Apostasy from the Gospel (Complete Works of John Owen, Volume 14)

Apostasy from the Gospel. The Complete Works of John Owen, Volume 14 (Crossway, 2023). 

This recent entry in the Complete Works of John Owen presents Owen's extended reflection on the nature of the gospel and also what happens when someone ultimately rejects this in apostasy. 

One of Owen's lifelong projects was his lengthy multi-volume commentary on the NT epistle to the Hebrews. In order to keep that commentary from becoming laden with asides and extended discussions, Owen sometimes published independent volumes that were drawn from his exegetical work. This volume represents an example of this practice on one of the most contentious parts of the letter. As he considers the nature of apostasy from the gospel, Owen anchors his reflection in a close reading of Hebrews 6:4–6. This important passage reads,

For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit,  and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt.

In his exegesis of this text, Owen considers various interpretive options and the history of interpretation, and then synthesizes what has come to be known as the Reformed position on the warning passages (that the individuals described were not genuine believers). After this opening exegetical chapter, Owen makes a distinction between "total apostasy" and "partial apostasy" (this is one of his critical distinctions in his study). 

Total apostasy is a final and complete rejection of the gospel. Partial apostasy on the other hand consists of a habitual neglect or rejection of core components of the gospel and the Christian life. This kind of doctrinal and practical deviation from the gospel could include corruption of one's convictions due to worldly pressure, spiritual darkness and inconsistent spiritual disciplines, or the presence of pride, love of the world, or any kind of "backsliding" from devotion to Christ. 

After establishing this biblical and theological framework, in the final chapters Owen then seeks to apply the warning of Hebrews 6 to all believers. The fear of the Lord should compel them to flee total apostasy and the signs of any kind of partial apostasy should likewise convince them to stop and re-commit their lives to the truth of the gospel and the life of the church. 

In the introduction, editor Joel Beeke does an excellent job of exploring the historical context for Owen's lengthy discussion on apostasy and explaining why Owen writes so directly to those in the church. Owen was disappointed in the lack of apparent faithfulness among the post-Reformation churches in England and also alarmed at the possible slide from backsliding into apostasy that might occur for individual believers and non-conforming congregations. 

This volume tackles a difficult but urgent and sober issue. It's worth considering carefully!

Some Notes: 

Book Review
March 22, 2024


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