The figure of John Owen (1616–1683) towers above — almost head and shoulders above — the galaxy of writers we know collectively as the English Puritans. His theological learning and acumen was unrivalled; his sense of the importance of doctrine for living was profound. David Clarkson, Owen’s assistant in his latter years, and himself no mean theologian and pastor, well summarized it in his funeral sermon: “It was his great design to promote holiness in the life and exercise of it among you.”
Throughout his work, Owen employed, what was to him, a very significant distinction between the conviction of the truth that is vital to, but not necessarily the same thing as, the experience of the power of the truth. Even in his most erudite and polemical works, the power of the truth in his own and others’ lives was his great concern. Doctrine is taught with a view to godliness.
Owen’s aim, therefore, was so to expound biblical truth that it transformed the life of both the individual believer and the covenant community to which he belonged. Thus in the preface to one of his best known works, On the Mortification of Sin (2nd edition, 1658), he writes, “The chief design of my life in the station wherein the good providence of God hath placed me, are, that mortification and universal holiness may be promoted in my own and in the hearts and ways of others, to the glory of God; that so the gospel of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ may be adorned in all things” (The Works of John Owen vol. 6., p. 4).
As the wise nineteenth-century Professor John Duncan commented, if you read this little work you must “prepare yourself for the scalpel!” What comes as a shock to contemporary readers of this little work — so much more vigorous and searching than contemporary literature in its diagnosis, prescription, and remedy for our sinful hearts — is that it contains material Owen first preached to teenagers at the University of Oxford. A moment’s reflection suggests how wise he was and how comparatively unwise we are in thinking that such teaching should be reserved for those of much more senior years!
Several things characterize the way Owen encouraged a lasting marriage between conviction of truth and experience of its power. First, the whole of the Christian life is rooted and grounded in the whole of the Godhead. The Trinity, therefore, is not the most speculative and least practical of doctrines. In fact, the reverse is the case; all right understanding depends on the Trinity, and all Christian experience involves communion with the Trinity.
In his magnificent, but neglected work, Communion with God (Works, vol. 2), Owen expounds the privileges of believers in terms of the distinctive fellowship they have with each person of the Trinity. The triune engagement that runs through our Lord’s teaching in the Upper Room, and also in Paul’s epistles, is here spread like a spiritual feast as we are invited to realize to the full that, in the Spirit, “our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ” (1 John 1:3). Rather than be alienated by the doctrine of the Trinity, the reality expressed by it is the very lifeblood of Christian living: communion with the Father in love, with the Son in grace, with the Spirit in his multi-faceted ministry as the indwelling God.
Second, the godly life is empowered by the Spirit of the Son who is also the Spirit of adoption. He impresses upon us the privileges of divine adoption, and transforms us into the likeness of Christ. This being the eschatological goal, notes Owen: “What better preparation can there be for it than in a constant previous contemplation of that glory in the revelation that is made in the gospel, unto this very end, that by a view of it we may be gradually transformed into the same glory” (Works, vol. 1, p. 275). Thus, in 1679, towards the end of his life, he published his exposition of the person of Christ (Works, vol. 1).
Four years later, now in his final days, Owen consented to the publication of material he had worked on simply for his own spiritual growth, but had then used in ministry. This was published some months after his death under the full title Meditations and Discourses on the Glory of Christ in his Person, office and Grace: with the differences between faith and sight; applied unto the use of them that believe (Works, vol. 1, p. 273). Together, these works, constitute one of the greatest Christ-exalting pieces of theology in the English language. Poignantly, Owen was on his death-bed when the Reverend William Payne brought him the news that the latter was passing through the publication process, and commented, “I am glad to hear it; but, O brother Payne! The long wished-for day is come at last, in which I shall see that glory in another manner than I have ever done, or was capable of doing in this world.”
Third, the spiritual life is lived between two polarities: our sin and God’s grace. The discovery of the former brings us to seek the latter; the work of the latter illumines the depths of the former and causes us to seek yet more grace.
With a relentlessness that leaves us nowhere to hide, Owen used Scripture to expose the sinful heart and carefully cuts away the layers of our hypocrisy, self-justification, and self-deceit (sin has “a thousand wiles … which cannot be counted,” Works, vol. 6, p. 249), leaving us naked before the penetrating gaze of the Holy One. Yet, in the spirit of Scripture, he does not do this in order to destroy us but to heal us, directing us constantly to Christ. For Owen, the heart-conviction of sin is the way grace prepares the heart for more grace. The grace that prepares us to seek Christ also draws us to Christ. Thus, in an extensive exposition of Psalm 130, Owen concentrates especially on the words: “But there is forgiveness with You …” (v.4), and he spends one-hundred and fifty pages bathing his readers in them.
These three emphases run throughout Owen’s writings. And yet this is but to scratch the surface of his work, to suggest a few hors d’oeuvres to help us develop appetite to read him.
But if all we are interested in is theology for its own sake, Owen is not our man, as he makes plain: “What am I the better if I can dispute that Christ is God, but have no sense of sweetness in my heart from hence that he is a God in covenant with my soul? … Let us, then, not think that we are anything the better for our conviction of the truths of the great doctrines of the gospel … unless we find the power of the truths abiding in our own hearts, and have a continual experience of their necessity and excellency in our standing before God and our communion with him” (Works, vol. 12, p. 52).
If light reading is our passion, then Owen’s prose style is not for us. His paragraphs are tightly packed; his thoughts demanding. His analysis of the heart cannot be skimmed quickly. But in our age of constant and instant upgrade to faster models, this is exactly what many of us need: a slow read, a careful application — allowing ourselves to feel the wounds made by Owen’s sensitive eye surgery, and, as a result, discovering that we see our God more clearly, that we love his Son more fully and serve Him in the power of the Spirit more thoroughly. If this is what we need — as it surely is — Owen, though dead, still speaks, and in the providence of God is still there to help and guide us.