I love reading John Owen (1616–1683). Like other Puritan pastors, he wrote theologically weighty tomes and spiritually affecting treatises. Over the past three years, I have read three of Owen’s theological works—his Discourse on the Holy Spirit, The Person of Christ, and Meditations and Discourses Concerning the Glory of Christ. After finishing these dense volumes, I shifted to one of his more spiritual works: Grace and Duty of Being Spiritually-Minded.
The book is an extended meditation on Romans 8:6, which the King James Version (the translation Owen used), renders: “For to be carnally minded is death; but to be spiritually minded is life and peace.” Owen explains and applies the entire verse, but I will focus on his treatment of the latter portion of the text.
Owen on Spiritual-Mindedness
According to Owen, to be “spiritually-minded” is to “mind the things of the Spirit.” What does that mean?
Owen examines the Greek word for “mind,” (it’s phrónēma, for the Greek scholars out there), noting that it’s associated not only with thinking, but also with the “faculty to conceive of things with a delight in them and adherence unto them” (Grace and Duty, 269). But he doesn’t stop there. He brings out a unique feature of the term, revealing that “Nowhere doth it design a notional conception of things only, but principally the engagement of the affections unto things which the mind apprehends” (269). Translation: It’s not simply about contemplation per se, but exulting in what we are pondering.
Such an experience requires God to act. Why?
The Need for Regeneration
Since prior to regeneration fallen sinners “suppress the truth in unrighteousness” (Rom. 1:18), spiritual-mindedness is a result of the new birth: “the ‘minding of the Spirit’ is the actual exercise of the mind as renewed by the Holy Ghost, as furnished with a principal of spiritual life and light.” Translation: A believer’s relishing, savoring, and delighting in biblical truth is the result of a divinely wrought heart transplant (Ezek. 36:26). Think of it this way: A spiritually-minded person doesn’t merely talk about God’s grace; rather, they “experience that God is gracious, and that the love of Christ is better than wine, or whatever else hath the most grateful relish unto a sensual appetite” (Grace and Duty, 270–271). We might say that the Holy Spirit awakens our spiritual taste buds.
Thinkers and Feelers
Like all of us I assume, Owen knows that some people are thinkers while others are feelers. We all tend to lean in one direction. Either proclivity has its own perils: “Where light [knowledge] leaves the affections behind, it ends in formality or atheism; and where affections outrun light, they sink in the bog of superstition” (Glory of Christ, 401).
And yet, what Owen writes next may surprise some of us—it certainly did me: “But where things go not into these excesses, it is better that our affections exceed our light from the defect of our understandings, than that our light exceed our affections from the corruption of our wills” (Glory of Christ, 401, emphasis mine).
Did you catch that?
While Owen wants people to grasp biblical truth and value theological precision, if you’re going to fall off one side of the fence, opt for lively affections over a dead, lifeless orthodoxy. Owen wants people to feel the truth deeply.
Owen on Spiritual Health
Spiritual health, for Owen, therefore, is “when our light of the knowledge of the glory of God in Christ doth answer the means of it which we enjoy, and when our affections unto Christ do hold proportion unto that light” (Glory of Christ, 401). Translation: Spiritual health is when there is an alignment between head knowledge and heart ravishment. Our affections, loves, and delight, should be in proportion to the glory and beauty of what we’re reading and meditating on in Scripture.
Here, as always, Christ is our example: “The pattern which we ought to continually bear in our eyes, whereunto our affections ought to be conformed, is Jesus Christ and the affections of his holy soul” (Grace and Duty, 468).
What does this mean for us? It means we need to pray.
First, pray that your affections would be in proportion to the beauty and wonder of God’s truth. Let us not be content to simply read and hear that God is good. Let us also pray to “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8). With Paul, let us pray to know and experience the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge (Eph. 3:19). Owen prods us: “[B]e not contented to have right notions of the love of Christ in your minds, unless you can attain a gracious taste of it in your hearts” (Glory of Christ, 338).
Second, pray that you would be satisfied in God. We sin when we try to satisfy eternal longings with temporal pleasures. It doesn’t work. Our prayer must be that God would give us a joy and delight in him that triumphs over all other lesser joys.
With Owen, I want to be able to say:
Herein would I live;–herein would I die;–hereon would I dwell in my thoughts and affections, to the withering and consumption of all painted beauties of this world, unto the crucifying all things here below, until they become unto me a dead and deformed thing, no way meet for affectionate embraces (Glory of Christ, 291).
I love how the Puritans—and Owen especially—combine rigorous thinking with heart-warming piety. They were never content with bare information transfer; they were not satisfied with abstract concepts left unapplied. Instead, they eagerly sought to apply the gospel to every mundane moment, joyful circumstance, and harsh providence.
May we do the same.