Why Read John Owen? What to Read?
“To read John Owen is to enter a rare world. Whenever I return to one of his works I find myself asking ‘Why do I spend time reading lesser literature?’ . . . If we can persevere with his style (which becomes easier the longer we persevere), he will not fail to bring us to the feet of Jesus.”
—Sinclair B. Ferguson
“I owe more to John Owen than to any other theologian, ancient or modern; and I owe more to The Mortification of Sin than to anything else he wrote.”
—J. I. Packer
“Owen is extraordinary. Owen is simply extraordinary. He is in a class, Packer says, with Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Edwards—that rarefied top 10 thinkers and pastors in the world. John Owen knows the soul, knows Christ, knows communion with Christ like very few others.
“Dr. Lovelace, in his Basic Dynamics course at Gordon-Conwell, made us read On Temptation and On Mortification. And that’s where I discovered John Owen in 1972. . . . I wouldn’t be in the ministry—my life would be a shipwreck—if I hadn’t read that book.”
“Apart from the Bible, I have found John Owen’s writings to be the best books ever written to help me stop sinning the same old sins.”
—Philip Graham Ryken
You can get Owen’s 16-volume Works (reprinted from the mid-19th century). But that’s certainly not for everyone’s budget or reading tastes.
If you would like to read Owen’s actual writings (not a paraphrase) with additional editorial help and explanation and introduction, I would recommend the following works published by Crossway and Christian Focus (full disclosure: I co-edited the Crossway ones). They keep Owen’s language but make some cosmetic adjustments (e.g., changing the archaic verbs from “hath” to “has”), translate the Latin, provide headings and footnotes, etc.
1. Overcoming Sin and Temptation. There are three books in this volume:
- Mortification of Sin
- Indwelling Sin
You can read this entire book online for free. Many of the quotes above are in reference to the bookMortification in particular.
Jerry Bridges writes: “John Owen’s treatises onIndwelling Sin in Believers and The Mortification of Sinare, in my opinion, the most helpful writings on personal holiness ever written.”
2. The Glory of Christ. This is the last work Owen wrote—in his essence, his dying words about the subject he cared for most deeply.
On August 22, 1683, at his home in Ealing, Owen dictated his last surviving letter to his long-time friend, Charles Fleetwood:
I am going to him whom my soul hath loved, or rather hath love me with an everlasting love; which is the whole ground of all my consolation. The passage is very irksome and wearisome through strong pain of various sorts which are all issued in an intermitting fever. All things were provided to carry me to London today attending to the advice of my physician, but we were all disappointed by my utter disability to understand the journey. I am leaving the ship of the church in a storm, but while the great Pilot is in it the loss of a poore under-rower will be inconsiderable. Live and pray and hope and waite patiently and doe not despair; the promise stands invincible that he will never leave thee nor forsake thee. (Toon, The Correspondence of John Owen, 174)
Two days later Owen’s friend William Payne, who was overseeing the printing of The Glory of Christ, paid him a visit, assuring him that all was going well with the publication. Owen responded:
I am glad to hear it; but O brother Payne! The long wished-for day is come at last, in which I shall see the glory in another manner than I have ever done, or was capable of doing in the world.
You can read online for free Ferguson’s introduction.
3. The Holy Spirit. Of this work J. C. Ryle said: “‘I assert unhesitatingly that the man who wants to study experimental theology will find no books equal to those of Owen for complete Scriptural and exhaustive treatment of the subjects they handle. If you wish to study thoroughly the doctrine of sanctification I make no apology for strongly recommending Owen on the Holy Spirit.” As Sinclair Ferguson says, “There are, Francis Bacon wrote, some few books which we should ‘read, mark, learn and inwardly digest.’ Owen on the Holy Spirit is one of them.”
Read for free Ferguson’s introduction and Owen’s preface.
4. Communion with the Triune God. Of this one, John Piper writes: “Among English-speaking theologians and pastors, John Owen and Jonathan Edwards run neck and neck for the first place in profound, faithful, fruitful displays of the glory of God in the salvation of sinners. Not only that, they are both running for first among the ranks of those who show practically how that glory is experienced here and now. Owen may have the edge here. And Communion with the Triune God is his most extraordinary effort. No one else has laid open the paths of personal fellowship with the three persons of the Trinity the way Owen does. What an honor it would be to God if more of his children knew how to enjoy him the way Owen does.”
You can read online for free Kevin Vanhoozer’s foreword, A Note on This Edition, Preface, Chapter 1, and Glossary.
(Christian Focus also has a version of this one. You can read for free Fergsuon’s introduction and the first chapter by Owen.)
5. The Priesthood of Christ. Ferguson writes, “Probably no theologian in English language has ever rivaled Owen stressing the absolute centrality of Christ’s penal substitution and therefore his as Priest. . . . For that reason alone The Priesthood of Christ is worth all the time it takes to read it with humility, care, and reflection.”
This material is from an “excursus” (!) in Owen’s massiveseven-volume commentary on the book of Hebrews.
You can read online for free Ferguson’s introduction and Owen’s first chapter.
WTSBooks sells the four Christian Focus paperbacks as a set at a 30% discount.They have set up a special code for one-week only: type in OWEN at checkout and you can get an extra $2 off The Priesthood of Christ and an extra 10% off the set.