John Owen and the Art of Biblical Meditation

SARAH WHITE|GUEST

Do you think of meditation as part of your Christian practice? How about theological study? Did you know that our forebears considered these things to be intimately connected—and accessible to every believer?

One such figure was John Owen, the seventeenth-century English Puritan theologian and pastor. In The Glory of Christ, written near the end of his life, Owen commends the practice of meditating on Christ’s glory.

Puritan Meditation

“Meditation,” in the Puritan vocabulary, was far from an emptying of the mind. Rather, it was a biblically-anchored pondering of God’s truth, drawing on both the intellect and the affections. Such meditation is important because it tunes our hearts for prayer and worship. In fact, the Puritans would argue that we can’t fully enjoy the grace given through such means as hearing sermons, reading Scripture, and partaking of the sacraments if we fail to meditate on the truths conveyed therein. It is the difference between gobbling a feast and appreciatively savoring each bite.

While any aspect of Christ’s person and work is a fitting subject for meditation, Owen devotes much discussion to Christ’s “humiliation.” Westminster Larger Catechism Q. 46 says, “The estate of Christ’s humiliation was that low condition, wherein he for our sakes, emptying himself of his glory, took upon him the form of a servant, in his conception and birth, life, death, and . . . resurrection.” Owen explains, “Unless we are diligent in this [meditation], it is impossible to keep our faith steadily fixed on Christ or be ready for self-denial and taking up our cross, for the humbling of Christ is the chief motive for this duty (Phil. 2:5-8).” In other words, if we don’t understand what the humiliation of Christ means, then our basic, daily calling as Christians will be beyond us.

Surely, Owen would say, it isn’t enough to grasp this doctrine intellectually (if such were fully possible!). But if this doctrine is treasured in the mind, it won’t stay lodged there. It will work its way into the soul’s depths, enlivening hope, and shaping one’s daily walk in a distinctive way. Not all at once, and not once for all—that is why pilgrim believers must continually seek to study the Word, to engage in fellowship, and to partake regularly of the means of grace. Knowing we are creatures, God graciously provides these things for us.

Neither is an emotional response sufficient. Emotions fluctuate; they can deceive; especially if we are depressed or anxious, they don’t always reflect what we believe to be true. So, like bare professions of belief, they don’t offer an adequate picture of the soul’s health. Perhaps a better gauge is whether we are growing in the conformity of our wills to Christ’s—continuing to walk by faith, even when we don’t feel his presence or can’t make sense of our circumstances (Heb. 11:39).

Owen’s Model for Meditation

Meditation is a tool for such shaping of the will. Owen emphasizes the importance of clarity of mind in order to meditate well. Ever the pastoral theologian, he even offers some practical helps for instilling clarity. If we truly desire a taste of Christ’s glory, “we must not allow ourselves to be satisfied with vague ideas of the love of Christ.” If we think about it, we can slide into “vagueness” easily. When God’s grace and love are—rightly!—frequent themes in our reading and conversation, the ideas can become over-familiar or taken for granted. To sharpen our meditation, Owen suggests asking ourselves a few basic questions. For example, when considering the love Christ has shown through his humiliation, he recommends that we ask:

First, whose love are we dealing with? The Son of God’s.

How did that love reveal itself? In the acts of the Son’s divine and human natures (see, for instance, 1 John 3:16 and Hebrews 2:14-15).

Did we deserve this love? No—only wrath.

What did this love procure for us? Eternal salvation, and the enjoyment of God forever.

Owen concludes, “With such clear ideas of the love of Christ, and by worship, you may walk in the paradise of God and enjoy the sweet perfume of his mediatorial love (Song of Sol. 2:2-4).”

This is a wonderful model for how to reflect on our theology and ensure that we are vitally rooted in the truths of our confession. If you don’t feel equipped to ponder the big concepts—or if you fear their freshness has worn off in your mind and heart—try following Owen’s advice. Meditation can be as simple as breaking down big concepts to their core, examining the scriptural foundations, and dwelling on the gracious ways God has dealt with us. It draws us back, as all theological reflection should do, to the heart of the gospel.

Another blessing is that this practice locates our consolation outside of ourselves. Ultimately, we don’t look at what’s inside for assurance—either the soundness of our beliefs or the warmth of our emotions. Rather, we look at who Christ is and what he has done. Only this can move us to worship in the midst of doubt, dryness, or struggle.

A catechism question, like the one above, offers a great place to start. As you practice meditating on these rich truths, pray that God will impress them on your heart and mind, in ways that overflow in your daily life. If you don’t see clear evidence today, or tomorrow, return again to who Christ is and what he has done. Like John Owen, patiently rehearse the basics. As you continually redirect your gaze to Christ, you can be assured that he will complete his work in you, in his good time.

About the Author:

Sarah White

Sarah White holds an M.Div. from Yale Divinity School and an M.A. in Historical Theology from Saint Louis University. She loves writing about church history in ways that encourage contemporary women and deepen their curiosity about the past. She has been married to her husband, Kevin, for nine years and enjoys coaxing her lazy Basset Hound, Basil, to explore the outdoors with her. She is a member of The Kirk of the Hills Presbyterian Church in St. Louis, Missouri.

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