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He Sought to Kill Sin with a Pen

John Owen (1616–1683)

Fifty years or so ago, you would have been hard-pressed to find anyone who could recognize the name John Owen. Today, he is regularly quoted from pulpits and in articles as though his name were a household word. This is even more surprising because almost everybody who mentions him adds, “But he is not light reading!” After all, he lived in the seventeenth century, thought in Latin, wrote long and profound works of theology, and belonged to the marginalized group of Christians we call Puritans.

Who was this John Owen, and what explains the phenomenon of his rising popularity?

Saved by a Nobody

The highlights of Owen’s life are as follows. Born in 1616, he was brought up in a Church of England vicarage. His parents had Puritan sympathies — that is, they believed that the English Reformation (which had taken place during his grandparents’ lifetime) had not been sufficiently radical.

Reared in such an atmosphere, the young, intellectually brilliant Owen made his way through his early education before going up to the University of Oxford. But it would be a number of years until he came to a settled assurance of his own salvation. He went to hear a famous minister at Aldermanbury Chapel in London. A substitute preacher entered the pulpit. Owen’s companion was all for heading off to another church. But the preacher (whose identity has been lost in the mists of history) preached on Matthew 8:26: “Why are ye so fearful, O ye of little faith?” It was Owen’s turning point.

Here we learn a quite general lesson from his life. You know the names of many famous Christians. Yet do you know the names of those who first pointed them to Christ? Unlikely. Owen’s life reminds us that the significance of the life of any believer never depends on that individual alone. The fruit of hidden faithfulness is not measurable by any human calculus. But think of the joy it will be in glory to be shown the connections!

Owen then went on to serve two Church of England congregations, first in Fordham and then in Coggeshall. He began to write catechisms for the children and adults of his own congregation, and then — as young men are sometimes wont to do — some polemical works.

Prodigious Puritan

England was now embroiled in the Civil War of 1642–1651, the war that would temporarily topple the monarchy. Providentially, Owen became acquainted with the leading figures in Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army (he would serve as a chaplain to Cromwell himself, but later seems to have been instrumental in dissuading him from accepting the crown). He was regularly invited to preach before Parliament — indeed, he did so on January 31, 1649, on the day following the execution of Charles I.

“Fifty years or so ago, you would have been hard-pressed to find anyone who could recognize the name John Owen.”

With his prodigious ability, and his star in the ascendant, he was successively appointed dean (principal) of Christ Church in the University of Oxford, and in 1652 vice chancellor (president) of the whole university. On alternate Sunday afternoons, he and Thomas Goodwin preached to the young students. By today’s assessment of youth ministry, it is staggering to think that the material in Owen’s famous little work On the Mortification of Sin may well have been originally preached to teenagers! But then, he knew what he was doing.

During this period, England was led by Lord Protector Cromwell. But it did not last long. Cromwell died in 1658, and his son and successor, Richard, had little of his father’s ability. In 1660 the monarchy was restored, and within two years, nonconforming ministers like Owen had been ejected from their pulpits and ministries. To a large extent, he was now persona non grata in public life — although his intellectual talents were still seen to be useful on occasion. He declined an invitation to the First Church of Boston, Massachusetts.

During the years that followed, Owen was hosted and housed by influential friends, ministering privately behind closed doors — until the Acts of Toleration in the 1670s made it possible for him once again to exercise a public ministry. This he did in London, first to a small church of a few dozen old friends, and then, when they united with a larger congregation, to a growing number. (Incidentally, he believed the ideal size for a church was about three hundred.) Here he remained until he died on August 24, 1683. He is buried in the Dissenters’ Burial Ground of Bunhill Fields in London (where Thomas Goodwin, John Bunyan, Isaac Watts, and other dissenters from the Church of England await the resurrection).

Legacy of Seven Million Words

Many Puritans kept a journal. If John Owen did, it is either lost or (more likely) was destroyed. We can only surmise what adventures it would contain. Here was someone who moved among the rich and famous, a counselor to the political and military leaders of his day. He knew John Bunyan and was possibly one of the first to read The Pilgrim’s Progress, since he recommended that he submit it to his own publisher, Nathaniel Ponder (who became known as “Bunyan Ponder” so well did the books sell).

What would the journal of a Christian who lost his wife and ten of his eleven children be like? Did he record the events of January 30, 1649, when King Charles I was publicly executed? Was he present, like Philip Henry — father of Matthew, the famous Bible commentator — who ever after commented on “the dismal groan” that arose from the crowd, the likes of which he hoped he would never hear again? Or was the 32-year-old preacher too anxiously busy preparing the sermon he would preach the next day to the members of Parliament responsible for the king’s condemnation? And how would an older John Owen have described what it was like to be leading a private Bible exposition, suddenly to find armed soldiers rampaging into the house? How discouraging was it for the greatest English theologian of his day (and perhaps of any day in England) to be preaching to a congregation where the membership was fewer than fifty? If only we knew, what lessons we might learn.

“The significance of the life of any believer never depends on that individual alone.”

But Owen had little interest in sharing these personal details. Instead, he left behind — in books that fill 24 volumes of densely packed biblical exposition — spiritual, pastoral, and polemical theology, the fruit of a mind illumined by Scripture, affections devoted to Christ, a will subdued by the Spirit, and a life of wrestling against his own sin and caring for the churches. His legacy lies in some seven million words of Trinity-saturated, Christ-centered, Spirit-honoring, heart-searching, error-exposing, church-building, ordinance-explaining biblical and theological exposition. That he could produce so much with the writing implements and materials of the seventeenth century is itself a wonder.

All that said, there is little doubt that he would have been astonished to discover that his name is better known, and his books more widely read today, than at any time during his life or since.

Theologian of the Trinity

How is it that Owen “though he died . . . still speaks” (Hebrews 11:4)? There are both obvious and hidden reasons. The obvious reasons are these.

Owen wrote as someone who knew God personally. No clearer proof of this can be found than in his work On Communion with God the Trinity. Here he explains a very simple principle that has worship-and-life-transforming significance. Everything God the Trinity does, he does as one Lord. And yet each person of the Trinity has a distinct role in creation, redemption, and consummation. The Father sends the Son; the Son dies for his people; the Spirit applies all this to believers. We praise the Father for sending his Son; we praise the Son (not the Father or the Spirit) for dying for us; we praise the Spirit for glorifying the Son. As we do this, it dawns on us how multidimensional, how unified yet diverse, is the work of the Trinity. How marvelous it is to have distinct fellowship with each person in what he has done for us personally, while simultaneously enjoying fellowship with the whole triune Godhead. This is a mystery — but it expands our experience of loving, praising, trusting, serving, glorifying, and enjoying him. Worship is nourished, and the Christian life becomes a privilege of vast proportions.

Then Owen also wrote as someone who knew Christ well. His exposition of The Glory of Christ is virtually unrivaled in Christian literature. Yet, as with others before him, he realized he had seen only the edges of Christ’s ways. On the day he died, a friend informed him that the book was in the process of publication. Owen’s response? “I am glad to hear it; but, O brother. . . . 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.”

“He was just as able to apply the word of God to teenage boys as he was to members of Parliament.”

He also gave to the church one of the truly great expositions of the person and work of the Holy Spirit. The fact that so many Christians still think that the ministry of the Spirit has only recently been discovered is one of many indications that we know all too little of our family history. And there is good news: Owen is at his readable best here!

He also knew the human heart. He had felt the searching beam of God’s word on his own soul, exposing the highways and byways where sin both lurks and walks. This enabled him to be a wise physician of the soul. Yet he also managed to write probably the longest technical-exegetical-theological-pastoral commentary ever written on a New Testament book — four thousand pages on Hebrews.

Suffering Scholar

But there are also hidden reasons for why Owen’s influence endures. Owen’s backstory helps explain why it is that when we read him, we find something in his writings we rarely find in contemporary books. Yes, there is great learning and profound thought; but it is married to the spiritual insight that arises out of his uniquely varied personal experience.

Think of it. Here is a man with massive intellectual gifts, who, having drunk in Reformed theology from childhood, nevertheless lacked the enjoyment of God that comes with the assurance of salvation. But God blessed and humbled him to receive his life-transforming word from a “nobody.”

Here is a man who lost almost all his dearest earthly possessions — his wife and children. Here is a preacher who in earlier years pastored a large church and was a nationally sought-after preacher in a great university town, but whose later congregations were usually small, and at times virtually underground.

“He had felt the searching beam of God’s word on his own soul, exposing the highways and byways where sin lurks.”

Here is someone who moved easily among military generals, political leaders, and royalty, but who loved to host and hear the preaching of John Bunyan. Asked by King Charles II why he listened to “yon tinker,” he replied: “Could I possess the tinker’s abilities for preaching, please your majesty, I would gladly relinquish all my learning.” Here was a man who equaled any of the great intellectuals of his age, but who was just as able to apply the word of God to teenage boys as he was to hunted and deprived believers or to members of Parliament.

Burning and Shining Light

He knew God and experienced his hand on his life. This is why Owen’s writings continue to inform and stretch the minds and souls of the most able theologians and gospel ministers, and yet at the same time minister deeply to ordinary Christian believers. This is why we can still echo today some words of Owen’s assistant, David Clarkson, spoken at his memorial service:

A great light has fallen; one of eminency for holiness, learning, parts, and abilities; a pastor, a scholar, a divine of the first magnitude; holiness gave a divine lustre to his other accomplishments, it shined in his whole course, and was diffused throughout his whole conversation. I need not tell you of this that knew him and observed that it was his great design to promote holiness in the power, life, and exercise of it among you. It was his great complaint that the power of it declined among professors. It was his care and endeavour to prevent or cure spiritual decays in his own flock. He was a burning and a shining light, and you for a while rejoiced in his light: alas! that it was but for a while, and that we cannot rejoice in it still.

Clarkson spoke well and truly — except perhaps for those last six words. Owen shed light on the majesty of God, the tenderness of the Father, the glory of the Lord Jesus Christ, the indwelling ministry of the Holy Spirit, the sinfulness of sin, the greatness of grace, the privileges of the Christian life, and the glory that is yet to be. He was indeed, like John the Baptist, a burning and shining light. And we can, and do, still rejoice in that.

is a Ligonier teaching fellow and Chancellor’s Professor of Systematic Theology, Reformed Theological Seminary.