John Owen on Death, the Cross, and the Gospel
May 26, 2016 | POSTED BY RYAN REEVES; THE GOSPEL COALITION
Sam Fornecker is a PhD student at Cambridge University working on the theology of 17th-century England. He is a graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary-Charlotte and also serves as curate of All Saints Church in Little Shelford.
Imagine yourself navel-gazing through a musty bookshop, when you happen upon a pile of ratty books in the ‘religion and philosophy’ section. Pushing aside Deepak Chopra and The Secret, your heart flutters when you unearth John Owen’s classic, The Death of Death in the Death of Christ – or, as it was originally entitled, Salus Electorum, Sanguis Jesu—a book to which you feel yourself inexplicably attracted, but which you have never found the time to read.
But, your hand passes over it as your eyes dart to the majestic gold and crimson cover of the Gibson brothers’ From Heaven He Came and Sought Her: Definite Atonement in Historical, Biblical, Theological, and Pastoral Perspective (Crossway, 2015), lying just beneath it. And suddenly, with the crisp spine of the Gibson brothers’ book in hand, your back is to the wind.
To the chagrin of folks who write books on Owen, this is how many a near-romance with Owen fails to blossom. And there are understandable reasons why. But here are some reasons why you should not leave Owen on the shelf.
WHY OWEN IS MUCH LOVED BUT LITTLE READ
First, Owen can certainly be tough going. As J. I. Packer has pointed out, Owen’s prose often reads like a rough translation of Cicero. It’s not bathroom reading; it requires a pen and paper to track.
Second, Owen has already been the subject of many able studies by scholars like Carl Trueman, Lee Gatiss, and Crawford Gribben. Why torture yourself by trekking through Owen if you can ride across on someone else’s shoulders?
Finally, Owen comes out of that most spiritually desolate era of church history (I exaggerate, slightly): the 17th century. Many of us don’t read Owen because Luther and Calvin’s brand of Reformation spirituality seems to have dried up like a snail in the sun in the ‘rationalistic’ years of the 17th century—the same years in which Owen’s influence was so formative. And who wants to read that?
But, let me assure you, none of these is a reason to ignore John Owen. In fact, not all of them are even true. Let’s take a look at Owen’s important argument in Death of Death for the doctrine of definite atonement (or ‘limited atonement’) to see why Owen is, after all these years, quite worth the trouble.
WHY OWEN’S THE DEATH OF DEATH IS IMPORTANT
Owen was a towering figure in 17th-century English theology. A chaplain under Oliver Cromwell during the years of the interregnum in England (from the start of the English Civil War in 1642 to the Restoration of the monarchy and Church of England in 1660), Owen played a major role in the theological development of Reformed orthodoxy in England. He was a prolific author, a veteran independent minister, and an able academic administrator, serving as vice-chancellor and commissioner of the University of Oxford, and even making an impression on John Locke during his time there.
Owen wrote The Death of Death in response to a book by a secretary in Lincolnshire called Thomas Moore, entitled, The Universality of God’s Free Grace (1646). For Owen, the book summed up all that seemed threatening about the rising tide of Arminianism. Yet, while Moore’s book made “such a flourish with colours and drums,” Owen claimed it had “no soldiers at all.” Moore’s companions “hang the whole weight of their building on three or four texts of Scripture—namely, 1 Tim. ii.5, 6; John iii.16, 17; Heb. ii.9; 1 John ii. 2, with some few others—and the ambiguity of two or three words, which of themselves cannot deny to be of exceeding various acceptations” (22).
The reason that The Death of Death (which Owen described as being one of his more accessible works) won’t do as a bathroom read, then, isn’t because it’s difficult. Rather, The Death of Death requires full attention because it’s pregnant with biblical argumentation. For Owen, the alternative to proof-texting is a pastorally sensitive and intellectually rigorous exposition of scriptural teaching on the agent, means, and ends of Christ’s death on the cross. This approach characterizes Owen’s writings, but there is no more rewarding point of entry than The Death of Death in the Death of Christ.
WHY SHOULD I READ OWEN’S THE DEATH OF DEATH?
Death-of-DeathThe Death of Death in the Death of Christ is simply the most thorough English-language treatment of the doctrine of definite atonement in existence.
For Owen, the heart of this doctrine comprises two points: ‘the supreme and ultimate’ end of Christ’s death unto “the glory of God,” and the “intermediate and subservient” end in “the bringing of us unto God” (including the gifts of grace, faith, and glory). Or, as Owen puts it in his commentary on Hebrews, “the glory of God in the salvation of the Church.”
As I suggested above, Owen was interested in understanding the Bible’s teaching on the agent, means, and ends of Christ’s death. These are ways of talking about God’s intent in saving. Evidently, Owen thinks the Bible is more concerned about the intent of God in the redemption of man, than about the extent of the work itself. Owen, then, majors on the saving God, not a work of salvation measured quantitatively apart from God’s intention to save.
That is not to say that Owen never used the word or concept of ‘extent.’ Remarking on the layman Edward Polhill’s Essay on the Extent of the Death of Christ, Owen says that he differed from Polhill on “the object and extent of our redemption.” But even there, an object implies a subject, a person—someone capable of intending.
More importantly, we ought to read The Death of Death because Owen asks questions that are compelling alternatives to those we have, perhaps, grown used to asking. For Owen, the questions we should be asking are questions of intent: What did Jesus Christ come to do? And what did God the Father send him to do?
WHAT SHOULD I LOOK FOR WHEN READING THE DEATH OF DEATH?
Start by looking for a pad of paper and a pen. It is helpful to outline Owen’s argument in a simple, straightforward way as you read. Take a look at how Packer did it if you want a starting place. Along the way, keep your ear to the ground for three features, in particular.
Listen out when Owen is distinguishing between impetration (how Christ’s death obtained benefits) and application (how those benefits accrue to the Christian). Much of the heated debate—then, as now—concerned how these two ideas should fit together.
Remember where you are in the structure of the book. Of the four books that constitute The Death of Death, two are lengthy exegetical arguments for definite atonement. The next two books are detailed arguments against the concepts of ‘general ransom’ or ‘universal redemption,’ which both boil down to the idea that Christ died to redeem every man, leaving the ultimate choice for salvation in our will. When tackling Owen’s arguments, the old yarn about Scripture memory references holds true: “Good to have a friend; better to know where he lives.”
Keep in mind that the near-total absence of the work of the Holy Spirit (totaling something like two pages) should be read in the context of Owen’s lifelong writings, which include Spirit-thick works like Communion with God (1657) and A Discourse of the Work of the Holy Spirit in Prayer (1687). Owen is a richly Trinitarian theologian, though it might be difficult to see it from this work alone. This last point has to do, again, with Owen’s concern to underline God’s intent in saving the Church. As he puts it:
“That which the Father and the Son intended to accomplish in and towards all those for whom Christ died, by his death that is most certainly effected… but the Father and his Son intended by the death of Christ to redeem, purge, sanctify, purify, deliver from death, Satan, the curse of the law, to quit of all sin, to make righteousness in Christ, to bring nigh unto God, all those for whom he died… therefore, Christ died for all and only those in and towards whom all these things recounted are effected; – which, whether they are all and every one, I leave to all and every one to judge that hath any knowledge in these things.”
Why not take up and read Owen before lunging for the newer book? At least, put it on the shortlist. Remember C. S. Lewis’s dictum: “You should at least read one old book for every three new ones.”