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Some Thoughts on Reading the Works of John Owen – Part 2

Category Articles
Date September 5, 2016

Others may prefer to begin by reading a whole book, and there are several which can be read without undue weariness to the mind – although it is always wise to read with paper and pencil at hand. Owen’s divisions can be perplexing [Goold tells us in volume 1, p xiv that they are denoted by the numerals I, 1, (1), [1], first and first!], and readers will note with some amusement and even relief that the editor indicates in some footnotes that Owen seems to have lost the place. Needless to say such places are few and far between! The works on Temptation and Mortification, in volume 6, come within this general category of short works, although both are of outstanding value and probably unsurpassed in their treatment of these respective themes of Christian experience. Each work is less than ninety pages in length. No doubt some difficult passages may be encountered even here, but if so Dr Packer’s suggestion still holds good, that ‘the hard places in Owen usually come out as soon as one reads them out loud.’1 Alternative books might be The True Nature of a Gospel Church, in volume 16, or The Duty of Pastors and People Distinguished, in volume 13. It need hardly be said that such reading should be an exercise in prayerfulness as well as thoughtfulness, for it will be recognised that, however unusual it may be for Christians to read this kind of literature, there can still be a certain carnal kudos in having done so. Owen’s teaching should be read with the same spirit of humility we would commend to those who listen to the regular ministry of the Word, since we are but servants looking to the Master’s hand for mercy and for grace to help in times of need.

When we have come thus far, we will want to spread our wings a little, and turn to works of special interest, or deal with some aspect of Christian living in which we sense our need for further instruction. Owen covers a very wide range of themes, as we would expect:

The doctrine of God and the Trinity is discussed in volume 2, where, in A Brief Declaration and Vindication of the Doctrine of the Trinity, Owen gave ‘a few hours’ to provide ‘ordinary Christians’ with a reliable guide to the teaching of Scripture. Earlier in the same volume may be found his work Of Communion with the Trinity. In this he describes the particular fellowship which the believer enjoys with each Person of the Trinity, and thus opens up what may be a fresh avenue of thought for some readers. The section on communion with Christ contains a quite comprehensive, if incomplete, summary exposition of the Song of Solomon, with many valuable and spiritual insights. Owen takes the main characters to represent Christ and the believer [sometimes the Church]; the daughters of Jerusalem represent ‘all sorts of professors’; the watchmen are the office bearers, and the city is the visible Church in which they exercise their ministry.

The Person and Work of Christ is covered in volume 1 and elsewhere. Owen’s Christologia, esteemed by Dr M’Crie to be second only to Calvin’s Institutes, is of great value, as is his exposition of John 17:24, on The Glory of Christ. The nature and extent of the atonement is dealt with in what is currently Owen’s best-known work, in volume 10, The Death of Death in the Death of Christ – written when he was in his early thirties.

While historical circumstances have drawn attention to this last area of his thought, it would be true to say of Owen [as Warfield claimed of Calvin] that he was pre-eminently a theologian of the Holy Spirit, and it is clear both from his own statements and the extent of his writing on the theme, that The Person and Work of the Holy Spirit, expounded in volumes 3 and 4, and in nine books, lay very close to his heart. It probably remains, in Goold’s words, ‘The most complete exhibition of the doctrine of Scripture on the person and agency of the Holy Spirit to be found in any language.’ It is still claimed that the Reformers and Puritans gave little attention to the Holy Spirit, and many critics have indicated that the Westminster Confession lacks any separate treatment of the doctrine; but it is patently erroneous, and indeed pure ignorance, to suggest that He has been restored from a position of oblivion as ‘the forgotten Person of the Godhead’ only in the present century. Owen’s work was only one of a number of massive treatments of the Spirit in 17th-century writings, and its contemporary value is out of all proportion to the investment any Christian might make in obtaining volumes 3 and 4. He provides basic teaching on the Spirit and guides the reader through His work, in the old creation, in the Person and Work of Christ and His witness to Him, to His work in regeneration and conversion, and then in sanctification and holiness. His work in the inspiration of Scripture, as the Comforter, in prayer, and in the exercise of spiritual gifts is treated at length. Here is wholesome and edifying food for every Christian, and the kind of help and stimulus which serves as a handmaid to the pastor and teacher in public ministry and private counselling. Indeed some may well find that the time spent becoming familiar with the contents of these two volumes will often be repaid by the time saved and help given to believers in need of counsel simply by commending the reading of some short section which meets their need. In this connection the short works on Temptation and Mortification should also be mentioned as well as the Cases of Conscience. These prepare the way for the teaching in volume 7 on The Dominion of Sin and Grace, and The Nature and Power of Indwelling Sin, and also for the encouragement of the treatment of forgiveness and assurance from Psalm 130, in volume 6. Students of later expositions of the reformed doctrine of sanctification may possibly sense a lack of clarity here and there in Owen’s definitions of expressions such as ‘the old man’, but this does not greatly impair the value of the work, at least not in Owen’s case, and there are probably few more realistic and pastoral treatments of these themes available today. These expressions are chosen carefully, and readers of Owen who have a special interest in systematic theology will need to remember that Owen’s primary interest here was in pastoral theology. All in all, it is doubtful whether, after possessing a good commentary and a copy of Calvin’s Institutes, a better plan could be adopted than reading Owen volumes 3 and 4, and 6 and 7!

Attention ought also to be drawn to the treatment of Justification in volume 5, and of Scripture in volumes 4 and 16 in which Owen affirms the necessity of a faith in Scripture which is ‘divine, supernatural and infallible’, because based upon the testimony of God Himself. On the other hand, the reading of volume 11 demands the grace it expounds – Perseverance. It is virtually an extended review of the Arminian teaching found in John Goodwin’s Redemption Redeemed – but even so, Owen admits that his six hundred and more pages only deal with a part of Goodwin’s book. It was against this same work of Goodwin that Robert Baillie, a member of the Westminster Assembly and later Principal of Glasgow University, wrote his Scottish Antidote against the English Infection of Arminianism! Despite Owen’s prolixity there is much valuable exposition here for those with the time and will to find it, but it could be a potential disaster if any young or new reader of Owen decided to start his study at this point.

Extensive treatment is given to the doctrine of the Church in volumes 13-16, where material sometimes overlaps. From a number of important books here perhaps The Duty of Pastors and People Distinguished, Eshcol [Scriptural rules for Church fellowship, written when Owen was still presbyterian], both in volume 13, and The True Nature of a Gospel Church, in volume 16, may be singled out as specially helpful. Readers who belong to the more or less ‘Established’ churches will find that the careful perusal of these writings will enable them to understand the mind and stance of ‘Independent’ churches in greater measure, and indeed in a heart-searching fashion. The study and discussion of works like these, along with Owen’s work Union among Protestants, in volume 14, might do much towards a mutual understanding and sympathy amongst Evangelical people today.

Attention has already been drawn to Owen’s works on the Ministry, but mention should also be made of his sermons on The Lord’s Supper. Volume 9 contains twenty-five of these, including five on 1 Corinthians 11.23ff., and volume 16 has three more, published long after Owen’s death, but attributed to him on internal grounds [and almost certainly rightly so]. In these short pieces he draws attention to some of the distinctive features of the Lord’s Supper, in the way the believer’s concentration is drawn to Christ’s body as broken and his blood as shed rather than to the Person or presence of Christ in more general terms. He also shows that in the Supper it is not the Father or the Spirit, but Christ Himself who invites us to come to Him in faith. Volume 16 also contains an interesting, if relatively unimportant treatment Of Infant Baptism and Dipping, both of which Owen discusses in the course of a dozen pages.

The remaining works – some Latin writing only partly translated into English,2 and the massive Commentary on Hebrews in seven volumes ­have not been reprinted in the sixteen volumes re-issued by the Banner of Truth Trust,3but the Commentary at least ought to be mentioned. An American reprint was available until recent years, and a somewhat drastic abridgement is still on the market, but many libraries must contain the original Goold edition. It is a work of great erudition but balanced by spiritual insight and theological and practical wisdom. A number of lengthy essays preface the whole work, of which those on The Sacerdotal Office of Christ, and the Day of Sacred Rest [both in volume 19] may be singled out as of continuing value.

These, then, are some of the riches of Owen’s works. They contain the fruit of a lifetime’s study of Scripture, and the reader will often find himself thinking that Owen must have weighed up every possible nuance of meaning and application of every verse of the Bible. As with others, it is in his almost incidental use of a verse or passage that the fruit of long and deep meditation comes to the surface. That can be overwhelming and almost depressing, but it will be an encouragement as well as a rebuke to us as we read.

The really important thing, however, is not to read much but to profit much. That is why regular and regulated study is of value, and leads to a developing ability to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest the great spiritual lessons Owen expounds. To pastors and teachers there will be a certain value in using the whole set of the works as a constant companion and help, as a library of pastoral theology; to others the greatest help may come from the specifically practical or doctrinal volumes. But, as W. H. Goold once wrote, all Owen’s work is marked by the spiritual application of divine truth on human character generally and on the experience of the saints in particular, and it is this experimental dimension in all his teaching that is of universal and permanent value, and brings us nearer to the great goal of his ministry, which was, quite simply, to help his fellow Christians to live according to Scripture.


  1. Introductory Essay to The Death of Death, p.25.
  2. Vol 24 Owen’s Works has since been translated from the Latin and published by Soli Deo Gloria as Biblical Theology: The History of Theology from Adam to Christ ISBN: 978 1 87761 183 4.
  3. The seven volume Commentary on Hebrews was re-issued by the Trust in 1991.

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