“[In the New Testament], the truths of the Holy Trinity and of sovereign grace prove to be not two truths but one. The doctrine of salvation is the good news of the Father’s giving us his Son to redeem us and his Spirit to renew us. The doctrine of the Trinity is the good news of three divine persons working together to raise us into spiritual life and bring us to the glory of God’s kingdom. The Athanasian Creed guards this good news in the way that fences round a field guard growing crops from preying animals. Such fences are needed, but they do not have equal value with the crops they protect, and such value as they have derives from those crops themselves. Trinitarian orthodoxy, in other words, has value only as it sustains and safeguards evangelical faith.” (From Packer’s Collected Shorter Writings, Volume 1, “The Trinity and the Gospel”)
“Let us pray for rich men. Their souls are in great danger…Even when converted, the rich carry a great weight, and run the race to heaven under great disadvantages. The possession of money has a most hardening effect upon the conscience. We never know what we may do when we become rich. ‘The love of money is a root of all evil. While some have coveted after it, they have erred from the faith and pierced themselves through with many sorrows’ (I Timothy 6:10). Poverty has many disadvantages. But riches destroy far more souls than poverty.” (Luke 12:13-21)
The first part of this series of articles can be found here.
“Who comforts us in all our affliction, that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.” (II Corinthians 1:4)
Such, brethren, is not infrequently the result of sanctified affliction. As long as men are prospering in the world, as long as they seem to succeed in all that they set their hands to do, it is very difficult to make them feel lowly-minded. But when disappointment comes, and worldly failure, and a long period of unsuccesses, then the man learns the good, though bitter lesson – his own weakness. Then, for the first time it may be, he begins to be truly humble.
He may have been utterly careless of all spiritual influences; I do not say altogether regardless of external religion; I do not say altogether indifferent about prescribed ordinances – but there was no life joined with the form, no life lightening and blessing the service. But when sorrow came then, for the first time, he was taught the reality of religion. He was not in earnest before – the spiritual world was never brought within his view; but when God had taken away the hope and expectation from earthly concerns, a new sphere opens to him; and there is a reality in his thoughts of it, and an earnestness in his pursuit of it.
And thus is there wrought in him that great principle of faith – “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” A man may speak of it fluently, and with accuracy, before he has been greatly tried by trouble; but it is not until he has proved the truth of God by his own experience, that he is able to bear testimony to the faithfulness of God, or to attain the fullness of that grace – the grace of faith, which shone forth so conspicuously in some of God’s saints.
The season of affliction is also the time when the spiritual life especially makes itself manifest in the out-goings of prayer. I do not mean that cold formal prayer which passes the lips, but with which the heart has nought to do; I mean the communion of the soul with God – the drawing near of the spirit towards Him the fountain of all blessing. When a man is in sorrow, and feels his heart heavy within him; when he looks about in the world, and then into his own heart, and finds no stay, no refuge there, God’s throne of grace is then his refuge, God’s mercy-seat the object to which he looks for consolation. All his deadness and mere form of prayer, is ended, and he can say – with David – “Lord, hear my cry; let Thine ears be attentive to the voice of my supplication.”
Thus, too, it is that a man first awakened from a worldly and carnal course, to the truth, the reality and the importance of religion, by the sorrows which God sens and sanctifies, makes his after progress. For you will find that they who have stood forth as the great lights of the church in the age in which their lot was cast – they who have left their names to be honored and loved by the church as long as it remains upon the earth; they, in short who “pressed forward towards the prize of their high calling,” and are now among the multitudes around the throne of God and of the Lamb – are those who “came out of great tribulation.” It is God’s appointed ordinance; and though there are exceptions, yet, for the most part, it is by sanctified sorrow, that God prepares His people for “His eternal kingdom and glory.”
And blessed indeed it is, to mark, how, by sanctified affliction, the Christian’s heart becomes gradually detached from this world, and more earnestly set upon those things which are above. His outward circumstances may be very poor, and he may hardly know how, from day to day, to “provide things honest in the sight of all men:” but he has “treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust can corrupt, and where thieves cannot break through nor steal.” He may have to bear mourning, pain, and sickness; the body may be wasted, broken, shattered; he may have to endure sharp suffering; and medical aid may bring him no relief, no promise of recovery; but he looks the more earnestly to “that city, where no inhabitant shall ever say, I am sick.” It may be the will of God to take from him earthly friends, so that he finds himself forsaken and desolate; one by one the graves have opened for them, and the circle in which was once his delight, is broken up, and he is left a solitary man.
And where shall he find comfort? Who shall bind up the wounds of such a stricken heart? Oh, it is He, and He, who bade the widow not weep, though her son was dead, He of whom we may say, that He is still “a friend that loveth at all times, a friend that sticketh closer than a brother.” And so we may say in general of a Christian’s condition, though his plans may be defeated, and his cherished hopes should be laid low in the dust, there is something to be learned from all his disappointments: God is teaching him to build upon that everlasting foundation, where, “though the rains may descend, and the floods may come, and the winds may blow, the house shall not fail, because it is founded upon a rock.”
In a note in the introduction of The Marrow of Modern Divinity, the 18th century Scotsman Thomas Boston beautifully explains the distinctions surrounding the place of the law in the believer’s life, before and after conversion:
The law of the ten commandments, being the natural law, was written on Adam’s heart on his creation; while as yet it was neither the law [i.e., the covenant] of works, nor the law of Christ…But after man was created, and put into the garden, this natural law, having made man liable to fall away from God, a threatening of eternal death in case of disobedience, had also a promise of eternal life annexed to it in case of obedience; in virtue of which he, having done his work, might thereupon plead and demand the reward of eternal life. Thus it became the law [i.e., the covenant] of works, whereof the ten commandments were, and are still the matter.
All mankind being ruined by the breach of this law, Jesus Christ obeys and dies in the room of the elect, that they might be saved; they being united to him by faith, are, through his obedience and satisfaction imputed to them, free from eternal death, and become heirs of everlasting life; so that the law of works being fully satisfied, expires as to them, as it would have done of course in the case of Adam’s having stood the time of his trial: howbeit it remains in full force as to unbelievers.
But the natural law of the ten commandments (which can never expire or determine, but is obligatory in all possible states of the creature, in earth, heaven, or hell) is, from the moment the law of works expires as to believers, issued forth to them (still liable to infirmities, though not to falling away like Adam) in the channel of the covenant of grace, bearing a promise of help to obey (Ezekiel 36:27), and, agreeable to their state before the Lord, having annexed to it a promise of the tokens of God’s fatherly love, for the sake of Christ, in case of that obedience; and a threatening of God’s fatherly displeasure in case of their disobedience. John 14:21, “He that hath my commandments, and keepeth them, he it is that loveth me; and he that loveth me, shall be loved of my Father; and I will love him, and will manifest myself to him.” Psalm 89:31-33, “If they break my statutes, and keep not my commandments, then will I visit their transgression with the rod, and their iniquity with stripes. Nevertheless, my loving kindness will I not utterly take away from him, nor suffer my faithfulness to fail.”
Thus it becomes the law of Christ to them; of which law also the same ten commandments are likewise the matter. In the threatenings of this law there is no revenging wrath; and in the promises of it no proper conditionality of works; but here is the order in the covenant of grace, to which the law of Christ belongs; a beautiful order of grace, obedience, particular favors, and chastisement for disobedience. Thus the ten commandments stand, both in the law of works and in the law of Christ at the same time, being the common matter of both; but as they are the matter of (i.e., stand in) the law of works, they are actually a part of the law of works; howbeit, as they are the matter of, or stand in, the law of Christ, they are actually a part, not of the law of works, but of the law of Christ. And as they stand in the law of Christ, our author expressly asserts, against the Antinomian, that they ought to be a rule of life to a believer; but that they ought to be a rule of life to a believer, as they stand in the law of works, he justly denies, against the legalist…
Edward Fisher, in his 1645 book The Marrow of Modern Divinity, unpacks the middle path of the gospel of Jesus Christ, over against both legalism and antinomianism/lawlessness, namely, “Jesus Christ received truly, and walked in answerably.” Thomas Boston, in his notes to the book, comments:
[This is] a short and pithy description of the middle path, the only pathway to heaven – “Jesus Christ (the way, John 14:6) received truly (by faith, John 1:12; this is overlooked by the legalist) and walked in answerably,” (by holiness of heart and life, Col. 2:6; this is neglected by the Antinomian. The Antinomian’s faith is but pretended, and not true faith, since he walked not in Christ answerably. The legalist’s holiness is but pretended, and not true holiness, since he hath not “received Christ” truly, and therefore is incapable of walking in Christ, which is the only true holiness competent to fallen mankind. Thus, both the legalist and Antinomian are each of them destitute of true faith and true holiness; forasmuch as there can be no walking in Christ, without a true receiving of him; and there cannot be a true receiving of him without walking in him: so both of them are off the only way of salvation, and, continuing so, must needs perish. Wherefore it concerns every one who has a value for his own soul, to take heed that he be found in the middle path.
Amen and amen. May the Lord keep us from falling into either ditch, safe on the gospel road.
Edward Fisher, in his 1645 book The Marrow of Modern Divinity, nails the Chrostian’s experience: “Where is the man or woman, that is truly in Christ, that findeth not in themselves an aptness to withdraw their hearts from Christ, and to put some confidence in their own works and doings? If there be any that do not find it, I wish their hearts may not deceive them.”
II Corinthians 1:4 – “…[God] comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.”
The qualifications of Paul for his high office as a minister of Christ, were not more remarkable than the ways by which he was prepared for eminent usefulness in the church of God. He was, unquestionably, a man of great natural endowments, of strong intellect, of great mental power, and, at the same time, endured with firm, noble, and generous feeling. He was a man also whose character obtained for him high influence among his countrymen; and was delegated to exercise powers which would have been committed to few, perhaps, besides himself. When he became converted, he was called henceforth to devote his life, and all his powers, to Him who had dealt by him with such wondrous mercy. All his natural endowments, and all the qualifications which he had gotten by careful mental, and moral discipline, were now to be devoted to that Lord, whom lately he had persecuted. But there was one way in particular by which God was preparing to make him useful in his church, and that was, by suffering.
We are told of all the apostles, and of Paul in common with them, that they were “delivered unto death;” that they were “made a spectacle to the world, to angels, and to men;” but he who was to stand forth preeminent among them for his labors and his services, his usefulness and his success, was appointed to go deeper than any of them into suffering and the bitterness of human life. “Strifes and imprisonment” were familiar to him; he was “often in shipwrecks,” and other perils; he was well acquainted with “weariness, and painfulness, and watchings, with reproaches and persecutions.” At Philippi, he was “shamefully entreated;” at Ephesus, he “fought with beasts;” at Iconium, at Antioch, at Lystra, he suffered “affliction and persecution.”
But there were heavier trials than these, which he was called to endure. There were divisions among the people, over whom God had set him in charge, so that he almost doubted whether he had not labored among them in vain. And when there were men, like the members of the church at Ephesus, who were growing in faith, and adorning it by a holy practice, and Paul with gladness stayed among them; then the parting was a new source of sorrow – another portion of the burden which he was bound to bear. And how weight was this burden, and how sore was this trial, we may learn from his own expressions when, at Miletus, he sent for the elders of the Ephesian church to bid them farewell. So sorrowful was that parting, it well nigh broke his heart. There are other parts of his condition, especially that which regards his mysterious trial – the “thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet him,” whereon we might dwell. But enough has been said to prove that St. Paul was a man of great suffering; and his suffering is so prominently mentioned in his history, that we cannot but connect it with the preparation for his eminent usefulness in the church of God.
But we must specially mark that Paul is our pattern in the use which he made of his afflictions. He used them rightly; that is to say, he took them at God’s hand for the purpose intended, as explained by the very record of our text. Herein Paul may well stand as a pattern for all Christians. Sorrow is no strange thing to them. It is God’s school for spiritual discipline. It is God’s way of bringing his people to heaven, and preparing them for “the glory that is to be revealed.” The condition of the godly is oftentimes a condition of special outward trial. In the Old Testament, indeed, we read of those who served God, and enjoyed great temporal prosperity. And this was, in a great degree, the promise of the Old Testament. But under the new dispensation, God promises us that which experience proves to be a better thing, He promises sanctified affliction. He promises trial and trouble, adversity and sorrow of heart, all working for good and gracious ends, in bringing us into a greater preparedness for His heavenly kingdom. And it is marvelous to see how in this manner, the work of divine grace is sometimes first begun in the heart. There may have been seasons of utter disregard, of carelessness and neglect, when the world was adding link after link to the claims of its bondage; when, though messages were sent in abundance, none seemed to reach the heart, but it seemed as if it were always hard, as if there were to be no tokens of spiritual life. In vain were the faithful words of God’s ministers; the counsels of Christian friends; the prayers and tears of pious parents; in vain seemed all the means of grace; until, in a season of special mercy, God, as it were, used yet one more effort, sent yet one more message, and strove yet once more by His Spirit, with the obdurate sinner. Conscience was at last awakened; the hard soil of the heart, which had been lying fallow from year to year, was broken up; the seed was sown, and there might be perceived, “first the blade, then the ear, after that the full corn in the ear.”
(to be continued…)