Death Brings Light to Reality
Owen was no stranger to death. He buried his first three children in the 1640s and three more in the following decade. As an adult, he had never been robustly healthy, and in March 1656, reports circulated that he was “neare death.”1 In the early 1660s, he must have been horrified by the spectacles of death and dismemberment as the Restoration government pursued and punished those it deemed particularly responsible for the trial and execution of Charles I.
Even if Owen’s handwriting remained fairly steady across the second half of his life, the contrast between the portrait created when Owen was vice-chancellor of the University of Oxford, sometime in the 1650s, and that created by Robert Walker in 1668 offers some evidence of his shrinking and much-diminished appearance. In the sermons that his listeners recorded in the 1660s and 1670s, his preaching was urgent, because he believed that life was short: “I speak to dying men, that know not how soon they may die. God advise my own heart of this thing, that I should labour and watch, that death might not find me out of the view of spiritual things.”2
Owen understood death as an experience that often clarified the existence and achievements of spiritual life. He recognized that the evidences of spiritual life were often ambiguous and that “there are no professors but in distresses & on their death beds will applie to themselves . . . the promises of ye consoler of the spirit,” even though these promises belong only to true believers.3 Death often brought to light reality. When individuals were thrown onto their last resources, they showed where their true hopes lay.
Owen remembered encouraging accounts of “young people who at their death have made a worke apparent in them from their infancy which was not before observed.”4But the most encouraging accounts of death were those that held absolutely no ambiguity about the individual’s experience of grace. No sight compared with that of a “poore dying [saint’s] triumph over sinne & hell,” Owen suggested; it was a “spectacle” that all believers would “desire above all but to see.”5After all, for the Christian, with weak faith or strong, death was a “blessed thing,” the “entrance into perfect joy.”6
Owen’s experience of joy seemed to be deferred. Around 1670, in addition to his political and pastoral concerns, he was beginning to feel old. He reported “daily warnings from my age, being now about fifty four[,] and many infirmities to be preparing for my dissolution.”7 In 1674, drawing on his experience of the deaths of nearly all his children, Owen counseled a grieving mother and a member of his congregation, Lady Elizabeth Hartopp, “Your dear infante is in the eternal enjoyment of the fruits of all our prayers; for the covenant of God is ordered in all things and sure.” Reflecting on his own experience, perhaps, or thinking of Elkanah’s advice to Hannah (1 Sam. 1:8), he insisted that “God in Christ will be better to you than ten children.”7
In another undated letter, he wrote to the wife of Edward Polhill, for whose book The Divine Will Considered in Its Eternal Decrees (1673) Owen had contributed a preface. His counsel to Mrs. Polhill made no reference to the stern predestinarian theology of her husband’s writing, nor to his qualified recommendation of her husband’s views of the extent and intent of the atonement.8“Christ is your Pilott,” he argued, returning to the nautical imagery that appears so frequently in his publications. “Sorrow not too much for the dead,” he advised. The departed child had “entered into rest, and is taken away from the evill to come. Take heed lest, by too much grief, you too much grieve the Holy Spirit, who is infinitely more to us than all natural relations.” Owen was at his warmest when writing to grieving mothers. He assured Mrs. Polhill that “you are in my heart continually, which is nothing; but it helps to persuade me that you are in the heart of Christ, which is all.”9
Focus on Scripture
Owen’s own griefs continued. He buried his wife, Mary, in 1677 and his last surviving daughter in 1682. Deaths continued within the membership of his increasingly elderly congregation. He was distressed by the deaths of prominent leaders among the Congregational churches. “Good ministers” were dying “almost every day,” he lamented, and it was necessary that those who had benefited from their preaching should be prepared for the same fate. And so, as he entered what he described as his “dying time,” he began to prepare his congregation for their own deaths in a short sermon series on “dying daily” (1 Cor. 15:31).10
Owen understood death as an experience that often clarified the existence and achievements of spiritual life.
Owen’s decision to preach this series of topical sermons was significant in terms of his changing homiletical practice. By 1680, he had largely abandoned the habit of preaching on a single passage or subject over multiple weeks, and this greater flexibility allowed him to narrow down more immediately on pressing needs among the Congregational churches. “It is the duty of all believers to be preparing themselves every day to die cheerfully, comfortably, and, if it may be, triumphing in the Lord,” he insisted.11But every Christian could die with safety, even if every Christian did not have sufficient faith to die in peace.
Owen recognized the fears that death could bring. In his first sermon, he described death as the “entering into an invisible world,” of which world the soul in this life could know nothing “but what it hath by faith.”12The problem was, of course, that the Scriptures were curiously silent about the “invisible world.” Owen, who had elsewhere debunked accounts of vampires and werewolves, took the occasion to explain to his congregation the origins of the ghost stories that were as popular in the late seventeenth century as they have been in any other period.13He wanted his listeners to focus on Scripture rather than superstition. And so, drawing on the exegetical work that he was continuing throughout this period, Owen considered what it meant to “die in faith” (Heb. 11:13). Turning on its head Paul’s statement about faith, hope, and the enduring power of love (1 Cor. 13:13), Owen argued that “love works, and hope works, and all other graces . . . work and help faith. But when we come to die, faith is left alone.13
These arguments were reinforced in the following week in the death of William Steele, a “great and eminent servant” of Christ whom Owen had known for thirty years and with whom he had been in church fellowship for fifteen years.14Owen felt the loss keenly. “The seat before my eyes is very much changed in a short time,” he lamented.15
And he wanted to persuade the rest of the congregation to be ready to follow him. While their minds were preoccupied by this bereavement, Owen directed his congregants to the daily practice of approaching God “as if you were immediately going into his presence, and into his hands,” preparing to meet the angels who “carry the souls departed into Abraham’s bosom.”16
Owen completed his series on preparing for death with theological reflection. He recognized that “ever since it had a being,” the soul had never had to experience life without the body to which it was attached.17He understood that an injury to the body, and especially serious and disabling head injuries, could have consequences for the “powers and faculties” of the soul.18He also understood how unique was the human apprehension about death. No other created being had two parts to its nature and had to face the prospect of their separation. Of all creation, only the making of humans involved the dust of the earth and the divine breath.19Angels were created as “pure, immaterial spirits” that “cannot die, from the principles of [their] own constitution,” while a “brute creature hath nothing in it that can live when death comes.” But humans have an “angelical nature from above that cannot die, and a nature from beneath that cannot always live, since the entrance of sin, though it might have done so before.”20So when an individual dies, Owen explained, “only one part of this nature continues to act itself, according to its own powers.”21The exercise of preparing for death involved being ready to live without the body, at least until the resurrection.
Lifelong Practice of Mortification
Preparing for death also involved being ready to live without sin. Death was the final stage of the Christian’s lifelong practice of mortification. “Sin hath taken such a close, inseparable habitation in the body, that nothing but the death of the body can make separation” from it, Owen explained. “There is no other way to make an eternal separation between sin and the body but by [the] consuming of it in the grave.”22And when “all other attempts to eradicate sin have failed,” the faithful Christian would be “willing to part with [the] body” to be finally rid of sin, so all-consuming was the desire for the full realization of spiritual life.23For preparing for death also involved preparing to be with Christ. “I have no inclination to be dissolved at the end,” Owen admitted, “but only as the means for another end, that without it I cannot be with Christ.”24
- The Diary of Ralph Josselin, ed. Alan Macfarlane, Records of Social and Economic History, n.s., 3 (Oxford: British Academy by the Oxford University Press, 1976), 363; Report on the Manuscripts of the Earl of Egmont, vol. 1, pt. 2, Historical Manuscripts Commission 2570 (London: Mackie for His Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1905), 576.
- Owen, Works, 9:352.
- Notebook of Lucy Hutchinson, DD/HU3, 214–13 [reverse pagination on ms], Inspire Nottinghamshire Archives.
- Notebook of Lucy Hutchinson, DD/HU3, 226, Inspire Nottinghamshire Archives.
- Notebook of Lucy Hutchinson, DD/HU3, 202, Inspire Nottinghamshire Archives.
- Notebook of Lucy Hutchinson, DD/HU3, 204, 205, Inspire Nottinghamshire Archives.
- Owen to [Charles?] Nichols, in The Correspondence of John Owen, ed. Peter Toon (Cambridge: James Clarke, 1970), 148.
- Owen to Lady Elizabeth Hartopp, in Correspondence of John Owen, 157–58; Crippen, “Dr. Watts’s Church Book,” 27.
- John Owen, “The Preface to the Reader,” in Edward Polhill, The Divine Will Considered in Its Eternal Decrees (London, 1673), n.p. This Mrs. Polhill does not appear to be the individual of the same name mentioned in Crippen, “Dr. Watts’s Church Book,” 27; J. William Black, “Edward Polhill,” in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), s.v.
- Owen to Mrs. Polhill, in Correspondence of John Owen, 168–69.
- Owen, Works, 9:336.
- Owen, Works, 9:336.
- Owen, Works, 9:337.
- Owen, Works, 9:3368. Owen discusses vampires in Theologoumena Pantodapa (1661); see Owen, Biblical Theology: The History of Theology from Adam to Christ, trans. Stephen P. Westcott (Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria, 1994), 133.
- Owen, Works, 9:340.
- Owen, Works, 9:341; Gribben, John Owen and English Puritanism, 258.
- Owen, Works, 9:342.
- Owen, Works, 20:253 [Hebrews, 3:253]; Owen, Works, 9:343–44.
- Owen, Works 9:346.
- Owen, Works 9:347.
- Owen, Works 9:348.
- Owen, Works 9:347.
- Owen, Works 9:348.
- Owen, Works 9:349.
This article is adapted from An Introduction to John Owen: A Christian Vision for Every Stage of Life by Crawford Gribben.
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