Why and how John Owen urged lukewarm Christians to seek a vision of Christ

Here are some notes that I wrote a couple of months ago. I was reminded of them after talking about John Owen’s “The mortification of sin” last night.

I’ve been a pastor now for more than thirteen years, and during that time, I’ve had cause more than once to grapple with questions about how people change. Throughout that time, I’ve also been painfully aware of the darkness that lurks in my own heart. Every committed Christian will be in a continual battle with sin. How can they conquer the sin that they recognize in their own hearts?

There is no shortage of ideas around as to how the human heart might be changed but will any of them work? Will techniques of behavior modification really lead to authentic discipleship? Do people change by trying harder, and if so by trying harder at what?

To complicate matters further, some fairly simple reflection will serve to emphasize the pervasive “stickiness” of sin. When I avoid sin simply in order to avoid getting caught, am I conquering sin or merely falling deeper into pride? Can sin be hidden behind deeper sin? These are difficult but important questions and should not be lightly dismissed.

Some time ago I was browsing the sale table in the bookstall of a major Christian conference. I always have a keen eye for a bargain, and so I snapped up a couple of books which had been knocked down in price. Among them was “The Glory of Christ, His office and grace” by a 17th century puritan named John Owen. I knew already of his reputation for difficult and complicated sentences, but I also knew that many considered it worth persevering with his difficult prose because they regard him unequalled as a theologian writing in the English Language.

Some readers might be put off by the word “theologian” and others by the word “puritan” but Owen had no reputation as a dry and dusty academic theologian, or indeed as a dour killjoy. He was a pastor, and much of his theology is intensely practical. Many who read his works come to think of him as a man who profoundly knew God.

“The Glory of Christ,” is one of his very last works. It went to the printer while Owen himself lay dying. In it he set out the importance of a vision of the glory of Christ and gave practical advice for the lukewarm Christian as to how such a vision might be attained.

John Owen knew that of paramount importance for anyone who would be a disciple was a vision of the glory of Christ. Allow yourself a few moments to ponder this quote from Owen:

“..no man shall ever become like him by bare imitation of his actions, without that view or intuition of his glory which alone is accompanied with a transforming power to change them in the same imagine.” [1]

For John Owen, transformation into the image of Christ is something that happens as we actively contemplate the glory of Jesus Christ.

This is indeed an unfamiliar teaching in our day and age, and some frustrated readers might already be crying out; “but how?” It is after all one thing to commend the importance of a vision of the glory of Christ; it is another thing to attain to it.

Owen was not an impractical theorist long on ideas but short on practice. He was first and foremost a pastor concerned to help people take strides forwards in living their spiritual lives for the glory of God. At one point in this book, Owen offers practical advice for those who are lukewarm. For those who find themselves in this state, Owen offers four particular pieces of advice which are as follows:

  1. You must understand something. Those who want to burn with spiritual fervor need to recognize that seeing the glory of Christ is; “the greatest privilege of which in this life, we can be made partakers.” Owen knew the danger for those who saw little value in beholding the glory of Christ.
    I suspect that many modern Christians need to stop here and take notice of what Owen is saying. He is not simply telling us that this beholding of the glory of Christ is a great duty of Christians. (Though I am sure that he would agree that it is.) He tells us that such a vision will be for our enjoyment. We are to seek our enjoyment and happiness in Christ. If we do not believe that such a vision is the greatest of privileges then we will not seek it for our enjoyment.
  1. You must get busy. A Christian, will realize that the kind of knowledge of Christ that Owen commends cannot be attained purely by the application of human reason alone and comes by revelation. Even though this is the case, we should never resign ourselves to thinking that there is nothing that we can do to help ourselves. We are not helpless before God and unable to do anything for ourselves. That kind of resigned thinking is far from the truth.
    We should think of the way in which people seek worldly skill and knowledge. How does the craftsman get his skill and where does the professor get her knowledge? We would be foolish to suppose that such skill or knowledge ever comes without either practice or study. In the same way, spiritual understanding only comes from God, but we will not receive any without applying ourselves to the “means appointed by God for attaining it”[2]
    What are these means? We need to pray for a vision of Christ. We need to think much about spiritual things and make plans to grow spiritually. If we will not get busy in such means, he says we ought not to think that we will ever gain a consuming vision of Christ.
  2. You must learn to be vigorous in your thinking about Christ. Owen says that we should learn from the pursuit of human appetites and desires. Here is what Owen says: “When the minds of men are vehemently fixed on the pursuit of their lusts, they will be continually ruminating on the objects of them, and have a thousand contrivances about them.”[3]
    Over time we become more and more like the objects of our thoughts. The one who thinks cruel and vengeful thoughts will over time become more cruel and more vengeful. The one who thinks mostly about meeting their own needs will over time become more selfish. If this is so, then we cannot afford to be lazy in contemplating Christ, for when we contemplate him we will be transformed into his likeness.
  3. You must aim for a transforming experience. Owen is concerned that his readers understand that contemplating Christ is the route to transforming experience in theory but make no effort to make the contemplation of Christ their practice. He says “The affecting power of it upon our hearts is that which we should aim at.”[4] He reminds his readers that those saints who are in heaven have an unhindered view of the glory of God in Christ and are utterly transformed by this vision. Owen, ever the preacher, asks his readers “Do we expect, do we desire, the same state of blessedness?”[5]

If contemporary Christianity thinks at all about how people change, it tends to focus on techniques that might change actions but rarely transform hearts. Accountability partnerships and ten step programs may have their place as tools in the pastoral tool box, but they have their limitations and can a best be a support in the transformation of human hearts.

I have often noticed that on frosty mornings the blades of grass that are in the sun defrost long before the blades of grass that are in the shade. We need again to learn what John Owen knew. It is as we stand and bask as a forgiven sinners in the sun-like glow of the glory of Christ that the frozenness of our sinful hearts is melted, and real change happens.

[1] Owen. The glory of Christ p66

[2] Owen, The Glory of Christ p70

[3] Ibid p70

[4] Ibid p71

[5] Ibid p71


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