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John Owen on Genuine Faith

John Owen on Genuine Faithby Brian G. Hedges /

Last week we learned a bit about the life of John Owen, whose 400th birthday we’ve been celebrating in the now-dwindling year of 2016. We also learned about the existence of a little-known gem of a book he wrote that was originally titled Gospel Grounds and Evidences of the Faith of God’s Elect. In the conclusion of this two-part series, we examine four reasons why the book remains valuable to the church today.

A Unique Faith

First, in the book Owen highlighted the difference between gospel, or evangelical, Christianity and all other systems of religion. This difference is not always obvious, especially in books addressed to the practical lives of Christians. Many books (and sermons) abound with moral directions and practical exhortations, yet fail to distinguish gospel Christianity from mere religion.

It is now in vogue to use “gospel” as an adjective. Books on “gospel” holiness or being “gospel centered” or “gospel driven” fill our shelves. Some of us may imagine this is a recent development. Yet it is not uncommon to find “gospel” used as an adjective in Owen’s works. Indeed, he did so in this book at least nine times, as he wrote six times of “gospel holiness,” twice of “gospel repentance,” and once each of “gospel graces” and “gospel ordinances.” Owen predated the gospel-centered movement by three-and-a-half centuries!

Then, there is the original title itself, Gospel Grounds and Evidences of the Faith of God’s Elect. It is possible that the publishers gave it this title rather than Owen himself, as the treatise was not published until 1695, some twelve years after Owen’s death. Nevertheless, the title accurately describes the content of Owen’s book, as he examined both the grounds and the evidences of saving faith and gave considerable space and effort to distinguishing true saving faith from that which is false. Owen’s intended audience, as the historically savvy reader might well guess, included Roman Catholics, Quakers, and Socinians. Owen was deeply concerned with the formalism, superstition, and legalism of Roman Catholicism; the mysticism of the Quakers; and the rationalism of the Socinians. Over and against them all, he maintained that true saving faith was distinctively grounded upon and shaped by the gospel, which he defined as “the divine declaration of the way of God for the saving of sinners, through the person, mediation, blood, righteousness, and intercession of Christ.” In Owen’s thinking, the very essence and life of faith consists in the soul’s discerning and giving hearty consent to God’s way of saving sinners through the Son’s work on the cross. True faith consents to this way of salvation as that which both most glorifies God in all of his holy and gracious attributes, and most satisfies and delights the regenerate mind and heart. Where this evangelical conviction is lacking, saving faith is absent.

Driven by this firm conviction, Owen was not content to exhort readers merely to test themselves by external moral, behavioral, or religious practices. Instead, he pressed upon his readers the necessity of a real, inward work of grace in the soul, leading it to renounce all other hopes and means for salvation and so cast itself on God’s grace revealed in Christ alone. This, for Owen, was true evangelical Christianity, the full embrace of which is the first evidence of saving faith.

Neither Legalism Nor License

Second, this naturally leads Owen to demonstrate the true nature of saving faith in a way that avoids the errors of both legalism and antinomianism. Although Owen did not use the words “legalism” and “antinomianism” in this work, he did show that the truly regenerate person can be distinguished from both “profligate sinners” on one hand, and “those who are under legal convictions” on the other. The difference lies in the regenerate soul’s undying desire for God’s glory in all things, which inclines the heart to a deep and abiding approval of God’s holiness. “The first beam of spiritual light and grace,” said Owen, “creates an indefatigable desire for the glory of God in their minds and souls.”

It is this desire for God’s glory that preserves the believing soul from both the Scylla of legalism and the Charybdis of antinomianism. The believer so deeply desires God’s glory that he or she can embrace no way of salvation as suited and fitting for a holy God except the way proposed in the gospel; namely, salvation through the mediatorial work of Jesus Christ. This keeps the soul from legalism—that is, from trusting in his or her moral merits or performance of the law as an adequate ground for acceptance by God. But this same impulse and inclination of the regenerate heart for God’s glory also preserves the believer from antinomianism—that is, from dishonoring or disregarding God’s law (“antinomian” derives from two Greek words: anti, against; nomos, law) and thus turning grace into a license for sin. The same spiritual light that creates a desire for God’s glory is also “the spring and principle” of gospel holiness.

As Owen demonstrated in the second chapter of his book, the second evidence of genuine faith is precisely this: habitually approving of the holiness and obedience that God requires, both because it honors God, who is holy, and also because it is that for which he created us. We were, after all, originally created in God’s image and it is according to his image that we are now being renewed (Ephesians 4:24). Holiness is, therefore, that “which gives . . . rectitude and perfection to our nature of which it is capable in this world.” And true believers, though they may often fall due to the temptations of sin and the weakness of the flesh, are never satisfied with anything less than their ongoing growth in holiness, their continual and progressive transformation into the glorious image of Christ.

Practical Direction

Third, Owen provided practical direction for believers regarding repentance and the pursuit of assurance. His aim throughout is to show the grounds of saving faith and the chief and primary evidences of it. But his purpose was not to provide a manual by which we could discern these evidences in others, so much as to test ourselves.

Owen chose to highlight four evidences, to which the four chapters of the book roughly correspond. The first evidence, as mentioned above, is embracing and approving of God’s way of saving sinners through Christ as that which most glorifies God, satisfies our own souls, and honors God’s law. I have also already given attention to the second evidence—namely, the approval of the holiness and obedience that God requires.

In the third and shortest chapter of the book, Owen discusses the evidence of “consistently endeavoring to keep all grace in exercise in all ordinances of divine worship, both private and public.” By “grace in exercise,” Owen means the inward workings of evangelical graces such as faith, hope, and love—what Jonathan Edwards would later call “religious affections.”[1]  There is a difference between simply going through the motions of prayer and worship and sincerely directing our hearts toward the Father through Spirit-empowered faith in Christ. Owen was concerned with the dangers of formalism and superstition in worship and viewed the internal exercises of grace as the chief preservative against apostasy from genuine gospel worship. His directions are as practical as they are brief. Consistently applied, they will prove helpful to any believer who struggles with formality and coldness of heart in either private devotions or public worship.

But in chapter 4 Owen excels in giving practical advice to the struggling, doubting Christian. For, as the fourth evidence of saving faith, Owen proposed a special state of repentance in which the believing soul could give focused effort to exercise faith and bring the heart into a spiritual frame. Owen took pains to clarify that he did not mean here evangelical repentance, which must characterize all believers (although the repentance he intended is not different in kind from gospel repentance). Instead, he meant a particular degree of repentance that he deemed necessary for six sorts of people, whom he carefully described. Seven specific ingredients or requirements necessary for this special state of repentance followed. This is Owen at his pastoral best, as he provided seasoned counsel for struggling Christians and urged upon them the necessity of detachment from the world, godly sorrow for sin, mortification of the flesh, watchfulness over their hearts in times of solitude, longing for deliverance, and abounding in spiritual thoughts. This program will prove immensely helpful to any backslidden or doubting believer as well as to pastors and counselors who are trying to help them.

Helpful Clarification

Finally, Owen excelled in describing and diagnosing the spiritual experience of a believer. This, of course, is related to the previous point, but it bears special mention. For Owen, like few other physicians of soul, was able to use the scalpel of God’s Holy Word to probe the inner recesses of the saint’s thoughts, inclinations, and affections.

Owen was especially skillful in helping believers understand the complexities of their own hearts. He recognized that apparently contradictory thoughts and desires coexist in the hearts of the regenerate. For example, Owen showed that “there is no inconsistency between spiritual joy in Christ and godly sorrow for sin.” Indeed, he contended that mourning for sin is necessary to the maintenance of “solid joy” in the heart. “Yes,” he wrote, “there is a secret joy and refreshment in godly sorrow, and a great spiritual satisfaction, that is equal to the highest of our joys.”

In like manner, Owen demonstrated that the believer is characterized by both “the deepest humiliation” as well as “a refreshing sense of the love of God and peace with him.” Again, the true Christian experiences “trouble and anxiety of mind” concerning his sins; but this kind of anxiety “is not . . . opposed to spiritual peace and refreshment.” In fact, as Owen wrote in the final paragraph of his book, it is “those who have the lowest thoughts of themselves, and are most filled with self-abasement” who “have the clearest views of divine glory.”

Owen also explained how a believer’s faith can evidence itself in the darkness of temptation and sin. After having argued that the second evidence of saving faith is its unwavering approval of the holiness and obedience God requires, Owen showed that faith evidences itself by the “self-dissatisfaction and humiliation, which it stirs up any time the mind falls short of this holiness.” Far from leading the true believer into the agony of doubt, Owen showed that genuine faith is the root of “holy shame” for sin. So, even in “the disquieting conflicts” waged by sin “in and against our souls” and the “decays we may fall into . . . as long as inward holy shame and godly sorrow for sin is preserved, faith is evident in us.”

Perhaps the best example of Owen’s insight into spiritual experience comes from the first chapter of the book, where he stated that a “soul enlightened with the knowledge of the truth, and made aware of its own condition by spiritual conviction, has two predominant desires, by which it is wholly regulated.” The first of those desires is that “God may be glorified.” The second, “that the soul itself may be eternally saved.” “These desires are inseparable in any enlightened soul,” said Owen. This distinguishes the true believer from others. For unlike the profligate or the religious hypocrite, a regenerate person cannot desire his or her own salvation apart from the desire for God to be glorified. But the gospel—God’s way of saving sinners through Jesus Christ—“brings these desires into a perfect consistency and harmony [and] also causes them to increase and promote one another.” Owen asserted,

The desire for God’s glory increases the desire for our own salvation; and the desire for our own salvation enlarges and inflames the desire for glorifying God in it. These things are brought into a perfect consistency and mutual usefulness in the blood of Christ. . . . For this is the way that God, in infinite wisdom, has planned to glorify himself in the salvation of sinners.

Such is the spiritual perception that pervades all of Owen’s writings, including this book. When blessed by the Holy Spirit, such observations not only instruct but also help to cultivate in our hearts the spiritual graces of faith, repentance, brokenness, humility, joy, and peace.

This post has been drawn from the Preface to Gospel Evidences of Saving Faith, a new edition of the Owen book, edited by Brian Hedges and published by our friends at Reformation Heritage Books.

Licensed To Kill: A Field Manual for Mortifying Sin, by Brian G. Hedges

Hit List: Taking Aim at the Seven Deadly Sins, by Brian G. HedgesCheck out Brian’s two Cruciform Press titles: Licensed to Kill: A Field Manual for Mortifying Sin, and Hit List: Taking Aim at the Seven Deadly Sins.


HedgesBrian G. Hedges is the lead pastor for Fulkerson Park Baptist Church in Niles, Michigan. Brian has been married to Holly since 1996 and they have four children. He is the author of several books, including Christ Formed in You: The Power of the Gospel for Personal Change, Licensed to Kill: A Field Manual for Mortifying Sin  and Hit List: Taking Aim at the Seven Deadly Sins. He is also edited a new edition of John Owen’s book Gospel Evidences of Saving Faith, published by Reformation Heritage Books. You can follow him on Twitter @brianghedges.

[1] Jonathan Edwards, Religious Affections, ed. John E. Smith, in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 2 (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1959).


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