I need not tell you of this who knew him, that it was his great Design to promote Holiness in the Life and Exercise of it among you: But it was his great Complaint, that its Power declined among Professors. It was his Care and Endeavor to prevent or cure spiritual Decays in his own Flock: He was a burning and a shining Light, and you for a while rejoyced in his Light. Alas! It was but for a while; and we may rejoice in it still.
A Funeral Sermon on the Much Lamented Death of the Late Reverend and Learned Divine John Owen, D.D.
J. I. Packer comments on the stature of this great man of God and teacher of godliness:
The Puritan John Owen, who comes closer than anyone else to being the hero of this book, was one of the greatest of English theologians. In an age of giants, he overtopped them all. C.H. Spurgeon called him the prince of divines. He is hardly known today, and we are the poorer for our ignorance.1
Space does not permit a lengthy introduction to this great man and his accomplishments. We will, however, make a few passing comments.
John Owen was born to Puritan parents in the Oxfordshire village of Stadham in 1616. He had three brothers and one sister. He graduated from Oxford on June 11, 1632 with a B.A. and on April 27, 1635 with an M.A. Later he began seven years of study for the B.D. degree. In 1642 he published his first work, A Display of Arminianism (a penetrating critique of Arminianism) which won him public attention and living facilities at the sequestered rectory of Fordham in Essex. Some time after this, still in 1643, he married his first wife who bore him eleven children, yet only one, a girl, made it into adulthood—only to die after the unhappy dissolution of her marriage. After the death of his first wife in 1676, Owen remarried eighteen months later.
In 1651 Owen was appointed Dean of Christ Church, Oxford. In 1652 he was appointed Vice Chancellor of the University, though he had no desires for the role. In 1655 he took responsibility for the safety of the town of Oxford (and county) during a Royalist uprising; he rode at the head of a cavalry troop, armed with sword and pistol. He was ejected from his position as Dean of Christ Church, Oxford, on March 13, 1660 after which he moved to his estate at Stadhampton. Because of his political connections in high places he was able to help John Bunyan, securing the latter’s release from prison. He suffered for some time with asthma and gallstones and on August 24, 1683, died. He is buried at Bunhill Fields, London. It is the epitaph on the monument adorning Owen’s grave where we get one of the best and most complete pictures of this man. J.I. Packer translates the Latin as follows:
John Owen, born in Oxfordshire, son of a distinguished theologian, was himself a more distinguished one, who must be counted among the most distinguished of this age. Furnished with the recognised resources of humane learning in uncommon measure, he put them all, as a well-ordered array of handmaids, at the service of theology, which he served himself. His theology was polemical, practical, and what is called casuistical, and it cannot be said that any one of these was peculiarly his rather than another.
In polemical theology, with more than herculean strength, he strangled three poisonous serpents, the Arminian, the Socinian, and the Roman.
In practical theology, he laid out before others the whole of the activity of the Holy Spirit, which he had first experienced in his own heart, according to the rule of the Word. And, leaving other things aside, he cultivated, and realised in practice, the blissful communion with God of which he wrote; a traveller on earth who grasped God like one in heaven.
In casuistry, he was valued as an oracle to be consulted on every complex matter.
A scribe instructed in every way for the kingdom of God, this pure lamp of gospel truth shone forth on many in private, on more from the pulpit, and on all in his printed works, pointing everyone to the same goal. And in this shining forth he gradually, as he and others recognized, squandered his strength till it was gone. His holy soul, longing to enjoy God more, left the shattered ruins of his once-handsome body, full of permanent weaknesses, attacked by frequent diseases, worn out most of all by hard work, and no longer a fit instrument for serving God, on a day rendered dreadful for many by earthly powers but now made happy for him through the power of God, August 25, 1683. He was 67.2
Owen was a pastoral theologian at heart, writing many treatises throughout his career, the driving passion of which was to promote holiness and unity among believers. In his own words:
I hope I may own in sincerity, that my hearts desire unto God, and the chief design of my life in the station wherein the good providence of God hath placed me, are, that mortification and universal holiness may be promoted in my own and in the hearts and ways of others, to the glory of God; that so the gospel of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ may be adorned in all things.3
It is for this reason and in keeping with his vision that these interactions with his work have been written. It has been said, and I think it correct, that Owen will do more to straighten us out on the Biblical Christian life than most of the moderns combined. Were it my choice (and it certainly isn’t), every Christian would be required to read Owen’s work on Mortification, Indwelling Sin, and Temptation. But herein lies the problem for people today. Owen wrote with a very Latinised style, cumbersome to say the least; he is difficult to read even for the best. J. I. Packer, a Puritan scholar (esp. Owen) scholar, recognizes this situation and offers a promising solution:
Owen’s style is often stigmatized as cumbersome and tortuous. Actually it is a Latinised spoken style, fluent but stately and expansive, in the elaborate Ciceronian manner. When Owen’s prose is read aloud, as didactic rhetoric (which is, after all, what it is), the verbal inversions, displacements, archaisms and new coinages that bother modern readers cease to obscure and offend. Those who think as they read find Owen’s expansiveness suggestive and his fulsomeness fertilising.4
Regarding Owen, Spurgeon commented:
He [Owen] requires hard study, and none of us ought to grudge it.5
Perhaps these summaries and interactions with his work may help bridge the gap so that many others who would not have even heard of Owen, would dare pick up his works, read them aloud repeatedly, and learn from one who learned from the Master (cf. Phil 4:9). This is our hope. By way of note, we are including as many of the actual scriptural passages cited by Owen as possible so that the reader can readily see the points he is making from the text. These passages are meant to be read, not skipped. Let us proceed now to a discussion of his work, Of the Mortification of Sin in Believers.
1 J. I. Packer, A Quest for Godliness (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1997), 191.
2 Packer, A Quest for Godliness, 192; see also William S. Barker, Puritan Profiles: 54 Contemporaries of the Westminster Assembly (Ross-shire, Scotland: Mentor, 1996), 295-300; esp. Sinclair B. Ferguson, John Owen on the Christian Life (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1987); James Moffatt, ed. The Golden Book of John Owen (London: 1904); Peter Toon, God’s Statesman: The Life and Work of John Owen, Pastor, Educator, and Theologian (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1971); I. Breward, “Puritan Theology,” in New Dictionary of Theology, ed. Sinclair B. Ferguson, David F. Wright, and J. I. Packer (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1988), 550-53.
3 John Owen, The Works of John Owen: Of the Mortification of Sin in Believers, ed. William H. Goold (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1967), VI:4. Hereafter Owen’s works will be referred to by the volume, e.g., VI, followed by the page number, e.g., 4.
4 Packer, Quest for Godliness, 194.
5 C. H. Spurgeon, Commenting and Commentaries (London: Banner of Truth, 1969), 103; as found in Packer, A Quest for Godliness, 194.