John Owen (1616–1683) has a reputation for being hard on sin — and even harder to read. Nineteenth-century Scottish professor John Duncan is famous for assigning Owen to his students with the warning, “Prepare for the knife!” And theologian A.W. Pink said he found more salt than honey in Owen’s writings.
However, while Owen is most famous for his trilogy on sin and temptation, readers who dig deep actually discover much sweetness. After all, he is known as “Prince of the Puritans,” and his writings are well-seasoned with words like pleasant, satisfaction, sweetness, and delight. Owen had a special eye for spiritual joy, and he integrated it into his whole understanding of Christian experience. We have good reason, then, to recognize Owen as a Puritan proponent of what John Piper has called “Christian Hedonism.”
Here are three insights, among others, we can glean from Owen’s treatment of Christian joy.
1. Faith glorifies God and satisfies the soul.
In one of his most overlooked books, The Gospel Grounds and Evidences of the Faith of God’s Elect (now retitled Gospel Evidences of Saving Faith), Owen discusses four evidences of true faith. He doesn’t start where we might think — with a vigorous call to kill sin. He eventually gets there, but, for Owen, the first evidence of saving faith is “choosing, embracing, and approving God’s way of saving sinners through the work of Christ alone” (3).
True believers recognize themselves as sinners and embrace the good news of God’s mercy through Christ as that which most glorifies God, most satisfies our souls, and most honors God’s law. A spiritually enlightened soul is driven by two predominant desires: “First, that God may be glorified; and, second, that the soul itself may be eternally saved. Nor can it give up either of these desires” (21).
Owen acknowledges the seeming tension. How can a sinner desire that God’s holiness and justice be glorified without wishing for his own damnation? The answer is the gospel, which declares that Christ’s work on our behalf is wholly sufficient to secure both God’s glory and our salvation. In fact, the gospel not only reconciles these desires, but also synergizes them, causing them to increase and promote one another (23).
2. Joy in God embraces godly sorrow and transcends other delights.
Talk about being happy in Jesus can sound superficial when not properly nuanced. Owen helps us avoid that superficiality by showing us that spiritual joy is a deep spiritual affection that embraces godly sorrow, on the one hand, and transcends carnal joy, on the other.
No final conflict exists between mourning and spiritual joy in the life of the Christian. “There is a secret joy and refreshment in godly sorrow,” writes Owen, “and a great spiritual satisfaction that is equal to our highest joys” (81). Perhaps that is one reason he doesn’t hesitate to exhort the believer to “load your conscience” with the guilt of sin (Works 6:56), or to implore God to keep believers in a “humble, broken, mournful frame of spirit” (9:333).
Owen is careful to distinguish spiritual joy from carnal joy, which is a “prevalent satisfaction of the minds of men in present enjoyments, whether in relations, or in outward state and condition, or in the succeeding of their affairs” (17:588). In other words, satisfaction in Christ is very different from satisfaction in earthly blessings. “Where there is a predominant satisfaction in these things, there is no spiritual joy,” Owen says. He may sound overly ascetic in this statement, but the key word in Owen’s sentence is predominant. Which joy governs your heart? Joy in God or joy in his gifts? How can you tell? One way is to ask if your joy coexists with spiritual mourning. “Spiritual joys will take off nothing from spiritual mourning,” he writes, “but worldly security and carnal joy and pleasures will devour that frame of spirit” (8:561).
3. Communion with God is the key to joy.
Owen’s skill as soul physician is especially evident in Several Practical Cases of Conscience Resolved. He asks, “How may we make our addresses to Christ for the exercise of grace; that is, that we may have grace strengthened, and be ready for all exercise?” (8:376).
Owen answers with Christ’s instruction on abiding from John 15. “The whole of our fruitfulness depends upon our abiding in Christ.” To abide in Christ is “to be always [near] unto Christ, in the spiritual company of Christ, and in communication with Christ.”
Owen goes on to show that the practical outworking of this involves abiding in Christ with distinct acts of the mind, will, and affections:
Mind: “in contemplation and thoughts of [Christ] night and day” (8:377). This involves the spiritual acts of meditation and contemplation on Christ as revealed in the gospel.
Will: “in great diligence and carefulness about that obedience which Christ doth require, in all the instances of it” (8:378).
Affections: “through love and delight in all these things” (8:378).
Owen contends that this is the only way for our actions to actually benefit our souls. “So labour, brethren, and pray greatly for it, that you may abide with Christ with delight, that you may find a sweetness and refreshment in it, and that every season of retiring unto Christ may bring a kind of spiritual joy and gladness to your hearts” (8:378).
Few authors have done more to direct and strengthen me in this labor to “abide with Christ with delight.” If you long to climb to new heights of spiritual joy in God-glorifying, Christ-exalting communion with God, Owen will prove a sure-footed guide.