John Owen on Salvation from Shame

The 17th-century English Puritans had an intense commitment to biblical teaching on sin, salvation, and genuine conversion. They brought their attention to both the guilt-innocence and honor-shame themes in Scripture. Just as for the guilty sinner in the hands of an angry God pardon at the cross was an immeasurable treasure, so also for the ashamed, filthy wretch under the nostrils of a disgusted God washing at the fountain of Christ’s blood was an ineffable catharsis. An excellent treatment of God’s salvation from shame is found in two chapters of John Owen’s Pneumatologia.

Book IV, Chapter IV is Owen’s treatise on the Holy Spirit. He distinguishes two aspects of the law, from which arise a “twofold pravity” in every sin: “On his law he hath impressed his authority and his holiness. Sin, with respect unto his authority, is attended with guilt; and this, in the conscience of the sinner, produces fear: as it respects the holiness of God, it is attended with filth or uncleanness; and this produces shame.”

Owen proceeds to answer why the filth of sin produces shame: “Holiness and conformity to God is the honour of our souls. It is that alone which makes them truly noble; for all honour consists in an accession unto him who is the only spring and absolute possessor of all that is so […] When men’s eyes are opened to see their nakedness, how vile and base they have made themselves by sin, they will have a sense of this pollution not easily to be expressed. And from hence it is that sin hath the properties and effects of uncleanness in the sight of God and in the conscience of the sinner: — God abhors, loathes it, accounts it an abominable thing, as that which is directly contrary to his holiness, which, as impressed on the law, is the rule of purity, integrity, spiritual beauty, and honour; and in the conscience of the sinner it is attended with shame, as a thing deformed, loathsome, vile, base, and dishonourable.”

Chapter V completes the topic by addressing the solution to the spiritual problem of that shame. There is a twofold aspect to the gospel typified in the Levitical ceremonies: “He is our propitiation through faith in his blood as offered; and he is our sanctification through faith in his blood as sprinkled. […] A renewed conscience is sensible of a pollution in every sin, and is not freed from the shame of it without a particular application unto the blood of Christ.”

Owen, Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University in the 1650’s, is not easy reading, but is well worth the investment of effort. Click for online access to chapters four and five of Pneumatologia.

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1 Comment on “John Owen on Salvation from Shame

  1. Some more on shame from the Puritans:

    God hath planted in the beast a natural fear of that which threatens to hurt it. Go to thrust a beast into a pit, and it hangs back; nature shows its abhorrency. Man being of a nobler nature, and subject to more dangers, God hath set a double guard on him; as [he has] a natural fear of danger, so also a natural shame that covers the face at the doing of any unworthy action. Now an ignorant man hath slipped from both these his keepers; he sins and blusheth not, because he knows not his guilt; he wants [i.e. “lacks”] that magistrate within which should put him to shame.
    —William Gurnall, The Christian in Complete Armour

    That repentance which accompanies salvation does include not only contrition for sin—but also a holy SHAME and blushing for sin. Ezra 9:6; Jer 3:24–25; Jer 31:19; Ezek 16:63, “Then, when I make atonement for you for all you have done, you will remember and be ashamed and never again open your mouth because of your humiliation, declares the Sovereign Lord.” When the penitent soul sees his sins pardoned, the anger of God pacified, and divine justice satisfied, then he sits down ashamed.
    So Rom 6:21, “What benefit did you reap at that time from the things you are now ashamed of? Those things result in death!” Sin and shame are inseparable companions. A Christian man cannot have the seeming sweet of sin, but he shall have the real shame which accompanies sin. These two God has joined together, and all the world cannot put them asunder.
    Shame signifies to blush, to be abashed, to wax pale and wan, etc. So much the more God has been displeased with the blackness of sin, the more will he be well pleased with the blushing of the sinner. It was the vile and impenitent Caligula who said of himself “that he loved nothing better in himself than that he could not be ashamed.”
    And doubtless, only those things which are sinful, are shameful. A soul who has sinned away all shame is a soul ripe for hell, and given up to Satan! A greater plague cannot befall a man in this life than to sin and not to blush!
    —Thomas Brooks, Heaven on Earth

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