I wrote down four reasons why it is so good of God to make John Owen the topic of this talk. This is CJ’s idea, not mine. And I’m going to give reasons now why I think God was in it.
Reasons for Speaking on Owen
Number one: Because it gives me an occasion to say what an odd thing it is for a person to ask anybody to speak about John Owen, and what it says about CJ and this gathering and this movement. What in the world is anybody doing asking to bore a whole room full of people with a 300-year-old, unreadable theologian? It says a huge amount about CJ, and it says a huge amount about what Sovereign Grace Ministries stands for — namely, that you believe in what he stood for. How rare it is that anybody would want Owen. How rare it is that anybody would want anything 300 years old. How rare it is that anybody would want theology. How rare it is that anybody would want God-centered, Christ-exalting, Bible-saturated theology.
So, CJ, the very fact of the topic is a celebration in my mind of what God has done in you and in this group, because when I think of the big movements among Evangelicals in this country right now, this is the last topic they would ask anybody to speak on. So something weird is going on here, and I am here to celebrate it. I hope you’ll see why before we’re done. So that’s reason one as to why I think it’s of God that I would be asked to speak on John Owen.
Number two: I am on a writing leave, and just finished the fourth volume in The Swans Are Not Silent called Contending for Our All. In it are three little biographies on Athanasius, John Owen, and J. Gresham Machen. And it’s all about the importance of defending and contending for doctrinal faithfulness, which is our all when it’s Jesus Christ and a right understanding of his gospel. And so, Owen was fresh on my mind because of working on that book.
And now, the book I’m working on is called God is the Gospel. Owen is figuring very largely into that book, mainly because, as Justin and I were just talking in our hotel room, it seems like as you take the orbit of his 22 volumes of published works — 23 maybe if you take Biblical Theology into account — probably the most integrating text is, “The God of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Corinthians 4:4), and that verse is the pivotal verse in this book. It is “the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.”
The point of my book is that if you preach the gospel and the glory of Christ does not shine off the things you celebrate in that gospel, you haven’t communicated good news. The subtitle might be something like Meditations on God’s Love as the Gift of Himself. I fear for our Evangelical world that it isn’t God’s self for our everlasting enjoyment that is generally offered in the gospel. So that’s reason number two why it feels so urgent, present, and immediately relevant for me to talk about John Owen.
Number three: As of last week, Justin Taylor and Josh Sowen at Desiring God Ministries created a website, www.JohnOwen.org, where you can go and find everything you need to know about Owen. That’s easy to remember. If you go to JohnOwen.com you get an architect, I think. And if you go to JohnOwen.org you’ll get the 322-year-old, greatest British theologian. That’s the third reason. Here’s the last one.
Number four: This morning Justin handed me this letter in the car on the way to the airport, which tallied with the The Star article — which is what our church newsletter called — that Coty Pinckney wrote this week. Coty Pinckney is the pastor in one of our church plants in Charlotte called Desiring God Community Church. Coty wrote the article for us this week, and this letter and that article are about the same thing — namely, pastoral plagiarism. One of the largest churches in Charlotte — Calvary Church — lost its pastor, I believe last September, because of preaching other people’s sermons. It was a 3,000-person church. And this letter is a confession, and I get these periodically, from a pastor in South Carolina confessing that he was preaching my sermons.
John Owen devoted his entire life in the ministry to holiness, not success and not popularity, but purity, integrity, and holiness was his passion. And I think if you looked at the lay of the land in America politically — what’s happening in Congress this very moment as they investigate DeLay — and in the church — what’s happening in the church as adultery, plagiarism, and materialism bring down pastor after pastor, or exalt pastor after pastor — I think he would have regarded it as unrecognizable. And so it’s an unbelievably relevant thing that we should talk about John Owen. I’d like to pray before I launch.
The Importance of John Owen
It’s amazing that three of the speakers who have come to the Desiring God Pastor’s Conference — J.I. Packer, Sinclair Ferguson, and Roger Nicole — all said in their keynote messages over the last years that nobody had influenced them more than John Owen. So picture these three giants of our day, some are my heroes — Packer, Ferguson, Nicole — saying out loud nobody influenced them more than John Owen, outside the Bible, of course. That is a remarkable thing to say about a person who’s been dead for 322 years, whose prose is so demanding — even he thought it was.
For example, in the preface to his book The Death of Death in the Death of Christ, he wrote this, and just picture how un-reader-friendly this is:
Reader, if thou art as many in this pretending age, a sign or title gazer, and comest into books as Cato into the theater to go out again, thou hast thy entertainment. Farewell.
Amazing. And that’s the mind and the man that these three said, “Nobody has shaped my thinking more than Owen.” Let’s just give you the specifics.
J.I. Packer has told the story in several publications, and to me personally, that he probably would have committed suicide as a student in Britain had he not been pointed to John Owen. Because he had gotten mixed up with a perfectionist group that was so out of touch with the reality of indwelling sin that he was being made to believe he could not be a Christian if he were who he was. And he said that, fortunately, he discovered in On the Mortification of Sin what indwelling sin in Romans 7 was really about, and learned about the nature of the warfare in the Christian life. And his life was spared. And then he went on and studied Owen in great detail. So he gives never-ending tribute to Owen.
Nicole said out loud, “No theologian of the English speaking tongue is greater,” and he paused, knowing in whose church he was, and said, “even Jonathan Edwards, than John Owen.” Well, maybe, but the fact that he would even rank Owen above Edwards is breathtaking to me. When I heard that, which was quite a few years ago, I was really taken aback. But that was Nicole’s judgment.
And then Sinclair Ferguson, perhaps most remarkable of all, encountered Owen as a teenager. I do not recommend that you give teenagers John Owen unless you have a very extraordinary reading teenager. But he was exposed to Owen as a teenager and he wrote this:
My personal interest in Owen as a teacher and theologian began in my late teenage years when I first read some of his writing. Like others before and since, I found that they dealt with issues which contemporary Evangelical literature rarely, if ever, touched.
That is one of the great advantages of moving back several hundred years. We all have our blind spots, every generation does. And Owen dealt with things that are of vital importance that you don’t find many people writing about today.
Having Dead Heroes
And then of course there were other testimonies. Ambrose Barnes said he was the Calvin of England. And Anthony Wood said he was the atlas of the Independence Movement — the church that was not the Anglican movement. When we talk about independence or nonconformity, we mean the people who had left the Anglican Church in their pursuit of the Puritan ideal of reform.
I have one last quote of commendation from Charles Bridges. This is really quite amazing:
Indeed upon the whole, for luminous exposition, powerful defense of Scripture doctrine, determined enforcement of practical obligation, for skillful anatomy of the self-deceitfulness of the heart (that’s where I love Owen most along with Edwards), and for a detailed and wise treatment of the diversified exercises of the Christian heart, he stands, probably, unrivaled.
I would just commend to you that you get a hero who’s dead. I mean that because live heroes can let you down, and they’re not tested long enough yet. So get yourself one or two good dead heroes. And obey Hebrews 13:7, which says:
Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith.
It’s right to have heroes, but it’s dangerous to have live heroes. It’s good and safe to have proven, God-centered, Bible-saturated, dead heroes, who though they are dead, still speak.
The Life of John Owen
Let’s do a little overview of Owen’s life. The striking thing about Owen is how little we know, because of how little was preserved of his detailed life. But we have enough to get the outline of it. Not one of his diaries has been preserved, and none of his letters have been preserved. He remains hidden, Tune says, but not quite hidden because we have his books. And you can read between the lines in many ways. And then we have the basic facts.
He was born in 1616, the year Shakespeare died, and four years before the Puritans arrived in America. Isn’t it amazing to think that we’re reading the documents of a man who was meeting God, and dealing with God before this vast America? It just seems so recent. This is a baby country. I mean, if it went out of existence tomorrow, it would be a footnote in 1,000 years. And it could. We’re a baby land. It’s still an experiment in the wilderness. God has been good to us, way better than we deserve. We should tremble, be grateful, use what we’ve been given, and work while it is day.
He died in 1683, in the middle of the Puritan century. Usually, we measure the Puritans from about 1560s to 1660s, so he died right as it was closing. He did most of his work right in the middle of it. We don’t know anything about his siblings, except that he had three brothers and a sister. That’s all we know. He never mentions his mother in any of his writings. He said one thing about his father, and this is it:
I was bred up from my infancy under the care of my father, who was a Nonconformist all his days and a painful laborer in the vineyard of the Lord.
When he was 10 years old he was sent off to grammar school. At 12, he entered Queens College at Oxford. He took his Bachelor’s Degree at 16, got his MA at 19, and entered the BD theological studies and quit because of the dominant Arminianism of the Church of England at that particular time. He got a job as a chaplain to some wealthy families near London.
He was very sympathetic to Parliament, as Parliament and the King began to divide and there were these civil wars. He was on the more popular side, rather than the King’s side, the side of the Congregationalists, the Presbyterians, and the Nonconformity — the Independents.
Moments that Shaped His Life
Let’s sum up five events in London that shaped his whole life.
1. Owen’s Conversion
Everybody would have thought John Owen was converted, but he was an unconverted Calvinist. There are such people and they do a lot of damage. And I hope you aren’t one of them. But he was a Calvinist, and he was unconverted. And God used, as he did with Charles Spurgeon, a commoner, an ordinary lay preacher, to convert him.
You know the story of Spurgeon. It was January 6, 1850, in the snow, and he was driven out of his way into a little Wesleyan chapel. A lay preacher picked up Isaiah 45:22 in a little teeny group of people that had made it in the snow, and he said, “Look to me and be saved all the ends of the earth.” And Spurgeon did, and he was saved. It was an amazing story. The same thing happened with John Owen.
He was 26 years old, and he was in Aldermanbury. He visited his cousin who wanted to take him to hear the famous Presbyterian preacher, Edmund Calamy, at St. Mary’s Church. Well, the preacher wasn’t there, and his cousin wanted to leave. Have you ever done that? You go to hear a famous preacher, you find out he’s not preaching, and you want to go away? Don’t do that, you might get saved.
So they stayed. A simple preacher, who was filling in on the spur of the moment, took his text from Matthew 8:26, which says:
Why are you afraid, O you of little faith?
It was the appointed word that penetrated Owen and removed all his doubts, fears, and worries. He felt as if he had been born anew, or at least had been given profoundly unshakeable assurance of his salvation.
Humble Means for Great Ends
I just can’t help but pause and make an application here because of one of the things you said you drew out last night about the background of this movement, with a basketball player for a leader. You know, a drunken drug dealer. You may not feel like you’re a John Owen. I mean, I hope you do not feel like you’re an Owen. There’s no Owens in this room, I can promise you. And therefore, you might think, “I won’t have an impact.” But is it not amazing that God used a simple, uneducated preacher to save the John Owen? I mean, who’s going to get the reward here?
How many stories are there like that? There’s the Spurgeon story, the Owen story, and the Billy Graham story — that’s a good one, from North Carolina. Somebody sitting in your little 30-person church may have a ripple effect of life you cannot begin to calculate. When Jesus asks you tonight in your room, “Do you love me?” And you say, “Lord, you know that I love you.” And he says, “Feed that flock. Show me you love me by feeding my flock.” Know that he will receive that and multiply that.
I’m reading through the Bible with my discipleship journal reading plan, and this morning, therefore, I read Jesus dealing with these hard-hearted disciples who were talking about bread again. And he says, “Don’t you understand? When we fed the 5,000, how many loaves were left over?” And they say, “Twelve.” And then he says, “When we fed the 4,000, how many loaves were left over?” And they say, “Seven.” He says, “Do you not understand?” (Mark 8:19–21). Then what’s the point? The point is that you’ll be taken care of if you feed my flock, whether it’s twelve or seven — how much do you need? He is saying, “What do I need to do to help you stop talking about bread and start talking about souls? Would you stop worrying about your living? Would you stop worrying about your money? I have tried to show you, rest. I’ll take care of you. Feed my sheep. Simple or educated, feed my sheep. I’ll take care of you. The ripple effect will be beyond anything you ever dreamed.”
2. Owen’s Marriage
The second event that happened was his marriage. Why do I mention it since we know almost nothing about it? Her name was Mary Rooke. He never mentions her in any writing. Thirty-one years they were married. She died, I believe, eight years before he died. What is so amazing in the story of the marriage is that they had 11 children, and all of them died, and Mary died before Owen died. They had 31 years and a child dying roughly every three years. That’s just an average. We don’t know whether there were any twins even in the group, or whether they died early or late. All it says is that all died in early childhood except for one, who lived to be a young adult, then she died.
I’m watching this man do what we’re going to see him do in the midst of virtually constant loss. And some of us want to throw in the towel on God after one loss. And therefore, I stand back, I take a deep breath, and I say, “O God, make me like this, so that if my wife isn’t there when I get home, my little girl is not there, or my sons have terrible accidents, I keep feeding my flock and go deeper than I’ve ever gone, and don’t see anything but, “He gives and takes away, he gives and takes away. My heart will find a way to say, ‘Blessed be the name of the Lord.’” The marriage was hard. We don’t know much, just that it was death, death, death.
3. Owen’s First Book
I don’t think I’ll go into this much, except to say that it set the stage in two ways. First, it was a book on Arminianism, and it was a powerfully politically affecting book. Here’s the title: A Display of Arminianism Being a Discovery of the Old Pelagian Idol Free Will, With the New Goddess Contingency, Advancing Themselves into the Throne of God in Heaven to the Prejudice of His Grace, Providence, and Supreme Dominion over the Children of Men. That’s a very typical puritan title. Actually, they didn’t have tables of contents, so they just packed it in. And that launched him into a remarkable career of endless controversy.
4. Owen’s Pastorate
He became a pastor in London, and he was a pastor all his life with some brief interludes with Cromwell in politics, which I’ll mention. And that set the stage. He did all of his writing out of a pastoral ministry, sometimes as a fugitive pastor.
5. Owen’s Address of Parliament
He addressed Parliament, and that catapulted him into national prominence. They had these fast days where they invited a pastor to come to address the Parliament. And he did. And the message got a hold of Cromwell’s attention. Cromwell is said to have said, “Sir, you are a person I must be acquainted with.” To which Owen replied, “That will be much more to my advantage than yours.” To which I write, “I’m not sure that that’s true.” I don’t think so. I think it was to Cromwell’s great advantage to know Owen, and maybe a diversion for Owen to know Cromwell.
He was made the chaplain of Cromwell’s armies. The armies were sent to Ireland and Scotland where they massacred whole groups of people. And he was sent along to preach to the troops, assess the religious situation, and give theological justification for the war, which may or may not have been justifiable.
He became the Dean, under Cromwell’s leadership, of Christ Church College in Oxford, and served for nine years as the Dean and Vice Chancellor there. And he had a very fruitful ministry pastoring, as well as academically leading the school at that time. Things like the appointment of chaplains were his duty, along with the choice of students, provision of tutorial facilities, administration of discipline, oversight of the property, collection of rents and tithes, care of the almsman of the church hospital, and on and on. All the while he was, in his own words, “trying to establish the whole life of the college on the word of God.”
And then he ended that, and he was glad to be done with it, and said this to the students in his concluding chapel message:
Labors have been numberless. Besides submitting to enormous expense, often when brought to the brink of death on your account, I have hated these limbs and this feeble body which was ready to desert my mind. The reproaches of the vulgar have been disregarded, and the envy of others has been overcome. In these circumstances, I wish you all prosperity and bid you farewell.
Tireless Labor, Writing, and Defense of Religious Liberty
In spite of all that pressure in those nine years, with a child dying every third year, he wrote 22 books. He was staying up too late and getting too little sleep, which he did regret in his latter days of suffering, that he had treated his body so poorly. But you know, when I hear men of this caliber, this quantity of output, and this depth of output, begrudge the labor because of its later effects, I take it with a grain of salt. Because I, frankly, am deeply, deeply thankful that, in spite of losing children, the pressures of a deanship and of being a preacher, he stayed up late for me and for you.
He wrote things in those years that would boggle your mind. He wrote a book called The Saint’s Perseverance in 1654. Why did he write a book on perseverance? This book has 666 pages defending the doctrine of perseverance. He did it because a man emerged named John Goodwin, spreading errors about this doctrine, infecting his students and the people in his church. And he cared for them as a shepherd cares for a sheep and wants to protect them from wolves. You can find it in volume 11 of his collected works. And so, he stayed up late to protect the sheep from a horrible doctrine that denied the precious doctrine of perseverance.
He was fired because Charles II came back to the throne. Catholicism was starting to move, or the high church of Anglicanism. It was in 1662, two years later, that the Act of Uniformity commenced, and 2,000 Puritans were put out of their churches. He was one of them. So now for the rest of his life, 23 years, he was a fugitive pastor in London. He had so many high connections that his plight was not as serious as some, but it was tenuous. And he had to move around and couldn’t serve his church in the church all the time.
He was a great defender of tolerance, therefore. In our day of tolerance, it would be good to read his book on tolerance. It would be very educational. It’s called Indulgence and Toleration Considered. He wrote this:
It seems that we are some of the first who ever, anywhere in the world, from the foundation of it, thought of ruining and destroying persons of the same religions with ourselves merely on the choice of some peculiar ways of worship in that religion.
Nothing new under the sun, is there? We might agree on massive, glorious truths for which people have died, but if you sing like that, you are so defective it’s as though you were a heretic.
William Penn — Pennsylvania William Penn — was a Quaker, and he studied with Owen. And then he came over and preached tolerance. And Owen wrote to the Governor of Massachusetts, pleading for tolerance for the Baptists in his day, though he was not himself a Baptist. So, Owen was a remarkable combination of doctrinal defense and tolerance of form, and I give thanks to God for him. “Feed my sheep” was what he wanted to do.
Success and Failure in the Providence of God
He knew John Bunyan. You know who Bunyan was. He wrote Pilgrim’s Progress. They were contemporaries, and they knew each other quite well. And it always struck me as odd that Owen was known as the Atlas of Independence, the Calvin of England, but Bunyan was an absolute nobody. He hadn’t done anything to distinguish himself, except get himself in prison. And Owen, who could have been in prison for the same reason but had strings he could pull, tried to pull the same strings over and over for Bunyan. He was trying to get Bunyan out of jail because he loved him and his preaching. One time Charles II asked Owen, “Why do you bother to go hear that uneducated tinker?” And he said this: “Could I possess the tinker’s abilities for preaching, please your Majesty, I would gladly relinquish all my learning.”
Now here’s the lesson I learned, and it’s very precious to me right now. You try, and you try, and you try to do what you know is right and make something happen that ought to happen. For example, trying to get Bunyan out of jail is a good thing to do. And you fail, though you did your best. And 12 years later he comes out of jail with a book in his hand called The Pilgrim’s Progress, which has influenced the world one-hundred times more than John Owen. Was that a failure? You have to learn to talk in paradoxes if you’re going to believe in the providence of God.
The answer is yes and no. It was right to try to get him out of jail. Do unto others as you’d have them do unto you. And it was good and right that he failed under God’s wise providence. I think I was hearing some of that tonight in what was being said during the worship time. I learned that from my life. I’m thankful that God can do that with some of the things I’m failing right now to accomplish.
He died in 1683, and was buried in Bunhill Fields. I’ve been there, and what makes the visit there so precious is that five years later Bunyan died and they’re buried in the same graveyard. The great Atlas of Independence, who functioned at the level of kings, and the tinker, who spent most of his productive years in jail writing what is probably the most important book in the world after the Bible, are buried in the same graveyard.
Lessons from the Life of John Owen
Well, what can we learn here? Just step back and do some lessons. That’s his life. What makes this life tick? I think it is his passion for communion with Christ in the gospel and the pursuit of universal holiness of life. That’s the way I think he’d say it. His life was about communion with Christ, the glory of Christ in the gospel in the pursuit of universal holiness of behavior.
Let me read this from his book The Mortification of Sin in Believers:
I hope that I may own in sincerity that my heart’s desire unto God and the chief design of my life are that mortification (that means putting to death the deeds of the body from Romans 8:13) 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.
Everything he did was for the sake of his own and other people’s holiness. What an amazing challenge to us in our day of letters like this. The article I read in The Star this morning from Cody Pinckney asked the question, “Why do they do it? Why do they lean on other people’s work?” And he said, “Well, they say it’s because they’re depressed and out of gas.” And he said, “But all they would have to do is tell their elders, ‘I’m out of gas. May I have some time? Or would you mind if I preached some old Spurgeon sermons while I’m hurting?’” But they wouldn’t go to their elders and they wouldn’t get permission. Why? And his answer was pride. Depression can look like humility and cloak pride because you won’t seek the help you need.
My own word to you in regard to plagiarism and using other people’s sermons is this: Don’t do it — not even with permission. Because I think not preaching your own messages is a signal that Christ has to ceased to be beautiful, glorious, and wonderful. And if that’s true, you’ve got no business to be in the pulpit. You need some time to see him again. We all go through those periods of time where it’s hard to do the ministry. Everything around you seems to be painful, with loss and discouragement. You can preach in those times because the word of God is the word of God whether you feel it or not. I’ve known that and I’ve done that. But if you find yourself emotionally incapable, I don’t think you ought to do it with other people’s sermons. That’s just my own personal opinion.
I think these websites, these books, and these ministries that offer you ready-made sermons are, not to state it too strongly, demonic. Let your people see your heart. Find Christ here and tell them what you see. This is a very rich book. Frankly, I have a hard time empathizing with those who can’t find anything to preach here, a really hard time. Because I have a hard time keeping sermons short. There is so much to say about everything on every page. So, I know I’m being hard-hearted toward the depressed. If you’re depressed, ask for leave while you meet Jesus again.
He really had a burden for missions and was torn up about what happened in Ireland and Scotland. When he spoke to Parliament, he pled for holiness — holiness of life that would yield a different attitude toward their adversaries. Picture him saying this now after they just slaughtered thousands of Irish people:
How is it that Jesus Christ is in Ireland only as a Lion staining all his garments with the blood of his enemies? And none to hold him out as a Lamb sprinkled with his own blood to his friends? Is this to deal fairly with the Lord Jesus? To call him out to do battle, and then keep away his crown? God hath been faithful in doing great things for you, be faithful in this one: Do your utmost for the preaching of the gospel in Ireland.
I think he had a guilty conscience about being a part of simply political force in the name of Jesus without any gospel force in the name of Jesus.
When his funeral was preached by David Clarkson, he said:
A great light is fallen. One of imminency for holiness, learning, parts, abilities, pastor, scholar — a divine of the first magnitude. Holiness gave a divine luster to his other accomplishments. It shined in his whole course and was diffused through his whole conversation.
In other words, he succeeded as far as Clarkson was concerned, in the pursuit of holiness in his life.
Reasons for Reading Owen
Why should we listen to him, therefore? What are the reasons you should go ahead and buy one or two volumes and read them? Not everything, just something. What are the reasons? Here are a few reasons why I think we should listen to Owen today.
First, there is holiness without which we will not see the Lord (Hebrews 12:14), which means that holiness of life is of paramount importance if you would go to heaven. Holiness confirms the authenticity of your faith, which unites you to Christ, who is your righteousness. It is not peripheral, and it is not negligible. It is an essential part of the confirmation of your knowledge of Christ. And therefore, a man like Owen will be a great help to you in a book like, The Mortification of Sins. It’s only 80 pages long. Read that one. Then read Indwelling Sin in Believers, his exposition of Psalm 130, Communion with God, and then The Glory of Christ. Those would be the places where I would start.
Second, there’s such a shortage today of ecclesiastical and political leaders who believe personal holiness matters for public leadership. Our former President didn’t. I hope the present one does. Pastor after pastor is shown to think it doesn’t matter, that public life is separated from private life. We need models where those two are unified.
Third, he wasn’t a hermit. We think, “Okay, you’re going to pursue holiness, be a monk. And don’t get married, abstain from foods, be very rigorously disciplined, and be an ascetic.” Owen was a very public figure. He was politically involved, ecclesiastically involved, and involved in every controversy down to the vowel points of Hebrew. And yet, his prime goal in all of his public life was personal holiness. Communion with Christ, yielding a life of love to people, purity of life, and integrity. Owen would not have been able to conceive of any conception of ministry that allowed for pornographic dallying on the internet with preaching on Sunday. It would have been incomprehensible. It ought to be incomprehensible to you.
If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell (Matthew 5:29).
I think he would have said that to many, many pastors today. So read him for that. He wasn’t a hermit. He really lived in the world, where it’s hard to be pure and holy.
Enduring Criticism and Hardship
Oh, how much criticism he took. I think I’ll skip over a lot of the examples I have here. But it was a terrible thing. From his enemies and from his friends there was this constant barrage. He even got a letter one time from John Eliot, the missionary to the Indians in New England in the 1630s and following, excoriating him for something he had been reported to have said to the prejudice of holiness. And it broke his heart. He loved the ministry of John Eliot. With no email and no telephone, you’ve got months in between communications, and you find out you’ve been so misunderstood that you are being considered to be an enemy of holiness and not a friend.
And then picture this, listen to him because of the hardships he endured, just because it was pre-modern. There was no electricity, no central heating, no central air, no 911, and he had 11 children living and dying. He also had his own health problems and no one understood that. In 1665, 70,000 people died in one year in London from the plague. London’s population at that time was identical to Washington D.C. today. So picture 35 9/11s in one year, and you’re the pastor of the local church. He kept writing, and writing, and writing, and preaching, and preaching. Oh, what circumstances he endured. And therefore, we ought to listen to this man. There are things to learn here about life and endurance.
Humbled Under the Mighty Hand of God
How did he do it? I’ll just give you a few examples. First, he humbled himself under the mighty hand of God. I cherish that pursuit of Sovereign Grace Ministries. It’s dangerous to say you’re succeeding, but I love your pursuit. I want more of it for myself. That’s one of the reasons it’s good to hang out here, to drink a little bit of the pursuit — a passionate pursuit not to make much of ourselves, but I’m sure CJ would like this language, to delight in making much of the evidences of grace in one another. Owen labored to humble himself. He said:
I am leaving the ship of the church in a storm. But while the Great Pilot is in it, the loss of a poor under-rower will be inconsiderable.
He fought — now you have to get this right in Sovereign Grace because very few are getting this right today. We heard one kind of church that was way off on the melancholy side, and others are off on the ra-ra side. You have to get this right because you’re poised to be a witness to get it right. Owen labored to stay conscious and broken for inbred sinfulness.
Now there are so many people who would think — I mean this is a Christian Hedonist talking, right? — how can a Christian Hedonist say it is commendable to labor in the gospel to stay conscious of the pain of indwelling sin in your own life? How can that not crush you and remove all joy? Let me read one quote:
To keep our souls in a constant state of mourning and self-abasement is the most necessary part of our wisdom. And it is so far from having any inconsistency with those consolations and joys which the gospel tenders unto us in believing, as that it is the only way to let them into the soul in due manner.
You see why he’s hard to read. I’ll paraphrase: Labor to keep yourself in a constant state of mourning and self-abasement, not thinking that is inconsistent with the consolations and joys of the gospel, but rather is the only proper means of admitting them into your life.
Now, that’s strange. Very few pastors are preaching that, explaining that, or helping their people in it. The people don’t have categories for that. The natural man cannot receive the things of the Spirit (1 Corinthians 1:24), like 2 Cor 6:10, which says, “Sorrowful, yet always rejoicing.” That’s the banner that flies over my life. How can you be a pastor and not be sorrowful, when the Bible commands, “Weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15), not to mention what you see in the mirror? And therefore, weeping, sorrow, brokenness, lowliness, and a kind of melancholy strain should be there.
But it’s precisely that lowliness, that brokenness, that gives you the capacity to taste things at the cross that no one else can taste. And they are the sweetest of all things, and they make you leap for joy as the tears run down your face. There is a paradox to the Christian life of joy and sorrow, melancholy and happiness. I want you to get it right and I want to get it right, and I think Owen will help us a lot here.
Practice What You Have Heard
Second, after humility, how did he do it? By obeying what he knew already as he pursued more knowledge. Here’s a great quote. This is so dangerous. You have a leader in CJ who not just reads mediocre books five times, but reads really good books one time, and probably more. I would dare to ask, how often have you read Calvin’s Institutes? Don’t answer. The point is, this is remarkable how much CJ reads, so I’ve heard.
The danger is that we read more than we do, which is what I think you were saying last night if I was getting it. How do you not read more than you do? And what happens if you read or try to learn more than you live? Listen to this quote:
The true notion of holy evangelical truths will not live, at least not flourish, where they are divided from a holy life.
Meaning, that you can’t understand what you don’t obey. You’ll have a surface, marginal, academic, probably controversially embattled understanding, because you’re not devoting yourself first to do what you just read, rather than arguing about what you just read. He continues:
As we learn all to practice, so we learn much by practice.
So, learning is a means to obeying, and obeying is a means to learning. I’ll keep reading the same quote:
And herein alone, we come unto the assurance that what we know and learn is indeed the truth.
Are you having trouble with an assurance of any truths that you’re wrestling with? Try living them as the pathway to assurance, he would say.
And thereby will they be led continually into the farther degrees of knowledge. For the mind of man is capable of receiving continual supplies in the increase of light and knowledge, if they are improved unto their proper end unto obedience unto God. But without this, the mind will be quickly stuffed with notions, so that no streams can descend into it from the fountain of truth.
It’s simple; if you don’t do this, you won’t be able to learn anything more. You’ll cut it off, and the stream will clog. It’s meant to go to people, it’s meant to bless people, it’s meant to bless the poor, and it’s meant to bless the unreached. It’s meant to change you into a godly, broken, humble, loving person. And then the stream flows and the reading becomes life-giving, and the sight of glory. As you read and study, the gospel becomes greater and greater. But not if you become a dead sea of intellectual accumulation.
Communion with Christ
Third, how did he do it? Passionate communion with Jesus Christ in the gospel. He loved Christ and he communed with Christ. He lived near God. He stayed on God. He was coming to the end of his life and he was communing with him and writing a book about his glories. He wrote in a letter:
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.
And then he wrote:
Friendship with Christ is most maintained and kept up by visits. And these the more free and less occasioned by urgent business.
And when he came to make the visit with Jesus, he had a very set goal, to see the glory of Christ. He says:
The revelation of Christ deserves the severest of our thoughts, the best of our mediations, our utmost diligence in them. 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 of it in the gospel.
I’m 59 years old, which means I’m in my 60th year. That feels like a brink to me. And therefore I find myself, frequently these days, laying my head down on the pillow — since almost all my heroes were dead by my age, and especially when my wife’s not home and the house is empty except for my dog — knowing it is wholly possible that at 3:00 a.m. this morning I might wake up in the presence of Jesus, not in the presence of my wife.
Have you ever thought about that as you go to sleep? That if your heart stops while you’re asleep, you will wake up in the presence of Jesus and you probably would say, “Excuse me, am I dreaming?” Because you knew you were asleep, and now you’re watching Jesus. I suspect you’ll know. But what it does is that it helps me deal with him very personally. If you think that the likelihood is increasing each day that this could happen, that you will meet him face to face and behold his glory, as Owen said, “in a manner I had never seen before,” then you talk to him now, you deal with him now, and you look for him now in the gospel in a way that you wouldn’t otherwise look. Because it’s just on the other side.
I ask myself these questions sometimes, these days. Am I praying to him or in his name in a way that if in five minutes I were talking to him I’d feel good about the way I was praying? That it was authentic, full of faith, personal, real, Christ-exalting, and that it was loving to people. And it brings back into my life of prayer a vitality and an authenticity that I think Owen was after in his life.
Authenticity of Public and Private Life
I’m going to close with just this last point. He was authentic in commending in public what he experienced in private. He was authentic commending, defending in public what he experienced and only what he experienced. I’ve got a bunch of quotes on that, but I’m only going to read one of them.
Now, Sovereign Grace Ministries has a calling for many things. Since you’re both Reformed and moderately Charismatic, you have a calling to make a biblical defense of these things, not in a contentious way, but in a robust way, like the Bible says, “Contend for the faith once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3). Defend and give a reason for the faith that is in you (1 Peter 3:15).
This last paragraph I’m going to read and close with is, I think, a word Owen would like to deliver to you concerning you, and I do that. I feel that’s one of my roles as well. I want to argue for some things in our day that are neglected, and I want to do it in a way that magnifies Christ, honors the truth, and helps the church. This paragraph made a huge impact on me back in 1994 when I first read it:
When the heart is cast indeed into the mold of the doctrine that the mind embraceth, for the goal of embracing the deity of Christ (or the substitutionary atonement, or the inerrancy of the Bible, or the imputation of the righteousness of Christ, or the bodily resurrection of Jesus, or the virgin birth) is that the heart is formed by it.
When the evidence and necessity of the truth abides in us; when not the sense of the words only is in our heads, but the sense of the thing abides in our hearts; when we have communion with God in the doctrine we contend for, then shall we be garrisoned by the grace of God against all the assaults of men.
Out-Rejoicing Our Adversaries
That last phrase, “having communion with God in the doctrine we contend for,” means if you’re an Athanasius against the world, and you are arguing for the deity of Christ against Arianism, which says that Christ, like the Jehovah’s Witnesses, is a created being, then as you make your case for the deity of Christ in and through the very argument, you should at that moment be in communion with the divine Christ, enjoying Christ, leaning on Christ, and living on Christ. It should be that this reality is not over there while you do battle over here, hoping that you can both go over there. It needs to be in the heart, being enjoyed.
This means, and maybe this will be the best way to say it in closing, we who love doctrine and are charismatically wired, we who love doctrine and believe that it breaks you and fills you with joy, should in our contending out-rejoice our adversaries. We should out-rejoice our adversaries. Reformed people have not been good at that. You have a calling on you to reverse that, and to out-rejoice Arminians, and to out-rejoice people who are simply in the fog, don’t understand doctrine, and think doctrine makes people boring. We need to out-rejoice them, not because we’re confused about the nature of God.
There are so many people today in certain branches of the church that think that the best thing you can do for a church on Sunday morning is to create fog, because precision, accuracy, and definition bores. Frankly, I think that notion is one of the most blasphemous notions imaginable, because if God bores to the degree that he is clearly seen, you should get another religion. Rather, let us say that the more clearly we see Christ in all the contours of his work, and the more clearly we see God in all the contours of his character, the more we will rejoice over this Christ. Yes, be broken, but rejoice over him.