Volume 40 - Issue 3

The Duty of a Pastor: John Owen on Feeding the Flock by Diligent Preaching of the Word

By Matthew Barrett


In the twenty-first century the pastor is expected to fulfill an incredible amount of ministry responsibilities. Too often, unfortunately, the proclamation of God’s Word becomes just another duty in an unending list of ministry assignments. In order to counter such a trend, this article looks to the Puritan, John Owen, who reminds pastors that their first priority is to “preach the Word” (2 Tim 4:2). After a brief exploration of Owen’s own pastoral ministry, we will examine a sermon Owen gave at an ordination service in 1682 in order to understand why, exactly, Owen believes everything hinges upon gospel-proclamation. In doing so, we will probe four pillars Owen affirms as indispensable to such a task, as well as identify the specific tools Owen says every pastor must possess and utilize. Whether one is a brand new pastor, a seasoned shepherd, or a professor training others for future ministry, Owen sheds invaluable light upon the most important undertaking in the church, namely, feeding the people of God the Word of God.

“The first and principal duty of a pastor is to feed the flock by diligent preaching of the word.” —John Owen1

“He is no pastor who doth not feed his flock.” —John Owen2

What is the main duty of a pastor? In the twenty-first century the answer to such a question will no doubt intimidate any future pastor from entering the ministry. D. A. Carson and John Woodbridge capture such a point precisely when they describe what is expected from a contemporary pastor:

The modern pastor is expected to be a preacher, counselor, administrator, PR guru, fund-raiser and hand-holder. Depending upon the size of the church he serves, he may have to be an expert on youth, . . . something of an accountant, janitor, evangelist, small groups expert, and excellent chair of committees, a team player and a transparent leader.3

Truth be told, many graduates from seminary enter into churches where this is exactly what is expected of them. Sadly, too often proclamation takes a back seat. The modern pastor is so busy marketing the church’s identity, raising funds for the next building campaign, or overseeing business meetings that preaching the Scriptures becomes secondary or, even worse, tertiary in its importance. In the midst of these many responsibilities, Paul’s pastoral imperative to Timothy sounds foreign and archaic: “preach the Word” (2 Tim 4:2).

Yet, one is hard pressed to find a pastoral responsibility in the NT that takes priority over the preaching of God’s Word (e.g., 1 Tim 4:13–16). When we compare the NT emphasis on the proclamation of the Word to twenty-first century priorities in ministry, it must be asked, “Has preaching become just another duty in a long list of ministry chores?” Pastor Brian Croft believes this is the danger pastors face today: “Time to study in preparation for preaching often gets squeezed out of a pastor’s busy schedule.”4 However, the NT provides the modern pastor with an entirely different agenda: “Amid the competing demands of ministry, the study and preaching of the word of God should be the central focus of every faithful pastor’s ministry.”5

Croft’s admonition certainly reiterates wisdom from the past. In light of the serious temptation the modern pastor faces to downplay the proclamation of Scripture in his ministry, the voice of an old Puritan pastor-theologian like John Owen can be insightful and refreshingly biblical.6 Puritans like Owen asked the same question (“What is the main duty of a pastor?”), but came to a very different kind of answer than many do today. For Owen, the main duty of a pastor is to preach God’s Word to God’s people, as a shepherd feeding his sheep. For Owen, there was no higher priority (or privilege) in ministry.

Allegedly, John Owen once said to King Charles II, “Could I possess the tinker’s abilities, please your majesty, I would gladly relinquish all my learning.”7 This “tinker” was none other than John Bunyan, author of Pilgrim’s Progress. Though it is difficult to verify the historicity of this anecdote, if it is true it displays not only Owen’s high regard for those whom God had gifted in preaching his Word, but also Owen’s great esteem for the proclamation of the Word of God. What higher calling could one receive than preaching the Word of God to the people of God? Indeed, Owen was willing to trade all of his education and academic regalia to possess the ability Bunyan had in proclaiming the gospel.

What many don’t know, however, is that Owen himself was a preacher whose sermons influenced many for the cause of Christ. Few have drawn attention to Owen as a preacher. In part, this may be because in our own day we are captivated by Owen’s many theological and polemical writings. However, if we are to have a balanced picture of Owen, we must not ignore his sermons or his ability to exposit Scripture. Therefore, in what follows not only will we fill a lacuna by bringing to the surface Owen’s pastoral role, but we will specifically focus on what Owen believed was the “principal duty” of a pastor.8 As we proceed, we will (1) begin with a brief introduction to Owen’s pastoral pilgrimage in order to bear witness to his credibility in ministry, and then (2) turn to examine Owen’s own advice at an ordination service as to the principal duty of a pastor. In doing so, we intend to sit as pupils at the feet of Owen as he prunes our view of the pastor’s priorities and reconfigures them around the proclamation of the gospel.

1. Owen as Pastor

Owen first began what would become a very prolific career by penning his famous A Display of Arminianism (1643), dedicating it to the Committee of Religion (appointed by the House of Lords). As a result, they bestowed on Owen the living of Fordham in Essex.9 Owen’s own perception of his preaching was all too meager. On one occasion Owen even confessed that his ministry did not seem to benefit many in his congregation.10 However, in putting Owen’s own self-estimation aside, history tells us a different story. It seems that Owen thought too low of himself as a preacher. As Ferguson observes, Owen’s preaching “drew influential congregations, and throughout the course of his life was helpful to many people.”11 Ferguson attributes Owen’s despair to the people he was preaching to and pastoring each week. “Perhaps overawed by the learning and spiritual insight of their young pastor, the people mistakenly felt that it was unnecessary to express their appreciation of his ministry. Perhaps they appreciated him too little.”12 Regardless, Owen was very much a pastor concerned with teaching God’s Word to those entrusted to his care. For example, Owen himself says he recognized that his people were “grossly ignorant” of the person of Christ and the gospel.13 Therefore, says Owen, he set out to write a lesser catechism for the children and a greater catechism for the adults.14 According to Owen’s own testimony, therefore, he was motivated, at least in part, by a desire to teach the truths of the Scriptures to those under his ministry.15

As Owen’s ministry at Fordham ended in 1646, Owen was asked to preach before Parliament on April 29. This opportunity would be just one of many others to come in which Owen’s preaching would have a great influence not only on the local body of Christ, but also on those in political office, governing the country. Later in 1646 Owen would pastor St. Peter’s in Coggeshall, a congregation of over two thousand people, and a distinguished position at that. Owen’s reputation as a preacher was beginning to blossom.

In June of 1648 Colchester was inundated by General Fairfax, and Owen was to preach before the soldiers, his text being Habakkuk 3:1–9. Shortly thereafter, on January 30, 1649, King Charles I was sentenced to death for treason and executed, sending the country into an entirely new direction. In the midst of these massive political waves, Owen preached to them the day after the execution of Charles I. His text being Jeremiah 15:19–20, Owen’s sermon has been called by Peter Toon a most “appropriate message in a difficult hour.”16 And as Ferguson notes, it was “one of the most signal tokens of the esteem in which he was already held that, although young in years, the Commons should look to him on such an occasion for spiritual wisdom and guidance.”17

In April Owen would preach to Parliament once again but this time he caught the attention of Oliver Cromwell and a relationship between the two was formed, one that resulted in Owen becoming Cromwell’s chaplain.18 Cromwell relieved Owen of his pastoral duties at Coggeshall and he traveled with Cromwell to Ireland as chaplain from August 1649 to February 1650. War left its scarring mark on Owen no doubt. Ferguson describes the horror: “The holocaust stirred something within the depths of Owen’s soul, and on his return he pleaded with Parliament for mercy to follow this justice.”19 In a sermon titled “The Steadfastness of the Promises, and the Sinfulness of Staggering,” Owen passionately exhorted his audience: “How is it that Jesus Christ is in Ireland only as a lion staining all his garments with the blood of his enemies; and none to hold him out as a lamb sprinkled with his own blood to his friends.”20 Owen goes on to say that the “tears and cries of the inhabitants of Dublin after the manifestations of Christ are ever in my view.” Owen longed that there be one “gospel preacher for every walled town in the English possession in Ireland.” One can sense the crackling in Owen’s own voice and the tears in his own eyes as he trembles at the thought that “the people perish for want of knowledge.”21 What they need, pleads Owen, is Jesus Christ and him crucified. Therefore, says Owen, be faithful in this: “do your utmost for the preaching of the gospel in Ireland.”22 This sermon not only demonstrates the power of Owen’s preaching in light of his contemporary context, but his ability to keep the gospel of Jesus Christ first priority even in the midst of the most difficult and sometimes horrific of circumstances. While he was certainly a man in allegiance to his motherland, nevertheless, for Owen, the gospel transcends race, language, and any other barrier, penetrating to Jew and Gentile, yes, even England and Ireland alike, calling all men to repentance and faith in Christ as Savior.

In 1650 Owen was appointed to Whitehall, but one year later he became Dean of Christ Church, Oxford, only later to be appointed Vice-Chancellor of the University (1652). There Owen preached on a consistent basis to young men in their teenage years. He also joined Thomas Goodwin at St. Mary’s on certain Sundays, and it was there that his works On the Mortification of Sin and On Temptation began to evolve.

Everything would change, however, with the fluidity of the political climate. After the death of Cromwell in 1658, certain Puritan leaders were afraid Britain might be falling into anarchy. Therefore, they asked the exiled Charles II to return to England as her monarch. That same year, Owen moved to Stadhampton where he pastored. However, events would spiral downward with the Great Ejection of 1662. Over two thousand Puritans were exiled from their churches on St. Bartholomew’s Day, August 24. Nevertheless, despite the Five Mile Act (1665), which prohibited pastors from returning to their congregations, Owen continued to preach God’s Word even with the threat of the government hanging over his head. They could take away his congregation—which undoubtedly would have been a dagger in Owen’s heart, removing this shepherd from his sheep—but Owen would not give up God’s Word, nor the exposition of it to those who were starving.23 Owen had plenty of offers—for example, he was invited to pastor John Cotton’s First Congregational Church in Boston, and the presidency of Harvard College tempted him as well. But Owen remained where he was, persevering in the midst of these difficult times, continuing to preach the gospel whenever he was able, and seeking the ecclesiastical liberty he so desired.

2. The Principal Duty of a Pastor

Like other Puritan pastors, Owen was both an advocate of national righteousness and guardian of the souls entrusted to him. But first and foremost, he was a preacher. He was a preacher because he rightly knew that through the Holy Scriptures God had brought the Church into existence in the first century, kindling faith in the hearts of men and women (see, e.g., Jas 1:18 and 1 Pet 1:22–25), and that it was through this self-same Word that God had brought about the Reformation, which earlier Puritans, of the 1560s and 1570s, could remember first-hand. And it was by the Word that God enabled men and women to live lives that glorified him, a key theme in Owen’s thought. Therefore, says Owen, the “first and principal duty of a pastor is to feed the flock by diligent preaching of the word.”24

The Reformation had involved a major shift of emphasis in the cultivation of Christian spirituality. Medieval Roman Catholicism had majored on symbols and images as the means for cultivating spirituality. The Reformation, coming as it did hard on the heels of the invention of the printing press, turned back to the biblical emphasis on “words” as the primary vehicle of cultivating spirituality, both spoken words and written words, and, in particular, the words of the Bible. As a faithful child of the Reformation, Owen simply continued this Word-centeredness. It involved him in conflict, but he contended for his convictions and stood fast. Thus, when men like William Laud, who was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury in 1633 and eventually executed in 1645, began to emphasize that the Lord’s Supper was due greater reverence than the Word,25 Owen knew that he had to stand against him and assert the priority of the Word in preaching.26

An excellent avenue into Owen’s thinking about preaching can be found in a sermon he preached on September 8, 1682, at an ordination service, which is entitled “The Duty of a Pastor.”27 The sermon text was Jeremiah 3:15, “And I will give you pastors according to my heart, which shall feed you with knowledge and understanding.” The reason this sermon stands out above the rest is that in it Owen instructs this young preacher on the nature of preaching itself. Owen’s aim in this sermon is not to give an exhaustive list of duties a pastor must attend to. Rather, as he himself explains at the beginning of his sermon, his purpose is simply to lay down those duties that are especially incumbent upon the pastor, and first place among them is the proclamation of the Word of God. These duties get at the very essence of what it means to be a pastor who faithfully shepherds the sheep Christ has purchased.

3. Feed the Gospel to the Sheep

What is the duty of the pastor? First and foremost, the pastor’s duty is to feed the sheep the gospel of Jesus Christ. Appealing to Jeremiah 3:15, Owen recognizes that the pastor is to feed the sheep “knowledge and understanding.” “This feeding,” says Owen, “is by preaching of the gospel.” “He is no pastor who doth not feed his flock.”28 Here Owen echoes the Reformers before him. Not only is it the case that a church is no longer a true church if it abandons the gospel, but so also is a pastor no pastor at all if he fails to feed his people the gospel.

Owen sees support for such a bold claim in Acts 6:4, where the apostles are described as those committed to giving themselves “continually to the word.” The pastor, as Paul tells us in 1 Timothy 5:17, is one who labors “in the word and doctrine,” in order to “make all things subservient to this work of preaching and instructing the church.”29 Likewise, Paul, speaking of his own preaching and the design behind it, says in Colossians 1:28 that we preach Christ, “warning every man, and teaching every man in all wisdom; that we may present every man perfect in Christ Jesus 30 How, asks Owen, does Paul do this? The answer comes in verse 29: “Whereunto I also labour, striving according to his working, which worketh in me mightily.” Paul, in other words, strives as a man running a race, or as a wrestler who is fighting to win the championship. And he does so by the power of God. It is God, it is his mighty power, that is at work in Paul. Owen captures the spirit of Paul in his paraphrase: “I labour diligently, I strive as in a race, I wrestle for victory,—by the mighty in-working power of Christ working in me; and that with great power.”31

Owen lists several ways the pastor can, through preaching, feed his congregation both knowledge and understanding. First, spiritual wisdom comes through knowing the gospel. If one knows and understands the mysteries of the gospel, not only will he, as a pastor, find spiritual wisdom, but he will then be able to feed the gospel to those he is ministering to so that they also may mature and grow in godliness. As Owen advises, “There is spiritual wisdom in understanding the mysteries of the gospel, that we may be able to declare the whole counsel of God, and the riches and treasures of the grace of Christ, unto the souls of men” (cf. Acts 20:27; 1 Cor 2:1–4; Eph 3:7–9).32 Owen perceives how the early church grew and thrived because they had “great insight into spiritual things, and into the mysteries of the gospel.”33 Certainly Paul desires this to be true of all, for he prays that “the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give unto you the spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of him: the eyes of your understanding being enlightened; that ye may know what is the hope of his calling, and what the riches of the glory of his inheritance in the saints” (Eph 1:17–18).

Owen acknowledges, however, what a difficult task this is. But everything, he insists, must begin with the pastor himself. “If there be not some degree of eminency in themselves, how shall we lead on such persons as these to perfection?” Stated otherwise, if the pastor is not ignited by the gospel, impassioned by the gospel, transformed by the gospel, then he will be of no help to those under his care. Therefore, we “must labour ourselves to have a thorough knowledge of these mysteries, or we shall be useless to a great part of the church.”34 We, as pastors, are required to have a spiritual wisdom and understanding of the mysteries of the gospel.

Second, authority comes from the Spirit. There must be authority in one’s teaching and preaching, otherwise the sheep will disregard one’s instruction and, as a result, fail to grow in both knowledge and understanding. Such authority, however, is not in the external, but is to be found within, specifically through the presence of the Holy Spirit. Or as Owen explains, it matters not if one has the proper “office.” What is needed is “unction.” To be clear, Owen is not ranting against formal education or offices in the church. He understands their importance and benefitted from them firsthand. However, what Owen is warning against is the assumption that merely obtaining a certain office or title is sufficient for authority and effectiveness in ministry. In contrast, Owen believes something more is needed, namely, the work of the Holy Spirit within the preacher. “The scribes had an outward call to teach in the church,” Owen remarks, “but they had no unction, no anointing, that could evidence they had the Holy Ghost in his gifts and graces.”35 Or consider Christ: “Christ had no outward call; but he had an unction,—he had a full unction of the Holy Ghost in his gifts and graces, for the preaching of the gospel.”36 No doubt this is evident in Mark 9:28 and Matthew 7:29, where the scribes question Jesus, asking him on what authority he does these things. His authority, however, is not in an external or formal office, nor is it by the power of man; rather, it is an authority from God himself, one that the scribes lacked.

Therefore, insists Owen, pastors must preach with this unction from God. It is an unction that comes not from ourselves, but from the Holy Spirit. One only has as much authority, says Owen, as that which is given to him by God.37 He can preach the Word all day long, but if it not be accompanied by the Spirit, and if it not be through the Spirit, it is done in vain.

Third, one must preach, but first and foremost preach to himself. Should one fail to feel the conviction of his own message, how can he then expect his congregation to be moved by the knowledge he has impressed upon them? The pastor, therefore, must have a genuine, true, and real experience of the “power” of those things he is preaching to others. “I think, truly, that no man preaches that sermon well to others that doth not first preach it to his own heart.”38 The pastor who does not first feed and digest the message he is preaching by applying it in his own life, so that he is convicted of its truth, may be, as far as he knows, poisoning his people. Unless “he finds the power of it in his own heart, he cannot have any ground of confidence that it will have power in the hearts of others.”39

Be not mistaken, Owen warns, this takes work! It is far easier, says Owen, for the pastor to preach with his head, and not with his heart. “To bring our heads to preach, is but to fill our minds and memories with some notions of truth, of our own or other men, and speak them out to give satisfaction to ourselves and others: this is very easy.” On the other hand, says Owen, “to bring our hearts to preach, is to be transformed into the power of these truths; or to find the power of them, both before, in fashioning our minds and hearts, and in delivering of them, that we may have benefit; and to be acted with zeal for God and compassion to the souls of men.”40

Fourth, one must have skill to divide God’s Word rightly. Given what has been said so far, one might think that all one needs is the Spirit, as if everything else is irrelevant. Not true. Owen does not ignore the significance and necessity of the ordinary. Yes, without unction one’s preaching has lost its authority. But without the practical skills of biblical interpretation, one will easily mislead the people of God. Therefore, “practical wisdom” is enormously important. The ability to rightly divide the Word of God keeps the pastor from feeding his people in such a way that they are malnourished. God’s people may begin with milk, but it is not long until they need meat. The pastor who fails to utilize the tools of biblical interpretation will have no meat to offer his hungry congregation.

Fifth, one must know his flock. One can have the skills needed to divide God’s Word, but if one does not know how to then apply what was gleaned from God’s Word to his congregation, in all of its uniqueness, then those skills have done him little good. Effective application, in other words, is the true test as to whether or not a proper knowledge of God’s Word has pierced the hearts of the people. However, such piercing application cannot take effect if the shepherd is unfamiliar with the sheep under his care. Therefore, it is absolutely essential that a pastor knows and considers the state of his flock. “He who hath not the state of his flock continually in his eye, and in his mind, in his work of preaching, fights uncertainly, as a man beating the air.”41 The pastor is to know his people’s temptations. He is to be familiar with those areas where they are spiritually decaying and withering. The pastor who does not consider these things, warns Owen, “never preaches aright unto them.”42

Sixth, one must preach with a zeal for God’s glory and a compassion for God’s people. In other words, the pastor’s focus must be both vertical and horizontal. It is vertical in that his mind is consumed with the glory of God. It is horizontal in that his love is directed towards the health of those God has entrusted to him. Should he do the former, the latter should naturally follow. In other words, if he is truly concerned with God’s glory, then he will be occupied with the state and progress of God’s people. A pastor’s fixed gaze upon the glory of God, therefore, is instrumental to the continual advancement of God’s people in their knowledge of the gospel and love for one another.

Everything Owen has said so far has had a primary focus on the pastor as preacher. It would be a mistake to think, however, that none of this involves the congregation. The congregation’s concern should be for her pastor(s). These six principles should be on her mind, and she should seek in every way to encourage her pastor in them. One way the church can do this, says Owen, is through prayer. Not only does the pastor desperately need to be on his knees in prayer on a daily basis, but the people to whom he is ministering need to be doing likewise. “We have great need to pray for ourselves, and that you should pray for us. Pray for your ministers.”43

4. Pray Continually

Could there be anything more important than the minister meeting with God on a daily basis if he is going to lead God’s people in the right direction? It is the duty of the pastor to be in continual prayer for the churches over which Christ hath made them overseers.44 Owen gives four reasons why the pastor ought to pray and another three things he ought to pray for. First, no “man can have any evidence in his own soul that he doth conscientiously perform any ministerial duty towards his flock, who doth not continually pray for them.”45 If he does not pray for those he preaches to, having a “spirit of prayer” continually for them at all times, then he can have no assurance that he is truly a minister, shepherding the flock, nor a confidence that his work is “accepted with God.”46 Second, when the pastor prays for his people, he also blesses his people. Therefore, a pastor should pray often for his people, seeking to bless them with his prayers. Third, the pastor who does not pray for his people does not or at least cannot maintain a love for his people. “He will meet with so many provocations, imprudences, and miscarriages, that nothing can keep up his heart with inflamed love towards them, but by praying for them continually.”47 Prayer, says Owen, will “conquer all prejudices.”48 Fourth, it is through praying for the people that God teaches the pastor what he should preach to them. When the pastor prays he is considering the condition of his people and in doing so God teaches the minsters of the gospel how to apply his Word to the flock. “The more we pray for our people,” says Owen, “the better shall we be instructed what to preach to them.” This is why the apostles, in Acts 6:4, “gave themselves to prayer and the word.”49

So we have seen, through Owen’s lenses, why the pastor must pray. But the question remains: What shall we pray for? Owen gives three things every pastor should pray for. First, a pastor is to pray that the Word preached would be successful in the hearts of those preached to. “We are to pray for the success of the word unto all the ends of it; and that is, for all the ends of living unto God,—for direction in duty, for instruction in the truth, for growth in grace, for all things whereby we may come to the enjoyment of God.”50 If we do not, then we “sow seed at random, which will not succeed merely by our sowing.”51 Using the analogy of a farmer and his field, Owen paints a picture: The farmer breaks up the fallow ground and then sprinkles his seeds. But unless rain comes down the seed will not grow! And if it does not grow, then the farmer has no crop. Likewise, though the pastor puts his hands to work, casting the seed of the gospel, if the “showers of the Spirit” do not come, then there will be no growth or profit. “Therefore, let us pray that a blessing might be upon the word.”52

Second, a pastor is to pray that Christ would be present whenever his people meet together. Indeed, everything hinges upon whether or not Christ is truly with us. The efficacy of the gospel itself, exclaims Owen, entirely depends upon the presence of Christ.53 And the pastor has every reason to believe Christ will be present with his people, for Christ himself, just prior to ascending into heaven, promised he would be with us and would not leave us or forsake us (Matt 28:20). Not only should we trust this promise, but we should eagerly pray in faith that Christ would be present whenever we assemble together. Therefore, one of the main duties of a pastor is to consistently pray and ask Christ that he accompany his people. To be clear, warns Owen, the efficacy of ordinances like preaching and prayer do not depend upon anything in us, whether it be our gifts or even our fervency. Instead, they entirely depend upon the presence of Christ and the power he brings. In that light, Owen commands, “Make this your business, to pray mightily for it in the congregation, to make all these effectual.”54

Third, the pastor is to pray always with a mindset towards the state and condition of the church. A good minister is one who not only knows the mysteries of the gospel, but how to “conduct the best of the congregation unto salvation.”55 He knows their weakness and their temptations.56 He knows when they are experiencing adversity or prosperity.57 He knows, in other words, how things are with his people. Therefore, when he prays he knows what to pray for. He knows what things he must direct his attention to when he prays. In doing so, says Owen, the praying pastor is one who trusts that “Christ himself will come in to recover them who are fallen, to establish them who stand, to heal them who do backslide, to strengthen them who are tempted, to encourage them who are running and pressing forward to perfection, to relieve them who are disconsolate and in the dark.”58

5. Preserve the Truth and the Gospel

Thus far we have seen that Owen presents teaching one’s congregation the gospel and praying for those who have been entrusted to one’s care as two pillars of pastoral ministry. The third pillar is to protect, defend, and preserve the truth and the doctrine of the gospel against all opposition. In reality, Owen clarifies, this is the responsibility of the entire church and everyone in the church. However, it is something that must especially characterize pastors and teachers.

Owen turns immediately to Paul’s instructions on the importance of guarding the gospel. He says, “O Timothy, keep that which is committed to thy trust” (1 Tim 6:20), and that “good thing that is committed to thee keep by the Holy Ghost, which dwelleth in us.” This charge, says Owen, is given to all ministers and it is not to be taken lightly.59 Like Timothy, pastors are to keep the truth, namely, the glorious gospel that God has committed to their trust (1 Tim 1:11). “The church is the ground and pillar of truth, to hold up and declare the truth, in and by its ministers.”60

The pastor, says Owen, is like a shield, defending the truth against all who oppose it. And he is in good company, since church history reminds us that God has preserved his gospel against countless threats through the ministers that have come before us. Otherwise, the truth of the gospel would have been lost long ago.

There are several requirements, though, to being a shield that blocks the gospel from those who would seek to destroy it with their fiery darts. To begin with, the pastor must clearly apprehend what doctrinal truths he is supposed to defend. “Truth may be lost by weakness as well as by wickedness: if we have not a full apprehension of the truth, and that upon its own proper grounds and principles, we shall never be able to defend it.”61 Owen reminds pastors everywhere that one attains this clear apprehension through persistent prayer and study. These two disciplines enable us to “stop the mouth of gainsayers.”62

Additionally, the pastor must love God’s truth; otherwise, he will never “contend earnestly for the truth,” but will instead compromise the truth rather than guard it. Much like preaching, in order to defend the truth, there must be a “sense and experience of it in our own souls.”63 Owen insightfully observes that truth is lost, not because there is a lack of “light, knowledge, and ability,” but because there is a lack of love.64

Moreover, the pastor must always be on guard against the temptation within himself toward novel ideas. Owen warns, “Let us take heed in ourselves of any inclination to novel opinions, especially in, or about, or against such points of faith as those wherein they who are gone before us and are fallen asleep found life, comfort, and power.”65 Owen knows that though certain ideas may seem new and attractive, they can be poisonous, not only undermining right doctrine, but also the very life and soul of the believer. And lest the pastor point his finger at his people, he should keep in mind that often times false doctrine begins with the pastor and trickles down to the people.

Owen gives several examples from his own day: “Who would have thought that we should have come to an indifferency as to the doctrine of justification, and quarrel and dispute about the interest of works in justification; about general redemption, which takes off the efficacy of the redeeming work of Christ; and about the perseverance of the saints; when these were the soul and life of them who are gone before us, who found the power and comfort of them?”66 Owen goes on to warn that unless we find great comfort in these doctrines, as so many did before us, then we will not fight for them, defend them, and maintain them.67 Therefore, Owen admonishes, let us “be zealous and watchful over any thing that should arise in our congregations,” and not merely in our congregations, but within us, as pastors and ministers of the gospel.68 “Take heed lest there be men arising from ourselves speaking perverse things; which is to make way for grievous wolves to break in and tear and rend the flock.”69

Finally, if a pastor is to recognize opposition to the gospel, skill and ability are required. The pastor must train himself to be able to identify and oppose adversaries who deceive the church with their cunning sophistry. How is a pastor to guard the church from such adversaries? He is to guard the church through persistent prayer and watchfulness, always protecting the gospel from those who would seek to distort, twist, and undermine its beauty and power in the church.70

6. Labor Diligently for the Conversion of Souls

The fourth, and final, pillar of pastoral ministry is laboring for the salvation of the lost. The preacher, in other words, is the means “of calling and gathering the elect in all ages; and this they principally are to do by their ministry.”71

Owen makes a fascinating observation at this point. For the apostles, preaching the gospel to the lost was their “chief work.”72 Unlike most ministers today, they were taking the gospel outside of Jerusalem and to the nations for the very first time. Once lost souls were converted, however, they also did the work of teaching believers, making disciples as Christ commanded, bringing them into the ministry of the church. Nevertheless, at this stage in redemptive-history their chief priority always remained the proclamation of the gospel to the unevangelized. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1:17, “Christ sent me not to baptize, but to preach the gospel.” It is not that baptism was unimportant to Paul. Indeed, it was very important. But Paul’s principal work, as a missionary to the Gentiles, was to proclaim the gospel to those who had not heard (see Rom 10:14–17).73

However, Owen argues that the reverse order is true of most ministers living after the apostolic era, for now that the gospel has gone out it is necessary that they devote themselves to specific congregations. As Owen explains, “The first object of our ministry is the church,—to build up and edify the church.”74 Does this entail, then, that pastors are to neglect preaching that aims to convert souls? Not at all. That work remains essential, even if the pastor’s primary role is to care for the sheep God has entrusted to him.75 So both the building up of believers and the proclamation of the gospel to the lost are important. However, Owen argues that the former is primary for the pastor as he is responsible for the flock God has put under his care.76

7. God Strengthen Us

At the end of his sermon, Owen laments that he does not have enough time to explore other pastoral duties, such as administering baptism and the Lord’s Supper, or comforting the consciences of believers, the latter of which he says requires great “prudence, purity, condescension, and patience.”77 Certainly one would benefit from mining the depths of Owen’s other sermons and theological treatises to see these emphases. Nonetheless, his sermon “The Duty of a Pastor” provides a foundation that is built upon and centered on the importance of gospel-proclamation in the life of the pastor.

Unmistakably, Owen exemplified the priority of gospel-proclamation in his own pastoral ministry. As seen already, Owen desperately longed to see Christ in Ireland not as a lion, but as a sacrificial lamb. Such a heart for gospel-proclamation, however, did not appear for the very first time when Owen set foot in Ireland. Owen’s intercession on behalf of lost souls in Ireland was rooted in his past ministry within the church, where he shepherded souls week after week, long before he caught Cromwell’s eye. Therefore, whether he was a lowly country pastor or Vice-Chancellor, Owen’s first concern was to faithfully proclaim the Scriptures for the glory of God and the edification of the saints. By looking at his pastoral ministry as well as his sermons, it is apparent that Owen did not seek human applause (something too often characteristic of preachers today), nor was he, to borrow a phrase from J. C. Ryle, a “jellyfish preacher” (i.e., changing his doctrine wherever the political and ecclesiastical winds blew).78 Rather, Owen was a redwood, with roots firmly planted in the ground, digging themselves deep into the soil of timeless biblical truth.79 And because his foundation lay in Christ, his branches were able to stretch long and far, providing shade and protection for those who found Jesus to be their greatest treasure.

Therefore, I leave you, pastor, with Owen’s words of exhortation by which he encouraged both the pastor being ordained, and the congregation under his care: “‘Who is sufficient for these things?’ Pray, pray for us; and God strengthen us, and our brother, who hath been called this day to the work! It may not be unuseful to him and me, to be mindful of these things, and to beg the assistance of our brethren.”80

[1] “The True Nature of a Gospel Church and Its Government”, in The Church and the Bible, The Works of John Owen 16, ed. William H. Goold (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1991), 74.

[2] “The Duty of a Pastor,” in Sermons to the Church, The Works of John Owen 9, ed. William H. Goold (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1991), 453.

[3] D. A. Carson and John Woodbridge, Letters Along the Way (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1993), 127.

[4] Brian Croft, The Pastor’s Ministry: Biblical Priorities for Faithful Shepherds (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2015), 37.

[5] Ibid., emphasis added.

[6] For a full study of Owen’s theology, see Matthew Barrett and Michael A. G. Haykin, Owen on the Christian Life: Living for the Glory of God in Christ (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2015).

[7] John Asty, A Complete Collection of the Sermons of John Owen (London: 1721), 3.

[8] To understand Owen’s pastoral context better, see Tim Cooper, John Owen, Richard Baxter and the Formation of Nonconformity (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2011); Ryan Kelly, “Reformed or Reforming? John Owen and the Complexity of Theological Codification for Mid-Seventeenth-Century England,” in The Ashgate Research Companion to John Owen’s Theology, ed. Kelly M. Kapic and Mark Jones (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2012), 3–30; Robert W. Oliver, “John Owen—His Life and Times,” in John Owen: The Man and His Theology, ed. Robert W. Oliver (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2002), 9–39; Peter Toon, God’s Statesman: The Life and Work of John Owen (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1973); Sinclair Ferguson, John Owen on the Christian Life (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1987), 1–19.

[9] Terminologically, it is most accurate to say (as I have above) that a “living” was bestowed on Owen, not a congregation. However, a “living” was being a pastor of a congregation. Nevertheless, terminologically a distinction needs to be made. One should note, though, that the church register reads, “John Owen, Pastor. Ann.Dom. July 16:1643.” Ferguson observes that Owen’s signature as “Pastor” shows he was already “opposed to the outward formalities of contemporary ministerial life” and had a “dislike of the expression ‘parson.’” Ferguson, John Owen on the Christian Life, 3. Also see Toon, God’s Statesman, 17.

[10] See W. Orme, Memoirs of the Life, Writings and Religious Connexions of John Owen, D.D. (London: T. Hamilton, 1820), 118; Ferguson, John Owen on the Christian Life, 3.

[11] Ferguson, John Owen on the Christian Life, 4.

[12] Ibid.

[13] See Owen’s dedicatory letter in “The Lesser Catechism,” in The Glory of Christ, The Works of John Owen 1, ed. William H. Goold (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1991), 465. Such a point is also made by Sinclair Ferguson, “John Owen and the Person of Christ,” in John Owen, ed. Robert Oliver, 76–77.

[14] John Owen, “Two Short Catechisms,” in The Glory of Christ, The Works of John Owen 1, ed. William H. Goold (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1991), 463–94.

[15] Ferguson, “John Owen and the Person of Christ,” 76.

[16] Toon, God’s Statesman, 34.

[17] Also see Ferguson, John Owen on the Christian Life, 6.

[18] See John Owen, “The Shaking and Translating of Heaven and Earth: A Sermon Preached to the Honourable House of Commons in Parliament Assembled, April 19, 1649,” in Sermons to the Church, The Works of John Owen 8, ed. William H. Goold (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1991), 243–79.

[19] Ferguson, John Owen on the Christian Life, 8.

[20] John Owen, “The Steadfastness of the Promises, and the Sinfulness of Staggering,” in Sermons to the Nation, The Works of John Owen 8, ed. William H. Goold (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1991), 235. To clarify, historians believe the date 1649 (listed previously) is incorrect. The correct date should be 1650 for the sermon assumes Owen has returned from Ireland. See the “Prefatory Note” on 208.

[21] Ibid., 235.

[22] Ibid.

[23] As Ferguson observes, “The spoiling of his goods he might allow, and even do so with a measure of joy that he was counted worthy to suffer for the sake of the gospel; but the spoiling of the flock was his greatest sorrow, and one beyond recompense” (John Owen on the Christian Life, 15).

[24] John Owen, “The True Nature of a Gospel Church and Its Government,” in The Church and the Bible, The Works of John Owen 16, ed. William H. Goold (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1991), 74.

[25] See William Laud, A Speech Delivered in the Star-Chamber . . . at the Censure, of John Bastwick, Henry Burton, & William Prinn; Concerning pretended Innovations in the Church, The Works of William Laud VI/I (Oxford: John Henry Parker, 1857), 57.

[26] That they did not thereby neglect the importance of the Table can be seen from Owen’s “Sacramental Discourses,” in Sermons to the Church, The Works of John Owen 9, ed. William H. Goold (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1991), 517–622.

[27] In Sermons to the Church, The Works of John Owen 9, ed. William H. Goold (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1991), 452–62. Many of the principles in this sermon can also be found in Owen’s “The True Nature of a Gospel Church and Its Government,” 1–210. Unfortunately, we know very little about the exact historical context in which Owen penned his 1682 sermon. We do know, however, that this sermon is a little less than one year prior to his death. The closer Owen came to death the harder it was for him to preach given his severe asthma. It is hard to determine if severe health problems plagued Owen when he delivered this ordination sermon.

[28] Owen, “The Duty of a Pastor,” 453.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Unless otherwise noted, Scripture passages are taken from Owen’s own quotations in his sermon, drawn from the KJV.

[31] Owen, “The Duty of a Pastor,” 454.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Ibid. 454–55.

[36] Ibid. 455.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Ibid.

[39] Ibid.

[40] Ibid.

[41] Ibid., 456.

[42] Ibid.

[43] Ibid.

[44] Ibid.

[45] Ibid.

[46] Ibid.

[47] Ibid., 457.

[48] Ibid.

[49] Ibid.

[50] Ibid.

[51] Ibid.

[52] Ibid.

[53] Ibid.

[54] Ibid., 457–58.

[55] Ibid., 458.

[56] Ibid.

[57] Ibid.

[58] Ibid.

[59] Ibid.

[60] Ibid.

[61] Ibid., 459.

[62] Ibid.

[63] Ibid.

[64] Owen points to doctrines he believes are lost and not loved in his own day: “What were these doctrines?—the doctrines of eternal predestination, effectual conversion to God, and the obduration of wicked reprobates by the providence of God. These truths are not lost for want of skill, but for want of love. We scarce hear one word of them; we are almost ashamed to mention them in the church; and he that doth it will be sure to expose himself to public obloquy and scorn: but we must not be ashamed of truth. Formerly we could not meet with a godly minister, but the error of Arminianism was looked upon by him as the ruin and poison of the souls of men: such did tremble at it,—wrote and disputed against it. But now it is not so; the doctrine of the gospel is owned still, though little taken notice of by some among ourselves, the love of it being greatly decayed,—the sense and power of it almost lost. But we have got no ground by it; we are not more holy, more fruitful, than we were in the preaching those doctrines, and attending diligently unto them.” Ibid.

[65] Ibid.

[66] Ibid.

[67] “I have lived,” Owen reminisces, “to see great alterations in the godly ministers of the nation, both as to zeal for and value of those important truths that were as the life of the Reformation; and the doctrine of free-will condemned in a pray, bound up in the end of your Bibles. But now it is grown an indifferent thing; and the horrible corruptions we suffer to be introduced in the doctrine of justification have weakened all the vitals of religion.” Ibid., 460.

[68] Ibid. Owen goes on, and seems to speak from experience: “Bring one man into the congregation who hath a by-opinion, and he shall make more stir about it than all the rest of the congregation in building up one another in their most holy faith.”

[69] Ibid.

[70] Ibid.

[71] Ibid. Owen does not deny that there are other means used by God to convert the lost.

[72] Ibid.

[73] Ibid., 461.

[74] Ibid.

[75] Ibid.

[76] Ibid. Owen believes that preaching to the lost does take place when the pastor preaches to his own congregation, as there are typically unbelievers mixed in. However, he also encourages congregations to allow their pastor a season to preach elsewhere for the purpose of converting souls to Christ.

[77] Ibid., 462.

[78] By “jellyfish preacher” I am referring to those preachers who have no appetite for doctrine or dogmatic conclusions. As J. C. Ryle said of preachers in his own day, “They have no definite opinions . . . they are so afraid of ‘extreme views’ that they have no views at all.” As quoted in J. I. Packer, Faithfulness and Holiness: The Witness of J. C. Ryle (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2002), 72–73.

[79] I am taking this illustration from J. I. Packer, though Packer has in mind the height of the gigantic redwoods, whereas I am referring to their deep roots. J. I. Packer, A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1990) 11–12.

[80] Owen, “The Duty of a Pastor,” 462.

Matthew Barrett

Matthew Barrett is tutor of systematic theology and church history at Oak Hill Theological College in London and executive editor of Credo Magazine.

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