The Potential of Young Christians
John Owen specialized in ministry to young people. That’s not how he tends to be remembered, of course. Ask most people what they know about the most famous of the Puritans and they will tell you that he wrote a lot of very complicated books. That belief is partially true. Owen did write a lot of books—books that contained around 8 million words. But only some of his books are complicated. In fact, some of his most famous works are collections of sermons that he delivered to teenagers and young adults.
Owen spent a great deal of time with teenagers and young adults as the primary focus of his preaching. Throughout the 1650s, he worked as Dean of Christ Church and as Vice-Chancellor of the University of Oxford. In that capacity, he preached to undergraduate students on a weekly basis. In the mid-seventeenth century, undergraduate students could be much younger than they are today. Owen himself attended university at the age of twelve. This was not unusual. Students of a similar age would have been among the congregants to whom, Sunday by Sunday and likely in mid-week lectures, Owen opened up the principal themes of the Bible. His preaching was effective. Students took careful notes on his preaching. Many of his sermons—on such themes as communion with God and the obligation and joy of holiness—have been brought together as some of the most influential books in the history of evangelicalism.
As these books demonstrate, Owen had high expectations for the spiritual potential of younger people. From the beginning of his ministry, he thought carefully about the ways in which Christian children should be formed. In 1645 he published two catechisms that outlined the principal themes of the Christian faith. These catechisms were, in some ways, made redundant by the more famous examples that appeared from the Westminster Assembly. The shorter and longer catechisms that were published by the Westminster divines have become spiritual classics. But Owen continued to think about how Christian children should be instructed and how they should learn to live out their faith. In 1652 he published another volume for children, The Primer, which has never appeared in any edition of his works and has been almost entirely forgotten. This is a pity, for The Primer is a remarkable little book. It is designed for home education. It teaches children the alphabet, provides a catechism that is simpler than his previous efforts, sketches out the content of some model prayers, and gives us a brilliant insight into how Owen imagined the ideal Christian home.
This ideal home, The Primer suggested, would spend a great deal of time educating its children in the Christian faith. Its children would have memorized Scripture passages that speak about creation and redemption. They would understand the basic structures of theology. And they would know how to respond to that theology with short prayers of gratitude and supplication. The Primer proposed that this education would be delivered by parents, or at least within the family home. The reason is simple—early modern churches did not rely on the children’s programs that have become so common today. The idea of Sunday school, which has become an institution within Protestant churches, was developed one hundred and fifty years later.
In Owen’s day, churches recognized that it was the job of parents to instruct their children in the faith. But they also recognized that this training within the home would enable children of Christian families to gain so much more from the public services of worship. The purpose of catechism, after all, was to provide learners with definitions of key theological terms, as well as to encourage them to develop a knowledge of the principal themes of theology, as these were developed systematically across Scripture. Churches encouraged parents to catechize their children, with the expectation that this process would make children’s attendance at church a better experience. For Owen, it was clear that children who were being brought up in the faith should also be brought up in the church. This is why, despite changing understandings of the practice, he consistently argued for the baptism of infants born to Christian parents. Owen argued that children born to Christian parents should be baptized and instructed at home in the faith, in order that they might be converted and become members of the church.
Conversion Is Crucial
Owen understood that conversion was crucial. He knew the danger of merely speculative doctrinal knowledge. After all, he had grown up in a Christian home in which he had been instructed in the faith, and he had even studied theology at university before he came to a saving knowledge of Christ. He understood that anyone could become a theologian and that qualifications in the subject were no guarantee that theological students had been born again. He knew that final judgment would be much more searching than a theological exam.
And so, in his preaching to students, Owen did not merely restate the leading themes of Calvinism. Of course, he took these themes for granted. But what he insisted upon, in his preaching to teenagers and young adults studying at Oxford, was the necessity of spiritual experience. How could a theologian know that he had been born again? How could someone who could parse the nuances of Reformed dogmatics be sure that they were going to heaven?
He showed them that their knowledge of God was greater and more mysterious than the repetition of theological claims.
Owen’s preaching to the students emphasized the reality of spirituality. He asked the students to consider how far they had come to know God. He showed them that their knowledge of God was greater and more mysterious than the repetition of theological claims. He asked the students how they felt about God. He asked them to consider whether their thoughts about the Father encouraged them to cringe in fear or to approach him humbly and confidently with love. He asked them how they felt about Christ, as he painted vivid word pictures that described his suffering for sinners. And he asked the students what they knew of the ministry of the Spirit, the Spirit of holiness, who would form Christ in them.
Holiness was the other principal theme of Owen's preaching to his students. Of course, they were all attentive when they gathered as part of the congregation; but when they were alone in their student accommodations, what did their hearts reveal about who they were? Holiness, Owen insisted, could be pretty accurately measured by what a person did when they were on their own.
Some of the students who listened to this preaching warmed to Owen’s message. There still exists a book of notes taken by young men who listened to Owen preach. These notes correspond very closely to the content of Owen’s best-known books—Of the Mortification of Sin in Believers (1656) and Of Communion with God (1657). Modern readers can benefit from Owen’s ministry to young Christians.
Crawford Gribben is the author of An Introduction to John Owen: A Christian Vision for Every Stage of Life.
When John Owen died on August 24, 1683, his reputation as “the Calvin of England,” was firmly established.
The relationships, the preaching, the teaching, and the admonition of a specific church body are as vital to teenagers as they are to every other believer.
J. I. Packer has argued, we need to read the Puritans, and John Owen especially, because we are spiritual dwarfs by comparison.
What Owen offers is not quick relief, but long-term, deep growth in grace that can make strong, healthy trees where there was once a fragile sapling.