I love John Owen. I don’t know if there is a Puritan I would rather spend the rest of my life studying. I love his writings for their intellectual depth, rich Christological and Gospel-centered content and the fact that he did not blindly follow traditional interpretations of Scripture (he thought through the Scriptures for himself). So, you can imagine my deep surprise when I came across the following in his exposition of Melchizedek in his Hebrews commentary. When he began to expound the significance of Melchizedek–who had a missing genealogy in a book of genealogies–being called to be the High Priest of God, Owen explained:
I shall only add what is certain and indubitable, namely, that we have herein a signal instance of the sovereignty and wisdom of God. All the world had, at that time, generally fallen into idolatry and false worship. The progenitors of Abraham, though a principal branch of the posterity of Shem, (as it is like, in the line of primogeniture), ” dwelt beyond the river, and served other gods,” Josh. xxiv. 2. Probably Abraham himself was not free from the guilt of that apostasy before his call. Canaan was inhabited by the Amorites, with the rest of the devoted nations on the one hand, and the Sodomites on the other. In the midst of these sinners above others, was this man raised up, the great type of Christ, with all the illustrious qualifications to be afterwards declared. And we may learn,
Obs. II. That God can raise the greatest light in the midst of the greatest darkness; as, Matt. iv. 16.
Obs. III. He can raise up instruments for his service, and unto his glory, when, where, and how he pleases.
Obs. IV. This signal prefiguration of Christ in the nations of the world, at the same time when Abraham received the promises for himself and his posterity, gave a pledge and assurance of the certain future call of the Gentiles, unto an interest in him, and participation of him.1
Here Owen seems to have been emphasizing the sovereign grace of God in calling one who was not from the covenant line (i.e. descended from Shem). Since we know nothing about Melcizedek’s history, we can only take away that God had called one by grace who himself had no familial right to a Priesthood. This was long before God established the Levitical Priesthood and established the right to that Priesthood by physical descent. God called one to be a Priest, so long before the Levitical Priesthood, by His free and sovereign grace.
No sooner does he make this point about God’s sovereign calling of Melchizedek that Owen turns around and essentially put a condition on God’s grace. He wrote:
Some of the Jews absurdly imagine that it was because his parents were not only obscure, but that he was born of fornication, and so he had no right of genealogy. But this is both a foolish and wicked imagination. For it is not to be supposed God would have advanced a person known to be of such an extract and original, into the honour of the priesthood, and that of the most excellent kind that ever was under the Old Testament. For being low and mean in the world it is neither disadvantage nor disparagement. The best of men were so, and all the chief patriarchs were but shepherds. But bastardy is a mark of infamy in the world, and God would not raise such an one to administer peculiarly to him, and that as a type of his own Son who was to be incarnate.2
Contra Owen’s statement here, the New Testament tells us that Jesus sits on the throne of David (an adulterer and murder); that prostitutes, adulteresses , adulterers and murders are in Jesus’ own genealogy; that the great typical mediator in the OT was himself a murderer who had been raised by the pagan daughter of a foreign, oppressing ruler over Israel. The foremost apostle in the New Covenant was–previous to God’s gracious calling–a self-righteous, Judaizing, murderer of Christians.
The point in highlighting Owen’s statement is merely to highlight the fact that we all struggle with the freeness and undeservedness of God’s grace. We think that somehow our sin–or the sins of our parents–limits God’s freeness in raising “up instruments for His service…when, where and how He pleases.” We fear emphasizing the freeness of God’s grace because we fear that some will use it as a cloak for sin. The Scriptures are clear that “the grace of God which brings salvation teaches us to deny ungodliness and worldly lusts, and to live soberly, righteously and godly in this present age…” The apostle Paul reminds those who have believed in Christ and been justified by Him: “How can we (i.e. are we able to) who died with Christ live any longer in sin?” Nevertheless, it is not our denial of unrighteousness or death to sin that secures God’s grace and calling of us. We cannot fear grace because of an abuse or perversion of the doctrine of grace. The abuse of a thing can never negate the use of a thing. God’s grace is absolutely free and is given to whomever He wants, whenever He wants. Both Melchizedek and Abraham whom he blessed were examples of this principle.
1. John Owen An Exposition of the Epistle to the Hebrews (Edinburgh: J. Richie, 1814) vol. 5, p. 323
2. John Owen An Exposition of the Epistle to the Hebrews (Edinburgh: T & T Clark , 1862) p. 333