Books At a Glance (Fred Zaspel):
Hi, this is Fred Zaspel with Books At a Glance. We’re talking today to Matthew Barrett and Michael Haykin about their new book, John Owen on the Christian Life. It is one of the recent volumes in the series of theologians on the Christian life by Crossway. It’s a great read, we’re glad to have you guys with us, thanks for coming.
Great to be here.
Thank you, Fred.
Alright, let’s start off. First of all just introduce us to the Puritans. It’s a familiar term to a lot of people, but to a lot of people it’s just a vague notion. So in broad strokes, who were they, when were they, what were the circumstances that distinguished their times and work?
Well, the Puritans really kind of emerged in the scene of history around the 1560’s. They were a body within the Church of England. Many of them had fled during the 1550’s from England because of persecution under Queen Mary the first. Sometimes known as Bloody Mary, she was a monarch in England who tried to take the Church of England back into the Roman Catholic Church and did so by martyring a good number of Anglican leaders.
After her death and the ascension to power of Elizabeth, who was clearly a Protestant, Calvinistic in soteriology, those who fled to the continent came back. They wanted…really the word “Puritan” kind of gives you an indication…they wanted the church to be pure and that is in the sense of being governed by Scripture in terms of all of its worship. And the earliest conflicts that the Puritans found with the larger body of Anglicans was over worship.
By the 1580’s those conflicts had broadened to issues of church governance. The queen and many in the Church of England were quite happy with an Episcopal arrangement. The Puritans by and large were Presbyterian. And by the sixteen teens the issues had broadened even further with the rise of what we call Arminianism and then the issues had become soteriological—how are we saved, and can we lose our salvation, etc.? What is the role of the human being in the whole work of salvation?
The Puritans by and large sought to reform the Church of England; eventually it issued in religious war in the 1640’s. The English civil wars is what they are sometimes called. You really have the British civil wars, they began in 1638 and ended in 1651, enveloping the entirety of the British isles. The Puritans win that war, Oliver Cromwell becomes the key leader, but with his death and the collapse of Puritan government into almost anarchy, the king is invited back in 1660. His name is Charles II and he begins a massive campaign on a number of levels, one of the legal, designed to destroy the Puritan cause of any sort of political power, but also a massive campaign of propaganda against the Puritans.
So that today, when we think of the word puritan or puritanical we generally think of someone who is narrow minded, bigoted, afraid that there might be someone somewhere having joy or being happy, which is completely opposite of what the Puritans were like in many ways.
Alright, for any who might not be familiar with him, tell us a little bit about John Owen. Who was he, when did he live, and why is he sometimes referred to as the dean of the puritans, what makes him such a significant figure?
Well, Owen is born in 1616, so next year is the 400th anniversary of his birth, the very year actually that William Shakespeare dies. By the time that he is born the Puritan movement is about 50 years old, has been striving without any real success to bring about reformation, complete reformation in the Church of England. His father was a Puritan, a minister not far from Oxford.
Owen went to Oxford in the 1630’s, would eventually graduate from Oxford with a BA and an MA. But those were the years of civil war so Owen found himself shut out from Oxford. Oxford becomes a center where the king eventually establishes his court and definitely anti-Puritan. And Owen finds himself in London. He has a number of pastorates in the London area in Essex and Kent….in Essex rather, and finds himself making a transition from Presbyterianism, which most Puritans were, to Congregationalism.
He comes to the attention of Oliver Cromwell—Cromwell loves his preaching—he serves as Oliver Cromwell’s chaplain on a campaign in Ireland, as well as preaching before Parliament. With the collapse of the Puritan government in 1660, Owen finds himself now like pretty well every other Puritan minister, not able to conduct divine worship or to lead a congregation, to pastor. He continues to do so, but with the risk of persecution and imprisonment. Because he has some very highly placed friends he is never imprisoned more than a day or so, but there is that risk. There is persecution.
Owen is remembered really because of the weight of his voluminous writings. On a number of fronts he writes definitive works for the seventeenth century. His The Death of Death in the Death of Christ is probably the classic defense of particular redemption. His book on the glory of Christ is just a masterpiece of Christology and spirituality. His massive work on the Holy Spirit, which runs to two huge volumes in the Banner of Truth edition, republished in the twentieth century from a nineteenth century edition is the largest work ever written in the English language on the person and work of the Holy Spirit. So there’s a vast amount of material that Own is remembered for in terms of his theology.
I should have introduced you guys in the beginning. Matthew Barrett is the soon to be tutor in Systematic Theology and Church History at Oak Hill Theological College in London. He is currently in California, but is about to move there. And Michael Haykin is Professor of Church History and Spirituality at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville. We’ve been talking with Michael Haykin and now, Matthew, why don’t you join us. I was going to ask next, Michael has already gotten into this a little bit, but give us a sense of Owen’s literary output, and also maybe some areas of Owen’s most outstanding contributions. Michael has addressed that as well, but maybe you can add to it for us.
Sure, I would be glad to.
Michael hints at this in a number of ways, but Owen’s output was unbelievable, I mean if you just look at, for example, the Banner of Truth edition of his works you have the sixteen volumes that make up his writings and then you also have another seven volumes just on the book of Hebrews—commentary and theological commentary on the book of Hebrews. It’s a little bit deceiving because even those sixteen volumes of the Banner of Truth edition, many of those volumes are made up of multiple books by Owen.
So this is a Puritan who wrote so much, and it is sometimes easy to think that he was just an intellectual, but he wasn’t, he was a theologian but he was also very pastoral in his writings. You pick up many of these writings and you are diving into deep theological truths, but also Owen, in a very Puritan-like fashion doesn’t leave things in the realm of just pure theology then transitions to show how this affects the Christian life. And almost any work you pick up of his you see that practical application. These books are not light reading, they are drenched in theology, but they are also very edifying for the soul because of their practical applications.
I think this is one of the reasons—there are many reasons—but this is one of the reasons Owen is sometimes considered the greatest theologian of the English Puritan movement and, some would argue, the greatest European Reformed theologian of his day. Michael has mentioned a number of his works that are important. Death of Death is one of his most famous works on particular atonement.
If we back up, his first theological tome is A Display of Arminianism which is also just a classic work early on where Owen displays his defense of the doctrines of grace, but there’s many other works of his—Communion With God the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit is one of Owen’s works I would recommend the most. Rarely today do you see a book written on the trinity that has such practical application, and in this book Owen not only unfolds the doctrine of the trinity, but he shows the believer how he or she is meant and designed by God to have communion distinctly with each member, each person of the trinity.
Another one I would mention, Mortification of Sin, as well as his book, Indwelling Sin, both of those books focus on sanctification. Owen is so famous for his treatment of killing sin, seeking holiness in order to glorify God and enjoy God. Michael mentioned a minute ago, the Puritans sometimes get this, they get caricatured of just going around fearful that there is someone somewhere having fun, and nothing could be further from the truth and Owen is a great example of this. In these books, like Communion with God or Mortification of Sin, he desires to know God and enjoy to God because he knows that is where true happiness and joy is found in the Christian life.
So those are some of his works. There are many others to be mentioned, The Person of Christ, Meditations and Discourses on the Glory of Christ, Owen does an incredible job focusing on not only who Christ is, but how our understanding of the person and the work of Christ should really bring us to our knees in worship of Christ as our savior and Lord.
You mentioned that he is probably the most outstanding theologian of the era at least. Was there a sense of recognition of that in his day or is that something that has grown, or what do we know about that?
Michael might want to talk about this too, but I would just say, in his own day I think there is to a certain degree a recognition that Owen is one of the supreme theologians of his day, and you see that in his life, even with his relationship with Oliver Cromwell. I think even Cromwell recognizes that. He recognizes Owen’s talents and his abilities. Of course we oftentimes look at Owen’s theological treatises, but Owen’s sermons shouldn’t be neglected either. Owen was very much a preacher and his sermons, if you read some of his sermons, you really come away understanding that this man, this Puritan, had an incredible insight into the word of God.
When we think of Owen, I think we think in terms of his stature as a theologian. I don’t think we normally think of him as a pastor. Do we know much about him in his pastoral work? You’ve mentioned that he was very pastoral in this theology; do we know anything beyond that?
Yes, we do. You obviously see that reflected in some of his writings, you know, works that dealt with Ecclesiology, catechetical material. From the beginning of the time when Charles II is restored, he is pastoring a congregation in London. It’s a congregation that will eventually be pastored by Isaac Watts, for example. And so, Owen is very definitely a pastor during that period of time. His early ministry before and up to the mid 1640’s again was a pastoral context as well, not far from London.
Alright, Michael, what influence did Owen have here in America? I’m thinking particularly in his own day and then shortly after and then beyond.
Well, in his own day, obviously his writings on Congregationalism would have been supportive of those over here—people like John Cotton, he had actually learned from Cotton to some degree his Congregationalism, that would have helped confirm them. He drew up the Savoy Declaration which would have had some influence on the Cambridge platform which was the declaration of the doctrine of polity by Puritans in New England.
In other ways he wasn’t influential, for instance, the Puritans in New England basically are seeking to establish some sort of theocratic model here so that people like Baptists and Quakers find themselves very much on the outs. And amazingly, while the Congregationalists in England are undergoing persecution, in New England the Congregationalists are the persecutors. Owen pled with a number of the men in New England to treat with leniency Baptists, after all Owen had some close friends who were Baptists—men like John Bunyan—but to no avail.
So there was certainly influence. During his lifetime, as I said, there were those in New England who basically ignored his appeals. As the eighteenth century breaks, Owen becomes an influential figure in people like Jonathan Edwards. Edwards’ pneumatology would have certain connections with Owens pneumatology and so on.
Alright, this for each of you. Take a turn each. How did you come to be interested in Owen?
Probably pretty quickly after I became committed to reformed theology I came across Owen through Banner of Truth books, generally speaking the paperbacks, and then probably the first major work I read of Owen in the Banner of Truth series (the reprint series of his works) was volume 6 in which you have the treatises regarding mortification of sin.
Then between 1988 and his death in 1997 I sat under the preaching regularly of a man by the name of Bill Payne who during his lifetime read the entirety of Owen’s corpus. The entirety of the sixteen volumes that were published by the Banner and then the seven volumes on Hebrews. The one that he didn’t read, if I recall correctly, would have been the Latin volume, the volume of Latin writings, because I don’t think that had been translated by the time of his death in 1997. So I was sitting under a man who…he wasn’t quoting Owen all the time…but Owen would be referred to; people in the congregation were reading Owen; and so it wasn’t surprising that my attention was drawn to Owen.
For me, it was actually during my dissertation work. Awhile back I was writing my dissertation on effectual calling and regeneration and conversion and the relationship between all of those and I started reading Owen in particular because of his massive work on the Holy Spirit as well as his reformed writings, his Calvinistic writings and doctrine. I really found in Owen a friend. He proved to be one of those theologians in church history that I just kept going back to because of his insights into the word of God. His argument especially was just so precise and just air tight.
So that’s where I started with Owen, but it wasn’t long after that I began to explore some of his other theological works on justification, on divine justice, on the trinity. I think for me, a turning point, I was actually asked by Sean Wright, who is a professor at Southern Seminary, to come in and to teach on Owen during one of his classes on Puritanism, and in preparation for those lectures I really found that Owen was someone I wanted to invest in more deeply.
Alright, getting more to the heart of your work, this is Owen on the Christian Life, so according to Owen, what does the Christian life look like? Is there a holistic way to answer that big question?
Well, it is a big question, and it is hard to answer because, as we have mentioned, Owen wrote so much. If we were to describe Owen’s approach to the Christian life, and there’s many angles we could take, but I think one of them, if I could just mention two things, would be, first of all his Trinitarian thoughts, and then secondly Owens emphasis on the help of the Holy Spirit in the mortification or the killing of sin. Both of those come out again and again throughout his writings.
Take for example his work on the Trinity, his book Communion With God, is one that every Christian should read. But in Communion With God, what you discover is that Owen isn’t just reflecting on, say, the persons of the trinity in some abstract way, instead what he is doing, he is reflecting on the trinity doctrinally so that he then can draw applications for the Christian life. Every time Owen is looking at the Christian life, whether it is prayer, for example, or fighting against sin, he is always viewing those things through a Trinitarian lens.
You take prayer for example, Owen is a great Puritan to go to if you want to understand how to pray. How do we pray to God? Well, Owen brings in the trinity. He shows that the trinity is involved in each aspect of your prayers so you pray to God the Father as Jesus taught us to, but you are doing so only because Christ has been the propitiation for your sins. And of course you are going to the father through the atoning work of Christ by the Holy Spirit. That’s just one example.
Another would be Owen’s emphasis on sanctification, mortifying sin, to use old Puritan language. In his book The Mortification of Sin in Believers, Owen is very famous for saying, “If you do not kill sin, it will be killing you.” And he goes on to talk about how indwelling sin always is something that is abiding as we are in the world, and therefore it has to be mortified.
I think this is so helpful today because many Christians today take sin far too lightly. They don’t understand how serious it is, that they are really in a spiritual warfare here, but Owen gets it. He really understands the Biblical emphasis that we are in a spiritual warfare and we need the help of the Holy Spirit to kill sin, otherwise it is going to kill us and ruin us. There are many others that could be mentioned, but those are just two of the emphases that I would stress in Owen’s approach to the Christian life.
Alright, Michael? What does the Christian life look like, according to Owen?
Well, I’m probably picking up some of the things that Matthew has said there. I think there is a strong emphasis on the Spirit and that’s I think in strong contrast to the way theology in the twentieth century that is Puritan-like–that is, shares many of the concerns of Puritanism–has developed.
Reformed theology in the twentieth century has not been as Spirit-oriented as the Puritans were. There is a very strong interest in the work of the Spirit that you find in Owen, and so for Owen, the mature Christian life is a Spirit filled life. And such, it is one that is punctuated, if you might, by times of incredible joy. As well as….you know there is the struggle against sin, but that’s not…because of the emphasis on the Spirit, the Puritans are really able to avoid the kind of dourness that later tradition kind of pinned on them. That whole area of the kind of pneumatalogical focus of the Puritans which you find pre-eminently in Owen is largely forgotten in the twentieth century.
It was B. B. Warfield, the Presbyterian theologian of the early twentieth century who said that in essence John Calvin is the theologian of the Holy Spirit and his interest in the Spirit has come down primarily to the Puritans. And I think there is great truth in that.
One of the challenges for the large reformed community and the upsurge in reformed theology that we have seen in the last fifty years has been also to capture afresh also the great interest that the Puritans had in the Spirit. I think the one author who captures it so well is Martin Lloyd-Jones. It is interesting that Lloyd-Jones has been accused in some circles of almost a Neo-Pentecostalism, but I think he’s reflecting here the Puritan interest in the Spirit, even though in one area, for example, the sealing of the Spirit, kind of a second work that some of the Puritans expected, people like John Flavel, Thomas Goodwin, Richard Sibs—Owen did not believe that.
But nonetheless, the abiding interest that most of the Puritans have in the Spirit, has by and large not been captured by the twentieth century reformed community. And I think that lies at the heart of the Gospel. It would be Jonathan Edwards that would say the great promise that God made in the Old Testament was the gift of the Spirit, and it’s that for which Christ suffered and died, that the Spirit might be His people’s.
Spirituality is a very contemporary subject. What is spirituality according to Owen?
I think Matthew has hit upon it—it is Trinitarian. Deeply Trinitarian. I think the danger with a lot of the discussion about spirituality today is, it’s not a Trinitarian spirituality. In certain circles it’s the Spirit without Christ, without the Father, which is all too easily confused with the human spirit, but it is a deeply Trinitarian spirituality.
It is a spirituality of both ardor, which I’ve been talking about formerly, but also order. There is a recognition that there is a shape to the Christian life that there are patterns that the Spirit works in and with. It’s an ecclesial spirituality. Owen is very convinced that the Spirit works in the life of the church; He has given us means of grace which are in the church, things like the preaching of the word and the ordinances.
If I could add to that, I think what Michael has said is so on target. In looking at our book, some readers may be surprised when they look at the table of contents, to see when looking at a book like Owen on the Christian Life, we have chapters about the Trinity, or a large chapter on Christology, and another one on the work of Christ. We even have a chapter that incorporates, not just salvation, but God’s sovereignty and providence.
But what we are trying to show here is that for Owen, the Christian life and spirituality in particular, is Trinitarian through and through. So if you just focus on, say, sanctification, and if you just focus on, say, mortification or indwelling sin on those subjects in Owen, you miss all of this. You miss Owen’s entire corpus in which he…these other works on the sovereignty and providence of God or his extensive works on the person and work of Jesus Christ or justification…these are not divorced from spirituality in the Christian life, they have everything to do with it.
In fact, many of them are the foundation on which spirituality is based. Trusting in a God who is absolutely sovereign has everything to do with the Christian life. Or understanding the personal work of Christ, that Christ is my savior and that when I struggle with assurance, I need to look outside of myself to Jesus Christ and His work which is fully sufficient for my sins.
So it is important to remember, I think sometimes people might be surprised to see a work on Owen and the Christian life and see these other chapters, but keep in mind that for Owen, pursuing holiness, killing sin, prayer, all of this has to do with a much bigger view of theology and doctrine that incorporates the entire trinity and even starts to bleed into, as Michael mentioned a minute ago, ecclesiology, Owen’s understanding of the means of grace. And so Michael’s written a tremendous chapter toward the end of the book, on Owen and the church and even Owen’s understanding of the culture in the state.
Alright, our time is running on, but just let me ask this briefly, if there is a brief way to answer it: Let’s say a parishioner comes, let’s say it’s a new Christian comes to Pastor Owen and asks him how to develop and improve as a Christian. How can I make progress? I’m not satisfied with what I’ve had, how can I move on? What does Pastor John Owen say?
Well, that’s a great question. I think since Michael’s emphasized the Spirit, I’ll focus on something else. I think one of the thinks that Owen would say, let’s just suppose that this Christian is just despairing and just depressed because they are looking within and all they see is failure, and because of that they are not making progress in the Christian life, they are not holy, etc. etc. I think one of the things Owen would say is “Look to Christ.”
Sometimes the Puritans get this reputation for a kind of morbid self-speculation, an inner speculation in which you just kind of drown within this overly speculative nature of your own fruits. There is a biblical place for evaluating whether there is fruit in your life and Owen would not ignore that or undermine that, but at the same time, like many other Puritans, Owen would say to a Christian who is struggling like that:
“Do you realize that while you are, you know, throwing around like the wind, there is one who is not; who came as God incarnate, died on your behalf as your substitute and effectually accomplished salvation for you and your right standing, your justification is secure in Him and on that basis, on the basis of the personal work of Christ you can have assurance of your salvation and you can press on in holiness knowing that Christ now sits at the right hand of the Father interceding on your behalf as Hebrews talks about (which Owen wrote so much about), as your great high priest.”
Alright, do you want to add anything to that, Michael?
No, that’s great.
Ok, great. Let’s just do one more. I think your book is the best place to start, to get acquainted with Owen, but after that, where is a good place for someone to begin reading Owen himself?
I would probably direct them to something like The Mortification of Sin in Believers initially, it’s a fairly easy text in some respects. Portions of Owen on the Spirit –the section that deals with prayer. The Glory of Christ of course is a tremendous work of Owen’s. Those are probably the places I would initially direct somebody.
Yeah, each of those works you could spend probably years working through them, there’s so much there. I think if I was going to mention maybe one more would be Owen’s book on the doctrine of Justification by Faith – I think this is one of Owen’s greatest works. There’s so much written on the doctrine of justification today, it’s sometimes missed but it shouldn’t be.
Tom Schreiner in his new book on Faith Alone that just came out with Zondervan, he has a section in there in which he focuses on John Owen’s treatment of justification and how it can help us today understand sola fide.
As far as secondary works, there’s many you could go to, but if you wanted more academic treatments you could look at Carl Truman’s book, John Owen, Reformed Catholic Renaissance Man. It’s a more academic work, but very, very helpful. Michael, am I correct in saying that Crawford Gribben has a forthcoming biography of John Owen?
Yeah, kind of a definitive authority biography that will be published by OUP in 2016.
Great, good to know.
Well, thank you guys, it has been great to have you with us. We’ve been talking to Dr. Micheal Haykin and Dr. Matthew Barrett about their new book, John Owen on the Christian Life. Get the book, read it, you will enjoy it. It’s a great introduction to Owen and it’s helpful on the Christian life. Thanks you guys for being with us.
Buy the books
John Owen on the Christian Life: Living for the Glory of God in Christ