The Wanderer

As I walked through the wilderness of this world …

Posts Tagged ‘John Bunyan

Review: “Gentle and Lowly: The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers”

with 23 comments

Gentle and Lowly: The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers
Dane C. Ortlund
Crossway, 2020
224pp., hardback, $19.99

ISBN 978-1-4335-6613-4

Some assured me that it was the greatest book they had read in years. Others warned me that it was profoundly dangerous. Reviewers have largely fallen over themselves to commend it. It is a topic which I need to grasp personally and pastorally. So I took it up and read it. The book is from Dane Ortlund, is called Gentle and Lowly, and is—more or less—an attempt to rework Goodwin on the heart of Christ (available as a Puritan Paperback from the Banner of Truth) for a modern audience, with primary assistance from Sibbes, Owen, Flavel, and Bunyan, and occasional contributions from Edwards, Warfield, and one or two others.

In style, it is interesting, at times combining Blairite sentence fragments with complex and lengthy sentences that would make a Puritan blush. It is generally accessible, but some of those heavier sentences are like steamrollers. I wonder if people are so persuaded that the seventeenth-century authors are unreadable that they never bother finding out if they are at least as clear as some of our more modern writers? That is true, not just of Ortlund’s style, but also in his substance.

So what of the substance? ‘This book,’ says the author, ‘is written for the discouraged, the frustrated, the weary, the disenchanted, the cynical, the empty.’ Its message is ‘that we tend to project our natural expectations about who God is onto [sic] him instead of fighting to let the Bible surprise us into what God himself says’ (13, 155). If the message so stated seems to fall a little short of the target audience, then we need to dig a little deeper.

Ortlund is addressing a genuine and proper pastoral concern, and one which may well be more pressing in his circles than in those of some readers. Most pastors will recognise the malady when he writes that ‘many of us tend to believe [that God’s love in Christ] is a love infected with disappointment’ (189). Ministers wrestle with men and women, believers and otherwise, persuaded that they are utterly unloveable and entirely beyond love. In part, like Ortlund, I am persuaded that this probably reflects a failure properly to appreciate and appropriate the incomparable depths of God’s love toward us in Christ Jesus, and—perhaps, therefore—further reflects a fear of preaching the heart of Christ in all its fulness of love. After all, what if people got the wrong impression and thought that they could sin and get away with it? But, on the other hand, what if people concluded that, because they had sinned, they were helplessly and hopelessly done for, because Christ would quickly become frustrated with us and leave us to our own wretched devices? It may be that Ortlund is conscious of an excessive intellectualism in his own circles, a technical grasp of what Christ is and does without an experimental acquaintance with our Lord’s heart toward us that spills over in our lives and from our lips. Whatever the case, he is quite right to quote Jeremiah 31:20 about the yearning of God’s heart, and challenge us, ‘Does your doctrine of God have room for him speaking like that?’ (164).

In the course of the book there are moments of penetrating insight into the Scriptures (such as the developed parallel between God’s self-revelation to Moses on the mountain and the actions of our Lord Jesus with his disciples), or points at which his apposite quotation of the Puritans, or communication of their sense, leaves the heart singing.

The book as a whole consists of twenty-three reasonably brief chapters, with an introduction and an epilogue. It concentrates more on the character of Christ, although his nature as the God-man is used to elaborate on the depths and demonstrations of his heart toward us. While the first chapter picks up the language of Matthew 11:29, which supplies the title, every chapter takes a verse, or more often a phrase, as its point of departure. The author wants us to understand the depths of Christ’s sympathy for and with sinners, his readiness to receive the penitent wanderer returning home, his patience and gentleness with his erring people, his intercession and advocacy for us in his glory, his perfect emotions in his dealings with us, his persevering affection, and the way in which his heart beats in time with the Father and the Spirit, revealing the Father’s heart and exemplified in the Spirit’s presence and operations. Ortlund labours constantly to overcome our sinful suspicions of the Lord, the twisted pride that assumes we are actually too bad to be saved, or the fear that we have messed up and have put ourselves if not beyond the power then perhaps beyond the patience of a loving Saviour. Some chapters rely more heavily on his source material. Goodwin ties the whole together, but specific chapters owe more or less to other authors, and one or two—such as the chapter on the emotional life of our Lord—are largely summaries of longer pieces by older authors.

As a whole, the theme is wonderfully sweet and absolutely vital. Ortlund’s emphases are sadly missing in too many churches. (It is worth remembering that not everything that he sees as missing has been or is being missed in every church and by every preacher.) For many a battered and bruised soul, either wondering if God could ever love them or keep loving them, there is much truth here to instruct and to comfort, truth presented with a necessarily emphatic edge. Sinners coming to Christ for the first time need not only to be persuaded of their own emptiness and weakness, but also persuaded that the Redeemer is not only absolutely able but eminently willing to save them—he delights to glorify God in receiving the most wretched of sinners. Further, saints need to enter ever more fully into the depths of Christ’s love, never despairing of him and therefore over themselves, but confident (without carelessness) that this fountain opened for sin and for uncleanness will ever be accessible to them, that their Lord and Saviour is more willing to forgive their sins than they might be to come to him for forgiveness. It is a truth that is intended to draw us to Christ and keep us near Christ, and should we ever drift away from him, to bring us back, more fully persuaded of his abounding and enduring love.

So persuaded am I of the need for more such preaching and teaching that I am borderline desperate to be able to commend this book without reservation as a remedy for some of the spiritual ills that afflict far too many doctrinally-sound but experientially-shrivelled Christians and congregations.

I cannot do that. I cannot commend it without reservation, despite my appreciation of the overarching thrust and intent, because I have three particular areas of significant concern. The first has to do with the overstatements that unbalance the book, including some false absolutes and false dichotomies; the second has to do with what seem to be certain subtle misrepresentations or reworkings of the Puritans and their emphases; the third has to do with a lack of clarity in theology proper and Christology.

With regard to overstatement, I mean a tendency—all too frequent both in books and pulpits—to make a point by absolutising one’s statement, or by seeking to throw truth into sharpest relief by setting it in contrast to other statements. This is proper when the other statements are false, but when it leads to the presentation of false absolutes or false dichotomies it undoes itself. I fundamentally agree with Dr Ortlund when he asserts that ‘it is impossible for the affectionate heart of Christ to be overcelebrated, made too much of, exaggerated’ (29, original emphasis). That does not in itself remove the danger of subtly misrepresenting Christ and his heart, even with the best of intentions. I am not sufficiently familiar with Dr Ortlund’s writings to know whether or not other books or articles offer further perspectives that together provide a more complete and balanced presentation of the points he makes here. Neither am I demanding a constant stream of deadening nuance, in which every writer or preacher must identify the seventeen things he does not mean before he says what he does. If we deal every absolute statement the death of a thousand qualifying cuts we are likely to undo our usefulness. That does not, though, suspend the duty for careful precision in the statements themselves. I would not try to cripple any communicator of truth, but we are most free when truly precise, working within the carefully-defined limits of our whole theology and the analogy of Scripture. There are moments at which I think Dr Ortlund either goes beyond himself in his understandable enthusiasm, or fails to be as careful as he might need to be when dealing with some details. Virtuosity is still jarring when in the wrong key.

Lest I seem to tilt at windmills, let me offer a concrete example from the opening lines of Chapter 20: “There are two ways to live the Christian life. You can live it either for the heart of Christ or from the heart of Christ. You can live for the smile of God or from it. For a new identity as a son or daughter of God or from it. For your union with Christ or from it.” On the surface it reads well, and sounds deeply ‘spiritual.’ But put those phrases in parallel and there are some category confusions: are the heart of Christ, the smile of God, a new identity, and union with Christ all precisely identical under all circumstances? What do the prepositions ‘for’ and ‘from’ mean in connection with those particular phrases? Does it make any difference if you are already a believer or not? Ortlund makes clear he is talking about the Christian life. So, for example, if you had asked the apostle Paul whether or not he first obtains union with Christ and a new life by his own efforts, he would have denied it from his soul. However, had you asked Paul if, as a Christian, he lived for the smile of God or from it, he would cheerfully have answered, “Yes!” (based on 2 Corinthians 5:9–11, Galatians 2:17–21, and Philippians 3:7–14, to take three prominent examples). Paul might also have insisted, using careful language, that—having begun in the Spirit, but not now being made perfect by the flesh (Gal 3:3)—we nevertheless go on demonstrating our union with Christ and enjoying the smile of our heavenly Father by way of a life of principled obedience.

On another occasion, in order to make a point, Ortlund insists that “justification is largely a doctrine about what Christ has done in the past, rooted centrally in his death and resurrection” (78), quoting the first half of Romans 5:1, emphasising thus: “we have been justified” (ESV). However, the whole verse reads tells us that since we have been justified by faith, we have a thoroughly present and enduring peace with God as justified men and women, through our Lord Jesus Christ. Ortlund’s characterisation of justification allows him then to insist that ‘intercession is the constant hitting “refresh” of our justification in the court of heaven’ (80). It is not that all this is entirely wrong; it is, though, unbalanced or incomplete in its presentation. Such overstatements can become unhelpful. Should we insist that ‘the Christian life is simply the process of bringing my sense of self … into alignment with the more fundamental truth’ of how Christ feels about us (187)? If I make that my working definition of the Christian life I think I am likely to leave people confused and misdirected.

This isolation of justification comes out in another curious way, and in another direction. Anyone who reads the mainstream Puritans will appreciate their emphasis on the application of truth to the heart. There is distinction but no distance, let alone divorce, between the elements of their soteriology. But, in his epilogue, Ortlund hammers home that his book is about the heart of Christ and of God, and then asks and answers the question, ‘But what are we to do with this? The main answer is, nothing.’ According to Ortlund, to ask, ‘Now how do I apply this to my life?’ would be ‘a trivialization of the point of this study. If an Eskimo wins a vacation to a sunny place, he doesn’t arrive in his hotel room, step out onto the balcony, and wonder how to apply that to his life. He just enjoys it. He just basks.’ The only thing we need to do is go to Jesus, and ‘all that means is, open yourself up to him. Let him love you. The Christian life boils down to two steps: 1. Go to Jesus. 2. See #1.’ All of this is supported with a quotation from Goodwin that, slightly disingenuously, does not actually come from the book, The Heart of Christ. What Ortlund does not say is that Goodwin actually finishes his work on Christ’s heart with four uses (the Puritan language of application). I acknowledge that this is slightly shoddy from Goodwin; if he were on form, we might expect a good forty or so! Also, taking into account the applications and exhortations sown by Goodwin throughout the whole, let us note that it is not just unlike the Puritans, but unlike Goodwin himself, to suggest that our only response is to bask in this truth. Goodwin, in keeping with the emphasis of the best of Puritanism, includes stirring exhortations alongside sweet encouragements. His third use is that, ‘As the doctrine delivered is a comfort, so the greatest motive against sin and persuasive unto obedience, to consider that Christ’s heart, if it be not afflicted with—and how far it may suffer with us we know not—yet for certain hath less joy in us, as we are more or less sinful, or obedient’ (Goodwin, 4:150). At this point you might appreciate why Ortlund sometimes paraphrases Goodwin, so let me do the same. Goodwin is simply pressing home the fact that Christ grieves over our sin and rejoices over our obedience, and that should make a difference to our pursuit of godliness. ‘Take this,’ says Goodwin, ‘as one incentive to obedience, that if he retained the same heart and mind for mercy towards you which he had here on earth, then to answer his love, endeavour you to have the same heart towards him on earth which you hope to have in heaven.’ The proper response to Christ’s heart is not simply basking in his love, but also responding to it with a love of our own that manifests itself in cheerful obedience.

Sometimes, Ortlund simply needs to be more careful with his language. For example, he asks, ‘Do you know what Jesus does with those who squander his mercy? He pours out more mercy. God is rich in mercy. That’s the whole point’ (179). One understands what he is trying to say, but there will be many on the day of judgment who are cast into the Pit precisely because they have squandered (recklessly wasted and cast away) the real and offered mercies of the Lord Jesus. Such imprecision opens the door to potentially dangerous misunderstandings.

Such examples could be repeated several times over. Many such sweeping statements sound clever and are catchy. Digging deeper, though, one finds that they are not properly compelling, and some effectively downplay other necessary or complementary emphases. All this is fine when we are carried along on the wave, less satisfying should we be only temporarily lifted up by the froth. While we do want people to grasp the heart of Christ for sinners and sufferers, that must be a well-grounded and accurate grasp. Overstatement for effect will ultimately hinder or even cripple our efforts to communicate the truth.

This concern bleeds, second, into the way in which Ortlund handles and riffs off the Puritans and others. To be fair, his selection of their quotations is typically judicious, and there are several moments at which one reads a few lines from Goodwin or Bunyan and wants to shout, ‘Nailed it!’ When our author gets it right, he often gets it delightfully right (aspects of his treatment of Warfield on the emotional life of our Lord, for example). However, as we have said, he is making a selection, and selection is often, by definition, interpretation. Sometimes Ortlund takes it upon himself to explain or develop what these other authors have said. In doing so, he seems sometimes to leave out important elements, or to go beyond his sources, or to rephrase them to say something slightly more, less or different. What you have here is essentially Goodwin mediated by Ortlund, not unlike the way in which many read Edwards as mediated by Piper. There is a selective emphasis that necessarily reflects the convictions and priorities of the mediator, and may—inadvertently or otherwise—skew the force of the original to some extent. As so often, it is important to listen to what is not being said, as well as the things that are being said. See, for example, the comments above about the way in which Goodwin applies these truths to God’s people, which is largely missing from Ortlund’s treatment.

Some of this is a matter of vocabulary. Ortlund tends to default to the language of love for the disposition of Christ toward us. It becomes a catch-all cognate for the disposition and all the affections of Christ as they are manifested towards us. While that is sometimes equally true of the Puritans he quotes, they are typically a little more precise. For example, even in the quotations he selects, the Puritans upon whom he relies often use the notions of pity or mercy not as simple synonyms for love, but as functions of love, love responding in certain ways to certain situations. Would it be better, rather than simply to say that Christ loves us all the more, the more we sin, to say that—because of the great love with which he loves us—our sin only draws out the more pity and mercy from his loving heart? Ortlund often hits that sweet spot, as when he assures us that ‘as [God’s] love rises, mercy descends. Great love fills his heart; rich mercy flows out of his heart’ (174). On other occasions, one wonders if a more careful definition of love and its manifestations might have been helpful, rather than assuming that we all instinctively grasp what love is and ought to be, and how it ought to act.

This leaves us sometimes reading Ortlund’s elucidation of Puritan teaching and finding it less clear or crisp than the Puritans themselves. At one or two points he lacks the happy ruthlessness of Puritan logic or precision of language, and, on occasion, the consistent and comprehensive grasp of truth that keeps them from going too far or not far enough in making a certain point. To be fair, there are times when Goodwin and company make assertions that take the breath away, and leave you feeling as if you are teetering on the edge of heresy, so bold are their declarations of the readiness of Christ to receive and go on receiving sinners. However, I do not recall reading the men and works that Ortlund quotes with quite so many questions or niggles. Again, I am not pushing for endless qualification (if that were so, this book would be three times as long as the weightiest Puritan tome!), but for precision and carefulness in the foundational statements. Perhaps I am just more conscious of the issues of the modern day, better attuned to the current issues and the way they are framed, but I don’t recall raising these issues with Goodwin, Owen, Sibbes, or Bunyan. These men seemed better able to address the ‘yes, buts’ or pre-empt the ‘what ifs’ of their magisterial declarations. Some of that breadth and balance is missing in Ortlund’s recapitulation of Goodwin.

Finally, there is the concern of his theology proper and his Christology. I do not envy Ortlund here, and I am deeply conscious that I am picking holes in a game effort to accomplish something at which I constantly fail. He is sailing deep waters, and makes a good fist of seeking to take account of the fact that he cannot deal with the incarnate Son without addressing the persons of the Father and the Spirit, and that the incarnate Son himself is indeed the God-man, two distinct natures in one person forever. I applaud the preacher or writer who manages a lifetime of addressing such things without a moment’s deviation or confusion!

Ortlund is himself deeply aware of that danger. He reminds us that J. I. Packer ‘once wrote that “a half-truth masquerading as the whole truth becomes a complete untruth.” This is an especially sensitive point when we are talking about the Bible’s revelation of Christ’ (28). Shortly after, he warns that ‘we should beware a one-dimensional portrait of Christ that elevates one [dimension] to the neglect of others’ (35). Awareness of the trap does not prevent one slipping into it, if not quite becoming entirely caught up in it. Again, some of this may be a function of Ortlund’s enthusiasm, his working assumption that some things cannot be over-exaggerated. He is also trying to push back at some common misconceptions, such as the sense of some believers that ‘the Son of God came down from heaven in incarnate form, spent three decades or so as a human, and then returned to heaven to revert back to his preincarnate state’ (103). To be fair, across the book there are attempts to ensure that a properly scriptural balance is maintained, but balance is not necessarily the same as correctness and correction.

As the book’s own title makes plain, the focus is on the heart of Christ. There are, then, particular dangers in setting, or seeming to set, the heart of the person of the Son apart from the other persons of the Godhead, and so potentially disrupting the Trinity, or the heart of Christ-as-God apart from the heart of Christ-as-man, and so potentially disrupting the person of Messiah. There are challenges both in positively presenting all that, and in preventing or countering potential confusion about it.

For some, the difficulty might lie in the fact that Ortlund appears to go quite readily down Rob Lister’s route on anthropopathism (God’s ascription of human affection or emotion to himself as a way of accommodating himself to our understanding in making himself known). Ortlund seems quite dismissive of any attempt to discern between emotions or affections in our speaking of God, and perhaps feels that this book is not the proper place to explore fully the ways in which the God-man has sinless human emotions as well as divine affections (his chapter on Warfield is good in this respect). Again, the book is not a contribution to recent debates on divine impassibility (which Ortlund refers to, in connection with Lister as a helpful resource to ‘explore the way God is both impassible and yet capable of emotion’, in a substantial footnote on page 73). However, it is obviously not an issue that can be side-stepped when dealing with the heart of our Lord. Ortlund takes pains later in the book to make clear that Christ’s heart is not apart from the Father’s, still less against it, in his disposition toward us; this can feel more of a balancing act than a correction. We are still left with a danger at earlier points of not so much dividing as isolating the heart of Christ from the heart of the Father. Confusion on impassibility may lie behind statements such as the assertion that God ‘is—if I can put it this way without questioning his divine perfections—conflicted within himself when he sends affliction into our lives’ (138). Is that the safest way of putting it? Does that qualification keep us clear about whether or not the God of all the earth can be self-conflicted?

Again, Ortlund himself warns against the danger of being carried too far in seeking to go far enough. No preacher would begrudge him a proper enthusiasm, but not at the price of necessary precision. In an attempt to show us something great in Christ, there is that constant danger of presenting a one-dimensional Christ. I am not sure that he always stayed on the right side of that line. There are nuances and qualifications, for example, about Christ’s holy hatred of sin, but perhaps not sufficient, or sufficiently clear, to keep some from concluding that we are free to squander present mercies with the confidence that more mercies will come. In Sinclair Ferguson’s language, we need to preach a whole Christ. We cannot always (ever!) say everything, but we might need to say enough, in context or over time, manifestly to keep from preaching less or other than a whole Christ.

Anyone who raise such concerns needs to be aware of at least two dangers for themselves. The first is that, in attempting to keep from error, we will not state the whole truth with the fulness and freeness of the Scriptures themselves. So fearful might we be of legalism that we become antinomians, so fearful of antinomianism that we become legalists, or seek to counter the one with a dash of the other. In the same vein, men constantly on the lookout for even the most minute error in speaking of divine affections might find themselves unable or even unwilling to give free rein to Scriptural language or proper vent to their own souls in seeking to communicate the sweet wonders of the heart of God in Christ toward his beloved people. We cannot afford to be ashamed of or to draw back from biblical truth presented in biblical language.

To conclude, and without wishing to overstate it myself, I am persuaded that this theme is often and tragically overlooked or undercooked. For whatever reasons, the heart of Christ is too often clouded to us and by us. Lost sinners need to be confident that a saving Christ will receive them with infinite readiness and tenderness. Christians need to know Christ’s disposition of love toward us, and to feel it, and to understand the ways in which it is manifested toward us. Because of my delight in the topic, I wanted to love this book, and at points I did. Nevertheless, I too often felt I needed subtly, internally, to rework a phrase, to introduce a nuance, to press further a point, or to adjust an assertion. I still think that for some whose spiritual diet has been lacking this emphasis, Gentle and Lowly could be like a cup of cold water to the soul. For some who preach a known Christ competently, this book might help to preach a felt one earnestly. We need all that is true in this book. Even so, I think there is a danger that it might not so much correct certain imbalances as introduce different ones. I understand why some recommended it with almost no reserve, while some were so reserved they felt that they could not recommend it. That might depend on their circumstances and the people to whom they minister. I am quite confident that, if I preached Christ in all his fulness, I might eventually be accused both of antinomianism and legalism, depending on which truth I happen to be emphasising. That is why a bit more Puritan precision without any loss of Puritan passion (emotion? affection?) would be welcome. That carefulness needs to become second nature to the theologian, so that our language more instinctively, regularly and carefully reflects the whole truth of the whole Christ. I write all this not to be wilfully contrarian, or simply pernickety, but because I think that there are not so much flaws in the diamond itself, but rather genuine concerns about its presentation.

Much good will have been done if this book drives us back to the Puritans. In many modern editions, the Puritans are at least as accessible as this book, or become so for those willing to put in a little effort. Those Puritans also tend to be, I think, more complete and careful. For many, one of the better responses to this book will be to read Goodwin for themselves. However, more will have been done if Gentle and Lowly, with the men upon whose shoulders it stands, drive us back to our Bibles to search out and see these things in Christ for ourselves. If nothing else, it should remind us of the need to grasp these truths in our souls, and to tell them to others, even if we believe that we could and should tell them better. The great tragedy would be to conclude that we have nothing to learn in this matter. If so, it might either be because we have advanced beyond many of our contemporaries in our exceeding zeal for the honour of Christ and the good of his people, or—more likely—because we have not grasped the greatness of this theme, the glory of God revealed in it, or the good that comes to God’s people from a firmer grasp on the loving heart of the Altogether Lovely One.

A pilgrimage to Daws Heath

with one comment

For those interested, tomorrow night (Thu 27 Oct) I am giving an address on “John Bunyan and his pilgrim” at Daws Heath Evangelical Church near Hadleigh in Essex. The meeting begins at 8pm, God willing. Do come along if you are within range.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Wednesday 26 September 2012 at 10:50

Posted in Conferences

Tagged with

The shepherd’s soul

with 3 comments

At the recent “The Call” Conference, I was preaching on the shepherd’s concern for his own soul. For the main thrust of that address – the need for elders to take heed to their own souls if they are to be truly profitable in serving God and men – I had a number of quotes from the great and the good, as well as a number of examples, which – for the sake of time – I was obliged to leave out. However, for those who are interested, here are the quotes I had at my disposal (I think I used about two or three during the sermon). Here is the truth of Scripture confirmed by men of God.

John Bunyan (describing the true pastor): “It had eyes lifted up to heaven, the best of books in his hand, the law of truth was written upon its lips, the world was behind its back; it stood as if it pleaded with men, and a crown of gold did hang over its head.”

Wilhelmus à Brakel: “He must have the heart of a preacher; that is, he must stand in awe of the God in whose Name he preaches, and with love seek the welfare of the souls to whom he preaches. He must know himself to be entirely undone in himself and have a lively impression of his own inability, so that he will not trust too much in having studied properly. He ought to pray much beforehand, not so much to get through the sermon, but for a sanctified heart, for a continual sense of the presence of God, for suitable expressions, and for a blessing upon his preaching to the conversion, comfort, and edification of souls. His concern ought not to be whether the congregation will be pleased with him and will praise the sermon, but his motive must rather be a love for the welfare of the congregation.” (The Christian’s Reasonable Service, 2:138)

William Arnot: “The more that the teacher absorbs for himself of Christ’s love, the more benefit will others obtain from him. . . . Those who drink in most of the Master’s spirit are most useful in the world. Those who first take heed to themselves will be most effective in caring for the spiritual weal of those who look up to them.” (Studies in Acts, 380)

Charles Bridges: “Upon the whole, therefore, our personal character must be admitted to have weighty influence upon our Ministrations. ‘Simplicity and godly sincerity,’ disinterestedness, humility, and general integrity of profession – are an ‘epistle known and read of all men.’ Indeed character is power. The lack of it must therefore blast our success, by bringing the genuineness of our own religion, and the practical efficacy of the Gospel, under suspicion. Apart also from the natural effect of our public consistency, there is also a secret but penetrating influence diffused by the habitual exercise of our principles. Who will deny, that – had he been a more spiritual Christian – he would probably have been a more useful Minister? Will not he, who is most fervent and abundant in secret prayer, most constant in his studies, most imbued with his Master’s spirit, most single in his object, most upright and persevering in the pursuit of it – be most honoured in his work? For is not he likely to be filled with an extraordinary unction? Will not he speak most ‘of the abundance of his heart?’ And will not his flock ‘take knowledge of him,’ as living in the presence of his God; and ‘receive him’ in his pastoral visits and pulpit addresses, ‘as an angel of God – even as Christ Jesus?’” (The Christian Ministry, 164-165)

John Owen: “Sundry things are required unto this work and duty of pastoral preaching; as, . . . . (2.) Experience of the power of the truth which they preach in and upon their own souls. Without this they will themselves be lifeless and heartless in their own work, and their labour for the most part will be unprofitable towards others. It is, to such men, attended unto as a task for their advantage, or as that which carries some satisfaction in it from ostentation and supposed reputation wherewith it is accompanied. But 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. And no man lives in a more woful condition than those who really believe not themselves what they persuade others to believe continually. 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. And let any say what they please, it is evident that some men’s preaching, as well as others’ not-preaching, hath lost the credit of their ministry.” (The True Nature of a Gospel Church, 76)

Robert Murray M’Cheyne: “. . . do not forget the culture of the inner man, – I mean of the heart. How diligently the cavalry officer keeps his sabre clean and sharp; every stain he rubs off with the greatest care. Remember you are God’s sword, – His instrument, – I trust a chosen vessel unto Him to bear His name. In great measure, according to the purity and perfection of the instrument, will be the success. It is not great talents God blesses so much as likeness to Jesus. A holy minister is an awful weapon in the hand of God.” (To the Rev. Dan Edwards, in Memoir and Remains, 282)

Attr. Robert Murray M’Cheyne: “My people’s greatest need is my personal holiness.”

Robert Traill: “What use the Lord may make of the gifts (for great gifts he gives to the worst of men) of ungodly men, even in the ministry of the gospel, is one of his deep paths. But no man can reasonably imagine, that a walker in the way to hell can be a fit and useful guide to them that mind to go to heaven. If a man would have peace in his conscience, and success in his work of the ministry, let him take good heed to this, that he be a sound Christian. . . . It is found by experience, that as it fares with a minister in the frame of his heart, and thriving of the work of God in his soul, so doth it fare with his ministry both in its vigour and effects. A carnal frame, a dead heart, and a loose walk, make cold and unprofitable preaching. And how common is it for ministers to neglect their own vineyard? . . . Your work is full of danger, full of duty, and full of mercy, You are called to the winning of souls; an employment near a-kin unto our Lord’s work, the saving of souls; and the nearer your spirits be in conformity to his holy temper and frame, the fitter you are for, and the more fruitful you shall be in your work.” (Works, 1:239, 241, 250)

Charles H. Spurgeon: “Moreover, when a preacher is poor in grace, any lasting good which may be the result of his ministry, will usually be feeble and utterly out of proportion with what might have been expected. Much sowing will be followed by little reaping; the interest upon the talents will be inappreciably small. In two of three of the battles which were lost in the late American war, the result is said to have been due to the bad gunpowder which was served out by certain ‘shoddy’ contractors to the army, so that the due effect of a cannonade was not produced. So it may be with us. We may miss our mark, lose our end and aim, and waste. our time, through not possessing true vital force within ourselves, or not possessing it in such a degree that God could consistently bless us. Beware of being ‘shoddy’ preachers. . . . Recollect, as ministers, that your whole life, your whole pastoral life especially, will be affected by the vigour of your piety. If your zeal grows dull, you will not pray well in the pulpit; you will pray worse in the family, and worst in the study alone. When your soul becomes lean, your hearers, without knowing how or why, will find that your prayers in public have little savour for them; they will feel your barrenness, perhaps, before you perceive it yourself. Your discourses will next betray your declension. You may utter as well chosen words, and as fitly-ordered sentences, as aforetime; but there will be a perceptible loss of spiritual force. You will shake yourselves as at other times, even as Samson did, but you will find that your great strength has departed. In your daily communion with your people, they will not be slow to mark the all-pervading decline of your graces. Sharp eyes will see the grey hairs here and there long before you do. Let a man be afflicted with a disease of the heart, and all evils are wrapped up in that one stomach, lungs, viscera, muscles, and nerves will all suffer; and so, let a man have his heart weakened in spiritual things, and very soon his entire life will feel the withering influence. Moreover, as the result of your own decline, everyone of your hearers will suffer more or less; the vigorous amongst them will overcome the depressing tendency, but the weaker sort will be seriously damaged. It is with us and our hearers as it is with watches and the public clock; if our watch be wrong, very few will be misled by it but ourselves; but if the Horse Guards or Greenwich Observatory should go amiss, half London would lose its reckoning. So is it with the minister; he is the parish-clock, many take their time from him, and if he be incorrect, then they all go wrongly, more or less, and he is in great measure accountable for all the sin which he occasions.” (Lectures to my Students, 3, 10)

Thomas Murphy: “It is beyond all question that this eminent piety is before everything else in preparation for the duties of the sacred office. It is before talents, or learning, or study, or favorable circumstances, or skill in working, or power in sermonizing. It is needed to give character and tone and strength to all these, and to every other part of the work. Without this elevated spirituality nothing else will be of much account in producing a permanent and satisfactory ministry. All else will be like erecting a building without a foundation. This is the true foundation upon which to build – the idea which is to give character to all the superstructure. Oh that at the very beginning this could be deeply impressed upon the hearts of young ministers! Oh that they would take and weigh well the testimony of the most devoted and successful of those who have served God in his gospel! A man with this high tone of piety is sure to be a good pastor; without it success in the holy office is not to be expected.” (Pastoral Theology, 38)

When force fails, try fraud

leave a comment »

In The Holy War, John Bunyan imagines a council of war among the hosts of Diabolus. Having entered Mansoul (now repentant and crying out to Emmanuel for help) but failed to conquer the castle of the heart, they are assessing the best way of accomplishing their ends. The suggestion has been made that Mansoul will be most effectively overcome if it is allowed to wreck itself. If the Diabolonians can only tempt and encourage the town to sin, they shall have attained their objective. The question then becomes, how can this temptation and encouragement be accomplished?

It is Lucifer who gives the answer. In essence, force has only driven Mansoul to Emmanuel for assistance. He suggests, in its place, fraud:

Then Lucifer stood up, and said, ‘The counsel of Beelzebub is pertinent. Now, the way to bring this to pass, in mine opinion, is this: let us withdraw our force from the town of Mansoul; let us do this, and let us terrify them no more, either with summons, or threats, or with the noise of our drum, or any other awakening means. Only let us lie in the field at a distance, and be as if we regarded them not; for frights, I see, do but awaken them, and make them more stand to their arms. I have also another stratagem in my head: you know Mansoul is a market-town, and a town that delights in commerce; what, therefore, if some of our Diabolonians shall feign themselves far-country men, and shall go out and bring to the market of Mansoul some of our wares to sell; and what matter at what rates they sell their wares, though it be but for half the worth? Now, let those that thus shall trade in their market be those that are witty and true to us, and I will lay my crown to pawn it will do. There are two that are come to my thoughts already, that I think will be arch at this work, and they are Mr. Penny-wise-Pound-foolish, and Mr. Get-i’the-hundred-and-Lose-i’the-shire; nor is this man with the long name at all inferior to the other. What, also, if you join with them Mr. Sweet-World and Mr. Present-Good? they are men that are civil and cunning, but our true friends and helpers. Let these, with as many more, engage in this business for us, and let Mansoul be taken up in much business, and let them grow full and rich, and this is the way to get ground of them. Remember ye not that thus we prevailed upon Laodicea, and how many at present do we hold in this snare? Now, when they begin to grow full, they will forget their misery; and if we shall not affright them, they may happen to fall asleep, and so be got to neglect their town watch, their castle watch, as well as their watch at the gates.

‘Yea, may we not, by this means, so cumber Mansoul with abundance, that they shall be forced to make of their castle a warehouse, instead of a garrison fortified against us, and a receptacle for men of war. Thus, if we get our goods and commodities thither, I reckon that the castle is more than half ours. Besides, could we so order it that it shall be filled with such kind of wares, then if we made a sudden assault upon them, it would be hard for the captains to take shelter there. Do you not know that of the parable, “The deceitfulness of riches choke the word”? and again, “When the heart is over-charged with surfeiting and drunkenness, and the cares of this life,” all mischief comes upon them at unawares?

‘Furthermore, my lords,’quoth he, ‘you very well know that it is not easy for a people to be filled with our things, and not to have some of our Diabolonians as retainers to their houses and services. Where is a Mansoulian that is full of this world, that has not for his servants and waiting men, Mr. Profuse, or Mr. Prodigality, or some other of our Diabolonian gang, as Mr. Voluptuous, Mr. Pragmatical, Mr. Ostentation, or the like? Now these can take the castle of Mansoul, or blow it up, or make it unfit for a garrison for Emmanuel, and any of these will do. Yea, these, for aught I know, may do it for us sooner than an army of twenty thousand men. Wherefore, to end as I began, my advice is, that we quietly withdraw ourselves, not offering any further force, or forcible attempts, upon the castle, at least at this time; and let us set on foot our new project, and let us see if that will not make them destroy themselves.’

This advice was highly applauded by them all, and was accounted the very masterpiece of hell, namely, to choke Mansoul with a fulness of this world, and to surfeit her heart with the good things thereof.

And hasn’t it worked well in the 21st century? How many of God’s people living in the ease and comforts of the modern West have for their servants and waiting men such members of the “Diabolonian gang” as Mr. Profuse, Mr. Prodigality, Mr. Voluptuous, Mr. Pragmatical, Mr. Ostentation, or the like? We should take care that we do not destroy ourselves.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Thursday 27 October 2011 at 07:00

Spirit-wrought prayer

leave a comment »

Here is John Bunyan’s allegorical reckoning of prayer drawn from The Holy War. The town of Mansoul, backslidden and besieged and now indwelt by an army of Doubters under Diabolus, is in a terrible condition. Only the castle of the heart stands out, battered daily by the enemy. Petitions to the Prince Emmanuel have so far failed to obtain the needed relief, but now Mansoul is directed to the Lord Secretary (the Holy Spirit) to assist in their prayers:

After the town of Mansoul had been in this sad and lamentable condition for so long a time as I have told you, and no petitions that they presented their Prince with, all this while, could prevail, the inhabitants of the town, namely, the elders and chief of Mansoul, gathered together, and, after some time spent in condoling their miserable state and this miserable judgment coming upon them, they agreed together to draw up yet another petition, and to send it away to Emmanuel for relief. But Mr. Godly-Fear stood up and answered, that he knew that his Lord the Prince never did nor ever would receive a petition for these matters, from the hand of any whoever, unless the Lord Secretary’s hand was to it; ‘and this,’ quoth he, ‘is the reason that you prevailed not all this while.’ Then they said they would draw up one, and get the Lord Secretary’s hand unto it. But Mr. Godly-Fear answered again, that he knew also that the Lord Secretary would not set his hand to any petition that himself had not an hand in composing and drawing up. ‘And besides,’said he, ‘the Prince doth know my Lord Secretary’s hand from all the hands in the world; wherefore he cannot be deceived by any pretence whatever. Wherefore my advice is that you go to my Lord, and implore him to lend you his aid.'(Now he did yet abide in the castle, where all the captains and men-at-arms were.)

So they heartily thanked Mr. Godly-Fear, took his counsel, and did as he had bidden them. So they went and came to my Lord, and made known the cause of their coming to him; namely, that since Mansoul was in so deplorable a condition, his Highness would be pleased to undertake to draw up a petition for them to Emmanuel, the Son of the mighty Shaddai, and to their King and his Father by him.

Then said the Secretary to them, ‘What petition is it that you would have me draw up for you?’But they said, ‘Our Lord knows best the state and condition of the town of Mansoul; and how we are backslidden and degenerated from the Prince: thou also knowest who is come up to war against us, and how Mansoul is now the seat of war. My Lord knows, moreover, what barbarous usages our men, women, and children have suffered at their hands; and how our home-bred Diabolonians do walk now with more boldness than dare the townsmen in the streets of Mansoul. Let our Lord therefore, according to the wisdom of God that is in him, draw up a petition for his poor servants to our Prince Emmanuel.’ ‘Well,’ said the Lord Secretary, ‘I will draw up a petition for you, and will also set my hand thereto. ‘Then said they, ‘But when shall we call for it at the hands of our Lord?’ But he answered, ‘Yourselves must be present at the doing of it; yea, you must put your desires to it. True, the hand and pen shall be mine, but the ink and paper must be yours; else how can you say it is your petition? Nor have I need to petition for myself, because I have not offended.’ He also added as followeth: ‘No petition goes from me in my name to the Prince, and so to his Father by him, but when the people that are chiefly concerned therein do join in heart and soul in the matter, for that must be inserted therein.’

So they did heartily agree with the sentence of the Lord, and a petition was forthwith drawn up for them. But now, who should carry it? that was next. But the Secretary advised that Captain Credence should carry it; for he was a well-spoken man. They therefore called for him, and propounded to him the business. ‘Well,’ said the captain, ‘I gladly accept of the motion; and though I am lame, I will do this business for you with as much speed and as well as I can.’

When we pray, the hand and pen must be the Spirit’s, but the ink and paper must be ours, and faith – however lame – must carry the request to the throne of grace.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Tuesday 18 October 2011 at 10:22

Bunyan on clothing

with 5 comments

I have been reminded of this snippet of sanctified doggerel from John Bunyan a fair bit over the last few days:

God gave us Cloaths to hide our Nakedness,
And we by them, do it expose to View.
Our Pride, and unclean Minds, to an excess,
By our Apparel we to others shew.

The technology of clothes may advance, styles come and go, fashions rotate, but men do not change, and how we dress remains something of a register of the heart.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Friday 9 September 2011 at 08:39

Posted in Christian living

Tagged with , ,

Needed: a Bunyan for Bedford

with 6 comments

As part of our family holiday, we took a trip through Bunyan territory. The boys were excited by this. Caleb and I have read a large portion of Pilgrim’s Progress, and for family ‘Bible time’ we have been trading on the boys’ obsession with all things warlike and working our way through The Holy War, which they have been loving. Finding out a little more about where John Bunyan was born and lived, and where he was converted, seemed like the natural thing to do.

Taking the scenes in chronological order (for Bunyan), we begin in Harrowden, the hamlet close to which Bunyan was born. The road narrows down to a bridleway at a place called Bunyan Farm, and a quick stroll down the bridleway brings the interested pilgrim to a stream and an entrance to a corn field. A sign suggests that the monument at the site of the cottage where Bunyan was born is to be found within. I trolled in, expecting to find it fairly close at hand. Not seeing anything monumental, I gambolled on gazelle-like through the corn (OK, I ploughed on rhino-style) for about a quarter of a mile, before coming upon the slab of rock commemorating the site (the monument itself was erected for the Festival of Britain in 1951). It is an attractive if fairly ignominious spot, dignified mainly by association.

Moving on, we come to the village of Elstow, where Bunyan was baptized and where he lived with his first wife after he was married.

Now a pleasant, middle-class village, the village green and the church at Elstow are still easily found.

This church in Elstow is where he heard sufficient faithful preaching to stir his soul, and this green where Bunyan was playing tip-cat (an early version of rounders, apparently) when he came under a powerful conviction of sin on account of his disregard for the Lord’s day. A bell-ringer in the church, his sense of his sin made him afraid that the bell he rang would fall on him, so he stood under a beam. He became afraid that the beam too would fall (or be insufficient to protect him), so he took to standing in the doorway, but even that would not salve his conscience. Eventually, he gave up the practice altogether.

Both Elstow and Harrowden are not far from Bedford itself (indeed, are now barely separate from it). It is striking how much of Bunyan’s life was lived out within such a small parcel of land. Moving into Bedford, we come to St John’s church and rectory, where John Gifford pastored the independent church meeting in the building.

Gifford’s own story is remarkable: a hard-living Royalist officer, he narrowly avoided execution after being captured following a battle in Kent. Escaping from custody, he was eventually converted, and became a pastor of the independent church in Bedford. He was, under God, the ideal man to counsel the spiritually-tortured Bunyan. After Bunyan found peace for his soul through true faith in Christ, and not outward reformation and mere religiosity, it was not long before he became the vigorous preacher who “preached what I felt, what I smartingly did feel.” Of course, persecution followed swiftly afterward, and not far up the street from the church building is the bridge over the Great Ouse.

A stroll down the river side for a short distance brings you to the backwater where Bunyan was probably baptised, and a former iteration of the bridge contained a cell where Bunyan may have spent some time imprisoned.

Walking up Bedford High Street, one passes other sites of interest. There is the place where the main gaol was situated, now marked only by a plaque on the ground. Many historians now believe that this was the place in which Bunyan spent the bulk of his imprisonment. Not far away, down a side street, is the church building which sits in the same location as the one in which Bunyan pastored during his times of freedom, and a little further on one can see the place where the cottage stood in which Bunyan and his family came to live.

Finally, at the top of the High Street, stands the well-known statue of one of Bedfordshire’s most famous sons, now a little weathered. Bunyan stands in noble pose, his Bible in one hand and his other resting upon the Word of truth.

He looks out over a town which seems as much in need of the gospel as it did in his day, surveying the hair salons and nightclubs which pepper the town, faced as if challenged by a somewhat salubrious joint selling fake breasts and rubber sixpacks.

It struck me very much as a town which needs the gospel (I speak as a man from Crawley, and hope that I am doing no disservice to any churches in the town which are seeking to carry the good news to those who are dead in sin). Bedford needs a Bunyan again, a man who preaches the truth in Christ which he feels, which he smartingly does feel. Perhaps more accurately, Bedford needs a man powerfully indwelt by the Spirit of the Christ who saved John Bunyan, who trembles before the living God, who knows the horrors of sin and the wonders of grace, and who is prepared to preach those realities with the same fearless faith as Bunyan himself.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Saturday 30 July 2011 at 09:00

The new Calvinism considered

with 125 comments

Note: for those interested in a more developed treatment of this same issue, you can find it beginning here.

A year or two ago it seemed that ‘the new Calvinism’ was all the rage.  Perhaps it has already reached and passed its peak.  Maybe the mission has already become a movement and will shortly become a museum.  Only time will tell.  Certainly the wild rush of the past few years has slowed a little; the river seems broader and flows more gently.  Consolidation has occurred around such organisations as the Gospel Coalition and there are nexuses (nexi?) like Together for the Gospel (T4G) and Acts 29 that also function as anchor points.  Not so long ago you could not read a book, website or news article in some Christian circles without coming up against one of a range of personalities.  The new orthodoxy needed one of a string of names to back it up: “Piper/Grudem/Carson says . . .” almost became the equivalent in some circles of, “The Holy Spirit told me . . .”  It seemed as if the new Calvinism was sweeping the board.  More conservative evangelicals felt the pressure, often ‘losing’ their young people to the heady atmosphere of the new movement.  There was a certain triumphalism in some quarters, a sense of having seen the working future.  In others, there was a sometimes uninhibited aggression.  However, there seemed to be little middle ground: you were either for or against, a committed friend or a committed foe.

I tried to understand what was taking place by immersing myself in the stream for a while: I read the books and the blogs and listened to the sermons and addresses.  I hoped that I got a fair and accurate understanding of this movement.  I found things that were attractive and stimulating and provocative and controversial and worrying.

At a little distance from the swirling storm of popularity and controversy, I recently saw a very brief list of those things which characterise the new Calvinism, written very much from within the movement.  Looking at that list, I thought, “Yes, but . . .” and began to sketch out some other qualities that, it seems to me, are embedded in the mass of new Calvinistic identity.  The list got reasonably long in the end, but I thought that I would work it up and put it out.  It may prove useful, or interesting, or controversial, or pointless.  I think that some new Calvinists would acknowledge and admit much of what follows, sometimes quite cheerfully, but not always.  They might not agree with all the labels I use, or with my own stance on them, but I have set out to be fair and accurate.

Some caveats: I have attempted not to identify and discuss individuals (except where obvious and necessary, and for occasional examples) because this is not about supporting or attacking any one individual.  I also recognise that there are exceptions to most if not all of these rules, hence the introductory wording to each suggestion: I am not trying to make out that the movement is more monolithic than is in fact the case.  Furthermore, I have not attempted to distinguish between the positive and the negative (which will differ depending on where you stand anyway!) but have rather lumped them all in together.  I have not attempted to list these characteristics in order of priority or significance.

That will probably do by way of introduction.  So, then . . .

1.         It seems to me that the broad stream of the new Calvinism tends to be characterised by a desire for the glory of God.  In this sense, I do not think one can legitimately deny that this is a Reformed resurgence.  There is an evident, open, sincere aim at the glory of God in all things, and I think that God is much glorified in many ways by the words and works of many of my new Calvinist brothers and sisters, and I rejoice at it.

2.         It seems to me that the broad stream of the new Calvinism tends to be characterised by deep-rooted spiritual joy.  This may be one of the reasons why it is so attractive to so many, perhaps especially to those from more conservative Reformed circles who feel that this is one of the things that has been lacking in their spiritual experience.  It flows, no doubt, in large part from the emphasis on the grace of God (see below) and it may flow into some of its more exuberant expressions of worship.  Again, the public face of the new Calvinism is one in which men and women with their hearts made clean through the blood of the Lamb rejoice in their so-great salvation.

3.         It seems to me that the broad stream of the new Calvinism tends to be characterised by missonal zeal.  As with any vibrant gospel movement, the desire to take the good news into all the world is central.  Evangelising.  Witnessing to Christ.  Church strengthening.  Church planting.  Church rejuvenation.  Training pastors and preachers.  There is a Scriptural readiness to overcome or ignore the boundaries too readily established in the mind and the heart and to preach the gospel to every creature, and to use as many means as possible (although the Biblical legitimacy of some might be questioned) to promote the truth, propagate the gospel, and advance the kingdom of Christ Jesus.  As the movement has advanced, neither the local nor the international elements of this have been left behind.

4.         It seems to me that the broad stream of the new Calvinism tends to be characterised by an emphasis on the gospel of grace and the grace of the gospel.  Everything is ‘gospel’: New Calvinists do ‘gospel-this’ and ‘gospel-centred that’ and ‘gospel-cored the other’, sometimes to the point of inanity.  By that, I do not mean that the gospel ought not to be at the heart of things, but if we are genuinely evangelical then by definition the gospel should be at the heart of things, and the tendency to badge everything with the word ‘gospel’ doesn’t necessarily mean that it is gospel-soaked and gospel-centred, nor does it guarantee that it will be.  That aside, this is a movement that desires to preach the good news as good news, to proclaim the free and undeserved favour of God to sinners in a way that is engaging, fresh, real and powerful.  One of the great anathemas of new Calvinism is legalism.  Whether or not this is rightly or fully understood I will not argue here, but these friends are desperate to highlight and declare the primacy of grace.  Of course, this is intimately related to the joy they feel and the glory of God they pursue.

5.         It seems to me that the broad stream of the new Calvinism tends to be characterised by complementarianism.  We are told by these friends to distinguish between the theological equivalents of national boundaries and state boundaries, to appreciate the different between distinction and division.  At the same time, it appears that complementarianism is one of the new Calvinist shibboleths.  That does not mean it is wrong, of course, but it is interesting that of all the things that we are told do not matter in the consideration of unity and separation, complementarianism has become something of a sine qua non.

6.         It seems to me that the broad stream of the new Calvinism tends to be characterised by a return to a more Biblical masculinity.  One could argue that at times this has almost become a caricature (and I would agree, and it has indeed been parodied and caricatured), but it is a welcome if sometimes extreme reaction to the anaemic and limp manhood too often displayed elsewhere in the nominally or actually Christian world.  Alongside and arising from the complementarianism, dignified and vigorous male leadership has received a welcome fillip from the new Calvinism.  Like many gospel movements of the past, this one has been characterised in many respects by the salvation of men (often young men), the calling of men to preach, and a readiness by men to take the brunt and lead from the front.  This is not to say that women are excluded from the movement, but the Scriptural emphasis on male leadership has seen a welcome return.

7.         Again related to complementarianism, it seems to me that the broad stream of the new Calvinism tends to be characterised by the promotion of the family as a basic unit of church and social life.  Once again, such an emphasis can easily become an over-emphasis, but the evident loving affection for wives and sons and daughters that is characteristic of many of the leaders of the movement is an excellent testimony.  The re-establishment of the God-ordained family unit, the outworking of masculinity and femininity in the family sphere, an encouragement to family worship, a readiness to discuss and instruct concerning relationships between men and women, single and married, husbands and wives, fathers and mothers and children, and the like, is often part and parcel of new Calvinism.

8.         It seems to me that the broad stream of the new Calvinism tends to be characterised by charismatic convictions with regard to spiritual gifts.  It seems as if the nature, extent and degree of the Spirit’s work in what some would say we cannot call post-apostolic times has become almost a moot point in new Calvinism.  What was for so long a genuine line of divide between Christians has seemed to be smoothed over with the rise of the so-called ‘Reformed Charismatic’, a label willingly embraced by many if not all of the leaders of new Calvinism, most of whom would be happy – to various degrees and in different ways – to acknowledge themselves to be continuationists, as the lingo has it.  Interestingly, this is one of the fault lines that seems likely to become apparent again, not least because of its significance.

9.         It seems to me that the broad stream of the new Calvinism tends to be characterised by Calvinist soteriology, with some departures and aberrations.  Again, here is one of the areas where the claim to the name ‘Reformed’ is at stake and much debated.  Generally speaking, in line with the emphasis on the gospel of grace and the glory of God in salvation there has been a distinctively Calvinist take on this issue, and it is here – probably more than anywhere else – that the movement derives the ‘Calvinist’ part of its name.  At the same time, there is – in many of those who are at the forefront of this group – more than a hint of Amyraldism, so I am not sure to what extent this is going to hold water for long.  You will also note that I identify Calvinist soteriology as apart from other elements of historic Calvinism, many of which I think one could argue have been neglected, ignored, or abandoned by new Calvinists.

10.       It seems to me that the broad stream of the new Calvinism tends to be characterised by a generally thoughtful ecumenism.  You only need to look at or think about the names that are at or clustering about the centre to see how broad a movement this is.  It has genuinely united Christians from a variety of backgrounds, and garnered sympathy from many who would nevertheless be unable to share all the distinctives of the movement as a whole.  Issues such as baptism, ecclesiology, the spiritual gifts, and worship have – to some extent – not been allowed to prevent the coming together of believers to serve God either in community or at the very least in co-operation.  Interestingly, though, this ecumenism seems to reach over the middle ground.  By this I mean that there is a readiness to receive and relate to (and receive critique and input from) those close to the inner core of the movement, and then a readiness to reach quite far out from that core for critique and input and relationship, leaving those in the middle ground somewhat isolated.  So, for example, consider the speaking list at some of the last few Desiring God conferences: where else would you find Piper, Dever, Driscoll, Warren, Wilson, Keller, Baucham, MacArthur, Sproul, Storms and Ferguson.  At points on that list you are moved to cheer.  At others, a very Scooby-Dooish cry of “Yoicks!” – mingled alarm and distress – rises from the lips.

11.       It seems to me that the broad stream of the new Calvinism tends to be characterised by an often pragmatic ecclesiology.  I am glad that it is characterised by ecclesiology at all, that the church of Jesus Christ is in many respects given its rightful place in his plans and purposes for the kingdom.  At the same time, there is often more of the light of nature than the light of Scripture in some of the decisions that seem to be made.  This, then, is a movement in which statistics matter.  This is a movement in which, if you cannot keep up, you have to drop off.  Are you in the way of progress?  Then you are fired.  We are moving onward and upward, so we will hire a worship pastor used to larger crowds or able to generate them; we will hire a technology deacon to take our presentations within and without the services to a new level.  Are you not willing or able to move this fast?  Then goodbye, because you are holding up the advance.  Multi-campus doctrine is one of the examples of this pragmatism; branding and advertising are given a prominence beyond anything the Scripture provides for.  Everything is made to serve the growth of the church numerically and the advance of the mission as stated by the church.  At times the church seems less and less like an organic whole in which every member has her or his part and more like a business in which the chief executive and his team get to hire and fire at will, moulding the structure and its activity according to human will and purpose.  If the church were a business, would I fire some of her workers?  Sure.  But it is not, and I am not at liberty to decide who I want or do not want in or working for the advance of a kingdom that belongs to and is ruled by a sovereign King.  I should, however, add – in fairness – that perhaps at times others outside the movement have not been pragmatic enough, or dynamic enough, in seizing opportunities for gospel advance and employing means about which the Scriptures are silent (this comment is not about the regulative principle, by the way).  By the way, you have to love the names of the churches: all portentous, bastardised Greek or catchy, thrusting urban vim?  Fantastic!

12.       It seems to me that the broad stream of the new Calvinism tends to be characterised by a neo-Kuyperian view of culture.  Here the mantra is that “there is not a square inch in the whole domain of human existence over which Christ, who is sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’”  There is much to be said for such a declaration, but it also needs to be read in terms of the already/not yet dichotomy.  In new Calvinist orthodoxy, it seems to be very much ‘already’ and this often means that culture is considered neutral, and all to be claimed for Jesus.  By extension, nothing seems to be out of bounds, and much that the world says and does can be tidied up, baptised, and brought into the service of Christ’s church.  Of course, it tends to be the culture from which the converts are drawn (see below) that comes into the church, and so we get our reference points and illustrations from all the hip and cool sources, or those made trendy by the movers and shakers.  Star Wars?  Check.  Lord of the Rings?  Check.  The Matrix?  Check.  So we get to be all funky and populist.  Then we get to name check Lewis and Chesterton and Dostoevsky and O’Connor and come over all literary and high-brow.  By and large, the new Calvinism seems ready to co-opt, co-operate with, and/or capture this culture now, without always making assessments about the origin, tendency and direction of particular elements.  Under this heading I am willing to place the whole issue of contextualization, although it might be considered worthy of its own heading.

13.       It seems to me that the broad stream of the new Calvinism tends to be characterised by doctrinal if not practical antinomianism.  Most of the movers and shakers appear ready to align themselves with New Covenant Theology in some form or other.  As so often, the Lord’s day Sabbath is the first point of contact and conflict on this issue.  However, the default position here, as – I believe – across broad evangelicalism as a whole – is that the moral law has no abiding relevance in the life of the new covenant believer.  That assumption is woven throughout many of the key texts and declarations of the new Calvinism, from the ESV Study Bible downwards (for example, consider these comments in the ESVSB on Romans 14.5: “The weak thought some days were more important than others. Given the Jewish background here (see v. 14), the day that is supremely in view is certainly the Sabbath. The strong think every day is the same. Both views are permissible. Each person must follow his own conscience. What is remarkable is that the Sabbath is no longer a binding commitment for Paul but a matter of one’s personal conviction. Unlike the other nine commandments in Ex. 20:1–17, the Sabbath commandment seems to have been part of the “ceremonial laws” of the Mosaic covenant, like the dietary laws and the laws about sacrifices, all of which are no longer binding on new covenant believers (see also Gal. 4:10; Col. 2:16–17). However, it is still wise to take regular times of rest from work, and regular times of worship are commanded for Christians (Heb. 10:24–25; cf. Acts 20:7)”).  This is having and will continue to have implications perhaps not so much in the sphere of justification (though that will follow) as in the sphere of sanctification.  It is going to mean much for the development of true holiness, and it is only in the next two or three generations of the new Calvinists that these chickens will come home to roost.  Key names among the new Calvinists have laid the foundation for this widespread antinomianism, and it is for me one of the most concerning aspects of the whole movement.

14.       It seems to me that the broad stream of the new Calvinism tends to be characterised by contemporary worship.  By definition, all of the service ought to be worship, and by definition, anything done today is contemporary, however old-fashioned or new-fangled it may be considered, but you know what I mean.  I personally have no difficulty with songs and music written in the present day, but that is not the same as a willingness simply to co-opt the forms and patterns of the entertainment of the world for the worship of the church.  Nowhere is this more evident than in the sung worship of the church.  Into the mix here also come the charismatic and cultural convictions of many of the key figures.

15.       It seems to me that the broad stream of the new Calvinism tends to be characterised by the driving force of several key personalities.  You know them: there is a centre circle reasonably well-defined, and then the concentric circles around them together and individually.  Piper.  Carson.  Mahaney.  Dever.  Mohler.  Driscoll.  Keller.  Grudem.  Chandler.  Anyabwile.  Harris.  DeYoung.  Chan.  Perhaps a little further out are Duncan and MacArthur and Sproul and Trueman.  Among the bloggers, Challies and Taylor and others.  Read long enough and widely enough and the same names will crop up time and time again.  You might place them more or less close to the centre, but they will be there or thereabouts.  My apologies to those who ought to be on the list and are not, and to the groupies who are now offended because I did not put their idol on the list.  Here you see more than a little of that ecumenism mentioned before.  No new Calvinist conference is complete without at least one and ideally more of these men on the platform.  Each is a little chief in the centre of his fiefdom, many of which overlap.  Of course, it can all seem a little nepotistic, even incestuous at times, as these figures read, invite, commend, and endorse one another in ever-decreasing circles.  Again, God usually works by men in the world, and those men naturally attain to a right and reasonable prominence, but the concentration on a few key personalities, especially in the early days of the movement, was distinctive.  Of course, some of those names are already second-generation names, and it will be interesting to see where things go from here.

16.       It seems to me that the broad stream of the new Calvinism tends to be characterised by the ready embrace and employment of new technologies and media and the platforms that they provide.  The new Calvinism is, to a large degree, an internet phenomenon.  Sermons, videos, blogs, other social media, swirl around ceaselessly in this milieu.  The exchange and discussion of ideas takes place largely online.  Conferences are broadcast and live-blogged, and the lines and colours are laid down by a thousand artists simultaneously, often painting on the same canvas.  Cross-reference and self-reference generate a stupendous amount of traffic.  Look at some of the key blogs, for example, and you will find that they all tend to highlight the same books, events, people and things at almost precisely the same time.  All these platforms nevertheless provide a potent thrust for new Calvinist dogma and praxis, and where others are left behind, the new Calvinism is often at the cutting edge, adopting and co-opting the latest technology (hardware and software) in order to promote either Christ or his servants, depending on your take on particular individuals and circles.  Of course, we must state here that no self-respecting new Calvinist would be found dead using a PC.  The Apple Macintosh and its related accessories are the technological sine qua non of the true new Calvinist.  (I deleted the next bit because it counted as mockery, but let’s just say that it went in the direction of cool glasses and coffee shops, tattoos and T-shirts.)

17.       It seems to me that the broad stream of the new Calvinism tends to be characterised by a concentration on a younger, more urban demographic.  I recall one new Calvinist church-planting leader voicing his concern at how many church-planter/ing applications he saw targeted precisely the same group as all the others: the young, trendy, hip (when did this admittedly serviceable but not especially remarkable joint become so popular?), urban crowd.  Although some of its leaders are getting old enough to be in them, you will not find much of the new Calvinism catering to the full range of society.  It tends to be quite selective.  I know of a number of churches that – when they began going in this direction – did begin to attract far larger numbers of a certain type and age, but they also began to lose many others.  Again, you can only ride the crest of the wave for so long: what happens to the water ahead, and the waves coming in behind?  This is one area where the willingness to preach the gospel to every creature perhaps needs to take account of the fact that every creature doesn’t like the same fashion, music, art, style, clothes, and approach as those who have made new Calvinism what it is.

18.       It seems to me that the broad stream of the new Calvinism tends to be characterised by the desire to be big and to have a seat at culture’s table.  Bigness does seem to be a great concern for many.  Bigness – size and numbers – as a by-product of the pursuit of right things in a right way and for the glory of God is perfectly acceptable, but bigness as an end in itself is not something that the Bible promotes in isolation.  Alongside of this goes what sometimes looks like an obsession with being accepted and heard in wider society.  Consider the orgiastic and ecstatic applause and self-congratulation when the big names get on national television, or when the movement gets name-checked by Time magazine.  Is there a danger here that the movement is too concerned with the applause and adulation and recognition of the world?  Does this tie in with the attitude to culture, and what may be a failure to recognise that in this present evil age we are strangers in a strange land?

19.       It seems to me that the broad stream of the new Calvinism tends to be characterised by an ambivalent relationship to church history.  I know we all tend to pick and choose the bits that appear or tend to support what we now believe, but it is right there on the surface of the new Calvinist vehicle.  Sometimes there is what I can only call a chronological snobbery.  This is not meant to sound as pejorative as it does.  It is part of the laudable enthusiasm of the movement.  What I mean is that there is a freshness of discovery that excites us: we feel, if I may work through Wodehouse back to Keats,

. . . like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star’d at the Pacific — and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise —
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

However, just because I have recently discovered some theological gem does not mean that it has never been discovered before, or that I therefore become the sole guardian and interpreter of the tradition.  There may be a whole bunch of trekker’s rubbish upon that peak in Darien from those who have been and camped before.  Neither does the popularity or promotion of our discovery entitle us to be the arbiters of the canon.  Anyway, there is a tendency among new Calvinists either to claim that ground long-broken has been only recently broken by them, or that it has never been broken before and now needs to be broken by them, or because they have broken it no one else is allowed to set foot on it, or that there is no other way of it being broken.  In this way, the great and the good of the past all become proto-new Calvinists.  Take a bow, Whitefield, Spurgeon, Bunyan, Cowper, Calvin, Lewis, Owen, Augustine, etc. etc.  Of course, all this demands quite a bit of historical revision, of which there is perhaps no finer example than C. S. Lewis, one of the new Calvinism’s patron saints.  I am not suggesting that these intelligent and well-read men are not aware of it, but at least let us not pretend nor give the impression that Lewis fits seamlessly into the mainstream of Reformed orthodoxy!

20.       It seems to me that the broad stream of the new Calvinism tends to be characterised by sensitivity to the judicial and social aspects of the gospel at work in society.  Perhaps in part because there is a left-wing as well as right-wing political input to new Calvinism, it is nevertheless a recovery of emphasis on the God who defends and protects the widow and the fatherless and the stranger, who is concerned for righteousness and justice in heaven and on earth, who takes note of the presence or absence of ethical integrity in the thoughts, words and deeds of men.  Of course, this is very easily dismissed as politically correct or touchy-feely nonsense, but there is, perhaps, more of it in the Scriptures than others have always been ready to admit.  So, on such matters as abortion, adoption, euthanasia, care for the poor and hungry, help for the homeless, and so on, there is a welcome re-engagement and re-appraisal.  Confusion still exists (as, no doubt, it always will) about the relative roles of the church and the individual Christian citizen or subject (two kingdoms theology, anyone?), but there is an awareness of and sensitivity to these issues that is welcome.

21.       It seems to me that the broad stream of the new Calvinism tends to be characterised by Americocentrism.  Here let me bother with another caveat: this is not an instance of cultural jealousy or bitterness, nor is it in and of itself intended as a condemnation.  Of course, there are exceptions to this rule, and of course the movement spills over, especially into the UK and Australia, where the linguistic heritage is shared (so perhaps I should speak more of ‘the West’ that I do of ‘the States’, although I think it is fair to say that America is probably the dominant Western culture, having more influence on others in the West than they have on it).  However, while there are adherents, some of them prominent, outside the USA, the movement has its spiritual and cultural home in the States.  Could this be where some of its cultural distinctive and pragmatic attitudes derive?  Is this part of the reason for its determination and enthusiasm and can-do mentality?  Is this driving the concentration on technology and the referents and foci of the movement?  Time after time we hear men and women happily cradled in the bosom of American/Western culture assure us that the future of the church is in the so-called Third or Developing World.  Is new Calvinism in danger of exporting more of America/the West than it is of Jesus?  By definition, we are to some extent products of our culture, and that is part of God’s sovereign design for our sphere of influence and usefulness.  But could it be that there is sometimes a lack of cultural awareness and a degree of cultural supremacism that penetrates new Calvinism further than we are aware?  This, I acknowledge, is nebulous, easy both to defend and attack precisely because it is so hard to quantify, but it seems to me that this is an inherently Western movement, if not an inherently American one, a movement very much of a certain time and place.  That does not make it inherently bad, but it certainly does call into the question the degree to which it can both last and spread beyond its immediate environs.

At this point, I see no reason to change the assessment I made several months ago, after reading Collin Hansen’s survey of the movement, although I hope I have a better grasp on the whole: “There is much that is splendid about the movement . . . but it contains within it some fascinating and fearful tensions, as well as some wonderful prospects.  Much depends on the legacy of the present leaders, and the readiness of those who follow to pursue a comprehensive Scripturalism that will govern head and heart and hands. . . . observers and participants [need] to gauge both the trajectory and the likely terminus of this curious company, but [they] should also challenge us about the extent to which our faith and our life are keeping pace.”

So there you have it.  Do you agree or disagree?  Is there anything to add or remove?  I should be interested to know what you have to say.

Bunyan exhorts

leave a comment »

John Bunyan exhorts:

Reader, you have heard of the necessity of coming to Christ; also of the willingness of Christ to receive the coming soul; together with the benefit that they by him shall have that indeed come to him. Put thyself now upon this serious inquiry, Have I indeed come to Jesus Christ?

1. Thou art in sin, in the flesh, in death, in the snare of the devil, and under the curse of the law, if you are not coming to Jesus Christ.

2. There is no way to be delivered from these, but by coming to Jesus Christ.

3. If thou comest, Jesus Christ will receive thee, and will in no wise cast thee out.

4. Thou wilt not repent it in the day of judgment, if now you come not to Jesus Christ.

5. But thou wilt surely mourn at last, if now thou shalt refuse to come.

6. And lastly, Now thou hast been invited to come; now will thy judgment be greater, and thy damnation more fearful, if thou shalt yet refuse, than if thou hadst never heard of coming to Christ.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Thursday 11 February 2010 at 09:53

Posted in Good news

Tagged with ,

Books for Baptists (and others)

leave a comment »

Solid Ground Christian Books is doing ‘A Year With Baptist Classics’, offering an excellent discount on a theological reading programme, drawing on some of the faithful men who have gone before.  They are suggesting a book or so a month, and here is the outline:

January –  Benjamin Keach The Travels of True Godliness
This is a work, written in the style of The Pilgrim’s Progress, tracing the growth, struggles and temptations faced by ‘True Godliness.’ It is an enjoyable journey depicting the path of growth in holiness.

FebruaryAndrew Fuller: A Heart for Missions (Pearce Bio)
One of the best Christian biographies ever written! Samuel Pearce was the Baptist version of Robert Murray McCheyne–a young pastor known for godliness and zeal whose life was brief but impact was profound.

March – Hercules Collins Devoted to the Service of the Temple
A mighty man of God, Hercules Collins was a pastor of a very large London Congregation during the 17th century. This little book very helpfully collects some of his wonderful doctrinal and devotional writings.

April – Adoniram Judson On Christan Baptism
The Congregational Missionary Society was shocked when its first missionary, Adoniram Judson, adopted credobaptist views while on his way to serve in India. In this book, Judson demonstrates the nature of Christian baptism.

May – Southern Baptist Sermons on Sovereignty and Responsibility
American Baptist history is full of great preachers. Here is a collection of sermons by Southern worthies, expounding vital topics; by Basil Manly, Sr., W.B. Johnson, R.B.C. Howell & Richard Fuller.

JuneJohn Broadus: Jesus of Nazareth
Our Lord Jesus is wonderfully presented by another great Southern preacher, John Broadus.

July/AugustBenjamin Beddome’s Exposition of the Baptist Catechism
Here is a gem, long out of print, but recently reprinted. Theology is made practical by this pastor from the village of Bourton-on-the-Water in the English Cotswolds.

SeptemberAndrew Fuller: The Backslider
Christians struggle with sin–this is a fact. We need to consider this truth, learn about its dangers, and find the right method of recovery. This book will help.

October John Bunyan: Come and Welcome to Jesus Christ
We can’t neglect Bunyan! In this book, he calls us to find our full satisfaction in Jesus Christ.

NovemberBenjamin Keach: The Marrow of True Justification
We live in a day when the doctrine of justification by faith alone is under attack. One of our fathers, Benjamin Keach, ably explains this doctrine here. This is the heart of the gospel.

DecemberCharles Spurgeon: Sermons on Men or Women of the Bible
What a great way to conclude the year! As always, Spurgeon shows us how the men and women of the Bible point us to Jesus Christ.

Shipping overseas is possible, and some of these titles will be available through Evangelical Press, but it is a good deal for the package direct from the publisher: the list price for all eleven titles is $151, but there is a special deal for the whole collection for $69.95.

Whether or not you are a Baptist by conviction, this would be a marvellous collection of books to own, and a better one actually to read.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Thursday 17 December 2009 at 10:42

I like dead guys

with 13 comments

Dave Bish highlights a  fairly interesting comment/complaint from Phil Whitall:

I read this morning that Josh Harris is a fan of JC Ryle, which in itself is hardly something to get upset about but it did spark this mini-rant. Good for Josh, Ryle is a worthy hero of the faith. But it seems to me that the Yanks get all excited by CS Lewis, CH Spurgeon, JC Ryle, CT Studd and other guys with initials instead of first names. Lewis and Spurgeon in particular are highly exalted, oh and Dr MLJ of course.

On the other hand, if you pay close attention to the names that are bandied around amongst us Limey’s are John Piper, Bill Hybels, Rick Warren, Mark Driscoll, Tim Keller, Rob Bell and whoever else is leading some very large church.

What you don’t seem to find are Brits talking about dead American Christians of any note and any Americans talking about living Brits of any note (our churches are too small).

The whole thing is fascinating and completely unsubstantiated and has the ring of truth about it (everyone should get hold of this piece of jewellery – useful in so many situations).  You should read it all, not least so that you can argue with it.

Because I beg to differ to a degree.  It depends to whom you are listening.  Yes, most of us – sometimes of necessity – interact with the Pipers, Mahaneys, Driscolls, Mohlers, etc. of the evangelical hypersphere.  Our peers and sometimes the wider church is reading them, listening to them, concerned about them, aping them.  I do think it is often the desire to find what works, to discover what will make us (read, “me”) big and successful.  But there is an undercurrent of men and women who have not entirely abandoned those who have gone before us on these shores.

You will find us quoting, at least occasionally, Charles Spurgeon, John Ryle, Matthew Henry, Robert McCheyne, John Owen, Jeremiah Burroughs, Stephen Charnock, Thomas Brooks, Hugh Latimer, Andrew Fuller, William Carey, John Bunyan, not to mention Flavel, Knox, Traill, Eadie . . . I could go on, and I could come forward to men like Poole-Connor and Lloyd-Jones, and back as far as some of the church fathers.  We love those men who have followed Christ, and whom we now follow in the path of Christian discipleship.  We have not forgotten their lives and their lessons, and – in fact – we sometimes get a little bit troubled at the selective embrace offered by some of our American brothers.  Who knew C. S. Lewis was Reformed until he was co-opted by the New Calvinists and given a fairly robust air-brushing in the process?

If we’re going to make C. S. Lewis our patron saint, we should at least listen when he is talking sense.  This is from the introduction to Athanasius’ On the Incarnation:

Naturally, since I myself am a writer, I do not wish the ordinary reader to read no modern books. But if he must read only the new or only the old, I would advise him to read the old. And I would give him this advice precisely because he is an amateur and therefore much less protected than the expert against the dangers of an exclusive contemporary diet. A new book is still on its trial and the amateur is not in a position to judge it. It has to be tested against the great body of Christian thought down the ages, and all its hidden implications (often unsuspected by the author himself) have to be brought to light. Often it cannot be fully understood without the knowledge of a good many other modern books. If you join at eleven o’clock a conversation which began at eight you will often not see the real bearing of what is said. Remarks which seem to you very ordinary will produce laughter or irritation and you will not see why – the reason, of course, being that the earlier stages of the conversation have given them a special point. In the same way sentences in a modern book which look quite ordinary may be directed at some other book; in this way you may be led to accept what you would have indignantly rejected if you knew its real significance. The only safety is to have a standard of plain, central Christianity (”mere Christianity” as Baxter called it) which puts the controversies of the moment in their proper perspective. Such a standard can be acquired only from the old books. It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones.

If we followed Lewis here, perhaps we would have a little more discretion and discernment in how far we follow others, and which others we follow, and how slavishly?  In fact, when we listen too long and too hard to the old, sometimes the new get a bit annoyed with us, and accuse us of being crusty, hidebound, and reactionary.  Funny, that.

Samuel Davies (American, but with Welsh roots and long dead, so not a bad note to finish on), wrote a few lines that still decorate my study.  They are worth recalling:

I have a peaceful study, as a refuge from the hurries and noise of the world around me; the venerable dead are waiting in my library to entertain me, and relieve me from the nonsense of surviving mortals.

So, Phil, come hang out with us.  We hang out with the venerable dead, often British, although if they followed hard after Jesus we’re happy to see them sitting on our shelves wherever they hail from.  We listen to them, learn from them, engage with them, debate and even argue with them.  We converse across the years, and enjoy the relief they afford us from the nonsense of surviving mortals.

We like dead guys.

“Fearless Pilgrim: The Life and Times of John Bunyan”

leave a comment »

Fearless Pilgrim: The Life and Times of John Bunyan by Faith Cook

Evangelical Press, 2008 (528pp, hbk)

john-bunyan-1John Bunyan has had a good number of biographers, but Faith Cook’s new work sits in a niche of its own.  It is at once carefully-researched and popular; it considers the man himself yet puts him in his historical, social, political and cultural context; it recognises his literary brilliance yet sees him primarily as a man of God; it appreciates his own mental and emotional constitution but also takes account of spiritual realities.

In structure, the book essentially traces the turbulent life of John Bunyan through the turbulent times in which he lived.  But there is more to it than that.  Mrs Cook carefully situates her man in his times, showing evidence of careful research and thought.  This journey is illuminated by judicious quotes from Bunyan’s writings.  Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners obviously has a prominent place, especially in the earlier years of Bunyan’s spiritual journey, but various other works come to the fore in their turn.  This literary element is particularly enjoyable: we keep track of Bunyan’s work alongside his passing years, and the circumstances out of which his books were written provide insight into his life, and vice versa.  At points along the way there is a little necessary reading into the white spaces of Bunyan’s life.  Mrs Cook usually keeps closer to reasonable surmise than to narrative licence to fill the gaps that exist.

The author is certainly and understandably sympathetic to her subject, but she does not cut him unreasonable slack.  She spells out the trials of his sensitive conscience, but also has wise words of warning with regard to hypersensitivity of conscience.  She recognises his constitutional frailties, but also appreciates his spiritual struggles, interacting with others who have sought to assess (and, in some cases, diagnose) Bunyan’s spiritual and mental condition.  She does not shy away from the conflicts that Bunyan had with those outside the church, nor the debates with those within her arising from his distinctive views (for example, on the relationship between baptism and church membership).  In these matters, however, she is generally careful to report rather than to judge.  These elements, together with consideration of a variety of other issues – often drawing on other movers and shakers from the period (both in the religious and other spheres) – enrich the tapestry of Bunyan’s life.

fearless-pilgrimIt will be interesting to see how this volume fares in the academic realm.  It is soundly researched and well-written, and yet the author’s own commitment to the same truths which fired Bunyan’s heart is likely to compromise the worth of the book in the eyes of many specialists in the fields of literature and history.  This would be a great shame.  However, while academia might struggle to understand and acknowledge the heart of Bunyan, Christian scholars will be glad to have a competent, substantial yet sympathetic work to assist in understanding this early Baptist in his context and to validate their approach to him as a Christian man and minister.  Christians outside of this context should be able simply to enjoy this well-paced and insightful treatment.

The book is also well-illustrated with various prints, photographs and sketches.  However, a proliferation of fonts does not necessarily improve the reading experience.  With regard to substance, this deserves to be a standard work among Christians interested properly to grasp the life, work and times of this eminent servant of God.  It is heartily recommended.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Friday 23 January 2009 at 07:15

John Bunyan faces death

leave a comment »

john-bunyan-2John Bunyan, having been committed to jail following his trial, was powerfully assaulted by Satan with doubts and fears concerning his condition after death (a death threatened in no uncertain terms by the magistrates who had imprisoned him).  He records something of his experience, and God’s grace to him in it, in the following paragraphs of Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners:

337. I thought also, that God might choose, whether he would give me comfort now or at the hour of death, but I might not therefore choose whether I would hold my profession or no: I was bound, but he was free: yea, it was my duty to stand to his word, whether he would ever look upon me or no, or save me at the last: wherefore, thought I, the point being thus, I am for going on, and venturing my eternal state with Christ, whether I have comfort here or no; if God doth not come in, thought I, I will leap off the ladder even blindfold into eternity, sink or swim, come heaven, come hell, Lord Jesus, if thou wilt catch me, do; if not, I will venture for thy name.

338. I was no sooner fixed upon this resolution, but that word dropped upon me, “Doth Job serve God for nought?” As if the accuser had said, Lord, Job is no upright man, he serves thee for by-respects: hast thou not made a hedge about him, &c. “But put forth thine hand now, and touch all that he hath, and he will curse thee to thy face.” How now, thought I, is this the sign of an upright soul, to desire to serve God, when all is taken from him? Is he a godly man, that will serve God for nothing rather than give out? blessed be God, then, I hope I have an upright heart, for I am resolved, God giving me strength, never to deny my profession, though I have nothing at all for my pains; and as I was thus considering, that scripture was set before me (Psa 44:12-26).

339. Now was my heart full of comfort, for I hoped it was sincere: I would not have been without this trial for much; I am comforted every time I think of it, and I hope I shall bless God for ever for the teaching I have had by it. Many more of the dealings of God towards me I might relate, but these, “Out of the spoils won in battles have I dedicated to maintain the house of the LORD” (1 Chron 26:27).

May God grant to more of his people  in this day, facing often lesser and sometimes equal trials, the same stripped-down and ready faith that he gave his sensitive servant, John Bunyan.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Tuesday 23 December 2008 at 14:58

Posted in General

Tagged with , ,

Carrying forth God in Christ

leave a comment »

Hurrah and huzzah!  As hoped, on Friday night we managed to track down a group of the young people with whom we have had contact before.  My friend A was spot on.  One of the fellows in the church phoned to offer his services and we headed out at just after 9pm.  We arrived at the designated spot just in time to see the gang we were after being ushered away from the local off-licence with some vigour on the part of the police and much stupidity on the part of at least one member of the group.  We pulled up quickly, and with a prayer for safety for them and us, leapt out in pursuit.  We were temporarily waylaid by a homeless fellow who asked for some money.  It was an apostolic moment: I was utterly without wonga.  Silver and gold I do not have, but what I do have I give you: a brief explanation of Christ’s goodness, a promise to come back and speak to him (and to find some way of giving him some food), and a tract with an earnest invitation to come to church on Sunday where he would be fed as much as he wished, and to hear the good news proclaimed.  His name was John.

We then headed off after the lads.  By the time we had finished speaking with John, both the police and they had disappeared.  We wandered down a couple of blind alleys (almost literally) before we tracked a few of them down.  It was like being back at university: the marijuana smoke hung heavy in the air, even outside.  One young man was clearly out of it, probably drunk as well, and was immediately abusive and threatening.  It was the first time I thought that I might get lumped in the course of the night.  We persevered, and soon others were arriving, including A and D from last Wednesday.  The mouthy one eventually backed down, and we had an opportunity to speak of Jesus for a good hour or so with various ones.  There were two main chunks of chat: in the first, one appreciative young man spoke of the emptiness and pointlessness of his life, accepting that what we offered was attractive, compelling and coherent, but it was a big thing and he wasn’t sure he was going to bite.  Another couple of lads were listening intently, and chipping in now and again.  Then, later on, several young women joined us.  Unusually, on this occasion they were more hostile than the men, and assailed us quite aggressively with questions and arguments, not being entirely willing to hear the answers.  The chat broke up when the most earnest of the lads from earlier began having would-be-comedy fake sex in a nearby bush with one of the girls.  They were clearly losing interest.  In speaking with them, whether interested, appreciative, or aggressive, it is no longer possible to compartmentalise them mentally: they become people, men and women with immortal souls on their way to hell unless they are turned into the path to heaven.  We distributed several tracts and CDs with sermons, and handed out about eight or ten gospels (including to the young drunkard who wandered back towards the end to apologise for his crudity and anger earlier: would that not be a trophy to grace if he were brought in?).  We look for fruit from out labours.

I spent Saturday in preparation for the Lord’s day.  My fellow-pastor was away preaching in Milan over the weekend.  It is the anniversary of the church’s constitution, and they are going through a rough patch.  He therefore preached to them on suffering, and the reports are that it was timely and profitable, and that – despite his sickness from last week – the Lord upheld him through all the preaching, and assisted both him and Pastor Andrea Ferrari in the translating.

john-bunyan-1In the Sunday School hour, with the year drawing to a close, rather than take up for one Lord’s day the material on godly family life, I headed in a similar direction to my father in recent weeks (he has been working on Reformation history).  I was not quite as focused, going down a more biographical-historical-literary-introductory route.  My topic was John Bunyan and The Pilgrim’s Progress.  After giving a very brief overview of Bunyan’s life, I looked at the key qualities and themes of The Pilgrim’s Progress before giving some suggestions and hints with regard to profitable reading.  The material – less the asides and tangents – is here, here and here on this blog.

shining throughIn the morning worship, I preached from Nahum 1.2-3.  Man in his wisdom does not know God: he twists and misrepresents him in various ways and for various reasons.  Christians, too, can be tempted to water God down, smooth off his rough edges, and seek to explain and defend what God has simply chosen to reveal.  Not so Nahum: he has A right view of God. He puts his oracle against Nineveh in the context of God’s character, weaving together threads of colours that fallen reason would declare clashing, but which – in his inspired hands – become a dazzling and harmonious tapestry.

He speaks of the holiness of God.  God is jealous for the glory of his name and the good of his people.  He cannot bear for either one to be assaulted.  His fiery zeal for his own glory works itself out in a righteous indignation against all sin and transgression, a pure and perfect anger directed against wickedness.

He speaks of the mercy of God: he is “slow to anger.”  God is slow to frown, to threaten, to punish, and to execute punishment, but quick to smile, promise, forgive and reprieve.  If he were not, the world, every nation, every community, and every person would be consumed, destroyed and desolate, or sunk into hell.

He speaks of the power of God: he is “great in power.”  His power is demonstrated in the government of his anger: there is no sin in it, but it is “wrath reserved” – controlled and contained.  But we must not forget might when we remember mercy, for if we abuse the latter we will feel the former.  The Lord can accomplish all his purposes with regard both to his friends and his enemies, his promises and threatenings, blessing and curse.

Finally, he speaks of the justice of God: “he will not at all acquit.”  God’s justice is inflexible, and he never treats sin as innocence.  He responds to all unrighteousness with perfect justice.  Down through history, this reality is demonstrated, but nowhere more fearfully than in hell, nor so awesomely as at Calvary.  The atonement at Calvary tells us that the God who will not at all acquit nevertheless puts forth power in mercy to save sinners.

In part, this sermon arose from the grief and frustrations of engaging unconverted men and women, and their ignorance about the Lord God.  As Christians, we must let God be God, and declare him in all the fulness of his character, not being ashamed of all he is, nor willing to water down the perfections of any of his attributes.  Let saints rejoice, then, if the holy, merciful, powerful, and just God is our God: if God is for us, who can be against us?  Let sinners tremble, and flee at once to Jesus in order to be delivered from wrath: if God is against us, who can be for us?

wandering-sheep-in-dangerIn the evening service, I preached from Mark 6.34 on The good Shepherd’s compassion.  How do we respond to the multitudes milling around us as we make our way through the world?  Apathy bordering on disregard?  Alarm breeding fear?  Distaste mutating into disgust?  Horror leading to despair?  Bewilderment producing abandonment?  Dislike growing into loathing?  Pity sneering into contempt?  A sense of duty that twists into guilty action?

All such reactions are unlike that of Jesus.

We considered Jesus Christ’s reaction to the multitude.  He was “moved with compassion” – the sight of these men and women gripped his soul with a heartfelt sympathy.  His heart went out to them in sincere and genuine pity.  This is the sinless reaction of the God-man.  If we are to have the same reaction, we must build on the same foundation.  Therefore we must observe Jesus Christ’s perspective on the multitude.  He saw them as “sheep without a shepherd.”  There was, to his eye, a physical resemblance, and to his heart, a spiritual reality.  They were lost and needy: wandering, exposed, hungry, and vulnerable.  This is God’s heart toward sinners.  How do we know?  Because it was Jesus’ heart toward sinners, and we have known ourselves the compassion of the Saviour if we are believers.

Finally, we must note Jesus Christ’s response to the multitude.  Mark focuses on instruction: he began to teach them many things.  Mark 6.12 and Luke 9.11 suggest that his message was what it was from the beginning: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel” (Mk 1.15).  He shepherded them with gospel truth, dealing faithfully and tenderly with their souls, shepherding them as God had promised he would (Ex 34.11-16).  But there is also provision: he both healed their sicknesses (Lk 9.11) and fed their bodies (Mk 6.35 ff.).  The open heart that is good produces both an open mouth to speak good and an open hand to do good.

Is this our heart toward the milling multitude?  Do we have an increasingly Christlike sacrificial love for the lost and needy?  We must pray for and cultivate such a spirit as we come into contact with the wandering sheep of our day, pointing them always to the great and good Shepherd himself, Jesus the compassionate Christ.

We were thin on the ground during the day.  There were a number of people away, and a good number who were sick.  Our regular fellowship meal suffered an imbalance: the generous sick sent in their contributions, and the happy healthy were overwhelmed with a feast of good things.  After the evening service the normal refreshments became an exercise in consuming leftovers, and we were able to send away a good bit of food with young families and some of the more needy members of the congregation.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Monday 15 December 2008 at 09:03

Free grace and fierce Christianity

leave a comment »

A few days ago I preached at Mount Zion Baptist Church in Ashford, Kent.  I have been going there occasionally for a few years.  In that time, the church has grown quite significantly, and it was my privilege only a little while ago to preach for them at the baptism of a young man.  Others have also joined the church, and they are earnestly praying for and seeking out a man to be a shepherd to them, under Christ.  I preached at their midweek meeting, and it was a pleasure to renew fellowship with the saints there.

On Wednesday we celebrated the Lord’s supper at church – we usually do so on the first Sunday and third Wednesday of each month – and we considered the love of God in the light of our needing, God’s timing, and Christ’s dying.  It was a good time, and we had a good number present.

On Thursday, my wife had a treat lined up for me.  With the birth of our second child impending, we had been looking for an opportunity to take some time out together, and she planned an outing for us, and simply directed me where to go.  We travelled to Hever Castle, childhood home of Anne Boleyn (second wife of Henry VIII).  The grounds were absolutely splendid, albeit substantially the creation of the Astor family, who owned the castle from the end of the nineteenth century for several decades.  Most of the interior decor dated from their ‘reign’ in the castle, also, but the emphasis lay on Henry and his wives and mistresses.  As I read the various documents, I was overcome with a sense of sadness and unease, that so much sin and misery had been enacted in some of the rooms through which we walked.  Here was the room in which Henry would have probably held court, agitating in his affection for Anne (having already, it would seem, enjoyed an adulterous relationship with her sister, Mary).  Here was Anne’s letter thanking him for appointing her to the court, gushing and breathy, offering herself entirely to His Majesty’s pleasure.  Here was the tension of Anne’s inability to be his wife and first refusal to be his mistress, and then the record of Henry and the pregnant Anne – not then his wife – on their travels.  But here also were her prayer books, with some touching notes.  Here also was the noble and sober last letter that she wrote to her estranged husband, shortly before her death, pleading with dignity that he reconsider his decision to cut her off (in every sense).  There is some evidence that Anne became a true-hearted champion of the Reformation during her reign: if so, what a glorious demonstration of divine grace in the midst of so much ungodliness and moral muck.

My wife and I then enjoyed an evening drive through the autumn light back toward Crawley, where we went out for a meal before returning home.  Mamgu (‘Grandma’ for those with any sensitivities to the Welsh!) was looking after our son for the afternoon and night, and he has been struggling with his sleep patterns for a couple of weeks, so we enjoyed a full night’s refreshing sleep, which was a blessing.

On Friday I had a lot of work to do in the morning, and then in the afternoon to sit in on a long medical appointment with one of our members with special needs.  In the evening we had a church officer’ meeting which started later than usual and ran quite late.  However, afterward as I drove away, I spotted some of the teenagers to whom we had spoken last week.  Having a special dispensation from my wife to stay out late under such circumstances, I stopped and chatted for some thirty minutes.  “Hey, it’s the preacher!” – at least, a positive response to my approach.  These youngsters lead an empty existence, with many material privileges but little purpose and much selfishness and sin.  Some have some knowledge of true things, but none have a knowledge of the truth.  God helped to answer the serious questions, and to deal with some of the more foolish responses – much of it simply due to ignorance, although it is in itself sad and even blasphemous – and to take time again to explain some of the good news.  Even the most boisterous will generally listen for a few minutes, and there were two or three to whom I spoke for ten minutes at the end more personally, explaining the cross-work of Jesus Christ.  It truly demonstrates the need of the Spirit to open the eyes of the inwardly blind – the fact of God’s sovereign love is to them a thing not just strange but preposterous.  That someone should die to save the unrighteous seems to them the height of folly; that the wretchedly wicked should be granted free pardon seems to them entirely strange.  The scandal of the cross remains.  I hope to maintain contact for as long as possible, preaching to them as I can, praying that God would make them feel their sin as I explain it to them, and then bring them to Jesus to be washed and made new.

Saturday therefore became a long working day in preparation for the Lord’s day.  I started early without any powerful sense of what I might preach, and God gave me a degree of direction and purpose, and I was able to make good progress.  In the evening, we were visiting a friend from the congregation, and had a good meal with her and a good time speaking with her and her unconverted housemate.  Then home to finish off the preparation for the Lord’s day.

In our adult Sunday School class we moved on from considering the role of the parent to the task of the parent.  Our key texts were Proverbs 22.6 (“Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it”) and Ephesians 6.4 with Colossians 3.21 (“And you, fathers, do not provoke your children to wrath, but bring them up in the training and admonition of the Lord” with “Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged”).  We began to look at what it means to accomplish this task, putting the task in the context of the man/woman/parent’s influence in the home, the church and society, and not least the fact that the children raised in one home would go on, God willing, to become the parents in another.  Before diving into the actual work of training, though, a question had been asked some weeks ago about the role of grandparents.  We therefore took the opportunity to have a look at grandparent-parent-(grand)child relationships.  We did not have time to get far, concentrating on the developing relationship of a parent to his growing children, and the issues of responsibility, maturity and accountability as a child grows up.  We will move on next week, God willing, to consider the child leaving home and setting up themselves, the change of relationship that comes with marriage, and then the dynamic of authority that operates across and between generations.  It promises to be interesting – I was intrigued by the fact that this topic immediately threw up some matters of pastoral casuistry: you can often tell if you are itching where the people are scratching by the questions that get asked.

In the morning worship, I preached from Romans 13.11-12: Paul’s call to Wake up! The Apostle identifies a dangerous condition: sleeping saints, and the consequent degrees of inactivity, unresponsiveness, forgetfulness, dreaminess, and sleepwalking that are suffered by such.  Here is Bunyan’s ‘Enchanted Ground’ – the spirit of the age makes the saints sleepy as they buy into the dullness and laziness of Western society, and succumb to the restraining and sidelining of Christianity as a vital religion.  In the light of this, Paul brings an urgent message: “Wake up!”  He calls upon the church to rouse itself, for spiritual sleepiness is incompatible with the position we occupy in the grand drama of redemption.  He presents a pressing reason: the day of our salvation is nearer than when we first believed, the day is close at hand.  Since Christ has died and risen, we are all living in history’s epilogue, “the last days,” and we need to live accordingly, in the light of Christ’s imminent return.  This leads to an earnest exhortation: Paul provides a blueprint for Christian liveliness and alertness in these days – to stop sinning and start striving, to avoid all sinful indulgence, sexual impurity and selfish aggression and to put on the armour of light by which we fight the good fight of faith.  I urged the people of God here not to be the generation or the church that heard the call of God’s Spirit, “Wake up!” and who then rolled over and went back to sleep.

We had my mother (my father is away in the US, at the Pastors’ Conference hosted by Trinity Baptist Church, Montville) and another friend from church for dinner, together with two friends from Scotland who are in London (he on business) for the weekend.  Unfortunately, my son has picked up something curious called ‘hand, foot and mouth disease’ (not the bovine foot and mouth job, of course, but something that has left him feverish and not at all himself).  He struggled throughout the day, and so my wife kept him home for the evening.

I was preaching on Abounding grace from Hosea 14.4.  This grim book speaks not only of the righteous anger of an offended God but also the faithfulness and mercy of our covenant Lord.  At the end of the prophecy, the Lord declares of his repenting people, “I will love them freely.”  We considered the nature of God’s love – that it is both free (a spontaneous act of his holy will, the voluntary inclination and affection of his heart apart from issues of apparent worthiness and unworthiness) and full (not only everflowing but overflowing).  Then there are the people whom God loves – self-destructive, God-rejecting, hell-bent rebels.  No love other than one freely bestowed would reach such sinners as we have been.  That contrast leads us to consider the glory of God’s love: it springs forth unbidden to redeem those both repugnant to holiness and resistant to goodness; it answers the need of such sinners absolutely, dealing with the abundance of sin, absence of righteousness and antagonism to God that characterises us; it is irresistible, nothing and no-one can prevent, resist, or undo the love of God; and, it is demonstrated at Calvary.  The death of Jesus is the fruit and not the cause of God’s love.  He dies because God loves; God does not love because he dies.  Finally, we turned to the effects of God’s love: a reason to hope, an anchor for faith, a spur to humility, a ground for comfort, a reason for joy, and the spring of our own thankful love to him who loved us first.

In both sermons I think that the Lord gave me some liberty to declare the truth, and I can only pray that it would be effective.  We had visitors both morning and evening, although – as yet – none of the youngsters to whom we have been speaking have darkened the doors of the church.  They spoke appreciatively of the ministry and fellowship, and we hope to see them back again soon.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Monday 20 October 2008 at 12:09

An introduction to John Bunyan and “The Pilgrim’s Progress” #3 Reading the book

leave a comment »

Parts 1 and 2.

There are several particular qualities of the book that should encourage us to read it, and which demonstrate how valuable it can be to Christians on our own pilgrimage.

Firstly, in reading The Pilgrim’s Progress we should note its earnest Biblicism. Bunyan’s knowledge and comprehension of Scripture become immediately apparent when reading the book, in at least three ways. There is, first of all, the direct quotation of Scripture. Time after time, one or another of the pilgrims utters, receives, offers, or dwells upon Scripture as the expression of their own desires or convictions, or as a source of instruction and comfort. The first action recorded of the burdened pilgrim is his reading of the Bible; the first plain expression of his heart’s conviction of sin and need of salvation is in the cry of the Philippian jailer from Acts 16.30: “What must I do to be saved?” Thereafter we find a multitude of direct quotes from the Word of God, appropriate to the particular needs and circumstances of the pilgrims.

In addition to the direct quotations, the reader familiar with his Bible will quickly identify and relish the Scriptural flavour of The Pilgrim’s Progress. Charles Spurgeon said that Bunyan’s book was the Bible in another shape. He suggested that Bunyan had read his Bible “till his whole being was saturated with Scripture” so that when we read Pilgrim’s Progress “we feel and say, ‘Why, this man is a living Bible!’ Prick him anywhere; and you will find that his blood is Bibline, the very essence of the Bible flows from him. He cannot speak without quoting a text, for his soul is full of the Word of God.” [1] Even when Bunyan is not directly quoting Scripture, and giving chapter and verse, he seems unable to write without its words and phrases flowing from his pen.

Neither should we forget Bunyan’s doctrinal insights. Throughout the two parts, the various characters engage in conversations both with friends (usually recollections of Christian truth and experience, or warnings of dangers) and with enemies (there are several debates, accusations answered, or rebuttals of error given). What is immediately evident is Bunyan’s practical grasp of the living truth: the Bible is no dead book, but the believer’s guide in faith and life. Bunyan was a warm-hearted, committed, thoroughly and truly evangelical Calvinist.[2] As Spurgeon says so often, Calvinism is simply a nickname for the truth of the Bible, and thus we see in Pilgrim’s Progress a sovereign and merciful God saving sinners by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. Justification by faith in Christ the Redeemer lies at the heart of Bunyan’s narrative.

The defining metaphor of Bunyan’s book is Biblical; the broad sweep and careful details are all Biblical; the language is Scriptural; the teachings – explicit and implicit – are grounded in the Word of God. The whole is delivered with the passionate earnestness of a man whose own soul depends upon the truths which he so sincerely and potently expresses to others.

Secondly, Bunyan provides a realistic depiction of decided and vigorous Christianity. Bunyan lived in an age and under circumstances in which genuine Christianity could never be a game or a hobby, but was often a matter of life or death, especially for Nonconformists. However, these issues are more than cultural ones, merely temporal and circumstantial; they are spiritual and eternal. At the crux of all is the question that once thrust itself upon Bunyan’s own soul: “Wilt thou leave thy sins, and go to heaven? Or have thy sins, and go to hell?”[3] Christian comes to a similar point, where (as he tells Evangelist) he is not willing to die, nor able to face judgement.[4] However, having been guided to the path to the Celestial City by Evangelist, he then holds to it through many trials and dangers, kept on the way through the grace of God until he reaches the end.

While not everyone experiences (or needs to experience) the depths of woe or precise conflicts depicted in Pilgrim’s Progress, these realities of spiritual conflict underpin the narrative. Here is an honest treatment of what it means to be a Christian, and to enter into a life of obedience to Jesus Christ, a life which necessarily involves arduous labour, much striving, and fierce fighting against errors and dangers. The Pilgrim’s Progress is Christian life as it is (a life of earnest faith, sacrificial love, and determined obedience to Christ to the very end), not as we would often like it to be (an easy ride to heaven), and therefore Bunyan’s book is profoundly instructive and enlightening: we must through many tribulations enter the kingdom of God (Acts 14.22).

It is also deeply encouraging, because it reminds us of Christian advance and development: this is the pilgrim’s progress. Through the pages of both parts we see the development of godly character, as the characters advance in their understanding, strength, and capacity to face the rigours of the pilgrimage. There are painful lessons to learn, surely, but there is also an evident progress in godliness, whereby new challenges are met with greater resolve and capacity than before. We see this, for example, in the development of Christian and Christiana’s sons in the second part, but also in the increasing maturity of Christian as an individual. Neither must we forget that Christian and all his true fellow pilgrims do reach the Celestial City, crossing the river into the glorious presence of the King.

Thirdly, Bunyan instructively portrays Christian individuality, companionship, and community. The first part of the book focuses on the journey of one man, Christian. We keep company with him on his way, and learn from his pilgrimage as an individual. But we are not the only ones keeping him company: his notable fellow-travellers are Faithful (martyred in Vanity Fair) and Hopeful. This element is further developed in the second part, in which – under the leadership of Great-heart – an ever-growing band of pilgrims make their way to the Celestial City. Again, Bunyan’s brilliance and grasp of Biblical truth enable him to weave together the individual, social and corporate elements of Christian living. Each one individually must make their way to the Celestial City, but they do not do so in isolation. Christian depends heavily at key moments on his friends, and they depend on him in their moments of concern and weakness. Sometimes the friends trip each other up (it is Christian who leads Hopeful to Doubting Castle); more often, they instruct and encourage one another. The value of Christian companionship and the beauty of true friendship are everywhere evident. The second part introduces Great-heart, one of the most potent and instructive portraits of a true pastor in Christian literature, the pilgrims in whose care prosper under his loving guidance and guardianship. The familial as well as communal elements of Christian living are also woven into this narrative. Christianity is not a religion of isolation, but of fellowship with the Triune God and with those who also belong to God. The Christian alone before God, and in Scriptural companionship with other believers (friends, family members, and true churches under the loving guidance of faithful pastors), are both carefully depicted in the pages of Bunyan’s book.

Finally, if this brief introduction and overview have encouraged you to read The Pilgrim’s Progress, how can we best make use of it on our own journey from this world to the next?

We should read it humbly. The Lord God brought his servant John Bunyan through deep waters to teach him these truths, and he lived and died resting in and upon them. In an age of spiritual giants and fierce battles for the truth, Bunyan was highly esteemed and respected. He knew his Bible thoroughly, and was loved as a faithful pastor and sure counsellor and guide. Such a man with such a reputation ought to be read with care and with the expectation of learning much.

We should read it attentively. Bunyan wrote it not merely to give enjoyment, or as a book for children. He wrote to communicate the truth in an engaging, attractive and memorable fashion. It was given to teach, and so we should read it carefully to learn about the Christian life which we are called to live. It is not a story-book; it is a life book. It deals with eternal realities about which we desperately need to learn if we are to live our lives to the glory of the living God.

We should read it prayerfully. There are deep truths to be learned, and the book is worthy of careful and prayerful thought; while it teaches the truth simply, some portions are less easy to understand, and some of its lessons can be distressing at first encounter. We should never read it in place of our Bibles, but with our Bibles to hand, to see the truth which Bunyan wrote, and to understand his wise application of God’s truth to our lives. It has much to teach the man who is not too proud to learn.

We should read it repeatedly. The great preacher Charles Spurgeon is reputed to have read this book over one hundred times. That might be beyond most of us, but it is no bad model. The Pilgrim’s Progress remains fresh because is it so intensely Scriptural. It will be continually instructing us. As Christian learned godliness as he travelled, so will we. As our own pilgrimage advances, Bunyan goes on pastoring us. He constantly teaches us things newly applicable to the trials which we presently face, providing encouragements, instructions, exhortations, and counsels as we make our way from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City by the same well-worn path of faith in Christ and obedience to God travelled by innumerable pilgrims before us.

[1] C H Spurgeon, Autobiography (Pasadena, TX: Pilgrim Publications, 1992), 4:268.

[2] Although we must surely not forget the profound influence of Luther upon Bunyan and his understanding: Luther’s commentary on Galatians had a deep impact on Bunyan during his conversion, and he evidently felt real affinity with Luther, saying, “I do prefer this book of Mr Luther upon the Galatians, (excepting the Holy Bible) before all the books that ever I have seen, as most fit for a wounded conscience” (Grace Abounding, p.35, paragraphs 129-130).

[3] Grace Abounding, p.11 (paragraph 22).

[4] Pilgrim’s Progress, p.52.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Friday 16 May 2008 at 08:34

An introduction to John Bunyan and “The Pilgrim’s Progress” #2 Outline of the book

leave a comment »

john-bunyan-2Part 1 here.

As we have seen, Bunyan probably wrote the bulk of the first part of The Pilgrim’s Progress during his lengthy imprisonment. When we know something of his life, we are able to see certain events, people and places reflected in his book. The full title gives us, in typically Puritan fashion, insight into its contents and purpose: The Pilgrim’s Progress from this world to that which is to come, delivered under the similitude [likeness] of a dream wherein is discovered the manner of his setting out, his dangerous journey, and safe arrival at the desired country. The second part of the book has an almost identical title, except that it sets forth the manner of the setting out of Christian’s wife and children, their dangerous journey, and safe arrival at the desired country.

These titles tell us much. The main motif of the book is pilgrimage. The starting point is the City of Destruction, and the destination to which the faithful pilgrims travel is the Celestial City. The book is an allegory, and it is a testimony to the potency of Bunyan’s writing that many otherwise complicated dictionary or literary definitions of allegory refer to Pilgrim’s Progress as the simplest and best way of defining and illustrating the genre! Essentially, an allegory is an extended metaphor (a vivid comparison) in which the characters, events and locations represent or symbolize other things. Bunyan uses this as a means of teaching, employing this colourful and memorable style to fix truth in his readers’ minds and hearts. So, for example, the City of Destruction which “will be burned with fire from heaven”[1] is this present world, and the Celestial City to which the pilgrims travel is the eternal and heavenly kingdom of God’s Son, enjoyed by the saints after death.

The first part traces the pilgrimage of a man called Christian, who flees from the City of Destruction and makes his way through many dangers and difficulties to the Celestial City. Several of the people whom he encounters, or the locations through which he travels, are well known wherever the book has been read, and have entered the English vernacular, becoming accepted literary references. One of the first places to which Christian comes is the Slough of Despond, where he is almost swamped by doubts and fears. Almost thrown off course, the faithful Evangelist directs him to the Wicket Gate through which he must pass to find the path to the Celestial City. Going through, he comes to the House of the Interpreter, who shows him many wondrous things, and sends him on his way. From there Christian ascends a hill with the Cross upon it, where he loses the burden of sin from his back.[2] He goes on up another hill called Difficulty, and passes between two chained lions to a lodge where he rests and is armed for his onward journey. His arms and armour are immediately put to the test in a long and painful battle with Apollyon, the devil, where Christian wins through in the face of much distress. He meets a fellow-pilgrim called Faithful, and together they press on to Vanity Fair with all its carnality, where both are imprisoned and where Faithful is martyred. Christian is delivered, and travels on with another friend, Hopeful, who has come to be a pilgrim through the testimony of Christian and Faithful. Although the two escape the snares of the Hill Lucre, they are captured by the Giant Despair through Christian’s foolish going out of the way, and held for a time in Doubting Castle. Again they escape, this time through the use of the key called Promise. On they travel to the Delectable Mountains, where four shepherds called Knowledge, Experience, Watchful and Sincere care for them, and give them a sight of the Celestial City far ahead. Pressing on, through encounters with men including Ignorance and Atheist, they come to the Enchanted Ground. To prevent themselves being made drowsy and lulled to sleep, they talk of good matter, and so pass through the Enchanted Ground to the land of Beulah, a place of true rest and delight. One last obstacle awaits them before they can reach the heavenly city: a river, death. There is no way to the Celestial Gate but through the river, the depth of which changes depending on the faith of those passing through it. Hopeful passes through quite easily, but Christian is at first overwhelmed with fears. Hopeful strives to keep his friend’s head above the water with encouragements, and soon Christian gets a view of Christ that delivers him from his fears. So the two men pass through the River to the Celestial City, and are welcomed into glory.

In the second part a band of pilgrims follows the same route as Christian. The core of the band comprises Christian’s wife, Christiana (who takes to the pilgrim way after her husband crosses the river), her sons, and a young friend called Mercy. By adopting this method in the second part, Bunyan fulfils his intention of dealing with several matters not immediately relevant or easily covered in the first part: “What Christian left locked up and went his way,/ Sweet Christiana opens with her key.”[3] These new pilgrims also face a painful struggle before entering through the Wicket Gate, after which they spend time in Interpreter’s house. He sends one of his servants with them, a faithful man called Great-heart, who guides and guards them through their journey. As they travel, Great-heart often discourses of the journey of Christian before them, showing them some of what took place along the way; he also fights for the pilgrims, killing, for example, the Giants Maul and Slay-good. One of Great-heart’s most notable conquests (with Christiana’s sons and another pilgrim called Honest) is the defeat of Giant Despair and his wife, Diffidence, together with the demolition of Doubting Castle. Other pilgrims join them as they travel, and they face particular battles and perils that Christian did not, although they pass through the same territory. There is even a marriage, between Christiana’s son Matthew and her young friend, Mercy. Eventually, the much-grown pilgrim band comes to Beulah, where they await their summons across the River, during which time several pilgrims offer one another counsel, encouragement and admonition before passing across.

Thus, in the course of these two parts of the book, we see men and women of various characters and dispositions fleeing the City of Destruction and arriving at the Celestial City at the end of their pilgrimage. The genius of this structure is to give Bunyan broad scope to deal with a wide variety of Christian experience, focusing both on the individual and communal aspects of Christian living. While the outlines above aim to give a fair representation of the journey taken by the pilgrims, there is no space here to provide more than the merest hint of some of the other characters (all with their own distinctive and instructive names and characters) across whom the pilgrims come in the course of their journey, and who illustrate some of the encouragements, dangers, temptations, errors and helps that exist along the way to the Celestial City.

[1] John Bunyan, Pilgrim’s Progress (London: Penguin, 1987), p.51.

[2] This scene is represented on Bunyan’s tomb in London. One side of the tomb shows Christian climbing the hill with his burden, the other shows him coming to the cross and the burden rolling away down the hill, never to be seen again.

[3] Pilgrim’s Progress, p.277.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Thursday 15 May 2008 at 08:21

Posted in General

Tagged with ,

An introduction to John Bunyan and “The Pilgrim’s Progress” #1 The man

leave a comment »

“Sir, as to this matter, I am at a point with you;[1] for if I am out of prison today, I will preach the gospel again tomorrow – by the help of God!

These spirited but respectful words were John Bunyan’s parting shot to the judges who sentenced him to prison for preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ, threatening him even with death if he did not give up his ministry. During what became twelve years in jail, Bunyan’s tongue worked through his pen. Of the several books which he wrote or worked on during his imprisonment, one especially has become a classic in the fullest sense of the word: The Pilgrim’s Progress.

John Bunyan was born in November 1628, in the county of Bedfordshire, in England. His father was a brazier or tinker (a basic metalworker, a mender of pots and pans, for example). John Bunyan was briefly sent to school, where he learned to read and write, but he was soon taken out of school to follow his father’s trade, and – by his own admission – forgot much of what he had learned. From a young age, his ungodliness was proverbial, although even then he had terrifying dreams of God’s punishment of sinners. His life was providentially spared on at least one occasion, when he almost died in a boating accident.

In 1642 the English Civil War began. King Charles I had overstepped his authority, and his Royalists clashed with the Parliamentary army. Bunyan’s mother and sister died in 1644, and that same year (probably after his sixteenth birthday) John Bunyan enlisted in the Parliamentary Army. Again, his life was spared by God when a man who took his place at a siege was shot dead.

His regiment was disbanded in 1647 and he returned to the village of Elstow in Bedfordshire, where, shortly afterward, he married. His wife (whose name we do not know) had a godly father. Although they were “as poor as poor might be,”[2] Bunyan’s wife brought two books with her to the marriage: The Plain Man’s Pathway to Heaven by Arthur Dent and The Practice of Piety by Lewis Bayly. Reading these, and under some influence from his wife, Bunyan’s conscience began to afflict him, and he sought to be outwardly moral. However, he says that he “was not sensible of [did not feel] the danger and evil of sin.”[3] That soon changed, and Bunyan spent several years deeply distressed and sometimes despairing on account of his felt sin and need of salvation. He came into contact with an Independent church in Bedford, pastored by a godly man named John Gifford, and found profitable instruction in his wrestlings with God and with conscience. He struggled on in spiritual agony for years, assaulted by all manner of questions, concerns, doubts and temptations, longing to be saved but often fearing himself already damned.

Then, one day, “this sentence fell upon my soul, Thy righteousness is in heaven; . . . [and] . . . I saw with the eyes of my soul Jesus Christ at God’s right hand, there, I say, as my righteousness . . . I also saw moreover, that it was not my good frame of heart that made my righteousness better, nor yet my bad frame that made my righteousness worse: for my righteousness was Jesus Christ himself, the same yesterday, and today, and for ever (Heb. 13:8). Now did my chains fall off my legs indeed, I was loosed from my affliction and irons, my temptations also fled away . . .”[4]

With his soul finding peace – albeit after many long and painful struggles – through the righteousness of Jesus Christ, Bunyan was soon afterward admitted to the membership of the Bedford Independent church, and it was not long until he was invited to exercise his gifts as a preacher: “I preached,” says Bunyan, “what I felt, what I smartingly [acutely, deeply] did feel.”[5] Such preaching by an unlearned man, while effective among those who heard him, was not generally considered acceptable in the prevailing cultural and political climate, and became even less so in 1660, when King Charles II came to the throne.

Bunyan’s first wife died in 1658, and he married a godly woman named Elizabeth in 1659. She was pregnant with his first child (as well as caring for his four children from his previous marriage) when Bunyan came into open conflict with the authorities. During the rule of Oliver Cromwell (Lord Protector from 1649 to 1658) churches like the one to which Bunyan preached enjoyed a degree of freedom; when Charles II came to the throne those freedoms were swiftly repealed. Bunyan was one of the first Nonconformist[6] preachers to suffer; a warrant for his arrest was issued in November 1660. Nevertheless, he arrived to preach at one of the illegal gatherings of Dissenting Christians. Some, fearful of the persecution, suggested cancelling the meeting. Bunyan said, “Our cause is good, we need not be ashamed of it; to preach God’s Word is so good a work that we shall be well rewarded, even if we suffer for it.”[7] Before he had long been preaching, the persecutors burst in, and Bunyan was arrested and eventually committed to prison for three months, charged with refusing to attend the services of the Established church and preaching to unlawful assemblies. Refusing to conform, and despite the pleas of his poor wife to the authorities, those three months eventually stretched to twelve years.

With opportunity forced upon him, Bunyan began to write. His spiritual autobiography, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, was one of the fruits of his time in prison, and was the last of his prison works to be published before his release in 1672. This was the result of a pardon following from a Declaration of Indulgence by Charles II.[8] During his imprisonment, Bunyan had been able to maintain contact with the church, and had even been voted to be their pastor. Using his freedom fully, Bunyan was so active in travelling, gospelling and organizing that he became known as ‘Bishop Bunyan’. The threat of further imprisonment was never far off, though, and he was imprisoned again for six months in 1677. It was during this imprisonment that he probably put the finishing touches to a book the bulk of which seems to have been written during his first imprisonment: The Pilgrim’s Progress. The first part of this book was published in 1678, followed by other major works, including The Life and Death of Mr Badman (1680), a most excellent book called The Holy War (1682), and a second part to The Pilgrim’s Progress (1684), along with many other tracts and treatises.

Despite ongoing waves of persecution, Bunyan’s popularity grew. The Pilgrim’s Progress was a bestseller of the day. Thousands would gather to hear him preach (when he came to London, 1200 gathered at 7 o’clock on a winter workday morning to listen to him explain the Word of God). Among his regular hearers was perhaps the greatest Puritan theologian, John Owen, ‘the Prince of Puritans.’ King Charles II is said to have asked John Owen how a man of learning could go “to hear a tinker prate [prattle, chatter].” Owen answered, “May it please your majesty, could I possess the tinker’s abilities for preaching, I would willingly relinquish all my learning.”[9]

In 1688 Bunyan travelled from Bedford to the town of Reading, where he was seeking to reconcile a father to his estranged son. The work was successful, and Bunyan continued on to London on horseback despite a gathering storm. Arriving in London soaked through, he developed a fever, although he preached the next Lord’s day. His health then rapidly declined. By Friday 31st August 1688, several friends had gathered round the dying man. After some gracious conversation, they asked if anything more could be done for him. “Brothers,” he replied, “I desire nothing more than to be with Christ, which is far better.” Stretching out his arms, he cried, “Take me, for I come to thee!” and thus crossed over the river to the Celestial City.[10] He was buried in a cemetery called Bunhill Fields, used by the Dissenters. The book he carried with him to London was published shortly afterward by his friends: The Acceptable Sacrifice, or, The Excellency of a Broken Heart. Only a few months later would come the toppling of James II, ushering in the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1689 which would bring the first taste of the religious freedom that Bunyan had been denied during his life.

Such was the life and testimony of John Bunyan. The best known of his works today is The Pilgrim’s Progress. In a future post we will consider some of the distinguishing features of this book that have made it valuable as a guide to Christian faith and experience.

[1] The sense is, “In this matter, I cannot back down, and take my stand against you here.”

[2] John Bunyan, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners (London: Penguin, 1987), p.9 (paragraph 15). This book is Bunyan’s spiritual autobiography.

[3] Ibid., p.10 (paragraph 19).

[4] Ibid., p.59 (paragraphs 229-230).

[5] Ibid., p.70 (paragraph 276).

[6] A Nonconformist (or Dissenter) was someone who was, on principle, not a part of the established Church of England.

[7] Frank Mott Harrison, John Bunyan (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1964), p.86.

[8] This was a decree by the king that gave some freedoms to Nonconformists, who by this time had suffered horribly under cruel and godless persecutions. Although Bunyan was blessed with relatively good conditions during his time in jail, many Dissenters died in prison, or were released with their health permanently damaged.

[9] John Owen, Works (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1965), 1:xcii.

[10] Paraphrased from Harrison, John Bunyan, p.196.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Wednesday 14 May 2008 at 10:42

“The Jerusalem Sinner Saved”

leave a comment »

The Jerusalem Sinner Saved, or, Good News for the Vilest of Men (Puritan Paperback) by John Bunyan

Banner of Truth, 2005 (127 pp, pbk)

This slim volume – originally published in the year of Bunyan’s death and probably a digest of multiple sermons – is the fruit of a lifetime’s earnest labour and pastoral engagement on a precious theme.

Bunyan’s premise is that Christ’s command to preach the gospel “beginning at Jerusalem” demonstrates his desire that mercy first of all be offered to and received by the greatest sinners. As a great sinner himself, saved by God’s abounding grace, Bunyan is eager that others should taste and see that the Lord is good. Bunyan reverses the unbiblical assumptions that many of us make in imagining that the ‘best’ of sinners are somehow most entitled to grace, showing us rather that the worst men are best qualified for mercy, to the glory of God’s grace in Christ. Bunyan patrols the highways and byways like the hound of heaven, tracking down and exposing great sinners and then stripping away every doubt and fear about their coming to Christ in order to be saved. Sin here is something that drives us to Christ, not from him.

With its slightly modernised language and helpful analysis of the structure, this single-volume publication makes Bunyan’s work more accessible. Pastors should read it as a model of close, faithful dealing with wounded souls, although Bunyan’s bluntness may shock some modern sensibilities; it enhances a preacher’s confidence in telling the gospel to sinners, and is a fine example of direct dealing with the unconverted; Christians more generally will have their thinking clarified; those tortured by guilt – either as professing believers or convinced unbelievers – will be pointed directly to Christ by one who has trodden a similar road.

Bunyan’s profound sense of sin and grace glorifies God’s mercy in Christ, and throws the good news into wonderfully sharp relief. It is sincerely to be hoped that, in the reading of this book, Bunyan’s original wish as a vile sinner who had obtained mercy would be met once more: to have “my companions in sin partake of mercy too.”

I believe that Bunyan’s Come and Welcome To Jesus Christ is the next volume in Timmy Brister’s Puritan Reading Challenge. I hope to post some introductory biographical material on John Bunyan, together with some encouragements to read The Pilgrim’s Progress, before too long.

Written by Jeremy Walker

Tuesday 6 May 2008 at 11:28

Posted in Reviews

Tagged with , , , ,

%d bloggers like this: