History Is His Story
John Owen: Prince Of Puritans
Who was John Owen and why is he important to today’s Pentecostal minister?
The modern Pentecostal pastor may assume he has little in common with the 17th-century Puritans. After all, were they not rigid, sterile hypocrites who hated dancing, embarrassed sinners with scarlet As, and lived wooden lives devoid of spiritual power?
In fact, the truth is a different story. Probably no group of Christians has spent more time emphasizing the work of the Holy Spirit and the necessity of spiritual experience. Combining profound biblical insight with intense interest in the experiential work of the Holy Spirit, Puritanism (1560–1660) was the high-water mark of the Reformation. The tide has gone in and out since, but from this author’s perspective has not yet returned to the level occupied by the English Puritans.
We owe the Puritans a great debt. Their thoroughly biblical worldview supplied the matrix of presuppositions that many of the Western world’s rights and privileges have emerged from. Puritanism was the age of Newton, Bunyan, Milton, Cromwell, Locke, Owen, and other generation changers.
For example, in the rich soil of Puritanism with its Christian presupposition of an ordered universe germinated London’s Royal Society and modern science. From England’s biblically inspired Puritan work ethic the seeds of modern capitalism have taken root and flourished. From the crucible of England’s Puritan-inspired civil war (1640s) religious freedom, as we know it today, first appeared on the stage of modern life, and the Divine Right of Kings received a deathblow that it has not recovered from. (The writings of John Locke, a son of Puritans, greatly influenced the American War for Independence.)
It was also an era of deep and profound biblical thinking. John Owen (1616–83), a contemporary of Bunyan and Cromwell, is considered by most people to be the greatest Puritan divine. In fact, many consider him to be England’s greatest theological thinker. In the opinion of C.H. Spurgeon, he was “perhaps, the most profound divine who ever lived.”1 If Puritanism was the high-water mark of biblical theology, and Owen its greatest and most original thinker, his life is worth consideration. Today, 300 years after his death, his works are still in print. Who was John Owen and why is he important to today’s Pentecostal minister?
John Owen was born to a Puritan pastor in 1616. His immense intellect asserted itself at an early age. A child prodigy, his parents enrolled him at Oxford at age 12 where he was awarded his B.A. at age 16 and his M.A. at age 19. He was a man of iron-willed discipline. He possessed great worldly ambition, but lacked the knowledge of salvation. During his student days he allowed himself only 4 hours of sleep each night hoping by his labors to secure favor and position with men.
When he was in his mid-twenties, God began to work on his conscience. Doubting his conversion he went to hear Dr. Edmund Calumny, a well-known preacher. To Owen’s disappointment, an unknown pastor filled Calumny’s pulpit that day. His discouraged friends wanted to leave but Owen was too exhausted, so he stayed. The preacher’s text was Matthew 8:26, “Why are you so fearful, O ye of little faith?” As Owen listened the Holy Spirit worked powerfully. He emerged a new man.
At this time Oxford was a divided community. Bishop Laud, of Star Chamber fame, had just been appointed chancellor of the university. He was high-church Anglican. He favored State control of the national church, what the Puritan’s called “popery” — an emphasis on outward worship such as vestments, incense, bells, the sign of the cross, and prayer books. The Puritan’s favored simplicity — adding nothing to worship not explicitly mentioned in Scripture.
Owen sided with the Puritans and immediately fell out of favor with Laud and his party. He left Oxford with his second B.A. (in Divinity) unfinished. At this time the church at the village of Fordham, and later Coggeshall, called him to be its pastor. God blessed his preaching. He regularly preached to Sunday crowds of 2,000 — an immense congregation by 17th-century standards.
During this time he married Mary Rooke. Little is known about their union except that together they birthed 11 children. Ten died in infancy — imagine the pain and anguish. The eleventh survived to adulthood, married unhappily, returned home, and shortly after died of consumption (tuberculosis). Like his Master, Owen was a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.
His Public Life
During Owen’s thirties the English civil war raged between a Puritan-dominated Parliament and King Charles I. John Bunyan served as a foot soldier in Parliament’s army, and the genius of Oliver Cromwell asserted itself on the battlefield.
In 1648, when Owen was 32, one of Parliament’s generals, Fairfax, moved his headquarters to Coggeshall where Owen lived and preached. Fairfax attended Owen’s church, and they became friends. From that time, Parliament increasingly invited him to preach to their gathered assemblies. Most of those attending were Protestants and they loved good scriptural preaching.
This led to one of the great events of his life. In January 1649, the day after the beheading of Charles I, Parliament asked Owen to preach. It was a thankless job. Tensions were high. Owen was under severe pressure to side with Parliament or the friends of the king. He did neither.
His sermon was published, and he used this occasion to ask England and its rulers to consider religious toleration. Many people take religious liberty for granted, but in Owen’s day dissenters were often executed. Owen argued against this practice and for toleration of Christian denominations. He was generations ahead of his time.
During the civil wars, King Charles had established his army headquarters at Oxford. The army put the university to severe use and it was now in shambles. In 1650, Parliament appointed Owen dean of Christ Church, one of Oxford’s most prestigious colleges, and from 1652–57 he served as vice-chancellor (president) of the university. He reestablished Oxford’s reputation by rebuilding its infrastructure and hiring godly men such as John Howe, Thomas Goodwin, Stephen Charnock, and Philip Henry (Matthew Henry’s father) to teach the growing student body.
During these years Cromwell often called Owen to London for consultation on issues of church and State. Given these responsibilities, his productivity staggers the faint of heart. In addition to all his other duties, he published De Iustitia, a work on the justice of God; Theologouma Pantodapa, the substance of his Oxford lectures, Biblical Theology, and three well-known works still popular today, Mortification, Temptation, and Communion With God.
One of his enemies described his preaching at this period of his life by writing, “His personage was proper and comely and he had a very graceful behavior in the pulpit, an eloquent elocution, a winning and insinuating deportment and could by the persuasion of his oratory ... move and win the affection of his admiring auditory almost as he pleased.”3
In the late 1650s, Owen left Oxford and retired in the nearby village of Stadhampton, where he started a church in his home.
In 1658, Cromwell died and the political condition quickly destabilized. In 1660, the Army called Charles II, the son of Charles I, to resume the monarchy of his father. It seemed as if all the principles the Puritan’s had labored and fought for were soon to be undone.
Charles and Parliament began to persecute the Puritans. Owen suffered from the loss of his financial security and his prestige. He moved to London to pastor a small independent church. He continued in this position for the next 20 years.
Slowly the spiritual climate began to improve. In 1671, Charles II issued the “Declaration of Indulgence” granting tolerance to Roman Catholics and Independents” like Owen. At this time Owen befriended Bunyan. In fact, when Bunyan could not find a publisher, Owen talked his own publisher into printing the first edition of The Pilgrim’s Progress.
During these years Owen labored unceasingly. In addition to other works he wrote his monumental multivolume commentary Epistle to the Hebrews, a Discourse on the Holy Spirit,Apostasy (1676), Justification by Faith (1677), The Person of Christ (1678), and The Grace and Duty of Being Spiritually-minded.
In his 60th year, 1676, his beloved wife, Mary, died. By 17th-century standards, Owen was now an old man; his health began to fail. He suffered bouts of gout and stomach problems. But his tremendous work ethic remained unabated. In the year prior to his death he wrote, Meditations and Discourses on the Glory of Christ. His printer was editing it as Owen lay dying.
His last letter written to an old friend in August 1683 illuminates his passion for Christ. “I am going to Him whom my soul hath loved, or rather hath loved me with an everlasting love; which is the whole ground of all my consolation. ... I am leaving the ship of the church in a great storm, but while the great Pilot is in it the loss of a poor under-rower will be inconsiderable.”4 He died a few days later at the age of 67.
Biblical theology was his first love and passion. He would not have considered himself a philosopher or an academic, but first and foremost an expositor of God’s Word. Although a Calvinist by conviction, as were most of his peers, his thought was not dry, but alive with the Holy Spirit’s power. He maintained an intense interest in spiritual experience, harnessed by the great truths of Scripture and released through the power of God upon biblical preaching. Like most great Christian thinkers he focused on major themes — the Trinity, justification by faith, and the glory of Christ. He considered himself first and foremost a pastor of souls, not an academic.
Like most great minds he pursued knowledge for the right reasons. Owen’s reason to study theology was to further his secret communion with God. Can we say the same? He writes, “When the heart is cast indeed into the mould of the doctrine that the mind embraceth; when the evidence and necessity of the truth 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.”5
Second, he learned how to rejoice in great trials. Despite the death of 11 children, his suffering and persecution under Charles II, intense responsibilities, and great pressures, he cultivated a cheerful, joyful, grateful attitude.
Third, he had a servant’s heart that showed up in his tremendous work ethic. He gave himself completely to the cause of Christ and His kingdom.
Fourth, his biblical studies led him to develop deep humility. He knew himself in the light of Christ. “The work of faith,” he wrote, “is to fill the soul with such thoughts as these: ‘I am nothing; a poor worm at God’s disposal; lost, if not found by Christ; — have done, can do, nothing on the account whereof I should be accepted with God.’ “6 That was how this great intellect saw himself before God.
What lessons can we learn from Owen’s life? First, his life demonstrates what can happen when God joins a large intellect with a profound work ethic. His 28-volume work speaks to the value of these virtues. It is deep, meaty, and of eternal value. Most of the Christian literature published this year will be out of print in 10 years, but men will probably be reading Owen 200 years from now.
Second, we see the value of integrating scholarship with pastoral work and responsibility. Like Luther, Calvin, Edwards, and Bunyan, Owen saw himself first and foremost as a pastor. He placed great emphasis on preaching. As was true of Calvin and Luther, his pastoral contact with people provided the balance and perspective that so greatly empowered his theological writing. He kept himself from the distractions of administration and counseling to invest himself in preaching and writing, work that powerfully changed lives.
Third, Owen’s life reminds us that God’s discipline produces beautiful fruit in those trained by it. No one may want Owen’s trials and sufferings, but should they come, let us bear them cheerfully and with faith.
Owen left us little personal information. After his death, his diaries and most of his letters were lost. You can know Owen by reading his sermons and The Glory of Christ. You can buy his works on C.D. for about $30 from Ages Software, http://www.ageslibrary.com. For several hundred dollars you can buy Owen’s 28 volumes published by Banner of Truth. A helpful primer is John Owen, The Man and His Theology, edited by R.W. Oliver, Evangelical Press.
- C.H. Spurgeon, Metropolitan Tabernacle, vol. 46, (Rios, Wis.: Ages, 1998–2001), 644.
- For current biographies see Andrew Thomson, John Owen (Fern, Great Britain: Christian Focus, 1996), and R.W. Oliver, ed., John Owen: The Man and His Theology (Darlington, England: Evangelical Press, 2002).
- Oliver, 24.
- Oliver, 36.
- The Works of John Owen, vol. 12, (Rio, Wis.: Ages, 2000), 73.
- The Works of John Owen, vol. 9, (Rio, Wis.: Ages, 2000), 152 (emphasis mine).