While this past year has brought many unexpected difficulties, it has also brought some surprising gifts. One of the surprising gifts of the pandemic came for me when an old seminary friend asked if I wanted to be a part of a Zoom book study. Thursday mornings have now become a place to dig deep into books with accountability to finish them with strength. When the group decided to read John Owen, I remembered how much his works had encouraged me during seminary. Together, we started studying The Grace and Duty of Being Spiritually Minded.
Owen—although he was writing 340 years ago—seems to understand my mind and natural instincts better than any other writer. Owen saw Psalm 119 as the litmus test for someone’s spiritual mindedness. When we are spiritually minded, we delight like David does, in God’s Word. But when I test myself—as Owen says we should—I must admit that when Psalm 119 comes up in my Bible reading, I don’t always delight in the task of reading 176 verses!
So, centuries after he wrote, John Owen is challenging me to live with inward Spirit-mindedness in the face of temptations, natural desires (to rush through my Bible reading), and the pull of outward religiosity. His works are a wonderful gift to the church that helps us experience communion with God and walk with him daily.
This amazingly detailed “short treatise,” as Owen describes it, is particularly worth our time and attention. Here Owen boils down the nature of spiritual thoughts into two categories: their object and their motive.
If you’ve read Puritans like Owen or Edwards, you will find them regularly talking about the object of our thoughts. The object is the thing we set our minds upon. When a father tells his son to keep an eye on the ball, he is giving the child the object. Owen tells us the object of our spiritual thoughts must be the gospel: “Whatever ground the gospel loses in our minds, sin possesses it for itself and its own ends.”
We live in a world full of distractions. The world is competing for our attention by giving us objects to put above the gospel. Apps and marketers want to capture our attention and imagination. Living by the Spirit means that we choose Christ and the gospel as the center and focal point of our gaze.
Owen knew the power and danger of temptation. He wrote, “Imagination creates its own object … They who do not think of them [spiritual things] frequently shall never believe them sincerely.” The imagination gives us various pictures and objects that promise a good life but fail in the end because they are not real. When we bump into reality, we find that all objects that promise a good and fulfilling life outside of Christ are counterfeits.
However, the beauty of the gospel is that when Christ is the object of our faith, we do not have to imagine or create something big enough to bear the weight of life. He can bear it.
Owen calls spiritual mindedness a grace and a duty. It’s grace in that the object of our thoughts is the transforming power of Jesus Christ himself. It’s a duty because spiritual discipline and awareness are required to set our minds on Christ.
The danger with the duty of being spiritually minded is that we can employ spiritual disciplines in such a way that we’re cultivating outward righteousness instead of living by grace. This is where Owen points us to the importance of our motive.
The Pharisees and Jesus clashed time after time because Jesus would not stand for hypocritical, outward displays of righteousness. The problem for the Pharisees was not the letter of the law but the heart behind it. They kept the law so that God and others would see them as righteous.
But the way of Christ is not legalism and outward righteousness. It is not outward displays of good works but rather first an inward reality expressed through delight in the things of God. In other words, the transformation and renewal we receive and experience when we trust Christ make our life into a response and overflow of regeneration.
Owen writes, “To ‘walk with God,’ to ‘live unto him,’ is not merely to be found in an abstinence from outward sins, and in the performance of outward duties… All of this may be done upon such principles, for such ends, with such a frame of heart, as to find no acceptance with God. It is our hearts that he requires, and we can no way give them unto him [except by] holy thoughts of him with delight. This it is to be spiritually minded; this it is to walk with God”
When we know the greatness and the beauty of what God did for us in Christ, we delight in him. Living in that delight is the motive for true spiritual mindedness. When we know God, we then walk by delighting in his works.
Owen finds the distinction between duty and delight in Romans 8:6: “For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.” In fact, Owen’s whole treatise finds its origin in this verse. And I can think of no better place in Scripture to lead us into delight in God.
Romans 8 begins with the proclamation that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus; it declares our adoption as children of God; it shares the encouragement that we have in the Spirit; and it ends by glorifying God for the greatness of his love. Delight in God’s saving and redeeming love will power our spiritual mindedness each day.
Take a few minutes today to read through Romans 8. Make Christ’s work for you the object of your thoughts, and allow the Spirit to warm your heart and cultivate within you a motive of delight in him.
Andy Shurson is a church planter and pastor of Desert Ridge Church in Phoenix. He is a graduate of Belmont University and Dallas Theological Seminary. Andy has served in the local church for years as a lead pastor, youth pastor, and in many other volunteer roles. He is also a writer who has written resources and curriculum for churches across the country.