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Discourse Concerning Evangelical Love, Church Peace, and Unity


Chapter two of a five-chapter discourse

 by Dr John Owen

Dr Owen was a renowned Puritan minister of the Independent (Congregational) persuasion, whose profound and edifying works are published by The Banner of Truth Trust. C. H. Spurgeon in the 19th century said of John Owen, “It is unnecessary to say that he is the prince of divines. To master his works is to be a profound theologian.” He was born in 1616, in Stadham, Oxfordshire, England, and he died 1683 in London.  


Commendations of love and unity – Their proper objects, with their general rules and

measures – Of love toward all mankind in general – Allows not salvation unto any without faith in Christ Jesus – Of the differences in religion as to outward worship.


THE foundation of our discourse might be laid in the commendation of Christian love and unity, and thereon we might easily enlarge, as also abound in a collection of testimonies confirming our assertions; but the old reply in such a case, – “By whom ever were they discommended?” – evidenceth a labour therein to be needless and superfluous. We shall therefore only say, that they are greatly mistaken who, from the condition whereinto at present we are driven and necessitated, do suppose that we value not these things at as high a rate as themselves, or any other professors of Christian religion in the world. A greater noise about them may be made, possibly, by such as have accommodated their name and notion to their own interests, and who point their pleas about them and their pretences of them to their own secular advantage; but as for a real valuation of the things themselves, as they are required of us and prescribed unto us in the gospel, we shall not willingly be found to come behind any that own the name of Christ in the world. We know that God hath styled himself the God of love, peace, and order in the church, because they are eminently from him, and highly accepted with him. And as love is the new commandment which Jesus Christ hath given unto his disciples, so he hath appointed it to be the bond of perfection unto them; which nothing else will ever be, however finely invented for them, or forcibly imposed on them. Without this love, in what relates to church communion, whatever else we are, we are but as “sounding brass and tinkling cymbals.” And all unity or agreement in outward order not proceeding from and animated by this love, are things wherein neither Christ nor the gospel is much concerned. An endeavour also after one mind and one judgment, Phil. ii. 2, 1 Cor. i. 10, amongst all believers, for a help unto us to keep the “unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace,” we acknowledge to be indispensably required of us. And, therefore, where any opinion or practice, in or about religion or the worship of God, do apparently in themselves impair the gracious, holy principles of love and peace, or obstruct men in the exercise of any duties which those principles require or lead unto, it is a great and weighty prejudice against their truth and acceptation with God. As, therefore, we shall not boast of the prevalency of these principles in our minds, seeing that, though we should know nothing to the contrary by ourselves, yet are we not therefore justified; so we are assured that none can justly condemn us for the want of them, unless they can make good their charge by instances not relating to the peculiar differences between them and us, for what doth so will neither warrant any to make such a judgment, nor carry any conviction in it towards them that are judged. Upon the whole matter, we shall not easily be diverted from pursuing our claim unto an equal interest in these things with any other professors of the Christian religion, although at present we do it not by enlarged commendations of them. Much less are we in the least moved or shaken in our minds from the accusations of them who, having the advantage of force and power, do make a compliance with themselves, in all their impositions and self-interested conceptions, the sole measure of other men’s exercise and actings of these principles. We have a much safer rule whereby to make a judgment of them, whereunto we know “we shall do well to attend, as unto a light shining in a dark place.” But, now, whereas all these things, – namely, love, peace, and unity, – are equally dear unto us, yet there are different rules prescribed for the exercise and pursuit of them. Our love is to be catholic, unconfined as the beams of the sun, or as the showers of rain that fall on the whole earth. Nothing of God’s rational creation in this world is to be exempted from being the object thereof. And where only any exception might seem to be warranted by some men’s causeless hatred, with unjust and unreasonable persecution of us, there the exercise of it is given us in especial and strictest charge; which is one of the noble singularities of Christian religion. But whereas men are cast into various conditions on account of their relation unto God, the actual exercise of love towards them is required of us in a suitable variety; for it is God himself, in his infinite excellencies, who is the first and adequate object of our love, which descends unto others according to their participation from him, and the especial relations created by his appointment; whereof we shall speak afterward. Our duty in the observance of peace is, as unto its object, equally extended; and the rule or measure given us herein is the utmost of our endeavours in all ways of truth and righteousness which are required or may have a tendency thereunto: for as we are commanded to “follow peace with all men,” Heb. xii. 14, under the same indispensable necessity as to obtain and observe “holiness” in our own persons, “without which no man shall see the Lord;” so as to the measure of our endeavours unto this end, we are directed, “if it be possible, and as far as in us lieth, to live peaceable with all men,” Rom. xii. 18. The rule for unity, as it is supposed to comprise all church-communion, falls under many restrictions; for herein the especial commands of Christ and institutions of the gospel committed unto our care and observance falling under consideration, our practice is precisely limited unto those commands and by the nature of those institutions.


These being the things we are to attend unto, and these being their general rules and measures, we shall, with respect unto the present state of religious affairs in the world amongst those who make profession of the Christian religion, plainly declare what are our thoughts and judgments, what we conceive to be our duty, and what is our practice; submitting them unto the present apprehensions of unprejudiced persons, leaving the final sentence and determination of our cause to the judgment-seat of Jesus Christ.


Love toward all mankind in general we acknowledge to be required of us, and we are debtors in the fruits of it to the whole creation of God: for he hath not only implanted the principles of it in that nature whereof we are in common partakers with the whole race and kind, whereunto all hatred and its effects were originally foreign, and introduced by the devil, nor only given us his command for it, enlarging on its grounds and reasons in the gospel; but in his design of recovering us out of our lapsed condition unto a conformity with himself, proposeth in an especial manner the example of his own love and goodness, which are extended unto all, for our imitation, Matt. v. 44, 45.  His philanthropy and communicative love, from his own infinite self-fulness, wherewith all creatures, in all places, times, and seasons, are filled and satisfied, as from an immeasurable ocean of goodness, are proposed unto us to direct the exercise of that drop from the divine nature wherewith we are intrusted.  “Love your enemies,” saith our Saviour, “bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them that despitefully use you, and persecute you; that ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.  Now, all mankind may be cast into two ranks or orders: for, first, there are those who are yet “without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel , and strangers from the covenant of promise, having no hope, and without God in the world,” Eph. ii. 12, - such, we mean, as are either negatively or privatively infidels or unbelievers, who have yet never heard the sound of the gospel, or do continue to refuse and reject it where it is proposed and tendered unto them; and there are those, secondly, who have in one way or other received the doctrine of the gospel, and do make profession thereof in the world.  To both these sorts we do acknowledge that we owe the duty of love.  Even towards the infidel, pagan, and Mohammedan world, Jews and Gentiles, we are debtors in this duty; and we desire to be humbled for it as our sin, wherein we are wanting in the discharge of it, or wherein the fruits of it do not abound in us to the praise of God.  Now, love, in the first notion of it, is the willing of a wanted good unto the object of it, or those that are loved, producing an endeavour to effect it unto the utmost of the ability of them in whom it is.  Where this absent good is of great importance, the first natural and genuine effect of love is compassion.  This good, as unto all unbelievers, is whatever should deliver them from present or eternal misery, - whatever should lead, guide, or bring them unto blessedness in the enjoyment of God.  Besides, the absence hereof is accompanied, even in this world, with all that blindness and darkness of mind, all that slavery unto sin and the devil, that can any way concur to make a rational being truly miserable.  If we have no hearts like the flint or adamant, we cannot but be moved with compassion towards so many perishing souls, originally made like ourselves, in the image of God, and from whom that we differ in any thing is an effect of mere sovereign grace, and not the fruit of our own contrivance nor the reward of our worth or merit.  And those who are altogether unconcerned in others are not much concerned in themselves; for the true love of ourselves is the rule of our love unto other men.  Again, compassion proceeding from love will work by prayer for relief; for it is God alone who can supply their wants, and our only way of treating with him about it is by our humble supplications.  And if herein also we should be found wanting, we should more judge ourselves to be defective in true Christian love and charity than we can for many of those mistakes which are charged on us in other things, were we convinced that such they are, which as yet we are not.  It is therefore our continual prayer, that God would send out his light and his truth unto the utmost parts of the earth, to visit by them those dark places which are yet filled with the habitations of cruelty; that he would remove the vail of covering which is yet on the face of many great and populous nations; that “the whole earth may be filled with the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea;” even that, according to his promise, “he would turn to the people a pure language, that they may all cal upon the name of the Lord, to serve him with one consent.”  And this we desire to be found doing, not in a formal or customary manner, but out of a sincere compassion for the souls of men, a deep sense of the interest herein of the glory of God, and a desire after the accomplishment of those prophecies and promises in the Scripture which speak comfortably towards an expectation of abundant grace to be manifested unto the residue of sinners, both Jews and Gentiles, in the latter days.  Moreover, unto compassion and supplications, love requireth that we should add also all other possible endeavours for their relief.  Herein consists that work and labour of love which are so much recommended unto us.  But the actings of love in these most useful ways are, for the most part, obstructed unto us by the want of opportunities; which, under the guidance of divine Providence , are the rule of our call unto the duties wherein such endeavours consist, and whereby they may be expressed.  Only, this at present we have to rejoice in, that, through the unwearied labours of some holy and worthy persons, sundry churches of Indians are lately called and gathered in America; wherein the natives of those parts of the world, who for so many generations sat in darkness and in the shadow of death, do, under the guidance of pastors and elders of their own, walk in the fellowship of the gospel, giving glory to God by Jesus Christ.[i]  And let it not seem impertinent that we have given this account of our judgments concerning that love which we do and ought to bear unto all, even the worst of men; seeing those by whom our testimony is received will not, nay cannot, easily suppose that we would wilfully neglect the exercise of the same affections towards those concerning whom our obligations are unspeakably greater and more excellent. 


There is, indeed, another kind of pretended charity towards this sort of men, which we profess we have not for them, although we judge we do not want it; for there can be no want unto any of an error or mistake, wherein the charity intended doth consist.  And this is the judgment of some, that they, or some of them, may attain salvation or eternal blessedness in the condition wherein they are, without the knowledge of Jesus Christ.  This, we acknowledge, we neither believe nor hope concerning them; nor, to speak plainly, can desire it should be so, unless God had otherwise revealed himself concerning Jesus Christ and them than yet he hath done.  And we are so far from supposing that there is in us, on this account, any blamable defect of charity, that we know ourselves to be freed by this persuasion from a dangerous error, which, if admitted, would both weaken our own faith and impair all the due and proper effects of charity towards others: for “though there be that are called gods, whether in heaven or in earth, (as there by gods many, and lords many,) yet to us there is but one God, the Father, of whom are all things, and we in him; and one Lord Jesus Christ, by whom are all thins, and we by him,” 1 Cor. viii. 5, 6.  We know “there is no salvation in any other” but by Jesus Christ; and that “there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved,” Acts iv. 12.  Nor is this name given any otherwise amongst men but by the gospel; for it is not the giving of the person of Christ absolutely to be a mediator, but the declaration of his name by the gospel, as the means of salvation, that is intended.  Hence our Lord Jesus Christ, giving that commission to his apostles to preach it, “Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature,” he adds unto it that decretory sentence concerning the everlasting condition of all men with respect thereunto, “He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned,” Mark xvi. 15, 16.  As the preaching of the gospel, and the belie on Jesus Christ thereon, are the only means of obtaining salvation, so all those who are not made partakers of them must perish eternally.  So when the apostle affirms that the Jews would have hindered them from preaching to the Gentiles “that they might be saved,” 1 Thess. ii. 16, he plainly declares that without it they could not so be.  Neither were any of them ever better, or in a better condition, than they are described by the same apostle, Eph. ii. 12, and in sundry other places, wherein he allow them no possibility of obtaining eternal blessedness.   Neither do we in this matter consider what God can do, or what he hath done, to the communicating of grace and faith in Jesus Christ unto any particular persons at any time, or in any place, in an extraordinary manner.  We are not called to make a judgment thereof, nor can any rule be hence collected to regulate the exercise of our love: “Secret things belong to the Lord our God, but revealed things to us and our children, that we may do his will.”  When and where such grace and faith do manifest themselves by their effects, we ought readily to own and embrace them.  But the only inquiry into this matter is, what those that are utterly destitute of the revelation of Jesus Christ, either as made originally in the promise or as explained in the gospel, may, under the mere conduct of the light of nature, as consisting of the innate principles of reason, with their improvement, or as increased by the consideration of the effects of divine power and providence, by the strength and exercise of their own moral principles, attain unto, as unto their present acceptance with God and future eternal salvation?  That they may be saved in every sect who live exactly according to the light of nature, is a doctrine anathematized by the church of England, article xviii.; and the reason given hereof is, because the Scriptures propose the name of Jesus Christ alone whereby we may be saved.  And if we do believe that description which is given in the Scripture of men, their moral abilities and their works, as they lie in the common state of mankind since the entrance of sin, with respect unto God and salvation, we shall not be able to be of another mind: for they are said to be “blind,” Luke iv. 18; yea, to be “darkness,” to be “dead in trespasses and sins,” not to “receive the things of the Spirit of God, because they are foolishness unto them,” and their minds to be “enmity against God” himself, Acts xxvi. 18; Eph. ii. 1–3, iv. 18; Rom. viii. 7.  That there may be any just expectation concerning such persons, that they will “work out their salvation with fear and trembling,” we are not convinced; neither do we think that God will accept of a more imperfect obedience in them that know not Jesus Christ than he requires of them who do believe in him, for then should he prove a disadvantage unto them.  Besides, all their best works are severely reflected on in the Scripture, and represented as unprofitable; for whereas in themselves they are compared to evil trees, thorns, and briers, we are assured they neither do nor can bring forth good grapes or figs.  Besides, in the Scripture the whole business of salvation, in the first place, turns upon the hinge of faith supernatural and divine: for “without faith it is impossible to please God,” and “he that believeth not shall be damned;” “he that believeth not in the name of the Son of God is condemned already;” for “neither circumcision availeth any thing, nor uncircumcision, but faith which worketh by love;” and it is “by faith that the just shall live,” Heb. xi. 6, [Mark xv. 16,] John iii. 18, 36, Gal. v. 6, [Hab. ii. 4.]  That this faith may be educed out of the obediential principles of nature was, indeed, the opinion of Pelagius of old; but it will not know, we hope, be openly asserted by any.  Moreover, this faith is in the Scripture, if not limited and determined, yet directed unto Jesus Christ as its necessary peculiar object: “For this is life eternal, that we may know the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom he hath sent.”  It seems, therefore, that the knowledge of the only true God is not sufficient to attain eternal life, unless the knowledge of Jesus Christ also do accompany it; for “this is the record, that God hath given to us eternal life, and this life is in his Son.  He that hath the Son hath life; and he that hath not the Son of god hath not life,” 1 John v. 11, 12; which is enough to determine the controversy.  And those assertions, that “there is none other name given among men whereby they must be saved,” and that “other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ,” Acts iv. 12, 1 Cor. iii. 11, are of the same importance; and it were needless to multiply the testimonies that are given us to that purpose elsewhere.  Neither can it be made to appear that the concatenation of the saving means, whereby men that are adult are brought unto glory, is not absolutely universal; and amongst them is vocation, or an effectual calling (Rom. viii. 29, 30) to the knowledge of Christ by the gospel.  Neither will the same apostle allow a saving invocation of the name of God to any but those tat are brought to believe by hearing the word preached, Rom. x. 13–15. It is said that God may, by ways secret and unknown to us, reveal Jesus Christ to them, and so by faith in him sanctify their natures and endow them with his Spirit; which things it is granted, we suppose, are indispensably necessary unto salvation.  Those whom God thus deals withal are not Pagans but Christians, concerning whom none ever doubted but they might be saved.  It is also granted that men may learn much of the power, wisdom, and goodness of God, which both require and teach many duties to be performed towards him; but withal, we believe that without the internal sanctification of the Spirit, communicated by and with the knowledge of Jesus Christ, no man can be saved.  But we intend not here to dispute about these things.  Instead of an effect of love and charity, it is manifest that the opinion which grants salvation unto the heathen, or any of them, upon the due improvement of their rational faculties and moral principles, ariseth from a want of due consideration of the true nature of sin and grace, of the fall of man and his recovery, of the law and gospel, and of the wisdom and love of God in sending Jesus Christ to make atonement for sinners, and to bring in everlasting righteousness.  And not only so, but it evidently prepares the way unto those noxious opinions which at this day among many infest and corrupt Christian religion, and foment those seeds of atheism which spring up so fast as to threaten the overspreading of the whole field of Christianity; for hence it will follow, by an easy deduction, that every one may be saved, or attain unto his utmost happiness, in his own religion, be it what it will, whilst under any notion or conception he acknowledgeth a divine Being, and his own dependence thereon.  And seeing that, on this supposition, it must be confessed that religion consists solely in moral honesty, and a fancied internal piety of mind towards the Deity (for in nothing else can a centring of all religions in the world unto a certain end be imagined), it follows that there is no outward profession of it indispensably necessary, but that every man may take up and make use of that which is best suited unto his interest in his present condition and circumstances.  And as this, being once admitted, will give the minds of men an indifferency as unto the several religions that are in the world, so it will quickly produce in them a contempt of them all.  And, from an entertainment of, or an indifferency of mind about, these and the like noisome opinions, it is come to pass that the gospel, after a continued triumph for sixteen hundred years over hell and the world, doth at this day, in the midst of Christendom, hardly with multitudes maintain the reputation of its truth and divinity; and is by many, living in a kind of outward conformity unto the institutes of Christian religion, despised and laughed to scorn.  But the proud and foolish atheistical opiniators of our days, whose sole design is to fortify themselves by the darkness of their minds against the charges of their own conscience upon their wicked and debauched conversations, do but expose themselves to the scorn of all sober and rational persons; for what are a few obscure, and, for the most part, vicious renegadoes, in comparison of those great, wise, numerous, and sober persons, whom the gospel, in its first setting forth in the world, by the evidence of its truth and the efficacy of its power, subdued and conquered?  Are they as learned as the renowned philosophers of those days, who, advantaged by the endeavours and fruits of all the great wits of former ages, had advanced solid rational literature to the greatest height that ever it attained in this world, or possibly ever will do so, the minds of men having now something more excellent and noble to entertain themselves withal?  Are they to be equalled in wisdom and experience with those glorious emperors, senators, and princes who then swayed the sceptres and affairs of the world?  Can they produce any thing to oppose unto the gospel that is likely to influence the minds of men in any degree comparably to the religion of these great, learned, wise, and mighty personages; which, having received by their fathers from days immemorial, was visibly attended with all earthly glories and prosperities, which were accounted as the reward of their due observance of it?  And yet, whereas there was a conspiracy of all those persons, and this influence by the craft of infernal powers, and managed with all that wisdom, subtlety, power, and cruelty that the nature of man is capable to exercise, on purpose to oppose the gospel, and keep it from taking root in the world; yet, by the glorious evidence of its divine extract and original wherewith it is accompanied, by the efficacy and power which God gave the doctrine of it in and over the minds of men, all managed by the spiritual weapons of its preachers, which were “mighty through God to the pulling down of those strongholds, casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalted itself against the knowledge of God,” 2 Cor. x. 4, 5, it prevailed against them all, and subdued the world unto an acknowledgment of its truth, with the divine power and authority of its Author.  Certainly there is nothing more contemptible than that the indulgence of some inconsiderable persons unto their lusts and vices, who are void of all those excellencies, in notion and practice, which have already been triumphed over by the gospel when set up in competition with it or opposition unto it, should be once imagined to bring it into question or to cast any disreputation upon it.  But to treat of these things is not our present design; we have only mentioned them occasionally, in the account which it was necessary we should give concerning our love to all men in general, with the grounds we proceed upon in the exercise of it.


[i] So early as 1556, some missionaries were sent to labour among the natives of America by the church of Geneva, and this is affirmed to have been the first protestant mission.  In 1644, a petition was presented to the English parliament in favour of a similar mission to America, and an ordinance of the Lords and Commons was passed, authorizing the Earl of Warwick to take measures in furtherance of this object.  “The Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in New England,” was established in 1649, by the authority of parliament.  Eliot distinguished himself as “the apostle of the Indians,” and three authentic narratives were published, in 1653, 1655, and 1659, giving an account of the remarkable success which had attended his labours, containing several sermons by Indian converts, and mentioning several villages in which the inhabitants had wholly conformed to the principles and usage of Christianity.  It is interesting to notice the germ of the vast system of modern missions; and when a disposition has been manifested to reproach our fathers for indifference to this great work, it is well to find that Owen was fully alive to its importance, and that the pressure of circumstances alone hindered British Christians in his day from engaging in it on a scale worthy alike of its momentous nature and their own eagerness to advance it. – Ed.


The Works of John Owen, Vol. 15, Banner of Truth 1991. pp 68-77.