Learning from a Giant: Three reasons to read John Owen (Matthew Barrett and Michael Haykin)
Why should we read, get to know, and learn from a Puritan like John Owen? As J. I. Packer has argued, we need to read the Puritans, and John Owen especially, because we are spiritual dwarfs by comparison.
Far too often in the recent past the focus of Christians has shifted away from the glory of God and the gospel of Jesus Christ and has instead made Christianity man-centered and success-oriented.
Consequently, Christian spirituality has become sentimental and self-indulgent. In short, we lack spiritual maturity. In contrast, John Owen was a spiritual giant. Many reasons could be listed as to why, but we will focus on just three.
1. He Had a Big View of God
First and foremost, Owen had a big view of God and a passion to see this great God lifted up in worship. The glory of God in Christ was at the very core of Owen’s thought, suffusing his writing and preaching at every turn.
Owen was radically God-centered. But for Owen, and for the Puritans generally, intellectual knowledge was not enough. Rather, one must know God experientially, or—as Owen would put it—experimentally.
In other words, it is not enough for God to be studied; God has to be served, adored, and worshipped. Truly understanding who God is and what he has done in redemptive history is meant to arouse our affections for God. Head knowledge always has to be accompanied by heartfelt experience, which leads us to our next point.
2. He Took Holiness and Communion with God Seriously
Second, we can learn much from the quality of Owen’s spirituality. In knowing God, Owen knew humanity. While human beings have been made in God’s image, sin has radically distorted them in every way. Every person stands guilty before a holy God and every person is corrupt, unwilling, and unable to turn to Christ.
For Owen, it is only through the effectual and gracious work of the Spirit that sinners are converted to Christ and thereafter grow in holiness and likeness to Christ. It is no wonder that Owen’s assistant, David Clarkson, wrote of him, “It was his great Design to promote Holiness in the Life and Exercise of it among you.”
And for Owen, this communion with the triune God was at the very center of the Christian’s sanctification and growth in holiness.
3. He Sought the Reformation of the Church
Third, Owen sought reformation, not only in the individual believer but in the corporate church. Owen was serious about both the Christian life and the church’s godliness, which in his mind was to occur through the preaching and teaching of God’s Word, the administration of the sacraments, and the practice of church discipline.
In this sense Owen was in line with the best of the 16th century Reformers. If there was any man who sought to initiate and cultivate genuine reformation in England, it was John Owen. If we desire to see spiritual renewal in our own day, we will do well to pay heed to the lessons we can glean from the life and writings of Owen.
Living for the Glory of God in Christ
It is sad that many Christians today have never heard of John Owen, let alone read this colossal Puritan. Owen simply is not read and celebrated to the extent of others, such as Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Jonathan Edwards.
Nevertheless, he should be. Owen’s writings are a gold mine just waiting to be dug up and discovered anew.
Matthew Barrett is Tutor of Systematic Theology and Church History at Oak Hill Theological College in London, as well as the founder and executive editor of Credo Magazine. Barrett is the author of numerous book reviews and articles in academic and popular journals and magazines. He is the author of several books, including Salvation by Grace: The Case for Effectual Calling and Regeneration, Owen on the Christian Life: Living for the Glory of God in Christ (Theologians on the Christian Life), God’s Word Alone: The Authority of Scripture. Currently he is the series editor of The 5 Solas Series with Zondervan. You can read more about Barrett at matthewmbarrett.com.
Michael A. G. Haykin is Professor of Church History and Biblical Spirituality at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the author of many books, including Rediscovering the Church Fathers: Who They Were and How They Shaped the Church. Haykin is the director of the Andrew Fuller Center for Baptist Studies.
Read other columns in the recent issue of Credo Magazine
Church history matters. We are not the first generation to read the Bible. So looking to the help of those who have come before us is incredibly valuable. There is no need to reinvent the wheel. Many godly individuals have preceded us and more often than not their insights into God’s Word tend to be far more valuable than what you will find on the best seller rack of a Christian bookstore. By looking to those giants of the faith in the history of the church, not only do we avoid falling prey to the heresies of the past, but we also stand firmly on the shoulders of others so that we persevere in sound doctrine (Titus 2:1).
One set of broad shoulders belongs to the seventeenth-century Puritan John Owen. It is hard to exaggerate the importance and influence of Owen’s life and writings. His books were and still are some of the best works in theology that we have, standing alongside those of Augustine, Luther, Calvin, and many others. The Christian today will benefit in countless ways from works like On Communion with God, The Doctrine of Justification by Faith, On the Mortification of Sin, and Of Indwelling Sin in Believers.
What is so remarkable about Owen, however, is not merely the robust, biblical theology nature of his writings, but his insistence that theology affects the Christian life. In other words, Owen refused to separate head and heart. Doctrine must lead to doxology every time, otherwise we have not truly understood its purpose. Therefore, Owen is the Doctor who looks into the human soul in order to diagnose our spiritual disease and offer us a cure in Jesus Christ. If read carefully, it is hard not to finish a book by Owen without feeling a desire to know God more.
The upcoming year, 2016, will be the four hundredth anniversary of Owen’s birth. So what better timing for an issue of Credo Magazine that aims to introduce some of Owen’s theology and writings. But as much as we love you reading Credo Magazine, this issue would be a failure if you did not study and read this Prince of Puritans for yourself.
Contributors include: J. V. Fesko, Ryan M. McGraw, Geoff Thomas, Daniel R. Hyde, Joel Beeke, Leonardo De Chirico, Kelly M. Kapic, Michael Haykin, and many others.