Ryan McGraw, in an appendix (pp. 138-140) in his recent book on John Owen, offers these personal suggestions on what to read of John Owen.
It is worth noting that everything [John] Owen wrote stands head and shoulders above most of his contemporaries. You will not find here the illustrative powers of Thomas Watson for the personal anecdotes of Richard Baxter. What you will find is a man who drank deeply from the wells of the best theology available at the time, who filtered this material through a brilliant intellect, and who set it on fire with the warmth of pastoral devotion.
My general recommendation is to start with Owen’s popular sermons in volume 9 of the Banner of Truth edition. Many of these sermons condense and popularize much of what he wrote elsewhere. For example, the sermons on ‘The Nature and Beauty of Gospel Worship’ are practically a condensed version of Communion with God. Each sermon is roughly ten pages and contains more illustrations and examples than other comparable works. The outlines are also easier to follow. Owen was a powerful preacher and popular in his day. These sermons are a faint record of what his preaching was like.
In my opinions, the first four volumes of Owen’s Works (vol. 1, vol. 2, vol. 3, vol. 4) coupled with his work on Hebrews represent his most important material. In general, works such as these, which he wrote in the 1660s and later, represent his most mature and well-rounded thought. Most will not read the entire set on Hebrews, even though I wish more did. Read my article [excellent article worth saving for later use!] on how to use Owen’s Hebrews commentary to gain more ideas on how to use this set. Volume 1 of his Works includes two major books on Christ. Christologia is outstanding and profound, but I recommend reading it last. I read this first and found it to be a technical and difficult work. Do not bypass it and pick it above most of the rest of his Works, but wait until you are used to his style and thought. Meditations and Discourses on the Glory of Christ is pure gold. This is Owen’s seasoned attempt to teach his congregation how to grow in their affection for Jesus Christ and to long for heaven more.
Volume 2 includes Communion with God. This is the most important book that have read apart from the Bible, and it has transformed both my personal piety and my ministry. This is partly due to my stage in life when I read it and partly because there is nothing else that I have read that is quite like it in terms of providing a model for Trinitarian piety.
Volumes 3 and 4 include several books on the Holy Spirit. These appeared in print gradually, but Owen designed them to be one large, connected project. He published this material in stages in the last decade of his life because he feared that he would die before finishing it. The first of volume 3 is even fuller, in some respects, in its treatment of devotional Trinitarian theology than Communion with God. The latter half of the volume treats the Spirit’s work in personal holiness and the difference between biblical godliness and moral virtue. Volume 4 examines the grounds of our faith in the authority of Scripture, how we interpret Scripture in dependence on the Spirit, how the Spirit helps us in prayer, the work of the Spirit as comforter, and a profound treatise on spiritual gift. Every one of these books will exceed your expectations and treat their topics better than any other officer that I have read from any century.
Do not bypass the typical recommendations, such as The Mortification of Sin. However, I am increasingly convinced that people misread this book because they are interested in finding a ‘how to’ manual on sanctification instead of a book on the practical outworking of union with Christ in the Christian life. Other excellent books are The Grace and Duty Being Spiritually Minded and, especially, Apostasy from the Gospel. The latter displays astonishing insight into the nature of the human heart and highlights dangers that most contemporary Christians do not even know that they face.
If you get through these, then keep reading what is interesting to you. I have never regretted any time that I have spent with Owen on any subject.
Then McGraw offers these helpful bullet point suggestions on how to read Owen:
- Do not get bogged down with Owen’s outlines. Keep reading and try to keep the big picture of where his argument is going. He did not write random collections of thoughts, but books with definite aims in view. Keep his goals before you as you read.
- Use the table of contents well. Read the table of contents before starting in with the book so that you preview the entire work at a glance. If you lose track of where you are, then go back to the table of contents. Puritan authors’ tables of contents were longer than those of today. This can help you read authors with long complex arguments, such as Owen.
- Persevere and keep reading. Reading seventeenth-century works of theology is similar to learning another language. While Owen wrote in English, it is not exactly the English that you know and use. This is an obstacle for modern readers whether we are reading the works of Owen or of someone else from his time. The more you read Owen, the moreyou will get to know him. Patterns of thought will become familiar and easy, even though his thought never becomes predictable ir mundane. The more familiar you are with him, the more you will get out of him and the more you will enjoy him. Persevere.
- Develop your reading skills in general. In his classic work How to Read a Book, Mortimer J. Adler notes that modern education does not carry us beyond a grammar-school reading level. People have trouble reading dense material such as Owen’s writings because they have never learned how to read such literature. Reading Owen’s writings provides a good opportunity to become a better and more productive reader. Read Adler’s book to help you as well. It is a classic for good reasons.
One simple way to begin is by picking up Ryan McGraw’s own The Foundation of Communion with God: The Trinitarian Piety of John Owen (Reformation Heritage Books, 2014).