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John Owen

Why Pastors Should Engage John Owen

“I began to engage with John Owen when he was about thirty-one years of age and I was in my late teens.”

These words are not a quotation from a young seventeenth-century Puritan! Rather, it was in my teenage years that I first came across Owen’s famous, Latin-titled, Salus Electorum, Sanguis Jesu (better known as The Death of Death in the Death of Christ). I was eighteen, perhaps nineteen. Owen wrote the book when he was thirty-one.

When you are a teenager being thirty-one seems light years away, almost old! But what are most Christians doing at thirty-one? Not many are writing a book that will still be read, pondered and debated four centuries later. And The Death of Death was only one of several works from Owen’s pen that belong to the category of “a book for the ages” for anyone who wants to grow in biblical, theological, pastoral, and practical wisdom.

Owen and Practical Theology

Clearly, whatever Owen may have lacked, he was a man of rare intellectual capacity and spiritual genius, and a great gift of Christ to his church–both for his day and for ours. For that reason alone, he is someone with whom we can all engage with immense profit, and with whom ministers of the gospel especially ought to engage. Speaking for myself, Owen was one of the writers who taught me the importance of getting to grips with the great works of pastoral theology rather than to be reading exclusively (or perhaps even mainly), the “cutting edge” books and blogs authored by modern writers. If we do the latter, we may end up with only the edge! Perhaps we should be willing to take the embarrassment of saying, “Actually I haven’t read that book… and no, I haven’t read that posting . . . and no, I didn’t know that A. B. had written that on his blog.” For it may mean that we have read, for example, John Owen’s Sacramental Discourses, and grown deeply in our ability to expound and administer the Lord’s Supper to our people (even although that work is by no means Owen’s most important contribution).

So, there are important general reasons for engaging with writers like John Owen. But why engage with Owen in particular?

One of our greatest needs today is to put down deep roots into the gospel so that we can grow tall and strong. Virtually every significant Christian author from within my own tradition who has served Christ faithfully and fruitfully over the long haul, read John Owen with care and appreciation. Be it Jonathan Edwards in the colonies, or Thomas Boston in the Scottish Borders, or John Newton in Olney, or C.H. Spurgeon and David Martyn-Lloyd Jones in London, the mark of Owen was upon their lives and ministries (thankfully without diminishing their unique personalities–a not unimportant point!). Virtually every significant Christian author from within my own tradition who has served Christ faithfully and fruitfully over the long haul, read John Owen with care and appreciation. Click To Tweet

This is not to say that reading Owen guarantees true spiritual growth. As with all study, knowledge can puff up; it is love that builds up.  But Owen well understood this and warns us about it again and again. He is exactly the kind of author we need to read–whose theology is pastoral and whose pastoral writing is deeply theological and thus both humbles and exalts.

This dimension of Owen’s work is easily illustrated. Take one of his best-known books, On the Mortification of Sin (Works, 6:1-86). Most readers discover that in eighty pages he exposes their sinful heart to new depths that make them echo John “Rabbi” Duncan’s comment: “If you read him [Owen] on the ‘Mortification of Sin,’ prepare yourself for the scalpel!” No wonder readers are often flabbergasted to discover that the first hearers of the material were probably teenagers at Oxford University. But of course! What better stage to be taught how to recognize, expose, and overcome sin?

Owen and Trinitarian Christianity

But here, in the interests of brevity, we must confine ourselves to one major Owenian theme in which engagement with him pays huge dividends: The Holy Trinity.

Thankfully we live in a time when more voices are calling us back to a genuinely trinitarian Christianity.

We still have a long way to go, of course. But here Owen makes a significant contribution. We might call it his theological-experiential trinitarianism. That is a grand-sounding name for what he regarded as a basic reality in the Christian life: we have been baptized into and have come to know God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The whole of the Christian life is therefore trinitarian in shape, character, and dynamic.

The Early Church Fathers taught that all three persons of the Trinity were unitedly active in every divine act (opera trinitatis indivisa sunt). But they also recognized that Scripture teaches a doctrine of personal appropriations: in all God the Trinity does the three persons also have distinct roles. Thus, for example, the Son–not the Father or the Spirit–dies on the cross to make atonement for our sins. We have all winced when someone leading in prayer begins by addressing the Father and a few sentences later, without change of person, thanks him for dying on the cross–(which, although hopefully a slip of the tongue, is, in fact, the ancient heresy of patripassianism!).

Owen uncovers the implications of this doctrine of appropriations. It means that our communion with the one God is enhanced by our appreciation and worship of, and our love for, each person of the Trinity in particular, in terms of that person’s distinctive work or action. Just as our appreciation of God is enhanced by our understanding of the perichoresis–the intra-divine fellowship–so our communion with God is enhanced when we learn to say with the apostle John that, through the Spirit “our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ” (1 John 1:3). Especially in his Of Communion with God the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost (Works 2: 1-274), Owen helps us to discover all that this means.

Throughout his long writing career, Owen returned again and again to the outworking of this theme. It appears in his priceless emphasis on the privilege of knowing God as our heavenly Father, and especially in understanding that his love is the source and fountain of our redemption. The Father did not need to be persuaded to love us. In particular, he did not begin to love us because his Son died for us (a not infrequent confusion entertained by Christians and occasionally also by preachers). No, the Father himself loves us (indeed so loved us that he–the Father!– gave his only Son that we might not perish!). Owen almost achingly laments so few Christians seem to enjoy such communion with the Father in love:

Unacquaintedness with our mercies, our privileges, is our sin as well as our trouble . . . This makes us go heavily when we might rejoice . . . How few of the saints are experimentally acquainted with this privilege of holding immediate communion with the Father in love! With what anxious, doubtful thoughts do they look upon him! What fears, what questionings are there, of his good-will and kindness! (Works 2:31-32)

This wonderful stress on knowing the Father was accompanied by massive interest in, and in some ways still unsurpassed exposition of, the ministry of the Holy Spirit (Works volumes 3 and 4) and by a Christ-honouring Christ-centredness that leaves us similarly “lost in wonder, love, and praise.”

Owen and Polemical Writing

Polemical writing on the foundations of the gospel occupied Owen from his earliest writings. But while it remained part of his life work, we can surely trace a growth in him towards a deeper appreciation of Christ himself. This would appear both in his massive Commentary on Hebrews (Works, 18-24), and towards the end of his life in the publication of his Christologia, or The Person of Christ (Works 1:1-272). But perhaps its supreme expression was in a work which was in the hands of the publisher on the day he died, his great Meditations on the Glory of Christ (Works 1: 273-415 with its applicatory appendix in Part II, Works 1:417-461)Here Owen’s Christ-fulness comes to supreme expression and encourages the same love for Christ in its readership.

These works and many more that flowed from his pen are really beyond any need for commendation.

Perhaps it is worth reflecting on these two themes as we draw this brief engagement with Owen to an applied conclusion:

1. Thankful as we are for seeing more books on the Trinity than has been true for many a decade, are we more deeply trinitarian in the way we worship and in the style of our Christian lives?

2. If it is true that the Father has given us his Son and the Spirit’s ministry is to glorify the Son, does it not follow that Christ-fulness must be one of the ultimate litmus tests of a person’s ministry, especially if that person is a preacher? Is this what characterizes our preaching? Is this what strikes people most about our ministries?

I often wonder about these things. If you share that wondering, you could do a lot worse than engaging with John Owen! 

Sinclair Ferguson

Sinclair Ferguson is a Ligonier teaching fellow and Chancellor’s Professor of Systematic Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary. He is the author of numerous books including The Trinitarian Devotion of John OwenIn the Year of Our Lord: Reflections on Twenty Centuries of Church HistorySome Pastors and Teachers, From the Mouth of GodLove Came Down at Christmas: Daily Readings for Advent

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