Rather than devoting much time to developing innovative amusements for the worship hour, Owen made private communion with God a top priority. He understood why the apostle Paul wrote: “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is — his good, pleasing and perfect will” (Rom. 12:2). The Word of God is the means employed by the Holy Spirit to transform us into the image of Christ, so if preaching and evangelism are to be effective, private communion with God in His Word must be more important than discovering the latest ministry technique.
“If the Word does not dwell with power in us,” wrote Puritan John Owen, “it will not pass with power from us” (The Works of John Owen, vol. 16, p. 76.). This godly minister personified this truth in his personal life and public ministry more than three centuries ago. For years he carried the message of Jesus Christ into the trenches of a culture as chaotic as our own while simultaneously dealing with the death of his wife and all eleven of his children. John Owen was no ivory tower theologian, but rather a zealous pastor who worked to the brink of exhaustion to further the work of the Reformers. He is remembered for shining gospel light into the spiritually dark arenas of politics and academia. And his love of Scripture was clearly and forcefully articulated from the variety of pulpits into which God called him.
Yet what gave John Owen success in ministry was not so much his oratory skill, nor his evangelistic zeal, nor even his love for the people he shepherded. John Owen was used mightily by God in all these ways because he was a man characterized by personal holiness. And in an age when the church is emulating the world, where it is no longer distinguishable from our pleasure-oriented culture, the example of John Owen shines like a beacon on a stormy night.
Let’s consider whether we have allowed contemporary culture to infiltrate our minds and hearts. Have we inverted Christ’s desire that the church be in the world by bringing the world into the church instead? If we take an honest look, perhaps we’ll discover that we are contributing to this trend. Rather than relying solely on the sufficiency of God’s Word, are we employing counselors in our churches who apply worldly methods of psychological analysis to address felt needs? Have we adopted worldly means to reach the seekers who sit skeptically in the back pews rather than offering them the truths of the Gospel and the Christian life? Faithful teaching of God’s Word is vanishing. Are we among the number that have replaced preaching with elaborate drama productions aimed at entertaining? In terms of covenantal relationships, the rate of divorce and remarriage reflects societal statistics. Where do we stand on this issue? The church has become tolerant of all kinds of biblical compromise, casting aside principles that Owen and his contemporaries would have given their lives to protect and defend.
Unlike Owen, we are in danger of falling prey to the belief that without entertainment and other-worldly concessions, no one will want what Jesus offers. Let’s not forget the exchange, in the nineteenth chapter of Matthew’s gospel, between Jesus and the rich young ruler when Jesus told the man the realities of true discipleship. As the rich man realized that personal sacrifice is required to live in God’s kingdom, he walked away.