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He Killed His Sin with Love

John Owen (1616–1683)

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Founder & Teacher, desiringGod.org

Some of us stand on the shoulders of men who have stood on the shoulders of John Owen. J.I. Packer, Roger Nicole, and Sinclair Ferguson, for example, are three contemporary pillars in the house of my thinking, and each has testified publicly that John Owen is the most influential Christian writer in his life. That is amazing for a man who has been dead for over three hundred years, and who wrote in a style so difficult to read that even he saw his work as immensely demanding in his own generation.

In the preface to his book The Death of Death in the Death of Christ, Owen does what no good marketing agent would allow today. He begins like this: “READER, . . . If thou art, as many in this pretending age, a sign or title gazer, and comest into books as Cato into the theatre, to go out again — thou hast had thy entertainment; farewell!”

Nevertheless, J.I. Packer and Roger Nicole and Sinclair Ferguson did not bid Owen farewell. They lingered. And they learned. And today all three of them say that no Christian writer has had a greater impact on them than John Owen.

Making of a Puritan

Owen was born in England in 1616, the same year Shakespeare died and four years before the Pilgrims set sail for New England. This is virtually in the middle of the great Puritan century (roughly 1560 to 1660). Owen was born in the middle of this movement and became its greatest pastor-theologian, as the movement ended almost simultaneously with his death in 1683.

In 1642 the civil war began between Parliament and King Charles. Owen, a chaplain at the time, was sympathetic with Parliament against the king and Bishop Laud, and so he was pushed out of his chaplaincy and moved to London, where several major events happened in the next four years that stamped the rest of his life.

1. Conversion

The first is his conversion — or possibly the awakening of the assurance of salvation and the deepening of his personal communion with God. Owen was a convinced Calvinist with large doctrinal knowledge, but he lacked the sense of the reality of his own salvation.

When Owen was 26 years old, he went with his cousin to hear the famous Presbyterian Edmund Calamy at St. Mary’s Church Aldermanbury. But it turned out Calamy could not preach, and a country preacher took his place. Owen’s cousin wanted to leave. But something held Owen to his seat. The simple preacher took as his text Matthew 8:26: “Why are you fearful, O you of little faith?” It was God’s appointed word and appointed time for Owen’s awakening.

His doubts and fears and worries as to whether he was truly born anew by the Holy Spirit were gone. He felt himself liberated and adopted as a Son of God. When you read the penetrating, practical works of Owen on the work of the Spirit and the nature of true communion with God, it is hard to doubt the reality of what God did on this Sunday in 1642.

2. Marriage and Dying Children

The second crucial event in those early years in London was Owen’s marriage to a young woman named Mary Rooke. He was married to her for 31 years, from 1644 to 1675. We know virtually nothing about her. But we do know one absolutely stunning fact that must have colored all of Owen’s ministry for the rest of his life. We know that she bore him eleven children, and all but one died as a child, and the one daughter who survived childhood died as a young adult. That’s one child born and lost on average every three years of Owen’s adult life.

We don’t have one reference to Mary or to the children or to his pain in all his books. But just knowing that the man walked in the valley of the shadow of death most of his life gives me a clue to the depth of dealing with God that we find in his works. God has his strange and painful ways of making his ministers the kind of pastors and theologians he wants them to be.

3. Political Beginnings

The third event of these early years in London was the invitation in 1646 to speak to the Parliament. In those days there were fast days during the year when the government asked certain pastors to preach to the House of Commons. It was a great honor. This message catapulted Owen into political affairs for the next fourteen years.

Not only that, Cromwell in 1651 appointed Owen to the deanship at Christ Church College in Oxford, and then the next year also made him the vice chancellor. He was involved with Oxford for nine years until 1660, when Charles II returned and things began to go very badly for the Puritans.

Ever Studying, Ever Writing

In spite of all this administrative pressure and even hostility because of his commitment to godliness and to the Puritan cause, he was constantly studying and writing, probably late at night instead of sleeping. That’s how concerned he was with doctrinal faithfulness to Scripture.

During these administrative years, he wrote twenty-two published works, including Of the Mortification of Sin in Believers (1656), Of Communion with God (1657), and Of Temptation: The Nature and Power of It (1658). What is so remarkable about these books is that they are what I would call intensely personal and, in many places, very sweet. So he wasn’t just fighting doctrinal battles — he was fighting sin and temptation. And he wasn’t just fighting — he was fostering heartfelt communion with God.

Fugitive Pastor to the End

Owen was relieved of his duties of the deanship in 1660 (having laid down the vice chancellorship in 1657). Cromwell had died in 1658. The monarchy with Charles II was back. The Act of Uniformity, which put two thousand Puritans out of their pulpits, was just around the corner (1662). The days ahead for Owen now were not the great political, academic days of the last fourteen years. He was now, from 1660 until his death in 1683, a kind of fugitive pastor in London.

Because of the political situation, he was not always able to stay in one place and be with his people, but he seemed to carry them on his heart even when he was moving around. Near the end of his life he wrote to his flock, “Although I am absent from you in body, I am in mind and affection and spirit present with you, and in your assemblies; for I hope you will be found my crown and rejoicing in the day of the Lord.”

His Aim: Holiness

Let’s stand back now and try to get close to the heart of what made this man tick and what made him great. I think the words that come closest to giving us the heart and aim of his life are found in the preface to the little book Of the Mortification of Sin in Believers:

I hope I may own in sincerity that my heart’s desire unto God, and the chief design of my life . . . are, that mortification and universal holiness may be promoted in my own and in the hearts and ways of others, to the glory of God, that so the Gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ may be adorned in all things. (9)

Mortification means warfare on our own sin with a view to killing it. He paraphrased this truth in the memorable phrase, “Be killing sin or it will be killing you.”

Owen’s personal holiness and public fruitfulness did not just happen to him. He pursued them. There were strategies of personal discipline and public authenticity that God used to make him what he was. In all our life and ministry, as we care for people and contend for the faith, we can learn much from Owen’s pursuit of holiness in private and public.

He Communed with God

It is incredible that Owen was able, under the pressures of his life, to keep writing books that were both weighty and edifying. Andrew Thomson, one of his biographers, wrote,

It is interesting to find the ample evidence which [his work on Mortification] affords, that 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, maintaining secret intercourse with the eternal and invisible. (Works of John Owen, I:lxiv–lxv)

Writing a letter during an illness in 1674, Owen said to a friend, “Christ is our best friend, and ere long will be our only friend. I pray God with all my heart that I may be weary of everything else but converse and communion with Him” (God’s Statesman, 153). God was using illness and all the other pressures of Owen’s life to drive him into communion with God and not away from it.

He Believed, Then He Spoke

One great hindrance to holiness in the ministry of the word is that we are prone to preach and write without pressing into the things we say and making them real to our own souls. Over the years words begin to come easy, and we find we can speak of mysteries without standing in awe; we can speak of purity without feeling pure; we can speak of zeal without spiritual passion; we can speak of God’s holiness without trembling; we can speak of sin without sorrow; we can speak of heaven without eagerness. And the result is an increasing hardening of the spiritual life.

The conviction that controlled Owen in this was the following:

A man preacheth that sermon only well unto others which preacheth itself in his own soul. And he that doth not feed on and thrive in the digestion of the food which he provides for others will scarce make it savory unto them; yea, he knows not but the food he hath provided may be poison, unless he have really tasted of it himself. If the word do not dwell with power in us, it will not pass with power from us. (Works of John Owen, XVI:76)

It was this conviction that sustained Owen in his immensely busy public life of controversy and conflict. Whenever he undertook to defend a truth, he sought first of all to take that truth deeply into his heart and gain a real spiritual experience of it so that there would be no artificiality in the debate and no mere posturing or gamesmanship.

He Prepared to Meet Christ

The last thing Owen was doing, as the end of his life approached, was communing with Christ in a work that was later published as Meditations on the Glory of Christ. His friend William Payne was helping him edit the work. Near the end Owen said, “O, brother Payne, the long-wished for day is come at last, in which I shall see the glory in another manner than I have ever done or was capable of doing in this world” (God’s Statesman, 171).

John Owen contended for the fullness of biblical faith because he wanted generations after him to enjoy that same “long-wished for day” when we will see the glory of Christ “in another manner” than we have ever seen it here. He never made controversy, nor its victory, an end in itself. The end was to see Jesus Christ, be satisfied with him, and be transformed into his likeness.