In the introduction to John Owen’s famous work, Sinclair Ferguson states, “Whenever I return to read Owen I find myself at least in part wondering why I spend time reading lesser things.” Ferguson’s praise, although lofty, is not far from the truth. Written in the 17th century, the profound implications presented in Owen’s The Holy Spirit continue to be true.
As an English Nonconformist theologian, Owen observed the dangers that Catholic doctrine and Enlightenment thinking posed to what he believed was true Christian orthodoxy. Perhaps most concerning was the diminished value of the Holy Spirit in both schools of thought. Owen’s work, while being theologically systematic in nature, can nevertheless be best understood within his specific historical context.
Owen depicts a Holy Spirit that is full of power and necessary for all godly actions. Unlike Catholicism’s dependency on rituals and various works, Owen asserts that true godliness comes from a “regenerated” heart – something that only the Spirit can do. He believes that a focus on good works, while noble, nevertheless undermines the need that humans have for supernatural personal change. No one is capable of any true good without the Spirit acting within them. Furthermore, good acts are not the main concern for Christians at all, but rather complete holiness. Holiness includes purity of mind, speech, and actions. It is a totality of goodness that must be affected from the inside out.
In an attempt to exalt the necessity of the Spirit, Owen details the depravity of man. Enlightenment philosophy suggests that human reason is the key to wisdom and moral reform. Owen, however, concludes that it is only by the Spirit that people can be truly “enlightened.” The Holy Spirit opens the mind’s eye, allowing people to no longer walk in darkness. It is a supernatural revelation, working through scripture, to “quicken” natural human faculties. On their own, human faculties are incapable of any spiritual insight.
Nevertheless, the book does have a few shortcomings: Owen alludes to a cessationist perspective regarding the Spirit’s miraculous gifts, although he does not go into detail. His use of the word “regeneration” throughout the work is not defined and may or may not be separate from “conversion.” Owen’s brief discussion of Adam and Eve, while rightfully highlighting the consequences of sin and necessity of the Spirit, does not answer whether or not Adam and Eve possessed the Spirit before they sinned. In a similar vain, Owen does not say if the Spirit’s work in Christ can best be attributed to his divine or human nature.
However, the few minor critiques of Owen’s work do not detract from the book’s overall purpose. Modern Christians can gain valuable insight from Owen regarding trends that continue to plague the church today. The Holy Spirit continues to be wrongly diminished in many prominent Christian circles. As God Himself, the Holy Spirit should be explored, celebrated, and utilized in all of the ways that Owen suggests.