Monthly Archives: September 2014

Week 7 of 8 in Bunyan: Fears Within and Without

This week’s assignment (paragraphs 254-299) in Grace Abounding affords many jumping off points, so much so that I will have to restrain myself considerably.

Having had the privilege of preaching on several occasions in the past, I was greatly encouraged by paragraph 277 because this is another instance where I thought I was the only one ever to have experienced anything like what Bunyan described (bold emphasis added):

277. Indeed I have been as one sent to them from the dead; I went myself in chains to preach to them in chains; and carried that fire in my own conscience that I persuaded them to beware of. I can truly say, and that without dissembling, that when I have been to preach, I have gone full of guilt and terror even to the pulpit door, and there it hath been taken off, and I have been at liberty in my mind until I have done my work, and then immediately, even before I could get down the pulpit stairs, I have been as bad as I was before; yet God carried me on, but surely with a strong hand, for neither guilt nor hell could take me off my work.

I can relate to this experience particularly when I was in seminary and asked to fill the pulpit one Sunday morning at our home church.  I went into the pulpit that day feeling not as prepared as I wanted to be.  My wife and I had to make a six hour drive into town the Friday before, and this also hindered preparation time which had to be squeezed in between part time work and a full time class load. I felt completely unworthy to address the congregation that day, as inexperienced as I was in addition to the transition the church was going through after the departure its minister.  And yet, there came such a freedom and unction to speak the word boldly and yet with love and compassion for the congregation, such that many shared with me afterwards how they were blessed. On the return trip home as I reflected on the whole experience, I marveled at how the Lord used such a broken, unworthy vessel.  Perhaps it sounds a little trite, but being used that way is a very humbling thing because it becomes very clear that it is the Lord at work, and He alone can draw straight lines with crooked sticks.

Another paragraph I found very encouraging was 296 (bold emphasis added):

296. I have also, while found in this blessed work of Christ, been often tempted to pride and liftings up of heart; and though I dare not say I have not been infected with this, yet truly the Lord, of His precious mercy, hath so carried it towards me, that, for the most part, I have had but small joy to give way to such a thing; for it hath been my every day’s portion to be let into the evil of my own heart, and still made to see such a multitude of corruptions and infirmities therein, that it hath caused hanging down of the head under all my gifts and attainments; I have felt this thorn in the flesh, the very mercy of God to me (II Cor. 12:7-9).

We talk about besetting sins, the ones to which we are so inclined that they trip us up so easily.  Before I came to the task of the mortification of that sin in my particular case, I used to think that once I had victory in that area, everything would be fine.  Besetting sins like that, however, are like big rocks under which all kinds of little creepy crawly things are hiding.  Once you get that big rock broken up so that you can see under and all around it, you realize that there are, as Bunyan puts it, a “multitude of corruptions and infirmities therein.”

Here I think is a great wonder and a bit of irony in the way the gospel works itself out in the life of the believer.  The closer you get to the light, the more you see your spots.  The closer a person draws near to the Holy One, the more he sees his sins. And wonder of wonder, Christ becomes dearer as a twofold discovery is made: 1) the believer finds himself to be far more sinful that he ever imagined; and 2) he discovers Christ to be far more gracious than he ever dared to dream.  Now please don’t misinterpret me to be saying that sanctification is merely getting used to one’s justification, and that the saint is to wallow in his sinfulness because it manifests the grace of God.  On the contrary, greater is he that dwells in the saint than he that is in the world.  Consequently, there will be victory over sin, and a trajectory of increasing obedience and holiness over the life of a believer.  But it is always a work in process, and it is a process in which the saint is able to step back and perceive the beauty and wonder of what God is up to in his life, and that of others.  In The Nature and Causes of Apostasy, John Owen identified causes and occasions of the decay of holiness in believers, one of which was being mistaken in this regard about the beauty and glory of Christian religion:

But about the true notion and apprehension of that glory and honour which is proper unto religion and suited unto its nature, men have fallen into many woful mistakes; for whereas it principally consists in the glorious internal operations of the Holy Spirit, renewing our nature, transforming us into the image and likeness of God, with the fruits of his grace in righteousness and, true holiness, in a meek, humble, gracious conversation, and the performance of all duties according to the rule, few are able to discern beauty or glory or honour in these things. But yet where there is not an eye to discern them, the gospel must of necessity be despised and abandoned, and somewhat else substituted in the room thereof. (available online at http://www.ccel.org/ccel/owen/apostasy.i.xiv.html)

If we aren’t aware of the multitude of corruptions within, we are very likely to miss the “glorious internal operations of the Holy Spirit, renewing our nature”, making us more like Christ, and we will hinder his work, because we aren’t looking into the mirror of the word, beholding his face so to be changed thereby.  So I close again by saying: Take up and read!  Take up and read!

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Week 6 of 8 in Bunyan: Rightly Appraising Union With Christ

I was delighted again to discover Bunyan’s esteem for the doctrine of the believer’s union with Christ in this week’s assignment (paragraphs 215-253 of Grace Abounding), in paragraph 233:

Further, the Lord did also lead me into the mystery of union with the Son of God, that I was joined to Him, that I was flesh of His flesh, and bone of His bone, and now was that a sweet word to me in Eph. 5.30. By this also was my faith in Him, as my righteousness, the more confirmed to me; for if He and I were one, then His righteousness was mine, His merits mine, His victory also mine. Now could I see myself in heaven and earth at once; in heaven by my Christ, by my head, by my righteousness and life, though on earth by my body or person.

Bunyan, like every believer, found no peace of conscience until he was assured that he was indeed a recipient of the grace of Christ. He started gaining his footing with John 6:37 (paragraph 215) after his protracted, twelve month season of despair during which he thought himself guilty of the unpardonable sin. But, surprisingly enough, the passage that afforded him the most assurance was Joshua 20 in regard to the terms of entry into the city of refuge (paragraphs 219-222). Bunyan’s pilgrimage is an illustration of Martin Luther’s observation that “The heart of religion lies in its personal pronouns.” That is, in the reality of being able to say truly that the Lord is my God.  Or, as Calvin put it (Institutes, 3.1.1, online at http://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/institutes.v.ii.html, emphasis added):

We must now see in what way we become possessed of the blessings which God has bestowed on his only-begotten Son, not for private use, but to enrich the poor and needy. And the first thing to be attended to is, that so long as we are without Christ and separated from him, nothing which he suffered and did for the salvation of the human race is of the least benefit to us. To communicate to us the blessings which he received from the Father, he must become ours and dwell in us. Accordingly, he is called our Head, and the first-born among many brethren, while, on the other hand, we are said to be ingrafted into him and clothed with him, all which he possesses being, as I have said, nothing to us until we become one with him. And although it is true that we obtain this by faith, yet since we see that all do not indiscriminately embrace the offer of Christ which is made by the gospel, the very nature of the case teaches us to ascend higher, and inquire into the secret efficacy of the Spirit, to which it is owing that we enjoy Christ and all his blessings.

Calvin went on to define saving faith to include a “sure knowledge” of God’s benevolence towards us (3.2.7, available online at http://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/institutes.v.iii.html, emphasis added):

We shall now have a full definition of faith if we say that it is a firm and sure knowledge of the divine favor toward us, founded on the truth of a free promise in Christ, and revealed to our minds, and sealed on our hearts, by the Holy Spirit.

I encourage you again, as I did in this past week’s Midweek Rambling (previous post), to listen to the talk Dr. Derek Thomas gave on union with Christ as you have opportunity (http://www.sermonaudio.com/sermoninfo.asp?SID=9111491210).

Reformed confessions and catechisms include several references to the doctrine of the believer’s union with Christ (see WSC Q30; WLC Q66; HC Q1 & Q54), and hymnody abounds with them. I leave you with the first stanza from the hymn Loved with Everlasting Love as a prime example:

Loved with everlasting love,

Led by grace that love to know;

Spirit, breathing from above,

Thou hast taught me it is so.

Oh, this full and perfect peace!

Oh, this transport all divine!

In a love which cannot cease,

I am His, and He is mine.

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Midweek Rambling: William Perkins Ocular Catechism Chart

In case you were wondering if the Puritans used any charts, the answer is YES!  Listening to Dr. Derek Thomas speak on the ordo salutis I learned that William Perkins (1558-1602) developed an “ocular catechism” chart (available at http://www.reformed.org/calvinism/index.html?mainframe=/calvinism/perkins.html) which was used widely in many English homes in the 17th century for instruction in the truths of salvation.  The chart points to Jesus as the source of salvation in every way.  Outer bubbles represent distance from the Savior, and so the message conveyed is to look to Christ in everything.

If you want to listen to Derek Thomas on the ordo salutis you may find it on the website of First Presbyterian Church, Columbia SC (or directly via http://www.sermonaudio.com/sermoninfo.asp?SID=961481782).  Dr. Thomas uses Perkins’ chart extensively when teaching theology students, so it is good to know it is still getting some circulation today, at least in some circles!

You also can’t go wrong by listening to the address Dr. Thomas gave on union with Christ as well.(http://www.sermonaudio.com/sermoninfo.asp?SID=9111491210)

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Week 5 of 8 in Bunyan: Wielding the Sword of the Spirit

As I read this week’s assignment (paragraphs 169-214) in Grace Abounding I underlined in green (symbolizing life) the Bible verses Bunyan found to be some means of comfort to his tender conscience in his parleys with Satan.  I counted eight (paragraph number followed by citation or reference): 173: Isa. 44:22; 190: Jer. 31:3; 193: Psa. 130:3-4; 194: Ezek. 16:63; 202: Psa. 77:7-9; 203: Heb. 7:25; 206: 2 Cor. 12:9; 213: Jas. 2:13.  There were many more passages he cited which were means of doubt and consternation, but these were the ones which shined as lights on his dark path.

John Bunyan learned how to wield the sword of the Spirit (Eph. 6:17) in his protracted struggle to gain peace of conscience and assurance of salvation.  There is a lesson for us here today, as well as a challenge. The lesson is that one cannot wield a sword, unless it is kept at hand on the hip.  Scripture memorization is a must in order to engage in spiritual warfare successfully, and therein is the challenge.  The Holy Spirit can’t do a whole lot to mortify the flesh or engage the enemy if the only passage in one’s memory is John 3:16!

Fortunately for him, Bunyan memorized many more passages besides John 3:16.  When we consider all of the references from Genesis to Revelation that Bunyan cited we may begin to agree with Charles Spurgeon’s observation that Bunyan “bled Bibline”:

Oh, that you and I might get into the very heart of the Word of God, and get that Word into ourselves! As I have seen the silkworm eat into the leaf, and consume it, so ought we to do with the Word of the Lord—not crawl over its surface, but eat right into it till we have taken it into our inmost parts. It is idle merely to let the eye glance over the words, or to recollect the poetical expressions, or the historic facts; but it is blessed to eat into the very soul of the Bible until, at last, you come to talk in Scriptural language, and your very style is fashioned upon Scripture models, and, what is better still, your spirit is flavored with the words of the Lord.

I would quote John Bunyan as an instance of what I mean. Read anything of his, and you will see that it is almost like the reading the Bible itself. He had read it till his very soul was saturated with Scripture; and, though his writings are charmingly full of poetry, yet he cannot give us his Pilgrim’s Progress—that sweetest of all prose poems — without continually making us feel and say, “Why, this man is a living Bible!” Prick him anywhere—his blood is Bibline, the very essence of the Bible flows from him. He cannot speak without quoting a text, for his very soul is full of the Word of God. I commend his example to you, beloved.  (http://theoldguys.org/2013/05/03/charles-spurgeon-may-we-bleed-bibline/)

Spurgeon, by the way, made it a point to read Pilgrim’s Progress twice a year because of the insights it contained to Scripture.

William Gurnall, author of the classic work, The Christian in Complete Armour, showed great insight and awareness of how God alone must apply the salve of the word to tender consciences, as he does for every believer:

The distress of an afflicted conscience ariseth from the dismal sense of divine wrath for sin.  Now none can remove this but he that can infallibly assure the soul of God’s pardoning mercy; and this lies so deep in God’s heart, that God alone ‘who only knoweth his own thoughts’ can be the messenger to bring the news; and therefore the word which doth this can come from none but him.  And, that is able not only to do this, but also to fill the soul with ‘joy unspeak­able and full of glory,’ is a truth so undoubted, that we need not ascend up to heaven for further confirm­ation.  That Spirit which first indited the word, hath sealed it to the hearts of innumerable believers.

         Indeed all the saints acknowledge their comfort and peace to be drawn out of these wells of salvation. ‘In the multitude of my thoughts within me thy com­forts delight my soul,’ Ps. 94:19.  Nay, he doth not only tell us his own experience, whence he had his joy, but also to have had theirs from the same tap.  ‘Fools, because of their transgressions, are afflicted’ Ps 107:17. And what then can ease them?  Will all the rarities that can be got by sea or land make a diversion to their thoughts, and ease them of their pain?  No; for ‘their soul abhorreth all manner of meat; and they draw near unto the gates of death,’ ver. 18.  What cor­dial then have they left to use, or way to take for their relief?  Truly none, but to betake themselves to prayers and tears, ‘Then they cry unto the Lord in their trouble, and he saveth them out of their dis­tresses,’ ver. 19.  And with what key doth God open their prison door?  It follows, ‘He sent his word, and healed them,’ ver. 20.  If you shall say all this is meant of outward trouble; yet surely you must grant in holds more strong concerning that which is inward.  What but a word from God’s mouth can heal a distres­sed spirit, when the body pineth and languisheth till God speaketh a healing word unto it?  (available online at http://www.ccel.org/ccel/gurnall/armour/files/gurnal04b.htm).

Like Bunyan, John Owen found much solace in Psalm 130, so much so that he wrote a 322 page exposition on it!  I have found Hebrews 7:25 to be great comfort against the Accuser as well:

Consequently, he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.” (ESV)

Next week we get to the passage that served to anchor Bunyan’s soul more securely, over which Satan contended fiercely with him, John 6:37, so stay tuned.  But in the meantime: Take up and read!  Take up and read!

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Week 4 of 8 in Bunyan: Unveiling One of Satan’s Devices

By the time I came to this week’s reading assignment in Grace Abounding (paragraphs 128-168), I found myself wanting to speak a word of encouragement in Bunyan’s ear, exhorting him to look to Christ, dear brother!

Perhaps this response on my part stemmed from the insights gleaned from an earlier reading selection of ours: Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices, by Thomas Brooks which was first published in 1652, fourteen years before Bunyan wrote Grace Abounding.  Before reading Brooks I thought Satan never bothered with me very much, because I had my hands full contending with my own fallen nature, the flesh.  Brooks changed my mind on that entirely.  So if you haven’t read that wonderful book, I urge you to take up and read it as soon as possible!

In the fallout of Bunyan’s fleeting, momentary thought in which he yielded to the temptation to “sell Christ,” he seems to have encountered a common device Satan uses to keep Christians in the pitiful condition he so movingly described.  Thomas Brooks identified eight devices Satan uses to keep Christians in such sad, doubting, questioning, and uncomfortable conditions, and the first one he mentioned is the one John Bunyan encountered: 

Device #1: By causing them to be still poring and musing upon sin, to mind their sins more than their Savior; yea, so to mind their sins as to forget, yea, to neglect their Savior.

Remedy (1) To consider, That though Jesus Christ hath not freed [believers] from the presence of sin, yet he hath freed them from the damnatory power of win.

Remedy (2) To consider, That though Jesus Christ hath not freed you from the molesting and vexing power of sin, yet he hath freed you from the reign and dominion of sin.

Remedy (3) Constantly to keep one eye upon the promises of remission of sin, as well as the other eye upon the inward operations of sin.

Remedy (4) To look upon all your sins as charged upon the account of Christ, as debts which the Lord Jesus hath fully satisfied; and indeed, were there but one farthing of that debt unpaid that Christ was engaged to satisfy, it would not have come into heaven and sit down at his own right hand.

Remedy (5) Solemnly to consider, Of the reasons why the Lord is pleased to have his people exercised, troubled, and vexed with the operations of sinful corruptions; and they are these: partly to keep them humble and low in their own eyes; and partly to put them upon the use of all divine helps, whereby sin may be subdued and mortified; and partly, that they may live upon Christ for the perfecting the work of sanctification; and partly, to wean them from things below, and to make them heartsick of their absence from Christ, and to maintain in them bowels of compassion towards others that are subject to the same infirmities with them; and that they may distinguish between a state of grace and a state of glory, and that heaven may be more sweet to them in the close.

Remedy (6) To consider, That believers must repent for their being discouraged by their sins.  Their being discouraged by their sins will cost them many a prayer, many a tear, and many a groan; and that because their discouragements under sin flow from ignorance and unbelief.

 

Writing long after Bunyan’s day in 1847, Octavius Winslow had this to say about doubting the sufficiency of God’s grace, in Personal Declension and Revival of Religion in the Soul

The moment a believer looks at his unworthiness more than at the righteousness of Christ, – supposes that there is not a sufficiency of merit in Jesus to supply the absence of all merit in himself before God, what is it but a setting up his sinfulness and unworthiness above the infinite worth, fullness, and sufficiency of Christ’s atonement and righteousness.  There is much spurious humility among many of the dear saints of God.  It is thought by some, that to be always doubting one’s pardon and acceptance, is the evidence of a lowly spirit.  It is, allow us to say, the mark of the very opposite of a lowly and humble mind. That is true humility that credits the testimony of God, – that believes because he has spoken it, – that rests in the blood, and righteousness, and all-sufficiency of Jesus, because he has declared that ‘whoever believes in him shall be saved.’  This is genuine lowliness, – the blessed product of the Eternal Spirit.  To go to Jesus just as I am, a poor, lost, helpless sinner, – to go without previous preparation, – to go glorying in my weakness, infirmity, and poverty, that the free grace and sovereign pleasure, and infinite merit of Christ, may be seen in my full pardon, justification, and eternal glory.  There is more of unmortified pride, of self-righteousness, of that principle that would make God a debtor to the creature, in the refusal of a soul fully to accept of Jesus, than is suspected.

 The urgent appeal of Isaiah 45:22 is as powerful as ever until the end of this age:

 Look unto me, and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth: for I am God, and there is none else. (KJV)

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