The preacher took as his text that morning Matthew 8:26: “Why are ye fearful, O ye of little faith?” It proved to be a message that Owen needed to hear and embrace. Through the words of a preacher whose identity is unknown, God spoke to Owen and removed once and for all his doubts and fears as to whether he was truly regenerate or not. He now knew himself to be born of the Spirit.
A Long-Lasting Reputation
When John Owen died on August 24, 1683, his reputation as “the Calvin of England,” as he has been called, was firmly established—a reputation that is still recognized three hundred and thirty-five years after his death.
“Bred Up . . . Under . . . a Nonconformist”
John Owen was born in 1616, the same year that William Shakespeare died. He grew up in a Christian home in a small village now known as Stadhampton, about five miles south-east of Oxford. His father, Henry Owen, was the minister of the parish church there and a Puritan. Of Owen’s childhood years only one reference has been recorded. “I was bred up from my infancy,” he remarked in 1657, “under the care of my father, who was a nonconformist all his days, and a painful laborer [that is, diligent worker] in the vineyard of the Lord.”
At twelve years of age, Owen was sent by his father to Queen’s College, the University of Oxford. Here he obtained his B. A. on June 11, 1632, when he was 16. He went on to study for the M. A., which he was awarded on April 27, 1635. Everything seemed to be set for Owen to pursue an academic career. It was not, however, a good time to launch out into the world of academia. The Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud (1573-1645), had set out to suppress the Puritan movement, and to that end had begun a purge of the churches and universities. By 1637 Owen had no alternative but to leave Oxford and to become, along with many other Puritans who refused to conform to the Established Church, a private chaplain. He eventually found employment in the house of Lord Lovelace, a nobleman sympathetic to the Puritan cause. However, when the English Civil War broke out in 1642 and Lord Lovelace decided to support the King, Owen left his service and moved to London.
A “Clear Shining from God”
The move to London was providential in a couple of ways. First of all, it brought him into contact with the some of the leading defenders of the Parliamentary cause, Puritan preachers who viewed the struggle between the King and Parliament in terms of the struggle between Christ and anti-Christian forces. Moreover, it was during these initial days in London that he had an experience he would never forget. By 1642 Owen was convinced that the final source of authority in religion was the Holy Scriptures and moreover, that the doctrines of orthodox Calvinism were biblical Christianity. But he had yet to personally experience the Holy Spirit bearing witness to his spirit and giving him the assurance that he was a child of God.
Owen found this assurance one Sunday when he decided to go with a cousin to hear Edmund Calamy the Elder (1600-1666), a famous Presbyterian preacher, at St. Mary’s Church, Aldermanbury. On arriving at this church, they were informed that the well-known Presbyterian was not going to preach that morning. Instead, a country preacher (whose name Owen never did discover) was going to fill in for the Presbyterian divine. His cousin urged him to go with him to hear Arthur Jackson (c.1593-1666), another notable Puritan preacher, at nearby St. Michael’s. But Owen decided to remain at St. Mary’s. The preacher took as his text that morning Matthew 8:26: “Why are ye fearful, O ye of little faith?” It proved to be a message that Owen needed to hear and embrace. Through the words of a preacher whose identity is unknown, God spoke to Owen and removed once and for all his doubts and fears as to whether he was truly regenerate or not. He now knew himself to be born of the Spirit.
The impact of this spiritual experience cannot be over-estimated. It gave to Owen the deep, inner conviction that he was indeed a child of God and chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world, that God loved him and had a loving purpose for his life, and that this God was the true and living God. In practical terms, it meant a life-long interest in the work of God the Holy Spirit that would issue thirty years later in his monumental study of the Holy Spirit, A Discourse Concerning the Holy Spirit, which in many ways is the finest study of the work of the Holy Spirit ever written in English. As he later wrote: “Clear shining from God must be at the bottom of deep laboring with God.”
“Deep Labouring with God”
In 1643 Owen was offered the pastorate in the village of Fordham, six miles or so north-west of Colchester in Essex. Owen was here till 1646 when he became the minister of the church at the market town of Coggeshall, some five miles to the south. Here, as many as two thousand people would crowd into the church each Lord’s Day to hear Owen preach.