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!