Owen: The Least Dram Of Holiness Never Flowed Except From Christ Through The Gospel

1. This whole matter of sanctification and holiness is peculiarly joined with and limited unto the doctrine, truth, and grace of the gospel; for holiness is nothing but the implanting, writing, and realizing of the gospel in our souls. Hence it is termed Ὁσιότης τῆς ἀληθείας, Eph. 4:24,—“The holiness of truth;” which the truth of the gospel ingenerates, and which consists in a conformity thereunto. And the gospel itself is ἀληθείας τῆς κατ᾿ εὐσέβειαν, Tit. 1:1,—“The truth which is according unto godliness;” which declares that godliness and holiness which God requireth. The prayer, also, of our Saviour for our sanctification is conformed thereunto: John 17:17, “Sanctify them in” (or by) “thy truth: thy word is truth.” And he sanctified himself for us to be a sacrifice, that “we might be sanctified in the truth.” This alone is that truth which makes us free, John 8:32,—that is, from sin and the law, unto righteousness in holiness. It belongs neither to nature nor the law, so as to proceed from them or to be effected by them. Nature is wholly corrupted and contrary unto it. The “law,” indeed, for certain ends, “was given by Moses,” but all “grace and truth came by Jesus Christ.” There neither is, nor ever was, in the world, nor ever shall be, the least dram of holiness, but what, flowing from Jesus Christ, is communicated by the Spirit, according to the truth and promise of the gospel. There may be something like it as to its outward acts and effects (at least some of them), something that may wear its livery in the world, that is but the fruit of men’s own endeavours in compliance with their convictions; but holiness it is not, nor of the same kind or nature with it. And this men are very apt to deceive themselves withal. It is the design of corrupted reason to debase all the glorious mysteries of the gospel, and all the concernments of them. There is nothing in the whole mystery of godliness, from the highest crown of it, which is the person of Christ, “God manifested in the flesh,” unto the lowest and nearest effect of this grace, but it labours to deprave, dishonour, and debase. The Lord Christ, it would have in his whole person to be but a mere man, in his obedience and suffering to be but an example, in his doctrine to be confined unto the capacity and comprehension of carnal reason, and the holiness which he communicates by the sanctification of his Spirit to be but that moral virtue which is common among men as the fruit of their own endeavours.

Herein some will acknowledge that men are guided and directed to a great advantage by the doctrine of the gospel, and thereunto excited by motions of the Holy Ghost himself, put forth in the dispensation of that truth; but any thing else in it more excellent, more mysterious, they will not allow. But these low and carnal imaginations are exceedingly unworthy of the grace of Christ, the glory of the gospel, the mystery of the recovery of our nature, and healing of the wound it received by the entrance of sin, with the whole design of God in our restoration unto a state of communion with himself. Moral virtue is, indeed, the best thing amongst men that is of them. It far exceeds in worth, use, and satisfaction, all that the honours, powers, profits, and pleasures of the world can extend unto. And it is admirable to consider what instructions are given concerning it, what expressions are made of its excellency, what encomiums of its use and beauty, by learned contemplative men among the heathen; the wisest of whom did acknowledge that there was yet something in it which they could only admire, and not comprehend. And very eminent instances of the practice of it were given in the lives and conversations of some of them; and as the examples of their righteousness, moderation, temperance, equanimity, in all conditions, rise up at present unto the shame and reproach of many that are called Christians, so they will be called over at the last day as an aggravation of their condemnation. But to suppose that this moral virtue, whatever it be really in its own nature, or however advanced in the imaginations of men, is that holiness of truth which believers receive by the Spirit of Christ, is to debase it, to overthrow it, and to drive the souls of men from seeking an interest in it. And hence it is that some, pretending highly a friendship and respect unto it, do yet hate, despise, and reproach what is really so, pleasing themselves with the empty name or withered carcass of virtue, every way inferior, as interpreted in their practice, to the righteousness of heathens. And this, in the first place, should stir up our diligence in our inquiries after its true and real nature, that we deceive not ourselves with a false appearance of it, and that unto our ruin.

—John Owen, The Works of John Owen, ed. William H. Goold, vol. 3 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, n.d.), 370.

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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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  1. What the readers might not know about Dr. Clark is that he studied classics in college and only refined his knowledge of Greek thereafter with its focus on the New Testament variety. I have always admired his discipline and zeal to grow as a Greek scholar. He is a model in this regard (and many other regards) for us as a student of the Bible. Hence, I offer a small correction of the spelling of εὐσέζειαν (with zeta) above to εὐσέβειαν (with beta). I’m sure it was a simple oversight from a fine student of Greek.

    To the main issue though, this is a wonderful, insightful quotation from Owen. A “withered carcass of virtue”–it doesn’t get much better!

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