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The Greatest Ever Theological Work Outside of Scripture
on 25 January 2010
John Owen, that Puritan of Puritans, has been regarded by many to be too hard to bother reading. This is a huge shame. I am 22 years old, and I have managed to understand this brilliant theologian. I have now finished `The Death of Death in the Death of Christ', having marked almost every page of it. The study has taken me a year to digest - but what is my analysis of the time I have dedicated to the reading of it? I can honestly declare it to have been the best ever use of my time, outside of the reading of the Holy Scriptures. This is truly a superb book - a giant above the rest, towering over even John Stott's `The Cross of Christ'. There is no aspect of the cross which has not been included into Owen's treatise. It is a gold-mine of spiritual power and will give any keen believer, who is eager to learn truth, great strength in the Christian life.
Having given such praise to it, what then is it about? What is its theme? Most of us think we know the answer to this question. Primarily, of course, Owen is seeking to prove to his readers, using unanswerably simple logic and powerful exposition of the Holy Scriptures, that Christ has not failed to eternally redeem every person He died intending to save. Owen wants to defend the doctrine of Particular Redemption (or as it is also known, `Limited Atonement'). But is this all the book is about? No, not exactly. The real theme of this book is precisely what the title suggests: it is a book totally dedicated to unlocking the mystery of the death of death itself in the death of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Let us elaborate upon this for a moment. Owen will not just show you that Particular Redemption is the key that unlocks so much of the gospel and scripture itself, but to prove this to great effect, Owen will take you through the whole plan of redemption: from eternity past, to eternity future. He will show you what was in the mind of God before time began. He will powerfully point you to what the role of each member of the Trinity was in the death of Christ itself. In other words, he will prove to you the eternal intention, in God's mind and heart, of sending His Son into this fallen world. And he will then compare that intention to the eternal result. Are they the same, or radically different? Was Christ's death intended to save everyone who has ever lived? Will all persons ever, therefore, be saved? If not, has God not failed (if indeed this was His purpose)? Is God not going to be eternally frustrated, if He has managed not to achieve fully what He desired to do? Or, did God send Christ instead to save a specific people, all of whom He will spend eternity loving? So Owen will show you whether Christ fully accomplished what He was sent to do or not. You will be made to see clearly (whether reluctantly or submissively) that you cannot have it both ways: you cannot have an atonement for all mankind, which does not atone all mankind to God forever.
Now John Owen expounds text after text after text, with amazing theological precision. This book will leave you little wondering why he was such a theological giant. For his exegetical approach alone, his book it vitally important for the Church today. Owen's exegesis is a model and is very inspiring. His basic exegetical talents are brief and bullet-like analysis of the text in hand. He takes a text; he says what it says in as few words as possible; and then he hammers it home until you are left quite shocked (I remember this being my experience, especially on pages 178-182). Astoundingly, he will leave you startled at how the texts so often used to defend the position he repudiates actually are texts which back up his own views! He gives argument after argument, proving his position to be true - the biblical position. He also gives solid answers as to why texts, such as John 1.29, John 3.16 and 1 Timothy 2.4,6 have a universal or general aspect to them. But then he leaves you certain that what has become the traditional way of explaining such texts is really a house of sand. These interpretations simply cannot stand up against the light of sound exegesis. Take the simplest and clearest example possible. John 1.29 says: "Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world." What does the Lamb of God do? He takes away the sin of the world. Now, again, the Lamb does not potentially take away the sin of the world. Neither does He take away the sin of the world upon condition of the willingness of the world. He takes away the sin of the world. In other words, world cannot mean every single person ever, for a vast majority of the entire human race has not and will not have its sin taken away. "Takes away" means what it says. Owen approaches many texts in that fashion. And in building upon so much which he attempts to open our eyes to, concerning so many important yet sadly forgotten issues, he begins then to give reason, upon reason, upon reason why Jesus Christ did not die to save all of mankind.
I was unsure whether Owen was correct before I read this book, but I wanted answers to my problems. So I thought I would attempt the huge task of reading him, since he is the best defence of his own view (which I believe is simply just the view of Holy Scripture). In picking it up, and sort of half-heartedly reading the opening pages out-loud, I suddenly became hooked with the power of the things he was saying. The plainness of his words made so much sense that I had to read more. Seriously consider Owen's point upon page 47 of his work: "A spreading persuasion there is of a general ransom to be paid by Christ for all; that he died to redeem all and everyone ... If that be the end of the death of Christ ... then one of these two things will necessarily follow:- that either, first, God and Christ failed of their end proposed, and did not accomplish that which they intended, the death of Christ being not a fitly-proportioned means for the attaining of that end ... which to assert seems to us blasphemously injurious to the wisdom, power, and perfection of God, as likewise derogatory to the worth and value of the death of Christ;- or else, that all men, all the posterity of Adam, must be saved, purged, sanctified, and glorified; which surely [those who hold this position] will not maintain, at least the Scripture and the woful experience of millions will not allow." Does this not seem blatantly and unanswerably obvious? This is not blind logic: it is perfectly scriptural. This statement itself comes forth upon the foundation which Owen begins the book laying: that Christ died to save, died to redeem, died to purge away sin and died to sanctify a particular people. Now did He fail, or did He not? If Christ attempted to do this for every sinner ever, then clearly, He has failed to accomplish His desired end, for not every sinner will be saved, redeemed, purged, sanctified. It is very simple, so long as one gives it necessary and unbiased thought.
Let me tell you what this book, by God's power, can do for you. John Owen's book will, first, drive you to your knees as you are unable to resist the brilliance of the work Jesus Christ accomplished for His people. And the fact that you are involved in that group for whom He died and so, so loved becomes quite breath-taking. Secondly, it will change and re-shape your entire perspective on the gospel and gospel proclamation. When you, as a true believer, come to realise that gospel preaching is not so much about giving everybody a "shot" to believe, as it is about gathering in those whom Christ Jesus has already purchased eternal redemption for, and that you are simply a means whereby He reels in His lost sheep, then that puts a very different perspective on preaching. Suddenly, preaching becomes a means to feasting one's eyes upon a brilliant Messiah. When you come to see that even your faith in Jesus Christ was not your addition to salvation, but that it infallibly sprung to you from Calvary - where is boasting now? Even if you claim to believe that Calvinistic or Reformed theology is the "way to go", so to speak, do you preach this victorious Christ? Or do you preach a Jesus who cannot conquer unless people "let Him" conquer? The best preachers the Church has ever had and the most accurate interpreters of the Bible, were mostly men who believed that the Bible presents before us a victorious Christ, who cannot fail. There is no room in the Bible for the kind of "Jesus" preached by so many today, who is supposedly weeping in a corner somewhere because He cannot infallibly obtain the entirety of that for which He died. So, Owen's book can sharpen up your gospel preaching to a staggering degree, to the point where you now have a true gospel, a cross and a Christ to offer sinners and God's hungry people, all of which are totally worth finding eternal rest in! Thirdly, because this book will enlighten you greatly concerning the gospel and the cross, God may just use it to impact your very life itself. Your days will be sweeter and your walk, hopefully, firmer: now grounded totally in the work of the Saviour alone. Fourthly, as I wrote above, I honestly believe Owen is a model to follow in his exegesis. He will teach you to let the text speak for itself, which will mean you will be a blessing to the whole Church of Christ, many of whose members are starving for some rich and powerful truth coming forth solely from the Scriptures.
So I pray that Owen's book will teach you many things, as it has taught me. I pray it would lead you into all the mysteries of the work of Christ on that cross which are possible in this life to discover. I consider this book to be the greatest Christian writing ever outside of Scripture, if not for other things, then primarily for this: Owen's zeal to bring you to gaze upon a mighty Christ and a fabulous redemption, planned down to pin-point accuracy. And of course, any book which does that is worthy of being regarded as an instant classic. This book will set you against the current of the evangelical tide for sure, if you adhere to its scriptural interpretations. But remember that your tide heads straight for the truth: an utterly God-centred gospel. May God use you to bless and feed the flock of God, which He Himself purchased with His own blood.