John Owen on Conversion
It is something of a commonplace in these days to read about the ‘psychology of conversion’ or the ‘anatomy of a soul’, and often enough what masquerades under such titles is but an onslaught on faith and a denigration of both conversion and the notion of the soul. It is in stark contrast to this approach that John Owen provides us with his anatomy and analysis of conversion throughout the many volumes of his writings, but pre-eminently in a chapter entitled ‘The manner of conversion explained in the instance of Augustine’.1 In it he uses the self-analysis of Augustine in his Confessions as an illustrator and illuminator of the Scriptural teaching, and the Scriptural teaching as a flood of light upon the depth and intensity of that great saint’s experience of God.
We need not concern ourselves with the details of Augustine’s life, except incidentally — but the teaching with which we are provided by Owen is of singular benefit for our appreciation of what is involved in becoming a Christian. Perhaps too, when the teaching of the 17th-century Puritans is decried as scholastic and a tragic admixture of Calvin and Aristotle, and when we discover a continuing trend to return to the early Fathers, it is salutary to remember that Owen himself did this, and found a hearty concurrence between his own view of Scripture teaching and that of so eminent a Father of the Church as St Augustine.
It is axiomatic in Reformed writings that a true view of regeneration, conversion, and the progress of holiness is intimately related to a true view of sin and inherent corruption. So Owen is at pains to lay before his readers ‘the effects of that depravation’2 which is discovered in the heart of the unconverted man. These effects are five-fold:–
1. Corruption is at work in the human soul from the earliest years of our lives; it is ‘original’ and its depravity is universally evident, preventing all the ‘actings’ of God’s grace. Psalm 58:3 provides a striking proof and illustration of this — where infants are described as ‘speaking lies’ from their birth, and going astray ‘from the womb.’ While few today would follow Owen so confidently when he affirms the high infant mortality rate as an evidence of such an imputation and outworking of original sin, many still find the most striking illustration of Romans 5:14 — death reigning over those whose transgression was not like that of Adam — in the painful fact of the death of little ones.
2. As the capacity of a person develops, so his native corruption is enabled to exert its influence with greater frequency and potency. Again Owen is able to draw on the O.T. Scriptures, this time Ecclesiastes 11:10 — ‘childhood and youth are vanity.’ Augustine, like ourselves, was well able to recall those ‘vagaries’ of his childhood. Regarded by the carnal mind as mere trifles, part of the process of evolution and maturation, these have never been so regarded by the Christian mind. For it is these ‘childish innocencies’ which when ‘carried over unto riper age and greater occasions bring forth those greater sins which the lives of men are filled withal in the world.’ `By this means is the heart prepared for a further obduration [hardening] in sin.’3
3. Following these ‘irregularities’ come immoralities. Such are the actual sins of lying and deceitfulness, exercised even against parents. As it was in the Garden of Eden, it ever has been, so that ‘They rob their father and mother and say, It is no transgression’ (Prov 28:24). How many blush to remember the sins that once held them captive! How many have thus sinned and hardened their hearts against the voice of common conscience and the law of God, saying ‘It is no transgression?’
4. As men further develop, sin gains a greater foothold in their lives both subjectively and objectively — subjectively they have a greater capacity for sin, as their experience develops and their physical and intellectual capacities mature; objectively they have a greater opportunity for sin, as the opportunities to do so without parental restraint and admonition increase. At this juncture in experience, a consciousness of the sinfulness of sin may lead men to repentance, but unless attended with the work of the Holy Spirit, it may rather evoke in them a desire to break off all restraint and to give themselves over to a path, planned and experienced, of waywardness and sin. ‘Because sentence against an evil work is not executed speedily, therefore the heart of the sons of men is fully set in them to do evil’ (Eccles. 8:11).
5. ‘A course in, and custom of sinning with many ensues hereon.’ Referring to Paul’s devastating description of the effects of sin in Ephesians 4:18-19, Owen comments –‘Custom of sinning takes away the sense of it; the course of the world takes away the shame of it; and love to it makes men greedy in the pursuit of it.’4 There may be great differences in the way this is displayed outwardly in men’s lives. Owen is in no doubt that any restraint that is exercised is only of the restraining goodness of Almighty God.
So much then for the course of sin in the human heart — its inheritance, its development, and its maturation. But how does the Spirit of God work contrary to this chosen path in a man’s heart, to bring him to an authentic experience of conversion? Owen draws a sure map for us to consider and follow.
Firstly, Owen brings forward the consideration that many have the remnants of a ministry of grace in their memories — for example, from the days of their minority, under godly parental care. There may remain ‘certain sparks of celestial fire’5 which may be fanned into life. Owen does not, of course, mean this in any heterodox sense. He stands in the tradition of Calvin, and merely means that there is an innate knowledge of God in men that may have been heightened by the teaching and example of early life. But generally these impressions wear off. Only in some they remain, and are the beginnings of a saving work of grace.
Secondly, God works in men to draw attention to himself — to make them aware of their separation from him, and their ‘obnoxiousness unto his righteousness on the account of sin.’ He does this by a great variety of circumstances: —
(a) By sudden judgments, such as overtook Jonah and Pharaoh.
(b) By personal afflictions. ‘I find by long observation’, he writes in another connection, ‘that common light, in conjunction with afflictions, do begin the conversion of many, without this or that special word.’6
(c) By remarkable deliverances, such as that of Naaman.
(d) By the witness of other Christians’ lives.
(e) Pre-eminently by the ministry of God’s Word, either read or preached. It is, according to Paul, by the law that the knowledge of sin comes.
But again, this work may be hindered in a man, and he may not give room for it to come towards fruition. There are many reasons for this — such as the natural darkness of man’s mind; a facile presumption that the present condition of an awakened conscience is all that God requires; the fear of the mocking and teasing of ungodly acquaintances; a failure to improve the work that God has already graciously performed within the heart; the wiles of the devil, or, as Owen picturesquely describes them, his ‘engines’ of war; or simply -‘mere love of lusts and pleasures, or the unconquered adherence of a corrupted heart unto sensual and sinful objects that offer present satisfaction unto its carnal desires.7
Many Christians have no need to see these hindering influences transcribed from the experience of an Augustine; an examination of their own biography, written indelibly in the memory, is sufficient illustration of many, or perhaps all, of these influences and experiences which are here described. Clearly another, and more effectual operation of God is required if the work of conversion is to be consummated.
So, thirdly, our attention is drawn to the work of the Holy Spirit in convincing men of sin. Owen discusses, in order, the Nature, Causes, Refusal, and Completion of this work of God the Holy Spirit.
Its Nature is two-fold. It involves ‘a fixing the vain mind of a sinner upon a due consideration of sin’ and also ‘a fixing of a due sense of sin.’ 8 The first has reference to the false vanity of the mind, in that it feels no compunction to consider sin at all, the second has reference to the false security of the mind, in that it cannot grasp the enormity of the blasphemy which sin entails. It is the producing of an awareness of sin and its sinfulness that constitutes the Spirit’s work of conviction.
The cause of this conviction is also two-fold. The efficient cause is, of course, the Spirit of God; the instrumental cause is the Word of God, especially the Law (Rom. 7:7). Speaking elsewhere of the work of the Law, Owen writes: ‘When it hath by its convictions brought the sinner into a condition of a sense of guilt which he cannot avoid — nor will anything tender him relief, which way soever he looks, for he is in a desert — it represents unto him the holiness and severity of God, with his indignation and wrath against sin; which have a resemblance of a consuming fire. This fills his heart with dread and terror, and makes him see his miserable undone condition.’9
This effectual working of the Word (1 Thess. 2:13) is what the Holy Spirit uses to bring about conviction, and later, as we shall see, actual conversion.
But once again, Owen is at pains to point out that this work may also be stubbornly resisted — by the power of the lusts of the flesh, and by the power of the promptings of friends in social fellowship. There can be no rest from conversion work until it has been consummated.
That consummation is often preceded by a violent conflict between the corruptions of the soul and the convictions of the mind — as it was in the case of the apostle (Rom 7:7-9). The initial reaction may be to promise and endeavour to live differently. But this is a mistake — it may silence the voice of the law temporarily, but frequently these ungrounded resolves will last only until the next onslaught of temptation. This is in a sense to confuse the work of mortification (the proper work of the believer) with that of conversion (the proper concern of the unbeliever). Thus in his treatise on the Mortification of Sin, Owen reminds us –‘When the Jews upon the conviction of their sin, were cut to the heart, Acts 2:37, and cried out “What shall we do?” what doth Peter direct them to do? Does he bid them go and mortify their pride, wrath, malice, cruelty and the like? No; he knew that was not their present work, but he calls them to conversion and faith in Christ in general.’10
Then the individual upon whom the Word has wrought with such convicting power may be torn between ‘the power of corruption and the terror of conviction’11 — former convictions are heightened, and the principle of grace, warring with the flesh begins to overthrow the dominion of sin. So Augustine was able to speak of ‘the new will which began to be in me.’12 To such God may well speak a word to silence the tumult of the soul — thus Augustine found as he picked up Romans, to read ‘Put on the Lord Jesus Christ. . .’ (Rom. 13:13-14). So many others have found relief just at this point. Others may have to walk a little farther — increasing in a sense of dread of their eternal condition. For conviction of sin brings a sense of shame on the one hand, and fear of eternal wrath on the other — giving rise to ‘perplexing unsatisfactory enquiries after means and ways for deliverance out of this present distress and from future misery.’13 At every stage of the development of this internal work, there is a time when a man may draw back, and walk no more with the companionship and guidance of the Spirit and Word of God!
It was at this point that the generality of Puritan writers, and Owen with them, believed that a man was brought into the ‘spirit of bondage’14 described in Romans 8:15 — a stage of experience ministering to the development of the experience of the Spirit of God as the One who brings liberty. But Owen himself is quick to point out that in all these experiences there is no question of a standard or measure to be attained. They are, he says ‘no part of what is required of us, but of what is inflicted on us.’15 Some may ‘walk or wander long in darkness; in the souls of others Christ is formed in the first gracious visitation.’16 It is surely helpful to have this reminder and directive about the sovereignty of the Spirit and the diversity of his operations, all within the framework of what God has revealed he plans to accomplish. Owen suggests that there are, however, two things in general which precede the consummation of conversion work: — the first is a conviction of sin that makes the individual conscious that he is under the curse of the law; the second is a realisation that there is no other way of salvation for him than that offered in the Gospel of Christ.
How then is such an enquirer to be directed? His responsibility is to seek for Christ, not accepting the remedies for his awakened conscience that may be first proffered him — such as human superstitions, or even the dictates of the Law itself. He is to be reminded to beware of ‘entangling temptations’, such as believing he does not feel sufficient sorrow for sin, or, that those who direct him are not aware that he is a sinner beyond redemption; there is none in such a condition so long as Christ is able to save the ‘chief of sinners.’
This brings us to Owen’s final point; what is involved in the generating and production of faith in a man who has thus been brought to the point of conversion? This is a question to which he has turned his attention elsewhere, and in this context he is able to answer it with some brevity: — faith is wrought by the Spirit in response to the preaching of the Gospel. That Gospel consists largely, in the preaching of it, of the declaration of Christ crucified and exalted as the only Saviour. Through him sinners thus convicted of sin may be pardoned. In order for the message of pardon to prevail in their hearts, it will be attended with arguments, invitations, encouragements, exhortations and promises. When a true response is made, it is always accompanied by ‘a universal engagement of heart unto all holy obedience to God in Christ’ with ‘a relinquishment of all known sin.’17
It is such as respond gladly with a true heart who are then admitted to the mysteries of the Church, because they have, indeed, been converted.
This article was first published in the November 1974 edition of the Banner of Truth magazine.
- Volume 3, p. 337 (Gould edition)
- Volume 3, p. 338
- Volume 3, p. 340
- Volume 3, p. 343
- Volume 3, p. 345
- Volume 9, p. 460
- Volume 3, p. 348
- Volume 3, p. 150
- Volume 24, p. 315, Commentary on Hebrews 12:18-19
- Volume 6, p. 35
- Volume 3, p. 355
- Augustine, Confessions 8.5, quoted in Volume 3, p. 356
- Volume 3, p. 360
- See E. F. Kevan, The Grace of Law, pp. 88-89 for a discussion of this point.
- Volume 3, p. 360
- Volume 3, p. 361
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