JOHN OWEN, A PRE-EMINENT PURITAN
Notes of a Lecture, December 2004.
The history of Puritanism may be divided into three periods.
1. From the accession of Queen Elizabeth (1558-1603) to the crushing of the Presbyterian movement by her in 1593.
2. From 1593 to the calling of the Long Parliament in 1640. 3. From 1640 to the restoration of Charles II in 1660.
James I followed Elizabeth in 1603 and reigned until 1625 when Charles I came to the throne.
After civil war between the Cavaliers, supporters of the King, and Roundheads, the supporters of Parliament, Charles I was beheaded by decision of Parliament in 1649. It was during this time that Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658) became a powerful army leader and on the execution of Charles I he became Lord Protector, the effective ruler of England for the last five years of his life. Cromwell was a deeply religious man and a Puritan who had close links with John Owen.
The Person and His Work
John Owen was born in 1616 and died in 1683.
He was a young genius and at the age of 12 he entered Queen’s College in Oxford. He allowed himself only four hours of sleep each night and worked with tremendous energy in his studies of Mathematics and Philosophy. Sadly he felt, later in life, that he had damaged his health through such intense study.
He later confessed that his motive in such studies was an ambition to rise to distinction and power in the church and that he had no spiritual life in those earlier years at Oxford. Later in life he confessed that in the later period of his time as a student the Holy Spirit began to work in his soul to give him new thoughts and emotions.
As these changes progressed William Laud became Chancellor of the University and was determined to introduce Romish changes into the religious aspects of Oxford life and of the country as a whole. This forced Owen into a public act of rejection that resulted in him having to leave Oxford, and losing the financial support of his Royalist uncle in Wales, as well as losing the valuable inheritance of his uncle’s estate. After acting as chaplain in the home of Sir Philip Dormer of Ascot and then for Lord Lovelace of Hurley in Berkshire he moved to London.
As the rift between King Charles and Parliament deepened, Owen was on the side of Parliament.
Mixed with Owen’s spiritual concerns there was a measure of mental depression as he had not yet entered into the full sense of peace with God through the Lord Jesus Christ. His deliverance came in a similar way to that of C. H. Spurgeon, through an unknown preacher!
But the time had come when the burden was to fall from Owen’s shoulders; and few things in his life are more truly interesting than the means by which it was unloosed. Dr Edmund Calamy was at this time minister in Aldermanbury Chapel, and attracted multitudes by his manly eloquence. Owen had gone one Sabbath morning to hear the celebrated Presbyterian preacher, and was much disappointed when he saw an unknown stranger from the country enter the pulpit. His companion suggested that they should leave the chapel, and hasten to the place of worship of another celebrated preacher; but Owen’s strength being already exhausted, he determined to remain. After a prayer of simple earnestness, the text was announced in these words of Matt. 8.26, `Why are ye fearful, O ye of little faith?’ Immediately it arrested the thoughts of Owen as appropriate to his present state of mind, and he breathed an inward prayer that God would be pleased by that minister to speak to his condition. The prayer was heard, for the preacher stated and answered the very doubts that had long perplexed Owen’s mind; and by the time that the discourse was ended, had succeeded in leading him forth into the
sunshine of a settled peace. The most diligent efforts were used by Owen to discover the name of the preacher who had thus been to him `as an angel of God,’ but without success.*
The deep perplexities, convictions, and doubts, now so graciously resolved, enable him to write with such warmth in his exposition of Psalm 130 on the nature of gospel assurance. (Volume 6, p.547).
Self-condemnation and abhorrence for sin consistent with gospel justification and peace.
Self-condemnation and abhorrency do very well consist with gospel justification and peace. Some men have no peace, because they have that without which it is impossible they should have peace. Because they cannot but condemn themselves, they cannot entertain a sense that God doth acquit them. But this is the mystery of the gospel, which unbelief is a stranger unto; nothing but faith can give a real subsistence unto these things in the same soul, at the same time. It is easy to learn the notion of it, but it is not easy to experience the power of it. For a man to have a sight of that within him which would condemn him, for which he is troubled, and at the same time to have a discovery of that without him which will justify him, and to rejoice therein, is that which he is not led unto but by faith in the mystery of the gospel. We are now under a law for justification which excludes all boasting, Romans 3.27, `Where is boasting then’? It is excluded. By what law’? of works? Nay; but by the law of faith’; so that though we have joy enough in another, yet we may have, we always have, sufficient cause of humiliation in ourselves. The gospel will teach a man to feel sin and believe righteousness at the same time. Faith will carry heaven in one hand and hell in the other; showing the one deserved, the other purchased.
In March 1642 he published his first theological study called The Display of Arminianism. He showed that the Arminians he was dealing with;
I. Deny the eternity and unchangeableness of God’s decrees. 2. They question the foreknowledge of God.
3. They deny the all-governing providence of God over the wills and actions of men.
4. They deny the irresistibility and uncontrollable power of God’s will. 5. They deny the doctrine of predestination and election.
6. They deny original sin in its fullest sense of total depravity.
7. They deny the efficacy and merit of the death of Christ in its Biblical sense.
*Quotation from p.30-31 in the life of Owen found in The Banner of Truth edition of The Works of John Owen. All future quotations are from the same edition.
8. They strongly promote the free-will of man as an innate power to prepare our souls for salvation and in the effectual working of our conversion.
This goes far to explain why Owen had such a burden in his soul to do all he could to oppose and destroy these Arminian arguments. He did this especially in this long treatise and again in his Death of Death, to be mentioned later.
At this time he was appointed as minister to the parish of Fordham on the borders of Essex and Suffolk and soon married a Miss Rooke. She had eleven children. Ten of them died very young. One daughter survived. She married a Welsh gentleman but the marriage was very unhappy and she returned to her parents and soon after died from TB. Those few sentences must contain almost unbearable sorrow.
His pastorate at Fordham witnessed great blessing and reformation in a long neglected parish.
Publishing The Duty of Pastors and People Distinguished in 1643 and then Two Short Catechisms, one for young people and one for adults, brought him more into public notice and he was appointed to preach before Parliament on April 29, 1646.
Soon after this he moved to Coggeshall in Essex where he soon had a congregation of nearly 2000. At this period his own ecclesiastical views were changing as he moved from a Presbyterian and parish-based position to the independent, congregational view of the church as a body of true believers seeking to live godly lives.
In 1647 he published Rules for the Walking of Saints in Fellowship. This is in two sections, the first with reference to Pastors and the second to members of the church. I give just the abbreviated headings;
First, in reference to Pastors.
1. The word and all ordinances to be diligently attended to.
2. His example to be diligently followed so far as he follows Jesus Christ.
3. Prayer continually to be made on his behalf for assistance and success in the work committed to him.
4. Reverential estimation of him, with submission to him for his work’s sake.
5. Maintenance for him and his family suitable to the condition of the church.
6. Adhering to him in all trials and persecutions for the word. 7. Gathering together in the assembly.
Second, in reference to fellow church members.
l. Affectionate and sincere love to each other like that which Christ has for His church.
2. Continual prayer for the prosperous state of the church.
3. Earnest contending for the purity of the ordinances of the church. 4. Great care for the preservation of unity in the church.
5. Separation from the world and all false worship. 6. Frequent spiritual communication for edification. 7. To bear with each other’s infirmities and failings in meekness, patience, and pity.
8. Bearing one another’s burdens.
9. Care for the temporal needs of the poor.
10. To mark diligently and avoid carefully all causes and causers of divisions, especially to shun false teachers, heresies and errors. 11. To be loyal to the church in both prosperity and adversity.
12. In church affairs not to have respect of persons but condescend to men of low estate.
13. If any be in distress, persecution, or affliction, the whole church to be humbled and in earnest prayer for them.
14. Vigilant watchfulness over each other’s conversation with mutual admonition in the case of disorderly behaviour.
15. Exemplary walking in all holiness and godliness to the glory of the gospel, edification of the church, and conviction of them that are outside.
Richard Baxter, another Puritan minister, was preaching and writing at the same time as Owen but they seriously parted company on the doctrine of the atonement. Dr J. I. Packer says of him; `Baxter’s gospel presents Christ’s death as an act of universal redemption, penal and vicarious though not strictly substitutionary.’ The view is similar in many ways to Arminian doctrine.
So it was while at Coggeshall, in 1647 when he was 31, that Owen published his Death of Death in the Death of Christ, a massive declaration of the truth of Particular Redemption and a devastating rejection of the General and Universal Redemption view of the Arminians and an answer to the false teaching of men like Baxter. Dr J. I. Packer* in his preface to a republication of the Death’ of Death claims that Owen’s massive treatise has never been answered – so complete was its rejection of those Arminian errors.
I found this preface by Packer very helpful and deeply significant as he shows that much modern so-called evangelical preaching fails to follow the pattern of truth found in this work of Owen’s. I quote;
The new gospel conspicuously fails to produce deep reverence, deep humility, a spirit of worship, a concern for the church. Why?… It fails to make men God-centred in their thoughts and God-fearing in their hearts… It is too exclusively concerned to be helpful to man – to bring peace, comfort, happiness, and satisfaction – and too little concerned to glorify God.
*Among God’s Giants, Kingsway Publications, pages 177-179
Of the old gospel he says,
Its centre of reference was unambiguously God. But in the new gospel the centre of reference is man.
Later he says,
The true evangelical evaluation of the claim that Christ died for every man, even those who perish, comes through at point after point in Owen’s book. So far from magnifying the love and grace of God, this claim dishonours both it and Him, for it reduces God’s love to an impotent wish and turns the whole economy of `saving’ grace, so-called (`saving’ is really a misnomer on this view), into a monumental divine failure. Also, so far from magnifying the merit and worth of Christ’s death, it cheapens it, for it makes Christ die in vain. Lastly, so far from affording faith additional encouragement, it destroys the scriptural ground of assurance altogether, for it denies that the knowledge that Christ died for me (or did or does anything else for me) is a sufficient ground for inferring my eternal salvation; my salvation, on this view, depends not on what Christ did for me, but on what I subsequently do for myself.
We said earlier that modern evangelicalism, by and large, has ceased to preach the gospel in the old way, and we frankly admit that the new gospel, insofar as it deviates from the old, seems to us a distortion of the biblical message. And we can now see what has gone wrong. Our theological currency has been debased. Our minds have been conditioned to think of the cross as a redemption which does less than redeem, and of Christ as a Saviour who does less than save, and of God’s love as a weak affection which cannot keep anyone from hell without help, and of faith as the human help which God needs for this purpose. As a result, we are no longer free either to believe the biblical gospel or to preach it. We cannot believe it, because our thoughts are caught in the toils of synergism. We are haunted by the Arminian idea that if faith and unbelief are to be responsible acts, they must be independent acts; hence we are not free to believe that we are saved entirely by divine grace through a faith which is itself God’s gift and flows to us from Calvary. Instead, we involve ourselves in a bewildering kind of double-think about salvation, telling ourselves one moment that it all depends on God and next moment that it all depends on us. The resultant mental muddle deprives God of much of the glory that we should give Him as author and finisher of salvation, and ourselves of much of the comfort we might draw from knowing that God is for us.
In the Death of Death, Vol.10, on p.414-415, Owen makes a brief summary of the points in dispute with those who teach a universal redemption.
l. Christ died for all and everyone, elect and reprobate. 2. Most of them for whom Christ died are damned.
3. Christ, by His death, purchased not any saving grace for them for whom He died.
4. Christ took no care for the greatest part of them for whom He died, that ever they should hear one word of His death.
5. Christ, in His death, did not ratify nor confirm a covenant of grace with any federates, but only procured by His death that God might, if He would, enter into a new covenant with whom He would, and upon what condition He pleased.
6. Christ might have died, and yet no one be saved.
7. Christ had no intention to redeem His church, any more than the wicked seed of the serpent.
8. Christ died not for the infidelity of any.
I. Christ died for the elect only.
2. All those for whom Christ died are certainly saved.
3. Christ by His death purchased all saving grace for them for whom He died.
4. Christ sends the means and reveals the way of life to all them for whom He died.
5. The new covenant of grace was confirmed to all the elect in the blood of Jesus.
6. Christ, by His death, purchased, upon covenant and compact, an assured peculiar people, the pleasure of the Lord prospering to the end in His hand.
7. Christ loved His church, and gave Himself for it. 8. Christ died for the infidelity of the elect.
To return to Owen’s life.
The national tensions between King Charles I and parliament came to a head in 1649 and the King was condemned by the High Court of Justice and beheaded. The day following Owen had the unenviable task of preaching before Parliament. Oliver Cromwell was then the leader of the parliament and its army and soon had his eye on Owen. He determined to have him as his army chaplain. Owen was taken over to Ireland for the time of Cromwell’s Irish campaign.
In 1652 he was back in England and was soon appointed as Vicechancellor of Oxford University, a position he held until 1657 at the age of 41, when he was removed from that position because he had strongly opposed the move to make Cromwell the King. During this period at Oxford he effectively reformed the University which had become sadly disorganised and financially ruined.
By 1648 he had been involved in the production of the Savoy
Declaration of Faith which declared the beliefs and practices of the English Congregationalists. Its doctrinal content is very similar to the Westminster Confession of the Presbyterians of 1647 and to the 1689 Baptist Confession.
In 1660 he retired to a small estate in Stadhampton, Oxfordshire.
It amazes me that with so many duties and distractions Owen was producing a constant stream of published works. I can only refer to two more that have been of special help and blessing to me. In 1668 he published a piece with a typically extensive title – The Nature, Power, Deceit, and Prevalency of the Remainders of Indwelling Sin in Believers. I quote a few headings towards the beginning of the work.
I. There is an exceeding efficacy and power in the remainders of indwelling sin in believers, with a constant working towards evil. 2. Believers have experience of the power and efficacy of indwelling sin.
3. There is, through grace, kept up in believers a constant and ordinarily prevailing will of doing good, notwithstanding the power and efficacy of indwelling sin to the contrary.
4. Indwelling sin is effectually operative in rebelling and inclining to evil, when the will of doing good is in a particular manner active and inclining unto obedience.
At considerable length and great detail the subject is dealt with in a deeply spiritual way and its effect on me was to give me an awareness of the value of Owen’s works, not only as profoundly doctrinal and theological, but so often deeply warm and spiritual. It is amazing to realise that Owen loved to hear the `Tinker from Bedford’ (John Bunyan) preach. The King is reported to have asked Owen, on one occasion, how a learned man like him could go `to hear a tinker prate’, to which Owen replied, `May it please your majesty, could I possess the tinker’s abilities for preaching, I would willingly relinquish all my learning’. Owen did all he could to mitigate the sufferings of John Bunyan and was instrumental in getting him released from prison.
When Charles II was eventually crowned King in 1660 there followed times of great trial for faithful ministers and their people. The Act of Uniformity drove nearly 2000 ministers from their churches. Such acts as the Conventicle Act made it illegal to hold meetings for worship even in barns and highways, and offered rewards for informers, such was the determination to force rigid conformity of worship on the country. Even in the quiet backwater of Stadham where Owen ministered to a group of believers in his own home he felt the danger (p.83 in Vol. 1).
Dr Owen suffered in the midst of all these troubles; and one anecdote, which most probably belongs to this period, presents us with another picture of the times. He had gone down to visit his old friends in the neighbourhood of Oxford, and adopting the
usual precautions of the period, had approached his lodging after night-fall. But notwithstanding all his privacy, he was observed, and information given of the place where he lay. Early in the morning, a company of troopers came and knocked at the door. The mistress coming down, boldly opened the door, and asked them what they would have. – `Have you any lodgers in your house?’ they inquired. Instead of directly answering their question, she asked `whether they were seeking for Dr Owen?’ ‘Yes,’ said they; on which she assured them he had departed that morning at an earlier hour. The soldiers believing her word, immediately rode away. In the meantime the Doctor, whom the woman really supposed to have been gone, as he intended the night before, arose, and going into a neighbouring field, whither he ordered his horse to be brought to him, hastened away by an unfrequented path towards London.
As a judgment from God there followed in 1665 and 1666 the dreadful Great Plague and then the Great Fire of London. The result was that for a while the pressure of opposition to the Puritans was relieved.
From 1668 till 1684 Owen was working on a Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews amongst many other publications. It was republished by Baker Book House in 1980 in seven volumes and remains one of the basic texts on that wonderful but difficult Epistle. One writer comments, `The appalling magnitude of the work is the most formidable obstacle to its usefulness’!! I doubt that many have tried to read it through from beginning to end.
The Banner of Truth republished Owen’s Works in 1966 and they are contained in sixteen large volumes. There is so much in these volumes and if anyone would like to see a full list they are found on the inside front cover of Vol. l of his works.
In January 1676 Owen’s first wife died, and eighteen months later he married a lady by the name of Michel. Through her fortune and the legacy received on the death of a cousin of his, he was able to spend the rest of his days in rather more affluent circumstances.
During the very last period of Owen’s life, as it became ever more obvious that his remarkable life was drawing to its close, he was involved in writing his last great work entitled Meditations and Discourses on the Glory of’Christ. Based on John 17.24, `Father, I will that they also, whom thou hast given me, be with me where I am; that they may behold my glory, which thou hast given me: for thou lovedst me before the foundation of the world’.
It is impossible even to summarise but I mention two of many points he makes;
1. One of the greatest privileges and advancements of believers, both in this world and unto eternity, consists in their beholding the glory of Christ.
2. No man shall ever behold the glory or Christ by sight nereatter wno doth not in some measure behold it by faith here in this world. This was another of Owen’s writings that I personally found so helpful in my early ministry, when concerned about how to apply Bible truth to unbelievers.At the end of Owen’s long exposition of the Glory of Christ he moves on to apply the truth to unconverted sinners and then to saints under spiritual decays. (Vol.l p.422).
This is somewhat of the word which He now speaks unto you: Why will ye die? why will ye perish? why will you not have
compassion on your own souls’? Can your hearts endure, or can your hands be strong, in the day of wrath that is approaching? It is but a little while before all your hopes, your reliefs, and presumptions will forsake you, and leave you eternally miserable. Look unto Me, and be saved; – come unto Me, and I will ease you of all sins, sorrows, fears, burdens, and give rest unto your souls. Come, I entreat you; – lay aside all procrastinations, all delays; – put Me off no more; – eternity lies at the door. Cast out all cursed, self-deceiving reserves; – do not so hate Me as that you will rather perish than accept of deliverance by Me.
These and the like things doth the Lord Christ continually declare, proclaim, plead, and urge on the souls of sinners; as it is fully declared, Proverbs 1.20-33. He doth it in the preaching of the word, as if He were present with you, stood amongst you, and spake personally to every one of you. And because this would not suit His present state of glory, He hath appointed the
ministers of the gospel to appear before you, and to deal with you in His stead, avowing as His own the invitations that are given you in His Name, 2 Corinthians 5.19,20.
But he gives a serious warning on p.431.
We must here be peremptory with you, whatever be the event; if you are discouraged by it, we cannot help it. Cursed be the man that shall encourage you to come to Christ with hopes of indulgence unto any one sin whatever. I speak not this as though you could at once absolutely and perfectly leave all sin, in the root and branches of it, but only you are to do it in heart and
resolution, engaging unto a universal mortification of all sin, as by grace from above you shall be enabled; but your choice must be absolute, without reserves, as to love, interest, and design; – God or the world, – Christ or Belial, – holiness or sin; there is no medium, no terms of composition, 2 Corinthians 6.15-18.
1 give one final encouraging extract from Vol. I p.423.
Perhaps, if you should, on His invitation, begin to look to Him, and resolve to come to Him, you are greatly afraid that when it comes to the trial He will not receive you; for no heart can
conceive, no tongue can express, what wretched, vile, and provoking sinners you have been. That the Lord Christ will receive unto Him such as we are, we have no hopes, or that ever we shall find acceptance with Him. I say it is not amiss when persons come so far as to be sensible of what discouragements they have to conflict withal, what difficulties lie in their way, and what objections do arise against them; for the most do perish in a senseless stupidity, – they will not consider how it is with them, what is required of them, nor how it will be in the latter end; – they doubt not but that either they do believe already, or can do so when they please. But when any come so far as to charge the failure of their acceptance with Christ on their own unworthiness, and so are discouraged from coming unto Him, there are arguments for their conviction and persuasion, which nothing but the devil and unbelief can defeat. Wherefore, that which is now proposed unto consideration in answer hereunto, is the readiness of Christ to receive every sinner, be he who or what he will, that shall come unto Him. And hereof we have the highest evidences that divine wisdom and grace can give unto us. This is the language of the Gospel, of all that the Lord Christ did or suffered, which is recorded therein; – this is the divine testimony of the `three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost;’ and of the `three that bear witness in earth, the spirit, the water, and the blood:’ all give their joint testimony, that the Lord Christ is ready to receive all sinners that come to Him. They who receive not this testimony make God a liar, – both Father, Son, and Spirit. Whatever the Lord Christ is in the constitution of His person, – in the representation of the Father, – in His office, – in what He did on the earth, – in what He doth in heaven, – proclaims the same truth. Nothing but cursed obstinacy in sin and unbelief can suggest a thought unto our minds that He is not willing to receive us when we come unto Him. Herein we are to bear testimony against the unbelief of all unto whom the gospel is preached, that come not unto Him.
This great declaration of the Glory of Christ became, in a sense, his dying testimony.
On the day of his death, August 24, 1683, a Mr Payne who was in charge of the original publication of this treatise said to him, `Doctor, I have just been putting your book on the Glory of Christ to the press.’ `I am glad,’ was Owen’s reply, `to hear that that performance is put to the press; but O brother Payne, the long looked-for day is come at last, in which I shall see that glory in another manner than I have ever done yet, or was capable of doing in this world.’