Tag Archives: John Owen

Quotable Church History: “Be killing sin…”

This is the seventh in a series on famous quotes from church history. We’re looking at who said these famous words, in what context, and whether it’s biblical.

Today’s quote comes from the post-Reformation period.  It’s probably the most well-known quote by any Puritan:  “Be killing sin, or sin will be killing you.”  It comes from John Owen (1616-1683).

Himself born into a Puritan family, God raised up Owen to become one of Puritanism’s greatest theologians.  As a young man he already showed signs of precociousness — he was known to study for 18+ hours each day.  By the age of 19 he had earned a Master of Arts degree from Oxford.  He served later as a pastor, but eventually returned to Oxford to teach theology.  Owen was a prolific writer — the Banner of Truth reprint of his collected writings runs to 16 volumes of about 9,000 pages.  In Owen’s case, prolific equals profound but not always plain.  Owen often expects a lot from his readers.  Some modern editions of his books have rendered him more readable, but those wanting to begin digging into the Puritans ought to look elsewhere (I recommend Thomas Watson).

In 1656 Owen published an exposition of Romans 8 entitled Of the Mortification of SinYou can find this book available for free online.  In this book Owen shows at length how Christians are to wage war on sin and do violence to it in their hearts and lives.  You could think of it as an extended explanation of how to apply Heidelberg Catechism QA 89.  In older editions of the HC this question reads:  “What is the mortification of the old man?”  Answer:  “It is a sincere sorrow of heart that we have provoked God by our sins, and more and more to hate and flee from them.”  “Mortification” is an antiquated word for killing.  So, at a certain point in his book, Owen says it:  “Be killing sin, or sin will be killing you.”

This is speaking about the life of a redeemed Christian.  A Christian who has been saved by God’s free gift of grace in Jesus Christ needs to set himself or herself to the task of sanctification — the process of growing in holiness.  While we are passive in things like our election, regeneration, and justification, we are empowered by the Holy Spirit to be active in our sanctification.  God calls us to be active in this.  Thus Owen gives Christians this imperative or command:  be killing sin.  It is something to which we need to apply ourselves.  We must strangle sin in our lives.  If we are not constantly murdering our wickedness, it will rise up and murder us.  It will destroy our lives.  Why?  Because it is the very nature of sin to kill and destroy.

By now you might recognize this quote as self-evidently biblical.  However, if it isn’t, consider one of the verses Owen was expositing.  Romans 8:13 says it most clearly:  “For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.”  Putting to death the deeds of the body equals “be killing sin.”  Not killing sin and having sin kill you equals “if you live according to the flesh you will die.”  Colossians 3:5 also urges Christians to plunge the knife into sin, “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry.”  We’re to do that, the Holy Spirit goes on to say, because on account of these the wrath of God is coming.  If you don’t slay sin, your sins will slay you in the end.

Often when I’m tempted to sin I recall these pithy words of John Owen, based on God’s Word.  They’ve often been a help in seeing sin for what it is.  Sin presents itself to us in deceitful ways.  It promises what it will never deliver.  It promises to enrich your life, but this is a deadly lie.  Faced with sin, tell yourself the truth:  “Be killing sin or sin will be killing you.”  That’s reality and we ignore it to our detriment.

Now if you want to learn how to murder your wickedness, you could turn to Owen.  Sadly, as I mentioned, Owen is not going to be digestible spiritual food for everyone today.  Let me then recommend a readable summary of Owen’s teaching on this.  You’ll find it in section three of Visual Theology by Tim Challies and Josh Byers.  The clear prose of Challies is complemented by the effective infographics of Josh Byers.  It’s hard to beat on this topic.

 

 


Ten Things I Learned from Reformed Scholasticism (2)

Gisbertus_Voetius

In the first part (see here), I began to make the case that Reformed scholasticism should not be dismissed out of hand.  In recent years, there has been a renewed appreciation for this method and the theology which it produced.  Last time, I mentioned five things where I’ve personally appreciated Reformed scholasticism:

  1. The Best Theology Begins with Sound Exegesis
  2. History Matters
  3. System Matters
  4. Asking Good Questions
  5. Using Precise Definitions

Today I’ll conclude with the last five things:

6. Making Distinctions

Distinguishing between different doctrines and their elements is a key marker of faithful theology.  Scripture teaches us to distinguish.  Moreover, the Christian Church has long recognized that he who would teach well must distinguish well.  Reformed scholasticism excelled at the science of theological distinctions.  Reformed scholastic theologians made good distinctions at the broadest levels.  For example, Ursinus wrote in his commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, “The doctrine of the church consists of two parts: the Law, and the Gospel; in which we have comprehended the sum and substance of the sacred Scriptures.”  But they also made far finer distinctions.  Benedict Pictet, for instance, wrote about the ways in which ought to think of God’s love.  God’s love can be distinguished into the love amongst the persons of the Trinity (ad intra), and then his love towards creatures (ad extra).  With regard to his love for his creatures, that is further distinguished:  “1) God’s universal love for all things, 2) God’s love for all human beings, both elect and reprobate, and 3) God’s special love for his people.” (Mark Jones, Antinomianism, 83).  Backed up by scriptural teaching, such distinctions can be quite useful for clear and unmuddled theology.

7. The Value of Logic and Analytical Rigour

Good theologians use logic to advance the truth claims of God’s Word.  Our Reformed confessions do the same.  However, we find this tool used most effectively by Reformed scholastics.  A classic example is found with John Owen’s argument regarding the intent of Christ’s atonement.  Using a powerful syllogism informed by biblical exegesis, Owen made an airtight case for definite atonement, i.e. the biblical position that Christ died only for the elect.  Closely related to the use of logic is rigorous analysis.  Reformed scholastics understood how to get at every angle of a particular topic.  In his Syntagma, Amandus Polanus illustrated this when he discussed the doctrine of creation.  Using the biblical data, he discussed the efficient, material and formal causes of creation, as well as the purpose and effects of creation.  At the end of the discussion, you get the impression that every conceivable aspect has been covered thoroughly.

8. The Need for Polemical Engagement

As in our day, Reformed scholastics encountered challenges to the faith.  Roman Catholics, Anabaptists, Socinians, Arminians (Remonstrants), and others needed to be addressed.  It was not enough simply to make positive statements of the faith – errors also needed to be soundly addressed.  Therefore, in most scholastic works, you will find polemical engagement to varying degrees.  Many works from this period are exclusively devoted to polemics.  For instance, Samuel Maresius took up his pen against Isaac La Peyrère and his arguments for pre-Adamites.  Francis Turretin’s Institutes of Elenctic Theology was written with the idea that theology is best learned in the context of polemics – “Elenctic” in the title is derived from a Greek word which means “reprove or correct.”  The Reformed scholastics were not afraid to not only defend the faith, but also go on the offensive for it.  Many in our tender age might learn something from them!

9. Room for Theological Diversity (Within Confessional Bounds)

No one should have the impression that Reformed scholasticism was a monolithic movement.  Yes, it may be fairly argued that there were many key doctrines on which there was a broad consensus.  That consensus was defined primarily by the Reformed confessions.  However, within those bounds, one can certainly find a significant amount of diversity.  For example, there is the question of whether every individual believer has a guardian angel.  This question is not addressed in the Three Forms of Unity.  A Reformed scholastic like Gisbertus Voetius followed the lead of John Calvin and others in regarding guardian angels as, at best, uncertain.  However, Voetius also mentioned that other Reformed scholastic theologians such as Zanchius, Alsted, and Chamier affirmed the ancient position on guardian angels.  Can both views co-exist amongst Reformed theologians?  Why not?

10. There is a Time and Place for Scholarship

The best Reformed scholastics understood one of the most important distinctions:  between the pulpit and the lectern, or between the book written for the average church-goer and the book written for theology students or fellow theologians.  Put more technically, they knew the difference between popular and academic.  To be sure, not all Reformed scholastics did understand or employ this distinction, but the best did.  Consider Gisbertus Voetius again.  He was one of the most accomplished of the Reformed scholastics.  His academic writings reflect his great learning, breadth of study, and scholarly abilities.  Yet, this same Voetius wrote a warmly pastoral book entitled (in the English translation) Spiritual Desertion.  Before serving as a theology professor, Voetius had been a pastor and he understood that there was a time and place for the scholastic method.  The pulpit was not that place and neither was a book written in Dutch for ordinary church members.  To communicate effectively at the level of the regular person while at the same time being able to theologize with the best theologians – this is something that most Reformed scholastics strived to attain.  It’s something to aim for today as well.


Read the Puritans, Love the Puritans

Every now and then I still run into prejudice against the Puritans amongst Reformed folk.  I deeply lament this.  Hundreds of years later, there is still much of value that can be gleaned from these Reformed giants of old.

I was introduced to the Puritans while in university.  An online friend from South Africa moved to Edmonton to study.  He had a nearly complete collection of the Puritan Paperbacks published by Banner of Truth.  He got me hooked.  My copy of Thomas Watson’s classic All Things for Good was a gift from this brother — still a treasured gift and one of my favourite books.

We discussed theology and the Puritans endlessly in those days.  We talked about the prejudices that many people have against the Puritans.  He pointed me to two books that dispel the myths surrounding these men.  These books are still worthwhile and I want to recommend them to those readers who are willing to have an open mind.

The first is Leland Ryken’s volume, Worldly Saints: The Puritans As They Really Were.  This book takes a balanced look at Puritanism.  Ryken takes apart the caricatures that have often been painted — for instance, he has an entire chapter on marriage and sex.  Be ready to rethink the label “Puritan” when it comes to those subjects!  The book tackles the Puritan approach to a number of subjects and then concludes with two summary chapters.  One deals with some of the things the Puritans did wrong, the other with what they did right.

The other volume I want to recommend as an introduction to the Puritans is J. I. Packer’s A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life.  This is a more theological book, but with a focus on how theology bears on living as a Christian.  This was one of the strengths of many Puritans.  They understood that doctrine was not a game theologians play, but the foundation and root of a God-pleasing existence.  Packer’s book does touch on many Puritan figures, but he spends the most time with John Owen.  If you need to be convinced to read the Puritans, Packer presents a compelling case.

I love the Puritans and have for many years.  I get a lot of spiritual nourishment from reading their works.  That said, not all Puritans are equal.  Not all Puritan works are of equal value.  Some, like Thomas Watson, were dynamic preachers and communicators.  Because of his use of vivid word pictures, his writing has a timeless quality.  Others were excessively verbose, at times convoluted, and sometimes brought methods that belonged in the academy into the pulpit.  However, they were Reformed, many effectively combined emphases on head and heart, they all understood the gospel, and they believed that an understanding of the amazing grace of God in Christ would compel one to strive for holiness.   One can find valid reasons to criticize some of the Puritans in certain times for this or that.  However, the same can be said for Reformed figures of any era or background.  No matter who we’re reading, we must always chew the meat and spit out the gristle and fat.  If you begin with Ryken and Packer, you’ll quickly figure out where to find some of the best cuts.