Quotes from the Fathers and Mothers of the Christian Faith: John Owen on The Love of the Father

John Owen

Recently I’ve been broadening my theological horizons by reading John Owen’s book Communion with the Triune God. In my reading, I found several theological significant quotes on the Love of God the Father and the Christological location of our experience of his love. In this post, my goal is to explain Owen’s understanding of the Love of the Father, how Christians experience the love of the Father in Jesus Christ, and I will see to show how four Trinitarian and one Soteriological principle are at work in Owen to explain these realities.  I will conclude on a personal note describing how these quotes helped me see that the Father eternally loves me and that the Son’s reconciling work was not about convincing God the Father to love me but to make a place for me to experience the Father’s love in the Son.

In this first quote, Owen speaks in the voice of Christ:

“Says our Savior: Take no care of that, nay, impose not that upon me, of procuring the Father’s love for you; but know that this is his peculiar respect towards you, and which you are in him: ‘He himself loves you.” It is true, indeed (and as I told you), that I will pray the Father to send you the Spirit, the Comforter, and with him all the gracious fruits of his love; but yet in the point of love itself, free love, eternal love, there is no need of any intercession for that: for eminently the Father himself loves you. Resolve of that, that you may hold communion with him in it, and be no more troubled about it. Yea, as your great trouble is about the Father’s love, so you can no way more trouble or burden him, than by your unkindness in not believing of it.” (109).

Owen holds that divine love is specially appropriated to the Father. This is our first principle of Trinitarian theology. Appropriation is the theological practice of identifying specific characteristics of the divine essence with a particular person because of the revelation of Scripture and the economy of salvation. To appropriate love to the Father in a particular way does not mean that the Son and Spirit are not also Love as the Father is Love. The second trinitarian principle that helps make sense of appropriation, at work here is that when each person is at work, all three are involved. This is called inseparable operations.  Thus, for the Father to love us especially means that the SOn and Spirit also love us in his love. In this quote, Owen argues that Jesus’s intercessions and the work of the Spirit do not secure the love of the Father, because he loved us freely before the creation of the world. Why, does he need to emphasize this, in the words of Jesus no less? The next quote makes it clear why this is a significant concern:

Christians walk oftentimes with exceedingly troubled hearts, concerning the thoughts of the Father towards them. They are persuaded of the Lord Christ and his good will; the difficulty lies in what is there acceptance with the Father – what is his heart toward them? Now, this ought to be so far away, that his love ought to be looked on as the fountain from whence all other sweetness flows. Thus the apostle sets it out: ‘after that the kindness and love of God our Savior toward man appeared’ (Titus 3:4). It is of the Father of whom he speaks; for he tells us that ‘he makes out unto us’ or ‘sheds that love upon us abundantly, through Jesus Christ our Savior” (v. 6) (110-111).

Two things can be noted in this quote: First, Owen’s pastoral-theological interest is to make sure that the Christian knows that God the Father does indeed love them and is not persuaded to love them by Jesus Christ. The total love of the Father is often mitigated in the popular imagination; Owen combats this by arguing that the Father is the fountain of love from which “all other sweetness flows.” The Father is love without qualification. This is of utmost importance for Owen. In another quote, Owen explains that  one of the Evil One’s greatest desires is to deceive people about the Father’s love:

“Flesh and blood is apt to have very hard thoughts of him, to think he is always angry, yea, implacable; that it is not for poor creatures to draw nigh to him… Now, there is not anything more grievous to the Lord nor more subservient to the design of Satan upon the soul than such thoughts as these. Satan claps his hands (if I may so say) when he can take up the soul with such thoughts of God: he has enough – all that he does desire… Assure yourself, then, there is nothing more acceptable unto the Father than for us to keep up our hearts unto him as the eternal fountain of all that rich grace which flows out of sinners in the blood of Jesus. (127).

This quote shows us that disbelief in the Father’s love, the human fear of God the Father is nothing less than a deception from the Evil one.

Second, the image of the Father as the fountain of love, in the last two quotes, brings his readers to the Christological location of the experience of communion with the Father. “The Father communicates no issue of his love unto us but through Jesus Christ; and we make no return of love unto him but through Jesus Christ.” (117). The Father is the fountain of love, and the Son is the stream where Christians both experience the Father’s love and are taken back to the source of the Son: The Father. This is made clear in the next quote:

Though all our refreshment actually lies in the streams, yet by them we are led up into the fountain. Jesus Christ, in respect of the love of the Father, us but the beam, the stream; wherein though actually all our light, our refreshment lies, yet by him we are led to the fountain, the sun of eternal love itself. (112).

We’ve seen that the Father loves us eternally, and his love is not dependent on the Son’s reconciling work. However, the experience of the Father’s love, the fountain of eternal love, can only be had in the stream of the Son, who the Father eternally generates as his equal Son. Here two principles of Trinitarian theology, in addition to appropriation and inseparable operations, and one principle of salvation are put to work in order for our communion with the Father to be realized.

Trinitarian principle 3: The Father and Son are one Essence. If the Son is not of the same essence as the Father and from him, we can have no communion with the Father or the Son. This is the principle of homoousion – that God the Father and Son have the same essence (John 1:1-2 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God).

Trinitarian Principle 4: The Son is eternally from the Father, which means he is distinct and equal to the Father. Owen uses the metaphor of a fountain and stream to draw us into the reality that it is in the Son that we experience and go to the fountain of the Father. This image illustrates that the Son and the Father are distinct and that the Son is from the Father. However, it fails to adequately represent that the Son is equal to the Father in essence. The Church confesses that the Son is from the Father in all equality, i.e., without subordination (See John 5:19-26). This is important for our understanding of Owen because if the Son is not the same essence and the same love as the Father – even as he is distinct and from the Father – then we are not really able to experience the love of the Father in Jesus Christ. 

This leads us to the Soteriological principle: the Son is the way and the only way to the Father (John 14:6). Thus, Scripture simultaneously testifies that the Father loves us from eternity, and our ability to experience and commune with the Father is by being in Jesus Christ. 

All of this is to say, that for me, the struggle to experience the love of the Father has often been tied up in misunderstanding 1) the eternal love of the Father, apart from Christ’s reconciling work, and 2) the ontological location of my participation in the Father’s love. The Father eternally and freely loves me, and that is why he made it possible for me to experience delight, and commune with him in his Son through the reconciling work of his Death and resurrection. Thus, Christ’s death and resurrection did not secure the Father’s love. Instead, it guarantees my ability to enjoy the love that the Father had for me from eternity.

Because Christians are in Christ, in the stream that takes us to the fountain of the eternal love of the Father they can  experience and delight in the love of the Father:

Put, then this to the venture: exercise your thoughts upon this very thing, the eternal, free, and fruitful love of the Father, and see if your hearts be not wrought upon to delight in him. I dare boldly say: believers will find it as thriving a course as every they pitched on in their lives. Sit down a little at the fountain, and you will quickly have a further discovery of the sweetness of the streams. You who have run from him, will not be able, after a while to keep at a distance for a moment.” (127-128).

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