The next 3 Daily Thoughts will be a summary of John Owen’s teaching on the place and work of the Holy Spirit in the man Jesus from his incarnation to his final exaltation. For anyone who is truly interested in understanding Jesus’ earthly life and ministry, and how he functioned as a man, this teaching is essential. These are not as short and brief as we usually send, but are well worth the time to spend on them to see the Spirit’s work in and upon Jesus intimately at every point of his earthly experience, from ‘womb to tomb’, as Sinclair Ferguson says. Take time on these and you will profit very much, as we can gain much needed understanding on the humanity of the Lord Jesus here.

– Mack T.

It is said, sometimes with embarrassing frequency, that until recent decades the Holy Spirit was ‘the forgotten Person in the Godhead’. It is assumed in such a statement that only in the second half of the twentieth century has there been a recovery of biblical teaching. Only now has the Holy Spirit been given the central place he merits in evangelical thinking.

The word ’embarrassing’ is not used here carelessly. For such statements suffer from a characteristic modernism-a false assumption that our discovery of something must be epochal in its significance. But the truth of the matter is that this century is yet to produce an evangelical work on the Holy Spirit which merits comparison with the great and biblically creative studies of the past. It is doubtful if we moderns begin to approximate to the experimental and intellectual wrestlings of our forefathers (whether Father, Reformers or Puritans) in their desire to know the ‘communion of the Holy Spirit’ [2 Cor. 13:14].

In this context, it is worth reminding ourselves that probably no writer has produced a treatise on the Holy Spirit which begins to rival the detailed exposition of John Owen’s great study in his Pneumatologia. Much attention has been rightly focused on Owen’s quasi Ph.D. dissertation, The Death of Death in the Death of Christ, and on his great studies on the nature, power and conquest of indwelling sin, Works. But Owen himself seems to have regarded the material now contained in volumes III and IV of Goold’s edition of his Works as his special contribution to the theology of the Christian Church. What follows is not intended as a major redress of that balance, so much as an hors d’oeuvre, designed to give a taste of the riches of Owen’s Pneumatology. At the same time it will point to an area of our thinking about the Holy Spirit which too frequently continues to be overlooked in our thoughts of him, and in our teaching about him.

There were three reasons for Owen’s self-conscious focus on the person and ministry of the Holy Spirit.

1. Historical. Born in 1616, Owen died in 1683. He was 58 when his multi-volumed Pneumatologia began to appear. Able to look back over the 150 years since the Reformation, he could assess the planting, budding, and flowering of reformed theology, and its application to the life of society in seventeenth-century Puritanism. He realised that central to the Reformation’s rediscovery of the gospel had been the place, person and power of the Spirit. He saw (as Warfield later did) that Calvin was the theologian of the Holy Spirit. This was what made reformed Christianity different. In this point at least he might well have agreed with the view of Edmund Campion (the famous sixteenth-century Jesuit missionary in England) that the greatest difference between Rome and Geneva lay in the doctrine of the person and work of the Spirit.
Why should this be the case? Because the Reformation’s emphasis on the ministry of the Spirit took salvation out of the hands of the Church and put it back where it belonged, in the hands of God!

Yet Owen recognised that no comprehensive treatment of the doctrine of the Holy Spirit had appeared in print:

I know not any who ever went before me in this design of representing the whole economy of the Holy Spirit, with all his adjuncts, operations and effects. [Works, III, 7]
Thus, now twice the age he had been when he authored The Death of Death, Owen began to do for the doctrine of the Spirit what he had done in his late twenties for the doctrine of the extent of the atonement.

But there was a second reason for his writing:

2. Polemical. In Owen’s day, as in ours, there existed a special need to expound, accurately and biblically, the ministry of the Spirit. Indeed, part of the value of his work for us today lies in the way he had to fight on two fronts:

(i) He faced an unbiblical rationalism, which gave little or no place to the Spirit. It was nurtured on the illusion of man’s autonomy, and blindly suggested that natural Christianity was an adequate substitute for supernatural grace.

(ii) He also faced an unbiblical Spirit-ism, which stressed the immediacy of the Spirit’s work and of individual divine revelation. It down-played the significance of the Scriptures, exalting the so-called ‘Christ within’ above the Christ of Scripture, and the ‘inner light’ above the light of the Word. Owen recognised that this displacement of Scripture would eventually lead to its abandonment: ‘He that would utterly separate the Spirit from the word had as good burn his Bible’ [Works, III, 192].
But there was a third reason for Owen’s exposition:

3. Personal. Owen was brought up in a home of settled Puritan convictions. In a rare personal comment he tells us that his father was ‘a Non-conformist all his days, and a painful labourer [i.e. one who ‘took pains’ in his work] in the vineyard of the Lord’ [Works, XIII, 224]. As Calvin said of Timothy, he had drunk in godliness with his mother’s milk. But his own experience taught him what he later called the difference between the knowledge of the truth, and the knowledge of the power of the truth. Only the latter was of real spiritual significance. Spiritual things can be known only by the power of the Spirit. Owen’s earliest biographer suggests he struggled for a lengthy period without enjoying personal assurance of God’s grace. His own experience of receiving it was, for him, a paradigm of how the Spirit works: sovereignly, Christ-centredly and biblically [Works, VI, 324]. So, it was not merely as a widely-read theologian, nor only as a polemicist, but as a believer, that Owen penned his treatise on the Holy Spirit.

Owen’s teaching on the Spirit’s ministry is spread throughout many of his writings, but is particularly concentrated in volumes III and IV in his Pneumatologia. Here he draws attention, in seminal fashion, to a theme of great theological importance, and one that is determinative for our personal knowledge of communion with the Holy Spirit: The Ministry of the Spirit in the Life and Ministry of Christ.

Owen refers with some frequency to the description of the Messiah in the Royal Wedding Psalm:

You love righteousness and hate wickedness; Therefore, God your God, has set you above your companions by anointing you with the oil of joy. [Ps. 45:6-7]

Two questions arise here: (i) Who is the person addressed? Owen finds the biblical answer in Hebrews 1:9. These words are spoken ‘about the Son’. (ii) What is the anointing referred to? Owen answers that it is the anointing of Jesus with the Spirit. Jesus is the one to whom the Spirit is given without measure [Jn. 3:34].

What Owen focuses our attention on is that Jesus Christ, whom we often think of as the Bestower or Baptiser with the Spirit, is first of all the Recipient or Bearer of the Spirit. As Jesus’ obedience to the Father grew in harmony with his developing capacities as a man and the demands of his ministry as the Messiah, so he received the power of the Spirit’s anointing for each step of his way.

It is an axiom, then, for Owen: The Spirit works on the Head of the New Creation, Jesus Christ, and thus creates the source, cause, and pattern of his working throughout the new creation, in believers.

But how did this teaching work itself out? Owen points us essentially to the four central divisions of Jesus’ life: (1) Incarnation; (2) Ministry;
(3) Passion; and (4) Exaltation.

1. The Ministry Of The Spirit In The Incarnation Of Christ

Owen recognised the value of the old Latin axiom: Opera ad extra trinitatis indivisa sunt [the external works of the Trinity are not divisible, they are all works of the entire Trinity]. Nowhere is its truth more evident than in the incarnation. There, Father and Son were both active. The Father prepared a body for His Son [Heb. 10:5]; the Son took hold of the seed of Abraham [Heb. 2:14]. But, Owen adds, neither of these actions took place apart from the ministry of the Spirit. In the incarnation, he worked in two ways:

(i) Jesus was conceived by the power of the Spirit. The conception of Jesus in the womb of the virgin Mary has all the hallmarks of the Spirit’s operations. Just as the Spirit overshadowed the waters in creation and later overshadowed the church at Pentecost, so he came to Mary-sovereignly and secretly-and took her already existing substance in order to form it into a humanity that was altogether holy [Lk. 1:35]. The humanity which was assumed by the Son of God really was that of Mary. Jesus was conceived by Mary in her womb by the overshadowing of the Spirit. From the first moment of his conception he experienced human development and every stage of human existence [Heb. 2:17-18].

But that immediately leads to the second aspect of the Spirit’s work:

(ii) Jesus was sanctified by the power of the Spirit. There are two questions in Christology which Owen believed can be answered only when we take account of the ministry of the Spirit in the Incarnation. How did Jesus become fully one with us? And, how did Jesus become fully one with us, yet remain free from sin?
Owen’s answer was that the Son of God really shared our humanity [Heb. 2:14]. He rejected all forms of Docetism. The holy humanity of Jesus was real humanity. It was earthly, not heavenly. The virgin Mary was truly ‘the mother of my Lord’ [Lk. 1:43], not merely the channel through which the humanity of Jesus entered this fallen world. [This view had been held at the time of the Reformation by (among others) Melchior Hoffman (d. 1543) and was taught by Menno Simons (1496-1561), founder of the Mennonites. The latter’s view was related, at least in part, to his deficient understanding of human biology. It should be noted that his view did not become part of Mennonite theology.] By the Spirit, Jesus came from among us. But, having given this affirmation of the reality of Christ’s humanity, Owen was careful to avoid the pseudo-logical deduction sometimes drawn from it-that the Son of God must therefore have assumed sinful humanity. No, says Owen, Scripture teaches us that through the overshadowing of the Spirit, that which was born was holy [Lk. 1:35], the Son of God. At the very moment of conception and assumption, the Holy Spirit sanctified the human nature of Jesus equipping him as Son of God to be the Saviour of men. Consequently Jesus was not only (in a negative sense) separate from sinners, he was positively endowed with all appropriate grace, and was holy and harmless, as well as undefiled [Heb. 7:26].

What is so significant about this for Owen? This: the consequence of the Spirit’s ministry in the Head of the new creation is that he is truly man and truly holy. In Jesus, holiness and humanity become one and the same thing, perfectly, for the first time since Adam.

Why should this be so relevant to the continuing ministry of the Spirit? Because our Lord Jesus Christ is the cause, source, and pattern of the Spirit’s ministry in the believer. What he did in Jesus he seeks to do in us! In a word, Owen is saying: true humanity is true godliness; true holiness is true manliness or true womanliness! Whatever is dehumanising them, cannot be the fruit of the Spirit’s ministry in us. Whatever makes you less human must be carnal, not spiritual.

That fundamental principle is of tremendous significance in Owen’s theology, even although it is not one he expounds at great length. Indeed, in one sense his chief exposition of it is not to be found in his published works, but in his own life. Shortly after Owen’s death, these words were written about him: there was in him:
Much of heaven and love to Christ and saints and all men; which came from him so seriously and spontaneously as if grace and nature were in him reconciled and but one thing.’

The purpose of the Spirit’s ministry is to conform us to the image of the Incarnate Son, in order that he might be the firstborn of many brothers [Rom. 8:29]. John Owen apparently expounded this principle chiefly by his own personal example.

– to be continued

– Sinclair Ferguson

Write a comment:


Your email address will not be published.