Tag Archives: Looking Through a Mirror Dimly

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 3 of 8 in Bunyan: Looking Through a Mirror Dimly

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)

 

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