Owen’s vade mecum

John Owen said that William Guthrie’s little book, The Christian’s Great Interest, was his vade mecum – he carried it about with him all the time. There was more theology in it, he said, than in the tomes he had written himself. (Guthrie was a minister in the Scottish church in the 1600s. His cousin James was a Covenanter and was hanged in Edinburgh; his descendant Thomas was a colleague of Chalmers in the nineteenth century and organised the Ragged Schools.)

The whole point of the little treatise was, said Guthrie in the introduction, to speak of two things of the greatest concern: firstly, whether a person could justly lay claim to having been saved; and secondly, what a person should do if they couldn’t make such a claim.

So he describes what is true saving faith. It is variously expressed in Scripture, he says, according to the different ways that it acts. Sometimes it acts ‘by a desire of union with God in Christ,’ or as Isaiah describes it, as a looking to him. Or it is a hungering and thirsting after righteousness. Or, it is an act of recumbency – ‘leaning on the Lord, the soul taking up Christ then as a resting-stone, and so God hath held him out, although he be a stumbling-stone to others.’ Or it may be an act of waiting – ‘They shall not be ashamed that wait for me,’ it says in Isaiah 49.

But, he says, ‘it were tedious to instance all the several ways of the action of faith upon, and its exercise about, and outgoings after, Christ – I may say, according to the various conditions of man.’ Faith acts ‘variously and differently upon God in Christ: for faith is the very shaping out of a man’s heart according to God’s device of salvation by Christ Jesus, … so that, let Christ turn what way he will, faith turneth and pointeth that way.’ In fact:

“[Christ] turns all ways in which he can be useful to poor man, and therefore faith acts accordingly on him for drawing out of that fullness according to a man’s case and condition. As, for example, the soul is naked, destitute of a covering to keep it from the storm of God’s wrath; Christ is fine raiment, Rev 3:17-18; then accordingly faith’s work here is ‘to put on the Lord Jesus.’

The soul is hungry and thirsty after something that may everlastingly satisfy; Christ Jesus is milk, wine, water, the bread of life, the true manna, the feast of fat things and of wines on the lees well refined; then the work of faith is to go, buy, eat, and drink abundantly.

The soul is pursued for guilt more or less, and is not able to withstand the charge; Christ Jesus is the city of refuge, and the high priest there, during whose priesthood (that is, for ever) the poor man who escapes there is safe; then the work and exercise of faith is ‘to flee thither for refuge, to lay hold on the hope set before us.’

In a word, whatsoever way Christ may benefit a poor man, he declares himself able to do so. And as he holdeth himself out in the Scriptures, so faith doth point towards him. If he be a Bridegroom, faith will go out in a marriage relation; if he be a Father, faith pleadeth the man to be a child; if he be a Shepherd, faith pleads the man may be one of his sheep; if he be a Lord, faith calleth him so …; if he be dead and risen again for our justification, faith ‘beliveth God hath raised him’ on that account.

Wheresoever he be, there would faith be, and whatsoever he is, faith would be somewhat like him; for by faith the heart is laid out in breadth and length for him. Yea, when the fame and report of him goeth abroad in his truth, although faith seeth not much, yet it ‘believeth on his name,’ upon the very fame he hath sent abroad of himself, John 1:12.

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3 thoughts on “Owen’s vade mecum

  1. Interesting co-incidence, in that I’m re-reading J. I. Packer’s 1990 book “A Quest for Godliness” (American title), his collection of essays about the Puritans. Early on, he mentions Guthrie’s book as being a volume that John Owen was “much impressed with.” Nice to read that in two different places in the same week. (I decided to re-read Packer’s volume as he turned 84 last week.)

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  2. Is that “Among God’s Giants” ? An excellent book if so.

    By the way – what is meant by the Sedan New Testament? What Owen actually said is that he carried CGI and the Sedan New Testament around with him, but I chickened out of quoting it directly as I didn’t know what it means!

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  3. Yes, “Among God’s Giants” is the British title. I think I’ve heard of the Sedan New Testament, but know nothing about it. It’s a NT you read in a car? (heh, heh)

    Speaking of things British: I’ve just acquired two books by the English literary scholar and author, George Saintsbury (1845-1933). They are “A Short History of English Literature” (1898) and “The Peace of the Augustans: A Survey of Eighteenth-Century Literature as a Place of Rest and Refreshment” (1916). Saintsbury was a prolific author (at least 40 books) who also wrote about French literature. He was probably the most influential English literary critic from the 1880s to the 1920s. He died at 87.

    Oh, by the way: in the first book, his idea of “short” is 818 pages of small print. Heh.

    Off topic, I know…

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