John Owen on Revival
Posted by Danny Hyde on May 30, 2017
Way back when (Feb. 15, 2010) in the previous incarnation of Meet the Puritans, I posted on John Owen’s use of the phrase “spiritual revivalls” (sic.). This post was subsequently cited in Kenneth J. Stewart’s Ten Myths About Calvinism: Recovering the Breadth of the Reformed Tradition (p. 103 n10) as the evidence that Owen made the earliest use of the term revival in English despite the Oxford English Dictionary’s attributing it to Cotton Matther in 1702. What follows is an expanded version of that orginal post.
If you listen to some of our modern American Reformed historians today, you’ve been led to believe that the buggaboo of (cue the spooky music) “revival” is an 18th century phenomenon of the First Great Awakening. You’ve been led to believe that every pastor who believes revival is a legitimate work of the Holy Spirit is a “revivalist” no different than Charles Finney and his ilk in the 19th century Second Great Awakening. There’s just one teeny tiny problem with this presentation: it doesn’t fit the evidence of history. The fact is, the concept of revival was not a 19th or even 18th century deviation from the Reformation. A case in point is the giant of 17th century English Reformed Orthodox theologian, John Owen. In “Letter 85: To Charles Fleetwood” written in 1674 (The Correspondence of John Owen, ed. Peter Toon, 159–160), Owen wrote at a time when he and his wife were sick, and he thought the Lord was preparing him for death. Listen to what he said to his close friend:
“The truth is, if we cannot see the latter rain in its season as we have seen the former, and a latter spring thereon, death, that will turne in the streams of glory unto our poor withering souls, is the best relief. I begin to feare that we shall die in this wilderness; yet ought we to labour and pray continually that the heavens would drop downe from above, and the skies poure downe righteousness—that the earth may open and bring forth salvation, and that righteousness may spring up together. If ever I return to you in this world, I beseech you to contend yet more earnestly than ever I have done, with God, with my own heart, with the church, to labour after spiritual revivalls.”
When I originally posted this quote from Owen in an effort to recover this part of our tradition, one historian immediately rebuked me for “going after one of our own” and “abandoning the cause” while saying a la the great wide receiver Rod Tidwell “Show me the Latin!” Unfortunately Owen wrote the letter in English. I guess this is the Reformed version of “98% of climate scientists agree.”
Notice again Owen’s last phrase above: “to labour after spiritual revivalls.” This exhortation was not penned by some 17th century Quaker or Shaker or 19th century advocate of “new measures” a la Finney, but arguably the greatest of English Reformed theologians. As a Reformed theologian this meant Owen believed Scripture to be principium cognoscendi—the basis of knowledge of God, his world, and his redemptive plan. We see that here in Owen’s letter as he looks to the pattern of the biblical prophets for spiritual revival, citing Isaiah 45:8, “Drop down, ye heavens, from above, and let the skies pour down righteousness: let the earth open, and let them bring forth salvation, and let righteousness spring up together; I the LORD have created it” (KJV). Later, in his posthumously published treatise of 1684, Meditations and Discourses on the Glory of Christ (Works 1, 395–396), we read Owen describing the reality that Jesus Christ at times withdraws our experience of him from us because of our sins:
“Do any of us find decays in grace prevailing in us;—deadness, coldness, lukewarmness, a kind of spiritual stupidity and senselessness coming upon us? Do we find an unreadiness unto the exercise of grace in its proper season, and the vigorous acting of it in duties of communion with God? and would we have our souls recovered from these dangerous diseases? Let us assure ourselves there is no better way for our healing and deliverance, yea, no other way but this alone,—namely, the obtaining a fresh view of the glory of Christ by faith, and a steady abiding therein. Constant contemplation of Christ and his glory, putting forth its transforming power unto the revival of all grace, is the only relief in this case; as shall farther be showed afterward.”
Here Owen wrote that faith in and meditation upon Christ and his glory was the means by which we are revived from our spiritual slumber. What is fascinating is what he goes on to say in this regard:
“Some will say, that this must be effected by fresh supplies and renewed communications of the Holy Spirit. Unless he fall as dew and showers on our dry and barren hearts,—unless he cause our graces to spring, thrive, and bring forth fruit,—unless he revive and increase faith, love, and holiness in our souls,—our backslidings will not be healed, nor our spiritual state be recovered. Unto this end is he prayed for and promised in the Scripture. See Cant. iv. 16; Isa, xliv. 3, 4; Ezek, xl 19, xxxvi. 26; Hos. xiv. 5, 6. And so it is. The immediate efficiency of the revival of our souls is from and by the Holy Spirit. But the inquiry is, in what way, or by what means, we may obtain the supplies and communications of him unto this end. This the apostle declares in the place insisted on: We, beholding the glory of Christ in a glass, “are changed into the same image, from glory to glory, even by the Spirit of the Lord.” It is in the exercise of faith on Christ, in the way before described, that the Holy Spirit puts forth his renewing, transforming power in and upon our souls. This, therefore, is that alone which will retrieve Christians from their present decays and deadness.”
Read closely what Owen says there. Some answered the question of how we are revived from spiritual decay by pointing to the sovereign work of the Holy Spirit. To this Owen agreed: “And it is so.” What Owen did, though, was to make the distinction between the efficient cause of revival—the Holy Spirit—and the instrumental cause—our faith in Christ and meditation upon his glory. What this illustrates is this: say what you want about the First and Second Great Awakenings and modern-day “revivalism,” but the language and concept of “revival” is a part of the Reformed Orthodoxy of the 17th century that so many today who profess adherence to Reformed Orthodoxy reject. As a good Orthodox and Puritan theologian, Owen also noted in the above, that we labor for the Holy Spirit’s work of revival not as mystics, pietists, revivalists, or Pentecostals, but by the “diligent use of the outward means whereby Christ communicates to us the benefits of his mediation,” to cite the Westminster Larger Catechism, Q&A 153. What are those means? There are many, such as meditation per Owen above, but especially the Word, the sacraments, and prayer. Use the means; wait for the Holy Spirit to bless them to our souls as he wills, when he wills, as much as he wills. This is Reformed revival according to John Owen.