John Owen Sets Rome Ablaze


Roman Catholic apologists, in all of their arguments against Reformation theology, seem to rely most heavily on two strongholds: the indefectibility of their church and the unity of their church. Many debates eventually boil down to “How do you know you’re right when you don’t have the infallible church which Christ instituted?” and “The theology of the Reformers created thousands of denominations!” Rome claims to have an indefectible church because she is infallible, and claims to have the unity we all confess.

John Owen wrote a book on Apostasy. In the abridged version he regularly makes applications to Roman Catholicism. His book is not a polemic against Rome, and so his thoughts are not fully developed, but they still shed some interesting and damaging light on Rome’s strongholds.

John Own on Rome’s “Indefectibility”

This gift of indefectibility which Rome claims for herself keeps her infallibly in that state which the gospel requires. She does not know how the gift of indefectibility works, but it does, whether she likes it or not, whether she wills it or not. . .Nothing can be more spurious in itself, nor more pernicious to the souls of men, than this claim when there are no evidences to support but plenty to deny it.

Owen makes an interesting observation about Rome’s claim to indefectibility. Rome claims that, in order to be infallible and indefectible, she must be led by the Holy Spirit. This is true, no institution on earth could possibly be infallible and indefectible without the special operation of the Holy Spirit. However, Owen recognizes two problems with Rome’s claim to be led by the Spirit into infallibility.

First, Rome’s claim to being led by the Spirit impossibly divorces the Spirit from His other graces.

What fierce, bloody, and causeless wars have Catholic nations been engaged in. Does this prove that they were ruled by the Prince of peace? What great wickednesses have been committed by the Roman Church, as history plainly shows. . . But if Rome is truly indefectible, then we would expect something better than the desolations she has brought on the earth through the lusts and rage of those who claim to be led by the Holy Spirit of God and to be ruled by Christ, the Prince of peace and love. Rome in now way represents the kingdom of righteousness, love, and peace which Christ came to set up in the world…

This is an astute point by Owen. The Roman system invokes the infallibility of the Holy Spirit to lead the church unto all truth. Yet, somehow, the Spirit, in this system, fails to bring all the other graces which the Scriptures ground in Him.

When the Roman Catholic claims the church is infallible, all he means is that the church will never officially teach error dogmatically. But the Spirit provides no other protections or graces. The church could fall into universal apostasy (including among the leadership, even the Pope himself) but the church would not have defected even in this so long as no error was defined dogmatically. Thus, the entire world could be unregenerate, the Roman leadership could be apostate, the teaching offices could be dispersing all sorts of blasphemies, and the church could be involved in all kinds of wickedness and scandals, and yet, we would be led to believe by some future remnant that during that time the Holy Spirit was at the church’s helm guiding her into all truth and preserving her from defection. But this simply is not how the Spirit is presented to us in Scripture. We have no instances of the Holy Spirit leading a man nor an institution in such a narrow, refined way. If the Holy Spirit were truly the master steering the Roman ship we ought to expect a lot more than simply never defining error. I am not claiming we ought to expect perfection. Even the apostles themselves were not free from all moral error (Galatians 2:11). Nonetheless, without expecting perfection, I stand with Owen in believing that we ought to expect more than what Rome shows.

But there is another side to the argument which Owen also mentions. This is his second point; that is, the fruit of the Spirit is apparent in other communions. Owen says,

Where the Spirit is according to the promise of Christ, there is Christ’s true church… And where the Spirit is, he will most surely reveal himself infallibly by his works and by his gifts and graces. He is the Spirit of truth, so the world cannot receive him. So if the Spirit abides only in the communion of the Roman church, then all others who claim to be churches of Christ but who are not in communion with Rome cannot have the Spirit and it would be clearly seen that the Spirit of Christ does not abide with them.

Not only must Rome be able to prove she is guided by the Spirit, but in order to be the only true church on earth, she must also prove no other communion has possession of the Spirit, since He does not dwell within those who do not belong to Christ (Romans 8:9-17). A difficult task indeed.

Protestant Indefectibility is Superior

This leads me to the conclusion that, contrary to the ad nauseam argumentation from Roman Catholic apologists, the Protestant notion of indefectibility is actually superior to Rome’s. When Protestant’s speak of the one, holy, catholic church, we refer to the universal church. Thus, when we speak of the church never defecting we mean that the church cannot ultimately be defeated. Jesus promised to build her and told us the gates of hades will never prevail against her. This is, at minimum, a promise to resurrect His church, and more than likely is also a promise to preserve and persevere her. Thus, our view of the indefectibility of the church means that the Gospel will not be eradicated from the earth; that there will always be a remnant; and that the church militant will be translated into the church triumphant. In short, that Christ will always be “believed on in the world” and that all “the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord.”

Compare this to Rome’s understanding. Rome ties the indefectibility of a church to the infallibility of a visible organization. Thus, for Rome, being indefectible means the infallible teaching office will never officially teach error. This means that, as has already been stated, the entire world could apostatize, and yet, the church’s indefectibility would remain in tact. In this hypothetical, no one on the face of the earth would believe in Christ, including the Roman magisterium, and yet, all the Holy Spirit can or would do is prevent an erroneous ex cathedra declaration.

One might be tempted to say Rome has now entirely dislocated the holy catholic church from the people – the actual body of Christ – and placed it squarely in the papal magisterium, but it’s actually worse than that! For in the Roman system, even the Magisterium can fall away. The Pope himself can be a heretic, but the Spirit nonetheless will prevent him from infallibly teaching his heresy. Thus, the church has not even demoted indefectibility to the magisterium, but merely to her dogmatic pronouncements. The church has become a document, a mere list of inerrant doctrines which exist whether anyone believes them or not. What’s more is that this physical document doesn’t even exist! Rome has not produced an infallible list of all of her infallible teachings. Thus, Rome’s indefectible church is nothing more than a piece of paper that doesn’t even exist. The one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church is an abstract list of unknown infallible pronouncements.

The Protestant view of the church on the other hand is the union of Spirit-filled disciples of Christ, the “living stones” who “are being built up as a spiritual house” which is “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.” While Rome has dislocated the house from the stones, the Protestants have maintained the house is the union of the stones.

“Now what is this one body? The faithful throughout the whole world, both which are, and which have been, and which shall be. And again, they that before Christ’s coming pleased God, are one body. How so? Because they also knew Christ.”

John Chrysostom (Homilies in Ephesians, 10.5)

And down goes Rome’s first stronghold, but we must now turn to Owen’s comments on her second stronghold: her unity.

John Owen on Rome’s “Unity”

[Rome] claims unity, because all Catholics are united under one head, the pope. This is the unity which Rome believes is the only unity required of all Christians. But gospel unity is unity in Christ and submission to his rule. It requires sanctification, holiness, and love. It requires conformity to Christ in heavenly-mindedness and obedience… [H]aving lost and despised all the true glory of Christianity, she set up in their place bronze shields, which are only a form of image of that glory. With this form or image, Rome is content, and by this form and image she attempts to deceive others into believing that she alone is the true church of Christ on earth. Instead of the gold shield of that mystical, spiritual union with Christ which truly unites Christians, and which Christ prayed for and purchased by His blood, Rome has set up the bronze shield of professed subjection to the pope as the only unity in the church… But worst of all, rejecting the humble, holy, meek, diligent endeavors to keep all true believers in obedience, love, unity and fruitful behavior by applying the commands of Christ to their souls and consciences through the Spirit and with his authority, Rome has set up a worldly domination over God’s heritage using more force, fraud, extortion, oppression, violence, and bloodshed than, it may be, any secular government of any tyrannical state in the world.

Owen sees that Rome’s unity is again lacking all spiritual vitality. Unity is established by bending the knee to a single Bishop in Rome, what vastly misses the marks of true unity in Scripture, which is characterized by love, charity, and freely sharing in the Gospel.

“For the church is not to be sought in walls and temples but in doctrines. The church is where the true faith is.” –

Francis Turretin

Protestant Unity is Superior

In like fashion, Rome’s understanding of unity is actually inferior to the Protestant notion. Rome’s unity has nothing whatsoever to do with love, charity, or fellowship, but instead, is merely a common submission to the Papacy. We are unified by a Bishop rather than by the Spirit.

While Protestants are not yet unified on all important points of doctrine, the unity we do and will have is established through reasoned arguments and Spirit led convictions rather than threat. Rome threatens and forces unity. The unity Roman Catholics have (which is nothing close to what her apologists claim) is a forced unity. It is a forced, inorganic unity, established via threat, to a formality. Protestant unity on the other hand experiences natural growth by the Spirit and consists in spiritual union through the Gospel.


In Owen’s final analysis, Rome champions nothing but external formalism. Indefectibility has become mere dogmatic pronouncements. Unity has nothing to do with love, charity, and communion, but is only submission to a singular office. The church is nothing more than doctrinal list; her unity is mere submission to a Pope. Rome has drained the church of her spiritual life.

Instead of the gold shield of that heavenly love for one another in Christ and for his sake by which grace renews the souls of believers, Rome has set up the bronze shield of a profession of outward works of charity and generosity, measured and valued by the rewards which the church of Rome gives in return for these works done for her benefit and worldly enrichment and advancement. Instead of the gold shield of the Spirit’s effective works of grace in the soul, Rome has set up the bronze shield of outward man-made ordinances. The gold shield of regeneration becomes the bronze shield baptism. The gold shield of growth in grace becomes the bronze shield of episcopal confirmation. The gold shield of the application by faith of the blood of Christ once offered in that holy sacrifice for us is replaced by the worthless bronze shield of the daily sacrifice of the mass offered for the sins of the living and the dead. The gold shield of spiritual mortification of sin is replaced by the bronze shields of penances and severe, painful bodily punishments. In the place of the gold shield of the Spirit of grace and supplication ruling in worship are set up the bronze shields of man-made liturgies invented and composed by they know not whom.

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