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John Owen’s Perspective on the Effects of Habits

Greg E. Gifford, MA, PhD ABD



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John Owen’s Perspective on the Effects of Habits:

Habits Promote Sanctity of the Church



We had a light in this candlestick; which did not only enlighten the room, but gave light to others far and near.

—David Clarkson, Spoken of John Owen at Owen’s Funeral



In the wake of the English civil war, groups of clergy were ousted because of their seemingly anti-government teachings, ministry, and perspective. These men did not seek to overthrow the government, but rather to purify the church that had become so closely married to the government. Thus, in 1662 an edict was issued to provide standardization across the Church of England and that edict was the Act of Uniformity. It was declared that there would be uniformity in the sacraments, public prayer, and all of these changes were based on the Book of Common Prayer. However, these clergy members, given the pejorative title Puritan, refused to adhere to this new mandate and were ejected from every formal ministry or governmental position in England. This was the Great Ejection of 1662 in which some 2,000 plus clergy members forfeited their formal positions of ministry and government leadership because of a refusal to submit to the Act of Uniformity. One of these clergy members was John Owen—a faculty of Oxford, regular chaplain of Oliver Cromwell, and English clergymen.

John Owen was considered to be one of the greatest theologians of his time, writing over twenty-one volumes of books and sermons that are still preserved to this day.[1] He has written on everything from the works of the Holy Spirit to the differing perspective on Scripture. He contended with other Puritans, like Richard Baxter on the Atonement, and was admired by his colleagues for his scholarship. What John Owen is little known for is his extensive writings on habit: Owen spoke more on habit than any other puritan.[2] Furthermore, he would write more on the particular subject of habit than any other of his contemporaries, including his co-pastor David Clarkson who would also make great contributions to the area of habits. The researcher’s thesis is that John Owen believed that habits promote the sanctity of the church based on the union of the believer to Christ. This will be displayed through an articulation of John Owen’s belief on habits and their nature, with a transition towards the effects of habit as they pertain to the church. To begin this conversation, though, one must understand a few key definitions.

Key Terms and Concepts to Understand

To define habits the way John Owen would define them, the researcher will simply provided his definition of habits: “And the first property of a habit, is, that it inclines and disposeth the subject wherein it is, unto acts of its own kind, or suitable unto it. It is directed unto a certain end, and inclines unto acts or actions which tend thereunto, and that with evenness and constancy.”[3] It will be displayed in great detail what exactly John Owen meant by the term habit and how he understood habits, but the reader must note that John Owen believed habits to be both a disposition and an action.

The term promote is “to contribute to the growth or prosperity of.”[4] John Owen would use three terms that are summarized in this term, promote. The terms that John Owen would use are “preserved, maintained and increased.[5] He would use this concept to help communicate that the sanctity of the church is promoted through habits.

The term sanctity is used to represent what Owen would describe habits as the “great purifier and sanctifier of the church, to free our minds from these corrupt affections, and inveterate prejudices, whereby we are alienated from the truth, and inclined unto false conceptions of the mind of God.”[6] He was not suggesting that this was entirely behavioristic or moralist, but rather that the Holy Spirit infused these habits by way of promoting holiness.[7] That holiness was simply used in the biblical sense of the holiness to which all believers are called (1 Pet. 1:16).

According to John Owen, the church is “a society of persons, called out of the world, or their natural worldly state, by the administration of the word and Spirit, unto the obedience of the faith, or the knowledge and worship of God in Christ, joined together in a holy band, or by special agreement, for the exercise of the communion of saints in the due observation of all the ordinances of the gospel (Rom. i.5, 6; 1 Cor. i.2, xiv.15; Heb. iii.1; James i.18; Rev. i:20; 1 Pet. ii.5. Eph. ii.21-23. 2 Cor. vi.16-18).”[8] This is consistent with the biblical use of the term and will thus be employed throughout the entirety of this paper.[9] It will also be used, as Owen used it, to apply to both the local and universal church.

The term based is simply used in its modern context. It simply means, “having a specified type of base or basis.”[10] The researcher is incorporating this term to show how John Owen based the sanctity of the church on the foundation of union with Christ through the means of habits.

The terms “Union with Christ” are being used in the way that John Owen has identified them, which is consistent with historical theology. He said,

This is that whereby we have union with Jesus Christ, the head of the church. Originally and efficiently the Holy Spirit dwelling in him and us, is the cause of this union. But formally, this new principle of grace is so. It is that whereby we become members of his bones and of his flesh (Eph. v. 30). As Eve was of Adam; she was one with him, because she had the same nature with him, and that derived from him, which the apostle alludeth unto, so are we of him, partakers of the same divine nature with him. Thus, he that is “joined unto the Lord is one spirit” (1 Cor. vi.17), that is, of one and the same spiritual nature with him (Heb. ii. 11.14). How excellent is this grace, which gives us our interest in, and continuity unto, the body of Christ, and to his person as our head. It is the same grace in the kind thereof, which is in the holy nature of Christ, and renders us one with him.[11]

The Union of a believer with Christ will be one of the fundamental understandings to the researcher’s thesis, as it serves as the basis for habits that promote the sanctity of the church.

Background of John Owen

John Owen was born in 1616 to a Puritan family in Stadham, Oxfordshire that would send him to Oxford in his early years.[12] He would receive his BA in 1632 and his MA in 1635 from Queen’s College in Oxford. After Oxford, Owen would become chaplain of a Sir Robert Dormer of Oxfordshire. He would marry Mary Rooke in 1642 and father eleven children with her, 10 of which would not live to adulthood. The only child that did live to adulthood would later die of tuberculosis.

Over the next five years Owen would publish his first work, The Display of Arminianism, and become an associate to Oliver Cromwell who was the “lord protector of England.”[13] Owen would become sympathetic to Cromwell “after the execution of King Charles I by Cromwell’s partisans in January 1649, [and] Owen accompanied Cromwell on his military ventures to Ireland and Scotland (1649–50).”[14] Owen would later serve as the vice-chancellor of Oxford, due in large part to Cromwell’s influence, and would be forced to step out of this position around 1654 before the Great Ejection.

John Owen would spend the next decades writing and consulting with both English and New England Puritans. He wrote ferociously during this time and was even attacked by Richard Baxter for various views, some of which he defended late in his life.[15] Of note, however, was co-pastor of Independent Church in London with David Clarkson for two years at the end of his life and ministry. David Clarkson is the only other Puritan who would parallel the extensive writing of Owen on habits and it would be David Clarkson that would preach the funeral of John Owen. Although he felt incompetent to speak thoroughly about the character of John Owen’s, having known him for a brief period, he made a few comments in regards to his character.[16] One of the comments that Clarkson made in regard to Owen was that

A great light is fallen; one of eminency for holiness, learning, parts, and abilities; a pastor, a scholar, a divine of the first magnitude. … I need not tell you of this that knew him, and observed that it was his great design to promote holiness in the power, life, and exercise of it among you. … He has a burning and a shining light, and you for a while rejoiced in his light.[17]

Clarkson clearly respected and admired John Owen, which is obvious from his funeral sermon.

He spent the majority of the funeral sermon highlighting the giftedness and abilities of Owen, only to remind the church that “his conversation was not only advantageous in respect to his pleasantness and obligingness; but there was that in it which made it desirable to great persons, natives and foreigners, and that by so many, that few could have what they desired.”[18] Owen seemed to have both the giftedness of a sound intellect and also a character that complimented this giftedness. The significance of this sermon for the purposes of this paper is that David Clarkson would speak about habits in a similar capacity to that of Owen, and this sermon establishes that Clarkson learned from Owen in many areas, including that of habit.[19]

An Understanding of Owenian Habit

In order to best represent John Owen, the researcher is attempting to use the terms that John Owen would use and to define them in the way that he would use them. John Owen spoke more into habits in a systematic and concise perspective than any other of the Puritans.[20] For Owen habits were part of the conversation of sanctification and Pneumatology. In fact, in The Works of John Owen the majority of volume 3 is dedicated to the work of the Holy Spirit in a believer’s life.[21] Within this volume is where John Owen situates his conversation on habits and the Holy Spirit with the effects of those habits as they pertain to the church. To begin, one must understand what Owen believed to be a habit. As mentioned above, Owen defines habits as, “And the first property of a habit, is, that it inclines and disposeth the subject wherein it is, unto acts of its own kind, or suitable unto it. It is directed unto a certain end, and inclines unto acts or actions which tend thereunto, and that with evenness and constancy.”[22] Of note, Owen begins immediately with the effect or function of the habit. He suggests that the function of the habit is two-fold: (1) inclines and (2) disposes, which results in actions of the same type.

This inclination is towards the same genus of the habit. For instance, Owen says, “Intellectual habits are arts and sciences. When men by custom, usage, and frequent acts in the exercise of any science, art, or mystery, do get a ready facility in and unto all the parts and duties of it, they have an intellectual habit therein.”[23] He displays that the type of habit will help communicate the type of inclination or disposition. In this case, intellectual habits dispose one to intellectual inclinations. He also says the same is true of moral and supernatural habits.[24] In making this observation Owen reveals what he believes to be true about all habits and then offers a classification for those habits. Moreover, one of the fundamental aspects of every habit—in the mind of John Owen—is that habits “incline and dispose.”

Owenian Belief of the Types of Habits: Infused and Supernatural

The backbone of Owen’s discussion on habits is that he understands all habits to incline and dispose, and therefore he believes that at conversion a believer receives implanted or infused supernatural habits. He says in regards to supernatural habits, “That there is such a habit or principle supernatural, infused or created in believers by the Holy Ghost, and always abiding in them.”[25] Owen believed that at the point of salvation the Holy Spirit supernaturally infused habits into Christians so that those habits will “make us meet to live unto God.”[26] This would be more of a reference to the disposition that was mentioned above, rather than to the actions themselves—however, the disposition does incline towards the action.

According to Owen, a supernatural habit is what

I call this principle of holiness a habit; not as though it were absolutely of the same kind with acquired habits, and would in all things answer to our conceptions and descriptions of them: but we only call it so, because, in its effects and manner of operation, it agreeth in sundry things with acquired intellectual or moral habits. But it hath much more conformity unto a natural unchangeable instinct, than unto any acquired habit.[27]

Owen is recognizing that the supernatural habit does have effects that are cultivated and also predisposes, as do intellectual and moral habits, however what he is primarily referring to would be more along the line of an instinct. The supernatural habit is like an instinct in the fact that this supernatural habit serves as a disposition to the acts of holiness and obedience. Owen clearly states:

a virtue, a power, a principle, of spiritual life and grace, wrought, created, infused into our souls, and inlaid in all the faculties of them, constantly abiding, and unchangeably residing, in them, which is antecedent unto, and the next cause of, all acts of true holiness whatever.[28]

He is using the principle or virtue of habits in regards to what he means by a supernatural habit. Owen believes that at the point of salvation the Holy Spirit initiates and implants this new disposition and this new disposition leads to all of the acts of holiness.[29] The idea of virtue is something that Owen communicates as he speaks to the nature of the habit, which is an Aristotelian origination as will be displayed.[30] Yet, Owen believed that this idea was one that was communicated throughout Scripture in the idea of God’s promise to circumcise the hearts of the Israelites and grant a new heart as part of the New Covenant promise.[31] However, a summary of Owen’s position on habits is warranted to provide greatest clarity in regards to the way he uses the term habit.

Up to this point, Owen has differentiated between types of habits—intellectual, moral, natural, and supernatural—and the function of those habits. He believes that the nature of a habit entails both the disposition the habit forms and the corresponding actions of that habit. Furthermore, in regards to supernatural habits, he believes that the supernatural habits are implanted by the Holy Spirit and sustained through the power of the Holy Spirit. And he believes that the supernatural habit is antecedent to all acts of holiness.

Owenian Definition of Natural Habits

In John Owen offering a function of habits, he offers his implicit definition of habits. As Owen defines intellectual, moral, and supernatural habits he says of each that they all incline according to their nature. Of intellectual habits, as mentioned above he says “When men by custom, usage, and frequent acts in the exercise of any science, art, or mystery, do get a ready facility in and unto all the parts and duties of it, they have an intellectual habit therein.”[32] Of moral habits, John Owen notes that

These habits do incline, dispose, and enable the will to act according to their nature … by an assiduous diligent performance of the acts and duties of them, may attain such a readiness unto them and facility in them. … Moral habits are nothing but strong and firm dispositions and inclinations unto moral acts.[33]

Both of these are similar to what Owen believed in regards to supernatural habits. He says of supernatural habits “That, according to the nature of all habits, it inclines and disposeth the mind, will, and affections, unto acts of holiness suitable unto its own nature, and with regard unto its proper end, and to make us meet to live unto God.”[34] Owen would say that all habits incline and dispose, but that only the supernatural habits incline and dispose unto a life of godliness and piety.[35]

The Owenian understanding of habits is that they are always inclining and disposing towards their own nature—sinful, supernatural, moral, and intellectual. This basis for the function of habits enumerates the foundation for how Owen connects the dots of habits to the work of the Holy Spirit, as displayed in his definition of supernatural habits above. He sees that in order for a Christian to possess habits that are disposing them towards the God-honoring action, that there will be an infused habit by the Holy Spirit at the point of conversion. Furthermore, this will become important as will be displayed later because Owen would argue that the moral habit of a person will help discern whether or not they are in the Spirit or not. Therefore, the importance of habits as they pertain to the sanctity of the church is to allow for evaluation of a person’s natural habits and thus show what are their inclinations.

Etiology of Owenian Habit

One must ask, why did Owen partition down habits like he did in regards to intellectual, moral, and supernatural? Where did he develop the understanding of a supernatural habit? And does he cite any other authors in support of his conclusions? Even of greater interest than the source of these ideas would also be their biblical accuracy. Is what John Owen taught in regard of biblical origins or biblical agreement? Of note, Owen quotes only one extra-biblical source in his writings on habit and that source was Aristotle and his Nicomachean Ethics.[36]

Owen mentions, “As Aristotle says, ‘Virtue is a habit which maketh him that hath it good or virtuous, and his actions good.’”[37] Of particular importance is that Owen cites Aristotle in regards to habit and how the habit promotes actions of its own kind. He was using Aristotle’s writings to segue into his own teaching on how the nature of a habit would incline one to certain actions that are similar to that nature. Furthermore, the same classifications of habits were of Aristotelian origins.

Owen was using the terms that Aristotle employed in regards to habit, but offered a biblical alternative to the Aristotelian definitions. To illustrate this, one can see the following statement by Aristotle: “Virtue too is distinguished into kinds in accordance with this difference; for we say that some of the virtues are intellectual and others moral, philosophic wisdom and understanding and practical wisdom being intellectual, liberality and temperance moral.”[38] Now, listen to the words of Owen: “Now all moral habits are seated in the will. Intellectual habits are not immediately affective of good or evil, but as the will is influenced by them. These habits do incline, dispose, and enable the will to act according to their nature [italics mine].”[39] Owen employs the same terms as Aristotle, but offers varying definitions of those habits.

Aristotle would describe an intellectual habit as, “intellectual virtue in the main owes both its birth and its growth to teaching (for which reason it requires experience and time).”[40] Naturally, Aristotle was emphasizing the need for teaching in his Nicomachean Ethic, and says of the intellectual habit that it is based on teaching, but is a state of character.[41] Essentially, Aristotle believed that the type of habit (i.e., intellectual) was a disposition that would lead to similar actions of the nature of that habit, something that Owen firmly taught and believed. Furthermore, Aristotle believed that to act against one’s nature would be impossible.

Aristotle said, “From this it is also plain that none of the moral virtues arises in us by nature; for nothing that exists by nature can form a habit contrary to its nature. For instance the stone which by nature moves downwards cannot be habituated to move upwards, not even if one tries to train it by throwing it up ten thousand times.”[42] The nature of a habit would incline a person to act towards that nature, from Aristotle’s perspective. Now see the words of Owen on this matter:

The first property of a habit, is, that it inclines and disposeth the subject wherein it is, unto acts of its own kind, or suitable unto it. … Habits that are acquired by many actions, have a natural efficacy to preserve themselves, until some opposition that is too hard for them, prevail against them, which is frequently (though not easily) done.[43]

Owen’s thoughts on habits are strikingly similar to that of Aristotle’s, whom he quotes to support views on habits. It seems obvious that Aristotle shaped and influenced the way in which Owen thought about habit as dispositions, their classification, and also the development of those habits.[44] The table below helps to illustrate the framework that Owen developed with Aristotelian origins.

Aristotelian Categorization with Owenian Adjustments
Owen: “Natural Habits”

Aristotle: “Habits”

Owen: “Infused Habits”

Aristotle: “Virtues”





Frame of Spirit


Infused Habit

Supernatural Habit

Table 1: Categorization of Natural versus Infused Habits

The categories were of Aristotelian origin, but the subcategories were of Owen’s creation. He would use the terms that Aristotle used, and then offer terms to identify what he meant. The over-arching categories were Natural Habits and Infused habits. Under each of these categories, there were certain Owenian words used to articulate similar truths to that of Aristotle. It is evident from this table that Owen incorporated the categories of Aristotle, but that he used his own terminology to describe Aristotelian categories. Perhaps the most descriptive way to state the etiology of habits for John Owen is that it seems like Owen read a fair amount of Aristotle growing up. This is not to debunk Owenian perspective of habit, but to suggest that the categories for habit were not of biblical origin within the thinking of Owen. Owen’s understanding of habit originated from Aristotelian thinking and was critiqued with biblical thinking to form Owen’s teaching.

Biblical Critique of Aristotelian Thinking

To begin, Owen held that there were certain aspects of habits that corresponded more closely to virtues than to natural habits.[45] The way that Owen parsed this out in his mind is that a habit would both a natural habit and also a disposition towards those habits, as mentioned above. Meaning, the reason one acquires the habit and the acquired habit were both part of John Owen’s understanding of habit. It was from this understanding that he mentioned two key passages to articulate the instinctual/disposition component to habits: Isaiah 1:3 and Jeremiah 8:7.

Isaiah says, “The ox knows its owner, and the donkey its master’s crib, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand” and Jeremiah says, “Even the stork in the heavens knows her times, and the turtledove, swallow, and crane, keep the time of their coming, but my people know not the rules of the Lord.” Owen was illustrating that the people of Israel were rebuked for not doing that which should have been instinct for them. Namely, they were rebuked for not understanding the ways of the Lord and not following them, either. The point that Owen was making is that God implants in the believer something more dynamic when he implants the infused habit: “who teaches us more than the beasts of the earth and makes us wiser than the birds of the heavens (Job 35:11)?”[46]

Owen believed that even animals have instincts and that in a similar way, God instructs the believer to be wiser than the animal kingdom through the implantation of animal instincts. After establishing this point, Owen sees that the promise of the New Covenant is another way of stating the fulfillment of an infused habit. According to Owen, Deuteronomy 30:6 represented the process of the infused habit. “And the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live” (Deut. 30:6). About this passage, Owen said “The habit or principle which we have described, is nothing but a transcript of the law of God, implanted and abiding on our hearts, whereby we comply with, and answer unto, the whole will of God therein.”[47] Owen is simply equating the infused habit to what the Bible would call a new heart, as promised in the New Covenant (Jer. 31:33).

In regards to the practice of habits as regular or being acquired, Owen is relatively silent. The only area where he speaks of the need to practice habits is when speaking of the infused habits effects. He says, “It is true, that it is our duty, with all care and diligence, in the use of all means, to preserve, cherish, and improve both the principle itself, and its actings in these holy dispositions.”[48] The passages of Scripture that he uses to support this are passages that primarily are a reference to persevere in good works: Hebrews 6:11-12 and Isaiah 40:31.[49]

An Evaluation of Owen’s Hermeneutic

In regards to habits, Owen offered many texts that were pertinent and theologically connected to the idea of frequent practice, disposition, and obedience. In his employment of the passage, he would use them in sound and hermeneutically consistent ways.[50] In fact, the question was not one of his hermeneutics but do those same principles apply? For instance, is the promise of the New Covenant a promise towards an infused habit? If so, why not just use the term of Scripture, which would be “new heart.” If one were to take issue with Owen it would be at the point of his connecting terms to biblical ideas that perhaps would be better articulated in other capacities (i.e., “new heart” instead of “infused habit”). However, one would find great difficulty to critique his hermeneutic. From this understanding, then, one can begin to understand the effects of habits in regards to the church.

Habits Promote The Sanctity of the Church: Union with Christ

John Owen believed that the habits of a person would to promote the sanctity of the church. According to Owen, the church was the called out gathering of believers, and it was the duty of all Christians to be engaged in local fellowship with those who were also called out.[51] His ecclesiology was greatly shaped after his studies during his time at Parliament. Carl Trueman says that during Owen’s time in Parliament, he read

a little book by the Puritan emigrant to the New World, John Cotton: The Keys of the Kingdom. He was to credit this book with altering his opinion of church government from a broadly Presbyterian ecclesiology, where ultimate power in the church lay in the higher courts and assemblies which operated at a supra-congregational level, to that of Independency, where power was restricted to the individual congregation, albeit one with a strong eldership and not an egalitarian democracy.[52]

It was during this time that the formation of an independent, elder-led ecclesiology would develop. He said, “The constitution of these parochial assemblies (i.e., parish churches) is not from heaven, but of men.”[53] After this point in Owen’s ministry, he began to stand firm for the new convictions he developed. There is a sense in which this conviction would cost him great comforts as the Church of England was brooding with conflict by this point.

Wedged in the middle of this ecclesiology was what John Owen taught on the relationship of habit to the sanctity of the church. John Owen emphatically taught that these habits—both infused and the natural habits—promote holiness and the sanctity of the church through union with Christ.[54] How do they promote sanctity of the church one must ask? Owen would see that the first way that habits promote the unity of the church is through union with Christ: “Whereas, therefore, the Spirit of Christ communicated from him, for our union with him, is the cause and author of all grace and evangelical holiness in us, it is evident, that we receive it directly from Christ himself, which gives it the difference from all other habits and acts pleaded for.”[55]

Again, as with habit, Owen situated this conversation within the context of the work of the Holy Spirit and suggested that the Holy Spirit—through union with Christ—causes habits that are indeed holy. The difference that Owen was seeking to clarify in this section was the understanding of habits as being moral habits, but not necessarily God-honoring habits. His objection was to those who believed that one could perform moral habits that “prepared” them for their union with Christ. However, Owen notes, “Let them that can, satisfy themselves with these things; for my part, I have no esteem or valuation of that holiness as holiness, which is not the immediate effect of the Spirit of sanctification in us.”[56] This prevents one from thinking that they can prepare themselves for union with Christ and somehow produce a level of holiness apart from the work of the Spirit in their life.

The significance of this statement is that the person who believes in their moral habit can promote holiness would disagree with John Owen. He is arguing that only through the work of the Holy Spirit in a person’s life can they produce holiness. And this holiness comes through their union with Christ that affects their habits to be actual acts of holiness:

For in the same instant whereby any one is united unto Christ, and by the same act whereby he is so united, he is really and habitually purified and sanctified. For, where the Spirit of God is, there is liberty, and purity, and holiness. All acts and duties of holiness, are in order of nature consequential hereunto; but the person is quickened, purified, and sanctified, in its union.[57]

Union with Christ is said to be the source of the sanctity of any habits, according to Owen. This union with Christ, through the work of the Holy Spirit, precedes a habit becoming or contributing towards holiness. Thus, for one to be united with Christ there is a sense in which they are “really and habitually purified and sanctified.” This reference is to their infused habit that often looks like a disposition in our modern terminology.

Habits Promote The Sanctity of the Church: Discerning Habits

After teaching that habits would increase and promote the sanctity of the church, he also taught that to distinguish those who are moral and those who are holy would also promote the holiness of the church. His reasoning was built on the understanding that a believer is united with Christ. It goes something like this: union with Christ would help promote holiness; the ability to discern the difference between the believer and the unbeliever can be seen in habits of holiness; thus, discerning between holy or moral habits would purge unbeliever’s from among the church.

Here is what Owen said,

For if that which men call morality be so derived from the Lord Christ by virtue of our union with him, it is evangelical grace; if it be not, it is either nothing, or somewhat of another nature and kind; for grace it is not, nor holiness neither. And all that I have to prove herein, is, that the Lord Jesus Christ is a head of influence, the spring or fountain of spiritual life unto his church, wherein I know myself to have the consent of the church of God in all ages. And I shall confine the proof of my assertion unto the ensuing positions, with their confirmation.[58]

In this statement, Owen is attempting to validate that the source of holiness comes through Christ. Secondarily, he then says that the discernment of what this looks like can be seen in a forsaking of sin.

Owen thought that the union with Christ would overflow into a forsaking of sin, which is not something that can be done in morality alone. He said, “It is indeed our duty so to purify and purge ourselves … . Therefore, the purging of ourselves is that which is not absolutely in the power of our natural abilities.”[59] This purging was to be the litmus test for morality or holiness within the believer or unbeliever. Thus, if one is forsaking sin then there would be a good indicator that they were not a moral person, but a holy person. In discerning this, the church would be given great advantage and assistance in promoting sanctity. One can see that through the habits of forsaking sin that there is—most likely—a genuine believer, according to Owen. He then goes on to connect the dots to this as being a holy habit that promotes the sanctity of the church.

After stating that one can never purge sin without union with Christ, he says that

Therefore, the purging of ourselves is that which is not absolutely in the power of our natural abilities. For these corrupt affections possess, and are predominant in the mind itself, and all its actings are suited unto their nature, and influenced by their power. It can never, therefore, by its own native ability free itself from them. But it is the work of this great purifier and sanctifier of the church, to free our minds from these corrupt affections, and inveterate prejudices, whereby we are alienated from the truth, and inclined unto false conceptions of the mind of God.[60]

Owen believed that the duty of the Christian to purge themselves from sin was indeed their own duty, but a duty that was unattainable apart from the Spirit. Furthermore, that Satan promotes an inculcation of these sinful habits so as to counter the life of holiness.[61] Thus, when a believer engages in the holy habit of forsaking sin, it was to be a “great purifier and sanctifier of the church.” This purifier is only one that can come about through the union with Christ, and was overturning the habits of sin that were once a part of the nature of the believer.

Owen goes on to state the Holy Spirit “implants in our minds spiritual habits and principles contrary and opposite unto those corrupt affections, whereby they are subdued and expelled.”[62] It is a symbiosis of the believer being united to Christ, and the Holy Spirit implanting supernatural habits that help the believer to put off habits of sin. Owen would say that through this purging that the church is growing in its sanctity through the means of the holy habits of forsaking sin. In his mind, union with Christ, habits of holiness, and the sanctity of the church are inextricably linked. The sanctity of the church is promoted in these ways according to Owen. Consequently for Owen, habits have a significant place in the life of the believer and the sanctity of the church. He most certainly believed that habits promote the sanctity of the church based on the union of the believer to Christ.


As mentioned above, in 1662 the Act of Uniformity was passed in England. This was significant because it forced men like Owen to draw lines of distinction in their ecclesiology. Up to this point, Owen for that past twenty years had been practicing a form of congregationalism that have rise to his conviction of Independency.[63] This is to say that he was no foreigner to ecclesiology or church polity. He was one who would champion the form of church polity, known as Independency through his multiple writings on ecclesiology.[64] Yet, in the middle of Owen’s teaching on ecclesiology and Pneumatology, he offers insights into his perspective of their relationship to each other. He illustrates that he did, indeed, believe that habits promote the sanctity of the church based on the union of the believer to Christ. This has many implications, a few of which must be noted.

John Owen helps differentiate between morality and habits of genuine holiness. In fact, the center of his logic and teaching flow from this discernment of morality and holiness. A discussion on habits—especially the length of Owen’s discussion—would lend itself towards hyper-morality, but Owen’s offers a necessary corrective by suggesting that the infused habits of the Spirit must be present for the work of holy habits.

Secondarily, one can find great significance in the importance of repenting of sin. Owen notes that it shows that (1) a person is a believer, and (2) it promotes the sanctity of the church. Owen shows us that the turning of sin is emblematic of many important understandings of that person. Thus, a great implication for modern contexts would be the significance of a penitent heart and disposition towards one’s own sins. For the forsaking of sin, or the “purging” to use Owen’s term, would illustrate that a person has been united to Christ in salvation.

A final implication is that the conversation of habits can occur within a right understanding of the work of the Holy Spirit in the midst of those habits. Within the field of biblical counseling, it has been the poor coordination of Pneumatology and habituation theology that has virtually ended the conversation on habits. However, Owen gets it right in the coordination of the two: he shows that a believer is called towards certain habits, but that the Holy Spirit can only work those habits in the believer. He offers a corrective that is necessary to keep the conversation of habits within its biblical confines.

Yet whatever implication can arise, one must see that John Owen clearly taught and believed in the importance of habits. His thoughts on habits were situated in his Pneumatology and were solidified by his ecclesiology. They were cultivated by the tutelage of Thomas Barlow, and a rigorous education in the classics—where he developed his framework for habits. From this background and education Owen believed that habits were of great effect on the church because by them, “we are made like unto God, that we may live unto God.”[65]





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[1] Cf. John Owen, The Works of John Owen, vol. 1-21 (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1965). John Owen “was without doubt not only the greatest theologian of the English Puritan movement but also one of the greatest European Reformed theologians of his day, and quite possibly possessed the finest theological mind that England ever produced” (Timothy Larson, David Bebbington, and Mark A. Noll, eds., Biographical Dictionary of Evangelicals [Leicester, England: Intervarsity Press, 2003]). John Webster, professor at University of Oxford, also said, “he considered the Puritan to be the finest theological mind that England ever had produced.” In Robert W. Oliver, John Owen: The Man and  His Theology (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2002), 43.

[2] John Owen dedicated seventy-three pages to the works of habit in volume 3 of his Works (The Works of John Owen, vol. 3, 1-73). The Puritan who spoke about the nature of habits in any way that would compete with John Owens would be that of his contemporary, David Clarkson. Clarkson wrote on habits in his works, too, referencing habits in a handful of locations of his volume 2 (cf. David Clarkson, The Works of David Clarkson, ed. James Nichol, 2nd ed., vol. 2 [Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1988]).

[3] John Owen, Works, 3:18.

[4] Merriam-Webster, accessed October 13, 2017, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/promote.

[5] John Owen, Works, 3:56-57.

[6] Owen, Works, 3:452-53.

[7] Owen, Works, 3:10.

[8] Owen, Works, 5:505.

[9] Current theologians would describe the church as “The community of all true believers for all time” Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), 1238. Charles Ryrie says, “an assembly of people who have been called together” in Basic Theology (Chicago, IL: Moody, 1999), 625. And finally, John MacArthur would describe the church as “those who are true believers in Christ” in Biblical Doctrine (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2017), 926.

[10] Merriam-Webster, Merriam-webster.com, accessed October 30, 2017, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/based.

[11] Owen, Works, 3:13.

[12] A Puritan’s Mind, “John Owen,” accessed October 16, 2017, http://www.apuritansmind.com/puritan-favorites/john-owen/.

[13] Britannica Academic, “John Owen,” accessed October 16, 2017, http://academic.eb.com/levels/collegiate/article/John-Owen/57791.

[14] Ibid., s.v. “Cromwell.”

[15] “John Owen entered into soteriological debate for essentially soteriological reasons. In 1676 he published The Nature of Apostasie from the Profession of the Gospel. In explaining why he wrote the book, Owen opened with this truth: “That the state of Religion is at this day deplorable in most parts of the Christian World, is acknowledged by all.” These opening words parallel those of Baxter but Owen’s frame of reference was quite different. Rather than fretting over Christian division, he deplored England’s retreat from the Protestant Reformation. Tim Cooper, “John Owen, Richard Baxter and the Battle for Calvin in the Latter 17th Century England,” Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 20, no. 4 (2016): 63–78.

[16] David Clarkson spoke to this incompetency in his funeral address about his familiarity with John Owen: “It was my unhappiness that I had so little and late acquaintance with him, which makes me not competent for such an undertaking; the account that is due to the world, requires a volume, and a better hand than mine, which I hope it will meet with in time” (Owen, Works, 1:419).

[17] Owen, Works, 1:420.

[18] Owen, Works, 1:420.

[19] For further examination of the cross-pollination of Owen to Clarkson, consult David Clarkson, Selected Writings of David Clarkson, ed. John Blackburn (London: Wycliffe Society, 1846). Also see Robert Oliver’s comments: “One is not surprised to discover that he had assistants during these years [1668-1684], the best known of whom was David Clarkson who was serving the church at the time of Owen’s death.” Robert W. Oliver, John Owen: The Man and  His Theology (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2002), 35.

[20] Cf. footnote 2 for greater clarity on this statement.

[21] John Owen, The Works of John Owen, vol. 3 (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1965).

[22] Owen, 3:18.

[23] Owen, 3:8.

[24] Owen, 3:8-9, 7.

[25] Owen, 3:7.

[26] Owen, 3:7. “There is wrought and preserved in the minds and souls of all believers, by the Spirit of God, a supernatural principle or habit of grace and holiness, whereby they are made meet for and enabled to live unto God, and perform that obedience which he requireth and accepteth through Christ in the covenant of grace; essentially or specifically distinct from all natural habits, intellectual and moral, however or by what means soever acquired or improved” (472, 274).

[27] Owen, 3:9-10.

[28] Owen, 3:10. “Moral habits are nothing but strong and firm dispositions and inclinations unto moral acts and duties of their own kind; as righteousness, or temperance, or meekness” (Owen, 3:18-19).

[29] Furthermore, Owen believes that the Holy Spirit sustains and preserves supernatural habits after their implantation (3:10). Although moral and intellectual habits can be sustained through their exercising of them, supernatural habits are sustained through the work of the Holy Spirit.

[30] Owen, 3:43. Also cf. Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, trans. C.C.W. Taylor (N.P.: OUP Oxford, 2006), 63.

[31] Jeremiah 31:3; Deuteronomy 30:6 in Owen 3:11. “This new heart is a heart with the law of God written in it, as before mentioned ; and this new spirit is the habitual inclination of that heart unto the life of God, or all duties of obedience” (3:11).

[32] Owen, 3:8.

[33] Owen, 3:8-9, 18-19.

[34] Owen, 3:7.

[35] Owen, 3:12. “This new heart is a heart with the law of God written in it, as before mentioned; and this new spirit is the habitual inclination of that heart unto the life of God, or all duties of obedience.” Owen even would say the same is true of sinful habits: “a sinful, depraved habit, as in many other things, so in this, differes from all natural or moral habits whatever: for whereas they incline the soul gently and suitably to itself, sinful habits impel with violence and impetuousness; when lusts are said to find or wage ‘war against the soul’ (1 Pet. 2:2)” in Mortification of Sin (Louisville, KY: n.p., 2013), 42-43.

[36] This is not to say that Owen was unaffected by other extra-biblical authors. For instance, Thomas Aquinas also had a great effect upon Owen’s thought and theology. Carl Trueman notes, “Owen’s mind, then would have been filled with the kind of questions and answers which the medieval schoolmen raised in their classroom debates and, as I have argued elsewhere, what we have in Owen’s theology as a philosophical is a modified version of the thought of Thomas Aquinas.” Robert W. Oliver, John Owen: The Man and His Theology (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2002), 45.

John Owen would have become intimately familiar with Aristotle in his studies at Oxford, under the tutelage of Thomas Barlow. Thomas Barlow was the Provost of Queen’s College during Owen’s tenure and was the direct mentor to him for the majority of his post-baccaleurate education. Carl Trueman notes, “His influence on Owen, both theological and metaphysical, was profound; and by all accounts they became good friends, despite significant differences on the matter of conformity” in Carl Trueman, John Owen: Reformed Catholic, Renaissance Man (Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing, 2007), 3. It was most likely during this part of his education that Owen would have been exposed to the teachings of Aristotle. For further study on this topic, cross-reference the basic reading list of Thomas Barstow, Autoschediasmata de Studio Theologiae (Oxford, 1699).

[37] Owen, 3:43.

[38] Aristotle, Brown, L., & Ross, W. D., The Nicomachean Ethics (Oxford: OUP Oxford, 2009).

[39] Owen, 3:43.

[40] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1103A:15.

[41] “If, then, the virtues are neither passions nor capacities, all that remains is that they should be states of character. Thus we have stated what virtue is in respect of its genus” (1106a, 12-15).

[42] Aristotle, 1103a, 15.

[43] Owen, 3:18.

[44] In regards to the development of habits, Owen had a biblical alternative with the idea of a supernatural habit. However, Aristotle struggled to articulate how a person can change if they cannot act apart from their nature. Ross Lesley said, “we are adapted by nature to receive them, and are made perfect by habit: whether a person had virtue by nature was a much debated question; see especially Plato’s Meno. Aristotle’s compromise view, expressed here, is attractive. At VI.13 he allows a kind of ‘natural virtue’, such as a naturally brave child might possess, but distinguishes it from virtue proper. Habit is not to be thought of as unthinking, but rather as intentional habituation, which then becomes second nature” (212).

[45] Owen, 3:9.

[46] Ibid., 3:10.

[47] Owen, 3:11. Owen would also say that the converse is true for those who are apart from Christ. He cites Romans 8:7-8 as an evidence that for those who are unbelievers, their mind is set on the flesh thus they are inclined to perform the deeds of the flesh (3:20).

[48] Owen, 3:24.

[49] Ibid., 3:24. “We are to shew all diligence unto the full assurance of hope unto the end in the covenant unto the end; Heb. vi. 11. And in the use of means, and the exercise of grace is it, that it is infallibly kept and preserved.”

[50] Of note, he simply uses the idea of instinct (Isa. 1:3; Jer. 8:7) and also the promise of the New Covenant (Deut. 30:6; Jer. 31:33). These two passages and theological suggestions are, in fact, within a framework of Christian orthodoxy. Although disagreement may come as to whom the promise of the New Covenant would be applied to, it is widely agreed that the New Covenant is, indeed, a promise to reform the heart.

[51] “It is the indispensable duty of every disciple of Christ, in order unto his edification and salvation, voluntarily, and of his own choice, to join himself in and unto some particular congregation, for the celebration of divine worship, and the due observation of all the institutions and commands of Christ” in Oliver, John Owen: The Man and His Theology, 169.

[52] Carl Trueman, John Owen: Reformed Catholic, Renaissance Man, 3.

[53] Oliver, John Owen: The Man and His Theology, 171.

[54] Of note, John Owen also said of the nature of the church that an especial society or congregation of professed believers, joined together according unto his mind, with their officers, guides or rulers, who he hath appointed, which do or may meet together for the the celebration of all the ordinances of divine worship, the professing and authoritatively proposing the doctrine of the gospel, with the exercise of the discipline prescribed by himself unto their own mutual edification, with the glory of Christ, in the preservation and propagation of his kingdom in the world” Robert W. Oliver, John Owen: The Man and His Theology (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2002), 167.

[55] Owen, vol. 3, 61-63.

[56] Ibid., 3:61.

[57] Owen, Works, 3:61.

[58] “That which principally differenceth evangelical holiness, with respect unto the Lord Christ, from all other natural or moral habits or duties, and whereby he is made sanctification unto us, is, that from him, his person as our head, the principle of spiritual life and holiness in believers is derived; and by virtue of their union with him, real supplies of spiritual strength and grace, whereby their holiness is preserved, maintained and increased, are constantly communicated unto them. On the stating and proof here of, the whole difference about grace and morality doth depend, and will issue.” John Owen, vol. 3, 56-57.

[59] Owen, vol. 3, 452-53.

[60] Owen, vol. 3, 452-53.

[61] “For the artifice of Satan in turning the minds of men from the truth, is by bringing them under the power of corrupt and vicious habits, which expel that frame of spirit which is indispensably necessary unto them that would learn it.” Owen, Works, 3:452.

[62] Owen, Works, 3:453.

[63] Trueman, John Owen, 3.

[64] Trueman, 3.

[65] Owen, Works, 3:19.

"God may be looked upon in an absolute consideration, as he is in himself the best and most excellent being, wherein we behold the concurrence of all perfections, the most amiable and beauteous excellences, to an intellectual eye, that it can have an apprehension of." --John Howe, On Delighting in God
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