He Sought to Kill Sin with a Pen

John Owen (1616–1683)

He went to hear a famous minister at Aldermanbury Chapel in London. A substitute preacher entered the pulpit. Owen’s companion was all for heading off to another church. But the preacher (whose identity has been lost in the mists of history) preached on Matthew 8:26: “Why are ye so fearful, O ye of little faith?” It was Owen’s turning point.

 

Fifty years or so ago, you would have been hard-pressed to find anyone who could recognize the name John Owen. Today, he is regularly quoted from pulpits and in articles as though his name were a household word. This is even more surprising because almost everybody who mentions him adds, “But he is not light reading!” After all, he lived in the seventeenth century, thought in Latin, wrote long and profound works of theology, and belonged to the marginalized group of Christians we call Puritans.

Who was this John Owen, and what explains the phenomenon of his rising popularity?

Saved by a Nobody

The highlights of Owen’s life are as follows. Born in 1616, he was brought up in a Church of England vicarage. His parents had Puritan sympathies — that is, they believed that the English Reformation (which had taken place during his grandparents’ lifetime) had not been sufficiently radical.

Reared in such an atmosphere, the young, intellectually brilliant Owen made his way through his early education before going up to the University of Oxford. But it would be a number of years until he came to a settled assurance of his own salvation. He went to hear a famous minister at Aldermanbury Chapel in London. A substitute preacher entered the pulpit. Owen’s companion was all for heading off to another church. But the preacher (whose identity has been lost in the mists of history) preached on Matthew 8:26: “Why are ye so fearful, O ye of little faith?” It was Owen’s turning point.

Here we learn a quite general lesson from his life. You know the names of many famous Christians. Yet do you know the names of those who first pointed them to Christ? Unlikely. Owen’s life reminds us that the significance of the life of any believer never depends on that individual alone. The fruit of hidden faithfulness is not measurable by any human calculus. But think of the joy it will be in glory to be shown the connections!

Owen then went on to serve two Church of England congregations, first in Fordham and then in Coggeshall. He began to write catechisms for the children and adults of his own congregation, and then — as young men are sometimes wont to do — some polemical works.

Prodigious Puritan

England was now embroiled in the Civil War of 1642–1651, the war that would temporarily topple the monarchy. Providentially, Owen became acquainted with the leading figures in Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army (he would serve as a chaplain to Cromwell himself, but later seems to have been instrumental in dissuading him from accepting the crown). He was regularly invited to preach before Parliament — indeed, he did so on January 31, 1649, on the day following the execution of Charles I.

With his prodigious ability, and his star in the ascendant, he was successively appointed dean (principal) of Christ Church in the University of Oxford, and in 1652 vice chancellor (president) of the whole university. On alternate Sunday afternoons, he and Thomas Goodwin preached to the young students. By today’s assessment of youth ministry, it is staggering to think that the material in Owen’s famous little work On the Mortification of Sinmay well have been originally preached to teenagers! But then, he knew what he was doing.

During this period, England was led by Lord Protector Cromwell. But it did not last long. Cromwell died in 1658, and his son and successor, Richard, had little of his father’s ability. In 1660 the monarchy was restored, and within two years, nonconforming ministers like Owen had been ejected from their pulpits and ministries. To a large extent, he was now persona non grata in public life — although his intellectual talents were still seen to be useful on occasion. He declined an invitation to the First Church of Boston, Massachusetts.

During the years that followed, Owen was hosted and housed by influential friends, ministering privately behind closed doors — until the Acts of Toleration in the 1670s made it possible for him once again to exercise a public ministry. This he did in London, first to a small church of a few dozen old friends, and then, when they united with a larger congregation, to a growing number. (Incidentally, he believed the ideal size for a church was about three hundred.) Here he remained until he died on August 24, 1683. He is buried in the Dissenters’ Burial Ground of Bunhill Fields in London (where Thomas Goodwin, John Bunyan, Isaac Watts, and other dissenters from the Church of England await the resurrection).

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