Posts Tagged ‘John Owen’
After a cracking day on Monday at the Evangelical Library in London on “Reading John Owen” (opening, it has to be said, with Nigel Graham giving what may be one of the finest popular introductions to the life of Owen that it has been my privilege to hear – lively, careful, engaging, insightful) I want to do more reading and re-reading of John Owen. I was reminded, by my own efforts and those of others, why I do and may and must enjoy the privilege of reading such profound theology.
One of the works that piqued my fancy afresh was Owen on The Grace and Duty of Being Spiritually-Minded (in volume 7 of the collected works). This was in Robert Strivens’ section of the works, and what prompted me to turn there again was the warning that preachers, accustomed to handling and speaking God’s Word, can develop a facade of spirituality which masks a spiritual dryness. Conscious that one can do much apparent working for God without much genuine walking with God, I thought it would be good to dip again into this work.
Re-reading can be as fascinating as reading. I am sometimes struck by what struck me the first time, or what failed to strike. The passage of time and the expansion of experience makes one wish, perhaps, that one could be as freshly excited as one was before, and one must learn to be more deeply excited than one was. Or, perhaps, some things have simply become more relevant because of the reader’s different circumstances while reading. On this occasion, I was struck by something in the preface to the work.
Owen, as you may know, had been unwell before preaching and preparing this material. He was so sick that not only was he unable to serve others, but he feared he might be taken by death and never able to serve again. Under such circumstances, he began to meditate on the grace and duty of spiritual-mindedness from Romans 8.6, where the apostle says that “to be carnally minded is death, but to be spiritually minded is life and peace.” Later, Owen took the fruit of his sickbed meditations and turned them into sermons. “And this I did,” he says,
partly out of a sense of the advantage I had received myself by being conversant in them, and partly from an apprehension that the duties directed and pressed unto in the whole discourse wore seasonable, from all sorts of present circumstances, to be declared and urged on the minds and consciences of professors: for, leaving others unto the choice of their own methods and designs, I acknowledge that those are the two things whereby I regulate my work in the whole course of my ministry. (7:263)
I am, I confess, sometimes amused by the homiletical handbooks that pass for pastoral theology in our day. Some of the guidance given for the preparation of sermons seems entirely out of touch with the life of local churches. I am amused when I hear the big cheeses of the evangelical world assure congregations that they prepare their sermons, or perhaps know what they will be preaching on on any given Sunday, a year or so in advance. As the pastor of a small congregation, preaching and teaching several times a week, that seems to me to be ludicrous, even dangerous. I do not think I could do that even if I were in circumstances that seemed to allow it.
Please do not misunderstand me. I am not suggesting that pastors preach on a whim or without a plan. I am not against systematic, sequential expository preaching. But I do wonder how much even Owen’s aside might teach us here. This work of his springs from what I would call a topical expository series. But how did Owen come to it? And why did he choose to preach it?
He has those two answers: first, because it did much good to his own soul when he had considered it for himself; and, second, because he perceived that the same truths which had helped him would, with the blessing of God, prove a timely and profitable study for other believers under his care.
However, he goes on to confess that those two principles are the “things whereby I regulate my work in the whole course of my ministry.” That, in itself, is fascinating. Here is the great theologian and the profound scholar, sitting down as a pastor of God’s people, and asking, first and foremost, what has blessed me, and will it bless others also?
If you are a preacher and teacher, however far you are willing and able to plan ahead, do such considerations have a place in your own preparation? Are you so soaking in God’s truth that you can assess what has been of particular blessing to your own soul? Are you so attuned to and concerned for the saints that you can discern what would prove particularly timely and profitable for them? Are you visiting the congregation regularly and getting to know their lives and their needs so as to be able to make such a judgment? Are you prayerfully thinking of the particular congregation before whom you will stand, converted and unconverted, more and less mature, more or less wounded and wearied, more or less hale and hearty? Are you willing to put in the effort to invest in such ministry? Are you willing to get off the treadmill of your regular or scheduled course of exposition, perhaps to plough fields that would otherwise have remained unbroken, to invest in hours of composition that you had not scheduled into your work patterns? Are you improving your own studies and sufferings to this end?
Such an approach might require that you prepare far in advance a particular course of systematic and sequential exposition, compelled by the fact that this book or section of Scripture will serve those to whom you preach. It might keep you from changing to other, apparently easier or more palatable potions of the Bible, held fast by a sense of responsibility. It might demand that you drop such a long course of sermons and preach for a few weeks on a particular portion of God’s Word. It might compel you to preach a single sermon on a single text. It might prompt you to develop what you thought was a one-off into a shorter or longer series. Again, it is no excuse for a pastor-preacher simply riding his hobby-horses to death. You will note that Owen does not manipulate his hearers by the claim that the Spirit imposed the duty upon him, though I do not think anyone can fail to see the hand of God at work in the matter. This is a man who is sensitive to the truth, sensitive to the operations of the Spirit of God, sensitive to the circumstances and needs of the saints, sensitive to the spirit of the age, sensitive to the demands of a particular place and people, and deeply concerned to be a means of blessing to those to whom he speaks.
This, I would suggest, is pastoral preaching of the highest order – ministry of God’s truth that flows from the heart of a true shepherd of souls, a man who has drunk deeply of the sweet waters of the gospel, and is persuaded from the depths of his being that others need to taste and see that the Lord is good, and to obtain the blessing designed for those who trust in him.
The Westminster Conference will take place later this year, God willing, in central London at Regent Hall on Oxford Street. As usual, there are two days of lectures and discussion, Tuesday 8th and Wednesday 9th December. The outline for the two days is below, and the brochure can be downloaded to obtain the booking form. More information can be found at the conference website.
Sin and sanctification in John Owen (Sinclair Ferguson ~ Elder at St. Peter’s Free Church, Dundee). John Owen is one of the monumental figures of the seventeenth century. His profound scriptural sensitivity to sin and understanding of sanctification form some of the deepest currents of his work both as a theologian and as a pastor. This paper will explore these complementary and contradictory elements of Christian experience through the lens of Owen’s wrestling with the issues.
“On the side of God”: Andrew Fuller’s pastoral theology (Jeremy Walker ~ Pastor of Maidenbower Baptist Church, Crawley). Andrew Fuller is recognised as a theologian and for his friendship with and support of William Carey. However, these labours cannot be divorced from his principles and practices as a pastor and a preacher. This was his primary calling. It informed and was expressed in everything else in which he was involved. This paper will draw together some of the convictions recorded, conclusions reached and counsels expressed by Andrew Fuller in the realm of pastoral theology.
The atonement and evangelistic preaching in John Owen (David Pfeiffer ~ Minister of Cheltenham Evangelical Free Church). Apparent tensions between convictions about the definite extent of the atonement joined with commitments to the freeness of the gospel offer are perennial issues in Christ’s church. Few men have contended for the former more effectively than John Owen and his works breathe a lively and transparent concern that lost men should trust in the only Saviour of sinners. David Pfeiffer will help us to see these elements of Owen’s labour in healthy parallel.
Erasmus and the Greek New Testament (Peter Hallihan ~ retired from pastoral ministry; Editorial Consultant for TBS). Erasmus of Rotterdam (1469–1536) was the genius sometimes described as the prince of the humanists. Perhaps his most enduring contribution to learning and religion was his edition of the Greek New Testament of 1516, which became the basis of most vernacular translations of the Scriptures for the next three centuries. Peter Hallihan will give us insights into the man and his work, tracing some of his influences and influence.
Jonathan Edwards and the religious affections (Paul Helm ~ formerly Professor of the History and Philosophy of Religion, King’s College, London). The name of Jonathan Edwards, together with select elements of his theology, have become more prominent in the thinking and practice of Reformed evangelicals in recent years. Ready reference is made to well-known but not always well-understood works such as Edwards’ study of the religious affections. Paul Helm will take a fresh look at this book, emphasising its setting and its sources, helping us grasp the substance and application of Edwards’ work.
Isaac Watts and the gift of prayer (Benedict Bird ~ ThM Student and Greek Teacher at London Theological Seminary). Best known for his hymnody, Isaac Watts was also an influential theologian. He considered prayer to be not only a duty but a precious privilege, and he wrote to assist the saints in learning to pray. He showed that prayer is a gift, but one that can be developed. Prayer is not always high on the agenda in the church of Christ, and not often developed to a high degree when it is. In his Guide to Prayer, Watts directs us still to cultivate “this holy skill of conversation with God.”
At the recent “The Call” Conference, I was preaching on the shepherd’s concern for his own soul. For the main thrust of that address – the need for elders to take heed to their own souls if they are to be truly profitable in serving God and men – I had a number of quotes from the great and the good, as well as a number of examples, which – for the sake of time – I was obliged to leave out. However, for those who are interested, here are the quotes I had at my disposal (I think I used about two or three during the sermon). Here is the truth of Scripture confirmed by men of God.
John Bunyan (describing the true pastor): “It had eyes lifted up to heaven, the best of books in his hand, the law of truth was written upon its lips, the world was behind its back; it stood as if it pleaded with men, and a crown of gold did hang over its head.”
Wilhelmus à Brakel: “He must have the heart of a preacher; that is, he must stand in awe of the God in whose Name he preaches, and with love seek the welfare of the souls to whom he preaches. He must know himself to be entirely undone in himself and have a lively impression of his own inability, so that he will not trust too much in having studied properly. He ought to pray much beforehand, not so much to get through the sermon, but for a sanctified heart, for a continual sense of the presence of God, for suitable expressions, and for a blessing upon his preaching to the conversion, comfort, and edification of souls. His concern ought not to be whether the congregation will be pleased with him and will praise the sermon, but his motive must rather be a love for the welfare of the congregation.” (The Christian’s Reasonable Service, 2:138)
William Arnot: “The more that the teacher absorbs for himself of Christ’s love, the more benefit will others obtain from him. . . . Those who drink in most of the Master’s spirit are most useful in the world. Those who first take heed to themselves will be most effective in caring for the spiritual weal of those who look up to them.” (Studies in Acts, 380)
Charles Bridges: “Upon the whole, therefore, our personal character must be admitted to have weighty influence upon our Ministrations. ‘Simplicity and godly sincerity,’ disinterestedness, humility, and general integrity of profession – are an ‘epistle known and read of all men.’ Indeed character is power. The lack of it must therefore blast our success, by bringing the genuineness of our own religion, and the practical efficacy of the Gospel, under suspicion. Apart also from the natural effect of our public consistency, there is also a secret but penetrating influence diffused by the habitual exercise of our principles. Who will deny, that – had he been a more spiritual Christian – he would probably have been a more useful Minister? Will not he, who is most fervent and abundant in secret prayer, most constant in his studies, most imbued with his Master’s spirit, most single in his object, most upright and persevering in the pursuit of it – be most honoured in his work? For is not he likely to be filled with an extraordinary unction? Will not he speak most ‘of the abundance of his heart?’ And will not his flock ‘take knowledge of him,’ as living in the presence of his God; and ‘receive him’ in his pastoral visits and pulpit addresses, ‘as an angel of God – even as Christ Jesus?’” (The Christian Ministry, 164-165)
John Owen: “Sundry things are required unto this work and duty of pastoral preaching; as, . . . . (2.) Experience of the power of the truth which they preach in and upon their own souls. Without this they will themselves be lifeless and heartless in their own work, and their labour for the most part will be unprofitable towards others. It is, to such men, attended unto as a task for their advantage, or as that which carries some satisfaction in it from ostentation and supposed reputation wherewith it is accompanied. But 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. And no man lives in a more woful condition than those who really believe not themselves what they persuade others to believe continually. The want of this experience of the power of gospel truth on their own souls is that which gives us so many lifeless, sapless orations, quaint in words and dead as to power, instead of preaching the gospel in the demonstration of the Spirit. And let any say what they please, it is evident that some men’s preaching, as well as others’ not-preaching, hath lost the credit of their ministry.” (The True Nature of a Gospel Church, 76)
Robert Murray M’Cheyne: “. . . do not forget the culture of the inner man, – I mean of the heart. How diligently the cavalry officer keeps his sabre clean and sharp; every stain he rubs off with the greatest care. Remember you are God’s sword, – His instrument, – I trust a chosen vessel unto Him to bear His name. In great measure, according to the purity and perfection of the instrument, will be the success. It is not great talents God blesses so much as likeness to Jesus. A holy minister is an awful weapon in the hand of God.” (To the Rev. Dan Edwards, in Memoir and Remains, 282)
Attr. Robert Murray M’Cheyne: “My people’s greatest need is my personal holiness.”
Robert Traill: “What use the Lord may make of the gifts (for great gifts he gives to the worst of men) of ungodly men, even in the ministry of the gospel, is one of his deep paths. But no man can reasonably imagine, that a walker in the way to hell can be a fit and useful guide to them that mind to go to heaven. If a man would have peace in his conscience, and success in his work of the ministry, let him take good heed to this, that he be a sound Christian. . . . It is found by experience, that as it fares with a minister in the frame of his heart, and thriving of the work of God in his soul, so doth it fare with his ministry both in its vigour and effects. A carnal frame, a dead heart, and a loose walk, make cold and unprofitable preaching. And how common is it for ministers to neglect their own vineyard? . . . Your work is full of danger, full of duty, and full of mercy, You are called to the winning of souls; an employment near a-kin unto our Lord’s work, the saving of souls; and the nearer your spirits be in conformity to his holy temper and frame, the fitter you are for, and the more fruitful you shall be in your work.” (Works, 1:239, 241, 250)
Charles H. Spurgeon: “Moreover, when a preacher is poor in grace, any lasting good which may be the result of his ministry, will usually be feeble and utterly out of proportion with what might have been expected. Much sowing will be followed by little reaping; the interest upon the talents will be inappreciably small. In two of three of the battles which were lost in the late American war, the result is said to have been due to the bad gunpowder which was served out by certain ‘shoddy’ contractors to the army, so that the due effect of a cannonade was not produced. So it may be with us. We may miss our mark, lose our end and aim, and waste. our time, through not possessing true vital force within ourselves, or not possessing it in such a degree that God could consistently bless us. Beware of being ‘shoddy’ preachers. . . . Recollect, as ministers, that your whole life, your whole pastoral life especially, will be affected by the vigour of your piety. If your zeal grows dull, you will not pray well in the pulpit; you will pray worse in the family, and worst in the study alone. When your soul becomes lean, your hearers, without knowing how or why, will find that your prayers in public have little savour for them; they will feel your barrenness, perhaps, before you perceive it yourself. Your discourses will next betray your declension. You may utter as well chosen words, and as fitly-ordered sentences, as aforetime; but there will be a perceptible loss of spiritual force. You will shake yourselves as at other times, even as Samson did, but you will find that your great strength has departed. In your daily communion with your people, they will not be slow to mark the all-pervading decline of your graces. Sharp eyes will see the grey hairs here and there long before you do. Let a man be afflicted with a disease of the heart, and all evils are wrapped up in that one stomach, lungs, viscera, muscles, and nerves will all suffer; and so, let a man have his heart weakened in spiritual things, and very soon his entire life will feel the withering influence. Moreover, as the result of your own decline, everyone of your hearers will suffer more or less; the vigorous amongst them will overcome the depressing tendency, but the weaker sort will be seriously damaged. It is with us and our hearers as it is with watches and the public clock; if our watch be wrong, very few will be misled by it but ourselves; but if the Horse Guards or Greenwich Observatory should go amiss, half London would lose its reckoning. So is it with the minister; he is the parish-clock, many take their time from him, and if he be incorrect, then they all go wrongly, more or less, and he is in great measure accountable for all the sin which he occasions.” (Lectures to my Students, 3, 10)
Thomas Murphy: “It is beyond all question that this eminent piety is before everything else in preparation for the duties of the sacred office. It is before talents, or learning, or study, or favorable circumstances, or skill in working, or power in sermonizing. It is needed to give character and tone and strength to all these, and to every other part of the work. Without this elevated spirituality nothing else will be of much account in producing a permanent and satisfactory ministry. All else will be like erecting a building without a foundation. This is the true foundation upon which to build – the idea which is to give character to all the superstructure. Oh that at the very beginning this could be deeply impressed upon the hearts of young ministers! Oh that they would take and weigh well the testimony of the most devoted and successful of those who have served God in his gospel! A man with this high tone of piety is sure to be a good pastor; without it success in the holy office is not to be expected.” (Pastoral Theology, 38)
I need not tell you of this who knew him, that it was his great Design to promote Holiness in the Life and Exercise of it among you.
So said David Clarkson, but of whom? Who, it is suggested, focused all his understanding, all his learning, all his labour to this end? Find out here.
To preach the word, therefore, and not to follow it with constant and fervent prayer for its success, is to disbelieve its use, neglect its end, and to cast away the seed of the gospel at random.
John Owen, Works, 16:78
Pray, preach, pray, ad infinitum.
I have been listening to the latest Connected Kingdom podcast from “the odd couple,” David Murray and Tim Challies. I was intrigued to hear them discussing the fall-out from Rob Bell’s new book, and asking whether or not the wider church really believes in hell anyway. Surely, they reason, if we really believed in hell we would be doing more to take the gospel to the lost?
Over the last few days I have been putting the finishing touches to the manuscript of what I hope will be my next book, with the working title The Broken-Hearted Evangelist. I finally submitted that manuscript to the publisher yesterday, and – though I have no idea how long it will be before it is available – it is intended, at least in part, to address the issue of a right response to the realities of judgement and salvation.
As a taster, here is the draft preface of the current manuscript. Not sure how much of it will survive the editing process, but hopefully it will give a sense of the nature and scope and direction of the book. I will keep you posted on progress, God willing.
There is nothing that more glorifies God than the accomplishment of His saving purposes in His Son, Jesus Christ. Do you know and believe that? There is nothing more important to a man than the destiny of his immortal soul. Do you know and believe that? There is a heaven to be gained and there is a hell from which to flee, and our relationship to the Lord Jesus is the difference between the two. Do you know and believe that? Only those who repent of their sins and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ will be saved. Do you know and believe that? The saints of God are sent by God into the world in order to preach that gospel by which sinners are saved. Do you know and believe that?
It is easy to answer such questions with a gutless orthodoxy. Lively faith in Christ grasps spiritual realities in a way that galvanizes the believer. All truth – whether of God’s grace to us or of our duty to God – bears fruit in us only insofar as we are connected to Christ by faith. This being so, says John Owen,
he alone understands divine truth who doeth it: John vii.17. There is not, therefore, any one text of Scripture which presseth our duty unto God, that we can so understand as to perform that duty in an acceptable manner, without an actual regard unto Christ, from whom alone we receive ability for the performance of it, and in or through whom alone it is accepted with God.
John Owen, Christologia in The Works of John Owen (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1965), 1:82.
We cannot pretend that we have understood divine truth unless we are living it. We cannot pretend that we know and believe the truth about men and souls and heaven and hell and salvation unless it is making a difference to the way in which we think and feel and pray and speak and act.
A vigorous and practical concern for the lost, growing out of a desire for God’s glory in man’s salvation, is an eminently Christlike thing and a hallmark of healthy Christianity. By such a standard, there are many unhealthy churches and unhealthy Christians; by such a standard, and to my great grief, I am not well myself.
While I accept that there can be an unbalanced and crippling expectation and even unbiblical obsession with some aspects of evangelism and “mission” (as the portentous modern singular would have it!), there is an opposite and perhaps, in our day, greater danger that believers and churches enjoying possession of a great deposit of truth nevertheless do not know it. If they did, they would be doing something.
It is very easy to be up in arms, for example, about current assaults on what can so calmly be described as the doctrine of hell. “Of course there is a hell!” we protest, offended and disturbed that someone could deny what is so plainly written in the Word of God. Is there a hell? What difference has it made? What have you done differently because there is a hell? Is its reality driving our thoughts, words and deeds? Many of us who have entered the kingdom have come perilously close to the flames of the pit. We have felt its fire, and yet we have, perhaps, forgotten that from which we have been delivered. The urgency with which we fled to Christ ourselves has perhaps been replaced with a casual awareness of spiritual reality that never energizes us to do anything for those who are themselves in danger of eternal punishment.
The same could be said of heaven, of Christ’s atonement for sinners, of God’s grace and mercy, of the freeness of the gospel, of the excellence of salvation. “Yes, yes, yes,” the monotonous ticking off of doctrines received continues. But what difference does it make to you and to me?
It is my heartfelt contention that the truths we believe ought to make the people of God broken-hearted evangelists. My prayer for this book is that the Lord Christ would make its author and its readers truly to understand the gospel duty which God has laid upon His church, and therefore to make us willing to perform the work we have been given to do, and by His strength to make us able to do it, to the praise of the glory of God’s grace.