John Owen and the Immediacy of Christ’s Authority over Christian Worship -- By: Andrew M. Leslie

Journal: Westminster Theological Journal
Volume: WTJ 80:1 (Spring 2018)
Article: John Owen and the Immediacy of Christ’s Authority over Christian Worship
Author: Andrew M. Leslie

John Owen and the Immediacy of Christ’s Authority over Christian Worship

Andrew M. Leslie

Andrew M. Leslie is Lecturer in Christian Doctrine at Moore Theological College in Newtown, New South Wales. An earlier version of this article was presented at the Edinburgh Dogmatics Conference on Reformed Worship, September 2015.


For John Owen, the shape and content of public worship is not simply an issue of what the Bible explicitly forbids and prescribes (the so-called regulative principle). It is a matter of profound christological significance. As the sole mediator of the new covenant, Christ retains immediate authority over the consciences of his people in their corporate life together. This authority has several dimensions. It stems from the donation of the kingdom to the Son, grounded in the eternal covenant of redemption. It rests on the necessity and infinite value of his priestly work as the only foundation for proper worship after the fall. And it is ultimately communicated through the intimate proximity of his eventual incarnation. Here he directly expressed every necessary ordinance of Christian worship, setting aside all previous administrations. The sufficiency of Christ’s three-fold office establishes the regulative authority of Scripture over worship since it is the instrument of his rule. It also furnishes a hermeneutical axiom that limits any “regulative principle” to the specific injunctions of the incarnate Son, alongside his apostolic eye-witnesses and emissaries. In articulating the character of this authority, Owen is attentive to the complex interface between the supernatural and spiritual dimensions of worship and their necessary dependence on the natural and public modes through which that worship is expressed. But he resists any impositions on worship that interfere with the immediacy of Christ’s authority or unnecessarily bind the consciences of the worshiper. Owen believes Christ preserves his immediate authority over public worship objectively through Scripture and subjectively through a perpetual spiritual presence amidst his people. This presence is conveyed through regeneration which habitually inclines the elect to heed Christ’s obligations to gather in congregations, appoint elders directly gifted by him, and participate in all the prescribed ordinances of worship.

I. Introduction

Joel R. Beeke and Mark Jones have rightly observed that the full “sufficiency of Scripture” is one of the “great themes that forms John Owen’s theology of worship.”1 In the words of the great seventeenth-century English Puritan himself, the point may be stated simply: “R...

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