Justifying Faith: Receiving Christ (Owen)

When the Westminster Confession explains justifying faith, it uses the term “receiving.”  Here’s chapter XI.2: “Faith, thus receiving and resting on Christ and his righteousness, is the alone instrument of justification…” (emphasis mine).  The Heidelberg Catechism also uses this word in answer 30: “For either Jesus is not a complete Savior, or they who by true faith receive this Savior must have in him all that is necessary to their salvation” (emphasis mine).  Are there biblical reasons to use the phrase “receiving Christ” when talking about faith?  Yes, for sure!  Here’s how John Owen nicely explained it:

That faith whereby we are justified is most frequently in the New Testament expressed by receiving…  First, That it is so expressed with respect unto the whole object of faith, or unto all that does any way concur unto our justification; for we are said to receive Christ himself: “As many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God,” John 1:12; “As ye have received Christ Jesus the Lord,” Col. 2:6.  In opposition hereunto unbelief is expressed by not receiving of him, John 1:11, 3:11, 12:48, 14:17.

And it is a receiving of Christ as he is “The Lord our Righteousness,” as of God he is made righteousness unto us. And as no grace, no duty, can have any co-operation with faith herein — this reception of Christ not belonging unto their nature, nor comprised in their exercise — so it excludes any other righteousness from our justification but that of Christ alone; for we are “justified by faith.”

Faith alone receiveth Christ; and what it receives is the cause of our justification, whereon we become the sons of God. So we “receive the atonement” made by the blood of Christ, Rom. 5:11; for “God hath set him forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood.” And this receiving of the atonement includes the soul’s approbation of the way of salvation by the blood of Christ, and the appropriation of the atonement made thereby unto our own souls. For thereby also we receive the forgiveness of sins: “That they may receive forgiveness of sins …… by faith that is in me,” Acts 26:18. In receiving Christ we receive the atonement; and in the atonement we receive the forgiveness of sins. But, moreover, the grace of God, and righteousness itself, as the efficient and material cause of our justification, are received also; even the “abundance of grace and the gift of righteousness,” Rom. 5:17.

So that faith, with respect unto all the causes of justification, is expressed by “receiving;” for it also receiveth the promise, the instrumental cause on the part of God thereof, Acts 2:41; Heb. 9:15.

John Owen, The Works of John Owen, ed. William H. Goold, vol. 5 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, n.d.), 291–292.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

Preaching and Application (Owen)

Solid Christian [biblical!] preaching always has application.  Seminary lectures and perhaps Sunday School lessons might not always have application, but a good sermon must.  John Owen makes this point in his commentary on Hebrews as he notes that and how chapter 12 is tightly connected to chapter 11.  (Note: the word “use” below is a synonym for application.)

This chapter [Hebrews 12] contains an application of the doctrine, declared and confirmed in the foregoing chapter [Hebrews 11], unto the use of [application for] the Hebrews. Doctrine and use were the apostle’s method; and must, at least virtually, be theirs also who regard either sense, or reason, or experience, in their preaching. It would be an uncouth sermon that should be without doctrine and use.

John Owen, Hebrews, Volume 7 (sv Heb. 12).

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

Increasing Our Spiritual Gifts (John Owen)

The Works of John Owen, Vol. 4: The Reason of Faith
Owen, vol. 4

God gives his people spiritual gifts so his people can bless others and bring him glory. Peter tells us to use our gifts to serve one another (1 Pet. 4:10). But the Christian might ask a question: How do we receive spiritual gifts or how do the spiritual gifts we have grow or increase? Obviously God, by his Holy Spirit, gifts his people. As far as attaining or increasing spiritual gifts, John Owen had a nice discussion about this topic in his “Discourse of Spiritual Gifts.” Here’s what he says about attaining and increasing spiritual gifts:

…In the first place is required a due preparation of soul, by humility, meekness, and teachableness. The Holy Spirit taketh no delight to impart of his especial gifts unto proud, self-conceited men, to men vainly puffed up in their own fleshly minds….

Secondly, prayer is a principal means for their attainment. This the apostle directs unto when he enjoins us earnestly to desire the best gifts; for this desire is to be acted by prayer, and no otherwise.

Thirdly, diligence in the things about which these gifts are conversant. Study and meditation on the word of God, with the due use of means for the attaining a right understanding of his mind and will therein, is that which I intend. For in this course, conscientiously attended unto, it is that, for the most part, the Holy Spirit comes in and joins his aid and assistance for furnishing of the mind with those spiritual endowments.

Fourthly, the growth, increase, and improvement of these gifts depend on their faithful use according as our duty doth require. It is trade alone that increaseth talents, and exercise in a way of duty that improveth gifts. Without this they will first wither and then perish….

Owen, Works, Vol. 4, p. 519-520.

 To summarize, we can grow in our God-given spiritual gifts by being humble, praying about them, diligently studying the Word, using them, and by cultivating our natural gifts.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015



Our Wills: Created and Corrupted (Owen)

The Works of John Owen, Vol. 10: The Death of Christ In Reformed theology, following Augustine and ultimately Paul/Scripture, we deny the Arminian position that all people have free will which gives them the power and innate ability to believe in Christ as they wish.  John Owen brilliantly countered this Arminian position of free will in his book, A Display of ArminianismBelow is a section of chapter 12 where he discusses the nature and power of free will.  Notice how Owen refutes the Arminian position by noting that our wills are created (therefore dependent) and corrupt (therefore in bondage to sin):

That, then, which the Arminians claim here in behalf of their free-will is, an absolute independence on God’s providence in doing any thing, and of his grace in doing that which is good,—a self-sufficiency in all its operations, a plenary indifferency of doing what we will, this or that, as being neither determined to the one nor inclined to the other by any overruling influence from heaven. So that the good acts of our wills have no dependence on God’s providence as they are acts, nor on his grace as they are good; but in both regards proceed from such a principle within us as is no way moved by any superior agent.

Now, the first of these we deny unto our wills, because they are created; and the second, because they are corrupted. Their creation hinders them from doing any thing of themselves without the assistance of God’s providence; and their corruption, from doing any thing that is good without his grace. A self-sufficiency for operation, without the effectual motion of Almighty God, the first cause of all things, we can allow neither to men nor angels, unless we intend to make them gods; and a power of doing good, equal unto that they have of doing evil, we must not grant to man by nature, unless we will deny the fall of Adam, and fancy ourselves still in paradise

John Owen, The Works of John Owen, ed. William H. Goold, vol. 10 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, n.d.), 118–119.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

Inquiring after the Weeds (Owen)

The Works of John Owen (24 vols.) I appreciate this section in John Owen’s “Of The Mortification of Sin in Believers”:

There are two things that are suited to humble the souls of men, and they are, first, a due consideration of God, and then of themselves; of God, in his greatness, glory, holiness, power, majesty, and authority; of ourselves, in our mean, abject, and sinful condition. Now, of all things in our condition, there is nothing so suited unto this end and purpose as that which lies before us; namely, the vile remainders of enmity against God which are yet in our hearts and natures.

And it is no small evidence of a gracious soul when it is willing to search itself in this matter, and to be helped therein from a word of truth; when it is willing that the word should dive into the secret parts of the heart, and rip open whatever of evil and corruption lies therein. The prophet says of Ephraim, Hos. 10:11, “He loved to tread out the corn” he loved to work when he might eat, to have always the corn before him: but God, says he, would “cause him to plough;” a labor no less needful, though at present not so delightful. Most men love to hear of the doctrine of grace, of the pardon of sin, of free love, and suppose they find food therein; however, it is evident that they grow and thrive in the life and notion of them. But to be breaking up the fallow ground of their hearts, to be inquiring after the weeds and briers that grow in them, they delight not so much, though this be no less necessary than the other.

This path is not so beaten as that of grace, nor so trod in, though it be the only way to come to a true knowledge of grace itself. It may be some, who are wise and grown in other truths, may yet be so little skilled in searching their own hearts, that they may be slow in the perception and understanding of these things. But this sloth and neglect is to be shaken off, if we have any regard unto our own souls

 Owen, J. (n.d.). The works of John Owen. (W. H. Goold, Ed.) (Vol. 6, pp. 200–201). Edinburgh: T&T Clark.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015