Tag Archives: The True Nature of a Gospel Church

“The holiness, love, compassion, care, and authority of Christ towards His church” by John Owen

“The especial design of the rule of the church in its government is to represent the holiness of Christ, love of Christ, compassion of Christ, care of Christ, and authority of Christ towards His church.

This is the great end of rule in the church, and of all the discipline which is to be exercised by virtue thereof.

Whilst this is not attended unto, when the officers and rulers of the church do not endeavour, in all the actings of their power and office, to set forth these virtues of Christ, to exemplify that impression of them which He hath left in His laws and rule, with the divine testimonies which He gave of them in His own person, they utterly deviate from the principal end of all rule in the church.

For men to act herein in a way of domination, with a visible elation of mind and spirit above their brethren; with anger, wrath, and passion; by rules, order, and laws of their own devising, without the least consideration of what the Lord Christ requires, and what is the frame of His heart towards all His disciples,—is to reflect the highest dishonour imaginable upon Christ Himself.

He who comes into the courts of the king in Westminster Hall, when filled with judges, grave, learned, and righteous, must ordinarily be allowed to judge of the king himself, his wisdom, justice, moderation, and clemency, by the law which they proceed upon and their manner of the administration of it.

But God forbid that Christians should make a judgment concerning the holiness, wisdom, love, and compassion of Christ by the representation which, as is pretended, is made of Him and them in some courts wherein church rule and discipline is administered!

When any had offended of old, their censure by the church was called the bewailing of them, (2 Cor. 12:21); and that because of the sorrow, pity, and compassion whereby, in that censure, they evidenced the compassion of the Lord Christ towards the souls of sinners.

This is scarce answered by those pecuniary mulcts and other penalties, which, with indignation and contempt, are inflicted on such as are made offenders, whether they will or no.

Certainly, those who love the Lord Jesus Christ in sincerity, and have a due honour for the gospel, will, at one time or another, begin to think meet that this stain of our religion should be washed away.

The rule and law of the exercise of power in the elders of the church is the holy Scripture only.

The Lord Christ is the only lawgiver of the church; all His laws unto this end are recorded in the Scripture; no other law is effectual, can oblige or operate upon the objects or unto the ends of church-rule.

If the church make a thousand rules, or canons, or laws for government, neither any of them, nor all of them in general, have any the least power to oblige men unto obedience or compliance with them, but only so far as virtually or materially they contain what is of the law of Christ, and derive force from thence: as the judges in our courts of justice are bound to judge and determine in all cases out of and according to the law of the land; and when they do not, their sentence is of no validity, but may and ought to be reversed.

But if, wilfully or of choice, they should introduce laws or rules not legally established in this nation, judging according unto them, it would render them highly criminal and punishable.

It is no otherwise in the kingdom of Christ and the rule thereof. It is by His law alone that rule is to be exercised in it. There is nothing left unto the elders of the church but the application of his laws and the general rules of them unto particular cases and occasions.

To make, to bring, to execute, any other rules, laws, or canons, in the government of his church, is to usurp on His kingly dominion.”

–John Owen, “The True Nature of a Gospel Church,” The Works of John Owen, Volume 16 (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1689/1968), 16: 135-136.

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“The first and principal duty of a pastor” by John Owen

The first and principal duty of a pastor is to feed the flock by diligent preaching of the Word. It is a promise relating to the New Testament, that God would give unto His church ‘pastors according to His own heart, which should feed them with knowledge and understanding,’ (Jer. 3:15).

This is by teaching or preaching the Word, and no otherwise. This feeding is of the essence of the office of a pastor, as unto the exercise of it; so that he who doth not, or can not, or will not feed the flock is no pastor, whatever outward call or work he any have in the church.

The care of preaching the gospel was committed to Peter, and in him unto all true pastors of the church, under the name of ‘feeding,’ (John 21:15–17). According to the example of the apostles, they are to free themselves from all encumbrances, that they may give themselves wholly unto the word and prayer, (Acts 6:1–4).

Their work is ‘to labour in the word and doctrine,’ (1 Tim. 5:17); and thereby to ‘feed the flock over which the Holy Ghost hath made them overseers,’ (Acts 20:28): and it is that which is everywhere given them in charge.

This work and duty, therefore, as was said, is essential unto the office of a pastor. A man is a pastor unto them whom he feeds by pastoral teaching, and to no more; and he that doth not so feed is no pastor.

Nor is it required only that he preach now and then at his leisure, but that he lay aside all other employments, though lawful, all other duties in the church, as unto such a constant attendance on them as would divert him from this work, that he give himself unto it,—that he be in these things labouring to the utmost of his ability.

Without this no man will be able to give a comfortable account of the pastoral office at the Last Day…

Sundry things are required unto this work and duty of pastoral preaching; as,—

(1.) Spiritual wisdom and understanding in the mysteries of the gospel, that they may declare unto the church “all the counsel of God” and “the unsearchable riches of Christ.” (See Acts 20:27; 1 Cor. 2:4–7; Eph. 3:8–11).

The generality of the church, especially those who are grown in knowledge and experience, have a spiritual insight into these things, and the Apostle prays that all believers may have so, (Eph. 1:15–19); and if those that instruct them, or should do so, have not some degree of eminency herein, they cannot be useful to lead them on to perfection.

And the little care hereof or concernment herein is that which in our days hath rendered the ministry of many fruitless and useless.

(2.) Experience of the power of the truth which they preach in and upon their own souls. Without this they will themselves be lifeless and heartless in their own work, and their labour for the most part will be unprofitable towards others.

It is, to such men, attended unto as a task for their advantage, or as that which carries some satisfaction in it from ostentation and supposed reputation wherewith it is accompanied.

But a man preacheth that sermon only well unto others which preacheth itself in his own soul.

And he that doth not feed on and thrive in the digestion of the food which he provides for others will scarce make it savoury unto them; yea, he knows not but the food he hath provided may be poison, unless he have really tasted of it himself.

If the Word does not dwell with power in us, it will not pass with power from us. And no man lives in a more woful condition than those who really believe not themselves what they persuade others to believe continually.

The want of this experience of the power of gospel truth on their own souls is that which gives us so many lifeless, sapless orations, quaint in words and dead as to power, instead of preaching the Gospel in the demonstration of the Spirit.

And let any say what they please, it is evident that some men’s preaching, as well as others not-preaching, hath lost the credit of their ministry.

(3.) Skill to divide the word aright, (2 Tim. 2:15); and this consists in a practical wisdom, upon a diligent attendance unto the word of truth, to find out what is real, substantial, and meet food for the souls of the hearers,—to give unto all sorts of persons in the church that which is their proper portion.

And this requires, (4.) A prudent and diligent consideration of the state of the flock over which any man is set, as unto their strength or weakness, their growth or defect in knowledge (the measure of their attainments requiring either milk or strong meat), their temptations and duties, their spiritual decays or thrivings; and that not only in general, but, as near as may be, with respect unto all the individual members of the church.

Without a due regard unto these things, men preach at random, uncertainly fighting, like those that beat the air.

Preaching sermons not designed for the advantage of them to whom they are preached; insisting on general doctrines not levelled to the condition of the auditory; speaking what men can, without consideration of what they ought,—are things that will make men weary of preaching, when their minds are not influenced with outward advantages, as much as make others weary in hearing of them.

And, (5.) All these, in the whole discharge of their duty, are to be constantly accompanied with the evidence of zeal for the glory of God and compassion for the souls of men. Where these are not in vigorous exercise in the minds and souls of them that preach the Word, giving a demonstration of themselves unto the consciences of them that hear, the quickening form, the life and soul of preaching, is lost.

All these things seem common, obvious, and universally acknowledged; but the ruin of the ministry of the most for the want of them, or from notable defects in them, is or may be no less evidently known.

And the very naming of them (which is all at present which I design) is sufficient to evidence how great a necessity there is incumbent on all pastors of churches to give themselves unto the Word and prayer, to labour in the Word and doctrine, to be continually intent on this work, to engage all the faculties of their souls, to stir up all their graces and gifts, unto constant exercise in the discharge of their duty; for ‘who is sufficient for these things?’ (2 Cor. 2:16)”

–John Owen, “The True Nature of a Gospel Church,” The Works of John Owen, Volume 16 (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1689/1968), 16: 74-77.

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