What John Owen Missed

I am not a John Owen basher. My title is intended to be provocative to my “young, restless, and reformed” friends and some who are not so young though they may be feeling a bit antsy. I have been known for a long time to be a John Owen fan. John Piper, my former pastor and friend, inscribed one of the very first copies of the original edition, in 1986, of his Desiring God, “For Tom, lover of Owen & (I hope) Edwards & above all GOD! John.” I was on the Deacon Board of Bethlehem Baptist Church when John requested leave to turn his recent sermon series into a book. He gave all the deacons one of the first copies off the press.

I do not know why John questioned my love of Jonathan Edwards. I’m sure that I had already told him by this time that I thought Edwards’ treatise on free will was one of the single most important theological treatises in church history. I also have a special love of Edwards’  Treatise on Religious Affections. It was a special joy when my company transferred me to the Hartford, CT, area and we settled up north where the nearest shopping area was in Enfield where Edwards preached his famous “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” However, it is true that when comparing Owen and Edwards, except for the treatise on the will, I will choose Owen. The very books that most appeal to John Piper, such as The Chief End for Which God Created the World or The Nature of True Virtue, are the ones I like the least. I find them too speculative, full of philosophical theology rather than biblical theology. Of course, John is much more imaginative than I am; still I like to stick close to the text.

This title is in fact somewhat of an excuse to write something on Romans 8:13, the textual basis of Owen’s Mortification of Sin:

for if you are living according to the flesh, you must die; but if by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body, you will live.

In the very first chapter of his essay (?), the only part I plan to address, Owen typically analyzed the verse into its five component parts: first, the duty prescribed, “put to death the deeds of the body”; secondly, the persons to whom this duty is addressed, “you Christians”; thirdly, a promise annexed to the duty, “you will live”; fourthly, the way the duty is to be performed, “by the Spirit”; and, the conditionality of the whole proposition, “if.”

Owen has some wonderful things to say about conditional sentences. He first divides them into two types: one where the uncertainty of the consequence is emphasized, another establishing a connection between the antecedent in the conditional and the consequent. The first type cannot be meant here, since 8:1 promises that “therefore there is now condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” The consequence is absolutely not in doubt. Owen further subdivides the second type of conditional into two types: cause and effect, and means and end. Owen cites the promise in Romans 6:23, “the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus” to prove that the conditional cannot be cause and effect. If something is caused, it cannot be a freely given gift. so, the conditional must be means and end. Owen did miss one of the best arguments to establish his argument here though this is not what I had in mind as part of the title of my post. The verse immediately preceding “the free gift of God is eternal life” says that same eternal life is the outcome, literally “the end,” to telos, of sanctification, “But now having been freed from sin and enslaved to God, you derive your benefit, resulting in sanctification, and the outcome, eternal life.” (Rom 6:22 NASB; 1995 update) So, eternal life is a free gift, but the means through which it is given to us is holiness that arises from our freedom from sin because of Christ’s cross. This may tell us something very special about the nature of eternal life, something that the Old Testament continually hints at: that importance of eternal life is not quantitative, the everlasting duration of the life, but the quality of that life, living in the presence of God under His smile.

Owen also has some wonderful things to say about this command being addressed solely to Christians and not to unbelievers:

The pressing of this duty immediately on any other is a notable fruit of that superstition and self-righteousness that the world is full of,–the great work and design of devout men ignorant of the gospel. (6)

I thought Owen contrasted exercising mortification by the Spirit with the pursuit of sanctification by the flesh in Colossians 2:16-23 here in this introductory chapter but my memory failed me. He does that elsewhere, most probably in volume 3 of the complete works, On the Holy Spirit. That Colossians passage ends with failure, “These are matters which have, to be sure, the appearance of wisdom in self-made religion and self-abasement and severe treatment of the body, but are of no value against fleshly indulgence.” Romans 8:13 and Colossians 2:16-23 contrast two ways of dealing with immorality: one is effective, the other not; one is dependent on God, the other perpetuates our autonomous rebellion against Him; one is simple, the other leads to superstitious self-flagellation, both metaphorical and literal; one is of value, the other has no value. Mortifying the flesh by the way of the flesh is foolish.

What did Owen miss? He says nothing about the immediate context of Romans 8:13. He does not mention verse 12, very surprisingly, he barely mentions the first clause of v. 13, and he says nothing to connect verses. 14 and following with the promise of life. Given his very meticulous, some might say pedantic, analysis of this very short verse into five components, ignoring the immediate context of the verse is surprising. He does not ignore the larger context of the verse; in fact he lists every alternate name for the Spirit in the whole of chapter 8 and uses other verses to support his very brief arguments in this introduction. But he says nothing about the most immediate, and therefore, the most relevant context, the context that frames the text and, therefore, makes Paul’s intent discoverable and his meaning accessible. As well as I remember, Owen does not take up the immediate context in his later chapters; it would contradict his normal style.

So, did Owen miss anything of importance? Yes! Decidedly yes! It is surprising that despite Owen’s great observations of  the conditionality of this sentence, he fails to note that the whole of verse 13 is an urgent interruption in Paul’s train of thought.

12 So then, brethren, we are under obligation, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh–
13 for if you are living according to the flesh, you must die; but if by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body, you will live.
(Romans 8:12-13 NASB; 1995 update)

We would have expected Paul to continue the sentence begun in verse 12 with something like, “but to the Spirit, to live according to the Spirit.” That is, having been given life by the Spirit, having been set free to obey the will of God by the Spirit, having been indwelt by the Spirit, having been given the promise of the future resurrection of our bodies through the Spirit–because of all this, we are under obligation to live according to the Spirit. But Paul does not say anything like this. Instead, he feels compelled to interrupt himself to issue an urgent warning, “if you are living according to the flesh, you must die.” The word translated “must,” mellete, 2nd person plural of mello, could also be translated “are about to” in the sense that their death is so necessary that it is imminent. Living according to the Spirit, in contrast to living according to the flesh, is not optional. There is no such thing as a fleshly Christian. Such a person may profess Christ verbally, but he or she will, no must, die the second and eternal death. There is no option. Surely, such a simple observation would have helped Owen to establish his thesis that

 The choicest believers, who are assuredly freed from the condemning power of sin, ought yet to make it their business all their days to mortify the indwelling power of sin. (his italics)

What about the rest of the paragraph about which Owen is silent? Surely it would have helped him establish the point that this command is addressed only to “the choicest believers.”

14 For all who are being led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God.
15 For you have not received a spirit of slavery leading to fear again, but you have received a spirit of adoption as sons by which we cry out, “Abba! Father!”
16 The Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God,
17 and if children, heirs also, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him so that we may also be glorified with Him.
(Romans 8:14-17 NASB; 1995 update)

Owen uses his analysis of different types of conditional sentences and Romans 6:23, “the free gift of God is eternal life,” to argue that mortification is not the meritorious cause of life, “if . . . you will live,” but he also could have used the following verses and done us the favor of explaining how this paragraph coheres. Paul’s argument seems to be that the reason that it is only those who “by the Spirit are putting together the deeds of the body” also live is that following the leading of the Spirit marks them out as sons, or children, of God and therefore also heirs of God. They, and they alone, inherit the covenant promise of life in fellowship with God. They are marked out to be Isaacs, not Ishmaels. Life is reserved only for the children of God, no one else.

One of the great privileges of being a child of God is that we know it. We do not labor in continual doubt with the slim inkling of a hope that at the end of our effort God just might accept us. Doubt is not a motivator for the pursuit of holiness; assurance, certainty, is. Yet, assurance is not independent of our behavior. Paul says, “The Spirit Himself testifies with our spirit that we are children of God.” The Spirit’s witness is a co-witness with our human spirit. It is not a witness to our spirit regardless of our behavior or thoughts. A violated conscience can interrupt the joint witness that we are children of God.

The Westminster Confession is very wise in its chapter on assurance, indicating that a Christian can backslide to such an extent that he almost(?) has no warrant for thinking that he is a believer. With such a person it is best to simply call him to faith and repentance in Christ as though he never believed before. Too many counselors will futiley try to make the backslider remember past experiences of grace in an effort to rekindle past assurance. Past assurance has no value; a present one does!

One of my first fathers in the faith–through books, not in person–D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones interestingly argued that the “spirit of slavery” in verse 15 is the Holy Spirit, the same Spirit who becomes the Spirit of adoption after a person’s conversion. This is entirely consistent with his view that evangelistic preaching included preaching the Moral Law forcefully so as to get the person lost before he can be saved. The Holy Spirit became a spirit of slavery to Paul when He pressed the prohibition of coveting home into his heart as described in Romans 7:7-11, esp. 9, “I was once alive apart from the Law; but when the commandment [not to covet] came, sin became alive and I died.” Lloyd-Jones believed that this occurred during the three-day period that Paul was struck blind, not eating, and waiting for the saintly Ananais to be called to come heal him. He thus reconciles Paul’s expressed confidence pre-conversion that he was blameless before the Law (Php 3:6) with Paul’s expressed agony over the Law  (Romans 7).

I am not entirely convinced by Lloyd-Jones’s argument here. I think it is just as likely that the elementary spirits of the world, ta stoicheia tou kosmou, are demons that use the Law to accuse and torment. However, Euclid’s Elements, written at least as early as 300 B.C., must have been a part of Paul’s education. If not, he certainly heard of it; its fame and usage was so widespread. Euclid’s title is merely Elements, stoicheion, which would argue for a translation of the difficult phrase, ta stoicheia tou kosmou, as simply “the elementary principles of the world.” There would no longer be any supporting evidence from Galatians and Colossians for a demonic presence using the Law. Lloyd-Jones may be right. I don’t know.

Finally, Owen’s view of the body and of the flesh is confusing. Here he says,

The body, then, here is taken for that corruption and depravity of our natures whereof the body, in a great part, is the seat and instrument, the very members of the the body being made servants unto the unrighteousness thereby , Romans vi. 19. (7)

He then identifies the body with indwelling sin, lust, the flesh, and the old man. Elsewhere he is very clear in arguing that the body of sin in Romans 6:6, “knowing this, that our old man was crucified with Him, in order that our body of sin might be done away with, so that we would no longer be slaves to sin,” does not refer to the physical body, but to sin personified as it is in Romans 7. I think that it is clear, if one traces the use of the word “body” through Romans 6-8 that Paul intends to signify the physical body so habituated to sin that it has become a sin-conditioned body. He equates the body and the flesh. I believe we are too fearful of being accused of Neo-Platonists, with the view that the body is inherently evil, to follow Paul here. The flesh and the mortal body are the same. Our co-crucifixion with Christ destroyed the mastery of this sinful body over us, but we shall not be fully free from sin until we die and are resurrected to receive a new transformed body, somehow continuous with our existing body else Paul’s use of the seed analogy in 1 Corinthians means nothing, that is Spirit-saturated rather than sin-saturated and perfectly suited to dwell in the new heavens and the new earth. Heaven and earth will be united, heaven coming down to reside on the earth, and we shall live there forever!

What a great place to stop!

42 So also is the resurrection of the dead. It is sown a perishable body, it is raised an imperishable body;
43 it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power;
44 it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body  (1 Cor 15:42-44)

This is my hope!

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