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John Owen on the Proper End and Design of Evangelical Truth

The gospel-centered movement may be new, but gospel-centeredness itself isn’t a novelty. Love for the gospel lies at the center of the rich heritage of evangelicalism, reaching back hundreds of years.

I’m (very) slowly plodding through The Works of John Owen, the most important theologian in my Christian life. Tucked away in Owen’s 250 pages on The Nature and Causes of Apostasy from the Gospel (in Volume 7 of Owen's works) is a short, but insightful, delineation of what Owen calls the “proper end and design” of evangelical truths.

The context is Owen’s treatment of the first (of six) causes of apostasy from the gospel, namely “that rooted enmity which is in the minds of men unto spiritual things, abiding uncured under the profession of the gospel” (p. 82). Owen demonstrates that when the gospel doesn’t fully penetrate a person’s heart, so as to bring about the intended transformation of the heart in particular ways, then the hostility of the unregenerate nature eventually rises up against the truth, even if there has been an outward profession of faith.

But in arguing for this point, Owen takes some time to articulate just what the intended effects of the gospel are – the “proper end and design” of evangelical truths. There are three of them, which I will state in my own words, followed by some excerpts from Owen.

1. Rest and Satisfaction in Christ

The first goal of the gospel is to “take off the soul of man from rest and satisfaction in itself” and to “seek after righteousness, life, peace, and blessedness, by Jesus Christ” (p. 83). The natural inclination of fallen human beings is to look inward, to ourselves and what we can accomplish, to find the solution to our various problems. The problems may be moral, psychological, or spiritual, but the core conviction of our untransformed hearts is to think, “I can do it. I can handle this.” So, we try to live better lives, to be better people, and to find within ourselves the resources we need for goodness and happiness (or in Owen’s words, “righteousness, life, peace, and blessedness”).

But the gospel “presseth to take men off wholly from their old foundations” (p. 84). It shows us our insufficiency and redirects our trust to Christ and his sufficiency alone. The gospel shows us that “present peace” and “future blessedness” are found not in ourselves, or anything we can do, but only in Jesus.

2. Renovation of the Soul

The second goal of the gospel is one I’ve written about more extensively: the “the renovation of our minds, wills, and affections, into the image or likeness of God” (p. 83). We are predestined to be conformed to the image of Christ, says Paul (Rom. 8:29), and the primary means God uses to effect this transformation is the gospel, applied to our hearts by the Spirit (2 Cor. 3:18).

But how does this actually happen in practice? Owen answers: “by presenting spiritual things unto us in that light and evidence, with that power and efficacy, as to transform us into their likeness” (p. 83). In other words, transformation happens when the truth of the gospel comes into our hearts with both clarity and efficacy, logic and fire, conviction and passion, Word and Spirit, light and heat.

3. A Heart for Worship

Finally, Owen says that evangelical truth “engageth the whole soul, in all its powers and faculties, through the whole course of its activity…to live unto God in all holy obedience” (p. 83-84). Worshiping God is the only rational response to the lavish mercies of God (Rom. 12:1). But when the gospel does it’s work in our hearts, worship is seen not simply as our duty to God (although it is), but as the natural reflex of our hearts in response to God’s revelation of his grace and mercy through the cross and resurrection of Christ and the gift of his Spirit.

Questions for Application

To return to Owen’s main point, let me end with some personal questions.
  • Has the gospel produced these effects in your heart? 
  • Is your trust firmly fixed on Christ and his cross, or are you still looking inward for moral improvement and existential satisfaction? 
  • Are you being more and more transformed into the image of Christ? 
  • Do you look more like Jesus than you did a year ago? 
  • Do you delight to worship God? 
  • Do the lavish mercies of God beckon your heart to praise and enjoy him?

If not, maybe the gospel hasn’t penetrated deeply enough. Maybe there is still an “uncured enmity” or hostility to God and the gospel deep inside your soul. Be watchful. When this is the case, Owen warns, “spiritual truths are first neglected, then despised, and at last, on easy terms, parted withal” (p. 84). Religious people sometimes profess to believe without really believing. When they do, they first “stifle truth as to its operation” and eventually “reject it as to its profession” (p. 85). This is the natural course of apostasy from the gospel.

The only solution is to embrace the gospel more deeply, with an earnest desire for the Spirit to apply evangelical truths more deeply and powerfully to our hearts.

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