John Owen (1616 – 1683) was a Puritan living in the United Kingdom during some of the most tumultuous times in history. Not only did the Puritans of 17th Century inherit the keys of the Reformation, but they understood that Scripturally, the reform needed to go further. Nationally, the Puritans were faced with the challenge of a church-state that was directing their methods and means of worship, resulting in the Great Ejection of 1662; the expanse into the New World; the tragedy of the Great Fire of London (1666); and the Great Plague (1665-1666). In the midst of these calamities, they were also faced with religio-political turmoil between Protestantism and Catholicism, highlighted by the Exclusion Bill (1681), preventing James, a Catholic, from taking the throne of his deceased brother Charles II. Their’s were times which may cause us to utter the familiar phrase, “and we think we’ve got it bad.” Owen did not confine himself to a pulpit or church building. From 1660 to 1662 he held worship services in his Stadhampton home each Sunday (The Correspondence of John Owen, pg 125). Then “from time to time between 1672 and 1683 he went to convalesce in Stadhampton and whilst there preached in his own house to a congregation drawn from the village and even perhaps from Oxford.” (Correspondence, pg.127) In the face of the aforementioned challenges, Owen delivered several messages from Luke 13:1-5 to one of these private congregations in 1680*. The weight of these calamities and turmoil had begun to take its toll as a “change of public sentiment (oppression against dissenters, i.e. pro-Exclusion) and decay of patriotic zeal – arising in some degree from growing indifference to religious principle – that led our author (Owen) to entertain, at this juncture, gloomy views in regard to the prospects of the nation, and to issue a solemn and urgent warning to his countrymen” (from the Sermon’s Prefatory Note). In his own opening note to the reader, Owen documents the thoughts and interactions of his audience as to the present condition of their society in midst of these calamities. He points out that they said,
“whereas the land wherein we live is filled with sin, and various indications of God’s displeasure thereon, yet there is an unexemplified neglect in calling the inhabitants of it unto repentance, for the diverting of impendent judgments.” The Works of John Owen, vol 8, pg 595.Owen then comments that his hearers, “added, moreover, that whereas, on various accounts, there are continual apprehensions of public calamities, all men’s thoughts are exercised about the ways of deliverance, from them; but whereas they fix themselves on various and opposite ways and means for this end, the conflict of their counsels and designs increaseth our danger and is like to prove our ruin.” Upon this point Owen adds that the only real solution to their present crisis would be if the thoughts of men would coalesce unto “sincere repentance, and universal reformation in all sorts of persons throughout the nation.” Here is precisely where we find ourselves today, 2020, in our present crisis, i.e. all of the time and energy put forth on deliverance from the calamity rather than on the only genuine response, namely sincere repentance throughout the land. This is actually a sobering point for us. How many leaders, whether they be political or spiritual, have you seen calling for widespread, sincere repentance? Instead, we read of special pleading for the deliverance of the condition. In many of the blogs that I follow, reading mainly the headlines these days, conspicuously absent from these “leaders” even amongst the Reformed community, is the call for widespread repentance, or the realization that perhaps through the frowning providence under which we find ourselves that maybe our own churches need reform. I have yet to see one headline or comment about judgment beginning in the household of God. Where is the self-examination? Where is the call to view our condition, in light of this providence, through the lens of Scripture? Alongside special pleading for the deliverance of the condition, as in Owen’s day, we see much acceptance and resignation to make the best of a bad situation.
Continuing in his remarks to the reader, Owen addresses this exact same attitude in his own day
“Let us not satisfy ourselves, that our congregations are in so good a posture as that they may continue for our lives; and so be like ill tenants, who care not if their houses fall upon the expiration of the term of their interest in them. That reparation is required of us which may make them serve for succeeding generations. And when any church is so unobservant of its own decays as to be negligent of endeavors for proportionable reformation,-if, after a while, any will deliver their own souls, it must be by a departure from them that hate to be reformed.” John OwenConsider this portion of Owen’s words. He is exhorting his readers, which include those of us downstream of his publication some 340 years, to not be satisfied that all is well in our own congregations as though they will last for generations to come (he likewise points out that none of the churches found in Scripture remain today but have fallen into decay from the judgment of God). Furthermore, in the light of providence, we ought diligently to reform our own decays. When there is a delay in this endeavor, or when it is neglected altogether, the only way of deliverance is separation from those, in his words, who hate to be reformed.
Are our churches viewing this time as a call to repent, return, and reform? Are those who dominate the Reformed world with their books and conferences calling for widespread repentance and reformation? Owen continues, “It is a fond imagination, that churches may render their communion useless and dangerous only by heresy, tyranny, and false worship; – an evil, worldly, corrupt conversation in the generality of their members, contrary to the doctrine of the gospel, not opposed and contradicted by a constant endeavor for sincere reformation, is no less ruinous unto the being of churches than any of these other evils.” Owen’s response in these messages highlights the importance of biblical wisdom in a time of crisis, but it also highlights the significance, and we might even add the necessity, of observing God’s providence in these times. Though I have not read exhaustively all of the responses from those Christian “leaders” on public platforms or every Christian blog during this crisis, the general sample size that I have seen seem somewhat oblivious that the present crisis could even possibly be the judgment of God, as well as lacking any calls to repentance and reform. Instead, it seems that by-in-large men, to this point, have been content to continue with business as usual, only now through virtual means rather than physical presence. If someone were to summarize the response up to this point, it might well be one of a confused, “we don’t know how to respond, but we have to do something.” Caught off-guard, where do we go from here.
Where are those who have observed all that’s going on from the eye of God’s providence and then applied biblical wisdom to help navigate God’s people through this present crisis? As Owen reminds us, the only proper response is repentance and reform.
* These sermons are compiled in Volume 8, Sermon #16 titled An Humble Testimony unto the Goodness and Severity of God in His Dealing with Sinful Churches and Nations.