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John Owen on the Beatific Vision – Historic Reformed “Spirituality” in Action

A good number of you might never have heard of John Owen, but for those of you who have, he might well be something of a polarizing figure. If he is known for anything today it is usually for a book called The Death of Death in the Death of Christ. It has been called the greatest defense of the doctrine of ‘limited atonement’ ever written, and it has become a sort of line in the sand for the kind of Reformed person you are. Do you love the Puritans––Owen is often called the Prince of Puritans––and does strict historical orthodoxy especially on the doctrine of election matter deeply to you? If so, John Owen is your hero, and liking this book means you have your ‘Reformed card’!But it probably also means that you think that someone who doesn’t like this book has forfeited theirs. For others, though, John Owen is presented as a theological bogeyman, and this book is used to warn others away from what is seen to be a fearful, narrow, heartless approach to being Reformed from which we need to flee into more spacious and generous ways of being Reformed today. Either way, John Owen himself ends up becoming a stick with which to beat people, and he and his theology are desperately short-changed. Because he is so relatively little known, but so often caricatured, I thought it might be helpful to share a little about him, and to get a bit of a sense of a life lived in the thick of one of the most turbulent times in English history.

John Owen was born in 1616 and died in 1683. His father was a parish pastor and he initially planned to become a parish minister himself, but he couldn’t in good conscience. This is the era of the Pilgrims––the Mayflower in 1620 when Owen was four years old, and then John Winthrop and the Massachusetts Bay colony when he was in his teens––when changes in the doctrine and worship of the Church of England made things difficult for many. By the time he could have entered the ministry, in the late 1630s, things were even worse. And by then what we now know as Great Britain was also lurching into a series of political and religious crises that would soon tumble into years of civil war between the forces of King Charles I and the forces of Parliament. This would end in victory for Parliament and with the trial and execution of the King, which took place on January 30, 1649. For the next eleven years England was a republic.

Owen was in the thick of all of this. He did become a parish minister once the Church of England broke apart during the civil wars, and was an ardent Parliamentarian, often being summoned to preach before Parliament in London, including the day after the execution of the King. During the 1650s, he was a major public figure at the center of church and political power.

And then all of that came crashing down. In 1660 the monarchy was restored under Charles II, and with the monarchy the Church of England was restored, too. That began decades of persecution against the Non-conformists, like John Owen.

From then on, John Owen pastored illegal underground congregations, and was a leader of the Nonconformists, using his considerable prestige and influence to help others. And it’s to John Owen that we owe the fact that we can all read John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress.He pleaded Bunyan’s cause––and there is a memorable anecdote when the King is said to have asked him why he, the incredibly learned and eminent John Owen, would care anything about an imprisoned tinker, and Owen replied that he would surrender all his learning to be able to preach as powerfully as John Bunyan did. And it was John Owen who found Bunyan a publisher. When other publishers wouldn’t touch his work, Owen asked his own publisher to take Pilgrim’s Progress. He did, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Even that summary lets you know that he lived a quite extraordinary life. And in the midst of all that he wrote a very great deal. His complete works take up twenty-four hefty volumes, and they range from large tomes on major doctrines, to short catechisms, to books on aspects of the church and worship and the Christian life––although like all the Puritans you can’t really divide his books up into categories. In everything he writes, he is always a rigorous theologian, and he is always concerned about how doctrines shape our worship and discipleship, and he is always pointing us towards the implications of all of this for what we would today call ‘spirituality’––ways that the Holy Spirit enables us to grow in loving communion with the Triune God.

His Meditations and Discourses on the Glory of Christ is the very last book he brought to the press before he died. We have the rather beautiful story of his friend, William Payne, bringing him the first page proofs, hot off the press, on what would turn out to be the day of his death. When he saw them, he apparently said, “O Brother Payne! The long wished-for day is come at last, in which I shall see that glory in another manner than I have ever done or was capable of doing in this world.”

He wrote it in the midst of what he thought was the serious decline of the church: as an institution, in its doctrine and practices, and in the personal spiritual lives of most church members. Does that sound familiar?! It basically became his last testament to the church. And what was it? A book on spirituality, in effect. It was a book urging every Christian to meditate on the glory of Christ, as we can know that now by faith, and as a foretaste of the beatific vision in glory. Owen was convinced that thinking more about the beatific vision was what the church urgently needed, as a means by which the Holy Spirit might remedy the terrible mess the church as an institution had fallen into, and the moribund discipleship and spiritual lives of many of its members.

If you are thinking, “What? Why?”, you are not alone! As we will see, that is exactly the response Owen anticipated from his readers, too! Regular Reformed folks don’t tend to think too much about the beatific vision. It has tended to be seen as a Roman Catholic doctrine. To be fair, that’s because it’s mostly the Roman Catholics who have thought and written about it down the centuries. But the beatific vision has never simply been a Roman Catholic doctrine––it is rooted in scripture, and every Christian theological tradition has something like it. The online magazine, Credo, devoted its December issue to the beatific vision, so if you would like to explore it further, this is a terrific place to start.

So, what is it? It’s not about us expecting or having visions now. The beatific vision is about our ultimate salvation. It is the vision of God in glory that is experienced in eternity by those who are saved. Now, in this life, we live by faith and not by sight. But then, at the consummation of all things, those who are saved will apprehend as much as it is possible for a glorified mind to grasp of the essence and glory of the Triune God. As we’ll see, John Owen is going to do something a little different from this traditional understanding. He is going to give us what he thinks is a more scriptural and Reformed approach to it, and along the way he is going to tell us that it’s actually one of the most important things we could think about in this life.

But he knew he would have an uphill battle convincing his staid Reformed readers to think about the beatific vision, let alone asking them to make the anticipation of it the centerpiece of their Christian lives––the heart of their spirituality, in effect. Owen knew that plenty of his readers might not have an issue with any number of spiritual practices, or aspects of what we would today call ‘spirituality.’ They were Puritans! They were fine with things like prayer, fasting, meditation on scripture, daily self-examination before God. But meditating on the beatific vision? Isn’t that just a distraction from seeking to live our day-to-day lives rightly before God ––a classic case of being too heavenly minded to be any earthly use? In Owen’s words, “Some,” he says, “will say they understand not these things, nor any concernment of their own in them. If they are true, yet are they notions which they may safely be without knowledge of; for so far as they can discern, they have no influence on Christian practice or duties of morality… but take the minds of men from more necessary duties.”[1]

And he knew there were other problems too. In his time alternative spiritualities were attracting attention, which Owen thought had become completely scripturally unmoored. There were people claiming visions and personal inspiration directly from the Holy Spirit and speaking of the ‘inner light’ within them. They claimed that this inner light and personal revelations they received were more authoritative than scripture, and despised those who were still dependent on the Bible as mere infants in the spiritual life, unlike themselves, the specially gifted spiritual elite.

Many of these folks were Quakers, but they were not Quakers as we know them today. They were a very new movement back then, and they were decidedly militant (many of them had fought in the Parliamentarian armies), and highly disruptive. They would barge into worship services and harangue ministers while they preached, and they sometimes did and said bizarre and blasphemous things which they claimed were prompted by the Holy Spirit within them. To Owen these were people who have gotten carried away with claims to personal experiences and revelations and allowed those things to trump scripture. They were refusing to allow the Holy Spirit as he is made known to us in scripture to “test the spirits,” so to speak. They were confusing their spirits with the Holy Spirit, and so, as far as Owen was concerned, they were giving the Holy Spirit, and true Christian spirituality, a bad name. 

And then there were other groups in Owen’s time who completely rejected historic theological orthodoxy, in particular, the doctrine of the Trinity and the divinity of Christ. For Owen these people were guilty of elevating their own reasoning above the authority of scripture. And because they denied the Trinity and Christ’s two natures, they also denied that there was any such thing as personally intimate relationship with God, or union and communion with Christ by the Spirit. They saw this as fanciful and irrational.[2] None of this ‘spirituality’ stuff, please! For them, all that God wants of us is that we seek to live a decent, morally upright kind of life. Anything else they saw as mystical nonsense.

So, Owen was advocating for what he thought of as true Christian spirituality on two fronts––against those whose unscriptural excesses gave any kind of spirituality a bad name, and against those whose rationalist agenda meant they despised anything that looked like spirituality at all. He saw both as two sides of one false coin. Both elevated some other source of knowledge and authority over scripture: either their personal experience or their reason. For Owen, our only sure access to true knowledge of God, and therefore the only basis of a properly Christian spirituality, is God’s self-revelation in scripture, and especially in Jesus Christ, who is shown in scripture to be the eternal Son of God incarnate. As he trenchantly puts it, “Men may talk what they please of a Light within them, or of the Power of Reason, to conduct them unto that Knowledge of God, whereby they may live unto him,” but, he says, without the light of divine revelation in scripture, and in particular, the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ, such people remain in utter darkness.[3]

This is the concept at the very heart of how John Owen presents the beatific vision, and why he thinks that meditating upon it is also absolutely essential for life now. It is all about the glory of Christ, and in particular, beholding the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ, by faith now and by sight in the life to come. This entire treatise could be seen as one long exhortation to take up what might be called today the “spiritual practice” of Christ-focused scriptural contemplation.

Some key verses for Owen in this regard are 2 Cor 3:18 and 4:4–6. He combines these texts with Rom. 8:29 to show that it is as we behold the glory of the Lord in the face of Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit that the image of God in us is renewed and restored. We are conformed more and more into the image of Christ, the image of God. It is this Spirit-enabled beholding of Christ by faith through scripture that leads to the Spirit’s transforming and sanctifying work in us now. That process will then be consummated when we behold Christ face to face at the eschaton. Our beholding the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ by faith now is our foretaste of the beatific vision, and the start of the transforming work in us that will be consummated in glory.[4]

So, what does it mean to behold the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ by faith now? For Owen, it means meditating on what scripture tells us of who Jesus is, and what he has done, and continues to do, and promises he will do. All of a sudden meditating on the beatific vision doesn’t sound quite so esoteric and abstract, does it? But the one thing Owen wants to make sure that we grasp is that we do indeed need behold the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. Jesus is the eternal Son of God in person. It is absolutely vital for Owen that our scriptural and doctrinal anchor for all of our thoughts about Jesus is that he is fully divine as well as fully human.

Owen has a great deal to say about the importance of Jesus’ humanity, but he emphasizes above all that we must keep a strong sense of the divinity of Christ because so many people were denying it outright. He writes of how denial of Christ’s divinity is making havoc of Christianity in his time, and of how belief in Christ’s divinity as well as his humanity is the foundation of our faith and of our salvation. If we do not acknowledge the divinity of Christ, says Owen, then we do not truly behold the glory of God in him––we do not see God or know God in him. Above all, we do not truly know the self-giving and saving love that the Triune God has for us. And if we do not acknowledge the divinity of Christ, our salvation falls apart, because it is only as Jesus Christ is God himself amongst us that our sins are taken away, death is destroyed, and we are restored to union and communion with the Triune God. We absolutely need Jesus Christ to be a human being as we are, like us in every way except sin. But if we lose the divinity of Christ, we have lost everything. For Owen, beholding the glory of Christ in his divine as well as human nature is the touchstone for true faith and therefore for salvation.[5]

Even so, mere intellectual assent to the doctrine of Christ’s two natures is not enough without heart knowledge––without personal experience of its transforming power. Owen says that we must not “rest … in the Notion of this Truth, and a bare assent unto the Doctrine of it. The affecting Power of it upon our Hearts, is that which we should aim at.” Without this he says that “Religion…is a dead carcass without an animating soul.” By the Spirit, then, we are to cultivate habits––what we would now call spiritual practices––that will enable us to experience the glory and the love of Christ: “Be not content to have right Notions of the love of Christ in your minds, unless you can attain a Gracious Taste of it in your Hearts.”[6]

This is where doctrine and spirituality meet. On the one hand, there is no true spirituality without it being deeply grounded in rigorous theology. On the other, there is no true theology until we taste it in the depths of our hearts. Owen holds all of this together. He passionately loves the Lord and speaks rapturously of what he calls our ineffable and mystical union with Christ by the Spirit. But that passionate love of the Lord, and that spirituality of union with him, is inseparable from scripturally rooted historically orthodox doctrine. Doctrine lives and loves and sings and soars in prayer and contemplation and meditation, and in turn, all of that is in service to living more fully for the Lord in our day-to-day discipleship. Theology, spirituality, and discipleship are all of a piece.

As this indicates, discipleship is crucial to Owen, too. The fruit of all true theology and spirituality has to be living lives more fully oriented towards God. So, for example, meditating on the glory of Christ in his self-giving love is the way that we are made ready for a costly discipleship of self-giving love, self-denial, and the way of the cross. Owen speaks of how this enables believers to be able surrender “our Goods, our Liberties, our Relations, our Lives.”[7] When Owen wrote that, he meant it, and the people who read him knew exactly what he meant. Loss of income and property, imprisonment, and the threat and reality of execution had been the lived reality for many Nonconformists in England for more than twenty years.

Even in less extreme situations, meditating on the glory of Christ––contemplating the riches of who he is, fully divine and fully human, and what he has done for us––is still formative for our ordinary day-to-day lives. Owen points to how this makes us all the more ready to turn to Christ as our comfort and our refuge in distress, and how it helps to strengthen us in our troubles, and give us a better perspective on what we would now call our anxieties and obsessions, so that we might experience more of the peace of Christ. It also gives us confidence to turn to him as our strong tower in temptation, and as our merciful savior when we are burdened by our sin. And he speaks of how steady meditation on the glory of Christ throughout our lives will bring us strength and hope as we face death.

In fact, Owen is convinced that not regularly meditating on the glory of Christ is one of the main reasons why there seems to be so little fruit from so many people’s faith––why there are so few signs of sanctification in so many professing Christians. He remarks that if Christians were to spend more time meditating on Christ in his divinity and humanity and all that this means for us, “we should more represent the Glory of Christ in our ways and walking than usually we do.”[8] In other words, we would walk the Christian walk a good deal better in our daily lives, and we would show the world a good deal more of Jesus, if we were a good deal more intentional about spending time thinking about him.

This is because Owen is very well aware that we are all transformed more and more into the image of whatever most fills our minds. And most of the time, he says, that is anything else but Jesus. Owen reminds us that we all recognize the need to learn and practice skills for our work and our hobbies, but we don’t think we need to practice what it means to meditate on the glory of Christ, even though that is the means God has ordained for us by the Holy Spirit to live rightly before him, as 2 Cor 3:18 makes clear. As he puts it, we “are not so vain as to hope for skill and understanding in the mystery of a secular art or trade without the diligent use of those means whereby it may be attained; and shall we suppose that we may be furnished with spiritual skill and wisdom in this sacred mystery [beholding the glory of God] without diligence in the use of the means appointed of God for the attaining of it?”[9]  

He goes on to point out that we are usually able to find plenty of time to ruminate on how to be successful in our careers, or to get more money, or to fulfill a whole list of desires, but somehow it seems to be a lot harder to find time to mediate on Christ. Owen says:

When the minds of men are vehemently fixed on the pursuit of their lusts [i.e. any inordinate desire], they will be continually ruminating on the objects of them. … The objects of their lusts have framed and raised an image of themselves in their minds, and transformed them into their own likeness … . And shall we be slothful and negligent in the contemplation of that glory which transforms our minds into its own likeness, so as that the eyes of our understandings shall be continually filled with it, until we see him and behold him continually, so as never to cease from the holy acts of delight in him and love to him? [10]

Again, he is reminding us that we are transformed into the image of what most occupies our minds. Our minds need more Jesus, says Owen, and then, by the Spirit our lives will show more of the fruit of that. All of this also means that it is not possible to follow Christ by simply trying harder to live a moral, decent, upright life, as those despisers of spirituality (and the doctrine of the Trinity and Christ’s two natures) in Owen’s time tried to claim. Sanctification is not mere moralism. We are not talking primarily about behavior adjustment here. We are talking about relationship, and we are talking about transformation at the core of our being. What we need is the transforming work of the Spirit within us to bring us into ever deeper and more intimate communion with Christ, and to conform us more and more to be like him. That is what changes us and how we live day by day. And this means––we need spirituality! We need Christ-focused contemplation! Owen thinks that we should all spend dedicated time every day meditating on the glory of Christ in the fullness of his divine-human personhood. That is the wellspring of a transformed life in conformity to the ways and the will of God.[11] It is also our anticipation of the beatific vision in glory.

And so we turn briefly to what we can say of what that will be like, as best Owen can discern it from scripture. As I mentioned earlier, the usual, traditional account of the beatific vision is that the saved are able to apprehend as much as it is possible for a glorified creaturely mind to grasp of the essence of the Triune God. For Owen, and others in the Reformed Puritan tradition, though, the beatific vision doesn’t simply mean intellectual apprehension of the essence of God. It means we will see Jesus. Scripture indicates that we will quite literally behold the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ when we see him face to face in person at the eschaton.

That brings us to another issue of note, and another major difference between Owen’s understanding of the beatific vision and the more traditional approach. Owen’s is a gloriously bodily account of the beatific vision. This isn’t some glorified brain-on-a-stick intellectual apprehension of the essence of God. Our resurrected bodies will be central to the beatific vision. This is about seeing the glorified Christ with our glorified eyes, and in and through that, beholding the dazzling glory of the Triune God. Owen is utterly, rapturously lyrical about this. As he says: “The body as glorified, with its senses, shall have its use and place herein. After we are cloathed again with our flesh, we shall see our Redeemer with our eyes.” “Unto whom is it not a matter of rejoycing, that with the same eyes wherewith they see the tokens and signs of him in the Sacrament of the Supper, they shall behold himself immediately, in his own person. … As a man sees his neighbour when they stand and converse together face to face, so shall we see the Lord Christ in his glory.”[12]

As a side note, Owen’s powerful emphasis on the role of our glorified bodies in the beatific vision speaks into some contemporary debates about eschatology, about what the fullness of eternal life will be like. Those debates also have significant implications for how we think about the Christian life here and now. I think many of us have bought into a highly scripturally dubious idea of an all-but-disembodied eternal life in ‘heaven.’ We might pay lip service to the doctrine of the resurrection of the body, but functionally, our understanding of eternal life is largely ‘spiritualized.’ You can see how the more traditional approach to the beatific vision can compound this. It appears that we might as well not have our resurrection bodies at all, because the focus is entirely on our intellectual apprehension of the essence of God. One of the most important aspects of eschaton-logy in recent years has been the recovery of a much more scripturally robust account of how eternal life will involve our glorified resurrection bodies in the glorified new creation. But the people who emphasize this tend to place us and what we will be doing in the new creation so much at the center of how we envision eternal life that what scripture keeps at the center––beholding God, worshiping God, union and communion with God––gets lost. The prominent place Owen gives to our glorified resurrection bodies in the beatific vision helps us to hold all of this together. Worship of and communion with God remain at the center, but in a way that involves the whole of who we are: body, soul, mind, spirit.

It goes without saying that for Owen the beatific vision does involve our minds as well as our bodies. As we behold the glory of Christ so we will understand as fully as possible the divinity and humanity of Christ, the being of God as Trinity, and all that this means for us and our salvation. And as we behold and understand, so we will be fully and finally transformed. As Owen puts it, “The Vision which we shall have of the Glory of Christ in Heaven, and of the Glory of the immense God in him, is perfectly and absolutely transforming. It doth change us wholly into the Image of Christ. When we shall see him, we shall be as he is, we shall be like him, because we shall see him” (1 Jn 3:2).[13] As we behold and understand and are glorified, so we are also taken up into fullest most ineffable union and communion with the Triune God and caught up in the Triune life of love. And so will worship and adore, lost in wonder, love and praise. All of these––body, mind, soul, sight, understanding, transformation, love, adoration, worship––are held together.

Do you see what Owen has done here, and also what he is calling us to do? In his account of the continuum between beholding the glory of Christ by faith now, and by sight in the life to come––the continuum between the practice of daily meditation on Christ in this life and the beatific vision––in all of this, he has offered us an example of a scripturally rooted, doctrinally rich Reformed spirituality through which the Spirit will shape our lives and our discipleship now, in anticipation of eternal life. And do you also see how this counters the kinds of objections and problems related to ‘spirituality’ that Owen faced in his own times, and that we still face in various ways now?

So, just as Owen expected many of his readers to be impatient with any idea of contemplating the glory of Christ, as a distraction from living for God now, we also encounter people who will say that any kind of contemplative spirituality is a waste of time when there are so many serious issues in our society and in the world that require urgent action.

We also have our own versions of those whom Owen thought of as elevating other things over the authority of scripture and right doctrine. So, there are so many spiritualities today that primarily encourage us to ‘look within’ in ways that aren’t carefully qualified and tested by scripture. And in addition to those who have rejected the divinity of Christ in our day, there are all sorts of popular spiritualities in the church that use the language of Christian doctrines, such as the incarnation, but that undermine their biblical content by talking about how God is incarnate in all of creation, for example.

This means that those of us who value historic doctrinal orthodoxy can tend to dismiss any and all kinds of ‘spirituality’ as inherently unsound. In the process, we can come across as little more than heartless doctrinal brains-on-sticks. The problem is that the more that those of us who want to uphold classical Christian doctrines critique spirituality as doctrinally dubious, the more those seeking a deeper spirituality assume that to do that you have to abandon doctrinal orthodoxy. It sets up a false polarity: either you can have ‘spirituality’ or you can have ‘sound doctrine’ but you can’t have both.

To all these people I think Owen would say: a heart-deep relationship with God which is shaped by scripture and involves Spirit-led practices as a means of deepening our communion with Christ is essential. Call that spirituality if you wish. Whatever you call it, all believers need it. Without it, our doctrine is a lifeless carcass. Without it nothing we do in our lives––no aspect of our discipleship, or our activism, or our attempts to live a good and decent life––will be properly founded.

I think Owen would be deeply saddened that so many Reformed Christians and others, who rightly long for that heart-deep relationship with God and that deeper communion with Christ, feel compelled to seek it outside our tradition and apart from scripturally orthodox doctrine. I think he would tell us that deeply biblical spirituality is rooted in historically orthodox theology and our Reformed tradition is not an oxymoron!

This address was delivered at the Theology Matters conference on Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, March 8, 2023.

[1] John Owen, “Meditations and Discourses on the Glory of Christ in his Person, Office and Grace …” in The Works of John Owen, ed. William H. Gould, 24 vols. (London: Johnstone and Hunter, 1850-55),vol. 1, 273–415, 305. Hereafter cited “On the Glory of Christ.”

[2] Owen speaks of how some people scorn the idea that it is possible to experience the glory of Christ in union with him in this life as “distempered fancies and imaginations.” Owen, “On the Glory of Christ,” 398.

[3] Owen, “On the Glory of Christ,” 296–97.

[4] Our sanctification is a genuine foretaste of the glorification to come. It is a “previous Participation of future Glory, working in them Dispositions unto, and Preparation for the enjoyment of it” Owen, “On the Glory of Christ,” 415.

[5] Belief in the incarnation is “the Foundation of our Religion, the Rock whereon the Church is built, the Ground of all our Hopes of Salvation, of Life and Immortality.” “On the Glory of Christ,” 294. To deny the divinity of Christ is to be an unbeliever (295).

[6] Owen, “On the Glory of Christ,” 307, 397, 337–338.

[7] Owen, “On the Glory of Christ,” 332.

[8] Owen, “On the Glory of Christ,” 304.

[9] Owen, “On the Glory of Christ,” 306–307.

[10] Owen, “On the Glory of Christ,” 307.

[11] Owen, “On the Glory of Christ,” 304–305, 316–319.

[12] Owen, “On the Glory of Christ,” 383, 378.

[13] Owen, “On the Glory of Christ,” 410.

Suzanne McDonald
Suzanne McDonald
Suzanne McDonald, Ph.D., is Professor of Systematic and Historical Theology at Western Theological Seminary, Holland, Michigan.


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