We have one more week with our friend John Owen at the beach, and we will take with us his volume, The Holy Spirit. It’s very fascinating, the tradition of reflection and teaching on the doctrine of the Holy Spirit in the Reformed tradition. B.B. Warfield at one point called John Calvin the theologian of the Holy Spirit. Warfield wanted to emphasize how central and crucial the doctrine of the Holy Spirit was to John Calvin and, consequently, to the Reformed tradition. I’ve seen this also in Jonathan Edwards. The doctrine of the Holy Spirit is all over the pages of the writings of Edwards. And in between those two figures, John Calvin and Jonathan Edwards, is our John—John Owen—and his book, The Holy Spirit. I mention this because in that book he draws heavily on the Reformed tradition, on Calvin, on the first and second generations of Reformers from the sixteenth century. And, flowing from him, those who were to come and to follow Owen also relied on his work.
So here we have this great book on the Holy Spirit. As Owen approaches this book, he starts with talking about a biblical theology of the Holy Spirit. He shows the work of the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament, and then he moves to the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of Christ. And then he shows the work of the Holy Spirit in the Epistles. When it comes to the Christian life, Owen focuses on two things. The first is the work of the Holy Spirit in regeneration. As Dr. R.C. Sproul often said, the essence of the Reformed faith, the essence of being Reformed, is to realize this truth: regeneration precedes faith. We are dead in our trespasses and sin, and we need to be brought to life, to newness of life, and it is the work of the Holy Spirit who regenerates. This mirrors the work of the Holy Spirit of creating life back in Genesis, the breath of God, the ruach of God, the spirit of God hovering over the waters, bringing life and light. This is the work of regeneration.
Owen’s second focus is the work of sanctification. This is the work in the believer of making the believer progress in holiness, and that is the work of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit indwells us. The Holy Spirit convicts us of sin. The Holy Spirit teaches us to pray and helps us as we pray. The Holy Spirit assures us of our salvation, which can be a great encouragement to us. This is all the work of the Holy Spirit in sanctification. Here’s how Owen puts it succinctly: “This work of sanctification differs from regeneration. Regeneration is instantaneous. It is one single creating act, whereas sanctification is progressive. It is begun at the moment of regeneration and is continued gradually. Holiness is like seed sown in the ground. It grows gradually into a full plant.” Those lines are from chapter 15, which Owen titled “Sanctification a Lifelong Work.”
There are three key words here. One is progressive. Continually making progress, moving in the right direction. The other key word is continued. This is not something where you reach a plateau and stop, or you get to a certain point in life and you stop. It’s continued. The third word is gradual. How pastoral Owen is when he tells us that sanctification is gradual. Be patient. Be patient with your successes in mortifying sin. Be patient with your growth in holiness. I think that’s what pastor Owen is telling us in this wonderful book on the Holy Spirit.