In the preface to his book The Death of Death in the Death of Christ, Owen does what no good marketing agent would allow today. He begins like this: “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!” Nevertheless, J.I. Packer and Roger Nicole and Sinclair Ferguson did not bid Owen farewell. They lingered. And they learned. And today all three of them say that no Christian writer has had a greater impact on them than John Owen.
Some of us stand on the shoulders of men who have stood on the shoulders of John Owen. J.I. Packer, Roger Nicole, and Sinclair Ferguson, for example, are three contemporary pillars in the house of my thinking, and each has testified publicly that John Owen is the most influential Christian writer in his life. That is amazing for a man who has been dead for over three hundred years, and who wrote in a style so difficult to read that even he saw his work as immensely demanding in his own generation.
In the preface to his book The Death of Death in the Death of Christ, Owen does what no good marketing agent would allow today. He begins like this: “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!”
Nevertheless, J.I. Packer and Roger Nicole and Sinclair Ferguson did not bid Owen farewell. They lingered. And they learned. And today all three of them say that no Christian writer has had a greater impact on them than John Owen.
Making of a Puritan
Owen was born in England in 1616, the same year Shakespeare died and four years before the Pilgrims set sail for New England. This is virtually in the middle of the great Puritan century (roughly 1560 to 1660). Owen was born in the middle of this movement and became its greatest pastor-theologian, as the movement ended almost simultaneously with his death in 1683.
In 1642 the civil war began between Parliament and King Charles. Owen, a chaplain at the time, was sympathetic with Parliament against the king and Bishop Laud, and so he was pushed out of his chaplaincy and moved to London, where several major events happened in the next four years that stamped the rest of his life.
The first is his conversion — or possibly the awakening of the assurance of salvation and the deepening of his personal communion with God. Owen was a convinced Calvinist with large doctrinal knowledge, but he lacked the sense of the reality of his own salvation.
When Owen was 26 years old, he went with his cousin to hear the famous Presbyterian Edmund Calamy at St. Mary’s Church Aldermanbury. But it turned out Calamy could not preach, and a country preacher took his place. Owen’s cousin wanted to leave. But something held Owen to his seat. The simple preacher took as his text Matthew 8:26: “Why are you fearful, O you of little faith?” It was God’s appointed word and appointed time for Owen’s awakening.
His doubts and fears and worries as to whether he was truly born anew by the Holy Spirit were gone. He felt himself liberated and adopted as a Son of God. When you read the penetrating, practical works of Owen on the work of the Spirit and the nature of true communion with God, it is hard to doubt the reality of what God did on this Sunday in 1642.
2. Marriage and Dying Children
The second crucial event in those early years in London was Owen’s marriage to a young woman named Mary Rooke. He was married to her for 31 years, from 1644 to 1675. We know virtually nothing about her. But we do know one absolutely stunning fact that must have colored all of Owen’s ministry for the rest of his life. We know that she bore him eleven children, and all but one died as a child, and the one daughter who survived childhood died as a young adult. That’s one child born and lost on average every three years of Owen’s adult life.
We don’t have one reference to Mary or to the children or to his pain in all his books. But just knowing that the man walked in the valley of the shadow of death most of his life gives me a clue to the depth of dealing with God that we find in his works. God has his strange and painful ways of making his ministers the kind of pastors and theologians he wants them to be.
3. Political Beginnings
The third event of these early years in London was the invitation in 1646 to speak to the Parliament. In those days there were fast days during the year when the government asked certain pastors to preach to the House of Commons. It was a great honor. This message catapulted Owen into political affairs for the next fourteen years.