We stand but a year from the 400th anniversary of the birth of Dr. John Owen in 1616. It is remarkable that with so much biography being written in their own day on the Puritans, it was more than 40 years after the death of Dr. Owen in 1683 that the first biography of him was published, and that was a mere booklet in size. And it would be 1820, more than 200 years after his birth, before William Orme would finally write and publish the still-definitive biography of Owen that runs to more than 500 pages.
Surely we may say without fear of contradiction that Owen was a giant among the giants of the 17th century. Acknowledged by every succeeding generation for his great learning and comprehensive writing, yet we run the risk of remembering the writings and forgetting the man. And it is to the man (in Godâ€™s providence) that the writings owe their lasting merit, since it was the experiences and trials of the great John Owen that breathed much of the life into his writings for which we so rightly esteem them.
Much could be, and has been, written concerning John Owen the theologian, but like many of his fellow Puritans, his heart and his labors were preeminently focused on pastoral duties. Owen's greatest fame, of course, comes to him as a writer but he was at heart a pastor. He was appointed to the pastorate of Fordham in Essex, England in 1643, and there he spent some of the most blessed years of his life. His ministry in Fordham was spiritually prosperous. The previous minister had neglected the people and Owen immediately set about to correct this. He quickly began the familiar Puritan pastoral practice of visiting regularly from house to house to catechize and minister to the spiritual needs of his people. To assist him in his work he wrote two catechisms, one for children and one for adults. His preaching, too, was highly regarded, so much so that many from neighboring towns came to hear him at Fordham.
Yet his times were not without trials. He and his wife, Mary, had eleven children, ten of whom would die in childhood. The other, a daughter, lived into adulthood, married, but the marriage ended, she returned home and died soon after from tuberculosis. Thus, Owen buried all eleven of his children before his own eyes, a sore affliction, surely, in the midst of the evident blessing of God upon his labors.
It is an interesting sidelight that in the Fordham parish register, which contained the records of baptisms, marriages, and burials for the parish, every other minister both before and after Owen signed the register with the title â€śparson,â€ť from the Latin meaning representative of the Church. He invariably signed John Owen, Pastor. By this Owen surely meant to demonstrate his understanding of and preference for the scriptural term, and the scriptural responsibilities, of his position.
His fame soon spread beyond Fordham as a result of his labors and his early writings, and in the course of his life he became successively a preacher before parliament, chaplain to Oliver Cromwell, administrator of Trinity College, Dublin, and vice-chancellor of Oxford University (even a member of Parliament for a time!). Finally, in 1660, Dr. Owen was able to return to his well-beloved work of pastoring, this time in his ancestral home of Stadham, England. He would close the remaining years of his life in the work to which God had called him and in which he delighted to serve his Lord. On August 24, 1683, John Owen died at the age of 67. His last recorded words were, â€śThe long wished-for day is come at last, in which I shall see the glory in another manner than I have ever done, or was capable of doing in the world.â€ť
Honored as he is, and rightly so, for the wealth of written instruction he has left as a legacy to the Church, were we to ask him what he would consider his greatest work we should not be surprised to hear him reply, â€śthe labors among the flocks which God in His mercy gave me grace to be a faithful shepherd.â€ť A letter (reproduced below) that he sent to the Stadham congregation while separated from them speaks volumes in demonstration of where this mighty theologianâ€™s greatest sympathies lay â€“ Pastor John Owen writes from a pastorâ€™s heart to the sheep to instruct, encourage, and exhort them to steadfast faithfulness and love in the midst of perilous times. It is undated but from the circumstances noted in the letter (during a period of personal sickness as well as of persecution of Nonconformists) it was evidently written in the final year or so of his life.
â€śBeloved in the Lord,
Mercy, grace, and peace be multiplied to you from God our Father, and from the Lord Jesus Christ, by the communication of the Holy Ghost. I thought and hoped that by this time I might have been present with youâ€¦but it has pleased our holy and gracious Father otherwise to dispose of me, at least for a seasonâ€¦But although I am absent from you in body, I am in mind, affection, and spirit present with you, and in your assemblies; for I hope you will be found my crown and rejoicing in the day of the Lord: and my prayer for you night and day is that you may stand fast in the whole will of God, and maintain the beginning of your confidence without wavering, firm unto the endâ€¦Give me leave out of my abundant affections towards you, to bring some few things to your remembrance.
In the first place, I pray God it may be rooted and fixed in our minds, that the shame and loss we undergo for the sake of Christ and the profession of the gospel, is the greatest honor which, in this life, we can be made partakers ofâ€¦it is far more honorable to suffer with Christ than to reign with the greatest of His enemies.
The next thing I would recommend to you at this season is the increase of mutual love among yourselves; for every trial of our faith towards the Lord Jesus Christ is also a trial of our love towards the brethren. This is that which the Lord Christ expects from us, namely, that when the hatred of the world doth openly manifest and act itself against us all, we should evidence an active love among ourselves. If there have been any decays, any coldness herein, if they are not recovered and healed in such a season, it can never be expected. I pray God therefore, that your mutual love may abound more and more in all the effects and fruits of it towards the whole society, and every member thereof. You may justly measure the fruit of your present trial by the increase of this grace amongst you: in particular have a due regard to the weak and the tempted, that that which is lame may not be turned out of the way, but rather let it be healed.
Furthermore, brethren, I beseech you, hear a word of advice in case the persecution increases, which it is like to do for a season. I could wish thatâ€¦you would appoint some among yourselves, who may continually, as their occasions will admit, go up and down, from house to house, and apply themselves peculiarly to the weak, the tempted, the fearful, those who are ready to despond, or to halt, and to encourage them in the Lord. Choose out those to this end who are endued with a spirit of courage and fortitude; and let them know that they are happy whom Christ will honor with this blessed work: and I desire the persons may be of this number who are faithful men, and know the state of the Church; by this you will know what is the frame of the members of the Church, which will be a great direction to you, even in your prayers. Watch now, brethren, that if it be the will of God, not one soul may be lost from under your care; let no one be overlooked or neglected; consider all their conditions, and apply yourselves to all their circumstances.
Finally, brethren, that I be not at present farther troublesome to you, examine yourselves, as to your spiritual benefit which you have received and do receive by your present fears and dangers, which will alone give you the true measure of your condition; for if this tends to the exercise of your faith, and love, and holiness, if this increases your valuation of the privileges of the Gospel, it will be an undoubted token of the blessed issue which the Lord Jesus Christ will give unto your troubles. Pray for me as you do, and do it the rather, that if it be the will of God, I may be restored to you; and if not, that a blessed entrance may be given to me into the kingdom of God and glory. Salute all the Church in my name. I take the boldness in the Lord to subscribe myself,
Your unworthy Pastor and your servant for Jesus sake J. Owenâ€ť
What tenderness, what care, what sincere love flows from every sentence! Suffer as Christians, love one another, increase in grace, care for the weak, let not one sheep be lost or neglected, pray for me as I pray for you â€“ these exhortations from this â€śunworthy pastorâ€ť display the greatness of Owenâ€™s heart as much as his written works do the greatness of his mind. Would that we had a thousand more theologians like John Owen, but even more that we had ten thousand pastors like him! As he draws near to the close of his earthly service to his Redeemer he wished to be known â€“ not as Doctor, not as Vice-Chancellor, not as Dean, nor as parson â€“ but simply Pastor. May the Lord of the Church grant us again such men â€“ Pastors not parsons!
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