Lewis Bayly (c. 1565-1631): Meditations of the blessed state of a Regenerate Man in his Death

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Lewis Bayly (c. 1565-1631) is known primarily for his highly esteemed book The Practice of Piety: Directing a Christian how to walk, that he may please God, which was widely distributed in England through many editions and was also very influential elsewhere, being translated into Welsh, French, German, Dutch, Italian, Polish, Hungarian, Romansh, and the language of the Massachusetts Indians. Below is a short excerpt:

Meditations of the blessed state of a Regenerate Man in his Death

When God sends death as his messenger for the regenerate man, he meets him half-way to heaven, for his conversation and affection is there before him (Phil. iii. 20; Col. iii. 2) Death is never strange nor fearful to him: not strange, because he died daily—not fearful, because whilst he lived, he was dead, and his life was hid with Christ in God (1 Cor. i. 31; Col. iii. 3) to die, therefore, is to him nothing else in effect, but to rest from his labour in this world, to go home to his Father’s house, unto the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of the first-born, to God the Judge of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect, and to Jesus the Mediator of the new covenant (Rev. xiv. 13; 2 Cor. v. 6; John xiv. 2; Heb. xii. 22, &c.). Whilst his body is sick, his mind is sound; for God maketh his bed in sickness, and strengthened him with faith and patience, upon his bed of sorrow (Psal. xli. 3). And when he begins to enter into the way of all the world, he giveth (like Jacob, Moses, and Joshua) to his children and friends, godly exhortations and counsels, to serve the true God, to worship Him truly all the days of their life (Gen. xlix). His blessed soul breatheth nothing but blessings, and such speeches as savour a sanctified spirit. As his outward man decayeth, so his inward man increaseth, and waxeth stronger; when the speech of his tongue faltereth, the sighs of his heart speak louder unto God; when the sight of the eyes faileth, the Holy Ghost illuminates him inwardly with abundance of spiritual light. His soul feareth not, but is bold to go out of the body, and to dwell with her Lord (2 Cor. v. 8). He sigheth out with Paul, Cupio dissolvi, “I desire to be dissolved and to be with Christ,” (Phil. i. 23). And with David, “As the hart panteth after the water-brooks, so panteth my soul after thee, O God. My soul thirsteth for God, for the living God: when shall I come and appear before God?” (Psal. xlii. 2). He prayeth with the saints, “How long, O Lord, which art holy and true?” (Rec. vi. 10). “Come, Lord Jesus, come quickly,” (Rev. xxii. 10). And when the appointed time of his dissolution is come (Job xiv. 5), knowing that he goeth to his Father and Redeemer in the peace of a good conscience (Psal. xxxi. 5), and the assured persuasion of the forgiveness of all his sins, in the blood of the Lamb, he sings with blessed old Simeon his Nunc dimittis, “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace,” (Luke ii. 29; Psal. xxxvii. 37; Isa. lvii. 2), and surrenders up his soul, as it were, with his own hands, into the hands of his heavenly Father, saying with David, “Into thy hands, O Father, I commend my soul, for thou hast redeemed me, O Lord, thou God of truth,” (Psal. xxxi. 5). And saying with Stephen, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit,” (Acts vii. 59); he no sooner yields up the ghost, but immediately the holy angels (Matt. xviii. 10; Acts xii. 15; xxvii. 23) who attended upon him from his birth to his death, carry and accompany his soul into heaven, as they did the soul of Lazarus into Abraham’s bosom (Luke xvi. 22), which is the kingdom of heaven, whither only good angels and good works do accompany the soul (Matt. viii. 11; Luke xiii. 28; Acts xv. 10, 11; Eph. i. 10; Heb. xi. 9, 10, 16; xii. 22, 23; Luke xix. 9; ix. 31), the one to deliver their charge (Psal. xci. 11; Heb. i. 14), the other to receive their reward (Rev. xiv. 13; xxii. 12).

The body, in convenient time, as the sanctified temple of the Holy Ghost (1 Cor. vi. 19), the members of Christ (1 Cor. vi. 15), nourished by his body (Matt. xxvi. 26), the price of the blood of the Son of God (1 Cor. vi. 20; 1 Pet. i. 19), is by his fellow-brethren reverently laid to sleep in the grave as in the bed of Christ (1 Thess. iv. 14; Acts vii. 6; viii. 2), in an assured hope to awake in the resurrection of the just, at the last day, to be partaker, with the soul, of life and glory everlasting (Dan. xii. 2; John v. 28, 29; Luke xiv. 14; 1 Thess. iv. 16, 17; Rev. xiv. 13). And in this respect not only the souls, but the very bodies of the faithful also are termed blessed.

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George Whitefield (1714-1770): Letters to students

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In keeping with recent posts from 18th century English theologians (namely Isaac Watts and Philip Doddridge), together with another recent post, 20 points of advice to prospective students of theology, I now turn to two letters from George Whitefield (1714-1770), both written to students. The first letter was written to seminary students at Philip Doddridge’s Northampton Academy, the second to students at Harvard and Yale:

TO THE STUDENTS AT DR. DODDRIDGE’S ACADEMY, NORTHAMPTON

Philadelphia, Nov. 10, 1739

MY DEAR BRETHREN IN CHRIST,

The cordial love I bear you will not suffer me to neglect writing to you; as God has been pleased to bless my ministry to your souls, so I think it my duty to watch over you for the good, and assure you constantly you are all upon my heart.

Your last letter gave me great pleasure – but it was too full of acknowledgments, which I by no means deserve. To Him alone, from whom every good and perfect gift comes, be all the thanks and glory.

I heartily pray God that you may be burning and shining lights in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation. Though you are not of the Church of England, yet if you are persuaded in your own minds of the truth of the way wherein you now walk, I leave it. However, whether Conformists or Nonconformists, our main concern should be to be assured that we are called and taught of God – for none but such are fit to minister in holy things.

Indeed, my dear brethren, it rejoiced me much to see such dawnings of grace in your souls, except that I thought most of you were bowed down too much with a servile fear of man. But as the love of the Creator increases, the fear of the creature will daily decrease in your hearts. Nicodemus, who at first came by night to our Lord, afterwards dared to own Him before the whole council in open day. I pray God make you all thus minded. For unless your hearts are free from worldly hopes and worldly fears, you never will speak boldly as you ought to speak. The good old Puritans, I believe, never preached better than when in danger of being taken to prison as soon as they had finished their sermon. And however the church may be at peace now, I am persuaded [that] unless you go forth with the same attitude you will never preach with the same demonstration of the Spirit, and of power.

Study therefore, my brethren, I beseech you by the mercies of God in Christ Jesus. Study your hearts as well as books; ask yourselves again and again whether you would preach for Christ if you were sure to lay down your lives for doing so. If you fear the displeasure of a man for doing your duty now, assure yourselves you are not yet thus minded.

But enough of this. I love to hope well of you all. I trust, as you are enlightened with some degree of knowledge in the mysteries of godliness, you will henceforth determine not to know anything but Jesus Christ, and Him crucified. This is, and this (the Lord being my helper) shall be the only study of, my dear brethren.

Your affectionate friend, brother, and servant in Christ,

G.W.

TO THE STUDENTS, ETC., UNDER CONVICTIONS AT THE COLLEGES OF CAMBRIDGE [HARVARD] AND NEW-HAVEN [YALE], IN NEW ENGLAND AND CONNECTICUT

DEAR GENTLEMEN,

With unspeakable pleasure have I heard that there seems to be a general concern among you about the things of God. It was no small grief to me that I was obliged to say of your college that “your light was become darkness” – yet are ye now become light in the Lord.

I heartily thank God, even the Father of our glorious Redeemer, for sending dear Mr. T – among you [Note: “Mr. T” refers to Gilbert Tennent, who was one of the leaders of the First Great Awakening together with Jonathan Edwards and Whitefield]. What great things may we not now expect to see in New England, since it has pleased God to work so remarkably among the sons of the prophets? Now we may expect a reformation indeed, since it is beginning at the house of God.

A dead ministry will always make a dead people, whereas if ministers are warmed with the love of God themselves, they cannot but be instruments of diffusing that love among others. This, this is the best preparation for the work whereunto you are to be called. Learning without piety will only make you more capable of promoting the kingdom of Satan. Henceforward, therefore, I hope you will enter into your studies not to get a parish, nor to be polite preachers, but to be great saints.

This, indeed, is the most compendious way to true learning, for an understanding enlightened by the Spirit of God is more open to divine truths and, I am certain, will prove most useful to mankind. The more holy you are, the more will God delight to honor you.

I hope the good old divinity will now be precious to your souls, and you will think it an honor to tread in the steps of your pious forefathers. They were acquainted with their own hearts. They knew what it was to be tempted themselves, and therefore from their own experience knew how to give help to others. O may you follow them, as they followed Christ. Then great, very great will be your reward in heaven. I am sure you can never serve a better Master than Jesus Christ, or be engaged in a higher employment than in calling home souls to Him.

I trust, dear gentlemen, you will not be offended at me for sending you these few lines. I write out of the fulness of my heart. I make mention of you always in my prayers. Forget me not in yours. I am a poor weak worm. I am the chief of sinners, and yet, O stupendous love!, the Lord’s work still prospers in my unworthy hands. Fail not to give thanks, as well as to pray for

Your affectionate brother and servant in our common Lord,

G.W.

Philip Doddridge (1702-1751): News of Salvation by Christ brought to the convinced and condemned sinner

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Charles H. Spurgeon once referred to The Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul by Philip Doddridge (1702-1751) as “that holy book”. This book, Doddridge’s most well-known work, was also very influential in the conversion of William Wilberforce, the famous slavery abolitionist. After an introduction in chapter 1, Doddridge spends chapters 2-7 meticulously expounding to the reader the tremendous human predicament of being a sinner before a holy God and strips the reader of any hope within himself or any other creature. Then comes chapter 8, in which Doddridge expounds the glorious Gospel of Jesus Christ as the solution to the human predicament he expounded in chapters 2-7. No matter how long you’ve been a Christian or how many times you’ve heard the Gospel, “hear” it again:

CHAPTER VIII: NEWS OF SALVATION BY CHRIST BROUGHT TO THE CONVINCED AND CONDEMNED SINNER

1. My dear reader, it is the great design of the Gospel, and wherever it is cordially received, it is the glorious effect of it, to fill the heart with sentiments of love; to teach us to abhor all unnecessary rigor and severity, and to delight not in the grief but in the happiness of our fellow-creatures. I can hardly apprehend how he can be a Christian who takes pleasure in the distress which appears even in a brute, much less in that of a human mind; and especially in such distress as the thoughts I have been proposing must give, if there be any due attention to their weight and energy. I have often felt a tender regret while I have been representing these things; and I could have wished from my heart that it had not been necessary to have placed them in so severe and so painful a light. But now I am addressing myself to a part of my work which I undertake with unutterable pleasure, and to that which indeed I had in view in all those awful things which I have already been laying before you. I have been showing you, that, if you hitherto have lived in a state of impenitence and sin, you are condemned by God’s righteous judgment, and have in yourself no spring or hope and no possibility of deliverance. But I mean not to leave you under this sad apprehension, to lie down and die in despair, complaining of that cruel zeal which has “tormented you before your time.” (Matt. 8:29) 

2. Arise, O thou dejected soul, that art prostrate in the dust before God, and trembling under the terror of his righteous sentence; for I am commissioned to tell thee, that, though “thou hast destroyed thyself, in God is thine help.” (Hos. 13:9) I bring thee “good tidings of great joy,” (Luke 2:10) which delight mine own heart while I proclaim them, and will, I hope, reach and revive thine–even the tidings of salvation by the blood and righteousness of the Redeemer. And I give it thee for thy greater security, in the words of a gracious and forgiving God, that “he is in Christ reconciling the world unto himself, and not imputing to them their trespasses.” (2 Cor. 5:19)

3. This in the best news that ever was heard, the most important message which God ever sent to his creatures; and though I doubt not that, living as you have done in a Christian country, you have heard it often, perhaps a thousand and a thousand times; I will, with all simplicity and plainness, repeat it to you again, and repeat it as if you bad never heard it before. If thou, O sinner, shouldst now for the first time feel it, then will it be as a new Gospel unto thee, though so familiar to thine ear; nor shall it be “grievous to me” to speak what is so common, “since to you it is safe” and necessary. (Phil. 3:1) They who are most deeply and intimately acquainted with it, instead of being cloyed and satiated, wilt hear it with distinguished pleasure; and as for those who have hitherto slighted it, I am sure they had need to hear it again. Nor is it absolutely impossible that some one soul at least may read these lines who hath never been clearly and fully instructed in this important doctrine, though his everlasting all depends on knowing and receiving it. I will therefore take care that such a one shall not have it to plead at the bar of God, that, though he lived in a Christian country, he was never plainly and faithfully taught the doctrine of salvation by Jesus Christ, “the way, the truth, and the life, by whom alone we come unto the Father.” (John 14:6)

4. I do therefore testify unto you this day, that the holy and gracious Majesty of heaven and earth, foreseeing the fatal apostasy into which the whole human race would fall, did not determine to deal in a way of strict and rigorous severity with us, so as to consign us over to universal ruin and inevitable damnation; but, on the contrary, he determined to enter into a treaty of peace and reconciliation, and to publish to all whom the Gospel should reach, the express offers of life and glory, in a certain method which his infinite wisdom judged suitable to the purity of his nature and the honor of his government. This method was indeed a most astonishing one, which, familiar as it is to our thoughts and our tongues, I cannot recollect and mention without great amazement. He determined to send his own Son into the world, “the brightness of his glory and the express image of his person,” (Heb. 1:3) partaker of his own divine perfections and honors, to be, not merely a teacher of righteousness and a messenger of grace, but also a sacrifice for the sins of men; and would consent to his saving them on no other condition but this, that he should not only labor, but die in the cause.

5. Accordingly, at such a period of time as infinite wisdom saw most convenient, the Lord Jesus Christ appeared in human flesh; and after he had gone through incessant and long-continued fatigue, and borne all the preceding injuries which the ingratitude and malice of men could inflict, he voluntarily “submitted himself to death, even the death of the cross;” (Phil. 2:8) and having been “delivered for our offences, was raised again for our justification.” (Rom. 4:25) After his resurrection he continued long enough on earth to give his followers most convincing evidences of it, and then “ascended into heaven in their sight;” (Acts 1:9-11) and sent down his Spirit from thence unto his apostles, to enable them, in the most persuasive and authoritative manner, “to preach the Gospel;” and he has given it in charge to them, and to those who in every age succeed them in this part of their office, that it should be published “to every creature,” (Mark 16:15) that all who believe in it may be saved by virtue of its abiding energy, and the immutable power and grace of its divine Author, who is “the same yesterday. today, and for ever.” (Heb. 13:8)

6. This Gospel do I therefore now preach and proclaim unto thee, O reader, with the sincerest desire that, through divine grace, it may “this very day be salvation to thy soul.” (Luke 19:9) Know therefore and consider it, whosoever thou art, that as surely as these words are now before thine eyes, so sure it is that the incarnate Son of God was “made a spectacle to the world, and to angels, and to men;” (1 Car. 4:9) his back torn with scourges, his head with thorns, his limbs stretched out as on a rack, and nailed to the accursed tree; and in this miserable condition he was hung by his hands and feet, as an object of public infamy and contempt. Thus did he die in the midst of all the taunts and insults of his cruel enemies, who thirsted for his blood; and, which was the saddest circumstance of all, in the midst of those agonies with which he closed the most innocent, perfect, and useful life that ever was spent on earth, he had not those supports of the divine presence which sinful men have often experienced when they have been suffering for the testimony of their conscience. They have often burst out into transports of joy and songs of praise, while their executioners have been glutting their hellish malice, and more than savage barbarity, by making their torments artificially grievous; but the crucified Jesus cried out, in the distress of his spotless and holy soul, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46)

7. Look upon your dear Redeemer! look up to this mournful, dreadful, yet, in one view, delightful spectacle! and then ask thine own heart, Do I believe that Jesus suffered and died thus? And why did he suffer and die? Let me answer in God’s own words, “He was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities, and the chastisement of our peace was upon him, that by his stripes we might he healed: it pleased the Lord to bruise him, and put him to grief, when he made his soul an offering for sin; for the Lord laid on him the iniquity of us all.” (Isa. 53:5,6,10) So that I may address you in the words of the apostle, “Be it known unto you therefore, that through this man is preached unto you the forgiveness of sins;” (Acts 13:38) as it was his command, just after he arose from the dead, “that repentance and remission of sins should be, preached in his name among all nations, beginning at Jerusalem,” (Luke 24:47) the very place, where his blood had so lately been shed in such a cruel manner. I do thereby testify to you, in the words of another inspired writer, that Christ was made sin, that is, a sin offering, “for; though he knew no sin, that we might be made the righteousness of God in him:” (2 Cor. 5:21) that is, that through the righteousness he has fulfilled, and the atonement he has made, we might be accepted by God as righteous, and be not only pardoned, but received into his favor. “To you is the word of this salvation sent,” (Acts 13:26) and to you, O reader, are the blessings of it even now offered by God, sincerely rely offered; so that, after all that I have said under the former heads, it is not your having broken the law of God that shall prove your ruin, if you do not also reject his Gospel. It is not all those legions of sins which rise up in battle array against you that shall be able to destroy you, if unbelief do not lead them on, and final impenitency do not bring up the rear I know that guilt is a timorous thing; I wilt therefore speak in the words of God himself nor can any be more comfortable: “He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life,” (John 3:36) “and he shall never come into condemnation.” (John 5:24) “There is therefore now no condemnation,” no kind or degree of it, “to them,” to any one of them, “who are in Jesus Christ, who walk not after the flesh, but after the spirit.” (Rom. 8:1) You have indeed been a very great sinner, and your offences have truly been attended with most heinous aggravations; nevertheless you may rejoice in the assurance, that “where sin hath abounded, there shall grace much more abound; “that where sin bath reigned unto death,” where it has had its most unlimited sway and most unresisted triumph, there “shall righteousness reign to eternal life, through Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Rom. 5:21) That righteousness, to which on believing on him thou wilt be entitled, shall not only break those chains by which sin is, as it were, dragging thee at its chariot-wheels with a furious pace to eternal ruin, but it shall clothe thee with the robes of salvation, shall fix thee on a throne of glory, where thou shalt live and reign for ever among the princes of heaven, shalt reign in immortal beauty and joy. without one remaining scar of divine displeasure upon thee, without any single mark by which it could be known that thou hadst even been obnoxious to wrath and a curse, except it be an anthem of praise to “the Lamb that was slain, and has washed thee from thy sins in his own blood.” (Rev. 1:5)

8. Nor is it necessary, in order to thy being released from guilt, and entitled to this high and complete felicity, that thou shouldst, before thou wilt venture to apply to Jesus, bring any good works of thine own to recommend thee to his acceptance. It is indeed true, that, if thy faith be sincere, it will certainly produce them; but I have the authority of the word of God to tell thee that if thou this day sincerely believest in the name of the Son of God, thou shalt this day be taken under his care, and be numbered among those of his sheep to whom he hath graciously declared that “he will give eternal life, and that they shall never perish.” (John 10:28) Thou hast no need therefore to say, “Who shall go up into heaven, or who shall descend into the deep for me? For the word is nigh thee, in thy mouth, and in thy heart.” (Rom. 10:6,7,8) With this joyful message I leave thee; with this faithful saying, indeed “worthy of all acceptation;” (1 Tim. l:15) with this Gospel, O sinner, which is my life; and which, if thou dost not reject, will be thine too.

– Philip Doddridge (1702-1751), The Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul, Chapter VIII

Isaac Watts (1674-1748): Vanity Inscribed on All Things

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vanitas vanitatum omnia vanitas…

Isaac Watts (1674-1748), sometimes referred to as the “Father of English Hymnody,” is of course most famous for his hymns, particularly When I Survey the Wondrous Cross. In the second verse of this famous hymn, he wrote:

Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast,
Save in the death of Christ my God!
All the vain things that charm me most,
I sacrifice them to His blood.

The vanity of the things of this world was one of the first lessons I learned when I become a (regenerate) Christian little over 5 years ago. The book of Ecclesiastes preeminently taught it to me, along with other biblical books, Christian authors, and hymns such as the one mentioned.

And as I was browsing through some books, as I am prone to do when I have some time off, I was delighted to discover this little piece of prose by Watts, titled Vanity Inscribed on All Things, which can be found toward the back of his wonderful work The Improvement of the Mind. Below is the text in full:

VANITY INSCRIBED ON ALL THINGS

TIME, like a long-flowing stream, makes haste into eternity, and is forever lost and swallowed up there; and while it is hastening to its period, it sweeps away all things with it which are not immortal. There is a limit appointed by Providence to the duration of all the pleasant and desirable scenes of life, to all the works of the hands of men, with all the glories and excellencies of animal nature, and all that is made of flesh and blood. Let us not dote upon anything here below, for heaven hath inscribed vanity upon it. The moment is hastening when the decree of heaven shall be uttered, and providence shall pronounce upon every glory of the earth, “Its time shall be no longer.”

What is that stately building, that princely palace, which now entertains and amuses our sight with ranks of marble columns and wide-spreading arches, that gay edifice which enriches our imagination with a thousand royal ornaments, and a profusion of gay and glittering furniture? Time, and all its circling hours, with a swift wing are brushing it away; decay steals upon it insensibly, and a few years hence it shall lie in mouldering ruin and desolation. Unhappy possessor, if he has no better inheritance!

What are those fine and elegant gardens, those delightful walks, those gentle ascents and soft declining slopes which raise and sink the eye by turns to a thousand vegetable pleasures? How lovely are those sweet borders, and those growing varieties of bloom and fruit which recall lost paradise to mind? Those living parterres which regale the sense with vital fragrancy and make glad the sight by their refreshing verdure and entertaining flowery beauties? The scythe of time is passing over them all; they wither, they die away, they drop and vanish into dust; their duration is short; a few months deface all their yearly glories; and within a few years perhaps all these rising terrace walks, these gentle verging declivities, shall lose all order and elegance, and become a rugged heap of ruins. Those well-distinguished borders and parterres shall be levelled in confusion, and thrown into common earth again for the ox and the ass to graze upon them. Unhappy man, who possesses this agreeable spot of ground, if he has no paradise more durable than this!

And no wonder that these labours of the hands of men should perish, when even the works of God are perishable.

What are these visible heavens, these lower skies, and this globe of earth? They are indeed the glorious workmanship of the Almighty; but they are waxing old and waiting their period too, when the angel shall pronounce upon them, “That time shall be no more. The heavens shall be folded up as a vesture; the elements of the lower world shall melt with fervent heat, and the earth and all the works thereof shall be burnt up with fire.” May the unruinable world be but my portion, and the heaven of heavens my inheritance, which is built for an eternal mansion for the sons of God. These buildings shall out-live time and nature, and exist through unknown ages of felicity.

What have we mortals to be proud of in our present state, when every human glory is so fugitive and fading? Let the brightest and the best of us say to ourselves, “That we are but dust and vanity.”

Is my body formed upon a graceful model? Are my limbs well turned, and my complexion better coloured than my neighbours? Beauty even in perfection is of shortest date; a few years will inform me that its bloom vanishes, its flower withers, its lustre grows dim, its duration shall be no longer; and if life be prolonged, yet the pride and glory of it is for ever lost in age and wrinkles. Or perhaps our vanity meets a speedier fate. Death and the grave, with a sovereign and irresistible command, summon the brightest as well as the coarsest pieces of human nature to lie down early in their cold embraces; and at last they must all mix together among worms and corruption. Aesop the deformed, and Helena the fair, are lost and undistinguished in common earth. Nature in its gayest bloom is but a painted vanity.

Are my nerves well strung and vigorous? Is my activity and strength far superior to my neighbours in the days of youth? But youth hath its appointed limit; age steals upon it, unstrings the nerves, and makes the force of nature languish into infirmity and feebleness. Samson and Goliath would, have lost their boasted advantages of stature and their brawny limbs in the course of half a century, though the one had escaped the sling of David, and the other the vengeance of his own hands in the ruin of Dagon’s temple. Man in his best estate is a flying shadow and vanity.

Even those nobler powers of human life which seem to have something angelical in them, I mean the powers of wit and fancy, gay imagination and capacious memory, they are all subject to the same laws of decay and death. What though they can raise and animate beautiful scenes in a moment, and, in imitation of creating power, can spread bright appearances and new worlds before the senses and the souls of their friends? What though they can entertain the better part of mankind, the refined and polite world, with high delight and rapture? These scenes of rapturous delight grow flat and old by a frequent review, and the very powers that raised them grow feeble apace. What though they can give immortal applause and fame to their possessors! It is but the immortality of an empty name, a mere succession of the breath of men; and it is a short sort of immortality too, which must die and perish when this world perishes. A poor shadow of duration indeed, while the real period of these powers is hastening every day; they languish and die as fast as animal nature, which has a large share in them, makes haste to its decay; and the time of their exercise shall shortly be no more.

In vain the aged poet or the painter would call up the muse and genius of their youth, and summon all the arts of their imagination to spread and dress out some visionary scene; In vain the elegant orator would recall the bold and masterly figures, and all those flowery images which gave ardour, grace and dignity to his younger composures, and charmed every ear: They are gone, they are fled beyond the reach of their owner’s call: Their time is past, they are vanished and lost beyond all hope of recovery.

The God of nature has pronounced an unpassable period upon all the powers and pleasures and glories of this mortal state. Let us then be afraid to make any of them our boast or our happiness; but point our affections to those diviner objects whose nature is everlasting; let us seek those religious attainments and those new-created powers of a sanctified mind, concerning which it shall never be pronounced, “That their time shall be no longer.”

O may every one of us be humbly content at the call of heaven to part with all that is pleasing or magnificent here on earth; let us resign even these agreeable talents when the God of nature demands; and when the hour arrives that shall close our eyes to all visible things, and lay our fleshly structure in the dust, let us yield up our whole selves to the hands of our Creator, who shall reserve our spirits with himself; and while we cheerfully give up all that was mortal to the grave, we may lie down full of the joyful hope of a rising immortality. New and unknown powers and glories, brighter flames of imagination, richer scenes of wit and fancy and diviner talents are preparing for us when we shall awake from the dust; and the mind itself shall have all its faculties in a sublime state of improvement. These shall make us equal, if not superior, to angels, for we are nearer akin to the Son of God than they are, and therefore we shall be made more like him.

Thomas Manton (1620-1677): There is no wrinkle upon the brow of eternity

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The Puritans are a delight to read, not only because of what they say, but especially because of how they say it. They had a wonderful way with words, and Thomas Manton (1620-1677) was no exception. In a sermon on Psalm 119:89 (“Forever, O LORD, your word is firmly fixed in the heavens”), he expounds the attributes of God in relation to eternity, and writes the following regarding God’s power:

“His power is eternal; therefore it is said, Rom. i. 20, that his eternal power and godhead is clearly understood from the creation of the world, and seen in the things that are made. How else could so many things be educed out of nothing, and still kept from returning into their original nothing, if there were not an infinite and eternal power then and still at work? So Isa. xxvi. 4, ‘Trust ye in the Lord for ever, for in the Lord Jehovah is everlasting strength.’ We may depend upon him, for his arm is never dried up, nor doth his strength fail; there is no wrinkle upon the brow of eternity. God is where he was at first; he continueth for ever a God of infinite power, able to save those that trust in him.”

Later in the same sermon, Manton brings temporal things into the light of eternity:

“This eternity of God is not seriously and sufficiently enough thought of and improved, till it lessen all other things in our opinion and estimation of them and affection to them. Two things should especially be lessened—the time we spend in the world, and the things that we enjoy in the world.

[1.] The time we spend in the world. Alas! what is this to God’s eternity! Ps. xxxix. 5, ‘Behold, thou hast made my days as an handbreadth, and mine age is nothing before thee.’ Whether our days be spent in prosperity or adversity they are but short, a hand-breadth, a mere nothing, compared with God’s eternity: Ps. ex. 4, ‘A thousand years in thy sight are but as yesterday when it is past, or as a watch in the night.’ A thousand years, compared to eternity, are but as a drop spilt and left in the ocean, or as time insensibly past over in sleep. Forty, fifty, or seventy years seemeth a great time with us; yet with God, who is infinite, ten thousand years is no considerable space, but a very short and small duration.

[2.] As time, so the things of the world: 2 Cor. iv. 18, ‘The things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal.’ They are short as to continuance and use. As to continuance, he calleth the honours and delight of Pharaoh’s court, Heb. xi. 25, ‘The pleasures of sin for a season.’ Whatsoever is temporal a man may see the end of it. Be it evil: a man in the deep waters is not discouraged as long as he can see banks; but in eternity there are neither banks nor bottom. If good: Ps. cxix. 96, ‘I have seen an end of all perfection.’ The most shining glory will shortly be burnt out to a snuff; it wastes every day. Eternity maketh good things infinitely good, and evil things infinitely evil. If it be temporal, whatever paineth us is but a flea-bite to eternal torments. Whatever pleaseth or delights, it is but a may-game to eternal joys. So for use too, it is but for a season, Deut. xxiii. 24; the law gave an indulgence to eat of his neighbours’ grapes for refreshment; ‘But thou shalt not put any in thy vessel:’ 1 Tim. vi. 7, ‘For we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out.’ The manna was useful and refreshing when used in the day, but if kept all night it perished and was useless; it was useful in the wilderness, but ceased when they came to Canaan.”

Manton concludes his sermon thus:

“Be resolvedly true to your end, which is the enjoyment of God, and that will quicken you the more, and direct you; for the end is both our measure and our motive. In short, do all things from eternal principles to eternal ends. The eternal principle is the grace of the Spirit; the eternal end is the pleasing, glorifying, and enjoying of God: Phil. i. 11, ‘Being filled with the fruits of righteousness, which are by Jesus Christ unto the praise and glory of God.’ Actions carried on from eternal principles, according to an eternal rule, for an eternal end, cannot miscarry.”

– Thomas Manton (1620-1677), Works, Vol. VII, Sermon XCIII

20 points of advice to prospective students of theology

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By Jake Griesel

For the past 4 years, I have been blessed to be able to partake in and reflect on theological studies at university level. I have learnt a great deal in that time, and have often thought about what advice I would give to prospective students of theology – advice I wish had been given to me when I started my own theological studies. Now that I am busy with my M.Th in Historical Theology, I have made a list of 20 points of advice I would give to prospective students of theology who consider starting a Bachelor’s degree, whether to later serve in the ministry or in the academy. These are arranged in no particular order, and are by no means exhaustive:

1. A verse to be engraved in every theologian’s mind

Remember that all-important reminder for theologians: “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.” James 3:1. Consider your calling, and especially the One by whom you are called, and know that it is a calling of great weight – one might even say a burden – which is not to be taken lightly.

2. Do not let academic work and ambitions come in the way of your personal devotional life.

We have a saying in Afrikaans “moenie so besig raak met die dinge van die Here dat jy vergeet van die Here van die dinge nie” (lit. “Do not become so busy with the things of the Lord that you forget about the Lord of the things”). Also do not neglect your relationship with your family and friends – the key is to strike a balance. Pray without ceasing. Especially keep your knowledge of Scripture sharp. This will not only be of great value to your devotional life, but will offer a firm platform for discernment when you are confronted with not-so-kosher matters in your studies, such as theological liberalism, heresies, postmodernism, and the latest fads.

3. You are first and foremost called to be a theologian

During your theological studies, you will gain much knowledge and learn many skills. All such accumulated knowledge and skills are of course very useful and necessary, but are to be subservient to the main task of a theologian: the understanding and application of God’s Word. Your skills as a historian, linguist, philosopher or cultural critic must all be secondary to and subservient to your primary calling as a theologian.

4. Acquaint yourself with apologetics from the start

1 Peter 3:15 says we must always be “prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you.” I have seen many students who are able to give a clear account of their faith to fellow believers, but crumble when they have to do the same before unbelievers. And at university there are many who challenge and oppose the faith. While most standard bachelor’s courses would include at least one module on apologetics, this is simply not enough. A great (and recent) source for equipping yourself with a knowledge of apologetics is Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faith by Douglas Groothuis (Downer’s Grove: IVP Academic, 2011). Get it and read it.

5. Be an active member of your local congregation

There is a self-sufficient spirit in our day in which many Christians prefer to stay at home and watch sermons on TV (most of which are utterly heretical) or their favourite preachers on the internet or on mp3. Many students of theology have done the same. Do not become like this. There is no place for neglecting the communion of saints in a theologian’s life. Furthermore, it is highly advisable to get involved in some form of ministry early on. Get involved in outreaches, evangelism, youth work, charity, or serve as a deacon in your congregation – whatever it is you do, do not leave the ministry only for when your studies are done. Not only will this provide you with valuable experience for when you eventually enter the ministry or work with students in future, but it will allow you to put theory into practice. And on top of this, it is obedience to the Great Commission. Get involved!

6. Submit yourself to the preaching of the Word and church authority

Students of theology are prone to sit in church on Sundays and critique whatever is being preached from the pulpit. While of course we must be like the Bereans and search the Scriptures to see whether “these things are so” (Acts 17:11), I believe some take their critiques too far and practically sit in judgment on the preached Word every Sunday. I have been guilty of this myself. Do not be like this. In humility submit yourself to the preached Word. The pastoral epistles of Paul give us ample reasons to do this. The Reformers understood the central importance of sitting under the preached Word, and we ought not to place ourselves over it. It is an issue of sinful pride. Humbly submit yourself to the God-ordained authorities, including the elders, regardless if you may have more theoretical knowledge than them. Doing otherwise, simply put, is rebellion against the revealed will of God.

7. Learn to write and speak clearly, cogently, and succinctly

Verbosity is to be avoided. While eloquence isn’t the sine qua non of a theologian, it is nonetheless a highly valuable skill, especially when preaching, writing assignments, or doing research papers. Learn to express your thoughts clearly and succinctly. I have seen many students with good thoughts and ideas struggle to express themselves and clearly articulate their thoughts, with the impact and meaning of what they were trying to say thereby going astray. If you are not a natural public speaker, joining a club such as Toastmasters International may be very helpful.

8. Tolle, lege! Take up and read!

I couldn’t emphasize this enough. Tolle, lege! We are not the first people to study the Scriptures or theology. Many brilliant (and sometimes not so brilliant) men have written before us, whether long ago or recently, and by reading we engage with these great theologians of the past and present. Not only is reading the primary method for acquiring knowledge, but it also offers us a platform for discernment. Start collecting books from the start and build a personal library, whether printed or digital ones (the latter which are ever-increasingly becoming readily available). I myself have greatly benefited from retiring pastors who were giving away their books (something I can’t imagine doing before I die) – look out for such opportunities or spend less money on trivial things (which good books certainly don’t qualify as) so that you may be able to buy decent books for your collection. Building such a library is not only an investment for the future, but may also come in handy when doing assignments. I can’t describe the number of times my own collection has helped me with assignments – sometimes even more than the university library! Start collecting today. On top of this, do not only read the prescribed curricular material. Read beyond that. Especially if the faculty or seminary where you study often exposes you to liberal theology, balance such readings with more conservative texts. And a last comment here: memorize the names of prominent and authoritative authors/works in the different disciplines, it will come in handy as your studies progress.

9. Try to discover your favourite discipline/subject early on

Later in your studies when it comes to research papers or dissertations, this will be important. I’ve seen many students uncertain about what discipline they want to focus on for their dissertations. I was fortunate enough to discover my two passions early on: Church history/historical theology on the one hand, and systematic theology/dogmatics on the other, with the former always being my favourite subject. Once you’ve discovered the discipline that most interests you, you can start exploring it in your own time and collecting sources, so that by the time you come to your later studies, you will already be well-acquainted with the subject.

10. Read on non-theological subjects as well, and regularly converse with non-theological students

As much as your studies in theology will naturally have the preeminence over other subjects, it is of great interest to the edification and well-being of a theology student to also stay in touch with other subjects. As depressing as some news headlines may be (especially in South Africa), try to at least keep one eye on contemporary issues and events. Acquaint yourself with history, the great classics of literature, philosophy, anthropology, sociology, psychology, politics, economics, agriculture, sports, or whatever other subjects there may be. In doing so it will also allow you to discover the gifts God has given to people in other fields, as well as the value of such fields. Theology cannot be done in a vacuum, and other subjects will give you greater perspective, offer you the chance to bring such subjects into theological light, and also provide more common ground with your future audience.

One positive aspect of studying at a public university as opposed to a seminary is that you are frequently in contact with students from other fields of study. Two years ago I shared a house with a final-year medical student and a final-year architecture student. The conversations I’ve had with them about things I knew nothing about, such as medical ethics, what medical students do in a hospital, how architecture has changed over the past 50 years, and many other things, have left a lasting impression on me, and though I am admittedly utterly ignorant in these fields, I at least understand the world of medical and architecture students to a slightly better degree than I did before. Just do it. Make friends with non-theological students.

11. Put in the effort with languages

Looking back, I wish I had put in more effort during my two years of Hebrew and Greek. Though I never struggled with these languages and did alright, I was lazy at the time and was one of those “open a book the night before exam” students. Two years later, though I can still help myself with these languages when doing exegesis with the aid of Bibleworks and lexicons, I wish I had put in the hard yards back then to gain a firmer foundation in Hebrew and Greek. Especially future pastors who will be exegeting texts on a weekly basis for their sermons, do not make the same mistake I did. Put in the effort and make sure your foundation in Hebrew and Greek is solid.

On top of this, if possible, consider taking Latin, German, and French as well – especially if you intend to do extensive postgraduate research. Latin is especially important if you intend to study church history or historical theology, that you may have access to the primary sources. The same goes for German and French. There are oceans of sources on all theological disciplines written in German and French, both old and new, which are only accessible if one is literate in these languages. Many theological terms and phrases are also fixed expressions in Latin, German or French, which are generally left untranslated in scholarly works. While I am thankful to be busy with third-year Latin, I only started German and French this year and wish I had somehow started earlier. Do not waste time. Start early so that by the time you get to postgraduate studies you are already familiar with these languages.

12. Exegesis is extremely important

In line with the previous point, I reckon one of the aspects of your theological training that deserves most attention is exegesis. If there is one aspect of your studies in which you must strive for excellence, it is this. Especially if you are going to preach the Word on a weekly basis, “rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15b) deserves the utmost attention.

13. Be humble and listen carefully

Zeal can be a very good thing, but it can also be dangerous. Many young theologians, out of sinful pride, start their studies with the know-it-all idea that they’re “going to prove the world wrong,” and then go out to seek quarrels and debates just for the sake of showing others how wrong they are. Such was I, to my shame. As surprising as it may come to some: no, we are not inherently right on all things and others are not inherently wrong on all things. Listen carefully to others and what they have to say, do not just wait for them to stop talking so that you can say what you have to say. By this I am not suggesting that we let go of our firm convictions, but rather that we would be humble enough to acknowledge our own flaws and limitations, and humble enough to recognize and acknowledge truth when others speak it, especially when it means we have to confess and rectify our own errors. Pride is to be eliminated, and we must speak the truth in love (Eph. 4:15a).

14. Know your own tradition, treat it critically, and learn from other traditions discernfully

One of the most discouraging things I’ve experienced in my studies is the ignorance of the Reformed tradition among Dutch Reformed theology students. When I began my studies, I came with the idea that all the other students would be zealous for Reformed theology, our history and tradition, as well as our Reformed confessions (the Three Forms of Unity). Much to my disappointment, I found that, with a few exceptions, the students were utterly ignorant of many of these things, nor did many of them acquire a love for these things during their studies. Such are the future pastors of the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa, and I find it a great concern. Get to know and understand your tradition. By that I do not mean follow it blindly; we should also be critical of our own traditions and continually examine whether any reform is necessary according to biblical teachings (ecclesia semper reformanda est), but only by understanding our own traditions will we be able to be in a position to reform and to critique other traditions. Besides, the Reformers didn’t mean by the term sola scriptura the abandoning of all tradition as fraudulent and useless (which is impossible anyway – we all stand in some form of tradition), but rather that tradition should be critiqued by Scripture, which holds the preeminent authority. Tradition which accords with Scripture is very useful, and ties us with the 2000 years of Christianity which came before us.

While I am highly critical of the ecumenical “let’s all hold hands and pretend we don’t differ significantly in doctrine and praxis” movement, I would nonetheless suggest that there is much to be learned from traditions other than our own if we do so discerningly. This includes noticing positive aspects or contributions of other traditions which, if warranted by Scripture, may complement our own traditions, as well as discerning errors in other traditions that are to be shunned. In any case, familiarity with other traditions helps us to better understand our own, and enhances our discernment. Do not go around calling everyone who doesn’t agree with you on every point heretics if you can’t make a solid case from Scripture for their heterodoxy. That is not to say we shouldn’t be critical of errors, but it is to say that we should be able to offer a well-grounded articulation of why the positions of others are to be considered heterodox, and not childishly resort to unfounded labeling and blacklisting.

15. Be critical of the critics and skeptical of the skeptics

As a student of theology, you will most likely be confronted at some stage and to a greater or lesser degree (depending on where you study) to liberal theology, liberal literary theories, and all kinds of streams and fads which rage against Christian orthodoxy. Many of these things will seem to make a great deal of sense, and may shatter many of the beliefs and positions you currently hold as indisputable. Demythologizing, deconstruction, form criticism, Historical Jesus research, postmodernism, religious pluralism, process theology/panentheism, radical feminist theology and liberation theology are just some of the things you likely will be confronted with. My advice is to critique these things as much as they critique the Bible and traditional Christianity. Many books by respected scholars have been written to counter the claims and positions taken by these theories and streams. Again, do not only read the prescribed curricular material – read beyond that and seek alternative views made by other scholars. These things have led many students of theology astray, has led to the emptying of churches in Europe, America and elsewhere, and have been the cause of many students dropping out or even abandoning the faith altogether. Some students have accepted liberal theological positions purely for the sake of gaining the favour of their professors or for the sake of furthering their academic careers. Do not lose the integrity of your confession for the sake of academic gain, it just isn’t worth it. Beware of fads and trends – they come and go like the wind. In our day there is a widespread appetite for novelty, and in academic circles this appetite has led to many falling into a strong current, sweeping them out to the depths of the sea of doubt and uncertainty, some never to return again. By contrast, the last thing the Reformers of the 16th century sought was to be novel or original, and therefore went to great pains to support what they were saying by citing Scripture, the early church fathers, and medieval doctors. Be vigilant. Be critical of the critics and skeptical of the skeptics.

16. Make good friends with your classmates

These are the people who are on the same journey with you, sit in the same classes as you, and probably have similar goals, dreams, and callings to you. Not only will making good friends with your class mates give you peers to discuss the work with, but these are also the people who will best understand what you’re going through when you have troubles in the ministry one day, facing problems with your studies, or battling with spiritual and personal issues. On top of this, they may become lifelong bosom friends. I have been fortunate to be part of a class where we all get on very well and have even went on road-trips and outings together several times. Do not let your relationship with your classmates be limited to the academic realm.

17. Remain physically active

It is easy to slip into physical idleness during your studies. Do not fall into this trap. Join a gym, play squash or tennis, jog, swim, play other sports, or do any other wholesome activities that will keep you active. Not only will this keep you in relatively good physical shape and healthy, but it will also serve as a profitable breakaway from studies and increase your concentration.

18. Get out into nature

As often as is possible, escape from the city and get out into nature. Go hiking, fishing, visit a nature reserve, just get out for a bit. Not only will this provide you with opportunities to appreciate the beauty of God’s creation, but it will also allow you to interpret God’s general revelation in light of his special revelation in his Word. Even if you can’t escape from the city regularly, perhaps you could go to a park or botanical garden in the city, or at least notice the singing of the birds, the wonder of bees busy collecting nectar, or spiders spinning their intricate webs. You will be all the more happy for it, and it will complement and enhance your studies.

19. Don’t overestimate your worth or knowledge

Many students start their studies thinking that they will be the next reformer, revivalist, or great “winner of souls.” Again, pride is the issue. Let’s be frank, you’re not the new Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Edwards, or Spurgeon. As wonderfully as God may use you and your ministry in future to further his kingdom, you are not indispensable, nor does God need any of us to accomplish his ends. I myself, having entered my theological studies full of sinful pride, had to learn this the hard way. What is called for here is the humility to simply be grateful for the amazing privilege of having been called by God to play a tiny role as instrument in his work in the world. If there is any measure of “success” in your ministry (and quite frankly, you will never see the full fruits of your labours), it is after all to be attributed to the grace of God. All those “heroes of the faith” we read about were what they were and achieved what they did by the grace of God. A thorough impression of the magnitude of this calling – a calling by the eternal triune God of majesty – should suffice to eradicate the foolishness of overestimating our worth, or any such manner of thinking. Also, let your desire be to teach, and not to be a teacher. In other words, you are called to preach, teach, and draw attention to a message, not to draw attention to yourself. “All flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades when the breath of the LORD blows on it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever” (Is. 40:6b-8). And for that very reason, let the focus be on the Word, not on you.

Furthermore, do not overestimate your knowledge. It doesn’t matter how many Wikipedia articles you’ve read, how many mp3 sermons you’ve listened to, or even if you’ve progressed much in your studies. The key to humility is to not look at how much knowledge you have acquired, but how much there is you yet don’t know. Expose yourself to the works of top scholars, see the research they have done, look at their vast bibliographies, consider the contributions they have made – some of these guys are walking libraries! And then realize that even these top scholars do not nearly know everything there is to know, even in their own narrowly demarcated fields of inquiry. How much more, then, is the ignorance of a novice? That is not to say that the knowledge we do have is unprofitable, but it does call for humility and proper perspective. I started my studies as a know-it-all. By this time I am well aware of my own ignorance, and the vast reservoirs of knowledge out there that I have never even encountered, let alone mastered. Knowledge of our own ignorance should therefore give us reason for humility, as well as a strong impetus to explore and do research, not being content with the little we know.

20. Be open to learn from the wisdom of ordinary Christians

Don’t ever place yourself on a theological high ground over “ordinary” Christians. There is much to be learnt from them. They too have acquired wisdom and knowledge in their walk with the Lord, they too have their stories, they too have vocations they pursue to the glory of God. God has revealed himself to them in his Word, and they may even have a better knowledge of God and what it means to walk with him than us, despite our learning. Regardless of how learned you may become in theology, always be humble enough to be able to learn from others. A small child may sometimes teach a professor profound things.

Conclusion

There are many other possible points of advice that can be given, but I believe these 20 points should suffice for young prospective students of theology.

I conclude with this quote by Herman Bavinck (1854-1921), which was spoken at his inaugural address as Professor of Systematic Theology at the Vrije Universiteit (VU) in Amsterdam in 1902:

“Religion, the fear of God, must therefore be the element which inspires and animates all theological investigation. That must be the pulsebeat of the science. A theologian is a person who makes bold to speak about God because he speaks out of God and through God. To profess theology is to do holy work. It is a priestly ministration in the house of the Lord. It is itself a service of worship, a consecration of mind and heart to the honour of His name.”