Neocalvinism Compared with Independency III

John Owen’s Doctrine of Church and State II

Rev. C. A. Lingbeek
This article originally appeared in De Gereformeerde Kerk, no. 1849, March 13th, 1924

We saw how Owen regarded the magistrate “even as such” to be bound to the Word of the Lord. And not just (like Dr. Kuyper) to the natural light.

Now the question naturally arises as to whether, according to Owen, the civil government also has to recognize the Church of the Lord and has to maintain and support her by all means, including financially.

Owen answers that question firmly and without hesitation in the affirmative, and this on very various grounds, a few of which we shall now mention.

One of the questions posed to Owen was this:

Whether the supreme magistrate, in a nation or commonwealth of men professing the religion of Jesus Christ, may and ought to exert his power, legislative and executive, for the supportment, preservation, and furtherance of the profession of the faith and worship of God….

(Works, vol. XIII, “Two questions concerning the power of the supreme Magistrate about religion and the worship of God,” p. 509)

Owen wrote his answer in a single night and published it in a small pamphlet.

In that answer we read,

That this God ought to be believed in, and worshipped according to the revelation that he makes of himself….
1. Among the people of the Jews, as is known and confessed, God appointed this as the chief and supreme care and duty of the magistrate, to provide, by the authority committed to him, that his worship, as by himself revealed, should be preserved and provided for in all the concernments of it, and that what was contrary unto it, in some instances, he should coerce and restrain, Deut. xiv. 23, xviii. 1–9, xxi. 17–20;
2. Though the instituted worship of God was, for the greatest part, then typical, and to endure but for a season, yet the preservation of that worship by God commanded was a moral duty, Deut. xvi. 20;
3. God’s command to the magistrate for the exercise of his care and duty in reference unto his typical worship did not respect it as typical, but as his worship.

(Works, vol. XIII, pp. 509, 510)

But does that hold true for our time as well?

Owen answers:

Wherefore, to affirm that the supreme magistrate ought not to exert his authority for the ends mentioned, is to affirm that the magistrate is now accepted with God in and for the not doing of that which all other magistrates have been accepted with God in and by the doing of; which seems unreasonable.

(Works, vol. XIII, p. 511)

But it is not only that Israel’s example can teach us in this; God the Lord has also given clear promises in His Word for the days of the New Dispensation, in which we are promised exactly the same thing.

Owen writes:

Take, in the first place, what God hath promised concerning magistrates, kings, rulers, judges, and nations, and their subserviency to the church. What God hath promised they shall do, that is their duty to do…. Let us a little view some of these promises, and then consider their application to the truth we have in hand, and what is cleared out unto us by them. There are many; I shall instance in the most obvious and eminent.
“I will restore thy judges as at the first, and thy counsellors as at the beginning,” Isa. i. 26. It is to Zion redeemed, purged, washed in the blood of Christ, that this promise is made. Isa xlix. 7, “Kings shall see and arise, and princes shall bow down themselves.” [Heb.] The Jews being, for the greatest part of them, rejected upon the coming of Christ, this promise is made unto him upon his pouring out of the Spirit for the bringing in of the Gentiles; as it is farther enlarged, verses 22, 23, “Kings shall be thy nursing-fathers, and their queens thy nursing-mothers.”
Isa. 1x. looks wholly this way. Taste of the nature and intendment of the whole: “And the Gentiles shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising. Therefore thy gates shall be open continually; they shall not be shut day nor night; that men may bring unto thee the forces of the Gentiles, and that their kings may be brought. Thou shalt also suck the milk of the Gentiles, and shalt suck the breast of kings: and thou shalt know that I the Lord am thy Saviour and thy Redeemer, the mighty one of Jacob. For brass I will bring gold, and for iron I will bring silver, and for wood brass, and for stones iron: I will also make thy officers peace, and thine exactors righteousness,” verses 3, 11, 16, 17. To which add the accomplishment of all those promises mentioned, Rev. xi. 15, xxi. 24.

(Works, vol. VIII, pp. 386–387)

With regard to these promises, Owen adds:

To whom they are made…. They are all given and made to the church of Christ after his coming in the flesh, and his putting an end to all ceremonial, typical, carnal institutions.

(Works, vol. VIII, p. 387)

Owen emphatically urges us not to spiritualize such promises.

This, then, being the occasion of those promises, and their accomplishment being, as before, in a peculiar manner pointed at, upon the shaking, calling, and new-moulding of the kingdoms and nations of the world which had given their power to the beast, and thereupon framed anew into a due subserviency to the interest of Christ, there is not the least shadow or colour left for the turning off and rejecting the sweetness of all these promises, upon account of their being merely metaphorical, and shadowing out spiritual glories.”

(Works, vol. VIII, pp. 388–389)

Furthermore, Owen points us to positive statements from the New Testament. Among others, to the well-known place, 1 Timothy II: 4. The prevailing habit of considering each text as a loose and independent statement and thereby of tearing it out of context has led many to use this text as one of the proofs of the universal doctrine of reconciliation, while whoever does not share this, still more or less is at a loss with it. After all, it says here: “God desires all men to be saved.” Pray, what more do you want? So God’s purpose is to give salvation to everyone, head by head. But now Owen reads those words in context. And what does he find therein? Hear what he has to say!

And the reason the apostle gives to stir up the saints of God to pray, amongst all sorts of men, in special for kings and those that are in authority,—to wit, that they may, in general, come to the knowledge of the faith, and be saved; and, in particular, discharge the duty and trust committed to them (for on that account are they to pray for them as kings and men in authority),—is, “that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life, in all godliness and honesty,” 1 Tim. ii 1—4. It being incumbent on them to act even as kings and men in authority, that we may so do; they are to feed the people committed to their charge with all their might, unto universal peace and welfare.

(Works, vol. VIII, p. 392)

Owen finds yet another ground for the demand that magistrates support the church in the fact that Christ is the heir of all things.

And all this flows from the donation of the Father unto Jesus Christ, whereby he is made ‘heir of all things,’ Heb. i. 2, having the ‘nations given him for his inheritance, the uttermost parts of the earth for his possession,’ Ps. ii. 8;—being also ‘King of kings, and Lord of lords,’ acting nothing in taking possession of his own but what his sovereignty bears him out in.

(Works, vol. VIII, p. 190)

Owen therefore repeatedly warns governments not to be negligent in this regard. In his sermon to Parliament, “Christ’s Kingdom and the Magistrate’s Power,” he summons the ministers:

If once it comes to that, that you shall say you have nothing to do with religion as rulers of the nation, God will quickly manifest that he hath nothing to do with you as rulers of the nation.

(Works, vol. VIII, p. 385)

And further:

When they faithfully discharged their trust,—promoting the worship of God according to his institutions,—encouraging, supporting, directing, reproving others, to whom the immediate and peculiar administration of things sacred was committed,—destroying, removing whatever was an abomination unto the Lord,—it was well with the whole people and church; they flourished in peace, and the Lord delighted in them, and rejoiced over them to do them good. And, on the other side, their neglect in the discharge of their duty was then commonly attended with the apostasy of the church, and great breakings forth of the indignation of the Lord.

(Works, vol. VIII, p. 388)

And if Owen wishes to say in plain words what the magistrate is to do, then we find this, among other things, in his already quoted sermon to Parliament:

They must nurse the church, not with dry breasts, nor feed it with stones and scorpions, but with the good things committed to them. Their power and substance, in protection and supportment, are to be engaged in the behalf thereof: hence God is said to give these judges, rulers, princes, kings, queens to the church; not setting them in the church, as officers thereof, but ordering their state in the world (Rev. xi. 15) to its behoof. In sum, there is not any one of the promises recited but holds forth the utmost of what I intend to assert from them all; viz., that the Lord hath promised that the magistrates whom he will give, own, and bless, shall put forth their power, and act in that capacity wherein he hath placed them in the world, for the good, furtherance, and prosperity of the truth and church of Christ. They shall protect them with their power, feed them with their substance, adorn them with their favour and the privileges wherewith they are intrusted; they shall break their forcibly oppressing adversaries, and take care that those who walk in the truth of the Lord may lead a peaceable life, in all godliness and honesty.

(Works, vol. VIII, p. 389; expressed similarly, p. 192, 393)

Finally, as to the matter of the silver cord, we provide two further statements. First this:

Where God, by providential dispensations, hath laid things in a nation in a subserviency to an institution of Christ, according to his promise, Ps. ii. 8, Isa. xlix. 23, as he hath done in this case, to oppose that order of things seems to be a fighting against God and his Anointed.

(Works, vol. XIII, “The Power of the Supreme Magistrate about Religion,” p. 515)

And then this:

Wherever, or in what nation soever, there hath been a removal of the maintenance provided in the providence of God for the necessary supportment of the public dispensers of the word, the issue hath been a fatal and irrecoverable disadvantage to the gospel and interest of Christ in those nations (ibid.).

Behold what the great Independent teaches about the positive vocation of civil government. In particular, the evidence from Scripture is remarkable and not to be trivialized.