John Owen’s 6 essentials for preaching the Word

There are gems among the posthumous sermons of John Owen, and we should count ourselves blessed and privileged that we have them available to us. Among these treasures is a sermon preached at an ordination on 8th September 1682, and its counsel about the work of ministry is as pertinent and challenging as when it was first preached. In this article I will examine what Owen argues are non-negotiables with regard to the preacher’s approach to proclaiming God’s Word, and in a later article I will examine some motives to and matters for prayer laid down in the same address.

What then is required of the gospel minister when it comes to teaching the flock of God under his care? Owen suggests the following six things:

  1. Spiritual wisdom in understanding the mysteries of the gospel: Owen urges the importance of continual learning in the life of the Pastor. If the Pastor is not endeavouring to grow in his apprehension of gospel mysteries it will be to his own detriment and that of the church – ‘we must labour ourselves to have a thorough knowledge of these mysteries, or we shall be useless to a great part of the church’.
  2. Authority: Owen is careful here to define the kind of authority which the preacher must carry. Authority ‘is a consequent of unction, and not of office…so much evidence as they have of unction from God in gifts and grace, so much authority they have, and no more, in preaching’.
  3. Experience of the power of the things we preach to others: Owen views preaching as a matter of the heart, as a matter of man’s being challenged and moulded by the divine truth he teaches – ‘I think, truly, that no man preaches that sermon well to others that doth not first preach it to his own heart…to bring our hearts to preach is to be transformed into the power of these truths; or to find the power of them, both before, in fashioning our minds and hearts, and delivering them, that we may have benefit’.
  4. Skill: part of the skill of the preacher is to identify the most suitable spiritual food for those whom he is addressing, and this is related to,
  5. Knowledge and consideration of the state of our flocks: here the ministry of pastor and teacher is seen in beautiful harmony. The preacher knows the people to whom he preaches, he has an insight into their ‘temptations’, their ‘light or darkness’, their ‘growth or decays’, their ‘flourishing or withering’, their ‘knowledge or attainments’. The preacher’s mind will be in tune with the pastor’s heart to suit what he preaches to the people in whose lives he is involved, the people whom for Christ’s sake he loves.
  6. Zeal: this zeal is directed in two main ways. The preacher will zealous for God’s glory, and he will be zealous in his compassion for those under the sound of his voice.

Owen’s outlining of these things is strong and demanding, but not censorious. With humility he borrows the words of Paul – ‘who is sufficient for these things?’ – and covets the prayers of God’s people – ‘we see that we have great need to pray for ourselves, and that you should pray for us. Pray for your ministers’.

It is testament to how biblically wise Owen’s counsel is that not one element of it needs to be adjusted in order to speak to the heart and work of the 21st century preacher. Much has changed about the context of ministry since 1682, but nothing has been altered in the demands it places on those who accept its work as their own, nor in the grave responsibility that it carries. How the prayer which Owen solicits from his hearers should be ours daily as preachers, and how we ought to beseech God’s people under our care that they seek His face for our growth in grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ.

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