Charles II once asked one of the most learned scholars that he knew why any intelligent person should waste time listening to the sermons of an uneducated tinker and Baptist preacher by the name of John Bunyan. “Could I possess the tinker’s abilities for preaching, please your majesty,” replied the scholar, “I would gladly relinquish all my learning.” The name of the scholar was John Owen, and this small story — apparently true and not apocryphal — says a good deal about the man and his Christian character. His love of and concern for the preaching of the Word reveals a man who was Puritan to the core. And the fragrant humility of his reply to the king was a virtue that permeated all of his writings, in which he sought to glorify the triune God and help God’s people find the maturity that was theirs in Christ.
A NONCONFORMIST HERITAGE
John Owen was born in 1616 and grew up in a Christian home in a small village now known as Stadhampton, about five miles southeast of Oxford. His father, Henry Owen, was the minister of the parish church there and a Puritan. The names of three of his brothers have also come down to us: William, who became the Puritan minister at Remenham, just north of Henley-on-Thames; Henry who fought as a major in Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army; and Philemon, who was killed fighting under Cromwell in Ireland in 1649.
Of Owen’s childhood years only one reference has been recorded. “I was bred up from my infancy,” he remarked in 1657, “under the care of my father, who was a nonconformist all his days, and a painful labourer [diligent worker] in the vineyard of the Lord.” At 12 years of age, Owen was sent by his father to Queen’s College, the University of Oxford. Here he obtained his B.A. on June 11, 1632, and immediately went on to study for the M.A., which he was awarded on April 27, 1635. Everything seemed to be set for Owen to pursue an academic career. It was not, however, a good time to launch out into the world of academia. The Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud, had set out to suppress the Puritan movement, and to that end had begun a purge of the churches and universities. By 1637 Owen had no alternative but to leave Oxford and to become — along with many other Puritans who refused to conform to the Established Church — a private chaplain. He eventually found employ in the house of Lord Lovelace, a nobleman sympathetic to the Puritan cause. However, when the English Civil War broke out in 1642 and Lord Lovelace decided to support the king, Owen left his service and moved to London.
A “CLEAR SHINING FROM GOD”
The move to London led to an experience that Owen would never forget. By 1642 Owen was convinced that the final source of truth in religion was to be found in the Holy Scriptures. But he had yet to personally experience the Holy Spirit bearing witness to his spirit and giving him the assurance that he was a child of God.
Owen found this assurance one Sunday when he decided to go with a cousin to hear Edmund Calamy the Elder, a famous Presbyterian preacher, at St. Mary’s Church, Aldermanbury. On arriving at this church, they were informed that the well-known Presbyterian was not going to preach that morning. Instead a country preacher (whose name Owen never did discover) was going to fill in for the Presbyterian divine. The preacher took as his text that morning Matthew 8:26: “Why are ye fearful, O ye of little faith?” It proved to be a message that Owen needed to hear and embrace. Through the words of a preacher whose identity is unknown God spoke to Owen and removed once and for all his doubts and fears as to whether he was truly regenerate or not. He now knew himself to be born of the Spirit.
The impact of this spiritual experience cannot be overestimated. It gave to Owen the deep, inner conviction that he was indeed a child of God and chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world, that God loved him and had a loving purpose for his life, and that this God was the true and living God. In practical terms, it meant a lifelong interest in the work of God the Holy Spirit that would issue 30 years later in his monumental study A Discourse Concerning the Holy Spirit. As he later wrote: “Clear shining from God must be at the bottom of deep labouring with God.”
PREACHING BEFORE PARLIAMENT
In 1643 Owen was offered the pastorate in the village of Fordham, six miles or so northwest of Colchester in Essex. Owen was here until 1646 when he became the minister of the church at the market town of Coggeshall, some five miles to the south. Here, as many as 2,000 people would crowd into the church each Lord’s Day to hear Owen preach. Thus, although Owen would later speak slightingly of his preaching to King Charles II — as seen in the anecdote with which this article began — it is evident that he was no mean preacher. The backdrop for these early years of Owen’s pastoral ministry was the English Civil War when England knew the horrors of bloody fields of battle, and father was ranged against son and neighbor against neighbor on the battlefield. Well has this period been described as “the world turned upside down.”
During these tumultuous days Owen clearly identified himself with the Parliamentary cause. He developed a friendship with the rising military figure Oliver Cromwell and was frequently invited to preach before Parliament. By late 1648 some of the Parliamentary army officers had begun to urge that Charles I be brought to trial on charges of treason since he had fought against his own people and Parliament. Charles I was accordingly put on trial in January 1649, and by the end of that month a small group of powerful Puritan leaders had found him guilty and sentenced their king to death. On January 31, the day following the public execution of the king, Owen was asked to preach before Parliament.
Owen used the occasion to urge upon the members of Parliament that for them, now the rulers of England, to obtain God’s favor in the future they must remove from the nation all traces of false worship and superstition and wholeheartedly establish a religion based on Scripture alone. Owen based his sermon on Jeremiah 15. He made no direct reference to the events of the previous day nor did he mention, at least in the version of his sermon that has come down to us, the name of the king. Nevertheless, his hearers and later readers would have been easily able to deduce from his use of the Old Testament how he viewed the religious policy and end of Charles. From the story of wicked King Manasseh that is recorded in 2 Kings 21 and with cross-references to Jeremiah 15, he argued that the leading cause for God’s judgments upon the Jewish people had been such abominations as idolatry and superstition, tyranny and cruelty. He then pointed to various similarities between the conditions of ancient Judah and the England of his day. At the heart of the sermon was a call to Parliament to establish a reformed style of worship, disseminate biblical Christianity, uphold national righteousness, and avoid oppression.
IRELAND AND OXFORD
Later that same year, Owen accompanied Cromwell on a military campaign in Ireland, where Owen stayed from August 1649 to February 1650. Though ill much of this time, he preached frequently to numerous multitudes of men and women hungry to hear the gospel. When Owen returned to England the following year, he confessed that “the tears and cries of the inhabitants of Dublin after the manifestations of Christ are ever in my view.” Accordingly, he sought to convince Parliament of the spiritual need of this land and asked:
“How is it that Jesus Christ is in Ireland only as a lion staining all his garments with the blood of his enemies; and none to hold him out as a lamb sprinkled with his own blood to his friends? Is it the sovereignty and interest of England that is alone to be there transacted? For my part … I could heartily rejoice, that … the Irish might enjoy Ireland so long as the moon endureth, so that Jesus Christ might possess the Irish. … If they were in the dark, and loved to have it so, it might something close a door upon the bowels of our compassion; but they cry out of their darkness, and are ready to follow every one whosoever, to have a candle. If their being gospelless move not our hearts, it is hoped their importunate cries will disquiet our rest, and wrest help as a beggar doth an alms.”
Although Owen’s pleas were heeded and this period saw the establishment of a number of Puritan congregations — both Congregationalist and Baptist — in Ireland, the inability of the Puritans in Ireland to work together with likeminded brethren for the larger cause of the Kingdom of Christ hindered their witness.
Cromwell appointed Owen to the oversight of Oxford University in 1652 as its vice chancellor. From this position Owen helped to reassemble the faculty, who had been dispersed by the war, and sought to put the university back on its feet. He also had numerous opportunities to preach to the students at Oxford. An important work on holiness came out of his preaching during this period. The Mortification of Sin in Believers is in some ways the richest of all of Owen’s treatises on this subject. It is based on Romans 8:13 and lays out a strategy for fighting indwelling sin and warding off temptation. Owen emphasizes that in the fight against sin the Holy Spirit employs all of our human powers. In sanctifying us, Owen insists, the Spirit works “in us and upon us, as we are fit to be wrought in and upon; that is, so as to preserve our own liberty and free obedience. … he works in us and with us, not against us or without us; so that his assistance is an encouragement as to the facilitating of the work, and no occasion of neglect as to the work itself.”
“THE CHURCH IN A STORM”
Oliver Cromwell died in September 1658 and the “rule of the saints,” as some called it, began to fall apart. Two years later a number of Cromwell’s fellow Puritan leaders, fearful that Britain was slipping into full-fledged anarchy, asked Charles I’s son, also called Charles and who was then living in exile on the continent, to return to England as her monarch. However, those who came to power with this monarch, Charles II, were determined that the Puritans would never again hold the reins of political authority. During Charles’ reign and that of his brother James II, the Puritan cause was thus savagely persecuted.
A number of Owen’s close friends, including John Bunyan, suffered fines and imprisonment for not heeding these laws. Although Owen was shielded from actual imprisonment by some powerful friends, he led at best a precarious existence until his death. He was once nearly attacked by a mob, who surrounded his carriage. At one point he was tempted to accept the offer of a safe haven in America when the Puritan leaders in Massachusetts offered him the presidency of Harvard. Owen, though, recognized where he was needed most.
Despite the attacks on the Puritans, these years were also ones of great literary fruitfulness for Owen. His exhaustive commentary on Hebrews appeared between 1668 and 1684. A Discourse Concerning the Holy Spirit came out in 1674 and an influential work on justification, The Doctrine of Justification by Faith, in 1677. Owen’s Meditations and Discourses on The Glory of Christ (1684; 2nd ed. 1696), which English historian Robert Oliver has rightly termed “incomparable,” was written under the shadow of death in 1683 and represents Owen’s dying testimony to the unsurpassable value and joy of living a life for the glory of Christ.
He fell asleep in Christ on Aug. 24, 1683. He was buried on Sept. 4 in Bunhill Fields in London, where the bodies of so many of his fellow Puritans were laid to rest until that tremendous Day when they — and all the faithful in Christ — shall be raised to glory. His final literary work is a letter to a close friend, Charles Fleetwood, written two days before his death. In it, he told his friend:
“I am leaving the ship of the church in a storm, but whilst the great Pilot is in it the loss of a poore under-rower will be inconsiderable. Live and pray and hope and waite patiently and doe not despair; the promise stands invincible that he will never leave thee nor forsake thee.”