Books

John Owen on The Ministry of the Holy Spirit


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John Owen was the premier theologian of seventeenth century England, the "Prince of the Puritans." To get a flavor of how important and influential he was, think of John Calvin in the Reformation, or Jonathan Edwards during the eighteenth century Evangelical Awakening, or D. A. Carson among Reformed Evangelicals today. Owen's writings fill 24 thick volumes and are still being studied today.

Owen's magnum opus was Pneumatologia: A Discourse Concerning the Holy Spirit, a massive nine book project that now fills two volumes in the Banner of Truth edition of Owen's Works. Sinclair Ferguson said that Owen's treatise is "one of the few truly great works on the Holy Spirit and is epoch-making both in its scope and wisdom." 

The Spirit as the Vicar (Representative) of Christ 

One of the richest veins of theological gold in this Owenian mine is found in his discussion of the Spirit's ministry to the church as the vicar or representative of Christ. With careful exegesis of biblical texts, Owen argues that, "It is the Holy Spirit who supplies the bodily absence of Christ, and by him doth he [Christ] accomplish all his promises to the church." (The Works of John Owen, Vol. 3: The Holy Spirit,, p. 193). 

You might think of it like this: the Holy Spirit is invested with "power of attorney" for Jesus. The Spirit is Jesus' authorized and legal representative to the church. "He, therefore, so far represents the person, and supplies the bodily absence of Christ," says Owen, "that on his presence the being of the church, the success of the ministry, and the edification of the whole, do absolutely depend" (ibid, p. 194). 

Owen sees this as so important that he then makes the following statement: 
And this, if anything in the whole gospel, deserves our serious consideration, for--1. The Lord Jesus hath told us that his presence with us by his Spirit is better and more expedient for us than the continuance of his bodily presence...[and] 2. The Lord Christ having expressly promised to be present with us to the end of all things, there are great inquiries how that promise is accomplished (ibid, p. 194).
To briefly summarize Owen's main point: The only way that Christ is now present with his people is through the Holy Spirit, and this is better for us than if Jesus had remained with us. 

This is, in fact, just what Jesus himself said: 
Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you. (John 16:7)
Owen's meditation on this reality is rich and nourishing, moving from reflection on the ontological relationships between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit to the application of this to our personal relationship with God. 

The Spirit declares the truth and grace of Christ to the church of Christ for the glory of Christ 

Owen's thoughts center on John 16:13-15:
When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. 14 He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. 15 All that the Father has is mine; therefore I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you. 
Owen writes five pages of careful, closely reasoned meditation on these verses. To summarize some of Owen's observations, this passage shows us that: 
  1. The Spirit always and only ministers to us in accordance with the truth of Christ. "He will not speak of his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak...he will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you." This means that any claim to revelation that is contrary to or not in accordance with the doctrine, grace, and truth of Christ is not from the Spirit. 
  2. The Spirit takes the things of Christ and declares them to us. The things of Christ are his truth and his grace. As John 1:17 says, "For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ." The Spirit gives the truth by revelation in the inspired, apostolic word and by enlightening our minds to receive and understand this word. The Spirit also effectually communicates the grace of Christ to us in sanctification and consolation. 
  3. The Spirit ministers the truth and grace of Christ to the people of Christ for the glory of Christ. "He [the Spirit] will glorify me [Christ], for he will take what is mine [truth and grace] and declare it to you [the apostles, and through the apostolic word, the church]."
In reflecting on the Spirit's work in taking the things of Christ and the Father and declaring them to us,  Owen observes that we do not receive anything "immediately" (that is, directly) from God the Father, but only as it is given through the Son and the Spirit. 

Here's the key quote:

We have nothing to do with the person of the Father immediately. It is the Son alone by whom we have an access unto him, and by the Son alone that he gives out of his grace and bounty unto us. He that hath not the Son hath not the Father. With him, as the great treasurer of heavenly things, are all grace and mercy intrusted. The Holy Spirit, therefore, shows them unto us, works them in us, bestows them on us, as they are the fruits of the mediation of Christ, and not merely as effects of the divine love and bounty of the Father; and this is required from the order of subsistence before mentioned. Thus the Holy Spirit supplies the bodily absence of Jesus Christ, and effects what he hath to do and accomplish towards his [people] in the world; so that whatever is done by him, it is the same as if it were wrought immediately by the Lord Christ himself in his own person, whereby all his holy promises are fully accomplished towards them that believe. (ibid., p. 199) 
The Trinitarian Shape of Communion with God

This important observation is the foundation for one of Owen's most important devotional insights, found briefly here, but given book-length exposition in his magnificent Of Communion with God the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost

Owen writes, 
And this instructs us in the way and manner of that communion which we have with God by the gospel…The person of the Father, in his wisdom, will, and love, is the [origin] of all grace and glory. But nothing hereof is communicated immediately unto us from him. It is from the Son, whom he loves, and hath given all things into his hand. He hath made way for the communication of these things unto us, unto the glory of God; and he doth it immediately by the Spirit…
Hereby are all our returns unto God to be regulated. The Father, who is the [origin] of all grace and glory, is ultimately intended by us in our faith, thankfulness, and obedience; yet not so but that the Son and Spirit are considered as one God with him. But we cannot address ourselves with any of them immediately unto him. ‘There is no going to the Father,’ saith Christ, ‘but by me,’ John xiv. 6. ‘By him we believe in God,’ 1 Pet. i. 21. But yet neither can we do so unless we are enabled thereunto by the Spirit, the author in us of faith, prayer, praise, obedience, and whatever our souls tend unto God by. 
This shows the Trinitarian shape of our entire relationship with God. God the Father is the source of grace and glory; Jesus his Son the channel through whom this grace and glory is given to us; and the Spirit is the agent who effectively applies this grace and glory to each of us in a personal way. 

But this pattern also works in reverse in all that we offer to God. For all that we give to the Father (faith, gratitude, obedience) can be given only through Christ as we are enabled by the Spirit, the author of these things in our hearts. 

To chart it out simply, 
Grace and glory comes > from the Father > through the Son > by the Holy Spirit > to us
Our faith and obedience goes > from us > by the Holy Spirit > through the Son > to the Father 
Here is how Owen puts it: 
As the descending of God towards us in love and grace issues or ends in the work of the Spirit in us and on us, so all our ascending towards him begins therein; and as the first instance of the proceeding of grace and love towards us from the Father is in and by the Son, so the first step that we take towards God, even the Father, is in and by the Son. (ibid., 200) 
Why this is so important for Evangelical Christianity 

Owen then emphasizes the importance of this for gospel Christianity. In fact, Owen sees this as one of the key differences between gospel faith and moralism. 

Rather than coming to God through the mediation of Christ and the power of the Spirit, the moralist approaches God on his own merits and in his own strength. The moralist is self-righteous and self-sufficient. 

The true evangelical believer, in contrast, comes to the Father in the name of Jesus, in the power of the Spirit. Therefore, says Owen, "A due attendance unto this order of things gives life and spirit unto all that we have to do with God." (ibid., 200) 
And these things ought to be explicitly attended unto by us, if we intend our faith, and love, and duties of obedience should be evangelical… ‘Our fellowship is,’ in the way described, ‘with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ.’ It is, therefore, of the highest importance unto us to inquire into and secure unto ourselves the promised workings of the Holy Spirit; for by them alone are the love of the Father and the fruits of the mediation of the Son communicated unto us, without which we have no interest in them, and by them alone are we enabled to make any acceptable returns of obedience unto God. (ibid., 200) 
Here's the final application: it is all too easy for us to reduce our relationship to God to an intellectual level, where God basically gives us information (laws, commands, promises), while it's our job to put this information to use through "obedience performed in our strength." Owen calls this"sottish ignorance and infidelity" and says "to exclude hence the real internal operations of the Holy Ghost, is to destroy the gospel." 

In other words, the gospel testifies to spiritual reality, a reality with a profoundly trinitarian shape. And this trinitarian shape lies right at foundation of grace. 

We're not merely students amassing information to be applied by will power in our own strength. We are persons who have been effectively loved by our triune God and summoned into relationship with him. This relationship is rooted in grace and faith and characterized by union and communion, so that  (to quote John Piper) "God gets the glory and we get the joy." 

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