I listened to John Piper’s biography on John Owen today, “The Chief Design of My Life: Mortification and Universal Holiness.”
The presentation is one hour and 33 minutes long. I worked while I listened so the level of my attention varied throughout the message. I caught the last 10 minutes of the audio quite clearly, or perhaps it caught me. I included the text below. I bolded the text that spoke most powerfully to me.
I needed to hear the challenge at the end. It is so true. As a pastor, I put out sermon after sermon. A sermon can be like a widget on an assembly line if I’m not careful. I present a finished product to the congregation week after week. The task of sermon preparation is constant. Consequently, my soul can shrivel even though I may be a sermon crafting machine. It is one thing for me to spend time preparing a meal for others. It is entirely another for me to partake in and be nourished by the meal I have prepared.
I share this with you in the hopes it will encourage you if you are regularly involved in preaching or teaching the word of God.
Owen was authentic in commending in public only what he had experienced in private.
One great hindrance to holiness in the ministry of the word is that we are prone to preach and write without pressing into the things we say and making them real to our own souls. Over the years words begin to come easy, and we find we can speak of mysteries without standing in awe; we can speak of purity without feeling pure; we can speak of zeal without spiritual passion; we can speak of God’s holiness without trembling; we can speak of sin without sorrow; we can speak of heaven without eagerness. And the result is a terrible hardening of the spiritual life.
Words came easy for Owen, but he set himself against this terrible disease of unauthenticity and secured his growth in holiness. He began with the premise: “Our happiness consisteth not in the knowing the things of the gospel, but in the doing of them” (see note 61). Doing, not just knowing, was the goal of all his studies.
As a means to this authentic doing he labored to experience every truth he preached. He said,
I hold myself bound in conscience and in honor, not even to imagine that I have attained a proper knowledge of any one article of truth, much less to publish it, unless through the Holy Spirit I have had such a taste of it, in its spiritual sense, that I may be able, from the heart, to say with the psalmist, ‘I have believed, and therefore I have spoken’ (see note 62).
So for example his Exposition of Psalm 130 (320 pages on eight verses) is the laying open not only of the Psalm but of his own heart. Andrew Thomson says,
When Owen … laid open the book of God, he laid open at the same time the book of his own heart and of his own history, and produced a book which … is rich in golden thoughts, and instinct with the living experience of ‘one who spake what he knew, and testified what he had seen’ (see note 63).
The same biographer said of Owen’s On The Grace and Duty of Being Spiritually Minded (1681) that he “first preached [it] to his own heart, and then to a private congregation; and which reveals to us the almost untouched and untrodden eminences on which Owen walked in the last years of his pilgrimage” (see note 64).
This was the conviction that controlled Owen:
A man preacheth that sermon only well unto others which preacheth itself in his own soul. And he that doth not feed on and thrive in the digestion of the food which he provides for others will scarce make it savoury unto them; yea, he knows not but the food he hath provided may be poison, unless he have really tasted of it himself. If the word do not dwell with power in us, it will not pass with power from us (see note 65).
It was this conviction that sustained Owen in his immensely busy public life of controversy and conflict. Whenever he undertook to defend a truth, he sought first of all to take that truth deeply into his heart and gain a real spiritual experience of it so that there would be no artificiality in the debate and no mere posturing or gamesmanship. He was made steady in the battle because he had come to experience the truth at the personal level of the fruits of holiness and knew that God was in it. Here is the way he put it in the Preface to The Mystery of the Gospel Vindicated (1655):
When the heart is cast indeed into the mould of the doctrine that the mind embraceth,—when the evidence and necessity of the truth abides in us,—when not the sense of the words only is in our heads, but the sense of the thing abides in our hearts—when we have communion with God in the doctrine we contend for—then shall we be garrisoned by the grace of God against all the assaults of men (see note 66).
That, I think, was the key to Owen’s life and ministry, so renown for holiness —”when we have communion with God in the doctrine we contend for—then shall we be garrisoned by the grace of God against all the assaults of men.”
The last thing Owen was doing at the end of his life came was communing with Christ in a work that was later published as Meditations on the Glory of Christ. His friend William Payne was helping him edit the work. Near the end Owen said, “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 this world” (see note 67).
But Owen saw more glory than most of us see, and that is why he was known for his holiness, because Paul taught us plainly and Owen believed, “We all with unveiled face beholding the glory of the Lord are being changed into that same image from one degree of glory to the next.”