John Owen’s Wrong View of Assurance

There is a very real difference within different camps of the Reformed faith on the subject of assurance.  We might identify the two different perspectives on the subject as the Westminster position and Heidelberg position.  The Westminster position might also be identified as the Puritan position.  This is well illustrated by John Owen’s book, The Mortification of Sin.  This is a worthy book in a lot of ways, with much helpful advice.  But there is a consistent emphasis throughout the book on the question of whether one can rightly view oneself as saved or not, based on rather subjective standards.

In chapter 13, Precautions Against False Peace, he says,

When men are wounded by sin, disquieted and perplexed, and knowing that there is no remedy for them but only in the mercies of God, through the blood of Christ, do therefore look to him, and to the promises of the covenant in him, and thereupon quiet their hearts that it shall be well with them, and that God will be exalted, that he may be gracious to them, and, yet their souls are not wrought to the greatest detestation of the sin or sins upon the account whereof they are disquieted, — this is to heal themselves, and not to be healed of God.

Just the title of that chapter made me nervous.  Owens here teaches us that unless we are “wrought with the greatest detestation” of sin, we have no right to rest in the promise of the gospel.  After getting over my initial alarm at this passage, I thought perhaps Owen was just being hyperbolic.  After all, if I really had the “greatest detestation” of my sin, that is, I hated my sin in the superlative, to the greatest degree possible, with no love of any kind at all for my sin, then I wouldn’t sin.  Why do people sin?  Because it’s fun, because they enjoy it.  Now that just shows the corruption of our hearts, that we think it’s fun to engage in the misery and bondage of sin, but that’s the nature of it.  And Owens doesn’t just mean hatred of the worst sins I commit, or the overt sin, but all of them, even the pride I hide in my heart.

Now don’t get me wrong.  We ought to have such hatred.  And it is a valuable and necessary part of sanctification to cultivate such a hatred.  But Owens is saying that I must have this hatred before I can even be confident of my justification.

The really disturbing thing about this is that Owen asserts that a man can have sorrow for sin, have faith in Christ as his savior, believe in the covenant, believe in the shed blood of Jesus Christ on his behalf, and still have no right to consider himself saved unless he have this “greatest detestation of sin”.

The thrust of the chapter might be summed up as this, “take heed thou speakest not peace to thyself before God speaks it; but hearken what he says to thy soul.”  This statement is emphasized at the beginning of this chapter as a sort of thesis statement for the whole chapter.  Owen’s point throughout the chapter is that we must not console ourselves with the promise of forgiveness until we have the requisite level of hatred for our sin, at which God will “speak peace” to us.  To speak peace to ourselves before that point is to illegitimately claim the promise of the gospel.

The next question is obvious- how do we know that God has “spoken peace” to us?  And what does that mean?  Assurance of pardon is the question- how can I be assured that I am truly forgiven?

Owen’s answer to this is entirely subjective.  One who is accustomed to fellowshipping with Jesus will recognize His voice:

There is, if I may so say, a secret instinct in faith, whereby it knows the voice of Christ when he speaks indeed; as the babe leaped in the womb when the blessed Virgin came to Elisabeth, faith leaps in the heart when Christ indeed draws nigh to it.  Mortification of Sin, p. 64.

In other words, you’ll just know when it happens.

Why didn’t he point us to the promises of the Scriptures?  Why not simply say, “If you believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, you will be saved”?  What are we afraid of here?  I know that many of the Puritans were especially concerned about nominal Christians, and in the context of a state church where everyone was baptized just because they were born within the bounds of that church, that the problem of nominal Christians was a real one.  It’s still a problem today.  But there’s another problem as well, and that is robbing people of their confidence and rest of the gospel, “robbing them of their reward” in the words of Paul.

If we believe in election, as Owen certainly did, then we ought to know that the false confessor is not going to be turned into a true confessor because you beat him up with guilt.  All Owen is really doing here is beating up the tender consciences of the true believer; they’re the only ones that will even hear this.

Owen’s perspective is similar to what the Westminster Confession states, though Owen states it more strongly.  But the Westminster Confession, in Chapter XVII, denies that assurance is of the essence of faith, but teaches that believers will often not possess that assurance and must labor long with the means of grace to achieve it.

Compare this to the Heidelberg Catechism.  In Lord’s Day 23, after the examination of the Apostles Creed, question 59 asks,

59. What does it help you now, that you believe all this?
That I am righteous in Christ before God, and an heir of eternal
life.

How simple.  I believe the gospel, therefore I can be confident that I am saved.

Later in question 86, the Catechism does tell us that good works are an aid to assurance.  One of the reasons to do good works is that “we may be assured of our faith by the fruits thereof.”  When we turn from sin and live more righteously instead, and we experience the benefits that flow from this repentance, we see further confirmation of the truth of the claims of the gospel and begin to experience the blessings of salvation as an “earnest” or downpayment of all the blessings God has for us in future (2 Cor. 1:22, 5:5).  But the Catechism roots assurance firmly in belief in the premises of the gospel, in putting our trust in Christ for salvation.

Yes, that’s going to work sorrow for sin.  But the process of the Christian life is in manifold ways driven by the knowledge of my forgiveness.  If you take away the assurance of salvation from people, you have taken away the engine that drives the Christian life.  It is not guilt and fear that drives sanctification.  It is thankfulness, trust and peace.

5 thoughts on “John Owen’s Wrong View of Assurance

  1. Judith Lopez says:

    I sent you a link via FB message
    to a piece by John Piper…you may have seen it, but we think it’s illustrative of this discussion – unless we’re mis-reading. Keep up the great work, brother!

  2. Matt Powell says:

    Thanks, Judy! I commented on that article as well in another post. It’s a great example of the same kind of thinking.

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