Review: John Owen on the Christian Life (Ferguson)

This book is exactly what you would expect from an Owen scholar writing on John Owen.  It is clear and rarely goes off rabbit-trails.  While it is old in some ways, and not every locus of systematic theology gets treated, a careful study of this work will repay pastoral ministry.

Ferguson begins with Owen’s covenant theology.  It seems, surprisingly, that Owen held to something like a “works-principle” in Sinai.  Covenant of Sinai: sometimes referred to as Old Covenant. Owen is aware of the tensions in saying that all covenants are administrations of the Covenant of Grace. Under the covenant of grace, yet in some way there were principles of the Covenant of Works (JO: 19:389). Sinai can’t simply be Covenant of Grace because of the sharp contrasts between “a better covenant.”

Covenant theology allows Ferguson to draw several inferences on soteriology: Union with Christ: the work of grace–”same instant wherein anyone is united unto Christ, and by the same act whereby he is so united, he is really and habitually purified and sanctified” (JO: 3.517). Effectual calling takes place in Christ, is an act of God the Father (JO: 20: 498), and binds the believer by the indwelling of the spirit (JO: 21:147). Effectual calling produces a change in both status (justification) and life (sanctification), yet it does not identity the two.

Sanctification is the pinnacle of this volume. Structure of sanctification.  The work of grace produces the exercise of duty (Ferguson 55). Owen gives a long definition in JO 3.369-370. In one sense it is an immediate work on believers, since it flows from regeneration and from our Head, yet it is also a process (56). The Lord Jesus is the Head from whom all gifts flow, yet the Spirit is the efficient cause who communicates them to us (Ferguson 58).

Very thorough chapter on Assurance and why the believer may experience varying degrees of it.  This lets Owen talk about the sealing of the Holy Spirit.  Owen: “No special act of the Spirit, but only in an especial effect of his communication unto us” (JO 4:400). He seals the believer by his personal indwelling, but there are no rules as to how/when the believer may recognize it.

With the volumes numerous quotations from Owen, from almost all of his works, we recommend this as a handy guidebook to navigating Owen.

 

Outline John Owen on the Christian Life

Ferguson, Sinclair.  John Owen on the Christian Life.  Banner of Truth.

Image result for sinclair ferguson john owen

The Plan of Salvation

  1. Doctrine of the Covenant
    1. The Covenant of Works. The reward of eternal life succeeds strict justice, since it is in the nature of a promise.  Further, there is a grace of promise, even if the covenant is not itself gracious.
    2. Covenant of grace: the conditions in the covenant of grace devolve on the mediator (JO: 11.210).
    3. Covenant of Redemption:
    4. Covenant of Sinai: sometimes referred to as Old Covenant. Owen is aware of the tensions in saying that all covenants are administrations of the Covenant of Grace.
      1. Under the covenant of grace, yet in some way there were principles of the Covenant of Works (JO: 19:389).
      2. Sinai can’t simply be Covenant of Grace because of the sharp contrasts between “a better covenant.”
  2. Union with Christ: the work of grace–”same instant wherein anyone is united unto Christ, and by the same act whereby he is so united, he is really and habitually purified and sanctified” (JO: 3.517).

    Effectual calling takes place in Christ, is an act of God the Father (JO: 20: 498), and binds the believer by the indwelling of the spirit (JO: 21:147). Effectual calling produces a change in both status (justification) and life (sanctification), yet it does not idenitfy the two.

Grace Reigns through Righteousness

  1. The effects of sin.
  2. Regeneration.
    1. Owen seems to favor “physical” language of regeneration (JO: 4.166; 10. 459; 11: 443, 448; 567). Physical is seen as the antithesis of moral.
    2. Even in effectual calling, the will is not compelled or destroyed. The will is passive in the first act, but in the moment of conversion it acts itself freely (Ferguson 44).
      1. Conversion is “wrought in us by God” (Phil. 2.13).
  3. Structure of sanctification.  The work of grace produces the exercise of duty (Ferguson 55). Owen gives a long definition in JO 3.369-370.
    1. In one sense it is an immediate work on believers, since it flows from regeneration and from our Head, yet it is also a process (56).
    2. The Lord Jesus is the Head from whom all gifts flow, yet the Spirit is the efficient cause who communicates them to us (Ferguson 58).

Fellowship with God

Theme: God communicates himself unto us with our returnal unto him of that which he requireth and accepteth, flowing from that union which in Jesus Christ we have with him (JO 2.8).

  1. Communion with the Father.
  2. Communion with the Son.
  3. Communion with the Holy Spirit.
  4. Indwelling. It is real and personal.
    1. Sealing.
    2. Anointing. We receive our anointing immediately from Christ in this way: Jesus communicates the Holy Spirit unto us (JO 4.393).
    3. Earnest.

The Assurance of Salvation

Several things in the Christian life mitigate against assurance: Our conscience, God’s law, and our natural sense of justice.

  1. (2) Practical rules for Assurance.
    1. Christ is the ultimate judge of our spiritual condition. He who bears witness to our condition has the same Spirit with us (Ferguson 108).
    2. Sometimes patient waiting is required (JO 6.554).
    3. Self-examination, especially of sins of youth.  Nonetheless, the foundation of assurance is Christ, not our self-examination so don’t spend too much time on this.  The foundation is Christ alone. The building is holiness.
    4. Don’t let complaints against yourself take away from vigorous actings of grace.
  2. Hindrances to assurance.
    1. Desire for extraordinary assurances.  We should seek the regular workings of the Spirit.  He does give extraordinary assurance, but we should be careful seeking that while burdened with doubts and anxieties.
  3. Sealing of the Holy Spirit
    1. Calvin taught that the Spirit of God is himself the seal (Comm. 2 Cor. 1.21ff).
    2. Perkins: Sealing of the promise to the believer in experience (Ferguson 117). This means the seal is an activity. However, this lead to a between regeneration and a subsequent activity of the Spirit in addition to his indwelling.
    3. Sibbes: We first seal God’s truth by our believing, and then God seals the Spirit on us (118).With later Puritans this comes very close to seeing 2 or 3 different classes of Christians.
    4. Goodwin: “An immediate assurance of the Holy Ghost, by a heavenly and divine light, of a divine authority…” (Goodwin, Works I:233).
    5. Owen: “No special act of the Spirit, but only in an especial effect of his communication unto us” (JO 4:400). He seals the believer by his personal indwelling, but there are no rules as to how/when the believer may recognize it.

Conflict with Sin

  1. Sin’s dominion ended. Owen makes a distinction between the dominion of sin and the influence of sin.
  2. Sin’s dominion is more than a force; it has the character of law.
  3. How do we know whether sin has dominion or not?

 

Scripture and Ministry

  1. Scripture. Owen locates Scripture’s authority primarily in God, rather than the autographa (Ferguson 185n 4).  God is the divine original, upon whom Scripture depends.
    1. Inspiration.  
    2. Authority of Scripture.  It is a correlate of the character of God (JO 16.303).
    3. Preservation of Scripture.
    4. Attestation of Scripture. The Scriptures are like light.  They are self-evidencing, but “light” is not “eyes.” Light does not remove men’s blindness.  Faith in Scripture finds its motive cause in Scripture itself, and in its efficient cause in the testimony of the Spirit.
    5. Understanding Scripture.
  2. Ministry.
    1. Gifts and graces.  A spiritual gift is not the same as the grace of the Spirit.  This explains how some “fall away.” Graces are evidences of the Spirit’s personal indwelling.
    2. Extraordinary gifts. Only differ in degree from other gifts.  This is a rather unique cessationist approach.

Sacraments and Prayer

  1. Have both objective and subjective content: they signify and seal (objective) yet the Holy Spirit is involved in each of the means of communication to ratify subjectively the objective message (Ferguson 211).
    1. Baptism. Ferguson calls attention to the quasi-Baptistic views of paedobaptists like Bannerman and Cunningham, who view adult baptism as the norm and infant baptism as the exception (215 n64).
    2. The Lord’s Supper. Our faith is directed to the human nature of Christ (220).
  2. Prayer.

Apostasy and its Prevention

  1. Danger of Apostasy. Those mentioned in Hebrews 6 received the outward benefits of the substance of the covenant.
  2. Apostasy from Gospel Doctrine.
  3. Apostasy from holiness of Gospel precepts.
  4. Apostasy from Gospel Worship.

Perseverance and the Goal

  1. Perseverance
    1. Immutability of the divine nature.
    2. Immutability of the divine purposes.
    3. Principium essendi of the covenant of grace
    4. Promises of God
    5. Mediatorial work of Christ
      1. He became a surety (JO 11:289).
      2. Satisfied requirements of divine justice.
      3. Intercedes for us.
  2. The Goal
    1. Eternal glory.
      1. The mind will be freed from all darkness.
      2. A new light, light of glory, will be implanted.
      3. Our body will be glorified through union with Christ.

 

An Army of Psalm Chanters

Taken from an old post on Jim Jordan, with some new material.

But let us consider what a Christian view of the Church would be. It would be a place of transformation, not merely of information. Marshaling the people into an army of psalm chanters would be at the top of the list. Indeed, in seminary several psalms would be chanted every day in chapel. The music in the church would be loud, fast, vigorous, instrumental, martial. There would be real feasts. People would be taught that when God splashes water on you, He’s really doing something: He’s putting you into His rainbow.

Elsewhere Jordan says

I should like to offer what I regard as a considerable caveat. I do not believe that men who sing pop choruses or plodding Trinity Hymnal songs on Sunday can get very far into Luther or Calvin, or for that matter Turretin. Men whose personal opinion is that society can be left to the devil cannot really get into the outlook of the Reformers.

I submit that it is important to have some feel for what people were singing and how they were singing it at various times in history. Is it a coincidence that “Reformed scholasticism” began to develop at the same time that the fiery dance-like chorales and psalms of the Reformation began to die down into slow, plodding, even-note mush? It is a coincidence that the “Puritans” had problems with assurance of salvation, given their destruction of enthusiastic singing? I don’t think so. People who sing the psalms as real war chants, as war dances that precedebattle, don’t have problems with assurance and don’t have time for scholasticism. Neither do people with strong, fully-sung liturgies.

EO guys used to attack me on assurance.  “Well, how can you know?”  Well, there you have it.