John Owen (1616—1683) is considered by many to be the greatest of the Puritan theologians. He was an English pastor, chaplain and adviser to Oliver Cromwell, and the vice-chancellor of Oxford University. Perhaps his greatest and best-known work is The Death of Death in the Death of Christ.
John Owen was born just outside of Oxford to a Puritan family. His father, Henry, was a Puritan minister. His father educated John until John went to school about the age of ten. He then entered Oxford University and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 1632 and a master’s degree in 1635 at the age of 19. Latin was the language of academia, and Owen was almost as fluent in Latin as in English.
John Owen had planned to continue studies for the ministry at Oxford, but as the political tides changed, Oxford became unfriendly to Puritans, and King Charles I forbade the discussion of Calvinist doctrines. So, Owen left and became a tutor and family chaplain to several different families and then moved to London. Soon after, he began pastoral ministry and started writing theological works. As he gained some repute, he was invited to preach before Parliament. (At this time the English civil war was underway, with forces loyal to King Charles battling the forces loyal to Parliament and their Puritan leader Oliver Cromwell.)
Owen took more speaking engagements and became somewhat of a public figure. Upon a chance encounter with Oliver Cromwell, he was invited to become Cromwell’s chaplain and adviser. Owen accepted. In the course of events, Parliament executed King Charles, and Cromwell became the “Lord Protector” of England. Puritanism reigned supreme in England, at least for a while. Some have criticized Owen for his political involvement; however, there is evidence that he advocated for mercy for the defeated forces of King Charles and that he was unafraid to speak truth to Cromwell as well—a fact that eventually led to a cooling of their friendship.
John Owen became the pastor of Christ Church in Oxford and was appointed by Cromwell to be vice-chancellor of the University of Oxford. At the end of the civil war, Oxford had been much deserted, but under Owen’s leadership it was rejuvenated and once again began to flourish.
After Cromwell’s death and his son’s failure to live up to the leadership standard set by his father, Parliament re-instituted the monarchy and installed Charles II as king in place of his father. The authority of the Church of England was reasserted, and laws were passed to prevent Nonconformists such as Owen from holding positions within the church (which resulted in the expulsion of about 2,000 ministers). Nonconformist meetings were outlawed.
John Owen left Oxford and retired to his home but continued to minister to groups of believers as he could, although his actions were illegal. He was offered a pastorate in Colonial Boston but declined, choosing to suffer with his believing countrymen in England. Although he was never arrested or imprisoned himself, he ministered to and advocated for those who had been imprisoned, at great risk to his own freedom. John Bunyan was one of those whom Owen helped, and Bunyan and Owen became good friends. During the last years of his life, Owen was too sick to preach, but he continued to publish books and minister to a small group of believers as he was able.
John Owen’s books are still in print and available today in individual volumes, in several different publications of multi-volume “complete works,” and online. In keeping with seventeenth-century practice, the titles of his books were meant to be a straightforward summary of the contents. Here is a sampling of the titles that reveal what concerned and consumed John Owen:
(1648) The Death of Death in the Death of Christ
(1652) Christ’s Kingdom and the Magistrate’s Power: A Sermon
(1653) Dissertation on Divine Justice
(1654) Doctrine of the Saints’ Perseverance Explained and Confirmed
(1655) Mystery of the Gospel Vindicated
(1656) God’s Presence with His People: A Sermon
(1656) Mortification of Sin in Believers
(1657) Communion with God the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost
(1658) Temptation: The Nature and Power of It
(1667) Brief Instruction in the Worship of God
(1667) Indulgence and Toleration Considered
(1667) Indwelling Sin in Believers
(1669) Vindication of the Doctrine of the Trinity
(1670) Account of the Grounds and Reasons on Which Protestant Dissenters Desire Liberty
(1672) Discourse Concerning Evangelical Love, Church-Peace, and Unity
(1674) Discourse on the Holy Spirit
(1676) Nature and Causes of Apostasy
(1677) Doctrine of Justification by Faith
(1678) Causes, Ways, and Means of Understanding the Mind of God
(1678) Person of Christ
(1679) Church of Rome No Safe Guide
(1680) Nonconformity Vindicated
(1680) Some Consideration of Union Among Protestants
(1681) Humble Testimony unto the Goodness and Severity of God
(1682) Brief and Impartial Account of the Protestant Religion
(1682) Discourse of the Work of the Holy Spirit in Prayer
In his book The Trinitarian Devotion of John Owen Sinclair Ferguson distills John Owen’s theological emphases into three principles:
1. God is Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We can never fully understand God but we can see His glory and get to know Him enough to love Him.
2. If you are a Christian, it is because of the loving thought and action of each Person of the Trinity.
3. The greatest privilege that we can have is to enjoy communion with the Triune God.
Here are some quotations from John Owen’s works:
“A minister may fill his pews, his communion roll, the mouths of the public, but what that minister is on his knees in secret before God Almighty, that he is and no more.”
“Steadfastness in believing doth not exclude all temptations from without. When we say a tree is firmly rooted, we do not say the wind never blows upon it.”
“Be killing sin or it will be killing you.”
“Christ is the meat, the bread, the food of our souls. Nothing is in him of a higher spiritual nourishment than his love, which we should always desire.”
“The greatest sorrow and burden you can lay upon the Father, the greatest unkindness you can do to Him is not to believe that He loves you.”