Sunday, 23 February 2014

The greatest gift of a Christian leader to his people is his own personal holiness – a reflection on John Owen

If you have not yet discovered John Piper’s biographies then I heartily recommend them. They can all be downloaded free of charge from the Desiring God website and are great for car or train journeys, walks and runs. 

I’ve just listened again today, during a long run, to John Piper’s biography on John Owen, ‘The Chief Design of My Life: Mortification and Universal Holiness’.

John Owen (1616 – 1683) was an English Nonconformist church leader, theologian, and academic administrator at the University of Oxford. 

He was also briefly a member of parliament for the University, sitting in the First Protectorate Parliament of 1654 to 1655 under Oliver Cromwell.

He also chaired the committee which in 1658 drew up the Savoy Declaration, the statement of faith that became the foundation document for the Congregational Churches. So Owen takes me right back to my childhood roots.

His influence on subsequent church leaders has been immense and yet most people today—even pastors and theologians—don't know much about him. 

Owen was born in England in 1616, the same year that William Shakespeare died and four years before the Pilgrims set sail for New England. This is virtually in the middle of the great Puritan century (roughly 1560 to 1660).

Puritanism was at heart a spiritual movement, passionately concerned with God and godliness. It began in England with William Tyndale the Bible translator, Luther's contemporary, and was essentially a movement for church reform, pastoral renewal and evangelism, and spiritual revival.

Owen was born in the middle of this movement and became its greatest pastor-theologian as the movement ended almost simultaneously with his death in 1683. He was also responsible for the publication of John Bunyan’s ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’, the best-selling book in history outside the Bible.

Piper’s whole study is worthy of careful study (or listening) but I was particularly struck today by his comments on Owen’s guiding passion, his quest for personal holiness. The following notes are abridged from Piper.

The words of Owen which come closest to giving us the heart and aim of his life are found in the preface to the little book: Of the Mortification of Sin in Believers which was based on sermons that he preached to the students and academic community at Oxford:

‘I hope I may own in sincerity that my heart's desire unto God, and the chief design of my life ... 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 Saviour Jesus Christ may be adorned in all things.’

Even in his political messages—the sermons to Parliament—the theme was repeatedly holiness. He based this on the Old Testament patter— that ‘the people of Israel were at the height of their fortunes when their leaders were godly’. So the key issue for him was that the legislature be made up of holy people.

This humility opened Owen's soul to the greatest visions of Christ in the Scriptures. And he believed with all his heart the truth of 2 Corinthians 3:18 that by contemplating the glory of Christ ‘we may be gradually transformed into the same glory’. And that is nothing other than holiness.

Owen grew in knowledge of God by obeying what he knew already. In other words Owen recognized that holiness was not merely the goal of all true learning; it is also the means of more true learning. 

This elevated holiness even higher in his life: it was the aim of his life and, in large measure, the means of getting there.

Thus Owen kept the streams of the fountain of truth open by making personal obedience the effect of all that he learned, and the means of more. Owen passionately pursued a personal communion with God.

J I Packer says that the Puritans differ from evangelicals today because with them:

‘ ... communion with God was a great thing, to evangelicals today it is a comparatively small  thing. The Puritans were concerned about communion with God in a way that we are not. The measure of our unconcern is the little that we say about it. When Christians meet, they talk to each other about their Christian work and Christian interests, their Christian acquaintances, the state of the churches, and the problems of theology—but rarely of their daily experience of God.’ 

From Owen’s writings, and from the testimony of others, it seems fair to say that the aim of personal holiness in all of life, and the mortifying of all known sin really was the labour not only of his teaching but of his own personal life.

This was the conviction that controlled him:

A man preacheth that sermon only well unto others which preacheth itself in his own soul. And he that doth not feed on and thrive in the digestion of the food which he provides for others will scarce make it savoury unto them; yea, he knows not but the food he hath provided may be poison, unless he have really tasted of it himself. If the word do not dwell with power in us, it will not pass with power from us .’


  1. I didn't keep much Protestant literature when I became a Catholic, but the works of John Owen are amongst those items I can't conceive of dispensing with.
    Owen on holiness in a nutshell: feed the new man, starve the old man.


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