Reading John Owen

admin-ajaxMy time at Louisiana College shaped my theological mind profoundly. I was most influenced by my professors during my time in the halls of Guinn. These men opened an entire world of theological dialogue that I was unaware even existed. I began hearing the names of Douglas Moo, D.A. Carson, Francis Schaeffer, Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, Wayne Grudem, John Piper, John MacArthur, Thomas Schreiner, John Goldingay, John Sailhamer, William Carey, N.T. Wright, Albert Mohler…and the list could continue for some pages. I began to read some of these men and it proved both laborious and rewarding.

I remember either hearing or reading the story of how John Piper devoted himself to one particular theologian.

When I was in seminary, a wise professor told me that besides the Bible I should choose one great theologian and apply myself throughout life to understanding and mastering his thought. This way I would sink at least one shaft deep into reality, rather than always dabbling on the surface of things. I might, in time, become this man’s peer and know at least one system with which to bring other ideas into fruitful dialogue. It was good advice.

The theologian I have devoted myself to is Jonathan Edwards.[1]

When I heard/read this story I began to examine particular theologians to whom I could read and wrestle with throughout my ministry and academic life. I attempted a number of them, the first being Martin Luther; however, I found his The Bondage of the Will too cumbersome and verbose. I attempted Edwards, but struggled early in my theological journey with much of his deep theological and philosophical language (he has, by God’s grace, become a good “friend” since then). So my searching continued off and on for some years.

When I graduated with my M.Div my family came for the ceremony, and my father and I perused around Fort Worth in the used book stores. It was during our second bookstore visit
to the Half Price Bookstore in Arlington, I stopped in sheer wonder. On the top of a bookcase was the sixteen volume set of The Works of John Owen, almost brand new and steeply discounted. This set became my graduation/Christmas present from my parents, and this will become the theologian to whom I will devote myself to reading.

Owen has sat quietly on my shelf since that fateful day in December for many reasons. I have attempted to read portions of his work throughout the months, but they always found their way back to the shelf unread. Yet now, having served as a pastor for almost eight months, I feel the need to read them for my own spiritual edification.

Some time back I found a helpful post that provided Ryan McGraw’s personal suggestions on what to read from Owen.

My general recommendation is to start with Owen’s popular sermons in volume 9 of the Banner of Truth edition. Many of these sermons condense and popularize much of what he wrote elsewhere. For example, the sermons on ‘The Nature and Beauty of Gospel Worship’ are practically a condensed version of Communion with God. Each sermon is roughly ten pages and contains more illustrations and examples than other comparable works. The outlines are also easier to follow. Owen was a powerful preacher and popular in his day. These sermons are a faint record of what his preaching was like.

So this is what I will attempt to do. I will begin with his sermons in volume nine and gradually, over the years, work my way through as time allows. Will I agree with everything Owen says? No. Should that prohibit me from reading him? No. We would do well to remember the fascinating story of how the living Puritan theologian J.I. Packer discovered John Owen, as well as a majority of great Puritan works.

During J. I. Packer’s second year of undergraduate studies at Oxford, he was invited to serve as the junior librarian at the Christian Union student organization. Having been converted only a year earlier, Packer was new to the Union but, as he would soon discover, so were a recent donation of books. An octogenarian clergyman had recently concluded that he could no longer make use of his library and thus gave them to the Union who, upon receipt, proceeded to pile them in the basement of their meeting hall for an unknown future. Thereafter, as is now famously told and retold, Packer discovered, as a nineteen year-old, the works of the Puritan John Owen—and the evangelical world has not been the same since.

At the time of this discovery, Packer would later relate his life “was all over the place” emotionally and thus “God used [Owen] to save my sanity.” More than just sorting out Packer, his literal “recovery” of the Puritans would start a movement that not only would bring great and good revived interest in these evangelical forebears, but also would help provide an anchor to the Word of God during the tumultuous 1960s and 1970s in the United Kingdom and abroad.

One could argue, that had not Packer discovered that box of books, his tremendously influential and life altering works, Fundamentalism and the Word of God (1958) and Knowing God (1973), may never have appeared—not to mention the republishing of the Works of John Owen themselves as well as many other volumes in the Puritan canon readily available today. Truly this is an example of one man’s discarded tomes serving as another man’s lifelong treasure.[2]

I thank God for the ministry of John Owen and I hope that you will consider reading some of his works.


[1] Available from http://www.desiringgod.org/articles/a-personal-encounter-with-jonathan-edwards.

[2] Available from http://www.jgduesing.com/2015/09/17/packers-dusty-discovery-and-the-music-of-the-anabaptists-footnotes-from-the-fuller-conference/.

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  1. Pingback: To the New Seminary Student | Jason Kees

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