John Owen on regeneration

John OwenI recently posted a review of a new version of three of John Owen classic works entitled Overcoming Sin and Temptation. It prompts me to post an old lecture on John Owen and the life-giving work of the Spirit. I’ll post it into two parts. This one focuses on regeneration.

The Nicene Creed says: ‘We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life.’ We are going to look at the life-giving work of the Holy Spirit. We will focus on his life-giving work in the Christian believer, although he is also ‘the giver of life’ in creation and in the church. In Genesis 2:7 we read: ‘the Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.’ So all people have the life of the Spirit in the sense of having physical life – the life of the Adamic humanity. But only believers have the eschatological Spirit giving them spiritual life – the life of the new humanity in Christ.

I want to do this by focusing on one of England’s greatest ever theologians, John Owen (1616-1683). Owen was one of the leading Puritans. He started out an Anglican clergyman in Fordham, Essex, but become a Congregationalist and led a gathered church in Coggeshall, Essex. During the English Civil War he was a chaplain to Oliver Cromwell and was appointed by Parliament as dean of Christ Church, Oxford, and then vice-chancellor. When Charles II came to the throne, Owen was expelled from Oxford University and started a church in his home in Stadhampton, the village in which he grew up. At one point he was offered a senior bishopric in the Church of England if he would give up his Congregationalism, but he was a man of integrity and conviction. For the next twenty or so years he was an acknowledged leader of Nonconformity (churches independent of the state).

Owen wrote many books, including a number on the Holy Spirit. Indeed he has been called ‘the theologian of the Holy Spirit’. We are going to focus on his major work on the Spirit, Pneumatologia or A Discourse on the Holy Spirit (1674). Some of my quotes will be from the original work, but most will be from an abridged and simplified version by R. J. K. Law published The Banner of Truth under the title The Holy Spirit. (Owen is notorious for his long, complicated sentences.)

Regeneration

Regeneration is the work of the Spirit

Owen uses the term ‘regeneration’ to describe the work of the Spirit in conversion. It comes from John 3 where Jesus says: ‘I tell you the truth, no-one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again … no-one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit.’ (John 3:5) ‘Regeneration’ simply means ‘being born again’. Jesus says you can only enter God’s kingdom, you can only become a Christian, by being born again through the Spirit. It is the Spirit of God who makes you a Christian. John Owen comments: ‘The Holy Spirit’s great work is the work of regeneration … The Holy Spirit does the work of regeneration in men’s souls, of which water is the outward sign’. (p. 43) Whereas John baptises with water, Jesus baptises ‘with the Holy Spirit and with fire’ (Matthew 3:11; Mark 1:8; Luke 3:16). In other words, Jesus effects through the Spirit the inner transformation of which baptism is only an outward sign.

The whole Trinity is involved in our salvation, argues Owen. Our salvation originates in the plan of the Father. It is procured through the death of Jesus our Saviour. But it is the Spirit who completes this work by working in us inner transformation. ‘The Holy Spirit’s work is to bring to completion what the Father had planned to do through his Son. By this, God is made known to us, and we are taught to trust in him.’ (p. 21) And later he says: ‘The origin of [our spiritual life] is in God. The fulness of this life is in Christ. And it is imparted to us by the Holy Spirit.’ (p. 71)

From John Owen, The Holy Spirit, abridged and simplified by R. J. K. Law (Banner of Truth, 1998), pp. 46-49.

Misunderstandings of Regeneration

First, regeneration is not merely being baptised and saying, ‘I have repented.’ The water in baptism is only the outward sign (1 Peter 3:21). Of itself water can only make the person wet and wash away the ‘filth of the flesh’. But as an outward sign it signifies a good conscience towards God by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead’ (1 Peter 3:21. See Hebrews 9:14; Romans 6:3-7).

The apostle Paul clearly distinguishes between the outward ordinance and the work of regeneration itself (Galatians 6:15). If baptism with a confession of repentance is regeneration, then all who are baptised and say they have repented must be regenerated. But plainly this is not so (see Acts 8:13 with vv. 21, 23).

Secondly, regeneration is not an outward moral reformation of life and behaviour. For instance, let us suppose such an outward moral reformation by which a person turns from doing evil to doing good. He stops stealing and begins to work. Nevertheless, whatever there is of actual righteousness in this outward moral change of behaviour, it does not arise from a new heart and a new nature which loves righteousness. Only by regeneration can a corrupt, sinful hater of righteousness be brought to love it and to delight in doing righteousness.

Some deride regeneration as an enemy to morality, righteousness and reformation, but they will one day discover how wrong they were.

The idea that regeneration is nothing more than a moral reformation of life arises from a denial of original sin and the fact that we are evil by nature. If we are not evil by nature, if we are good at the bottom of our hearts, then there would be no need of being born again.

Regeneration does not produce subjective experience

Regeneration has nothing to do with wonderful raptures, ecstasies, the hearing of heavenly voices or anything else of the kind.

When the Holy Spirit does his work of regeneration in the hearts of men, he does not come on them with great powerful feelings and emotions which cannot be resisted. He does not possess men as evil spirits take possession of their victims. His whole work can be reasonably understood and accounted for by anyone who believes Scripture and has received the Spirit of truth which the world cannot receive. Jesus said to Nicodemus, ‘As you can hear the wind but cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going,’ so it is with the regenerating world to the Holy Spirit.

The Nature of Regeneration

Regeneration is the putting into the soul of a new, real spiritual law of life, light, holiness and righteousness, which leads to the destruction of all the hates God and fights against him.

Regeneration produces an inward miraculous change of heart. ‘Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation.’ Regeneration is not produced by the outward signs of a moral change of heart and is quite distinct from them (Galatians 5:6; 6:15).

Regeneration is a creating act of almighty power. A new principle or law is created in us by the Holy Spirit (Psalm 51:10; Ephesians 2:10). This new creation is not a new habit formed in us, but a new power and ability. So it is called ‘the divine nature’ (2 Peter 1:4). This new creation is a habitual new power and ability created in us by God and it bears his image (Ephesians 4:22-24).

Regeneration renews our minds. Being renewed in the spirit of our minds means that our minds now have a new, saving supernatural light to enable them to think and act spirituality (Ephesians 4:23; Romans 12:2). The believer is ‘renewed in knowledge according to the image of him who created him’ (Colossians 3:10).

The New Man

This new power and ability wrought in us by regeneration is called the ‘new man’, because it involves a complete change of the whole soul from which all spiritual and moral action comes (Ephesians 4:24). This ‘new man’ is placed in opposition to the ‘old man’ (Ephesians 4:22, 24). This ‘old man’ is our corrupt human nature which has the power and ability to produce evil thoughts and actions. The ‘new man’ has the power and ability to produce religious, spiritual and moral actions (Romans 6:6). It is called the ‘new man’ because it is a ‘new creation of God’ (Ephesians 1:19; 4:24; Colossians 2:12-13; 2 Thessalonians 1:11). This ‘new man’ is created instantly, in a moment of time. That is why Regeneration cannot be mere reformation of life, which is a lifetime’s work (Ephesians 2:10). It is a work of God in us preceding all our good works towards God. We are God’s workmanship created to do good works (Ephesians 2:10). So we cannot do good works acceptable to God until first he works this new creation is us.

Some misunderstandings

<!–[if supportFields]> SYMBOL 183 \f “Symbol” \s 10 \h –><!–[if supportFields]>–> Regeneration is not simply baptism – baptism is the outward sign of an inner change. Regeneration is that inner change.

<!–[if supportFields]> SYMBOL 183 \f “Symbol” \s 10 \h –><!–[if supportFields]>–> Regeneration is not simply moral reformation of life – trying to live a better life. Regeneration involves ‘a new heart and a new nature’ (p. 47). The unregenerate may be more or less wicked, but their state before God is the same. And there are not different degrees regeneration. I may be more of less like my Father than my sisters, but we are equally his children.

<!–[if supportFields]> SYMBOL 183 \f “Symbol” \s 10 \h –><!–[if supportFields]>–> Regeneration is not wonderful experiences or hearing heavenly voices. The Holy Spirit does not possess like an evil spirit possess people.

The need for regeneration

We ‘are evil by nature’ because of the original sin that corrupts us all (p. 47). And so we are incapable of living for God and under God. Regeneration is that capability given back to us by God. ‘There is no good that we receive from God but it is brought to us and wrought in us by the Holy Spirit. Nor is there in us any good towards God, any faith, love, obedience to his will, but what we are enabled to do by the Holy Spirit. For in us, that is in our flesh, there is no good thing, as Paul tells us.’ (p. 19) Owen explains our inability to love and serve God as follows:

In the declaration of the state of corrupted nature after the fall, and before the reparation of it by the grace of Jesus Christ, – that is, the effectual operation of the Holy Spirit, – the Scripture principally insists of three things: – 1. The corruption and depravation of the mind; which it calls by the name of darkness and blindness, with the consequents of vanity, ignorance, and folly. 2. The depravation of the will and affections; which it expresseth several ways, as by weakness or impotency, and stubbornness or obstinacy. 3. By the general name of death, extended to the condition of the whole soul. (Works, 3:244)

In other words, our minds are blind to the truth and our hearts are opposed to God. People are unable and unwilling to believe the truth about God. The result that we are spiritually dead – incapable of turning to God or doing good (Ephesians 2:1-3). ‘The unregenerate are in a state of spiritual death. To be made alive, they need a powerful, effective work of the Holy Spirit done in their souls. This work is spiritual regeneration.’ (p. 67) We are not free to choose God for we enslaved by sin. Instead ‘unregenerate persons freely and wickedly choose to disobey God.’ (p. 70)

Is it just for God to condemn us for not obeying his will when we of ourselves cannot? Owen says: ‘If God commands me to a certain duty which I do not want to do and in order not to do it I deliberately cripple myself, he would be absolutely just and right to punish me for not ding that duty, even though by my own deliberate act I have made myself unable to do it. So it is with sin.’ (p. 73). In other words, it is our fault that we are unable to obey God so it is just for him to condemn us for what we are now incapable of doing.

In other words, to be saved we need not only the work of the Son, but the work of the Spirit. We cannot make ourselves good enough for God or satisfy the demands of his justice. So we need the substitutionary work of the Son to be reconciled to God. But this is not enough. We would never respond in faith and repentance to the work of the Son if we were left to ourselves. Our minds are blind to the truth; our hearts are hard towards God; we are spiritually dead. We will only respond with faith if the Spirit creates that faith in us. And that is what the Spirit does in regeneration.

Regeneration is the granting of spiritual life so we can respond to the gospel with faith and repentance

Regeneration is the putting into the soul of a new, real spiritual law of life, light, holiness and righteousness, which leads to the destruction of all that hates God and fights against him. Regeneration produces an inward miraculous change of heart … Regeneration is a creating act of almighty power … Regeneration renews our minds. Being renewed in the spirit of our minds means that our minds now have a new, saving supernatural light to enable them to think and act spiritually. (p. 48)

Owen says that Ezekiel 36:25-27 describe the work of regeneration.

I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean;
I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols.
I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you;
I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.
And I will put my Spirit in you and move you
to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.

Regeneration involves:

1. Illumination
‘The Holy Spirit illuminates or enlightens the understanding, enabling the person to know and to understand spiritually the spiritual truths revealed. (p. 52) In other words, the difference between belief and unbelief is the work of the Spirit.

2. Conviction
‘The Holy Spirit brings conviction of sin.’ (p. 53)

In other words, we respond to the gospel with faith and repentance, but both faith and repentance are the work of the Spirit in us.

Regeneration and human responsibility

The new nature that regeneration creates is ‘created instantly, in a moment of time’. (p. 49) In other words, your conversion may have appeared to you to have taken place over a period of time. But there was one moment when regeneration took place.

There is sometimes a sense in the Puritans that, because only the regenerating work of the Spirit can make someone a Christian, we can only urge unbelievers to wait for this to happen – all the time hoping they are among the elect. You will hear the Puritans urging their readers to wait for the work of God’s Spirit within or warning them not to try to reform their lives without that work (pp. 54-55, 73-74). So Owen says: ‘It is impossible for us to regenerate ourselves but this does not excuse us from our spiritual responsibility. We can go and hear the Word of God being preached.’ (p. 52).

There is something in this. When people say they cannot believe we should urge to read the word and listen to it preached. But there is sometimes a danger in the Puritans that people are left looking within for something to happen before they attempt faith and repentance.

 

So Owen says: ‘Those convinced of sin may and ought to pray that God will send his Spirit to them and regenerate them.’ (p. 118) But Owen himself has said that conviction of sin is the result of the Spirit’s work of regeneration. And he concedes: ‘Those under such convictions of sin have sometimes actually had the seeds of regeneration imparted to them already, Then they will indeed continue to pray for the work of regeneration to be properly done in them.’ (p. 118) But it is difficult to square this with his assertion that regeneration takes place ‘instantly, in a moment of time.’ (p. 49)

In contrast, I think we urge people to respond to the gospel with faith and repentance, all the time trusting that the Holy Spirit can work these things in them through the word we proclaim. If a person says they would like to believe, but cannot then we explore why they cannot believe because the root problem will usually be some area in which they are unwilling to submit to God (a problem of the heart rather than the head). Our responsibility is to respond to the gospel with faith and repentance, not by waiting for regeneration. And when people do believe and repent we glorify God for the Spirit’s regenerating work in their lives. As Owen himself says, ‘all these things [illumination and conviction of sin] which are brought on people by the preaching of the Word are in fact the actions of the Holy Spirit working along with that preaching.’ (p. 53)

Regeneration, preaching and human choices
The Holy Spirit regenerates people through the preaching of God’s word. ‘By true preachers of the gospel the Holy Spirit regenerates people,’ says Owen (p. 50). So we ‘work with God and his Spirit in bringing souls to “new birth”’ (p. 51). ‘The outward means of conversion then is the preaching of God’s Word. The inward work necessary to persuade men to respond to the preaching is regeneration.’ (p. 80)

Owen contrasts his view of regeneration with that of Pelagianism (though more accurately he speaks of semi-Pelagianism). Pelagianism is the belief that people choose Christ when persuaded by the threats of the law and promises of the gospel. ‘Thus man converts himself,’ comments Owen, ‘and the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit are both excluded.’ (p. 77) The work of conversion lies much more in the oratory of the preacher. The preacher ‘persuades’ people to convert. People make free choices in response to the gospel. The work of regeneration follows their choice. They choose to be regenerated. The initiative in conversion lies with the preacher and even more so with the convert.

All this Owen rejects. Paul, he argues, did not believe his it was his skill as a preacher that bore fruit, but the power of the Spirit working through his preaching.

This [work of regeneration] is infallible, by which is meant that [the Spirit] does not fail to do this work in the one he chooses to regenerate. It cannot be resisted, and it is always victorious. Where God intends to regenerate a person, that person is regenerated and cannot in any way resist God’s will in the matter. (p. 84)

The unregenerate man is totally unable to do any spiritual good or to believe and obey the will of God. Unregenerate man has no freedom, power or ability to choose and do God’s will. If he could, then Scripture is wrong and the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ would be destroyed. The true freedom of will given to believers lies in a gracious freedom and ability to choose, will and do whatever is spiritually good, and to reject whatever is evil. (p. 146)

You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit – fruit that will last.’ (John 15:16) ‘For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God.’ (Ephesians 2:8) ‘I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.’ (Philippians 3:12)

Yet regeneration, says Owen, is not forced upon us (p. 50). ‘When the Holy Spirit does his work of regeneration in us he works according to the nature of our minds, hearts and wills, not over-riding nor forcing nor damaging them.’ (p. 85) In other words, regeneration is not forced upon our wills for it is a change of our will. The Bible, Owen points out, can speak of it as ‘persuading’ and ‘alluring’. The point is that this is not the persuasion of the preacher alone, but the persuasion and allurement of the Spirit through the preaching of the word.

The will, in the first act of conversion, does not will or choose to act first and then is regenerated. Rather it is first renewed by regeneration and then it wills or chooses. The will lies passive and inert until roused by the Holy Spirit in regeneration. There is an inward, almighty secret act of power producing or working is us the will to be converted to God. This act of power so works on our wills that we freely and gladly will what God wants us to will and choose, which is to do his will. (pp. 86-87).


 

John Owen, Pneumatologia (1674) in Works, ed. W. Goold (1850-5, Banner of Truth, 1966).

John Owen, The Holy Spirit, abridged and simplified by R. J. K. Law (Banner of Truth, 1998).

Owen argues that Old Testament believers were regenerate through the Holy Spirit even if their knowledge of this was hazy (pp. 44-45). In fact Owen, in common with Augustine, John Calvin, B. B. Warfield and Sinclair Ferguson, argues that Old Testament believers were both regenerate and indwelt of the Spirit (although Augustine and Calvin believe the new covenant brings a heightened experience of the Spirit). In contrast Martin Luther and D. A. Carson argue that the Holy Spirit operated upon Old Testament believers, but do not speak of them as regenerate. A third position is taken by J. I. Packer who distinguishes between regeneration through the Spirit and indwelling by the Spirit, the former applicable to Old Testament believers, but not the latter. In the Old Testament regeneration is called ‘circumcision of the heart’ (Jeremiah 9:25). God specially anointed certain individuals, but this was extraordinary. God did not dwell in believers, because he dwelt among them in the temple. Now believers are part of the living temple with the Spirit dwelling within them. This enables us to make sense of the contrast between the covenants implied by John 7:39 where John says: ‘Up to that time the Spirit had not been given, since Jesus had not yet been glorified’. See James Hamilton, ‘Were Old Covenant Believers Indwelt by the Holy Spirit?’ Themelios, 30:1 (Autumn 2004), pp. 12-22.