Owen on the Glory of Christ

Introduction

John Owen (1616- 1683) is well-regarded by many as “the theologian of the Puritan movement.”[1] Born in Stadham in 1616, Owen lived during a turbulent time in British society. He was a chaplain in the Parliamentary army during the English Civil War, he was a pastor in Coggeshall suffering much for the cause of Christ and he was Vice-chancellor of Oxford University. An evaluation of his many writings prove that Owen stands among such giants of the faith as Augustine, Calvin and Edwards.
It was during the last days of his life that he wrote Meditations and Discourses on the Glory of Christ. The pastoral tone of this book reveals a man who desires to leave his readers with final words of encouragement before his death. In sections of application, personal reflections by Owen are often provided with great effect. For instance, speaking on the ambivalence of Christians to the Gospel, Owen said: “of all the evils which I have seen in the days of my pilgrimage, now drawing to their close, there is none so grievous as the public contempt of the principal mysteries of the Gospel among them that are called Christians.”
[2] When reading these meditations, one is truly sitting at the feet of a sage who is setting forth some of the deepest ponderings of his soul.
The following will be a brief summary and evaluation of chapters four through nine of The Glory of Christ: His Office and Grace. Surely much can and should be said of this tremendous work. The space allotted for this essay will not allow it to plumb the depths of Owen’s mind and the infinitude of his subject.

Summary

Chapter Four
Because of sin, there exists an insurmountable distance between man and God; therefore there is a great necessity for a mediator between the two. In the beginning of the fourth chapter, Owen sets forth the principle of mediatorship arguing that it must be fulfilled in one who is man, yet more than just man. Therefore, the incarnate Son, in both of his natures, is the only possible candidate for mediator. “By the assumption of our nature into union with himself, in his own divine person he became every way fit for the discharge of this office, and undertakes it accordingly.”[3]
Owen then proceeds to explain the nature of Christ’s condescension in the incarnation. Christ’s assumption of human nature was of his own free grace, “It belonged not to him by any necessity of nature or condition, he stood not in need of it.”[4] The condescension, or “emptying himself,” was in no way an abdication of his deity. Owen rightly understands that the kenosis did not involve Christ laying aside his divine nature. “It is not said that he ceased to be in the form of God” because “[h]e who is God, can no more be not God, than he who is not God can be God.”[5]
In explaining, to the degree that his limitations would allow, the incarnation, Owen provides other arguments about what Christ’s assumption of human nature did not include. For instance, the divine word did not change substantially into human flesh; the two natures did not become one nature; Jesus was not merely a man; Jesus was truly a man; and human nature in general did not become divine.
Owen sets forth Christ as truly God and truly man. He proves a Nicene and Chalcedonian understanding of the relationship between the natures of Christ. Yet, he does not intimate that he has the incarnation figured out. Rightfully, Owen recognises the limitations of his mind and reason. “No reason can comprehend…that one and the same person should be both God and Man.”
[6] Near the end of the chapter he explains the great mystery that the incarnation is. It is “above the reason” and not even the tongues of angels can properly explain it.[7] “Our minds fail, our hearts tremble, and we can find no rest but in a holy admiration of what we cannot comprehend. Here we are at a loss, and know that we shall be so whilst we are in this world.”[8]
Refuge and hope are the results of thinking on the glory of Christ in the incarnation. Christ, without losing any of his power, became man to rescue lost sinners. When life draws Christians to despair, Owen encourages his readers to think on the incarnation of the Son of God. Christ, “who so infinitely condescended from the prerogative of his glory in his being and self sufficiency, in the susception of our nature for the discharge of the office of a mediator on our behalf, will he not relieve us in all our distresses?”[9]
Contemplation of this great mystery not only frees us from despair, but it will draw us to adore the person of Christ. Such contemplation “will issue…in holy admiration, humble adoration, and joyful thanksgiving.”
[10]

Chapter Five
It is a great delight to read that Christ came to earth as mediator between sinful man and holy God because of love. What an emphasis to identify and illuminate! When considering the great doctrine of election, Owen well recognises that it is rooted deeply in love. Because of the love of the Father the eternal decrees were enacted and the Son was sent.
[11]
What makes this love so remarkable is that it is “altogether undeserved…it is an act of love, and can have no other cause.”
[12] There is nothing intrinsically good about the human condition that God could have looked upon with favour. Therefore, any good that befalls the sinner springs from the unmerited love of God.
Owen explains in this chapter the great extent that Christ went to, exerting himself, to redeem his people out of love. He provides a brief biblical theology of redemption starting with creation, pointing out that man was originally in a state of love with God. After the fall, man fell “into a state of enmity with God,” yet remained “recoverable.” In pity and compassion Christ looked upon sinners, which was his “first act of love.” He delighted to come to earth to redeem his people and mediate on their behalf. And this because of “the infinite love and goodness of his own nature.”
[13]
Although Christ faced many difficulties in the course of redemption, he accomplished it undeterred, because of love. He redeemed his people in his body, as a man. And yet, as a man, he also loved with his whole person, including his divinity. Citing Hebrews 2:14, 17, Owen argues that it was in both natures, combined without mixture, in one person, that Christ loves his elect. All of the acts involved in redemption, “are they all acts of one and the same person…it is still the love of one and the self same person, Christ Jesus.”[14]
Owen, ever the practitioner of theology, excites his reader to taste of Christ’s love. He exhorts the Christian to “[l]abour that your minds may continually be fitted and prepared for such heavenly contemplations.”[15] Christians must “bathe the soul in the fountain” of these spiritual principles of Christ and his condescension.[16] To think upon such glories, one must not be contented with “general notions concerning the love of Christ.” Rather, Christians must be specific focusing on God’s love in Christ; the act of love flowing from his two natures; the judgment we deserve apart from grace; and the final result of love, namely the privilege that “the soul may walk in the paradise of God.”[17]
Owen finishes the chapter with encouragement to steadfast faith. “Be not contented to have right notions of the love of Christ in your minds, unless you can attain a gracious taste of it in your hearts.”[18]

Chapter Six
Although the term does not appear, what Owen is dealing with in the sixth chapter is what theologians have referred to as the so-called “covenant of redemption.” This covenant occurred before the founding of the world where the Father asked the Son to redeem the elect, and whereby the Son willingly offered himself to do so. This is, as the chapter heading indicates, “the discharge of his mediatory office.”
[19]
This is a marvellously speculative chapter that sees Owen drawing logical conclusions, based upon Scripture, that demonstrate what true theologizing entails. Especially when he notes that Christ was “every way above the law itself, and all its force,” yet he submitted himself to “universal obedience” for the sake of redemption. Christ was in no way compelled to do this, other than by his love, and this he did for his people.[20] This is also an excellent exposition of the doctrine of substitutionary atonement, “that [Christ’s] obedience should stand in the stead of the perfect obedience of the church as to justification.”[21]
John Owen was no stranger to suffering, having lost the majority of his children in their youth. There is much to be said for his exposition of Christ’s suffering that brought glory. Yet even with his great abilities to think logically and biblically, of the sufferings of Christ he could say, “in our thoughts about them our minds quickly recoil in a sense of their insufficiency to conceive aright of them.”
[22] The depths of suffering that Christ experienced both as he trod the earth in human flesh, and as he suffered on the cross, is too much “to fathom the depths of it.”[23] Owen offers many ways that “we might look on him,” but ultimately, he closes this section with a prayer that expresses the astonishment of his soul that God would suffer and die for his people.
He concludes the chapter with an hypothetical conversation that Christ might have with a child of Adam, again persuading his readers to think on Christ’s substitutionary work as a means of spiritual encouragement. For there is much glory in these things.

Chapter Seven
In the seventh chapter, Owen refers to Old Testament prophecy showing the suffering and glory of Christ. In fact, Owen places all of the prophecies concerning Christ in the Old Testament under two heads: “his sufferings” and “the glory that ensued upon that.”[24] And he lists these two headings in the way by which they were expressed in the life of Christ, namely that suffering occurred first, and glory resulted: “In him sufferings went before glory.”[25]
The emphasis upon suffering in Christ’s ministry was so that the disciples might see it, if only behind a veil. To give them some measure of his glory, Christ wanted them to see his suffering.
Owen, using an example from nature, illustrates the veil of Christ’s glory in his flesh with the example of a lunar eclipse. For a time, when the moon is situated between the earth and the sun, there is darkness. The sun “appears as a dark, useless meteor.” Yet, behind that veil of the moon, there is a brilliance of light that rules the day. “So was it with the divine nature of Christ…[h]e veiled the glory of it by the interposition of the flesh.” But this was only a “temporary eclipse” and now he “shines forth in…infinite lustre and beauty.”
[26] The disciples, who had only just previous saw Christ in his lowly estate, beheld him as the resurrected and ascended Lord. Declaring this majesty, Owen commented, “it could not but fill their souls with transcendent joy and admiration.”[27] O, to one day see this myself!
Without wanting his readers to misunderstand the nature of Christ’s exaltation, Owen is quick to make clear that it is in his human nature, as well as divine, that he is glorified. He did not forsake the flesh and blood that he assumed, for this is, as Owen says, a “Socinian fiction.”
[28] Rather, “he is still in the same human nature in which he was on the earth, that he has the same rational soul and the same body, is a fundamental article of the Christian faith.”[29]
Owen is also quick to point out that Christ’s human nature did not, in some way, become deified, or made a god. When he re-entered heaven with his human nature, “he did not coalesce into one nature with the divine by a composition of them.” His body was glorified just as one day the bodies of those in union with him will be. “For the substance of this glory of the human nature of Christ, believers shall be made partakers of it.”[30]
Christ is glorified above all of the creation of God, and in this is his glory made manifest. Yet the wonders of this reality can not be realised by the human mind unless it is done so by faith. More specifically, it is “in the light of faith fixing itself on divine revelation.”[31] “[T]he steady exercise of faith on the revelation and description made of this glory of Christ in the Scripture, is the ground, rule, and measure, of all divine meditations upon that.”[32]
In the section of application near the end of the chapter, Owen asks his readers if they have beheld this glory. With emphatic pressing he says,

On this our duty it is to call ourselves to an account as to our endeavour after a gracious view of this glory of Christ: When did we steadily behold it? When had we such a view of it as where our souls have been satisfied and refreshed? It is declared and represented to us as one of the chief props of our faith, as a help of our joy, as an object of our hope, as a ground of our consolation, as our greatest encouragement to obedience and suffering.[33]

If Christians exercise themselves “in meditation on this glory of Christ” they will be filled with joy. There is great cause for rejoicing in Christ’s “present state and glory.” While the peoples of the earth rage, Christians are not to fear because Christ is the “first and the last” the one “who lives, and was dead” and is “alive forevermore” having “the keys of hell and of death” (Revelation 1:17-18).
[34]

Chapter Eight
The eighth chapter is concerned with offering a biblical theology of representations of Christ in the Old Testament. Owen shows how the Law and Prophets all point to Christ and speak clearly of him. In particular, Christ was declared in the “institution of the beautiful worship of the law,” namely the sacrificial system, the temple and the tabernacle.
[35] All that Moses did “was but to give an antecedent testimony by way of representation, to the things of Christ that were afterward to be revealed.”[36]
Owen also looks to other books in the Old Testament to show that Christ’s condescension and exaltation were anticipated. Looking at Song of Solomon, Owen adheres to the tradition interpretation of it expressing the deep relationship between Christ and his church. While this may be a possibility, it may better be understood as beautiful explanation of the love between a husband and wife.
Theophany is also briefly explained by Owen showing Christ in the Old Testament, as well as prophetic visions like the one experienced by Isaiah in Isaiah 6, where the New Testament interprets this event as the prophetic having seen Christ (John 12:41). Owen interesting argues that Christ was present during the giving of the law at Mount Sinai and refers to Psalm 68:17-18.
[37] This is something that I had not before considered and will have to look into to see if his exegesis here is sound.
“Plan of redemption” language that is common parlance among scholars today can be found in Owen, where he calls it “the line of life…which runs through all the writings of the Old Testament.”
[38]
Owen ends the chapter looking at metaphorical expressions of Christ in Scripture where he is referred to as a rose (savour of love and grace), a lily (gracious beauty), the pearl of price (his worth), the vine (his fruitfulness), the lion (his power) and the Lamb (his meekness).[39]

Chapter Nine
The final chapter in this study, the ninth, is one of great interest to this reader, in that Owen deals with the great subject of union with Christ. As Owen terms it most frequently: “the intimate conjunction” between Christ and the church. Surely this is a chapter, and subject, that could be studied in detail with great profit.
Owen begins with the justness of Christ’s death. It was just because Christ and his elect are of one mystical body, therefore the punishment for sin can truly be said to have fallen on his people in the form of Christ’s body. “[W]hence it is just and equal in the sight of God, according to the rules of his eternal righteousness, that what he did and suffered in the discharge of his office, should be esteemed, reckoned, and imputed to us, as to all the fruits and benefits of it, as if we had done and suffered the same things ourselves.”
[40] And this he did out of “his own mind and will.”[41]
The whole church fell in Adam, as did the rest of the world, and therefore because of God’s justice, punishment needed to be dealt. The cross is deemed just because Christ suffered willingly in the stead of his people and suffered their punishment so that they would not have to.
Owen notes “that this administration of justice is not promiscuous, that any whatever may be punished for the sins of any others.” Only Christ could take and be punished for the churches’ sins. This is so because the church is in union with Christ. Owen explains this union in a threefold manner: it is natural, moral and federal.
It is natural because mankind, of which Jesus partook, is related by blood. In this, Jesus expressed “voluntary solidarity” with those of the human race that he redeemed. It was voluntary because nothing but his own love compelled him to suffer for the church. “By an act of his own will and choice, he did partake of our nature, and that for this very end, that in it he might suffer for us.”
[42]
This union between Christ and the church is moral and provides the foundation of any other union between persons. Christ is the head of the church, which is an example of moral union. So too is the example of husbands and wife, which pictures Christ’s relationship with his church.
The foundation for this “conjunction” is the doctrine of election. Christ is not the head of the unregenerate, but only those who have been implanted into him by faith.
[43] This union, based on election, “is not actually consummate without an actual participation of the Spirit of Christ.”[44]
Finally, this union is federal in that “where one, by the common consent of all that are concerned, undertakes to be a sponsor or surety for others, to do and answer what on their part is required of them for attaining the ends of the covenant.” “Christ undertook to be the surety of the new covenant on behalf of the church (Heb. 7:22).”[45]
The result of Christ’s union with his church is that the mystery of Christ’s sin-bearing is in a better way, although not completely, understood. It also displays the great justice of God, in that he did not leave sin unpunished and also the great mercy of God who sent a Substitute on behalf of his people.[46] This all points to the great glory of Christ who became a substitute for those whom he joined himself to, and should give his people great cause to rejoice in being “in him.”

Evaluation and Reflection

John Owen applies truth to the soul as a physician applies medication to an ailing body. Not only is he an exquisite expositor of Scripture, Owen is also a great adviser in how to practice these truths in a way that glorifies Christ and relieves the downcast Christian. Recently I have been confronted with sin in the lives of three Christian brothers that have to a great degree been used of God to help me evaluate my own sinfulness. In the process of wounding me with the unfortunate situations of my brethren, he has in turn healed me with the Christ-centred words of John Owen.
By drawing my attention to the great act of condescension Christ did in his incarnation, I have been greatly struck of his undying love for me. Owen encourages his readers to think on this great truth when beset by trials, and this is something I have done to the pleasure of my soul. I thank God that Christ stands currently as my mediator and intercedes on my behalf. As my substitutionary sacrifice, Christ is also my High Priest, and both my past sins and my future are wrapped up in the concerns of Christ.
Thoughts on union with Christ always delight my heart because it places Christ so close to me in my thoughts. He is not a distant God who looks down upon his creation (though surely in his divinity he is distinct from us), rather he is so intimately unified with me that I can be no closer than were he physically attached to me. I am “in Christ” and reap the benefits of his satisfaction. It is by virtue of this union that I am justified, as Christ took my sin upon himself as though they were his own, and thereby imputed his righteousness to me as if it were my own! What a glorious transaction!
John Owen was a great gift to the church, and his lasting legacy, seen in works such as this book, are a continuing gift. I thank God for his providence in having me read this at the present, when life is so overwhelming.
[1] Sinclair B. Ferguson, John Owen on the Christian Life (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1987), 19; emphasis Ferguson’s.
[2] John Owen, The Glory of Christ: His Office and Grace (Fearn, Ross-shire: Christian Focus Publications, 2004), 105.
[3] Owen, Glory of Christ, 94.
[4] Owen, Glory of Christ, 94.
[5] Owen, Glory of Christ, 98.
[6] Owen, Glory of Christ, 100.
[7] Owen, Glory of Christ, 103.
[8] Owen, Glory of Christ, 103.
[9] Owen, Glory of Christ, 104.
[10] Owen, Glory of Christ, 106.
[11] Owen, Glory of Christ, 107.
[12] Owen, Glory of Christ, 108.
[13] Owen, Glory of Christ, 109.
[14] Owen, Glory of Christ, 111.
[15] Owen, Glory of Christ, 112.
[16] Owen, Glory of Christ, 113.
[17] Owen, Glory of Christ, 113-114.
[18] Owen, Glory of Christ, 114.
[19] Owen, Glory of Christ, 115.
[20] Owen, Glory of Christ, 116.
[21] Owen, Glory of Christ, 116. There is a brilliant paragraph on page 117 that needs to be shared, although would render this paper too many pages. For the sake of this glorious expression of paradox, footnoting it will suffice: “The glory of this obedience arises principally from the consideration of the person who thus yielded it to God. This was no other but the Son of God made man, God and man in one person. He who was in heaven, above all, Lord of all, at the same time lived in the world in a condition of no reputation, and a course of the strictest obedience to the whole law of God. He to whom prayer was made, prayed himself night and day. He whom all the angels of heaven and all creatures worshipped, was continually conversant in all the duties of the worship of God. He who was over the house, diligently observed the meanest office of the house. He that made all men, in whose hand they are all as clay in the hand of the potter, observed amongst them the strictest rules of justice, in giving to every one his due; and of charity, in giving good things that were not so due. This is that which renders the obedience of Christ in the discharge of his office both mysterious and glorious.”
[22] Owen, Glory of Christ, 118.
[23] Owen, Glory of Christ, 118.
[24] Owen, Glory of Christ, 121.
[25] Owen, Glory of Christ, 122.
[26] Owen, Glory of Christ, 123.
[27] Owen, Glory of Christ, 123.
[28] Owen, Glory of Christ, 124.
[29] Owen, Glory of Christ, 124.
[30] Owen, Glory of Christ, 124.
[31] Owen, Glory of Christ, 126.
[32] Owen, Glory of Christ, 126.
[33] Owen, Glory of Christ, 126.
[34] Owen, Glory of Christ, 128.
[35] Owen, Glory of Christ, 130-131.
[36] Owen, Glory of Christ, 131.
[37] Owen, Glory of Christ, 132.
[38] Owen, Glory of Christ, 134.
[39] Owen, Glory of Christ, 134.
[40] Owen, Glory of Christ, 137.
[41] Owen, Glory of Christ, 137.
[42] Owen, Glory of Christ, 142.
[43] Owen, Glory of Christ, 143.
[44] Owen, Glory of Christ, 143.
[45] Owen, Glory of Christ, 144.
[46] Owen, Glory of Christ, 144-145.

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