Owen on the Importance of Worship

When one surveys the ever-growing secondary literature on John Owen (1616–1683) the conclusion that can be legitimately drawn is that worship or liturgical theology was just not a major concern for him. Our own Ryan McGraw did his PhD on Owen's view of worship as communion with the Triune God and yours truly is attempting to write a PhD on Owen's liturgical theology.

So, just how important was worship to John Owen? One brief place to find an answer is the longest question and answer in his 1667 treatise, A Brief Instruction in the Worship of God. In question and answer fifteen Owen sought to apply and draw out the experiential truth of worshipping God according to Christ’s commands. In doing so, he took his previous principles and asked, “Whence may it appear that the right and due observation of instituted worship is of great importance unto the glory of God, and of high concernment unto the souls of men?” While “the instituted worship of God is neglected and despised in the world,” Owen demonstrated the great importance of the worship of God to the glory of God by citing a catena of biblical passages to demonstrate this, from Genesis through Revelation (Works 15:471). After tracing this out from Adam, Abel, Abraham, Israel, and the Church, Owen said, “In no state or condition, then, of the church did God ever accept of moral obedience without the observation of some instituted worship, accommodated in his wisdom unto its various states and conditions” (Works 15:473).

The importance of worship is also seen in that God gave his ordinances to instruct his people in the mysteries of his will and to communicate love, mercy, and grace to them. Owen demonstrated this from circumcision, which instructed in conversion, from the Passover, which instructed in redemption, from baptism, which instructed in union with Christ, and from the Lord’s Supper, which instructed in communion with Christ (Works 15:473).

Finally, worship was of “high concernment unto the souls of men” because in it God made “blessed promises to his people, to grant them his presence and to bless them in their use.” Even more, Owen said the ordinances of worship were the “tokens of the marriage relation that is between him and them” (Works 15:471). Owen saw this special presence and the blessings that come from, again, from all of Scripture, in the tabernacle of the Old Covenant and in Christ in the New Covenant (Works 15:475). Owen reserved his most intimate metaphors for the importance of worship for the end of this question and answer. “Because we are apt to be slothful, and are slow of heart in admitting a due sense of spiritual things” God desires to stir up his people. He has done this in his declaration that our obedience to his ordinances is a part of the “conjugal covenant” he has made with us in Christ. When we come to worship we show that we are married to Christ, but when we neglect his worship or profane it “by inventions or additions of our own, to be spiritual disloyalty, whoredom and adultery, which his soul abhoreth, for which he will cast off any church or people, and that for ever” (Works 15:475). God has given his people examples of this in Nadab and Abihu, Korah, Dathan, and Abiram, the sons of Eli, Uzza, and Uzziah. “From all which it appears of what concernment it is unto the glory of God, and the salvation of our souls, to attend diligently unto our duty in the strict and sincere observation of the worship of the gospel” (Works 15:476).

In this, Owen was doing nothing else than following the trajectory of the early Swiss and German Reformed theologians, who saw the reformation not merely in terms of doctrine (a la Luther and sola fide) but in terms of a whole-orbed approach to the Church and the Christian life. Hence John Calvin one wrote to Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor,

If it be inquired, then, by what things chiefly the Christian religion has a standing existence amongst us, and maintains its truth, it will be found that the following two not only occupy the principal place, but comprehend under them all the other parts, and consequently the whole substance of Christianity: that is, a knowledge, first, of the mode in which God is duly worshipped; and, secondly, of the source from which salvation is to be obtained (On the Necessity of Reforming the Church).

As Reformed Christians, right worship of the right God ought still to be our passion. It ought to be of great importance as we seek to glorify God and it ought to be of great concern as we seek the Lord's salvation. Is it yours?

Danny Hyde


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