The Simple Secret to Change

The Master's Seminary Blog

The Simple Secret to Change

by Jerod Gilcher | May 05, 2020

Every generation has blind spots. The church is no exception. The church has always had rough edges and areas in need of reform. That being said, every generation of Christian has also had their strengths, and those strengths often serve as correctives to the blind spots of other generations.

One of the major blind spots of the twenty-first-century American church is its view of theology. For many in the church, theology is little more than fuel for controversy or a complicated, wet blanket for Christian sincerity and zeal. We live in an age when pastors are expected to be all things to all men—that is, except theologians.

Many churches and Christians today have filed for theological divorce—making clear distinctions between the rigors of the mind and the affections of the soul. Many sigh in exasperation: give me what my soul needs, not complicated doctrines! The reality is, however, theology was never intended for such abuse. This is our generation’s tragic blind spot.

But another generation has answers and cures for our doctrinal deficiencies—the generation of the Puritans. For these sixteenth and seventeeth-century Protestants, theology was not intellectual rough-housing, but the very soul of the Christian life. The Puritan Thomas Watson writes that doctrine “directs the whole course of Christianity, as the eye directs the body…. [It] is to the soul as the anchor to the ship, that holds it steady in the midst of the rolling waves of error, or the violent winds of persecution.”1


The Puritans understood that reflection about God should produce affection for God


 

They knew that the head is meant to serve the heart. They were gripped by the reality that theology enjoyed in the soul would kindle worship and prayer. The Puritans were bent on making theology transformative for the soul.

And so, I wish to offer an example of a Puritan doing theology to answer a pressing question: how do I actually change and grow?

How does a Christian gain a practical, genuine holiness is the question of every age—a love-your-spouse and think-less-of-yourself kind of holiness. A holiness very much available to (and expected of) us in the here-and-now. Newly regenerated believers enter into the Christian life outmatched, overwhelmed, and often still somewhat enamored by sin. The war has begun. And thus there is an earnestness to the question: how do I practically increase in holiness?

This increasing in holiness is what the NT authors refer to as sanctification.

What is sanctification but the painful, slow carving of our lives into the image of Jesus Christ (cf. Romans 8:29)? It is the slow, at times minute-by-minute, putting to death of sin by the power of Christ through the instrument of the word.

And yet, the question remains: How does one do this? In other words, what are the means God has given by which one may grow in holiness and victory over sin and temptation?


The grace of God works through very practical means,
which is why we refer to them as means of grace.


 

This is precisely where the Puritans can help us. I am going to let Henry Scougal (1650-1678) step in. In his soul-nourishing little book, The Life of God in the Soul of Man, Scougal reveals what is perhaps the deepest secret to sanctification and holiness. And what is that secret?

Love.

Follow Scougal’s logic. He writes:

Love is that powerful and prevalent passion by which all the faculties and inclinations of the soul are determined and on which both its perfection and happiness depend.

In other words, what you love the most determines the direction and happiness of your life.

He goes on:

The worth and excellency of a soul is to be measured by the object of its love: he who loveth mean2 and sordid things doth thereby become base and vile; but a noble and well-placed affection doth advance and improve the spirit unto a conformity with the perfections with its loves.

Here now is the crux of his argument:


What you love most, you grow to resemble


 

If you love someone, you will likely begin to absorb some of their interests and passions into yourself. If you develop a passion for gambling, you should not be surprised to find in your life sprouts of greed and recklessness. You slowly, yet assuredly, resemble what you love. This means, then, if we love God most, we will begin to resemble His beauty and holiness.

So if we find deficiencies in our practical holiness, we have to ask ourself, What am I loving? Because I am growing to resemble something that is not God. Therefore, we are to love God more. So then the next question presents itself: how do I increase my affections for God? This is nearing the heart of what it really means to change. Answer: you must expose yourself to Him and His beauty. How? In the pages of Scripture. You must gaze upon the beauty of His perfections and character in the pages of Scripture.

Scougal put it this way:

The true way to improve and ennoble our souls is, by fixing our love on the divine perfections, that we may have them always before us, and derive an impression of them on ourselves…. He who, with a generous and holy ambition, hath raised his eyes toward that uncreated beauty and goodness, and fixed his affection there, is quite of another spirit, of a more excellent and heroic temper than the rest of the world, and cannot but infinitely disdain all mean and unworthy things; will not entertain any low or base thoughts which might disparage his high and noble pretentions.

Far too often, we think of theology as useless quibbles that will all sort themselves out in the end. But a theologian is one who thinks rigorous thoughts about God. We are all theologians. Some of us, as theologians, have just come to the conclusion (unconsciously) that my understanding of the character of God has little to do with my arguments with my wife. That could not be more wrong. Scougal teaches us that the secret to our day-in-day-out holiness is not to avoid thinking deeply about God, but to push ourselves deeper into who God is.


The more of God’s glory you see, the more you will love Him


 

And the more you love Him, the more you will begin to resemble your Father, or—to state it negatively—the more liberation you will experience from the sins that entangle you.

Conclusion

Scougal demonstrates that precise, robust theology is anything but a wet blanket to Christian zeal. Instead, all of the life-change that we long to see in ourselves and in others is produced through careful meditation and theological reflection. Here is but one small example of why we should not only read the Puritans, but emulate their enjoyment of theology. The church would be healthier for it.

Editor’s Note: For more on the intersection of theology and everyday life, see our free resource: Reformed Practical Theology

 

[1] Thomas Watson, A Body of Divinity, (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1983), 4.

[2] That is, low in dignity, worth, or value.

 

RICHARD BAXTER ON CHURCHES MEETING WHEN FORBIDDEN

Okay so y’all know I love reading these old dead guys called the Puritans. Why because they (for the most part) got it, the very essence of what the bible was saying without the modern trappings of political correctness, self interpretation any other issue hanging on them. 

Here in a posts from a guy Andrew  J. Spencer I never hear of before, we find that same thing Richard Baxter wrote this nearly 400 years before the current pandemic  applies today. 

RICHARD BAXTER ON CHURCHES MEETING WHEN FORBIDDEN

The following is an excerpt from The Practical Works of Richard Baxter, the fifth volume, in his Christian Ecclesiastics, where he details answers to nearly 200 questions dealing with Christians and matters of conscience.

Richard Baxter

Richard Baxter

Baxter, an English Puritan, was obviously writing in a different day under a different set of laws, but I think that his response to these two questions is pertinent and helpful at this present time. I disagree with a few of the particulars (e.g., that it might be ok for the government to restrict meetings smaller than ten), but the general intent is, I think, well-considered and generally helpful as we process living under temporary restrictions driven by COVID-19.

Of particular value, I think, is the explanation Baxter offers regarding ceasing to hold services under orders of the magistrate due to “a time of pestilence.” He writes, “If the magistrate for a greater good, (as the common safety,) forbid church assemblies in a time of pestilence, assault of enemies, or fire, or the like necessity, it is a duty to obey him.”

As I understand it presently, that is the condition we are under. I do not like the requirement, but I think that, as long as there is a universal ban against large assemblies, we will do well to honor the orders to forebear meeting. This is not a change in position from my earlier post, which called for grace and prudence as congregations decide whether to meet or not, but a reflection of the changed circumstances. The earlier post was written when bans were not in effect and congregations were making decisions based on prudential data.

BAXTER ON MEETING WHEN FORBIDDEN BY THE GOVERNMENT

Question 109: May we omit church assemblies on the Lord’s day if the magistrate forbid them?

Answer 1. It is one thing to forbid them for a time upon some special cause as infection by pestilence fire war &c and another to forbid them statedly or profanely.

2. It is one thing to omit them for a time, and another to do it ordinarily.

3. It is one thing to omit them in formal obedience to the law; and another thing to omit them in prudence, or for necessity, because we cannot keep them.

4. The assembly and the circumstances of the assembly must be distinguished:

(1.) If the magistrate for a greater good, (as the common safety,) forbid church assemblies in a time of pestilence, assault of enemies, or fire, or the like necessity, it is a duty to obey him. 1. Because positive duties give place to those great natural duties which are their end: so Christ justified himself and his disciples violation of the external rest of the sabbath. “For the sabbath was made for man and not man for the sabbath.” 2. Because affirmatives bind not ‘ad semper,’ and out-of-season duties become sins. 3. Because one Lord’s day or assembly is not to be preferred before many, which by the omission of that one are like to be obtained.

(2.) If princes profanely forbid holy assemblies and public worship, either statedly, or as a renunciation of Christ and our religion; it is not lawful formally to obey them.

(3.) But it is lawful prudently to do that secretly for the present necessity, which we cannot do publicly, and to do that with smaller numbers, which we cannot do with greater assemblies, yea, and to omit some assemblies for a time, that we may thereby have opportunity for more: which is not formal but only material obedience.

(4.) But if it be only some circumstances of assembling that are forbidden us, that is the next case to be resolved.

Question 110: Must we obey the magistrate if he only forbid us worshipping God in such a place or country or in such numbers or the like?

Answer: We must distinguish between such a determination of circumstances, modes, or accidents, as plainly destroy the worship or the end, and such as do not.

For instance,  1. He that saith, You shall never assemble but once a year, or never but at midnight; or never above six or seven minutes at once, &c. doth but determine the circumstance of time: but he doth it so as to destroy the worship, which cannot so be done, in consistency with its ends. But he that shall say, You shall not meet till nine o’clock nor stay in the night, &c. doth no such thing.

So 2. He that saith, You shall not assemble but at forty miles distance one from another; or you shall meet only in a room that will hold but the twentieth part of the church; or you shall never preach in any city or populous place, but in a wilderness far from the inhabitants, &c. doth but determine the circumstance of place. But he so doth it as tends to destroy or frustrate the work which God commandeth us. But so doth not he that only boundeth churches by parish bounds, or forbiddeth inconvenient places.

3. So he that saith, You shall never meet under a hundred thousand together, or never above five or six, doth but determine the accident of number. But he so doth it as to destroy the work and end. For the first will be impossible and in the second way they must keep church-assemblies without ministers, when there is not so many as for every such little number to have one. But so doth not he that only saith, You shall not meet above ten thousand, nor under ten.

4. So he that saith, You shall not hear a Trinitarian, but an Arian; or you shall hear only one that cannot preach the essentials of religion, or that cries down godliness itself; or you shall hear none but such as were ordained at Jerusalem or Rome, or none but such as subscribe the council of Trent, &c. doth but determine what person we shall hear. But he so doth it as to destroy the work and end. But so doth not he that only saith, You shall hear only this able minister, rather than that.

I need not stand on the application. In the latter case we owe formal obedience. In the former we must suffer, and not obey.

For if it be meet so to obey, it is meet in obedience to give over God’s worship. Christ said, “When they persecute you in one city, flee to another:” but he never said, “If they forbid you preaching in any city, or populous place, obey them. He that said, “Preach the Gospel to every creature, and to all nations, and all the world,” and that “would have all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth,” doth not allow us to forsake the souls of all that dwell in cities and populous places, and preach only to some few cottagers elsewhere: no more than he will allow us to love, pity, and relieve the bodies only of those few, and take none for our neighbours that dwell in cities, but with priest and Levite to pass them by.

Today in Church (and US) History

Illegal to Deny the Bible

Illegal to Deny the Bible

Suppose the U.S. Congress passed a law making it illegal to deny the Bible as the Word of God? Today, the Supreme Court would quickly rule that such a law is unconstitutional because it violates religious freedom guaranteed by the First Amendment of the American Constitution. But did you know that on this day, November 4, l646, the little Massachusetts Bay Colony passed just such a law?

For the Puritans, who founded the colony, and for John Cotton, one of their most prominent preacher-leaders, it made sense for them to have a theocratic (God-directed) government in which the laws ruling society were also the laws of God as found in the Bible.

Yet the Puritans did not strictly combine church and state. They recognized that church and state had different purposes–one was for the salvation of souls; the other was for the preservation of society through justice. Both, however, had their source in God, and both should look to the Bible as the source for standards, direction, and guidance.

Most Puritans used the Geneva Bible translation. Its preface summarized what the Bible meant by calling it the “light to our path, the key to the kingdom of heaven, our comfort in affliction, our shield and sword against Satan, the source of all wisdom, the food for our souls, and the glass in which we see God’s face.”

For the Puritans, it was unthinkable that the teachings of the Bible were meant to deal only with a narrow religious sphere. They believed the Scriptures provided the rule and guidance for all of life–government, economics, education, church, family, and morals. And so, on this day, November 4, 1646 the Massachusetts Puritans passed a law prohibiting their people from denying that the Bible is the Word of God. The penalty for persistence in this error was death. The same act also set a fine of five shillings for failing to attend church on Sunday.

I am guessing this fact is not being taught at all in Massachusetts schools.