There are many nuggets in this week’s assignment (paragraphs 86-127) in Grace Abounding, but paragraphs 117-120, and 125 have captured my attention the most.
After having endured a long onslaught of temptations which Bunyan described as a storm, he found much wisdom in Mr. Gifford’s counsel when it came to appropriating the truths of Scripture to one’s soul (emphasis added):
117. At this time, also, I sat under the ministry of holy Mr. Gifford, whose doctrine, by God’s grace, was much for my stability. This man made it much his business to deliver the people of God from all those faults and unsound rests that, by nature, we are prone to take and make to our souls. He pressed up to take special heed that we took not up any truth upon trust—as from this, or that, or any other man or men—but to cry mightily to God that He would convince us of the reality thereof, and set us down therein, by His own Spirit, in the holy Word; for, said he, if you do otherwise when temptations come, if strongly, you, not having received them with evidence from heaven, will find you want that help and strength now to resist as once you thought you had.
An important point to note here is that true, evangelical faith is grounded in the Word of God. It cannot grow or hold firm in any other soil. When I used to teach the WSC to fourth graders, I always brought Scripture to bear on every element of doctrine contained therein, because, as true as the catechism may be, the believer mustn’t believe the catechism because it is the catechism, but only insofar as the catechism aligns with the truths of Scripture. In other words, our faith isn’t in the catechism, but in God, and we know Him as he has revealed himself to us through his inspired word. The last sentence in paragraph 125 is especially poignant in this regard: “O friends! Cry to God to reveal Jesus Christ unto you; there is none teacheth like Him.”
Not having been raised in a confessional denomination, I can relate to the process Bunyan described in becoming convinced of the reality of a doctrine. I came to believe the doctrines of grace by a sort of slow “ground war.” I only came, for instance, to believe in particular atonement after praying for the Lord to reveal the truth of the matter to me, followed by roughly a year of diligent study of the Scriptures. I conceded at the outset that God could have done whatever he chose to do in the matter, but I had to be grounded in what Scripture taught. And I found the Lord to be an excellent teacher. As Bunyan put it, there is, indeed, none that teaches like Him.
And yet, the teaching is never done in this life, because we look through a mirror dimly. I used to think that Paul, there in 1 Cor. 13:12, was referring to a man seeing his own condition as he looked into the word. I am indebted to Calvin for his insight on the passage, for he pointed out that it is through the Scriptures, chiefly, that we behold not our face, but God’s (Calvin’s Commentaries, available online, http://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/calcom39.xx.iii.html):
In the first place, there can be no doubt that it is the ministry of the word, and the means that are required for the exercise of it, that he compares to a looking-glass For God, who is otherwise invisible, has appointed these means for discovering himself to us. At the same time, this may also be viewed as extending to the entire structure of the world, in which the glory of God shines forth to our view, in accordance with what is stated in Romans 1:16; and 2 Corinthians 3:18. In Romans 1:20 the Apostle speaks of the creatures as mirrors, in which God’s invisible majesty is to be seen; but as he treats here particularly of spiritual gifts, which are subservient to the ministry of the Church, and are its accompaniments, we shall not wander away from our present subject.
The ministry of the word, I say, is like a looking-glass For the angels have no need of preaching, or other inferior helps, nor of sacraments, for they enjoy a vision of God of another kind; and God does not give them a view of his face merely in a mirror, but openly manifests himself as present with them. We, who have not as yet reached that great height, behold the image of God as it is presented before us in the word, in the sacraments, and, in fine, in the whole of the service of the Church. This vision Paul here speaks of as partaking of obscurity — not as though it were doubtful or delusive, but because it is not so distinct as that which will be at last afforded on the final day. He teaches the same thing in other words, in the second Epistle — (2 Corinthians 5:7) — that, so long as we dwell in the body we are absent from the Lord; for we walk by faith, not by sight.
Our faith, therefore, at present beholds God as absent. How so? Because it sees not his face, but rests satisfied with the image in the mirror; but when we shall have left the world, and gone to him, it will behold him as near and before its eyes.
Hence we must understand it in this manner — that the knowledge of God, which we now have from his word, is indeed certain and true, and has nothing in it that is confused, or perplexed, or dark, but is spoken of as comparatively obscure, because it comes far short of that clear manifestation to which we look forward; for then we shall see face to face. Thus this passage is not at all at variance with other passages, which speak of the clearness, at one time, of the law, at another time, of the entire Scripture, but more especially of the gospel. For we have in the word (in so far as is expedient for us) a naked and open revelation of God, and it has nothing intricate in it, to hold us in suspense, as wicked persons imagine; but how small a proportion does this bear to that vision, which we have in our eye! Hence it is only in a comparative sense, that it is termed obscure.
The adverb then denotes the last day, rather than the time that is immediately subsequent to death. At the same time, although full vision will be deferred until the day of Christ, a nearer view of God will begin to be enjoyed immediately after death, when our souls, set free from the body, will have no more need of the outward ministry, or other inferior helps.
Corinth was well known for its mirrors, which makes Paul’s reference in 1 Cor. 13:12 all the more pertinent to his initial audience. Those mirrors of polished metal didn’t give as true a reflection as modern ones do. Similarly, as Calvin noted, the sight which saints behold in heaven is far more glorious than what we enjoy now through his word. And yet what a joy it is to seek and find his face as he commands (Psa. 27:8)! As we do so, we prepare ourselves for the putting off of this body so that we can finally see him face to face, and be satisfied:
“As for me, I shall behold your face in righteousness; when I awake, I shall be satisfied with your likeness.” (Psa. 17:15, ESV)