Owen on Preaching

For John Owen (who is perhaps the most famous of all my friends on Facebook, though I know not who runs his Facebook page), ‘the first and principal duty of a pastor is to feed the flock by diligent preaching of the word’ (The True Nature of a Gospel Church, in The Works of John Owen, 16:74).  Throughout The True Nature of a Gospel Church Owen insists that pastoral work is so taxing that God appointed elders who primarily rule in the church in order to enable elders who focus especially on the ministry of the word to keep doing just that.  Owen enumerates five non-negotiables that render someone fit to stand in the pulpit.

First, the preacher needs to have ‘spiritual wisdom and understanding in the mysteries of the gospel’.  In fact, says Owen, it is vital that the preacher should have ‘some degree of eminency therein’, lest they be unhelpful to those who are already fairly mature in the faith (16:76).  Second, the preacher should have an ‘experience of the power of the truth which they preach in and upon their own souls’.  Put forcefully,

[A] man that 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….The want of this experience of the power of gospel truth on their own souls is that which gives us so many lifeless, sapless orations, quaint in words and dead as to power, instead of preaching the gospel in the demonstration of the Spirit (ibid.).

Third, the preacher should have ‘skill to divide the word aright’, with which phrase Owen means to emphasize ‘a practical wisdom…to find out what is real, substantial, and meet food for the souls of the hearers’ (ibid.).  Fourth, and in close connection with the previous point, a preacher should operate with ‘prudent and diligent consideration of the state of the flock’.  Otherwise, sermons ‘insisting on general doctrines not levelled to the condition of the auditory’ will ‘make others weary in the hearing of them’ (16:76-7).  Fifth, and finally, crucial for preaching is ‘evidence of zeal for the glory of God and compassion for the souls of men’ (16:77).

In reading this I was a bit surprised and rather refreshed by how much he underscores the fourth point in this treatise.  Any thoughts on these five?


2 thoughts on “Owen on Preaching

  1. Pingback: Flotsam and jetsam (5/6) « scientia et sapientia

  2. On a commonsense level, before teaching any given doctrine or theological theory, we should “test” it, against our a) experience, b) intuition, c) reason, and d) our understanding of the Bible. To to see if they make rational and emotional and biblical sense, to us. And if they seem to work in real life.

    But that does not mean just being satisfied with a given doctrine, if it just makes us “feel good” over the short run. There are many things that make us feel good short term – eating too much rich food; dangerous sex practices; drugs -but that are bad for us in the long term.

    We should use our own intuition or insight to some extent. But our insight includes not just feeling of pleasure, not just going not going just with our emotional “desires” and feelings; but also our Reason and experience.

    Too many people, especially religious women, go just with raw feelings: the heart. Never noticing that the Bible itself warned over and over, that the heart is often bad, and deceptive.

    Raw feelings are not enough; also part of our valuable personal intuitions, are our reasonings, hunches, ideas. And probably even, Reason itself; as a personal/human attribute (as well as a divine one).

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