Inspiration from John Owen to Diligently Preach the Gospel (Matthew Barrett)
Editor’s note: This article first appeared on The Gospel Coalition.
The Word is like the sun in the firmament. . . . It hath virtually in it all spiritual light and heat. But the preaching of the Word is as the motion and beams of the sun, which actually and effectually doth communicate that light and heat unto all creatures. — John Owen
The first and principal duty of a pastor is to feed the flock by diligent preaching of the Word. — John Owen
John Owen once said to King Charles II, “Could I possess the tinker’s abilities, please your majesty, I would gladly relinquish all my learning.” This “tinker” Owen was referring to was none other than John Bunyan, author of Pilgrim’s Progress. The anecdote is revealing, for it displays not only Owen’s high regard for those whom God had gifted in preaching, but also Owen’s great esteem for the proclamation of the Word of God itself.
An excellent avenue into Owen’s thinking about preaching can be found in a sermon he delivered at an ordination service on September 8, 1682, which is titled “The Duty of a Pastor.” The sermon text was Jeremiah 3:15, “And I will give you pastors according to my heart, which shall feed you with knowledge and understanding.” This sermon stands out above the rest, in my estimation at least, because Owen instructs this freshly minted preacher on the aim of preaching itself.
Preach the Gospel
Owen begins by asking the central question: What is the duty of the pastor? First and foremost, the pastor’s duty is to feed the sheep the gospel of Jesus Christ. “He is no pastor who doth not feed his flock.” Here Owen echoes the Reformers before him. Not only is it the case that a church is no longer a true church if it abandons the gospel, but so also is a pastor no pastor at all if he fails to feed his people the gospel.
Owen lists several ways the pastor can, through preaching, feed his congregation both knowledge and understanding. First, spiritual wisdom comes through knowing the gospel. If one knows and understands the mysteries of the gospel, not only will he, as a pastor, find spiritual wisdom, but he will then be able to feed the gospel to those he is ministering to so that they also may mature and grow in godliness. As Owen advises, “There is spiritual wisdom in understanding the mysteries of the gospel, that we may be able to declare the whole counsel of God, and the riches and treasures of the grace of Christ, unto the souls of men” (Acts 20:27; 1 Cor. 2:1-4; Eph. 3:7-9).
Authority comes from the Spirit. Owen explains that ultimately it matters not if one has the proper “office.” “Unction” is needed. “The scribes had an outward call to teach in the church; but they had no unction, no anointing, that could evidence they had the Holy Ghost in his gifts and graces.” For example, in Mark 9:28 and Matthew 7:29, the scribes questioned Jesus, asking him on what authority he did these things. His authority is not in an external or formal office, nor is it by the power of man; rather, it is an authority from God himself, one that the scribes lacked. Therefore, Owen insists, pastors must preach with this unction from God. Such unction comes not from us, but from the Holy Spirit. And one only has as much authority, Owen says, as that which is given to him by God. He can preach the Word all day long, but if it not be accompanied by the Spirit, and if it not be through the Spirit, it is done in vain.
Preach to Yourself
One must preach, but first and foremost preach to himself. The pastor must have a genuine, true, and real experience of the “power” of those things he is preaching to others. “I think, truly,” Owen says, “that no man preaches that sermon well to others that doth not first preach it to his own heart.” The pastor who does not first feed and digest the message he is preaching by applying it in his own life, so that he is convicted of its truth, may be, as far as he knows, poisoning his people. Unless “he finds the power of it in his own heart, he cannot have any ground of confidence that it will have power in the hearts of others.”
This takes work. It is far easier, Owen says, for the pastor to preach with his head and not with his heart. “To bring our heads to preach, is but to fill our minds and memories with some notions of truth, of our own or other men, and speak them out to give satisfaction to ourselves and others: this is very easy.” On the other hand, Owen says, “to bring our hearts to preach, is to be transformed into the power of these truths; or to find the power of them, both before, in fashioning our minds and hearts, and in delivering of them, that we may have benefit; and to be acted with zeal for God and compassion to the souls of men.”
Preach the Word Rightly
One must possess the skills needed to divide God’s Word rightly. Given what has been said so far, one might think that all one needs is the Spirit, as if everything else is irrelevant. Not true. Owen does not ignore the significance and necessity of the ordinary. Yes, without unction one’s preaching has lost its authority. But without the practical skills of biblical interpretation, one will easily mislead the people of God. Therefore, “practical wisdom” is enormously important. The ability to rightly divide the Word of God keeps the pastor from feeding his people in such a way that they are malnourished. God’s people may begin with milk, but it is not long until they need meat. The pastor who fails to use the tools of biblical interpretation will have no meat to offer his hungry congregation.
Know Your Flock
The pastor must know his flock. One can have the skills needed to divide God’s Word, but if one does not know how to apply what was gleaned from Scripture to his congregation, in all of its uniqueness, then those skills have done him little good. Therefore, the pastor must know and consider the state of his flock. “He who hath not the state of his flock continually in his eye, and in his mind, in his work of preaching, fights uncertainly, as a man beating the air,” Owen writes. The pastor is to know his people’s temptations. He is to be familiar with those areas where they are spiritually decaying and withering. The pastor who does not consider these things, Owen warns, “never preaches aright unto them.”
Preach with Zeal
One must preach with a zeal for God’s glory and a compassion for people. In other words, the pastor’s focus must be both vertical and horizontal. It is vertical in that his mind is consumed with the glory of God. It is horizontal in that his love is directed toward the health of those God has entrusted to him. Should he do the former, the latter will naturally follow. In other words, if he is truly concerned with God’s glory, then he will be occupied with the state and progress of God’s people.
Preaching Before the Face of God
Owen has provided us with a foundation, one built upon and centered upon the importance of gospel proclamation in the life of the pastor. Certainly Owen exemplified the priority of gospel proclamation in his own pastoral ministry. Whether he was a lowly country pastor or vice-chancellor, Owen’s first concern was to proclaim the Scriptures faithfully to glorify God and edify the saints.
Owen was a preacher who lived coram Deo, before the face of God. He did not seek the applause of men (something too often characteristic of preachers today), nor was he a jellyfish preacher (changing his doctrine wherever the political and ecclesiastical winds blew). Rather, Owen was, to borrow from J. I. Packer, a redwood, with roots firmly planted in the ground, digging themselves deep into the solidified soil of timeless biblical truth. And because his foundation lay in Christ, his branches were able to stretch long and far, providing shade and protection for those who found their greatest treasure to be Christ Jesus.
Matthew Barrett (PhD, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is Assistant Professor of Christian Studies at California Baptist University, as well as the founder and executive editor of Credo Magazine. Barrett is also Senior Pastor of Fellowship Baptist Church. He is the author and editor of several books, including Salvation by Grace: The Case for Effectual Calling and Regeneration. Two forthcoming books include, Owen on the Christian Life and God’s Word Alone: The Authority of Scripture. You can read about Barrett’s other publications at matthewmbarrett.com.