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  • Daniel Klassen

John Owen: Fortitude in Suffering

John Owen (1616-1683) is most known in history as a theologian with a towering intellect. This comes as no surprise since he spent much of his time committed to the academy. At the age of ten, he began grammar school, and at the age of twelve, he was admitted to Queen’s College, Oxford. Later, he served as the administrator at the University of Oxford, a position which acquired him a seat in Parliament. If that were not enough to convince us of Owen’s brilliance, his eighty-something theological publications cement his image as a prominent theologian in the history of Christendom. These were not small publications, either—they were complex and substantial in their content, most of which are still studied today by theologians. However, his work cost him his health in later years since he only allowed himself four hours of sleep each night for the sake of studying.

In the culture of that day, Owen often found himself defending the minority opinions, many of which very well could have condemned him to prison or death. However, he was well respected by those of nobility and this often granted him safe passage. For us to simply observe the brilliance of Owen’s mind and the substantial work he produced is enough to demand our respect as well. However, he was more than a theologian. The example of his fortitude in the midst of suffering is as remarkable and noteworthy as his theological contributions.   

Apart from his theological studies, John Owen was also a family man. In 1643 at the age of 27, He married Mary Rooke, and together they had eleven children. All but one died in infancy. Only a daughter survived to adulthood, but she died of tuberculosis shortly after her marriage. It is this historical fact of bereavement that surrounded most of his life coupled with the intensity of his theological work that draws great intrigue. How was he able to go on in his studies with such grief surrounding him?

We could very easily speculate that he used his studies to escape his reality. However, judging by the content of his works, and even their titles, we find enough evidence to conclude that idea to be false. Furthermore, his discipline in the study started long before he was married. We are more likely closer to the truth if we understand his study and writing to be for the healing of his wounds.

In the summer of 1647, John and Mary buried two daughters, Mary and Eliza, one month apart. That same year, Owen’s book The Death of Death in the Death of Christ was published. Nothing could be more fitting, for in the death of Christ, the greatest comfort in the face of death is given. In Christ’s death, death dies. No longer are we burdened by the overwhelming reality that God’s judgement is sure against sin, for it has been placed on Christ.

The spring of that next year, their son Thomas died. Then, one year after Thomas’s death, the Owens’ firstborn son, John, passed away at the age of five (or six). A year later, their daughter, named Elizabeth, died. Five children dying in four years seems so surreal one thinks they are reading a story of horror-filled fiction. But this was the reality which met Owen head-on.

After two of his sons died five years later, Owen published two of his most famous works, The Mortification of Sin, and Communion with God. These three major works during the darkest period of Owen’s life shed light on his focus throughout his suffering. As I previously mentioned, the death of Christ gave hope in the face of death. Closely related to the death of Christ is The Mortification of Sin. This book displayed Owen’s razor-sharp vision picking out a truly significant aspect of life, namely killing the sin which plagues us to death. Sin is the universal problem of the human heart, and our duty in Christ is to put it to death before it can do so to us. Or, in Owen’s own words, “Be killing sin, or sin will be killing you.”

As for Communion with God, Owen sought to display that although each member of the Trinity is equal in essence, we relate differently to each member. According to many theologians, this book is noted as one of his most helpful books because it helps the reader not only to think Trinitarian but to live Trinitarian. It is a book steeped in the love God has for His Son, shared with us by the Holy Spirit; it is a book of tremendous comfort for the weary soul. His other works show that he spent much time thinking about and coherently laying out the blessings of being united to Christ by faith, and the blessing of being filled with the Holy Spirit.

Blessed quietness, Holy quietness, What assurance in my soul; On the stormy sea, Jesus speaks to me, And the billows cease to roll.

These words were penned centuries after Owen’s death, yet they fit him well. It seems, simply from an overview of Owen’s life and works, that this quiet assurance filled his soul. His eyes were steadfastly heavenward, almost forced there, as it were, by the trials and tribulations he faced. His theology was unaffected by his experience because it had infiltrated his experience to bring a sturdy foundation, strong in the midst of trials. And although everything around his soul seemed to crumble, Christ remained all his hope and stay.

Owen suffered from painful kidney stones and asthma for a short time before his death at the age of 67. A year later, his work The Glory of Christ was published. He wrote in his preface to the reader, “But, alas! after our utmost and most diligent inquiries, we must say, How little a portion is it of him that we can understand! His glory is incomprehensible, and his praises are unutterable. Some things an illuminated mind may conceive of it; but what we can express in comparison of what it is in itself, is even less than nothing.” No longer was this the case for John Owen, he could see, with great clarity, Christ displayed in full glory.

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