In a letter to John Fleming, Bailie of Leith, Samuel Rutherford lists a number of concerns about his attitudes and actions:
I have been much challenged,
1. For not referring all to God, as the last end:that I do not eat, drink, sleep, journey, speak and think for God.
2. That I have not benefited by good company; and that I left not some word of conviction, even upon natural and wicked men, as by reproving swearing in them; or because of being a silent witness to their loose carriage; and because I intended not in all companies to do good.
3. That the woes and calamities of the kirk, and particular professors, have not moved me.
4. That in reading the life of David, Paul, and the like, when it humbled me, I, coming so far short of their holiness, laboured not to imitate them, afar off at least, according to the measure of God’s grace.
5. That unrepented sins of youth were not looked to and lamented for.
6. That sudden stirrings of pride, lust, revenge, love of honours, were not resisted and mourned for
7. That my charity was cold.
8. That the experience I had of God’s hearing me,in this and the other particular, being gathered, yet in a new trouble I had always (once at least) my faith to seek, as if I were to begin at A, B, C, again.
9. That I have not more boldly contradicted the enemies speaking against the truth, either in public church-meetings, or at tables, or ordinary conference.
10. That in great troubles, I have received false reports of Christ’s love, and misbelieved Him in His chastening; whereas the event hath said that all was in mercy.
11. Nothing more moveth me, and burdeneth my soul, than that I could never, in my prosperity, so wrestle in prayer with God, nor be so dead to the world, so hungry and sick of love for Christ, so heavenly-minded, as when ten stoneweight of a heavy cross was upon me.
12. That the cross extorted vows of new obedience, which ease hath blown away, as chaff before the wind.
13. That practice was so short and narrow, and light so long and broad.
14. That death hath not been often meditated upon.
15. That I have not been careful of gaining others to Christ.
16. That my grace and gifts bring forth little or no thankfulness.
It is a shame that we ourselves are not more sensitive to our sins and shortcomings.
After a cracking day on Monday at the Evangelical Library in London on “Reading John Owen” (opening, it has to be said, with Nigel Graham giving what may be one of the finest popular introductions to the life of Owen that it has been my privilege to hear – lively, careful, engaging, insightful) I want to do more reading and re-reading of John Owen. I was reminded, by my own efforts and those of others, why I do and may and must enjoy the privilege of reading such profound theology.
One of the works that piqued my fancy afresh was Owen on The Grace and Duty of Being Spiritually-Minded (in volume 7 of the collected works). This was in Robert Strivens’ section of the works, and what prompted me to turn there again was the warning that preachers, accustomed to handling and speaking God’s Word, can develop a facade of spirituality which masks a spiritual dryness. Conscious that one can do much apparent working for God without much genuine walking with God, I thought it would be good to dip again into this work.
Re-reading can be as fascinating as reading. I am sometimes struck by what struck me the first time, or what failed to strike. The passage of time and the expansion of experience makes one wish, perhaps, that one could be as freshly excited as one was before, and one must learn to be more deeply excited than one was. Or, perhaps, some things have simply become more relevant because of the reader’s different circumstances while reading. On this occasion, I was struck by something in the preface to the work.
Owen, as you may know, had been unwell before preaching and preparing this material. He was so sick that not only was he unable to serve others, but he feared he might be taken by death and never able to serve again. Under such circumstances, he began to meditate on the grace and duty of spiritual-mindedness from Romans 8.6, where the apostle says that “to be carnally minded is death, but to be spiritually minded is life and peace.” Later, Owen took the fruit of his sickbed meditations and turned them into sermons. “And this I did,” he says,
partly out of a sense of the advantage I had received myself by being conversant in them, and partly from an apprehension that the duties directed and pressed unto in the whole discourse wore seasonable, from all sorts of present circumstances, to be declared and urged on the minds and consciences of professors: for, leaving others unto the choice of their own methods and designs, I acknowledge that those are the two things whereby I regulate my work in the whole course of my ministry. (7:263)
I am, I confess, sometimes amused by the homiletical handbooks that pass for pastoral theology in our day. Some of the guidance given for the preparation of sermons seems entirely out of touch with the life of local churches. I am amused when I hear the big cheeses of the evangelical world assure congregations that they prepare their sermons, or perhaps know what they will be preaching on on any given Sunday, a year or so in advance. As the pastor of a small congregation, preaching and teaching several times a week, that seems to me to be ludicrous, even dangerous. I do not think I could do that even if I were in circumstances that seemed to allow it.
Please do not misunderstand me. I am not suggesting that pastors preach on a whim or without a plan. I am not against systematic, sequential expository preaching. But I do wonder how much even Owen’s aside might teach us here. This work of his springs from what I would call a topical expository series. But how did Owen come to it? And why did he choose to preach it?
He has those two answers: first, because it did much good to his own soul when he had considered it for himself; and, second, because he perceived that the same truths which had helped him would, with the blessing of God, prove a timely and profitable study for other believers under his care.
However, he goes on to confess that those two principles are the “things whereby I regulate my work in the whole course of my ministry.” That, in itself, is fascinating. Here is the great theologian and the profound scholar, sitting down as a pastor of God’s people, and asking, first and foremost, what has blessed me, and will it bless others also?
If you are a preacher and teacher, however far you are willing and able to plan ahead, do such considerations have a place in your own preparation? Are you so soaking in God’s truth that you can assess what has been of particular blessing to your own soul? Are you so attuned to and concerned for the saints that you can discern what would prove particularly timely and profitable for them? Are you visiting the congregation regularly and getting to know their lives and their needs so as to be able to make such a judgment? Are you prayerfully thinking of the particular congregation before whom you will stand, converted and unconverted, more and less mature, more or less wounded and wearied, more or less hale and hearty? Are you willing to put in the effort to invest in such ministry? Are you willing to get off the treadmill of your regular or scheduled course of exposition, perhaps to plough fields that would otherwise have remained unbroken, to invest in hours of composition that you had not scheduled into your work patterns? Are you improving your own studies and sufferings to this end?
Such an approach might require that you prepare far in advance a particular course of systematic and sequential exposition, compelled by the fact that this book or section of Scripture will serve those to whom you preach. It might keep you from changing to other, apparently easier or more palatable potions of the Bible, held fast by a sense of responsibility. It might demand that you drop such a long course of sermons and preach for a few weeks on a particular portion of God’s Word. It might compel you to preach a single sermon on a single text. It might prompt you to develop what you thought was a one-off into a shorter or longer series. Again, it is no excuse for a pastor-preacher simply riding his hobby-horses to death. You will note that Owen does not manipulate his hearers by the claim that the Spirit imposed the duty upon him, though I do not think anyone can fail to see the hand of God at work in the matter. This is a man who is sensitive to the truth, sensitive to the operations of the Spirit of God, sensitive to the circumstances and needs of the saints, sensitive to the spirit of the age, sensitive to the demands of a particular place and people, and deeply concerned to be a means of blessing to those to whom he speaks.
This, I would suggest, is pastoral preaching of the highest order – ministry of God’s truth that flows from the heart of a true shepherd of souls, a man who has drunk deeply of the sweet waters of the gospel, and is persuaded from the depths of his being that others need to taste and see that the Lord is good, and to obtain the blessing designed for those who trust in him.
To be honest, I was not quite sure what to expect from this book. I wondered if it would be a sort of rambling reminiscence or a series of strident assertions from a heavily fortified redoubt. I was pleasantly, even delightfully, surprised.
The book is, unashamedly, a personal history and contains much in that vein. But it is not a series of anecdotes, either limned in the halo glow of past glories or shadowed with defeatist gloom. It begins with what comes across as a thoroughly honest and painful testimony about what it was like to be converted and to serve in doctrinally mixed denominations in which gospel distinctiveness and Christ-centred preaching and living were at a premium. This was an era in which you might hear the gospel rarely, because a church had accidentally invited someone to preach who believed the Bible, and who – once the fearful fact was discovered – would never again darken that building’s doors.
The author goes on to describe what felt like a second conversion when, training in a liberal theological college, he heard a certain Welshman preach … really preach, and preach truth … real truth. He describes the early years of life in a Baptist Union church, battling with unconverted members and labouring with confused Christians. I have heard some of these horror stories from others. Here is a further brief catalogue. Under such circumstances, men of God would gather eagerly in London from month to month, to enjoy fellowship at Westminster Chapel with likeminded brothers, and to enjoy the wisdom and engage with the opinions of one of the few senior leaders they knew and trusted, Martyn Lloyd-Jones.
Such history gives way to the most theologically oriented section of the book, an assessment of the arguments of evangelicals in various mixed denominations (not just the Anglicans, it must be remembered, but among various free church associations and denominations as well) to remain ‘in it to win it’. All this leads up to the night of Tuesday 18th October, 1966. There Lloyd-Jones did what he was invited to do: he delivered, as a sermon, his opinion on the question of true church unity, calling evangelicals to come out of their compromised bodies. Infamously, the chairman – John Stott – took it upon himself to respond in the negative.
We tend to view the outcomes of that night in terms of macro-ecclesiology. Howlett gives us a window into the micro-ecclesiology. He and the church he served were evicted from their building by the Baptist Union; he and his family were evicted from their home by the same group. As all the latent conviction of the preceding years precipitated the exit from many denominations of godly men, so all the latent animosity of the preceding years against biblical conviction and action seemed to be released against them. Refreshingly, the author names names, allowing us to see just what was going on, and with whom, and why. It is neither gossipy nor vindictive, but it is plain and sometimes painful.
We also then see the smile of God. We hear of churches blessed as they continued down their difficult path, and of opportunities for ministry and service that might otherwise have been denied, as preachers and churches sought to establish themselves upon the truth of God rather than the opinions of men.
In all this, Howlett takes pains to underline that Lloyd-Jones, in many ways both standard-bearer and catalyst for much of this activity, was never the object of mindless hero-worship from a bunch of brainless acolytes. Rather, we see a man who was flawed but faithful, as are all true men of God, one whose wisdom, humility, kindness and firmness were treasured by those who had few other models to which they could look. The whole finishes with a generally positive survey of some of the evangelical institutions and the gospel endeavours in which the historian has participated and still participates, the fruit of the often costly investments of those preceding years.
Most of us, especially those who have (hopefully) matured after the dust had begun to settle on these events, or who pontificate about these things from further afield, have no real idea of the battles fought and the blood, sweat and tears shed by those who have gone before, the sacrifices made by men faithful to their convictions. Perhaps some of those who are even now fighting similar battles for the souls of their own churches will have some insight. But honestly, most younger men probably lack any real awareness of the horrific grip that liberalism had on British churches, just what fiendish froth and filth the Downgrade had eventually spawned.
As the author draws his conclusions, different readers will draw theirs. To those, like some evangelical Anglican brothers, still wrestling in a fatally compromised denomination, Howlett’s proclamations may read like the ‘same old, same old’ criticisms, long since shown to hold no water. To others, Independents for whom the FIEC is less hitting its stride as a denomination and more developing the hallmarks of an anodyne but self-aggrandising octopus, his celebration of such organisations might ring a little hollow.
However, what should become clear to those in the former camp is that Lloyd-Jones’ call was not, in itself, an anti-Anglican statement but a pro-evangelical declaration. Howlett, not merely echoing but sincerely communicating the issues and the points of departure, presses home the same questions upon the conscience of those who remain in doctrinally and practically compromised denominations of all stripes. To those of us in the latter camp, it would do us good to realise what a haven the FIEC might have felt like to those men and women who paid such a high price for their faithfulness and unwillingness to compromise. You might still not agree with what the FIEC is, and you might still be unimpressed with what it seems to be becoming, but you will have greater sympathy for and understanding of those who lived through these years and have invested in it. There are also bigger issues for us all. For too many, questions of soteriology and ecclesiology are seen to have almost no bearing upon one another. Very often the former are elevated and the latter denigrated. The former unite, the latter divide, we are told. But they are more closely linked than most of us consider. The book hints at this, without, in my opinion, pressing it particularly far home. It remains a significant and often overlooked or swept-aside tension as Christians continue to ask questions about cooperation and connection in gospel endeavours.
There have been a number of other contributions to the history of these events in recent years, and especially recent weeks and months. There is value in trying to look back from a greater distance and make cooler assessments. There is also great value in listening carefully to the recollections and experiences of the men who were there, who lived through and fought through battles within and around genuine evangelicalism. Such histories ought to teach us, that we might build upon what we have inherited, consider what remains to be addressed, and resist the same compromise and confusion that once characterised the congregations of our country.
If you were asked to identify the primary quality which defines a true man of God in his specific relation to a true woman of God – distinctively within the marriage relationship – what one-word answer might you give? What if the opposite question were asked: what single quality ought to characterise a woman of God in relation to her husband in particular?
In pondering the answers to those questions, rest assured that I am not having a sly dig at anyone or seeking to make unreasonable or unfair assumptions. I am on record in The New Calvinism Considered (US and UK) as being what is generally now defined as a complementarian, but also as being uncomfortable with some of the excesses that I have perceived, and those in both directions.
Most germane to the purposes of this post are those excesses in which biblical masculinity is celebrated but potentially or actually exaggerated toward a caricature of (Western?) masculinity – “a sort of hairy, Neanderthal, chest-beating machismo.” This caricature, it seems, is now being used by some to justify not just a strangely exaggerated form of masculinity but a horribly perverted abuse of it.
I wonder if this can be traced in some instances to a fundamental misunderstanding of what true masculinity looks like in relationship to true femininity? As so often, perhaps there is a danger of reactionary theology: a position formed not from the Word of God but from a response – proper in kind but not in degree – to some opposite aberrance. So, for example, think of someone so (rightly) horrified by the suggestion that the Lord Jesus, in some way, was not fully human that he responds in such a way as actually (wrongly) to undermine his divinity. Such is the skewed reaction to the cultural pressure by which many men have become milk-livered geldings that the goal becomes the embodiment of the rutting stallion. Neither is it a matter of finding some kind of middle ground. The aim should not be some anodyne mean, but a biblical fulness.
But what does that look like with regard to male leadership, especially leading to and in marriage? A simple passage like Ephesians 5 helps us here. I will not go into the substructure of male-female relations, grounded in both being made in the image of God, both being fallen in Adam, both able to be redeemed and restored in Christ. In such a relationship there is a genuine correspondence, a profound cleaving, a total commitment and a joint commission. Furthermore, I am persuaded from the Word of God that there are some distinctive roles within that relationship. In Ephesians 5, the apostle sounds two abiding keynotes, one for the woman and for the man. The primary element for the woman of God is submission, and I recognise that that must be carefully and scripturally defined and worked out. Paul, in this passage, then moves on to the keynote for the man. And what is it? If we make a merely reactionary leap (and I fear this is, in essence, what many are doing) we start looking for the counterpoint to submission. The husband is to be marked by … what? Authority? Rule? Headship? Leadership? Some other near-synonym for being in charge that emphasises the difference between the sexes?
No, the distinctive feature of masculinity in this relation to femininity is love. Leadership or headship may be implied, but the focus of the apostle is on the motive and nature of the husband’s relation to his wife. This love is neither physical lust nor romantic delight, and neither one can or will supply a lack of intelligent and principled love.
Let me briefly spell out several things about this love. Note first its character, for it is Christlike. As such, it must be principled, realistic, intelligent , sweet and – ultimately – sacrificial. Its great pattern is Christ’s coming for and dying for his church. This is not a matter of occasional spectacular demonstrations, though it may include them. It is not a notional knight in shining armour who, fortunately for the husband, never actually needs to make an appearance. It is to labour for the good of your wife regardless of the cost to yourself, a daily death of a thousand cuts to male selfishness and laziness.
Secondly, see the quality of this love: it is purposeful. Like Christ’s love to his church, it aims not at a wife’s slavish subjugation, but at her proper liberation. A husband’s love aims to raise his beloved wife to the highest point development and her greatest blessing. He invests in and serves her so as to bring her, by all legitimate means, to the highest pitch of spiritual and moral excellence to which she is able to attain, as defined by God himself. There is a deliberate goal in such love.
Thirdly, consider the anchor of this love: union. Paul grounds this love in the one-flesh union between husband and wife. For the married man, she is one with me. Whatever I would do or have done for my true good and real blessing, by God’s estimation, I should pursue for her. As it would be both unnatural and ungodly to ignore, neglect, despise or injure your own flesh, so – if our love is remotely Christlike – it ought to be recognised as unnatural and ungodly to do the same with regard to our wife.
Finally, observe the activity of such love: it is a nourishing and cherishing affection. Whatever the origin of this language, it is clearly not meant to be demeaning, because it refers both to the way in which a man is expected to be caring for himself, and representative of the way in which Christ cares for his church. The words communicate a profound tenderness and principled care, to develop by nurture and to envelope with affection. Some men show more of this toward their car or their home than they do toward their wife – investing more time, energy and money in a hobby than in their God-given wife. The call is for words backed up by deeds, and deeds adorned with words, just as with Christ.
So, brothers, how do you assess your distinctive relationship toward your wife? What ought to lie at the root of your dispositions and actions toward other women who are not your wife? Do you perceive your relationship toward your spiritual sisters (or, indeed, unconverted women), and especially with regard to (but not merely) your wives, to be characterised primarily by rule – by the robust exercise of the authority which has been so largely abandoned by our generation and culture? If so, you are missing the mark. The characteristic quality of the true man of God is a Christlike love, first and primarily with regard to his own wife, and then to other women in appropriate measure and framed by the parameters of a legitimate relationship. If, to paraphrase the apostle elsewhere, you are getting other things right but have not love, you have failed to follow and to show Christ at this point.
In the light of recent controversies, I am revisiting this:
The magpie (at least, the one I have in mind) is a striking European bird of black and white plumage (as Jeeves might say, “The species pica pica of the family corvidae, sir”) – a sort of jazzed up crow, if you will, although I imagine many magpies would be thoroughly offended by the description. An even worse sobriquet attaches to this unfortunate bird: “the thieving magpie,” a reference to its alleged and rather unfortunate habit of flying away with anything shiny that takes its fancy and is not firmly tied down.
It is the sort of heist of which preachers are often accused, a connection all the more unfortunate if you also go in for monochrome livery. But is it a legitimate accusation?
Preachers are easily criticised, and sometimes rightly so, for taking short cuts with preparation. Many years ago a peer sent me a sermon he was…
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Sound words from John Eadie in his commentary on Ephesians (355):
If Christians shall persist in falsehood and deviation from the truth — if they shall indulge in fitful rage, or cherish sullen and malignant dislikes — if they shall be characterized by dishonesty, or insipid and corrupt language, then do they grieve the Holy Spirit of God; for all this perverse insubordination is in utter antagonism to the essence and operations of Him who is the Spirit of truth; and inspires the love of it; who assumed, as a fitting symbol, the form of a dove, and creates meekness and forbearance; and who, as the Spirit of holiness, leads to the appreciation of all that is just in action, noble in sentiment, and healthful and edifying in speech. What can be more grieving to the Holy Ghost than our thwarting the very purpose for which He dwells within us, and contravening all the promptings and suggestions with which He warns and instructs us?
The brochure and booking form for the Westminster Conference 2016 is now available for download. An excellent programme involves Ken Brownell, Peter Beale, James Mildred, Ian Hamilton, Geoff Thomas, and Iain Murray speaking about the life and labours of Luther, the doctrine of repentance, the impassibility of God, the recent history of British Evangelicalism, and J. C. Ryle.
It is due to take place on Tuesday 6th and Wednesday 7th December this year in central London.