3 Lessons on Holiness from John Owen

In the West, we’re increasingly appreciative of authenticity. Being yourself, regardless of your good or bad qualities, is applauded while pretending to be something else or acting disingenuous will invoke public shaming. Advertisers have picked up on this and use it to their advantage. One example is the Domino’s Pizza ads from a few years ago where they used negative reviews to their advantage to launch a massive rebranding campaign. The general public praised their humble acknowledgement of negative feedback. When it comes to the Church, I’m thankful the culture around us continues to challenge our authenticity (here’s to hoping the market for corny “Christian” product lines will dwindle to extinction). We should all be intolerant of insincere expressions of Christianity.I hope this environment, both inside and outside the Church, will contribute to a revival of what John Owen called “gospel holiness.”

1. Gospel Holiness Opposes Legal Holiness

What comes to mind when you hear the word “holiness”? Like most words, it’s picked up baggage: some good and some bad. To differentiate “gospel holiness” from the ordinary use of the word, J.I. Packer tells us:

“‘Gospel holiness’ is no doubt an unfamiliar phrase to some. It was Puritan shorthand for authentic Christian living, springing from love and gratitude to God, in contrast with the spurious ‘legal holiness’ that consisted merely of forms, routines and outward appearances, maintained from self-regarding motives.”[1]

Holiness, according to the Puritans, comes in two forms: “Gospel holiness” which springs from an inward devotion to God and the counterfeit “legal holiness” which is primarily an outward act. But to be sure, the difference is difficult to spot at a glance. Both result in similar actions but stem from entirely different motivations. The legal being attempts to look holy outwardly and the gospel is cultivated as an outward expression of the inward reality of our ever-increasing union with Christ. Or as John Owen puts it, “What, then, is holiness? Holiness is nothing but the implanting, writing and living out the gospel in our souls.”[2]

Jesus himself speaks of the difficulty in discerning the two when he mentions “that day” when many will not enter the kingdom of heaven despite prophesying, casting out demons, and doing many mighty works in his name. The reason they will not enter? Jesus “never knew them” (Matt. 7:21-23). This is sobering and should challenge us to examine our relationship with Jesus (after all, it’s the relationship that distinguishes the two). Are we living a life of “gospel holiness” where holy living is the result of dwelling on the good news we have in Christ? Or are we merely trying to convince others (and maybe even ourselves) of our superior spirituality?

2. Gospel Holiness Is A Result Of The Indwelling Holy Spirit

When Jesus told his disciples that he would give them his peace (Jn. 14:27), it was directly tied to the comforting presence of the Holy Spirit. That same Holy Spirit that dwells inside us and brings us peace is the same Holy Spirit that is working in us to sanctify us and make us more like Christ (Phil. 2:13). This transformation to be more like Christ by the work of the indwelling Holy Spirit is what sanctification is and what the Puritans meant when they spoke of gospel holiness. Oddly enough the same John Owen who famously remarked on Romans 8:13 that we must be killing sin or it will be killing us, knew that the key to unlocking this verse is the place of the Holy Spirit in that battle. The same God that fought for Israel and put the Egyptians to death at the Red Sea (Ex. 14:14) fights for us (and through us) to put to death our crimson sins (again see Rom. 8:13).

The war cry of discipleship is to put to death our god-replacements (i.e., sin) with the true God. Legalistic attempts at holiness conflict with this because they put our effort front and center and leave God on the sidelines like a cosmic cheerleader cheering for our victory. Our flesh tempts us to make ourselves the heroes of the story by achieving holiness on our own accord, but the Holy Spirit inside us prompts us to rest in the victorious defeat of sin at the cross. By focusing on what Christ has done for us in the gospel and his gift of righteousness we are no longer enslaved to our own fickle attempts at holiness. While the gospel frees us from the pressure of having to be our own savior it denies us none of the benefits that rightfully belong to the victor. Christ absorbs all our sin at the cross and transfers all the recompense due for his perfection and glory to his imperfect bride: the Church.

Too often we slide into the error of believing holiness is achieved by aiming at a destination when it was actually achieved for us by a declaration (see 2 Cor. 5:21 for starters). Gospel holiness means resting in the identity Christ has procured for us and clinging to him amidst temptations to do otherwise. The world, the flesh, and the devil oppose gospel holiness, but Jesus (who overcame these three enemies) said: “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace (John 16:33)”. Owen sums it up nicely: “Sanctification is a fruit of that peace with God which he has made and prepared for us by Jesus Christ. . . . So God, as the author of our peace, is also the author of our holiness.”

3. Gospel Holiness Is Just One More Expression Of God’s Grace

Ed Marcelle[3] has often stated that if we see how big and ugly our sin is our need for the cross only increases. Put succinctly: only a big cross will pay for our big sins. God’s grace has achieved the payment for our sin in the death of Christ as our substitute. When the old nature creeps up and wants to do war with the new man—the man in Christ—the same grace that bought us at the cross can bring us back to the cross. The same gospel that saves us sanctifies us. Owen states: “The one who sanctifies us is God. As God gave us our beings, so he gives us our holiness. It is not by nature but by grace that we are made holy.”

There is the temptation to view the gospel as the starting point of Christian discipleship and look at sanctification as a process that happens subsequently and independent of it. But Owen’s insights into the Scriptures show us a different sanctifying grace. A gospel holiness which makes no distinction between saving grace and sanctifying grace. It’s all a gift of God, as he states: “Holiness, then, is a glorious work of the Holy Spirit.” Or as Paul put it before Owen:

Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh (Gal. 3:2-2)?

[i] Packer, J.I., Knowing God, p. 249
[ii] This and all following John Owen quotes can be found at this helpful primer on Gospel holiness: http://www.monergism.com/thethreshold/articles/onsite/holyspirit_owen.html
[iii] Ed has also contributed to GCD and pastors Terra Nova Church in Troy, NY.

Sean Nolan (B.S. and M.A., Summit University) is the Family Life Pastor at Christ Fellowship Church in Fallston, MD. Prior to that he served at a church plant in Troy, NY for seven years and taught Hermeneutics to ninth and tenth graders. He is married to Hannah and is father to Knox and Hazel. He occasionally blogs at Hardcore Grace.

Editor: In our Family History Series we are seeking to understand how Christians of the past have pursued making disciples. We want to connect the church’s current efforts to make, mature, and multiply disciples to its historical roots as well as encourage the church to learn from her rich past. So far in our series: