John Owen

 

 

 Meditations and Discourses on the Glory of Christ,

in His Person, Office, and Grace:

with

The Differences between Faith and Sight;

applied unto the use of them that believe.

____________

 

  BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH


TO MOST CHRISTIANS in our country, though the word Puritan brings up certain images in their minds and generally is accompanied by a sense of gratitude for this noble band of courageous and holy men, so many of whom endured great hardships for conscience’ sake, yet the writings of the Puritans are today, except for a few students working in that area of the history of the Church, almost unread, or, for that matter, practically unseen. The exceptions, of course, are the perennially fresh volumes of John Bunyan, The Holy War, Pilgrim’s Progress, and Grace Abounding, and Richard Baxter’s The Saints’ Everlasting Rest. However, the most learned of all these Puritans, and one who exercised a vast influence over the theology of all England, and whose writings proved a mine of inexhaustible treasure for two centuries thereafter, is almost unknown today, even by name, to the great body of Christians in our own country. In fact, as far as the editor of this volume knows, this is the first time any work of this great Puritan divine has been published in its entirety for ninety years! I refer to John Owen, Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University, Dean of Christ Church, Oxford, and author of some of the most learned, finished theological works, loyal to Christ and to the Holy Scriptures that have been produced since the Reformation, called by Alexander Whyte, "the most massive of the Puritan divines."

John Owen was born in 1616, in the town of Stadham in Oxfordshire, the son of Henry Owen, vicar of Stadham. The son who was to bring such great renown not only to his family, but to the whole church of Christ in the seventeenth century, matriculated at Queen’s College, Oxford, November 4, 1631, at the age, you will note, of fifteen. At Oxford, he was privileged to have as his tutor the famous Thomas Barlow (1607—1691), later Bishop of Lincoln, author of a number of profound works in the metaphysical aspects of theology and Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity at Oxford for some years, whose Directions to a Young Divine for His Study of Divinity and Choice of Books may still be read with great profit. Owen, though only a boy, says one of his biographers, "devoted himself to the various branches of learning with an intensity that would have unhinged most minds and broken in pieces any bodily constitution except the most robust. For several years of his university curriculum he allowed himself only four hours of the night for sleep, though he had the wisdom so far to counteract the injurious influence of sedentary habits and excessive mental toil, by having recourse to bodily recreation in some of its most robust forms. Still, the hours which are taken from needful rest are not redeemed, but borrowed, and must be paid back with double interest in future life; and Owen, when he began to feel his iron frame required to pay the penalty of his youthful enthusiasm, was accustomed to declare that he would willingly part with all the learning he had accumulated by such means, if he might but recover the health which he had lost in the gaining of it."

While Owen was at Oxford, Archbishop Laud began to introduce radical changes in the university which Owen himself could not conscientiously observe, and he felt compelled to leave, though he graduated with a bachelor of arts degree in June, 1632, and proceeded to get his master of arts in April, 1635.

He left the university with a marvelous knowledge of the classics, a perfect command of Latin and Greek, an amazing accumulation of rabbinical lore, and a thorough knowledge of Hebrew, together with an ample familiarity with the principles of mathematics and philosophy, with particular emphasis on theology. Leaving the university in 1637 because of Laud’s innovations, he became private chaplain to two nobles of the land and, at the outbreak of the civil war, removed to Charter House Yard, London.

It was here that he underwent an experience of great spiritual distress, from which he was delivered in a most remarkable way. Though he had no doubt as to the great doctrines of the faith, he had not at this time entered into an abiding peace in his own soul. One Sunday morning, Owen went to Aldermanbury Chapel to hear the great Dr. Edmund Calamy, who was at this time attracting great crowds by his eloquent preaching. Owen felt a twinge of disappointment when he saw an unknown stranger entering the pulpit. "His companion suggested that they should leave the chapel, and hasten to the place of worship of another celebrated preacher; but Owen’s strength being already exhausted, he determined to remain. After a prayer of simple earnestness, the text was announced in these words, ‘Why are ye fearful, O ye of little faith?’ (Matt. 8:26)." Immediately Owen knew the Lord had led him to this particular place of worship and had brought this stranger to the pulpit that morning, and he sent up a prayer to his heavenly Father asking that his needs might be ministered to as the text was unfolded. The prayer was heard, and by the time the discourse was ended, a peace that was never to leave him had entered into his heart. Owen was unable in later years to discover the name of the preacher whose message had brought such blessing to him that morning—which reminds us of a similar incident in the life of Charles Spurgeon, who was converted one winter morning in an obscure chapel in London while hearing a clergyman speak on "Look unto me and be ye saved," for Spurgeon in later years was likewise unable to discover the name of the man who preached that morning. It was at this time, 1642, that Owen published his first composition on which he had no doubt been working for some time, The Display of Arminianism. This was the beginning of a long series of controversial, theological, exegetical, and devotional works that, when brought together after his death in a uniform edition, filled twenty-six volumes, none of which were of a trivial or superficial nature. (The British Museum catalogue devotes thirteen columns to Owen’s writings).

For a short period of time, while still in his twenties, Owen served as pastor of the church at Fordham; but on the death of the true incumbent, who had been relieved of his duties because of a scandalous matter, Owen was ejected by the patron, and by order of the House of Lords was assigned to the neighboring vicarage of Coggeshall. Now thirty years of age, his mind was undergoing some radical changes regarding church government. He had come to the conclusion that the congregational system of government was, of all systems of church government then prevailing, modeled the most closely upon New Testament principles, and wrote vigorously to defend his position. He had been preceded at Coggeshall by a succession of faithful ministers, and found here everything suitable to his temperament. He was soon surrounded by a congregation of nearly two thousand people. It was at this time that he renounced presbytery and became closely identified with Independent clergymen and their churches. All the time he was at Coggeshall he was producing extensive polemic tracts, and laying the foundation for the massive works in theology that were to follow later.

His growing fame can be somewhat judged by the fact that as early as 1649 he preached before Parliament (at thirty-two years of age), on the day following the execution of Charles I. His sermon was founded on the text, "Therefore thus saith Jehovah, If thou return, then will I bring thee again, that thou mayest stand before me; and if thou take forth the precious from the vile, thou shalt be as my mouth: they shall return unto thee, but thou shalt not return unto them. And I will make thee unto this people a fortified brazen wall; and they shall fight against thee, but they shall not prevail against thee; for I am with thee to save thee and to deliver thee, saith Jehovah" (Jer. 15:19, 20). It was at this time that he became acquainted with the greatest man of that hour, Oliver Cromwell, who heard Owen preach on April 19, 1649. Meeting the divine on the following day at the house of General Fairfax, he said to him, putting his hands upon his shoulders, "Sir, you are the person I must be acquainted with." Taking Owen by the hand, he led him into the garden, and divulging his intention soon to depart for Ireland, he pressed upon him an invitation to become his chaplain. Owen objected, but Cromwell insisted, and Owen went. In fact, he went twice with the army, once to Ireland and once to Scotland. With his experiences as chaplain to Cromwell we need not further tarry.

Perhaps at this point a word should be said regarding his appearance. A contemporary, Dodwell, wrote, "His personage was proper and comely, and he had a very graceful behaviour in the pulpit, an eloquent elocution, a winning and insinuating deportment, and could, by the persuasion of his oratory, in conjunction with some other outward advantages, move and wind the affections of his auditory almost as he pleased." Accounts that have come down to us would indicate that he dressed fastidiously, which comes as quite a surprise when one considers his passion for study, and his absolute devotion to learned pursuits.

Owen’s friendship with Cromwell led to his being appointed the Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University, in 1652, a position of great power and influence which he was to retain until 1658. It will not be out of place if here we allow the great Puritan to speak to us, as he spoke to the authorities at Oxford, upon finally accepting the invitation to this high office:

I am well aware, gentlemen of the university, of the grief you must feel that, after so many venerable names, reverend persons, depositaries and preceptors of the arts and sciences, the fates of the university should have at last placed him as leader of the company who almost closes the rear. Neither, indeed, is the state of our affairs, of whatever kind it be, very agreeable to myself, since I am compelled to regard my return, after a long absence, to my beloved mother as a prelude to the duties of a laborious and difficult situation. But complaints are not remedies of any misfortune. Whatever their misfortune, groans become not grave and honourable men. It is the part of an undaunted mind boldly to bear up under a heavy burden. For, as the comic poet says—

"The life of man
is like a game at tables. If the cast
Which is most necessary be not thrown,
That which chance sends, you must correct by art."

The academic vessel, too long, alas! tossed by storms, being almost entirely abandoned by all whose more advanced age, longer experience, and well-earned literary titles, excited great and just expectations, I have been called upon, by the partiality and too good opinion of him whose commands we must not gainsay, and with whom the most earnest entreaties to be excused were urged in vain, and also by the consenting suffrage of this senate; and there, although there is perhaps no one more unfit, I approach the helm. In what times, what manners, what diversities of opinion (dissensions and calumnies everywhere raging in consequence of party spirit), what bitter passions and provocations, what pride and malice, our academical authority has occurred, I both know and lament. Nor is it only the character of the age that distracts us, but another calamity to our literary establishment, which is daily become more conspicuous—the contempt, namely, of the sacred authority of law, and of reverence due to our ancestors; the watchful envy of Malignants; the despised tears and sobs of our almost dying mother, the university (with the eternal loss of the class of gownsmen, and the no small hazard of the whole institution); and the detestable audacity and licentiousness, manifestly Epicurean beyond all the bounds of modesty and piety, in which, alas! too many of the students indulge. Am I, then, able, in this tottering state of all things, to apply a remedy to this complication of difficulties in which so many and so great heroes have, in the most favourable times, laboured in vain? I am not, gentlemen, so self-sufficient. Were I to act the part of one so impertinently disposed to flatter himself, nay, were the slightest thought of such a nature to enter my mind, I should be quite displeased with myself. I live nor so far from home, nor am such a stranger to myself, I use not my eyes so much in the manner of witches, as not to know well how scantily I am furnished with learning, prudence, authority, and wisdom. Antiquity hath celebrated Lucullus as a prodigy in nature, who, though unacquainted with even the duty of a common soldier, became without any difficulty an expert general, so that the man whom the city sent out inexperienced in fighting, him the army received a complete master of the art of war. Be of good courage, gentlemen. I bring no prodigies; from the obscurity of a rural situation, from the din of arms, from Journeys for the sake of the gospel into the most distant parts of the island, and also beyond sea, from the bustle of the court, I have retreated unskilful in the government of the university; unskilful, also, I am come hither.

Oxford University at this time had fallen to a very low state. High scholarship on the part of most had been given up, gross immorality prevailed among many of the students, a spirit of lawlessness and recklessness had settled upon these learned halls, and Owen set himself courageously to rectify this situation. In the few years he served as vice-chancellor, the whole atmosphere of the university was altered. A spirit of dignity, a new respect for scholarship prevailed again, lawbreakers were disciplined, rowdies were dismissed, and the entire university knew that a man of great strength of character, vast learning, and holy living, was at the head of this noted seat of learning. Owen at the same time was made Dean of St. Mary’s Church at Oxford, where he frequently preached sermons such as Oxford had not heard for a long time, and which brought a new respect for the discourses delivered in that sanctuary on the Lord’s Day.

Owen parted company with Cromwell himself, when the Protector seemed to be willing to acquiesce in the conviction of the majority of Parliament to bestow upon him the crown and title of king. "Up to this time he had continued to be, of all the ministers of his times, the most frequently invited to preach on those great occasions of public state which it was usual in those days to grace with a religious service. But when, soon after this occurrence, Cromwell was inaugurated into his office as Protector, at Westminster Hall, with all the pomp and splendour of a coronation, those who were accustomed to watch how the winds of political favour blew, observed that Lockyer and Dr. Manton were the divines who officiated at the august ceremonial; and that Owen was not even there as an invited guest. This was significant, and the decisive step soon followed. On the third of July Cromwell resigned the office of chancellor of the university; on the eighteenth day of the same month, his son Richard was appointed his successor; and six weeks afterwards Dr. Owen was displaced from the vice-chancellorship, and Dr. Conant, a Presbyterian, and rector of Exeter College, nominated in his stead."

In 1673, Owen accepted the pastorate of an independent congregation in Leadenhall Street, London (Mark Lane Church), where he poured out a series of writings against the encroaching power of Rome and the rapidly developing influence of rationalism. Dr. R. W. Dale, historian of Congregationalism, informs us that in this church Owen had only 171 members. [Young man, it is possible to do great work for God, abiding work, even if you are, in His will, laboring in a very small congregation. Ed.] In 1658, Cromwell consented to the summoning of an Assembly of Congregational Elders for the drawing up of a confession. The Assembly convoked as a Synod on Wednesday, September 29, in the chapel of the Old Palace of Savoy; but by the time the Synod was gathered together, Cromwell had died. Some two hundred delegates from a hundred and twenty congregations took part in these deliberations, and concluded their work in eleven days, excluding two Sundays. Goodwin was there, Nye, Greenhill, Owen, and many others, some of whom had been members of the more famous Westminster Assembly. The Savoy Confession was unanimously adopted, carrying the title, Declaration of the Faith and Order Owned and Practiced in the Congregational Churches of England. The immediate unanimity obtained led to the statement that the Confession "is to be looked at as a great and special work of the Holy Ghost—that so numerous a company of ministers and other principal brethren should so readily, speedily, and jointly give up themselves into such a whole body of truths that are after godliness."

We must now briefly say a word about two or three of the more important writings of the Puritan divine, one of which forms the substance of this volume. In Owen’s preface to his Claims of Vindicatory Justice Exerted (in which he sets forth the thesis that God, as the moral Governor of the universe, could not forgive sin without an atonement, found only in the sacrifice of Christ), there is an indication of an experience which he and many other great students of divinity and the Holy Scriptures have had, by the grace of God, in moments of rare spiritual exaltation: "Those points which dwell in more intimate recesses, and approach nearer its immense fountain, the Father of light, darting brighter rays by their excess of light, present a confounding darkness to the minds of the greatest men, and are as darkness to the eyes breaking forth amidst so great light. For what we call darkness in divine subjects is nothing else than their celestial glory and splendour striking on the weak ball of our eyes, the rays of which we are not able in this life, which is but a vapour and shineth but a little, to bear."

Owen wrote one great exegetical work, The Exposition of the Epistle to the Hebrews, the first volume of which appeared in 1672; the fourth, and last, was published after his death, in 1684. These four folio volumes were later published as seven volumes of smaller size. The great Scotch divine of a later century, Thomas Chalmers, called this "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." The greatest work ever written on the Holy Spirit, with every line of which we would not necessarily agree, was called Pneumatologia, or, A Discourse Concerning the Holy Spirit, published in two folio volumes in 1676. May I be allowed to say here that a young minister would confer upon himself the greatest favor, enrich his own thinking, and have the finest treasures for his people week by week, if he would devote himself for a whole year to the careful reading, studying, and pondering of this profound work on one of the greatest themes that can ever occupy the mind of redeemed men. One work of Owen’s, written in Latin, has never been fully translated, and yet in some ways it is the most remarkable work of its kind written during the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries, Theologoumena Pantodapa, an encyclopedic survey of the whole field of the history of religion, natural and revealed, from the creation of man to the Reformation.

It was in the village of Ealing, where Owen possessed an estate, that after a long and very painful illness, suffering from both gallstones and asthma, he died, on St. Bartholomew’s Day, August 24, 1683, somewhat short of the three score years and ten. In this seclusion he had been writing the last volume that was to come from his pen, which is the one we are reprinting in the work of which these pages form a preface. Though in great pain, his conversation was lofty and filled with hope. To those about him he said, "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 all my consolation. I am leaving the ship of the Church in a storm, but while the Great Pilot is in it the loss of a poor under-rower will be inconsiderable. Live and pray, and hope and wait patiently, and do not despond: the promise stands invincible that He will never leave us nor forsake us."

As the first sheet of his last book was passing through the press, he said to Mr. Payne, an eminent Dissenter minister who superintended the publication of the volume, "O Brother Payne, the long wished-for day is come at last in which I shall see that glory in another manner than I have ever done or was capable of doing in this world." On the very day before he died, he wrote an exquisite letter, to his beloved friend Charles Fleetwood, which may well be reprinted here as a preface, one might say, for the consideration of the lofty thoughts which came from the heart and mind of Owen which are now to unfold before us:

Dear Sir,

Although I am not able to write one word myself, yet I am very desirous to speak one word more to you in this world, and do it by the hand of my wife. The continuance of your entire kindness, knowing what it is accompanied withal, is not only greatly valued by me, but will be a refreshment to me, as it is, even in my dying hour. 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 all my consolation. The passage is very irksome and wearisome, through strong pains of various sorts, which are all issued in an intermitting fever. All things were provided to carry me to London today, according to the advice of my physicians; but we are all disappointed by my utter disability to undertake the journey. 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. Live, and pray, and hope, and wait patiently, and do not despond; the promise stands invincible, that He will never leave us, nor forsake us. I am greatly afflicted at the distempers of your dear lady; the good Lord stand by her, and support and deliver her. My affectionate respects to her, and the rest of your relations, who are so dear to me in the Lord. Remember your dying friend with all fervency. I rest upon it that you do so, and am yours entirely.


Meditations and Discourses on the Glory of Christ finds its source of inspiration in the closing words of the high priestly prayer of our Lord, "Father, I will that they also, whom thou hast given me, be with me where I am; that they may behold my glory, which thou hast given me: for thou lovedst me before the foundation of the world" (John 17:24). In the Preface, Owen well says, "If our future blessedness shall consist in being where He is and beholding of His glory, what better preparation can there be for it than in the constant previous contemplation of that glory in the revelation that is made in the gospel, unto this very end that by a view of it we may be gradually transformed into the same glory." In the first chapter he goes so far as to say: "No man shall ever behold the glory of Christ by sight hereafter who doth not in some measure behold it by faith here in this world. . . . No man ought to look for anything in heaven but what one way or other he hath some experience of in this life."

Even in Owen’s day, his language was considered rugged, occasionally tedious, and his sentences sometimes monotonously analytical. In our twentieth century, when we have everything written for us with such smoothness, transparency, and simplicity that we become provoked if we come upon something difficult to comprehend; when we listen to so much premasticated — often predigested — material over the radio, and are so devoted to newspapers and popular magazines, and to the stimulation of superficial Christian literature, I am frank to admit that Christians will find the reading of this book a real discipline of mind, for it will tax one’s best thinking powers. This work should be read slowly; and upon these richly-studded pages one should meditate, feed upon them, thoroughly understand each sentence before proceeding to the next. Of all the books that will ever be published in the Wycliffe Series, this is the one that probably will demand the most from the reader. Do not give up in reading it. It will repay one s closest attention even if it takes a year to reach the end. We seldom hear people talk today about beholding the glory of the Lord Jesus. We seldom hear messages on meditation, and too seldom do we practice this holy art ourselves. People seem to have a horror of being alone for ten minutes, and appear almost incapable of closing the closet door, as our Lord admonished us in the Sermon on the Mount, and thinking quietly, without interruption, upon the infinite glories of the Lord Jesus Christ. Even Owen complained, "It is to be lamented that men can find time for and have inclinations to think and meditate on other things, it may be earthly and vain, but have neither heart nor inclination, nor leisure, to meditate on this glorious object: what is the faith and love which such men profess?"

With all of his learning, his great fame, his knowledge of the classics and all the important theological literature that had ever been written, in the last year of his life the beholding the glory of Christ was, as he said, "the greatest privilege which on this side heaven we can be partakers of. There are such revelations of the person and glory of Christ treasured up in the Scriptures from the beginning unto the end of it as may exercise the faith and contemplation of believers in this world, and shall never during this life be fully discovered or understood; and in divine meditations of these revelations doth much of the life of faith consist. . . . This is the glory of the Scripture, that it is the great, yea, the only outward means of representing unto us the glory of Christ; and as the sun in the firmament of it, which only hath light in itself, and communicates it unto all other things besides."


BIBLIOGRAPHICAL NOTE

Meditations and Discourses on the Glory of Christ was first published, in London, in 1696; a second edition followed, in 1717; another in 1764. Toward the close of that century (1790) an edition was issued in Glasgow, followed shortly (1792) by one in Sheffield. The last time this work was separately published, as far as I have been able to ascertain, was at London, 1830 (?). Owen’s complete works were first issued under the editorship of T. Russell, in 28 volumes, London, 1826; and later, edited by W. H. Goold, in 24 volumes, London, 1850—55, from which the seven-volume work on Hebrews was omitted.

For the biographical and bibliographical data used in the preceding pages I am indebted to the following:

  1. W. Orme: Memoirs of the Life, Writings and Religious Convictions of J. Owen. London, 1820.
  2. A. Thomson, "Life of Dr. Owen," in Works of John Owen, D.D., ed. by Wm. H. Gould. Vol. I. Philadelphia, 1862, pp. XXI-CXII.
  3. G. M. Rigg, "John Owen," in Dictionary of National Biography. Vol. XIV. New York, 1909, pp. 1318—1322.
  4. R. W. Dale: History of English Congregationalism. London, 1907.
  5. There is a very interesting "Introductory Sketch" in The Golden Book of John Owen, chosen and edited by James Moffatt, London, 1904, pp. 1—98.

WILBUR M. SMITH

APRIL, 1949




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