently by Owen and the Puritans. Explain this further. How is this differently stated? Why?
DT: Well, forgive me, but I think we tend to use the word “personally” in some quasi-therapeutic sense, often at some disparagement to anything cerebral or structured. The puritans adopted (on the whole) a very definite faculty-psychology in which the mind must govern the will and the affections. Personal knowledge of God comes through the integration of this faculty psychology and through some back door to the heart.
TSS: This is very helpful in light of earlier questions. Thank you! … Owen seems to balance well an understanding of our Father who remains transcendent, majestic and holy but for the saint is also their loving, adoptive Father who “from eternity … laid in his own bosom a design for our happiness.” Owen calls us to “rejoice before him with trembling” and of course says if we don’t understand the deep love of the Father we will not draw to Him in communion. Owen writes, “So much as we see of the love of God, so much shall we delight in him, and no more. Every other discovery of God, without this, will but make the soul fly from him; but if the heart be once much taken up with this the eminency of the Father’s love, it cannot choose but be overpowered, conquered, and endeared unto him” (p. 128). How does Owen excel in this theme of communion with the Father?
DT: Of course, ravishing as this language is, it should be recalled that Owen is expounding the Father’s love for us employing the Song of Solomon (Canticles) as background. This was typical of the puritans as a whole to view the Song as an allegory of salvation.
Owen is dealing with a surprisingly modern problem at this point: that in communing with Jesus it is all too possible to draw the conclusion that whereas the Son loves us, the Father is angry with us. From such a distorted view emerges a misshaped view of the gospel, of course. Jesus has no need to make the Father love us because his coming into the world is evidence of it. The Father is the “fountain” or “source” of love.
“Though there be no light for us but in the beams, yet we may by beams see the sun, which is the fountain of it. Though all our refreshments actually lie in the streams, yet by them we are led up unto the fountain. Jesus Christ, in respect of the love of the Father, is but the beam, the stream; wherein though actually all our light, our refreshment lies, yet by him we are led to the fountain, the sun of eternal love itself. … (Communion with the Father) begins in the love of God, and ends in our love to him” (2:23-24).
TSS: That’s a helpful quote that captures Owen well. Thank you! … A year ago I interviewed Kris Lundgaard, an author who has taken John Owen and rewritten his books for contemporary audiences. He said he was surprised that sales of his book on overcoming sin (The Enemy Within) far outsold his book on the beauty of Christ (Through the Looking Glass). This was to him a surprise because seeing the glory of Christ is critical in the fight against sin (2 Cor. 3:18)! It’s likely that the overtly practical Overcoming Sin and Temptation from last year will outsell Communion with the Triune God (or any other Owen titles for that matter). What are the practical implications of Communion with the Triune God to the mortification of sin and the pursuit of holiness?
DT: Well, there’s no way I can come up to Kris standard, but I along with others am so grateful for his love for Owen and his publication. He manages to make Owen appear user-friendly to those who might otherwise be intimated.
I think I can understand why a volume on mortifying sin and dealing with temptation outsells because we all feel the need for help in this area. But perhaps this is a reflection of what another theologian-preacher once called, “sanctification by vinegar,” meaning we are sometimes forced into a set of behavioral responses by the fear of being caught or the being punished rather than because we have a desire to do it.
Only by a grasp of the true nature of God and the delights of communing with him can we really respond in the way we should. Owen, as all good theologians of Paul, observed what we might call gospel grammar. The imperative must follow the indicative. Holiness follows from what grace has reckoned us to be in Christ. What this volume does is tell us who we are. It solves the identity crises which sin can so easily bring. The volumes ought to be read in that order – Communion with the Triune God followed by Overcoming Sin and Temptation. It would be the Bible’s way.
TSS: Dr. Thomas, I love this: “What this volume does is tell us who we are”! This is a helpful observation on the importance of Communion with the Triune God. … Again, thank you for joining on TSS. You are a valued friend in our ministry. Blessings to you!
Related: Read our full review of Communion with the Triune God.
[endnote 1] Kelly Kapic, Communion with God: The Divine and the Human in the Theology of John Owen [Baker Academic, 2007], 157.
Communion with the Triune God
by John Owen
edited by Justin Taylor and Kelly Kapic
Puritan John Owen (1616-1683) is an important Christian author. But he makes me angry!
It’s happened several times. I’ve got Owen cornered and caught. After weeks of study I’ve traced his footsteps, mapped his argument, and now I’ve got him within range! I pat myself on the back. I’ve followed his complex thoughts, written out comprehensive notes, and it’s all finally coming together. With the smug grin of a hunter when the game walks close, I think to myself, ‘Owen is not so tough.’
Just when I’m satisfied I have Owen apprehended and comprehended, he throws out some new subpoint, some new unforeseen argument, and darts past and escapes. Now I’m back after him, chasing off in a forest of subpoints heavily wooded by a thicket of complex 17th century prose. After coming so close after weeks of careful study, I take off in chase, refusing to concede my victory. But soon I realize he’s gone, disappearing out of range, deep into digressions. It will take several hours to track and corner him again. I kick the dirt, raise the flag of surrender, and order abridgements.
If this is your experience in reading unabridged versions of John Owen, pull up a seat. There’s room for you in the Elmer Fudd club.
We are told Owen is great. But Owen is hard. Everyone who has tried to capture Owen knows this. The solution is to find a travel guide who has mastered Owen, knows his movements, and spots his trails.
Last year, travel guides Justin Taylor and Kelly Kapic successfully edited and published the first Owen volume, Overcoming Sin and Temptation (Crossway: 2006). This work is perhaps the most valuable book on battling indwelling sin. The newest Owen volume, Communion with the Triune God (Crossway: 2007), is due out October 12th. It, too, is a masterpiece of Christian literature.
So what is communion? Are we talking wafers and wine?
The full original title is revealing: “Of Communion with God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Each Person Distinctly, in Love, Grace and Consolation.” By grace alone, reconciled sinners are invited to enjoy communion with God, sharing personal communion individually with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We enjoy the Father’s love, the Son’s grace, and the Spirit’s consolation. This is a book about knowing God better.
Let’s move in closer for a few highlights.
A. Mutual affections. Owen gets interesting because communion is a relationship of shared (or mutual) affection. Kapic writes, “To experience communion there needs to be fellowship and communication — e.g., shared affections, response, delight, and satisfaction. In other words, when Owen speaks of our communion with God, he really means active communion, and not merely a state of passivity. ‘Communion consists in giving and receiving’” (p. 21).
It is no stretch to say Owen’s work is a classic work on the Triunity of God. But Owen focuses on an applied Triunity presented within the context of experiencing shared affections, responses, delights and satisfaction. The only way we can experience God is to know God! By expounding the believer’s specific relationship with each Person of the Trinity and dissecting these relationships, we get to know and enjoy God. It’s here Owen’s work finds great relevance today.
B. Loving Father. If I may speak to personal benefits, this work has most helped me comprehend the love of the Father. Even after my conversion eight years ago, it was common for me to think the Father was always simmering on the brink of anger towards me. This false theology (rooted in self-righteous legalism) is dismantled by Owen in Communion. The Father loves His children deeply! But until we grasp the love of the Father, Owen argues, we will never experience communion with Him.
In a favorite quote, Owen calls us remember the wrath of God has been appeased in Christ. We can now come and drink and delight in the fountain of the Father’s love! After writing, “Flesh and blood is apt to have very hard thoughts of him — to think he is always angry, yea, implacable; that it is not for poor creatures to draw nigh to him” (p. 126), Owen writes:
“Many saints have no greater burden in their lives than that their hearts do not come clearly and fully up, constantly to delight and rejoice in God [the Father] — that there is still an indisposedness [unwillingness] of spirit unto close walking with him. What is at the bottom of this distemper? Is it not their unskillfulness in or neglect of this duty, even of holding communion with the Father in love? So much as we see of the love of God, so much shall we delight in him, and no more. Every other discovery of God, without this, will but make the soul fly from him; but if the heart be once much taken up with this the eminency of the Father’s love, it cannot choose but be overpowered, conquered, and endeared unto him. This, if anything, will work upon us to make our abode with him. If the love of a father will not make a child delight in him, what will? Put, then, this to the venture: exercise your thoughts upon this very thing, the eternal, free, and fruitful love of the Father, and see if your hearts be not wrought upon to delight in him. I dare boldly say: believers will find it as thriving a course as ever they pitched on in their lives. Sit down a little at the fountain, and you will quickly have a further discovery of the sweetness of the streams. You who have run from him, will not be able, after a while, to keep at a distance for a moment” (p. 128).
To be sure, the Cross brings a radical change. God the Father as holy wrath-bearer becomes God the Father, my adoptive Father! Leave it to a 17th century Puritan to bring me to my knees in conviction, praise and delight.
C. The theology of relational theology. For Owen, until our theology is straight, our communion with God will be stunted. Far from being a cheap ‘how-to experience warm divine fuzziness,’ Owen pursues the experience of God within serious theological study. He has really given us a detailed “relational theology.” In the introduction, Kevin Vanhooser writes, “Owen’s Communion with the Triune God is indispensable reading for all those who want to go deeper into the meaning of relationality than one typically goes in the pop-theology boats that float only on the psychological surface of the matter” (p. 12). Well said.
D. The language of relational theology. The robust language of Owen is beautiful. For example, in our communion with God the Son, Owen frequently employs words like sweetness, delight, honor, safety, comfort, tenderness, purity, glory, beauty, and rejoicing (see p. 36, note 80). These words glimpse into the language of Owen’s relational theology.
And when Owen speaks of communion, he says things like: “the saints are sweetly wrapped up in the bosom of their Father’s love” (p. 131); and “having at length come once more to an enjoyment of sweet communion with Christ, the soul lays fast hold on him by faith, refuses to part with him any more … and so uses all means for the confirming of the mutual love between Christ and her: all the expressions, all the allusions used, evidencing delight to the utmost capacity of the soul” (p. 244). Our justification before God is no legal fiction!
E. Discovered self-identity. As a further benefit, if we understand God in His Triunity — and our communion with this Triune God — we begin to understand our identities as children of God. Seeing ourselves in relation with God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit we learn who we are. And from this self-identity we have a basis for pursuing holiness and living the Christian life well. (The Derek Thomas interview unfolds this further).
Communion with the Triune God is securely positioned as a great Christian masterpiece. There are many other highlights, and we invite you to join TSS in our month-long study of them.
Features of 2007 edition
Those familiar with Overcoming Sin will notice a similar size (almost exactly the same pages in length), the same fonts and familiar layout. Here are some of the more important features.
1. Introductions. The helpful forward by Kevin Vanhoozer is an apologetic on why the Church needs to hear from Owen on this subject. This is followed by an excellent essay, “Worshiping the Triune God: The Shape of John Owen’s Trinitarian Spirituality” by Kelly Kapic. Kapic is the author of the book Communion with God: The Divine and the Human in the Theology of John Owen (Baker Academic: 2007). This essay is an excellent overview, a topographical map of the terrain covered by Owen.
2. Updated text. The text has been completely retypeset, and is clean and sharp. Only minor editorial changes like archaic spellings (‘hath’ to ‘have’ and ‘thou’ to ‘you’) have been made. Hacking out some of the unnecessary obstructions makes our view of Owen a bit clearer.
3. Complex outline. The most useful character of these edited volumes are the detailed outlines that track Owen’s every footstep. Let’s call it a GPS system for Owen. No matter how deep in digression you find yourself (and you may be surprised how lost you get), a simple check of the clear outline will locate where you stand in the overall argument of Owen. The present volume contains a 32-page outline! One noticeable improvement from Overcoming Sin to Communion is the placement. In last year’s edition the outline was placed at the end of the volume, but in Communion the outline is placed early and before Owen’s text. This is an improvement, because an outline of Owen is essential preparation for the journey.
4. Glossary. Once again the difficult words are defined in footnotes and cumulated in a glossary at the end of the book. I use this glossary frequently when reading other Puritans like Bunyan and Goodwin.
5. Indexes. I’m a stickler for indexes. With the rise in Puritan literature has been a rise in retypeset editions, which make the original indexes useless. These retypeset editions are often being printed without topical or Scriptural indexes of their own, and this is most unhelpful. (Publishers, please remember a retypeset book needs a fresh index.) The excellent topical index in the Crossway volume is a detailed and priceless tool for the reader and preacher. Also helpful is the editors’ care to mark every Scriptural reference in the text and provide a comprehensive Scriptural text index in the back (most helpful for expositors). Combined, the detailed topical and Scriptural indexes make Owen more accessible and useful than ever.
In Communion with the Triune God, Taylor and Kapic have given the Church a resource to help us and future generations track and catch that wascally wabbit, John Owen. And being positioned to capture John Owen, we will better capture the preciousness of Christ’s blood, to better enjoy the throbbing love of our Heavenly Father and experience the empowering comfort of the Holy Spirit. And in our search to understand God’s manifold expressions of love, we learn to delight and commune with Him and better discover our self-identity as His children. One of the great publishing highlights of 2007.
Related: Read our interview with Dr. Derek Thomas about Communion with the Triune God here.
Title: Communion with the Triune God
Primary author: John Owen (1616-1683)
Secondary authors: Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Kelly M. Kapic
Editors: Kelly M. Kapic, Justin Taylor
Reading level: 3.5/5.0 > heavy but manageable because of excellent editing
Dust jacket: no
Paper: white and clean
Topical index: yes
Scriptural index: yes
Text: perfect type, re-typeset
Price USD: $22.00 from Crossway (w/ free PDF edition)