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Meet the Man Who Brought John Owen to a Modern Age

It’s unlikely that those unfamiliar with Banner of Truth’s Puritan Paperback series have ever heard the name Robert J. K. Law. Those who’ve read those books, however, owe a debt of gratitude to the pastor whose personal labor of love transformed several of John Owen’s writings, making them readable and accessible to the modern Christian.

Even among those who are aware of Law, little is known of the man himself.

Those brave enough to dive into Owen’s unedited works may quickly grow discouraged when facing the laborious task before them. Many echo and amplify the assessment of Owen’s style by J. I. Packer, who called it “heavy and hard to read” possessing a “lumbering literary gait.” That was certainly my experience when I embarked upon what is considered Owen’s magnum opus, The Death of Death in the Death of Christ. If I were to proceed with Owen, I needed a guide, someone to put the proverbial cookies on a lower shelf for me.

Such has been the contribution of Dr. Law.

Medical Doctor Turned Pastor

Law began his professional career as a medical doctor in the mid-1950s. He served on staff for a time at the historic St. Thomas Hospital in London. Much of his work was with patients with mental disorders. Over time, he grew increasingly critical of what he labeled “orthodox psychiatry,” declaring that its failure to help people demonstrated its woeful ineffectiveness.

This discontentment eventually led him out of the field of medicine and into pastoral ministry where he believed that Christian clergy, because of their biblical training, were more fit to counsel those facing emotional pain. He served four Anglican parishes in Devon County, England, from 1964 through 1994.

Unsurprisingly, pastoral counseling occupied a large portion of Law’s ministry. In 1999 he co-authored a book with Malcolm Bowden on “the myth of mental illness,” a nouthetic approach to counseling similar to that popularized in America in the 1970s by Jay Adams.

Reformed Anglican

Describing himself as a “Reformed Anglican,” Law immersed himself in the writings of John Owen, translating or rephrasing 16 volumes in his spare time. At least six of those volumes have been printed by Banner of Truth. In their preface, the publishers explain that Law “began his work purely for his own profit and as a memory aid. As he proceeded, he felt more and more . . . the desire that others should share in his findings.”

“On examining the quality of Dr. Law’s abridgments,” the publishers continue, “we have fully shared his enthusiasm for putting the best of Owen into the hands of as many readers as possible.”

In an early review of these more contemporary versions, the Metropolitan Tabernacle Bookshop called it a skilled abridgment (with sensitive modernizing of language), adding: “You really do not realize that you are reading a Puritan—except for the freshness and helpfulness of the material.”

There’s no discounting the value of John Owen’s extant writings to today’s pastors and serious-minded Christians. Nevertheless, it’s true that his literary style is cumbersome and difficult to persevere through. Thanks to the loving labor of Law, Owen has been introduced to a new generation of readers who may otherwise have avoided the written wisdom of this memorable man of God.

Man of Humility and Conviction

Law was a man of humility and great conviction. He loved Jesus Christ supremely and refused to compromise while the theological pendulum within the Church of England swung leftward. In 1994, after serving for 22 years at St. Paul’s Church in Devon, he resigned his public ministry over the issue of women’s ordination. By then, he’d become quite outspoken regarding the liberal drift within the Anglican Church.

His inevitable separation was not altogether unique from that of his Puritan forebears four centuries earlier. If the name R. J. K. Law is known today, it’s probably only as it appears in small print on the cover of a John Owen paperback.

But for those who’ve benefited from his tedious labor of updating the writings of perhaps the most well-known Puritan preacher, Law deserves our recognition and gratitude. Today (March 15) marks the second anniversary of Dr. Law’s passing at age 87.

At the time of his death he was residing in a nursing home in Devon, England. He was buried by St. Paul’s Church in nearby Paignton. His obituary described him as a loving husband, father, and grandfather.

We should get to know him as one who has opened the windows of the past to help us look forward to that day when Christ will gather to himself his church from every age.

For those unfamiliar with Dr. Law’s abridgments of Owen’s works, I’d recommend these: The Glory of Christ, The Holy Spirit, The Spirit and the Church, Spiritual-Mindedness, Communion with God, and Apostasy from the Gospel.

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