A Passion for Holiness

Reflections on the Life of John Owen

Article by

Founder & Teacher, desiringGod.org

Three of the first six keynote speakers at the Bethlehem Conference for Pastors have said that the most influential writer in their lives (after the Bible writers) was John Owen. J. I. Packer, Roger Nicole and Sinclair Ferguson put Owen even above Jonathan Edwards—can you imagine!

John Owen was born in 1616. He was probably the greatest pastor-theologian among the Puritans. As J. I. Packer would say, he was the tallest among the Puritan redwoods. His twenty-three thick volumes are still in print, shaping and feeding today’s shepherds (like me).

He was a man of incredible activity—politically (as Oliver Cromwell’s’ chaplain and frequent speaker to Parliament), “denominationally” (as the point man for all the controversies between Congregational and Presbyterian Puritans), theologically (as the foremost Puritan defender of Calvinistic truth), academically (as dean and vice chancellor in the University of Oxford), pastorally (serving churches in and around London almost all his adult life, even when it was illegal to gather), and personally (with a family of 11 children, 10 of whom died while young, followed by the 11th when she was a young adult).

What amazed me about this man is that in the midst of all this activity his passion was not public performance, but personal holiness. He said,

My heart’s desire unto God, and the chief design of my life ... are that ... universal holiness may be promoted in my own and in the hearts and ways of others.

I need heroes like this. Not many leaders today state the goals of their lives in terms of holiness. And more and more leaders openly confess that their personal holiness is of no significance to their public performance. For example, the President of the United States communicated very clearly that he did not think his personal purity was a significant factor in his leadership of this nation. Similarly we read recently: “Prince Charles has reportedly just ended a long-standing adulterous affair with Camilla Parker-Bowles in order to remove any obstacle to his succession to the throne.” So on both side of the Atlantic our statesmen say with their lives: personal holiness is no big deal—public performance and personal purity are not related.

Not so Owen. The wonder and the power and the beauty of his public life was the constancy of his personal communion with God in purity and joy. One of his biographers described it like this:

Amid the din of theological controversy, the engrossing and perplexing activities of a high public station, and the chilling damps of a university, he was yet living near God, and like Jacob amid the stones of the wilderness, [he was] maintaining secret intercourse with the eternal and invisible.

In his own words he gave the secret to his personal holiness amid all the pressures and pains of life:

What better preparation can there be for [our future enjoyment of the glory of Christ] than in a constant previous contemplation of that glory in the revelation that is made in the Gospel.

There’s the key to purity and holiness, and the key to lasting effectiveness in all of life: constant contemplation of the glory of Christ.

Coming (hourly) to the Living Stone,

Pastor John