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Grab a Free Chapter of 'Gospel-Centered Discipleship'
In his vast theological writings, Puritan theologian and pastor John Owen frequently refers to a disciple’s sanctification as the pursuit of “gospel holiness.” What is gospel holiness? In short, gospel holiness is obedience to Christ procured from belief in the gospel, not from one’s moral effort.
Morality vs. Gospel
Owen labors to differentiate between gospel holiness and morality. In his distinction, the latter is the product of human effort, not of grace. Although morality and holiness may, at times, look similar on the outside, they are altogether different on the inside. Morality is self-centered; gospel holiness is Christ-centered. Morality holds self up high in reaching for moral virtues, but gospel holiness holds Christ up high in virtuous failure and success. Gospel holiness requires the truth of God’s Word and his grace to believe and obey the truth. This truth and grace, which comes to us in Jesus (John 1:17), is central to holiness.
Discipleship devoid of the Spirit’s power is no discipleship at all.
Owen describes gospel holiness as “peculiarly joined with and limited unto the doctrine, truth, and grace of the gospel; for holiness is nothing but the implanting, writing, and realizing of the gospel in our souls.” Gospel holiness requires both truth and grace. How do we receive grace to believe truth? How is the gospel implanted, written, and realized in us to produce holiness?
Impossible apart from the Holy Spirit
Owen takes up gospel holiness in his two volumes on the person and work of the Holy Spirit. He maintains that gospel holiness is impossible apart from the Holy Spirit. In fact, his principal reason for writing the first six hundred pages on the Holy Spirit is to show that holiness is “the dispensation and work of the Holy Spirit with respect to the gospel.” And again, “There neither is, nor ever was, in the world, nor ever shall be, the least dram of holiness, but what, flowing from Jesus Christ, is communicated by the Spirit, according to the truth and promise of the gospel.”
To bluntly summarize Owen, it is impossible to have gospel holiness apart from the Holy Spirit. No Spirit, no gospel holiness. You might get morality, even a veneer of Christianity, but no gospel holiness. True joy will escape you. Discipleship devoid of the Spirit’s power is no discipleship at all. Apart from the presence and power of the Spirit, our attempt to desire God, believe his promises, fear his warnings, and walk in his ways is absolutely futile. Disciples need more than resolve to believe the gospel; they need the Holy Ghost.