owen’s priorities

John Owen was one of the most intellectual, prolific, and deep of the English puritans, someone who was regarded as a genius by his contemporaries and whose theology has been respected and followed down to the present day. His works have been republished by the Banner of Truth, with an attractive minimalist white and green cover, in no less than 23 formidable hardback volumes.

But I was touched by this remark he made in a treatise in volume 1 of his works.

“I had rather choose my eternal lot and portion with the meanest believer, who, being effectually sensible of the love of Christ, spends his days in mourning that he can love him no more than he finds himself on his utmost endeavours for the discharge of this duty to do, than with the best of them whose vain speculations and a false pretence of reason puff them up unto a contempt of these things.”

Or, loosely paraphrased: “I would rather choose my eternal inheritance with the most insignificant believer who is conscious of the love of Christ in a way that has an ongoing impact on his life, and spends his days mourning that he can love him no more than he does, even after he has done his utmost to perform this duty, rather than with the best of those who are puffed up into a contempt of these things (ie the love of Christ and his work as Mediator) by their pointless imaginings and a false claim to reason.

What I think it shows is not just Owen’s own reverence, and the impact that his scholarly theological work had on his own personal piety (making him adore and worship God more and more the more he studied), but his generosity of spirit and his awareness that he shared his experience of God’s saving grace with all other believers in whatever circumstances they might be. Reading, you can’t avoid the realisation that these doctrines were very real and valuable to himself, but he also gives this sense of longing that other people would come to share with him in admiring and loving and worshipping the same God and Saviour.

Theology without reverence is worthless – even harmful – and I mean the kind of reverence that shows itself in practical application, in a life of personal godliness. But this (if I remember rightly) is the same theologian who said that for all his learning, he would rather be able to preach like the tinker, John Bunyan.

It’s the same principle: the little that a truly godly person has in the way of experiential religion, is more and better far than all the wealth of theoretical theology which some people seem to be able to store up while all the time the experience of saving grace is completely foreign to them. They might know all about the Saviour, but they’ve never wanted to know him.

John Owen, ‘A Declaration of the Glorious Mystery of the Person of Christ.’ In the Works of John Owen, vol 1, The Glory of Christ. First published 1679, Banner of Truth reprint 1965. Quote from p167.


5 thoughts on “owen’s priorities

  1. “If you knew the whole Bible off by heart and all the expositions of scholars, what good would it do you without the love and grace of God?” Imitation, 1.1.3 (and similar comments x lots)(none quite as memorable as the famous “if you’re not ready to die today, what makes you think you’ll be ready tomorrow?)

    The chap I quoted some posts ago on translations of Scripture frequently preached to us (all theology students or masters) that theologians are the Pharisees.


  2. Thanks for the link Richard! An Owen revival would be great … the only problem is he’s so difficult to read (at least in places, i find anyway!). I do have some more quotes from that book up my sleeve tho so we shall see …

    Thanks too Berenike for the quote/link. I’ve been wanting to get hold of Thomas a Kempis for a while now, altho to my shame it will probably not be a latin copy :)

    Dunno if i’d strictly agree that theologians are pharisees – the defining characteristic of pharisees was their assumption that they could keep the law in a way that would secure salvation/God’s approval: obviously not all theologians share that characteristic.

    (Obviously your chap probably didn’t mean that anyway, this is just me being pedantic :) )


  3. Oh, on second thoughts – there’s also the opposite problem of thinking that doctrine doesn’t really matter at all – the “but you believe in Jesus don’t you” school of non-thought. (What *about* Jesus do you believe, and what’s its source?)

    So there are the twin issues of knowing the truth in the first place, and then having the appropriate attitude to it (and to other people in the light of it). The more truth people know, the better, (ie, those who are saved have to grow in the knowledge of the Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, and he prays for his people, ‘Sanctify them through thy truth; thy word is truth’) – but it’s not bare truth, or mere knowledge, that saves or sanctifies: it needs to be mixed with faith in the hearts of those who hear it, if it’s going to do them any substantive good :)


  4. “The wisdom which is acquired by human effort . . . gives a man a sound judgment with regard to divine things according as he makes a perfect use of reason. . . But there is another kind of wisdom which comes down from above . . . and judges divine things in virtue of a certain connaturality with them. This wisdom is the gift of the Holy Ghost . . . and through it a man becomes perfect in divine things, not only by learning but also by experiencing divine things” (ST II-II, xlv, 1, ad 2; 2)


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