O is for Owen
John Owen was born between 1616 and 1624 and died in 1683. He was a theologian known primarily for his writing. He was also a non-conformist church leader. The non-conformists were Christians who dissented from the legal state church in England. In the case of Owen, he happened to be a Puritan. Now if you think of Puritans as straight-laced folks, dressed in funny clothes who condemned everyone they disagreed with and shunned everything from dancing to sex even within marriage, then you do not really know the Puritans. Our culture has presented a greatly distorted view of this church group, as proven by our investigation of John Owen.
(Special Note from the Author: I like erudition and verbosity. (That is likely not a surprise.) I also like John Owen. There may be a connection there. Owen is the reader’s theologian. If you do not have a deep and passionate love of reading, then you might want to consider skipping this one. I hope you won’t skip it, though. I think you will find that John Owen is worth reading.)
Owen was also an academic administrator at the University of Oxford as well as a member of parliament for the same university. He was brought in as a Puritan. Subsequently, he was driven from Oxford by the Archbishop of Canterbury for his Puritan views. His first publication set the tone for his writing career and made his mark on the history of the church. In 1642, this book was The Display of Arminianism, a very strong defense of Calvinism. It is both the hallmark of his ministry as well as an excellent starting point for anyone who desires knowledge of the man. The title alone reveals his intention for that first publication. The writing was so well received by some people that it gained him his parish in Fordham in Essex. In 1644, he married Mary Rooke, with whom he had eleven children. Ten of the children died in infancy and the eleventh became an adult and married, but died shortly thereafter of consumption.
One of Owen’s most well-known books is The Death of Death in the Death of Christ. This was a total refutation of Arminianism including a stand for limited atonement. The main thrust of this volume centers around Paul’s words in Ephesians that ‘Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for her’, explaining that the intent of that act is decisive, a particular act for a particular people. Thus, some people refer to this doctrine as particular redemption which is probably a better term than limited atonement. Owen argues essentially that the Arminian view is a general love from Christ, but redemption is too spectacular to limit it to some kind of generalized love. It, therefore, must be particular. It is particularly wonderful to see how he begins this book: “READER . . . If thou art, as many in this pretending age, a sign or title gazer, and comest into books as Cato into the theatre, to go out again, — thou hast had thy entertainment; farewell!”
Can you just imagine the look on a modern day publisher’s face when he got that copy? This book brought him into debate with another well-known puritan named Richard Baxter, a non-Calvinistic Puritan. An interesting story immediately follows this occasion. He became a friend of a man named Thomas Fairfax who was a general during the English Civil War. Due to his friendship with Fairfax, Owen was asked to address the army there against religious persecution. When Owen was to preach to parliament, it “happened” to be the day after King Charles I was executed. He preached and won the thanks again of parliament but also the friendship of Oliver Cromwell. Cromwell later took Owen to Ireland to be his chaplain. This is a spectacular example of how our faith in Christ ought to influence the world including the political arena. In a world dominated by a state church, Owen ministered outside of the legal church and influenced the authorities.
Owen was a theologian who changed the world.
We have seen how Owen impacted the theology, culture, and government of his day, but his influence did not stop there. He continues to influence people today. Men such as J.I. Packer, Roger Nicole, and Sinclair Ferguson have shown the mark of Owen. In A Quest for Godliness, Packer states, “For solidity, profundity, massiveness and majesty in exhibiting from Scripture God’s ways with sinful mankind there is no one to touch him.” What a tremendous amount of respect Owen wields; think about the legacy. Owen influenced his generation, they influenced the next generation, and so on it continued til we reach our day and age where his impact still continues. What a testimony!
Another theological issue of paramount importance that Owen addressed is holiness. Sometimes we forget that the doctrines of grace should inform our practical holiness. Owen’s ministry proclaimed that truth. Another of his very books is Of the Mortification of Sin in Believers. (Can you imagine the television preachers announcing that title next Sunday?) In this book we can glimpse a little bit into the soul of John Owen as he challenged us to drive corruption from our personal lives.
“I hope I may own in sincerity that my heart’s desire unto God, and the chief design of my life . . . that mortification and universal holiness may be promoted in my own and in the hearts and ways of others, to the glory of God, so that the Gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ may be adorned in all things.”
These great and profound words speak much of his personal spiritual life. To Owen, conversion, holiness, and missions were infused together. Sometimes we can tell more about a person’s life by what is said after they are gone than by what is said by them or in their presence. Owen’s pastoral associate, David Clarkson, said the following words at Owen’s funeral:
“A great light is fallen; one of eminency for holiness, learning, parts and abilities; a pastor, a scholar, a divine of the first magnitude; holiness gave a divine lustre to his other accomplishments, it shined in his whole course, and was diffused through his whole conversation.”
Such is the testimony that Owen left behind, His effect upon this world was truly that of a spiritual giant and there is good reason to read his works for yourself.