John Owen
his life and literary legacy

“Poets,” commented P.B.Shelley, “are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” By the same token there have been men of God who went before us, who showed us the way forward, and yet the church at large, so richly benefited by them, has not properly acknowledged them.

John Owen, pastor, theologian, statesman, the prince of the Puritans, is still in this category of worthies. Though having “obtained a good report through faith,” the church has not yet expressed its gratitude to the Lord Christ who gave (and still gives) gifts to men, “for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ.” “The church of God was wronged in that the life of the great John Owen was not written.”

The purpose of this paper is to make this man better known and to invite the reader to acquaint himself with his writings. And in looking back to men of past generations we will have a better course charted for us in these dreary days of apostasy and religious indifference. “Stand ye in the ways, and see, and ask for the old paths, where is the good way, and walk therein, and ye shall find rest for your souls.” A timely discernment of our lukewarmness and our most urgent needs, as we live in a climate so different from Puritan days, might elicit from our hearts the prayer that is rumoured to have escaped the lips of Erasmus, “O, sit anima mea cum Puritanis Anglicanis!”

Early years

In 1616 there was born a second son to a godly vicar Henry Owen, a son who was destined to far outshine him in virtue, scholarship and genius. Though little is known of his boyhood years it is gathered that when John was only twelve he had already outgrown the instructions of his tutor Sylvester.

John was considered to be a precocious child and was allowed to enter Queen’s College at this tender age, where he devoted himself to several branches of learning with the utmost intensity. Besides the demands of the university curriculum, John received lessons in music from Dr. Wilson. During these years he normally slept for only four hours at night.

The youngster had already determined upon the course of his life: his consuming toil was undertaken as he was driven by a consuming passion to rise to distinction and power in the established church.

The glory of Christ shining upon him

Owen himself testifies that during the latter part of his university course the Holy Spirit began to direct his gaze elsewhere, and have him “consider the Apostle and High Priest of our profession, Christ Jesus.”A radically different set of thoughts and emotions were being wrought in his soul. At that time he learned to submit himself to the all-pervasive principle of asking, “What wilt thou have me to do?”But it was only later that he entered the kingdom of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.

Counting the cost

At that time England was undergoing deep upheavals in both the political and religious realms. The half-baked Reformation within Anglicanism was unacceptable to many whose tender consciences would not submit to rites and ceremonies savouring of Romish superstitions. Such were dubbed “Puritans.” For their earnestness and desire for a full-fledged Reformation, both in doctrine and church polity, these men had to endure discrimination, confiscation of property, imprisonment, denial of privileges and even martyrdom.

At his conversion John Owen found himself at the crossroads. Was he to go along the current of Archbishop Laud’s policies? Or was he to stand up and be counted? The penalty of resistance was already spelled out: expulsion from the university.

As soon as Owen “took up the cross,” and started to follow Christ, he was immediately dragged into the struggles of a public career. From henceforth the privacy of study was to be dreamed of but only occasionally realized. Knowing God, and hiding under His everlasting wings, Owen was not reluctant to resist the bigoted prelate’s intolerant statutes. For the sake of the pilgrim church Owen was God’s chosen vessel to speak in defence of liberty of conscience.

His stand was clear and unmistakable. As a Puritan he upheld the regulative principle of worship, without which the church is as a ship without a rudder. Owen expresses the principle which animated him and his companions at that time.

Believers “will receive nothing, practice nothing, own nothing in worship, but what is of his appointment. They know that from the foundation of the world he never did allow, nor ever will, that in any thing the will of the creatures should be the measure of his honour, or the principle of his worship, either as to matter or manner....Believers know what entertainment all will-worship find with God, ‘Who hath required this at your hands?’ and, ‘In vain do ye worship me, teaching for doctrines the traditions of men,’ is the best it meets with.”

In Owen understanding this issue was not insignificant or peripheral: it meant the health and vitality of the church, which recognizes only One Lord of the conscience, Jesus Christ. He deciphered Laud’s compromising measures as a direct attempt “That Jesus Christ might be deposed from the sole power of lawmaking in his church; that the true husband might be thrust aside, and adulterers of his spouse embraced; that taskmasters might be appointed in and over his house, which he never gave to his church (Ephesians 4:11); that a ceremonious, pompous, outward show-worship, drawn from Pagan, Judaical and Antichristian observances, might be introduced; of all which there is not one word, tittle, or iota in the whole book of God.”

Protestantism, at its best, stands upon the “sure word of prophecy;” as soon as it takes on a syncretistic character, it becomes not only powerless but also pathetic. Owen had no doubt about this; his well-informed conscience, as the Word became his daily delight and meditation, forbade conformity to the Established Church.

In his outspokenness he risked incurring the displeasure of his Royalist uncle in Wales, who had supplied him with the principal means of support at Oxford, and also had the intention of making him heir of his estates. Owen would not budge: like Moses he “esteemed the reproach of Christ greater riches than all the treasures of Egypt.” John Owen was virtually self-exiled for conscience’ sake: God was not educating him in a higher school.

Unexpectedly Owen found the house of Sir Robert Dormer open for him; he was invited to become chaplain of the family, and tutor to his eldest son.

Meanwhile the country was about to be shaken with the discord of civil war. Neutrality was well-nigh impossible. Owen’s convictions and sympathies were with the army of the Parliament and the cause of public liberty.

Arise, shine

Owen was depressed, all the more so because he had not yet come under the full light of the gospel. It so happened that he desired to hear Dr. Edmund Calamy, the celebrated Presbyterian minister, preach. But for some unknown reason the preacher did not show up, and an unknown stranger took his place. The text was announced, “Why are ye so fearful, O ye of little faith?”As it turned out the preacher answered the perplexities of Owen’s heart, and the Spirit of God was pleased to lead him forth into the full sunshine of a settled peace. Owen later refers to the man as “an angel of God.”

His full conversion was yet one more instance of the truth that in preaching it was “not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, saith the Lord”

First pastoral charge

It appears that Owen’s early pastorate was one of the most satisfying in his life. His predecessor neglected the spiritual interests of Fordham, and Owen began to break up the fallow ground, preaching evangelical truth that warmed his heart to his congregation.

He engaged himself in visitation and catechising according to the godly custom of the Puritans. The busy pastor gave evidence of his commitment to discipleship in publishing The Principles of the Doctrine of Christ unfolded, in Two Short Catechism. The first catechism was developed for the young, while the second one was meant for parents to use in their home devotions.

The fame of his solid biblical teaching soon spread around and the inhabitants came out to listen. God worked reformation through the agency of Owen preaching “Christ crucified.”

His evaluation of preaching as God’s appointed means to gather His elect is noteworthy, especially in our day when innovations are being introduced as means of evangelism, such innovations as denigrate the glory of Christ, blasphemously presenting Him as an entertainer rather than the all-glorious Redeemer and crowned King. If Owen were left unmolested throughout his life, he would have preached and done almost nothing else. It was only because of harassment that he devoted his energies to various publications, through which, in God’s wise providence, Owen still speaks.

But his outlook on preaching must not be overlooked. “John Owen, generally reckoned to be the most accomplished and learned theologian that England has ever produced, was asked by the King why he was so fond of listening to the Particular Baptist John Bunyan preach, ‘to hear a tinker prate,’ as the King sarcastically expressed it. Owen replied, ‘May it please your Majesty, could I possess the tinker’s abilities for preaching, I would willingly relinquish all my learning.’ This is the spirit we need today.”


Soon after his arrival at Fordham Owen was married to a lady by the name of Rooke, a lady reported to be “an excellent and comely person, very affectionate towards him, and met with suitable returns.” She bore him eleven children; all died in early youth, except one daughter.

In January 1676 he was widowed. After a year and a half he married again, this time to Michel, the daughter of a noble family in Dorsetshire. Being affluent she made his later years quite comfortable.

First publication

From the year 1642 to 1683 Owen’s fertile pen produced at least 68 volumes, starting with A Display of Arminianism and concluding with An Account of the Protestant Religion. Another twelve volumes were published posthumously between 1684 and 1760.

As a staunch Calvinist Owen felt constrained to expose the grave errors of Arminianism. “The fates of our church having of late devolved the government of it on men tainted with this poison, Arminianism became backed with the powerful arguments of praise and preferment, and quickly beat poor naked Truth into a corner.” As an apologist, defending “the whole counsel of God,” Owen is at his best. His first book was already characteristically Puritan, deep in piety and weighty in scholarship, connecting all events with God, and bent with lowly and awestruck feeling before the divine sovereignty.

Wider ministries

Without seeking publicity for himself, Owen could not remain hidden in Fordham. His reputation was fast extending, so much so that in 1646 he was appointed to preach before the Long Parliament.

At this time Owen underwent considerable changes in his views on church government. But his Congregationalism, or his advocacy of Independency, was of a somewhat modified character.

Eventually Owen would become the champion of Independency, and more importantly, of the liberty of conscience, thus showing that his mind was far advanced beyond many of his own age. He repeatedly condemned all enforced conformity and physical punishment of heretics. He writes: “Heresy is a canker, but it is a spiritual one; let it be prevented by spiritual means: cutting off men’s heads is no proper remedy for it.”

Owen was a pioneer in emancipating the church from the thraldom of medieval inquisitorial dealings with non-conformists. He was greatly in advance of his contemporaries, for he remained equally zealous for toleration when his party rose to power as when it was a weak and persecuted sect.

In defence of Particular Atonement

Owen wrote with a pastoral heart, but also as a theologian and polemicist, appearing on the battlefront according to the need of the hour. Arminian sentiments constrained him to write a full apology concerning the efficacy and extent of Christ’s atonement. His work was entitled Salus Electorum, Sanguis Iesu or, the Death of Death in the Death of Christ.

Owen devoted to the work extended research and a long time of meditation. Owen’s question is “To what end did Christ die?” No Christian who would understand the meaning of the Cross can fail to profit from wrestling with what Owen has to say.

This milestone work is quite characteristic of Owen:

1. It is comprehensive and elevated in its view of the great subject. He seeks to relate on truth to another, weaving everything into one complete tapestry of truth.

2. His intellect delights to expose sophistries and snares of those who oppose the truth.

3. He is sound in judgment: all in all his theology is sound and edifying. It “expresses itself in such pithy and pregnant words of wisdom, that you both delight in the reading, and praise God for the writer.”

“I did read it (The Death of Death) with delight and profit: with delight in the keenness of argument, clearness and fullness of answers, and candour in language, with profit in the vindication of abused Scriptures, the opening of obscure places, and chiefly in disclosing the hid mystery of God and the Father, and of Christ, in the glorious and gracious work of our redemption. The like pleasure and profit this tractate promiseth to all diligent readers thereof.”

The work is designed to show that the doctrine, “Christ died for all, for those who are eventually saved, and for those who are eventually lost in hell, without any distinction” is not only unscriptural but also most harmful to the Gospel itself.

J.I.Packer contends that Owen is well qualified to teach pastors today not only what the Gospel really is but also how to preach it. Owen “will lead us to bow down before a sovereign Saviour Who really saved, and to praise Him for a redeeming death which made it certain that all for whom He died will come to glory....Secondly, Owen could set us free, if we would hear him, to preach the biblical gospel.”

In contrasting the Puritan Gospel with the dilapidated gospel of today, Packer continues: “The preaching of the new gospel is often described as the task of ‘bringing men to Christ’ - as if only men move, while Christ stands still. But the task of preaching the old gospel could more properly be described as bringing Christ to men, for those who preach it know that as they do their work of setting Christ before men’s eyes, the mighty Saviour whom they proclaim is busy doing His work through their words, visiting sinners with salvation, awakening them to faith, drawing them in mercy to Himself.”

It is well known that Owen’s treatment of Particular Atonement is exhaustive. As he himself confidently says, no one will be able to contradict or refute it. And so it remains to this day.

Strong meat for the mature, for those who are willing to be challenged and desire to build with gold, silver and precious stones, that their work may endure the Judgement.

Engagements with the army

Once again Owen was summoned to preach before Parliament, to which he complied with a powerful sermon.Oliver Cromwell was present and sought to make his acquaintance. He proposed that Owen should join him as chaplain in the army, with immediate effect, since Cromwell was intending to depart for Ireland. Naturally Owen was reluctant because of his pastoral charge at Coggeshall, but Cromwell was adamant. Taking the advice of certain ministers whom he consulted, Owen was eventually constrained to prepare himself for the voyage.

Owen took his responsibility seriously. The army was disciplined to spend its time in Scripture reading, the singing of Psalms and in religious conferences.

After his release to resume his pastoral duties, Owen was later summoned to attend on the Commander-general as minister, together with Joseph Caryl. Reluctantly torn away from his studious toils to the camp, Owen complied; being convinced that, after all, the ministry was not an ivory tower experience.

Cromwell marched on to Scotland. Edinburgh’s pulpits were in the hands of Cromwell’s preachers. Owen broke the bread of life to the multitude in old St. Giles’. Jealousy melted into wonder, and wonder into obedience to the gospel. As soon as Scotland was under the sway of the Commonwealth, Owen was permitted to return to his books and his tranquil pastorate in Essex.

Reforming the University

Being himself Chancellor of Oxford University, Cromwell nominated Owen as Vice-Chancellor, placing him at the head of the ancient seat of learning. In this post Owen was responsible for the general government of the university.

He found the university on the very brink of ruin by the civil wars. And yet none but he was the right man for the right place. A contemporary describes him as “of universal affability, ready presence and discourse, liberal, graceful, and courteous demeanour, that speak him certainly (whatsoever he be else) one that was more a gentleman than most of the clergy.”

His inaugural address to the heads of colleges laid out his plan for the future. It was no mere dignified language: he proposed that tolerant spirit into his administration which he insistently commended in the days of his suffering. He lived up to his promise: for instance, it is known that a group of Episcopalians used to meet every Lord’s Day over against his own door to worship according to the forms of the liturgy, though the laws at that period put it in Owen’s power to disperse the assembly.

Relying on the God of all grace he faced the challenge before him. “Trusting, therefore, in his graciously promised presence, according to the state of the times, and the opportunity which, through divine Providence, we have obtained, -- conscious integrity alone supplying the place of arts and of all embellishments -- without either a depressed or servile spirit, I address myself to this undertaking.”

There he served for ten years until such time as he was driven out by the new persecuting measures of the restored monarchy.

Supporter of Christian unity

In 1653 Owen was once more engaged in preaching before Parliament. In the midst of these engagements, Cromwell invited him, together with a number of other ministers -- Presbyterian, Independent, and Baptist -- to hold a conference on Christian unity. Apparently too much was attempted and no practical measures resulted. But at least it showed the willingness and earnest desire of the leaders to confer together and recognize each other as brethren in the same family.

Baxter, Howe and Owen were all champions of unity and of the advance of Christian love. Baxter wrote: “While we wrangle here in the dark, we are dying, and passing to the world that will decide all our controversies; and the safest passage thither is by a peaceable holiness.” Howe was of kindred spirit, and in this vein wrote his essay On Union among Protestants and On the Carnality of Religious Contentions. Owen shared the same ideals and laboured with tongue and pen to motivate towards a greater expression of unity. He was wise enough to picture denominational differences in their right proportion, neither disregarding them nor blowing them up. Two of his early works, The Duty of Pastors and People Distinguished and Eshcol: or, Rule for Church Fellowship deal with this important theme.

Owen’s major contribution, together with the efforts of other Puritans, was in expounding in their writings the major principles on which true and lasting unity can be accomplished. In their mind unity, love and sound doctrine do not repel each other; they are complementary and must be found together at all times.

Owen fought on two fronts: on one hand he had to maintain a ministry of warning to his brethren against the inroads of Popery, and on the other hand heroically holding to the ideal of unity among brethren. He longed to see the ranks of the true church of Christ marching on to victory, with all alienations and divisions healed or at least placed in their proper perspective and reduced to their true magnitude. He wanted the Protestant denominations to cultivate a spirit of mutual confiding so as to be prepared in their resistance to their common enemy.

Nevertheless he was still convinced of the necessity and duty of separation from the Episcopal Church. Engaged in controversy with Stillingfleet he produced one of his best apologies of Nonconformity, entitled, A Brief Vindication of Nonconformists from the Charge of Schism, as it was managed against them in a Sermon by Dr Stillingfleet. Still, he was convinced that evangelicals, whose faith is embedded in Scripture alone, have a solemn duty to “keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” In this respect he produced such studies as Union among Protestant, a work expressing this generous intent and desire.

Owen the theologian

The main heritage we enjoy from Dr. John Owen today is undoubtedly that of his theological contribution. It could be fairly claimed that, together with John Calvin and Jonathan Edwards, John Owen forms the trio of theological giants in the Reformed church.

The volume of his works, by itself, apart from the quality of its contents, is simply astounding, when it is kept in mind how Owen was continually engaged in pastoral engagements and even in statesmanship. During his intensely active life of 67 years, his productions strike us as incredible.

One reason why his works are not sought after today as much as they deserve is the style in which they were written. “There is no denying that Owen is heaving and hard to read. This is not so much due to obscure arrangement as to two other factors. The first is his lumbering literary gait....The second obscuring factor is Owen’s austerity as an expositor....He obviously carries the whole of his design in his head, and expects his readers to do the same.”

With proper self-discipline, though, the reader can discover a gold mine in Owen’s opus. “I owe more, I think, to John Owen than to any other theologian, ancient or modern.” The heresies that agitated the church of Owen’s day are still troubling us today: he dealt with the Arminian, the Socinian, the Popish, and the Episcopalian. And in the discharge of his pastoral duties he applied his vast learning, with understanding, to these aberrations from apostolic doctrine and produced masterpieces on the themes on which they treat. He goes through the subject in all its dimensions, leaving hardly anything unconsidered. In his polemics he used to read virtually all the works that had been written on the subject, especially by opponents, and then faithfully bringing the light of Scripture to bear upon the elucidation and establishment of the theme.

Abiding in the Doctrine

Owen should be all the more appreciated for his theological conservatism. As the siren call of heresy tempts to draw away men’s ears and hearts from the truth, Owen is found a stalwart in defence of Reformed theology, as it was brought to light by the continental Reformers and polished all the more by the Puritan divines. All sorts of extravagant opinions marked Owen’s age, but he showed no disposition to change. His writings are consistent, and reflect to a great extent the Faith as delivered to the saints once for all.

In fact his great aim was the thorough reformation of the church, going back to the grass-roots. To quote David Gay’s remarks: “Since disorders and corruptions come in the best of churches, we must be ever reforming ourselves. A church that is not reforming in the sense of going back to Scripture is no church at all. As John Owen puts it: ‘I know of no other reformation of any church, or anything in a church, but the reducing of it to its primitive institution, and the order allotted to it by Jesus Christ...And when any society or combination of not capable of such a reduction and renovation...I profess I cannot look on such a society as a church of Christ.’”

As a man of God and a minister to His covenant people, Owen bravely aimed to achieve such a God-honouring reformation. This being so there was no room in his theological system to play with novelties or engage in idle speculation. His aim was to expound the unsearchable riches of Christ as deposited within the pages of Holy Writ, no more and no less.

His reverence and submission to the ultimate authority of Scripture gave an indelible imprint to all his ministrations and printed works. He was convinced of Sola Scriptura, and with this principle in mind he travelled over the ample field of special revelation, but restrained himself from passing beyond it, taking heed of the bounds set by Scripture itself.

Writing with a pastoral heart

Whatever he wrote was not cold or clinical: it is apparent that the truth which he expounds had already wrought mightily in his own heart (This is especially evident in his Exposition of the 130th Psalm and The Mortification of Sin). In these volumes we find him insisting on the sine qua non of every Christian to deal valiantly and effectively with their sinful tendencies and attitudes. Through His Word and Spirit, God has provided the guidelines and the power for this objective to be achieved. Engaging in self-scrutiny, while avoiding self-absorption, is marked out as a solemn duty of every Christian. And all along, Owen the pastor provides principles to assist believers in perfecting holiness in the fear of God.

J.I.Packer, having learned from Owen after severe spiritual disillusionment, testifies: “I spoke earlier of how Owen saved my spiritual sanity. I do in fact think, after fifty years, that Owen has contributed more than anyone else to make me as much of a moral, spiritual and theological realist as I have so far become. He searched me to the root of my being. He taught me the nature of sin, the need to fight it, and the method of doing so. He made me see the importance of the thoughts of the heart in one’s spiritual life. He made clear to me the real nature of the Holy Spirit’s ministry in and to the believer, and of spiritual growth and progress, and of faith’s victory. He showed me how to understand myself as a Christian and live before God humbly and honestly, without pretending either to be what I am not or not to be what I am.”

Owen is able to feed us because of his vast learning, which enabled to trace opinions to their true source. The ignorant are often dazzled by sensational discoveries which to the learned are nothing but old errors rehashed and re-presented in a different garb. Owen is matchless in his ability to expose error, convict the gain-sayers and explode their vain arguments.

The Prince of the Puritans, as Owen has been called, was gifted to bring the various doctrines of the Faith, even the most difficult, to bear upon our nature. He knows how to address the mind, the will and the affections in the light of the Christian faith. He supplies both motive and consolation from the truth of the gospel. In his polemical works his aim is to dispel intellectual darkness; in his devotional works his purpose is to bring the truth into contact with the corruption and deceitfulness of the human heart, thus clearing away moral darkness. In one way or another he deals holistically with man and shows what an all-sufficient Saviour is Christ Jesus our Lord.

An all-encompassing doctrine

The devout Calvinism of Owen’s cast of thought shows through in his works. With Luther, for instance, the initial need is man in need of being “in the right” with God; with Baxter, Owen’s contemporary, it is man in need of restoration: their system is anthropological. But with Owen the all-pervasive thought is the majesty and supremacy of God in all his dealings with fallen man. Owen presents God to our contemplation, who in eternity past devised a scheme of salvation through the Appointed Mediator, which He unfolded in the prophetic Scriptures, in making arrangements and provisions from age to age of the world. The glorious results were to continue to be enjoyed when God shall be all in all. Such a grand manifestation lent comprehensiveness and a sense of the sublime to Owen’s whole theology, such as it most uplifting for the reader.

“John Owen is associated almost wholly with Puritan theology. Dowered with an aptitude for exact system, he mapped out the Calvinistic inheritance with distinct and unwavering lines. Never have covenants and decrees had a more stalwart defender against all Arminian heresy. But stern and uncompromising as was his creed, his temper is said to have been equable and gentle.”

Further studies

While engaged in public and church life, Dr. Owen still continued to publish such dissertations as answered to the needs of the hour, which remain, however, monumental works for the benefit of the catholic church. His abstruse Latin volume entitled Diatriba de Divina Justitia deals with the question whether God could forgive sin without Christ’s atonement.

Socinians were of the opinion that salvation could be attained by man’s efforts without the sacrifice of Calvary. Sad to say, even some high Calvinists -- Dr. Twisse and Samuel Rutherford among others -- were wavering on this question. Grieved in his heart, Owen was not reluctant to not only discuss but also write “on the vindicatory justice of God, and the necessity of its exercise on the supposition of the existence of sin.” Forgiveness without atonement, based wholly on God’s sovereign will, to the disregard of His justice and righteousness, fed poison to the gospel. Owen was convinced that his principle “struck its roots deep through almost the whole of theology.”

The following year, 1654, Owen gave us the fruit of his studies on a cardinal evangelical truth. The full title is as impressive as the contents: “The Doctrine of the Saints’ Perseverance Explained and Confirmed; or, the certain permanency of their acceptation with God and sanctification from God manifested and proved, from the eternal principles, the effectual causes, and the external means thereof, in the immutability of the nature, decrees, covenant, and promises of God; the oblation and intercession of Jesus Christ; the promises, exhortations and threats of the Gospel; improved in its genuine tendency to obedience and consolation.”

The treatise is a reply to the Arminian author John Goodwin, who was indeed exceptional as a controversialist but convicted by Owen’s work as destitute of a good cause. Adhering strictly to the wisdom of Scripture, without having recourse to philosophical disputations, Owen once again won the battlefield. Earlier, in referring to Scripture he addressed his audience as follows: “It is oftentimes more effectual in its own liberty, than when strained to our methods of arguing; and the weapons of it keener in their own soft breathings, than when sharpened in the forge of Aristotle.”

Among other commotions, Biddle’s catechisms, giving vogue to the grave errors of Socinianism, drew the attention of the Council of State. It gave orders to Dr. Owen to defend the Faith; impelled by a sense of duty the scholar forged the weapons in a work of seven hundred quarto pages -- the Vindiciae Evangelicae (1655). In it he contrasts the major points of controversy between the Socinian and the Calvinist and shows how and why the latter is Scriptural. He includes in his examination the Racovian Catechism, the best-known publication of the Socinians on the Continent, once more indulging his appetite for comprehensiveness in anything he touches upon.

He takes notice of the Socinians’ objection to the use of terms not found in Scripture, such as “Trinity.” His reply is confounding: “Though such terms may not be of absolute necessity to express the things themselves to the minds of believers, they may yet be necessary to defend the truth from the opposition and craft of seducers.”

The cure of souls

On the Mortification of Sin in Believers, published the year following, is a book of a different nature. Owen always emphasized that the doctrine the church contends for must be her daily food and meditation. In this is her safety, for the battle is not merely intellectual. Our own steadfastness, Owen shows us, lies in our secret communion with God, taking delight in the truth He is pleased to illuminate our hearts with. The Gospel is a life power, and as such, “his divine power hath given unto us all things that pertain unto life and godliness, through the knowledge of him that hath called us to glory and virtue.” Owen leads us by the hand to teach us what is practically involved in our struggle against indwelling sin. Actually the book is the substance of a series of sermons he had previously preached on Romans 8:13: “If ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live.” It is nothing else but a great illustration of the gospel method of sanctification, a theme in which the Puritans showed their true colours. Dr. Owen is the experienced physician, applying the medicine to the healing of the soul. In so doing, he gives an indelible impression that he himself is maintaining secret intercourse with the eternal and thrice-holy God.

He dispels false notions about mortification: “To mortify sin is not utterly to kill it, root it out and destroy it, that it should have no more hold at all, nor residence in our hearts. It is true this is that which is aimed at, but this is not in this life to be accomplished....I think I need not say, it is not the dissimulation of a sin....The mortification of sin consists not in the improvement of a quiet, sedate nature....A sin is not mortified which it is only diverted....Occasional conquests of sin do not amount to mortifying it....These and many other ways there are whereby poor souls deceive themselves, and suppose they have mortified their lusts, when they live and are mighty, and on every occasion break forth to their disturbance and disquietness.”

Turning to a positive note Owen tells us what is involved in the mortification of sin: it is “an habitual weakening of it.” It consists “in constant fighting and contending against sin....Mortification consists in success: frequent success against any lust is another part and evidence of mortification.”

Owen proceeds by giving his reader “General rules and principles, without which no sin will ever be mortified....First: Unless a man be a believer, that is, one that is truly ingrafted into Christ, he can never mortify any one sin.” The second principle which I shall propose to this purpose is this: Without sincerity and diligence in the universality of obedience, there is no mortification of any one perplexing lust to be obtained.” Furthermore: “Get a clear and abiding sense upon thy mind and conscience, first, of the guilt, secondly, of the danger, thirdly, of the evil, of that sin wherewith thou art perplexed.”And so he proceeds, giving sound biblical directions, answering queries, objections and excuses in the Pauline manner. Owen is on the opposite extreme of those prophets against whom the Lord complains: “They have healed also the hurt of the daughter of my people slightly, saying, Peace, peace; when there is no peace.”

Similar in scope is his work on Temptation, masterly in its treatment and most beneficial for the Christian reader. Once again Owen proves himself to be a theologian/pastor par excellence. As is required of God’s stewards he “brings the doctrines of theology to bear on the wants and principles of our moral nature.” The reader is left with the impression that the medicine afforded is just for him, appropriate and timely.

In 1668 there appeared another treatise on Christian experience: On the Nature, Power, Deceit, and Prevalence of Indwelling Sin in Believers. The title promises much; the contents do not disappoint. “There is no treatise of its learned and pious author more fitted to be useful to the Christian disciple; and that it is most important to be instructed on this subject by one who had reached such lofty attainments in holiness, and whose profound and experimental acquaintance with the spiritual life so well fitted him for expounding its nature and operations.” In tackling such a course, “Prepare for the knife.”

Owen experienced the Gospel’s power and as such was well qualified to teach others. “A man preacheth that sermon only well unto others which preacheth itself in his own soul.” He approached the subject with fear and trembling, knowing the solemnity of the matter. “I hold myself bound in conscience and in honour, not even to imagine that I have attained a proper knowledge of any one article of truth, much less to publish it, unless through the Holy Spirit I have had such a taste of it, in its spiritual sense, that I may be able, from the heart, to say with the psalmist, ‘I have believed, and therefore have I spoken.’”

A zealous promoter of true spirituality

Owen’s spiritual attainments matched his intellectual gifts -- a fine balance rarely found. In his funeral sermon, David Clarkson rightly said of him: “Holiness gave a divine lustre to his other accomplishments, it stirred in his whole course, and was diffused throughout his conversation.”

Owen presents the Christian as a man, a fallen man, and a redeemed man. In his understanding the mature Christian is the man whose sacrifice to God is “a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise;” He takes God’s perspective on our sanctification seriously: “To this man will I look, even to him that is poor and of a contrite spirit, and trembleth at my word.”

With good reason then, for Owen the healthy disciple is one who denies himself: “Constant self-abasement, condemnation, and abhorrency, is another duty that is directly opposed unto the...rule of sin in the soul. No frame of mind is a better antidote against the poison of sin...It is the soil wherein all grace will thrive and flourish. A constant due sense of sin as sin, of our interest therein by nature, and in the course of our lives, with a continual afflictive remembrance of...instances of the soul’s best posture.”

The Christian is a partaker of the Covenant and so is redeemed and regenerated. “They know nothing of the life and power of the gospel, nothing of the reality of the grace of God, nor do they believe aright one article of the Christian faith, whose hearts are not sensible of the love of Christ therein. Nor is he sensible of the love of Christ, whose affections are not therein drawn out unto him, I say, they make a pageant of religion...whose hearts are not really affected with the love of Christ, in the susception and discharge of the word of mediation, so as to have real and spiritually sensible affections for him.”

Though continually exhorting towards “holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord,”Owen was no believer in sinless perfection. He was too much of a realist to fall into such a snare. “Sometimes a soul thinks or hopes that it may through grace be utterly free from this troublesome inmate. Upon some secret enjoyment of God, some full supply of grace, some return from wandering, some deep affliction, some thorough humiliation, the poor soul begins to hope that it shall now be freed from the law of sin. But after a while...sin acts again, makes good its old station.”

Owen devoted a whole treatise to that comprehensive reality of Christian experience: fellowship with God, which is the heartbeat of all Puritan theology and religious studies. The work, entitled Of Communion with God the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, each person distinctly, in love, grace and consolation; or, the Saint’s Fellowship with the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, unfolded, first appeared in 1657.

In Owen’s mind this communion consisted in mutual interchange between the Creator and man, the creature, with the initiative and sustaining power residing in God. In this sense this koinonia is a relationship in which the redeemed receive love from the Triune God and naturally respond in kind. “We love him, because he first loved us.” As it develops and matures it becomes a sanctified friendship “in that pattern of communion with Jesus Christ which we have in the Canticles.”

One of his last treatises was the heart-searching The Grace and Duty of being Spiritually-minded. In its Introductory Essay Owen writes: “…the world is at present in a mighty hurry, and being in many places cast off from all foundations of steadfastness, it makes the minds of men giddy with its revolutions, or disorderly in the expectations of them….Hence, men walk and talk, as if the world were al, when comparatively it is nothing.” And furthermore: “…it would almost appear indispensable that the spiritual life should be nourished in solitude; and that, afar from the din, and the broil, and the tumult of ordinary life, the candidate for heaven should give himself up to the discipline of prayer and of constant watchfulness.”

Owen as Legislator

Owen’s versatility and breath of spirit troubles us today when we have somehow concluded that a Christian is to be secluded from current affairs. Cromwell had given notice for a new election after the dissolution of the Long Parliament in the end of 1653. Oxford University had the privilege of returning one member to this Parliament. Dr. Owen was elected. He did not express any unwillingness to accept this new office; he took his seat in the House and continued to sit until the committee of privileges declared his election annulled, the reason given was that he was a religious minister.

His detractors make every attempt here to discredit Dr. Owen, and even his friends are disinclined to defend his political conduct...forgetting, or wilfully disregarding the fact that great men of God, such as Joseph, Daniel and even Moses were intimately involved in the political life of their society. Since all of the Christian’s life is holy -- consecrated to the service of God -- there can be no valid reason for excluding him from statesmanship. Only those who consider ministerial ordination as a mysterious and indissoluble spell, and are awed by the Romish fantasy of “Once a priest, always a priest,” will not consider the possibility that emergencies may arise in when even a Christian minister may merge the pastor in the legislator. This he not only may, but is accountable to do, for the sake of accomplishing the highest amount of good. It is only one other way of being “the salt of the earth.”

At this time Dr. Owen also formed part of a committee to examine pastoral applicants, upon the invitation of Cromwell. The commission’s task was to examine candidates for ordination; later on, its power included the ejection of ministers and schoolmasters of heretical doctrines and scandalous life.

Cromwell was full of commendation for the labours of the commissioners. Before his second Parliament he reports: “There hath not been such a service in England since the Christian religion was perfect in England; I dare be bold to say it.” Baxter too gives his evaluation: “The truth is, though some few over-rigid and over-busy Independents among them were too severe against all that were Arminians...yet to give them their due, they did abundance of good in the church. They saved many a congregation from ignorant, ungodly, drunken teachers...and in their stead admitted of any that were able, serious preachers, and lived a godly life....”

A change of affairs was soon to displace Owen from his ministry at the university. A Parliament majority proposed to crown Cromwell king, and when the latter did not express any aversion to the motion, Owen began to suspect a tumorous growth that might lead to a new tyranny. Together with Colonel Desborough, Fleetwood, and the majority of the army, Owen drew up a petition against the movement. It actually defeated the measure; Cromwell declined the honour.

But by this bold step it soon became evident that Owen was far estranged from the affection of Cromwell. In 1657 Dr Owen was displaced from the Vice-Chancellorship of Oxford. The manner in which he resigned is a fine example of Christian humility; there was no bitterness, but only a gentlemanly appreciation of Dr Conant, a Presbyterian and rector of Exeter College, who was nominated to take his place. “I congratulate myself on a successor who can relieve me of this burden...I seek again my old labours, my usual watchings, my interrupted studies. As for you, gentlemen of the university, may you be happy, and fare you well.”

During these hard events Dr. Owen showed how he had learned, in the school of Christ his Lord, “both how to abound, and how to be abased.” With the apostle, his mentor, he could confess: “I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me.”

In reviewing his political activities, Andrew Thomson correctly observes: “We should form a very imperfect estimate of the character of Dr Owen, and of the beneficient influence which he exerted, did we not advert to his greatness as a man of affairs. In this respect we need have no hesitation in asserting his superiority to all the Puritans.

“Attached from principle to that great party whose noble mission it was to assert and to vindicate the rights of conscience and freedom of worship, he soon rose to be its chief adviser on all occasions of great practical exigency.”

The Savoy Confession of Faith

Indeed Dr Owen’s labours were far from being over. His retirement from the University was a seasonable relief from the excess of public engagement. But as he sought the welfare of the church, Owen could not rest.

We soon find him in a most important, and as it turned out, historical transaction. A good number of ministers and delegates -- more than two hundred -- from the Independent churches met together in answer to Cromwell’s summons. The purpose was to draw up a Confession of Faith since the Independents had flourished during the Protectorate.

The result was what is today known as the Savoy Confession of Faith, which bears a strong resemblance to the somewhat earlier Westminster Confession, owned by the Presbyterians. The only significant difference is its statements on church order. Owen was entrusted with the writing of the Preface, in which his magnanimous heart and Christian vision shines forth. “The differences,” he says, “between Presbyterians and Independents are differences between fellow-servants.” And furthermore: “Churches consisting of persons sound in the faith and of good conversation, ought not to refuse communion with each other, though they walk not in all things according to the same rule of church order.”

Increased literary output

Cromwell’s death brought tremendous changes in England, leaving no stalwart successor such as he was. The subsequent Restoration meant for Owen and his fellow-Puritans a retirement from public affairs and the beginning of persecution, which eventually led to the Great Ejection of 1662. The Act of Uniformity silenced the vast majority of the nation’s evangelical preachers: 2000 of them were ejected from the national church on the 24th of August, referred to by the lovers of truth as “Black Bartholomew’s Day.”

It was because of these changes that Owen’s literary output increased. What he was restricted to do in his lifetime he left to all posterity in his printed works. Thus it came about that he unquestionably influenced later Protestant Nonconformity, not only in unashamedly upholding distinctively Calvinistic doctrines but also in important matters as church order and worship.

A Brief Instruction in the Worship of God and Discipline in the Church of the New Testament, by way of question and answer is one such piece of literature, which also led to proposals for union between the Independents and Presbyterians (though the negotiations eventually came to nothing substantial).

More admirable is his Discourse concerning Liturgies and their Imposition, in which are laid out the lasting differences between the High Churchman and the Puritan.

Strictly biblical studies were not wanting. In 1668 Owen published three of his best works. In addition to Indwelling Sin (to which reference has already been made) Owen bequeathed to the church his fine Exposition of the 130th Psalm, once again a book replete with heavenly wisdom from the heart of “one who spake as he knew, and testified what he had seen.”

His greatest work, though, is probably the Exposition of the Epistle to the Hebrews, published in four volumes, the last one posthumously. It is indeed a towering commentary on a pivotal epistle in the New Testament. Owen opens for us an autobiographical window for all prospective students of Holy Writ. In the Preface he writes: “But yet I must now say that, after all my searching and reading, prayer and assiduous meditation have been my only resort, and by far the most useful means of light and assistance. By these have my thoughts been freed from many an entanglement into which the writings of others had cast me or from which they could not deliver me. Careful I had been, as of my life and soul, to bring no prejudicate sense to the words, to impose no meaning of my own or other men’s upon them, nor to be imposed on by the reasonings, pretences or curiosities of any; but always went nakedly to the Word itself, to learn humbly the mind of God in it, and to express it as he should enable me.”

Owen considered it his magnum opus; upon finishing it, he cried out: “Now, my work is done; it is time for me to die.” Dr Chalmers speaks highly of it: “It is a work of gigantic strength as well as gigantic size; and he who hath mastered it is very little short, both in respect to the doctrinal and the practical of Christianity, of being an erudite and accomplished theologian.”

Defensor Fidei

A much more dangerous threat than internal disagreements within Protestantism was the constant and persistent attempts of Romanists to win Protestants to their counterfeit religion. One of these Romanist apologists in Owen’s day was a Franciscan friar by the name of John Vincent Cane, who had published a book entitled Fiat Lux. Under the guise of love he invites outsiders to join the Roman church. Within her fold lay the secret of maintaining the catholic faith without division and dissention.

Owen was disturbed by the pernicious nature of the work. In setting himself the task of exposing its false premises he produced his Animadversions on Fiat Lux, by a Protestant. The sophistries and cunning purposes of the friar were all exposed and answered biblically.

Other works of a similar nature yet followed, such as The Church of Rome no Safe Guide, and An Account of the Protestant Religion.

Conclusion of a brilliant career

The excitement of a most eventful life made itself evident on Owen’s physique. It was becoming all the more obvious that his gospel ministry was drawing to a close. Severe and persistent study, with its wearing effects, was taking its toll on the man of God. Asthma afflicted him without relief and eventually rendered him unfit for preaching. In addition, stone (a frequent and tormenting malady of intellectuals in those days) gave warning of its presence.

In a letter to his friend Charles Fleetwood, on the day before his death, Owen writes: “…I am going to him whom my soul has loved, or rather who has loved me with an everlasting love - which is the whole ground of my consolation.” His sense of his own worthlessness, compared with his matchless Master, is given expression in the same correspondence: “…I am leaving the ship of the church in a storm; but whilst the great Pilot is in it, the loss of a poor under-rower will be inconsiderable.”

Thus he was promoted to glory, on the twenty-fourth of August, 1683, the anniversary of St Bartholomew’s Day, a memorable day in the annals of the church. His mortal remains, awaiting the Resurrection at the Last Day, in which he believed, were laid down in Bunhill fields, the Puritan necropolis.

In considering the conquests of Owen’s life, one of his biographers affirms that among the Puritans, he is at least “first among equals.” “But let the question be, Who among all the Puritans was the most remarkable for his intimate and profound acquaintance with the truths of revelation? Who could shed the greatest amount of light upon a selected portion of the Word of God, discovering its hidden riches, unfolding its connections and harmonies, and bringing the most abstruse doctrines of revelation to bear upon the conduct and the life? Who was the ‘interpreter, one amongst a thousand?’ Or let other excellences that we are about to specify be chosen as the standard, and will not the name of Dr Owen, in this case, obtain an unhesitating and unanimous suffrage?”

Protestantism is the argument of Christianity. Puritanism is the feeling of Protestantism. Owen is a fine epitome of both.


The following books have been read or consulted in the preparation of the essay:

The Holy Bible (Authorized Version).

Owen, John. The Mortification of Sin. Ross-shire, Scotland. Christian Focus Publications Ltd. 1996.

Owen, John. The Death of Death in the Death of Christ. London. The Banner of Truth. 1959.

Owen, John. The Holy Spirit: His gifts and power. Michigan, USA. Kregel Publications. 1977.

Owen, John. The Grace and Duty of Being Spiritually Minded. Grand Rapids, USA. Baker Book House. 1977.

Owen, John. Apostasy from the Gospel. Edinburgh. The Banner of Truth Trust. 1992.

Owen, John. The Glory of Christ. Edinburgh. The Banner of Truth Trust. 1994.

Owen, John. Communion with God. Edinburgh. The Banner of Truth Trust. 1991.

Thomas, I.D.E. A Puritan Golden Treasury. Edinburgh. The Banner of Truth Trust. 1977.

Thomson, Andrew. John Owen: the Prince of the Puritans. Ross-shire. Christian Focus Publications. 1996.

Packer,J.I. Among God’s Giants. Eastbourne. Kingsway Publications. 1991.

Lewis, Peter. The Genius of Puritanism. Morgan, PA, USA. Soli Deo Gloria Publications. 1977.

Murray, Iain (compiled by). Sermons of the Great Ejection. London. The Banner of Truth. 1962.

Gay, David. Battle for the church 1517-1644. Lowestoft, UK. Brachus. 1997.

Sheldon, Henry, C. History of the Christian Church (5 vols.). Massachusetts, USA. Hendrickson. 1988.

Several papers published by The Westminster Conference.