Holiness and Morality
In his great work, a Discourse on the Holy Spirit: His Name, Nature, Personality, Operations and Effects ….(in Vol. 3 of the Goold edition) John Owen devotes an entire book (two hundred pages) to the sanctification of the saints. For him sanctification is as much the immediate work of God’s as is regeneration. He cites I Thess .5.23. ‘the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it.’ On the basis of this passage Owen connects evangelical peace and sanctification. So Paul prayed that God would infallibly sanctify the Thessalonians throughout, and that they would be preserved blameless to the coming of Jesus Christ. God is the eternal spring and only fountain of all holiness. (367). God is our sanctifier. He alone is our peace. He cites Rom, 15. 33; 16. 20,’ the God of love and peace’, 2 Cor.13.11, ‘the God of peace.’ And similarly in Phil. 4.9, ‘What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me – practise these things, and the God of peace will be with you’.
So as Paul wrote that ‘And those he predestined, them he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified’ he could well have inserted ‘sanctified’ between justified and glorified’. As in effect he does in ch. 12 and following. (I hope this comment is not misunderstood)
So sanctification, as here described
is the immediate work of God by his Spirit upon our whole nature, proceeding from the peace made for us by Jesus Christ, whereby, being changed into his likeness, we are kept entirely in peace with God, and are preserved unblamable, or in a state of gracious acceptation with him, according to the terms of the covenant, unto the end. (369)
The importance and distinctiveness of sanctification for Owen is that it flows only from the gospel. It is an evangelical change ‘for holiness is nothing but the implanting, writing and realizing of the gospel in our souls’. Hence it is connected also with truth , the truth of the gospel, in the New Testament. As in Ephesians 4.24, ‘the holiness of truth’; Titus. 1.1 ’and their knowledge of the truth, which accords with godliness’; and John 17.17 ‘Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth’. So as he connects sanctification and peace, so he connects sanctification and truth.
But why an individual may be pursuing holiness in the fear of the Lord, it does not follow that to be holy, or to be following holiness, that person needs to be acquainted with the details of sanctification . Just as one doesn’t have believe the doctrine of election in order to be among the elect, neither does a person have to be learned in the doctrine of sanctification in order to be a follower of holiness. Owen makes this point very clear:
More than that, these beginnings are mysterious and secret as Owen says.
The work itself, as hath been before declared at large, is secret and mysterious; and therefore, (as in some) I hope in many, there is the reality and essence of holiness, who yet can find nothing of it in themselves, nor perhaps in anyone else, but only Jesus Christ, who is of quick understanding in the fear of the Lord, and is it may be the same secret manner thrive as to its degrees in them who yet perceive it not. (403)
It might seem that there is a whiff of evangelical antinomianism in Owen’s view. But this is not so.
But our duty and God’s grace are nowhere opposed in the matter of sanctification, the one doth absolutely suppose the other. Neither can we perform our duty herein.without the grace of God; nor doth God give us this grace unto any other bend ut that we may rightly perform our duty. He that shall deny either that God commands us to be holy in a way of duty, or promiseth to work holiness in us in a way of grace, may with as much modesty reject the whole Bible (384)
Regeneration is one event: all who are regenerated are equally so. In the case of sanctification it is rather different. Sanctification has also a definite beginning, regeneration, and in that sense is a definite sanctification as John Murray said. And its fruit, holiness, being acquired and displayed gradually, is different in different saints.
So what does Owen say about morality? Various things. For instance, he recognizes that it is highly valued. ‘It far exceeds in worth, use and satisfaction, all that the honours, powers, profits and pleasures of the world can extend to’. (372) It was praised and encouraged ‘by learned contemplative men among the heathen. They shamed many that are called Christians.
But to suppose that this moral virtue, whatever it be really in its own nature, or however advanced in the imagination of men, is that holiness of truth which believers receive by the Spirit of Christ, is to debase it, to overthrow it, and to drive the souls of men from seeking an interest in it. And hence it is that some, pretending highly a friendship and respect unto it, do yet hate, and reproach what is really so, pleasing themselves with the empty name and withered carcass of virtue, every way inferior as interpreted in their practice, to the righteousness of heathens. (372)
Moral virtue and law-keeping are altogether different from gospel holiness. And defenders of moral virtue are often to be found as enemies of true godliness. For one thing, holiness is incomprehensible to the moralist. The wisdom in true sanctification, its springs and growth in the believer…. Its ‘ways, residences and paths, are so hidden from the natural reason and understandings of men’ (372) that misunderstand and prejudice are inevitable. The natural man does not understand the things of the Spirit of God.
Regeneration is one event: all who are regenerated are equally so. In the case of sanctification it is rather different. Sanctification has also a definite beginning, regeneration, and in that sense sanctification is ‘definite’ as John Murray said. But its fruit, holiness, being acquired and displayed gradually, is different in different saints.
No man, I say, by his mere sight and conduct, can know and understand aright the true nature of evangelical holiness; and it is, therefore, no wonder if the doctrine of it be despised by many as an enthusiastical fancy.(372)
Hence it often falls out…that those who are most zealous and industrious for and after a legal righteousness, walking in a strict attendance unto duties proportionable unto light and convictions, pretending to be it, and bearing some resemblance of it, are the most fierce and implacable enemies of true evangelical holiness’. (373)
Paul Helm. Helm was professor of the History & Philosophy of Religion at King’s College, London, from 1993-2000. He was the first incumbent of the J.I. Packer Chair of Theology at Regent College from 2001 to 2005 and is now a teaching fellow at Regent College. His interests include all aspects of philosophical theology and Reformed theology, especially John Calvin, and issues in theological method. He is married to Angela, and they have five children.