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John Owen on the Christian Life von Sinclair…
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John Owen on the Christian Life (1987. Auflage)

von Sinclair B. Ferguson

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John Owen on the Christian Life expounds Owen's teaching on the fundamental themes. It also stands on its own as a study in pastoral theology.
Titel:John Owen on the Christian Life
Autoren:Sinclair B. Ferguson
Info:Banner of Truth (1987), Library Binding, 316 pages
Sammlungen:Deine Bibliothek


John Owen on the Christian Life von Sinclair B. Ferguson

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Here is my Discerning Reader review:

John Owen (1616-1683) is one of the most important theologians of the western church. His name stands alongside Augustine, Calvin and Edwards both in terms of his influence and his intellectual acumen. Though he lived almost four hundred years ago, Owen’s writings continue to be read today, in spite of the fact that some find them a little hard to digest. It has been noted that the “prince of the Puritans” has a dense, Latinized style of writing. Coupled with the weighty topics he dealt with, reading Owen can be a daunting task for even the most learned layman. Thankfully, Sinclair B. Ferguson has written John Owen and the Christian Life to aid readers as they wade into the deep pool of Oweniana.

Although Ferguson’s book is over twenty years old, it continues to stand as a first rate introduction to John Owen. Ferguson is careful to highlight the areas of Owen’s thought that have direct bearing on the Christian life, the life of the church and pastoral ministry. This is an account of church history, historical theology, systematic theology, biblical theology and practical theology all wrapped into one enriching package.

The book is divided into eleven chapters with an introduction and postscript. Ferguson begins in the first chapter with a brief life of Owen, focusing primarily on his ministry as a pastor, a politician and an educational leader. It is clear that John Owen saw himself first and foremost as a minister of the gospel. Whether in his role as a Congregationalist pastor, as chaplain to Oliver Cromwell or vice-chancellor of Christ Church, Oxford, Owen exerted his efforts for the gospel and the benefit of the church. Ferguson could say near the end of the book: “He was a theologian because he was a pastor” (262, emphasis his).

The following ten chapters are then dedicated to clarifying John Owen’s theology. Ferguson begins with Owen’s doctrine of salvation, particularly his theology of the covenants and union with Christ. Owen stands as one of the great inheritors and expositors of covenant theology, although he had his own emphases that set him apart from other theologians. Particularly, Owen did not view the covenant given at Sinai as exclusively a part of the covenant of grace, nor was it totally part of a covenant of works. Ferguson notes that Owen adopted a “mediating position” that seems to understand Sinai as being part of both covenants. “In one sense then,” Ferguson elaborates, “the people were under the covenant of grace, and yet in a dispensation governed by the principles of the covenant of works” (29). The function of the covenant of grace is to “bring men into union with Jesus Christ” (32). In relation to the order of salvation, union with Christ functions as the controlling motif where effectual calling, regeneration, faith, repentance, justification, adoption and sanctification find their origin. Ferguson avers: “Thus divine election, and the outworking of it through the ordo salutis find their meeting place in union with Christ” (36, emphasis his).

Owen is widely known in early twenty-first century Reformed circles as the theologian who encouraged the mortification of sin. His pithy statement, “Be killing sin or sin will be killing you” is often quoted. In chapter three, Ferguson explains Owen’s understanding of the relationship between sanctification and sin. This includes the corruption of sin, how regeneration transforms the sinner, how Christians are to understand the use of the law and the nature of sanctification. Regeneration is solely an act of the Spirit of God because the dead sinner can do nothing to vivify his or herself. Yet progressive sanctification does have divine and human aspects. The purpose of sanctification is to renew the image of God in humans and enable them to live the Christian life.

Although his works on sin are widely read in our day, John Owen’s mature theological writings probe into the very nature of God himself as Triune. Ferguson chooses to look at Owen’s understanding of how humans can have communion with each member of the Trinity in chapter four. Because the Spirit unites Christians to Christ, they can have communion with God. According to Owen, communion with the Father is “in love” and communion with the Son is “in grace.” As a western theologian Owen understands that the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. In this regard Owen focuses on the purpose of the Spirit’s procession as it relates to his giving testimony to Christ. Owen also finds affinity with the eastern understanding of the Spirit’s role as Comforter, emphasizing this more so than his role as Advocate. The Spirit indwells believers, gives them unction and is the “earnest” (pledge) of their inheritance.

In chapter five Ferguson turns to Owen’s doctrine of assurance, a thorny topic for pastors who often deal with Christians who doubt their own salvation. Ferguson maintains that for Owen, the question of assurance was both theological and pastoral. It was in the pulpit that pastors were to bring comfort and assurance. In fact, Ferguson notes that “Owen’s treatment of assurance is an expository, rather than a systematic one” based upon a study of Psalm 130. But what is the nature of this assurance? According to Owen, assurance first and foremost involved the forgiveness of sin; something that one who struggles with assurance would doubt first. Paradoxically, one may be forgiven and have no assurance. Likewise one may believe they are forgiven while still in their sins. True forgiveness must first be determined by placing one’s faith in the graciousness of the Father who gave his Son to die for sinners. To place faith in anything else is to have false assurance. True assurance can only be found in the gospel as revealed in Scripture. Ferguson provides a number of practical helps for struggling Christians regarding assurance: allow Christ to judge our spiritual condition; realize that self-condemnation is consistent with justification; patiently wait for fuller experiences of forgiveness; practice self-examination; distinguish between unbelief and jealousy; distinguish between faith and spiritual sense; understand that mortification is not a part of justification; do not complain over what is your duty; do not entertain harsh thoughts against God; make use of the grace of God; and consider the hindrances to grace. Such hindrances include affliction; despondency; little evidence of grace; and doubt. To have true assurance of faith one must be sealed by the Spirit, a teaching that Ferguson explains was common to the Puritans. However, Owen took a slightly different approach to his colleagues in teaching that the sealing of the Spirit was “the communication of the Spirit to the believer” (123). Assurance is the knowledge of such possession of the Spirit.

Again, in chapter six, Ferguson turns to the question of how to deal with sin in the Christian life. Sin no longer has dominion over the Christian although its presence and influence continues. Therefore it takes “renewing grace” to restrain sin in the believer (137). Temptation to sin will always face the Christian, but mortifying sin in the flesh can resist such temptation. The mortification of sin is a duty of the believer but can only be accomplished in the Spirit; according to Owen the two are not mutually exclusive. The Christian’s work at mortification is done “through the Spirit, who works in us for obedience – ‘in us and with us, not against us or without us’” (148, emphasis his).

Chapter seven is concerned with ecclesiology both generally and specifically. Ferguson treats Owen’s view of church government, the order and offices of the church and its unity. In terms of the local church, Ferguson infers Owen’s view of the type of church that a Christian should join, the duties of the Christian within the church and the oft-neglected question of church discipline. Christians are to join themselves to churches that uphold the fundamental articles of the faith and where Christ-ordained worship is celebrated. Owen, says Ferguson, was not an “ecclesiastical perfectionist” but “was aiming at scripturalness rather than perfection” (173, emphasis his).

In chapters eight and nine Ferguson discusses the four means of grace in Owen’s theology: scripture and ministry in chapter eight, sacraments and prayer in chapter nine. Contrary to some evangelicals today, Owen had a very high view of scripture. Everything that Owen believed and did sought to be founded upon divine revelation. For Owen the Bible is divinely inspired, which includes three elements: “the minds of the writers were inspired with knowledge of the things communicated to them; words were provided to express these apprehension of God’s revelation; and their tongues or pens were guided in the setting down or telling forth of what had thus been revealed” (187). Therefore inspiration was not mere dictation. Because scripture is divinely inspired, it is thus authoritative. Such authority involves infallibility, permanence, uniqueness, sufficiency, perspicuity and fullness. Scripture is therefore “autopistic” or “self-authenticating” (193). The Spirit works in tandem with the Word making it clear and therefore understandable, but such understanding must be illumination – the “opening of men’s spiritual eyes” (197).

In terms of the ministry, God has given to the church various gifts. In fact, according to Owen “all ministry is charismatic” (201). God gives “grace-gifts” at different periods of its life in order for it to fulfill its role on earth. Each gift has a particular purpose and outcome. Owen distinguishes between extraordinary and ordinary gifts. Of the former such gifts include: the word of wisdom; the word of knowledge; faith; healing; miracles; prophecy; spiritual discernment; tongues and interpretation. Most of these gifts were relegated to the times of the apostles. Ordinary gifts, valuable for the work of the pastorate, include: wisdom; scriptural interpretation; and utterance from God.

Ferguson continues his discussion of the means of grace with the final two elements of sacraments and prayer in chapter nine. For Owen, sacraments are “signs and seals of the promises of the covenant.” It is a sign in that it “‘exhibits; the thing promised” and is a seal of that grace and of the promises of God (212). The two sacraments are baptism and the Lord’s Supper; of course for Owen, baptism is for infants and its mode is sprinkling. Baptists may want to dispute with Owen over his understanding of the use of the Greek words baptismos and baptizein and whether they are never used in the New Testament to denote “dip” or “plunge” (217). Though Baptists will disagree with Owen on this point, they would be wise to listen to him in regard to his view of the Lord’s Supper. Owen sees the Eucharist as the covenant seal and that “Jesus Christ himself is central in the supper” (220, emphasis his). The supper is commemorative, eucharistical and federal. Owen, in true Calvinian fashion, understands Christ to be present “in an especial manner” (221). Christ is not present bodily, as Roman Catholics and Lutherans would argue, because his body remains in heaven. But Christ is, contra the early Zwingli, present in the supper, not in the elements.

The final means of grace treated is prayer. According to Ferguson, the only extended treatment of prayer given by Owen was in the context of his work on the Holy Spirit, therefore the emphasis is on the work of the Spirit in prayer. Owen “steers a course which avoids mysticism on the one hand, and on the other, the pietism and quiescence of a later period in the Evangelical tradition” (224). Prayer is to be engaged in according to the light of nature and is deeply covenantal. Indeed, Ferguson refers to it as the “covenant privilege.” In Romans 8:26 the Spirit is promised to aid in prayer so that in our ignorance we are not left without help. The Spirit knows men’s needs and offers help in the manner most suited to them. Prayer on the part of the Christian is supplication and is a response to our relationship with God the Father as his children (228). Prayer is also a duty and is understood as a “thankful response” and should point us to the glory of God. Ferguson concludes the chapter in a Trinitarian fashion: “In this way the Christian is to be exercised in prayer, knowing himself, as he searches his heart; knowing the Scripture as he searches its pages; meditating on the glory of God and the intercession of Christ; frequently and fervently in prayer through the ministry of the Spirit” (231).

The very serious and generally misunderstood area of apostasy is developed in chapter ten, both in terms of what apostasy is and how it can be prevented. In 1676 Owen became conscious of the “decline in contemporary religion” and published a work entitled The Nature of Apostasy. The text that Owen chose as his subject of study was Hebrews 6:4-6 which, says Ferguson, “had been a seed-bed of controversy since the days of the early church” (233). Strikingly, both the decline of religion and the controversy over Hebrews 6 is still with the church today and thus Owen’s advice is timely. Following the text Owen notes that a person who apostatizes from the faith was “once enlightened” which he takes as “an inward operation of the Spirit” (233). This inward operation is the instruction in the gospel with spiritual apprehension. The apostates also tasted of the heavenly gift; the word “taste” Owen understands as “test” or “experiment.” Men may taste the truth of God but not know its power. They were partakers of the Spirit, which is the central statement of the passage according to Owen and means that the Spirit was present in “powerful operations” but not in terms of indwelling. Apostates also tasted of the Word of God meaning that they heard it preached but did not appropriate it as truth. They also tasted the powers of the world to come, which is the “times of the Messiah” (235). Those addressed in this passage, the apostates, were “those not long converted from Judaism who had obtained a share in the special…privileges of the gospel era, experienced the gifts of the Spirit, and known his presence in their affections, and a degree of moral perfection” (236). It is not one sin that makes a person apostate, but a course of sinning that is persisted in to such a degree that forgiveness becomes impossible. Apostasy is related to gospel doctrine, precepts and worship. It is spiritual mindedness that preserves one from falling into apostasy. Spiritual mindedness includes thinking about spiritual things in general such as the existence of God and his attributes. Such thinking will make one humble and keep them from falling away. Spiritual mindedness is the patterning of one’s affections after the image of Christ, which is the point of salvation and sanctification. Christ is therefore to be the object of the Christian’s affections. Spiritual mindedness are developed by faith and is part of a life-long process that may at times be slow and subject to decay. Ferguson says, “The man who is spiritually minded is enabled to evaluate rightly the pledges he receives of [divine] love” (260).

In the eleventh and final chapter Ferguson develops Owen’s teaching on perseverance and the final goal of the Christian life—eternal glory. In terms of perseverance, Ferguson records five arguments offered by Owen showing why the doctrine of perseverance is consistent with biblical teaching. The first, God’s relationship to his people is sure because of his immutable character. Second, God’s purposes are also immutable therefore salvation is unbreakable. Third, the covenant of grace is immutable because it is mediated and ratified by Christ. Fourth, the promises of God are the heart of the covenant of grace and God cannot lie. Fifth, the mediatorial work of Christ makes him the surety of the faithfulness of God and the Christian’s faithfulness to him—this is the greatest of Owen’s arguments according to Ferguson. As mediator Christ bridges the distance between man and God and continues as intercessor between the two parties. Because salvation is sure and the true Christian will persevere in the faith, the final goal of the Christian life will be attained. The path to the goal involves the shaping of Christian character. The Christian life is understood in Scripture as a pilgrimage, sometimes known as “walking with God” (269) and is exemplified by humility, faith, love, holiness and worship.

Eternal glory is the final goal of the Christian life and is something entered into via the covenant by faith in Christ. Ferguson notes that Owen wrote little on eschatology. What is known is that he “emphatically rejected any chiliastic [millennial] interpretation of the kingdom of God, regarding all such views as little more than a ‘dream’” (276). The final transformation that the Christian will go through—glorification—involves three aspects. First the mind will be freed from sinful darkness. Second, the light of glory will in turn be implanted. Third, the body of the believer will be glorified through union with Christ’s glorified body. Ferguson illustrates Owen’s view using a flower: “The Christian life, then, is simply the planting of a seed and the growth of the stock and bud. The flowering takes place in the future” (277).

Ferguson concludes his book in a single-page postscript of a quotation from Owen that states the need to go beyond mere intellectual assent in knowing God. Owen wants a “sense of sweetness in [his] heart.” Arguments and testimonies are is insufficient if there is “no experience of [his] own being made the righteousness of God in him.” Such experience in the heart is important for resisting temptation—there needs to be a “continual experience” of “powerful truths” in the “necessity and excellency in our standing before God and our communion with him” (281).

The combination of John Owen and Sinclair Ferguson in one volume makes John Owen and the Christian Life a gem. It is a must read for all Christians who want not only to understand John Owen better, but also to have a great understanding of their faith. Pastors will be encouraged in witnessing on the pages before them a man with incredible genius whose primary vocation was ministry and whose ultimate life goal was the glory of God. Aspiring students of post-Reformation history will also greatly benefit in having the thought of this Puritan par excellence explained and applied. To not read this book would be a travesty.
  ianclary | May 6, 2009 |
A great summary of John Owens thoughts on major topics. ( )
  BookAlert | Oct 3, 2008 |
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