The Heart of John Owen’s Hedonism

Why do we at Desiring God put such an emphasis on the affections? The very name Desiring God foregrounds desire. The vision of life that we champion is called Christian Hedonism, which connotes a life devoted to maximizing pleasure.

Yes, pleasure — the kind that lasts forevermore at God’s right hand (Psalm 16:11). Indeed, pleasures that reach their fullness when overflowing in love for people, even if it costs us our lives (2 Corinthians 8:2).

“Soul satisfaction in God is what we emphasize.”

Soul satisfaction in God is what we emphasize. “Whoever believes in me shall never thirst” (John 6:35). That’s not throat thirst, but soul thirst. The heart of our hedonism is summed up in the watchword: “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.” That raises the stakes pretty high — all the way up to God’s glory. I suppose you could say that’s our answer. We emphasize the affections because so much hangs on them.

But let’s keep going. Why else?

Scripture Resounds with Affections

One answer is that we are Bible people. We try to align our minds and hearts with the priorities of Scripture.

What we find there is that we are told not to covet, that is, not to desire things in ways we shouldn’t (Exodus 20:17). We are to be content (Hebrews 13:5); to enjoy freedom from anxiety (Matthew 6:25); not to fear those who kill the body (Luke 12:4); but to be full of hope in God (Psalm 42:5; 1 Peter 1:13) and inexpressible joy (1 Peter 1:8) that overflows with thankfulness (Colossians 3:15) and zeal (Romans 12:11) and brotherly affection (1 Peter 1:22), from hearts that are tender (1 Peter 3:8) and lowly (Philippians 2:3) and contrite (Psalm 51:17), with earnest desire for God’s word (1 Peter 2:2), and sorrowful empathy with (Romans 12:15) and sympathy for (1 Peter 3:8) those who suffer.

In other words, what we find in the Bible is a pervasive summons for our affections to match the reality of God and his salvation.


Another reason we emphasize the affections is that some of the greatest minds in history have done the same. If the only people who emphasized the affections were weak-minded, emotional people, we would probably be hesitant to line up. What we find is just the opposite. I’ll mention three and focus on one.

Augustine is considered by many the most influential theologian in the history of the church. His was an extraordinary mind. His life, as it unfolds in his Confessions, is a drawn-out experience of finally being conquered by sovereign joy.

The pursuit of joy pervades his writings. Enjoying God was his lifelong quest. It was the true meaning of human life for him. So, he prayed, “I began to search for a means of gaining the strength I needed to enjoy you, but I could not find this means until I embraced the mediator between God and men, Jesus Christ.”

Jonathan Edwards

Then, there is Jonathan Edwards. Alistair McGrath calls him “America’s greatest theologian.” It’s no secret that Edwards’s understanding of Trinitarian joy has shaped how we think at Desiring God.

His book, The Religious Affections, argues for this thesis: “True religion, in great part, consists in holy affections.” And we do not hide that our crucial slogan at Desiring God — “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him” — is a rhyming modification of Edwards’s own words, “God is glorified not only by His glory’s being seen, but by its being rejoiced in.”

The “Unrivaled” John Owen

“We find in the Bible a pervasive summons for our affections to match the reality of God and his salvation.”

But sixty years before Jonathan Edwards wrote the Religious Affections, another mind, without the same philosophical subtlety, but with equal or greater grasp of the workings of the human heart, was overflowing with unsurpassed insight — the mind of John Owen. He died in 1683, but even today, 334 years later, J.I. Packer would still say, “For solidity, profundity, massiveness, and majesty in exhibiting from Scripture God’s ways with sinful mankind there is no one to touch him.”

Roger Nicole said Owen was the greatest theologian to write in the English language, “even greater than Jonathan Edwards.” To some, he was “the Calvin of England.” To others, he was “the Atlas and Patriarch of Independency.” And for our purposes here, the assessment of Charles Bridges stands out: “For a detailed and wise treatment of the diversified exercises of the Christian’s heart, he stands probably unrivaled” (The Christian Ministry, 41).

When I need help to bring my mind and heart into a wakened, serious sensitivity to divine reality, I regularly turn to John Owen. Presently, I am reading through his book On the Grace and Duty of Being Spiritually Minded on my iPad. This book is an extended exposition and application of Romans 8:6: “To be spiritually minded is life and peace.” Let me offer you some tastes of the Owen-feast that may help answer the question why we put so much emphasis on the affections.

What Are Spiritual Affections?

First, consider his definition of the “substance of our being spiritually minded.”

Spiritual affections, whereby the soul adheres unto spiritual things, taking in such a savor and relish of them as [that] wherein it finds rest and satisfaction, is the peculiar spring and substance of our being spiritually minded. (emphasis added)

What is the spring and essence of the “spiritual mind” — the mind shaped by the Holy Spirit? Owen’s answer: Having a “spiritual mind” means having “spiritual affections” that embrace God.

Feast Your Soul on Owen’s Banquet

If that is what the “spiritual affections” are, what does Owen say about them to show how important they are?

  • The great contest of heaven and earth is about the affections of the poor worm which we call man. . . . That the holy God should as it were engage in the contest and strive for the affections of man, is an effect of infinite condescension and grace. This he doth expressly: “My son,” saith he, “give me thine heart” (Proverbs 23:26).

  • God will accept of nothing from us without [spiritual affections]; the most costly sacrifice will not be accepted if it be without a heart.

  • All . . . the designs of God’s effectual grace, are suited unto and prepared for this end, namely, to recover the affections of man unto himself.

  • On the other side, all the artifices of the world, all the paint it puts on its face, all the great promises it makes, all the false appearances and attires it clothes itself withal by the help of Satan, have no other end but to draw and keep the affections of men unto itself.

  • If the world be preferred before God [in this contest] for our affections, we shall justly perish with the world unto eternity.

  • In what we do unto or for others, whatsoever is good, valuable, or praiseworthy in it, proceeds from the affection wherewith we do it. To do anything for others without an animating affection, is but a contempt of them; for we judge them really unworthy that we should do anything for them.

  • Whatsoever we do in the service of God, whatever duty we perform on his command, whatever we undergo or suffer for his name’s sake, if it proceed not from the cleaving of our souls unto him by our affections, it is despised by him; he owns us not.

  • Spiritual affections are the seat of all sincerity, which is the jewel of divine and human conversation, the life and soul of everything that is good and praiseworthy. Whatever men pretend, as their affections are, so are they.

  • Hypocrisy is a deceitful interposition of the mind, on various reasons and pretenses, between men’s affections and their profession, whereby a man appears to be what he is not.

  • Affections are in the soul as the helm in the ship; if it be laid hold on by a skillful hand, he turneth the whole vessel which way he pleaseth.

“Spiritual affections are the seat of all sincerity.”

Perhaps that suffices to give you a flavor from Owen and Edwards and Augustine and (their common source) the Bible for why we at Desiring God put so much emphasis on the affections. We don’t believe becoming a Christian is first a human decision, but first a divine miracle. The Christian life is not, most deeply, new ideas and decisions, but new seeing and savoring — new values and desires. We are Desiring God.