Three of this generation's greatest theologians and champions of the gospel, J.I. Packer, Roger Nicole, and Sinclair Ferguson, all say that he had the most formative role in their own development. But the question I want to ask is "What shaped him?"
My 17 year old daughter mentioned an adult in her life last night that she values greatly for how "nice" her friend is. Knowing some of the person's life story, I ask my daughter, "You know what makes her so kind?"
"No, what?" she said, knowing Dad had a lesson in life for her.
"She has suffered much and has held on to Jesus."
That's John Owen's story too.
In the midst of all his pursuits in the academy, politics and church life, he fell in love, married and started a family. Over the next 31 years, God in his fierce mercy, gave he and his bride eleven children. One of them, a daughter, reached adulthood. She married but returned to his home at the age of 21 and died of tuberculosis in his arms. In a 31 year period, he buried 11 children and one bride.
And he endured. More than endured. He wrote brilliant books, filled with insight. But more than insight, they are filled with the evidence of a man who truly, communed with God.
One of his books is about that particular topic, ON COMMUNION WITH GOD. In it he describes how to commune with each of the three different persons of the Trinity. I wonder how many people in all of church history have even thought about that concept. His book on MORTIFICATION OF SIN, is one of the best tools I know of for searching out the hidden crevices of my soul for the sin that lurks there waiting for an opportunity to undo me.
But there is another connection in his life I want to explore. For 12 years he tried everything he could think of to get John Bunyan released from prison. He failed miserably in every attempt. His pleas fell on deaf ears. His connections all proved ineffective and worst of all, his prayers went unanswered. He failed completely. Or so it seemed.
But 12 years later, John Bunyan emerged from that London prison with a manuscript, and Owen was able to use his connections to get it published. Bunyan's PILGRIM'S PROGRESS has never been out of print, it has been translated into more languages than any other book in history, with the exception of the Bible, and it has been used of the Spirit of God to change millions of lives.
One of our own contemporaries puts it something like this: "Owen failed, but in failing, succeeded. So it is with Christians. We are either succeeding painfully, or succeeding pleasantly. We can't do anything other than succeed because our God is sovereign and works all things for our good."
Remember John Owen and his story. Remember him when your prayers seems to go unanswered and your heart is nearly broken and your body is tired and battered and wracked with disease. You can't see around corners but God can and His free hand will guide.
There are no easy answers. But the Lord Jesus stands in every hard place and declares, "I am sovereign here too. I will never leave you, nor will I ever forsake you."
David put it well:
Psalm 37:23-24 (NASB 95)
23 The steps of a man are established by the Lord,
And He delights in his way;
24 When he fall, he will not be hurled headlong,
Because the Lord is the One who holds his hand.