Carl Trueman on How John Owen Speaks to the Most Pressing Pastoral Issue of Our Day

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Below is Carl Trueman’s foreword to Matthew Barrett and Michael Haykin’s new book, Owen on the Christian Life: Living for the Glory of God in Christ (which is currently 50% off at WTS Books!).


9781433537288We live in an age when the challenges to Christianity, theological and practical (if one can separate such), are pressing in from all sides. Perhaps the most obvious challenge is the issue of homosexuality. Given the high pastoral stakes in this matter, it is important that we make the right decisions.

What has this to do with the thought of a man who died nearly 350 years ago? Simply this: in our era much practical thinking is driven by emotions. Emotions are enemies of fine distinctions. And yet the ethical and practical issues facing the church today demand precisely such fine distinctions if we are to do our task as pastors and church members: comfort the brokenhearted and rebuke those at ease in their sin. And John Owen was of an era when fine distinctions were part of the very fabric of practical theology.

Like one of his great theological heroes, Augustine, Owen was an acute psychologist of the Christian life.

Further, as part of the great post-Reformation elaboration and codification of Reformed orthodoxy, he was adept at careful distinctions and precise argument.

Finally, as a pastor and preacher, he constantly brought these two things together in practical ways in his congregation. We might add that the pastoral problems in the seventeenth century—greed, sex, anxiety, marital strife, petty personal vendettas—have a remarkably familiar and contemporary feel.

Owen thus wrestled with what he as pastor and his congregants could expect from the Christian life. Is such a life to be marked merely by an increasing appreciation for justification in Christ? Or is it also to involve the steady slaying of sin within our bodily members? Certainly it is hard to read the New Testament and see Paul’s imperatives as simply pointing to legal impossibilities in order to drive us to despair. If they were simply that, why does he typically place them at the end of his letters, after talking about the work that is done in Christ?

Further, Owen wrestled with the nature of sin and temptation. Is it sinful to be tempted? Well, that cannot be true in the simplest and most straightforward way because the New Testament teaches that Christ was sinless while tempted in every way as we are. This is where fine distinctions become helpful. Owen distinguishes between external temptations and internal. Thus one might pass a suggestive poster outside a shop that tempts one to have a lustful thought and yet resist that temptation and not sin. Or one may be sitting at home daydreaming and start to have inappropriate thoughts about a neighbor’s wife. The one represents an external temptation; the other, internal. That difference is crucial and surely plays into current discussions of same-sex attraction. Some say that the tendency itself is not wrong because temptation itself is not wrong. Owen would reply that it depends on how one is using the term temptation. Thus, Owen has much to say to perhaps the most pressing pastoral issue of our day.

Yet our culture is against Owen. That is not so much a theological statement as a comment on our intellectual life. Owen is hard to read. He wrote in long sentences and sometimes arcane and technical vocabulary. I suspect his theology is not so much rejected by the church today as simply not read. The effort is too great, whatever the actual reward might be.

For this reason, it is a pleasure to write the foreword to this book. Here the neophyte will find Owen’s understanding of the Christian life explained in concise and clear prose. And for committed Owen aficionados, the authors provide a helpful overview. Hopefully, it will be the gateway for many who have never read Owen themselves to now be encouraged to do so. Given the times in which we live, when the most important questions both without and within the church relate to practical, pastoral ministry, a sound understanding of the Christian life is of paramount importance. There is no better place to start than Owen, and this is a fine introduction to the great man on precisely that topic.

Carl R. Trueman Paul Woolley Professor of Church History Westminster Theological Seminary


[Note that in addition to 50% off this title, WTS is offering 50% off individual titles in the Theologians on the Christian Life series if you buy 5 or more.]

Here are some endorsements for the book:

“The writings of John Owen constitute an entire country of biblical, exegetical, doctrinal, spiritual, casuistical, practical, ecclesiastical, controversial, and political theology. Massive in size, Oweniana cannot be visited on a day trip. Indeed a lifetime hardly suffices for all there is to explore. But hire as your tour guides Matthew Barrett and Michael Haykin, and the daunting journey seems possible after all. With these seasoned scholars and enthusiasts as companions, visiting the varied counties, the significant towns, and the great cities of Oweniana is as enjoyable as it is instructive. Owen on the Christian Life simply excels as an outstanding contribution to an already first-class series.” Sinclair B. Ferguson, Professor of Systematic Theology, Redeemer Seminary, Dallas, Texas

“Theologically rich, carefully researched, and historically grounded, this book leads us into the wisdom of one of the greatest theologians of all time. Barrett and Haykin’s study of John Owen expands our view of the Christian life to embrace the knowledge of God’s glory in Jesus Christ. As our Lord reminded us, that is life indeed (John 17:3). Once you finish this book, you will definitely want to read Owen himself!” Joel R. Beeke, President, Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary

“John Owen’s work is well worth knowing, especially since he was one of the giants who understood that all good theology is inevitably pastoral. Matthew Barrett and Michael A. G. Haykin strongly believe this as well; therefore, they prove able guides committed to introducing key theological emphases that not only inform Owen’s own conception of the Christian life but should guide ours as well.” Kelly M. Kapic, Professor of Theological Studies, Covenant College

“All that Owen wrote sought to promote contemplation of God and pursuit of godliness. This clear and loving account of his theology provides a sure guide to the spiritual riches of a magnificent Christian thinker.” John Webster, Professor of Systematic Theology, University of Aberdeen

“John Owen was arguably the most important Puritan; his mind, the most penetrating; and his understanding of the Bible and theology, preeminent. As a pastor, he had a deep concern for the spiritual well-being of his hearers and readers. It is gratifying that this excellent discussion of Owen’s consideration of the Christian life brings his work to a wider readership.” Robert Letham, Director of Research and Senior Lecturer in Systematic and Historical Theology, Wales Evangelical School of Theology; author, The Holy Trinity and Union with Christ

Owen on the Christian Life is one of the most valuable accounts yet published of the practical theology of the most eminent English Puritan. Owen’s theology has become known for its difficulty and polemic, and yet, as Barrett and Haykin demonstrate, it was driven by and was intended to develop a life of discipline and devotion. This book will be one of the best studies of Owen’s thinking to be published in anticipation of his anniversary year.” Crawford Gribben, Professor of Early Modern British History, Queen’s University

“As Barrett and Haykin make clear, John Owen always wrote for life: truth is not just to be believed but also to be experienced. Their book explores many of the great truths of the Christian faith in the hands of this great thinker. They translate the wisdom of his age for the benefit of ours, all in a way that helps us faithfully to live in the reality of God’s holiness, love, and grace.” Tim Cooper, Associate Professor of Church History, University of Otago, New Zealand

“John Owen is one of the church’s greatest minds. His theology runs deep: it is exegetically robust, expansive in scope, and penetratingly insightful. Barrett and Haykin ably guide readers through Owen’s work and mine many brilliant gems. I highly recommend this book for anyone weary of banal and Christless spirituality.” J. V. Fesko, Academic Dean and Professor of Systematic and Historical Theology, Westminster Seminary California

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