Puritanism is “the haunting fear that someone somewhere might be having fun.” Or so said H. L. Mencken, onetime journalist for the Baltimore Sun. Garrison Keillor of our own time joins the fun by adding, The Puritans came to America in the hopes of discovering greater restrictions than were permissible under English law.
Indeed, puritan as an adjective, or the more virulent puritanical, are anything but complimentary. If we know even a smidgen at all of the Puritans, a movement of believers who appeared in England around 1550 and began to disappear around 1700, we probably think of hellfire and brimstone preaching, sullen temperaments and strict observance of the Sabbath. Maybe the Salem Witch Trials come to mind, or Jonathan Edwards’ sermon, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.
While there is usually a degree of truth in any caricature, the Puritans were anything but dour. Try the word mature. Puritan preachers and their flocks had a degree of spiritual maturity that seems quite foreign to American evangelicals. Here was a band of believers willing to go to the mat for the purity of the church and for the soundness of doctrine. Pastors were willing to leave their pulpits, and thus their livelihoods over what we would consider trifling matters. In 1662, for example, the Act of Uniformity was issued by King Charles II, which required pastors to adhere strictly to the Book of Common Prayer. Overnight 2,000 – out of a total of 6,000 – pastors left their churches, their jobs and their homes in protest. Theology mattered to the Puritans, and theology was to have profound influence on the lives of those who taught it. In other words, holiness was to be the overflow of theology.
One of the greatest Puritan writers and preachers was John Owen (1616-1683). Charles Spurgeon called him the prince of the divines, and perhaps the description is an apt one. John Owen had a towering intellect and a commensurate thirst for holiness. His quest for godliness cost him a great deal, and the pursuit is paying dividends to this day.
Owen began his studies at Oxford at age twelve and finished his M.A. by age nineteen. The University student’s voracious appetite for learning caused him to allow himself only four hours a night for sleep. He planned on an academic career, but when Oxford was under the influence of Chancellor William Laud, who was reintroducing pre- Reformation liturgy in the church, Owen left the university, and with it his ambitions and dreams. (Of course history has its twists and turns. King Charles I was decapitated, William Laud was removed from authority and in 1651 John Owen became the Vice-Chancellor of Oxford!) After leaving Oxford, Owen migrated to London and began his service as a pastor. After hearing Owen preach to the House of Commons, Oliver Cromwell made him his chaplain. The assignment took the young preacher to Ireland and Scotland where he preached to the troops and gave theological justification to Cromwell’s politics.
John Owen was no stranger to suffering. In 1644 he married Mary Rooke. Their marriage lasted thirty-one years, until she died in 1675. The Owens had eleven children. All of them died as children except for a daughter who died as a young adult. In other words, John Owen bore the pain and the loss of eleven children and a wife within a thirty-one year time span. Yet through it all he remained faithful to God!
His career was anything but smooth sailing. Nine years after becoming both Vice-Chancellor and Dean of Oxford, Owen was relieved of his duties. For the last twentythree years of his life the eminent scholar and preacher became something of a fugitive pastor, moving from place to place while preaching, writing and encouraging other Puritans who were suffering for their commitment to Christ.
What lessons can we learn from John Owen today? Many.
First, we can learn from his humility. At various points in his life Owen had friends in high places. It is said that one day King Charles II noticed that John Owen was in the habit of going to hear John Bunyan preach. Bunyan was an uneducated former prisoner, a tinker who made a living repairing pots. Yet this learned scholar loved to hear Bunyan preach. Why are you going to hear the preaching of that tinker? asked King Charles. Owen’s response is priceless.Could I possess the tinker’s abilities for preaching, please your majesty, I would gladly relinquish all my learning.
Second, we can learn from Owen’s tenacity. He was faithful to his calling regardless of the weather. Here we find a scholar-preacher who refused to give up. In the midst of the constant strife he faced, the theological battles, the civil war, persecution, and a family that was dying before his very eyes, Owen kept preaching and he kept writing. He left behind an enormous body of writings along with a life worthy of our attention. His most famous The Death of Death in the Death of Christ (1647) probes the work of Christ on the cross. Perhaps Owen’s greatest book was his last,Meditations on the Glory of Christ. Along the way this Puritan hammered out books on the Trinity, worship, mortification of sin and the concept of divine justice.
Third, he was zealous for holiness. His book Of the Mortification of Sin in Believers was originally preached to students and professors at Oxford. The whole tome is a meditation on Romans 8:13, For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. It was John Owen who first coined the phrase, Be killing sin or it will be killing you. Holiness was the business of John Owen’s life. And it showed. At his funeral a fellow pastor who worked closely with this great saint said,
A great light has fallen, one of eminency for holiness, learning, parts and abilities; a pastor, a scholar, a divine of the first magnitude; holiness gave a divine luster to his other accomplishments, it shined in his whole course, and was diffused through his whole conversation.
Fourth, from Owen we learn a passion for the glory of Christ. By his later years this writer and preacher had a degree of fame. He had a following, a readership. And he could not have cared less. Toward the end of his life he wrote,Christ is our best friend, and before long will be our only friend. I pray God with all my heart that I may be weary of everything else but converse and communion with Him.
As he lay on his deathbed, William Payne, Owen’s editor, brought him the news that the presses were running and that his book Meditations on the Glory of Christ was soon to be published. This was significant news but Owen had other things on his heart and mind.
I am glad to hear it, but 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.
John Owen’s life and his writings help us prepare ourselves for the business of heaven. The luster of his holiness is contagious. It inspires devotion and provokes a yearning for the glory of Christ which we will savor for eternity. May we grow weary of everything else but converse and communion with Him!