Eternal Glory in the Theology of John Owen
The following is excerpted from Sinclair B. Ferguson’s volume John Owen on the Christian Life (pages 275–279). The original text is heavily footnoted with reference to sources in Owen’s Works.
The covenant into which we enter through faith in Christ is an everlasting covenant, in that it is rooted in the eternal purposes of God the Father, and extends to the eternal enjoyment of the believer. Our appreciation of Owen’s concept of the Christian life would be diminished without some kind of consideration of his view of the Christian’s destiny, and the effect of this on the manner in which he lives and dies in the faith of Christ.
Owen wrote comparatively little on the future prospects of the church in this world. He shared with other Puritan writers the hope that the Jews would be converted, and that this, according to the teaching of Paul in Romans would lead to a world-wide period of expansion and blessing.’ But he emphatically rejected any chiliastic interpretation of the kingdom of God, regarding all such views as little more than a ‘dream’. Owen attributed the rise of this view in the Fifth Monarchy men to the influence of Joseph Mede, and set his face against it. The Christian’s best hope, therefore, must lie beyond this world in the next, when he will be with Christ in glory.
In this life, the believer knows Christ as in a mirror, seeing only his likeness and image, as he appears, like the Shepherd-Lover of Canticles, through the lattices of the ordinances of the gospel. But in glory the barriers of sin and the limitations of earthly experience will be broken down, and believers will be changed into his likeness. This final transformation and last crisis which brings the Christian from sanctification to glorification, involves a number of aspects which Owen outlines.
Firstly, the mind will be freed from all its natural darkness, through sin, and its incapacity through present creaturehood characterized by fleshly existence.
Secondly, a new light, the light of glory will be implanted in him. What Paul calls the change ‘from one degree of glory to another’ is of special interest here, and Owen says, ‘as the light of grace doth not destroy or abolish the light of nature, but rectify and improve it, so the light of glory shall not abolish or destroy the light of faith and grace, but, by incorporating with it, render it absolutely perfect.’ Just as we cannot appreciate the light of grace by the light of nature, we do not yet appreciate the light of glory by the present light of grace; we only believe that it will form the soul into the image of Christ, so that as ‘Grace renews nature; glory perfects grace’.
Thirdly, the body of the believer will also be glorified through union with Christ in the body of his glory. The sum of this is that ‘Heaven doth more excel the Gospel state than that state doth the Law.’ Owen is not describing the manner or means of dwelling in Christ, but only of the measure of enjoyment and experience of him. His glory knows three degrees of manifestation; the shadow, known through the law; the perfect image, known in the gospel; and the substance itself, known only in the glory. It follows, according to Owen, that whatever we see here of Christ is to make us long to see him more clearly and fully in the future. The Christian life, then, is simply the planting of the seed and the growth of the stock and bud. The flowering takes place in the future.
It is a characteristic of Puritan teaching that this most heavenly doctrine is regarded as among the most practical in its implications and application. This is also the New Testament teaching. Owen believed that the steady contemplation of Christ’s glory, though an exercise of considerable spiritual difficulty, brings a lively experience of grace and of the manifestation of Christ to the believer. But the experience that awaits him is different again. For his faculties will then be made perfect, freed from the ‘clogs of the flesh’ and its restraint upon spiritual powers. Because of the union of the soul with the body of sinful flesh it is arduous for us now to contemplate Christ’s present glory. But in glory Christ will be seen, not by the insight of faith, but with the immediacy of sight, and he will no more withdraw from the church. We will see him with vision that is no longer liable to defects or the assaults of external temptations. While we are here, we can but gather ‘parcels’ of Christ; there we will see him at once, and for ever. The transformation will no longer be the gradual influence of faith, but the radical and immediate transformation of heaven, through the beatific vision which brings perfect rest. Yet, even so, there will be a continual operation on and communication to the glorified, of the love of Christ. Everything will still depend on his mediation: ‘We shall no more be self-subsistent in glory than we are in nature or grace.’
It is of great interest that Owen turned to this theme during the last days of his life. Indeed his meditations on the Christian’s share in the glory of Christ really represent his ministry to his own congregation.’ It is natural therefore that they should contain a special strain of application to the attitude of the child of God to death. For contemplation of the glory of Christ ‘will carry us cheerfully, comfortably, and victoriously through life and death, and all that we have to conflict withal in either of them.’ At such a time God acts in sovereign wisdom with his children, and disposes their circumstances as he thinks fit. But certain duties are called for in every believer, and all believers will share in a common pool of experiences.
Firstly, special faith requires exercise, for committing the soul to God. The Christian cannot go to the world beyond in comfort without recognizing what awaits him. So it was with Christ, and with the first martyr, Stephen. This is the ‘last victorious act of faith, wherein its conquest over its last enemy death itself doth consist.’ There is no greater sign of faith than this affirmation of the future presence of God. There is no greater encouragement to it than the knowledge that it is Christ himself who receives us.
Secondly, the Christian must be willing and ready to part with the flesh. This requires an appreciation of the purposes of God, for the fact is that the body-soul union is unparalleled. Neither angels nor beasts know it. Only man can experience this great convulsion of being. And he, by nature, has a ‘fixed aversion from a dissolution’. It can be regarded with equanimity only through a sure knowledge of entrance into Christ’s presence, and the promise of a future union in the resurrection. He, therefore, that would die comfortably, must be able to say with himself and to himself, ‘Die, then, thou frail and sinful flesh: “dust thou art, and unto dust thou shalt return.” I yield thee up unto the righteous doom of the Holy One. Yet therein also I give thee into the hand of the great Refiner, who will hide thee in thy grave, and by thy consumption purify thee from all thy corruption and disposition to evil.’
Thirdly the believer needs to learn a readiness to comply with the times and seasons that God has ordained for his departure.
Fourthly, since the ways and means by which death approaches bring special trials, long illnesses, severe treatment, even persecution, the child of God must learn to resign himself to the gracious will of God and to the utter holiness of his decree, with its ultimate purpose that Christ should be the first-born of the many brethren who are predestined to be conformed to his image. And thus, if our future blessedness shall consist in being where he is, and beholding of his glory, what better preparation can there be for it than in a constant previous contemplation of that glory in the revelation that is made in the Gospel, unto this very end, that by a view of it we may be gradually transformed into the same glory?
Here our study of Owen’s teaching on the Christian life comes appropriately to an end. But Owen himself would have wished that our study of the glory of Christ himself should continue, until (in his own words) we see that glory ‘in another manner than we have ever done’ or were ‘capable of doing in this world.’ This, as we have seen, was the aim of all of his teaching. Like his life, it is a ‘burning and a shining light’ and, as David Clarkson said, ‘we may rejoice in it still.’
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