Welcome back to the podcast on this holiday week. Tomorrow is Thanksgiving for us here in the United States and in Canada. We like to take these moments to take up the theme of thanksgiving in the apostle Paul’s letters, which is a major theme for him. Last Thanksgiving, I mentioned that the apostle Paul mentions “thanks” about fifty times in his epistles. This leads to one of my favorite quotes, a claim by New Testament scholar David Pao, who once wrote (quoting Paul Schubert), “The apostle Paul mentions the subject of thanksgiving more frequently per page than any other Hellenistic author, pagan or Christian” (Thanksgiving, 15).
Thanksgiving was always on Paul’s lips. And it was on his lips when he was talking about prayer and anxiety. In Philippians 4:6, Paul writes this: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” Pray your way past anxiety. And pray your way into thanksgiving. Here’s Pastor John to explain.
Let’s go to Philippians 4:6–7. It’s very famous, very precious, and more embedded in the big picture of this letter than you may have thought. I want to draw out how Philippians 4:6–7 relates to the big things Paul is trying to do in this letter.
So now, finally, for the first time, he exhorts them to pray. I think that’s been implicit so far, but now it’s explicit. “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything . . .” (Philippians 4:6). That’s a big word. Do you pray about everything? Everything? When Paul says, “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17), that probably is connected to “pray about everything.” Do you walk in a spirit of communion with God that — sometimes consciously, sometimes less so — is constantly offering up thanks, but especially sending up need? “I need help in this conversation. I can barely understand that person’s accent, and my hearing is bad. I need help right now at the dining-room table.” Do you live like that?
Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:6–7)
Broad and Narrow Prayer
In one sense, this command to pray is all-encompassing because of the words in everything. “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything” pray. Do you see the connection there? Don’t be anxious in anything because in everything you’re praying for what you need in the anxious moment, and you’re trusting God because of his promise to be there and help — and so, anxiety lifts. That’s the way prayer is supposed to work to take away anxiety.
In another sense, it’s not broad and all-encompassing. It’s very narrow and very focused because instead of saying the hundred things that God does in answer to prayer, he simply focuses on two things, which are really two sides of the same coin. “Do not be anxious” is one result of prayer. “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (Philippians 4:6). So the first thing that happens when you pray about everything is that anxiety is lifted. “Cast all your anxieties on me because I care for you.” That’s Peter’s way of saying it (1 Peter 5:7).
“Negatively, aim by prayer to be done with anxiety. And positively, aim by prayer to enjoy constant peace.”
And the second thing is that the “peace of God” — which is the opposite of anxiety, right? — that passes all understanding comes in and takes over and protects, guards, your hearts and minds. So negatively, aim by prayer to be done with anxiety. And positively, aim by prayer, in everything, to enjoy constant peace.
Walk through the world of trouble — ministry troubles, family troubles, European troubles, refugee troubles, political troubles, financial troubles — in the protection of the peace of God that cannot be accounted for by human reason. It cannot. It goes beyond, it surpasses what human reasoning can do. When Paul is saying, “Enjoy peace through prayer,” if somebody says, “Yeah, but how could you have peace when that’s happening?” well, that word how has no answer humanly. That’s why it says, “beyond human understanding.” Human understanding will not be able to come up with an answer to how you enjoy peace in this circumstance. It is suprarational. Reasoning doesn’t make the peace happen; God makes the peace happen, and he does it in answer to prayer. It’s a wonderful experience.
Key to Philippians
Now let’s ask this: How do those two halves of verse 6 and 7 — get rid of anxiety by prayer; enjoy peace with God by prayer — how do those two results of praying in everything relate to the big picture of Philippians, which we’ve been seeing?
“Living or dying, make Christ look great. That’s the reason you’re on the planet.”
The first day, I argued from Philippians 1:20–21: “My eager expectation and hope [is] that I might not at all be ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me to live as Christ, and to die is gain.” That’s the big goal of this letter: Christ magnified in your bodily existence. Living or dying, make him look great. That’s the reason you’re on the planet. That’s the reason your family exists, your ministry exists. Make Christ look magnificent because that’s what he is. That’s what this big picture is in Philippians.
And we saw that Paul gets very specific. Another way of describing “make Christ look great” is “lead lives worthy of the gospel.” That’s Philippians 1:27–28. Live a life that is fearless before the adversary and united, arm in arm, in love with other believers. Unity in love and fearlessness, he says, become a sign to the world of “their destruction” and of “your salvation” (Philippians 1:28).
In other words, when you are fearless before your adversary, and you are full of love, driven by humility, counting others more significant than yourself, putting others’ interests before your own — when that’s the source of the loving unity and the fearlessness, it’s a sign. It’s a sign to the world that Christ is all-satisfying to these people. Christ will meet every need that they have. Christ is all they need. “I want to know about this because I don’t get it.” That’s the big picture.
How does that relate to the praying of Philippians 4:6? The answer is that “do not be anxious about anything” is the fearlessness of Philippians 1:27–28. The fearlessness before the adversary in Philippians 1:28 is another word for “don’t be anxious.” When you stand before the authorities in the university or the authorities in the capitol, when you stand before people who don’t like your position on this or that, don’t be afraid. Or to use the words of Philippians 4:6, “Don’t be anxious about anything, but in everything, let him know what you need.” All of which goes to say, prayer is the key to this book.
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By Greg Morse — 2 months ago
ABSTRACT: In the mid-nineteenth century, a growing number of Christians looked at the church and noticed a distinct lack of both men and masculinity. Women outnumbered the men in seemingly all quarters, and many of the men who remained seemed feminine, emasculated by an industrialized society and a church that catered to the female sex. In response, some Protestant leaders began a movement that would come to be called Muscular Christianity. Muscular Christians sought to reach and reclaim men with a focus on practical religion and physical strength. The movement dwindled in the years after World War I, but its secularized legacy remains today, and the questions it asked still look for answers from churches facing many of the same problems.
For our ongoing series of feature articles for pastors, leaders, and teachers, Greg Morse draws lessons from the history of the Muscular Christianity movement.
This is the story of a time when Christianity wanted more muscle and more men. The ancient and true religion had, in the eyes of more than a few, grown flabby and soft. One prescription in the nineteenth century read, “More discipline, more mission, more muscle.” The Muscular Christianity movement, finding its peak physique in America from 1880 to 1920, concerned masculinity. As proponents saw it, “masculinity” (a term they coined to describe the rugged side of maleness) roamed the church as an increasingly endangered species.
The movement, originating in England, originally among liberal Protestants, gained momentum in America and sought to pump more testosterone into Western Christendom. Proponents attempted to treat with one cure both men’s glaring absence from the church and the thin virility of the few lads who remained.
To understand the XY-mindset of Muscular Christianity, we must first view the state of manhood as they saw it. Then we can explore the movement’s response, analyze its legacy and downfall, and finally glean a few lessons for manhood within the church today.
Before we look at the perceived deficiencies in the Victorian man, consider him first in his context. His detractors cited one major accelerant to his downfall.
Accelerant, because the crisis of masculinity in the Western church, both in its disproportion of women to men and in the quality of men it produced, predates the nineteenth century.1 Yet something significant hastened Western Christianity’s man-problem in the 1800s. “If the seeds of Christianity’s feminization were planted in the Middle Ages,” posit Brett and Kate McKay, “those seeds came to full fruition in the 19th century. The fertilizer? The Industrial Revolution.”2
Several significant shifts occurred as the West mechanized. Men left their homesteads and the untilled fields of an agrarian society for the hustle and bustle of the city. This fractured the home base, introducing the splintered modern household we know as the norm today.
Yet this move also “sapped white-collar virility.” One writer illustrates the shift, contrasting his day in 1889 to just one hundred years prior:
There was more done to make our men and women hale and vigorous than there is today. Over eighty percent of all our men then were farming, hunting, or fishing, rising early, out all day in the pure, bracing air, giving many muscles very active work, eating wholesome food, retiring early, and so laying in a good stock of vitality and health. But now hardly forty percent are farmers, and nearly all the rest are at callings — mercantile, mechanical, or professional — which do almost nothing to make one sturdy and enduring.3
“The race,” one man lamented, “was dying; dying of its own stupidity; dying from in-doorness.”4 The new professional and managerial revolution fluffed the spirit of masculinity in particular and atrophied its body. This shift away from the hard-working farmer’s ethic to urban life — with its factories, specialties, and inert office spaces — corrupted, in many minds, what came to be known as the Victorian gentleman.5
The common complaint of those top hats glancing down at pocket watches held in gloves covering trimmed nails is summarized nicely in one word: overcivilized.
“Overcivilization,” writes historian Clifford Putney, “meant excessive, body-denying intellectualism, the fruit of which was emasculation — physical and cultural.”6 Overcivilization dried the sweat and smoothed the callouses of men, leaving refined tastes, sensibilities, and decorum in their stead.
Future president, muscular Christian, and author of The Strenuous Life (1901), Teddy Roosevelt (1858–1919), a man “who transformed himself via boxing and barbells from a sickly house-bound teenager into the rough-riding, safari-going, big-stick-wielding Bull Moose of legend,”7 noted a “general tendency among people of culture and education . . . to neglect and even look down on the rougher and manlier virtues, so that an advanced state of intellectual development is too often associated with a certain effeminacy of character.”8
Putney cites Henry James’s critique in his 1886 novel The Bostonians as giving a voice to many detractors:
The whole generation is womanized; the masculine tone is passing out of the world; it’s a feminine, a nervous, hysterical, chattering, canting age, an age of hollow phrases and fake delicacy and exaggerated solicitudes and coddled sensibilities, which, if we don’t look out, will usher in a reign of mediocrity, of the feeblest and flattest and the most pretentious that has ever been.9
The Victorian ideal of gentility, from this view, proposed that a man become the finely manicured lawn in front of the well-kept home called society — a cheap substitute for the more rugged and productive field of former times. And over time, this single development toward modernity began to wobble the perception that men belonged within Western Protestantism.
Not Your Father’s Religion
The disproportion of females to males in church has always existed on American shores. Beginning in the seventeenth century, New England church rolls record more female attendance than male — even though men outnumbered women three to two.10 Puritan preacher Cotton Mather (1663–1728) added his testimony to the fact:
There are far more Godly Women in the world than Godly Men. . . . I have seen it without going a mile from home, that in a Church of three or four hundred Communicants, there are but a few more than one hundred Men, all the rest are Women.11
Into the eighteenth and early nineteenth century, the trend persisted. During the Second Great Awakening of the 1830s, the revivalist strategy was said to “approach the men through their wives.”12 Editorialists asked pertinent questions: “Why Do Men Not Go to Church?” and “Have We a Religion for Men?” The former claimed to observe that nearly three-fourths of church members were women, while the latter wondered aloud, “Is the genius of Christianity foreign to the masculine make-up?”13 Men for centuries have drawn the conclusion that “the church of God is, to a very great extent, an army of women.”14
The dawn of the industrial world did little to correct the sentiment. Men left the home to work in Babylon, exposed and infected by the dirt and grime of the secular world, while at the same time the home transformed into an Edenic realm of unpolluted mothers and children in comparison. As the public sphere grew more masculine, the home blossomed more feminine. Men left the religious instruction of children to mothers. The business world became the man’s; the Christian world was left to women, children, and soft-sounding clergy.
“Unhappily for exponents of a virile ministry,” Putney writes, “people’s reigning image of the clergyman was of someone sensitive and refined, someone more comfortable at women’s teas than at men’s sporting competitions.” Historian Ann Douglas concurs in her treatment on the time period, frankly identifying many liberal ministers as “‘mama’s boys’ whose health was fragile and whose friendships were with women.”15 While some of the most influential churches of the day escaped the critique, “the dominant churches of nineteenth-century New England had long been feminized.”16
This, to its critics, was a generational reality. Those destined for ministerial ranks were “weak, sickly boys with indoor tastes who stayed at home with their mothers and came to identify with the feminine world of religion.”17 Unitarian minister Thomas Higginson griped of Protestant churches, “They were filling the ministry with men who lacked ‘a vigorous, manly life,’ and they were encouraging parents to say of their pallid, puny, sedentary, lifeless, joyless little offspring, ‘He was born for a minister,’ while the ruddy, the brave, and the strong are as promptly assigned to a secular career!”18
“Namby-pamby” seemed one of Charles Spurgeon’s favorite criticisms in his sermons. The manly Victorian preacher, whom Andrew Bradstock connects to the Muscular movement,19 balked at the “vicious refinement” of the day.20 He preferred the so-called vulgarities of good old Saxon words, calling things by their right names, to “the namby-pamby style of modern times, in which sacred things are spoken of as if they were only meant to be whispered in drawing-rooms, and not to be uttered where men meet in everyday life.” “A man of God,” Bradstock quotes Spurgeon in his chapter by the name, “is a manly man.”21
Weekly Mother’s Day Service
As career-minded men largely chose business over leadership in churches, leadership fell to less “manly” men and, with the Sunday school movement, to women.22 Sermons bent toward females. Calvinist theology was displaced. Christ’s gentler characteristics became emphasized, along with women’s spiritual leadership in the home and the church.23
“The more feminine services became, the more men stayed away; and the more women outnumbered men in the congregation, the more ministers catered to their needs.”24 Ann Douglas describes this “symbiotic relationship” that developed between these lighter ministers and their mostly female flocks: “The ministers were caught in a vicious paradox. The women were their principal supporters. Accepting feminine help meant in part prolonging their own exile from masculine concerns; refusing it hardly guaranteed new and different adherents.”25
With this relationship intact, Douglas describes that “the Sabbath came to be heralded as a sort of weekly Mother’s Day.”26 One onlooker remarked of this trend, “There will not be men enough in heaven to sing bass, when ‘The Song of Moses and the Lamb’ is rendered by the redeemed before the Great White Throne.”27
Pushups and Practical Religion
Enter the Muscular Christianity movement — a movement focused on the practical, focused on the body, focused on the world, and focused on making boys into men.
Muscular Christianity had two main aims: to increase men’s commitment to their health and to their faith.28 That is, to take men out of a Jane Austen novel and put them into the gym and onto the battlefield for Christ. But what did this entail? The movement emphasized what they considered a brawny Christianity — manlier ministers, punchier sermons, manlier songs, a more masculine Jesus, and an emphasis on doing good in the world through the social gospel.29 “For many in Victorian England muscular Christianity meant macho,”30 writes David Rosen — though the movement had a less-than-macho origin.
Muscular Christianity did not have its birthplace in the pews or on the battleground, but rather in the pages of literature. Thomas Hughes and Charles Kingsley, two Englishmen fed up with the effeminacy and physical weakness tolerated in the Anglican church, began writing novels, the likes of which their derogators called “Muscular Christianity.”31
Christian Socialists, critics of a disembodied evangelicalism, and disapprovers of industrialism’s effect on English society and its men, Hughes and Kingsley promoted an athletic, patriotic, and missional manhood32 alongside “a virile, strong-armed Christianity, a man’s religion, so to speak, that melded courage and faith, spirit and body.”33
Hughes’s Tom Brown Schooldays (1857) was arguably the most successful of the novels. Filled with rugby, footraces, positive male role models and nearly an all-male cast, the book promoted an example for schoolboys of “principled strength.”34
In his book Tom Brown at Oxford (1861), Hughes gives an instructive look behind the scenes into the creed he sought to narrate in his books, as well as one key criticism of the movement he aimed to undermine:
The least of the muscular Christians has hold of the old chivalrous and Christian belief, that a man’s body is given him to be trained and brought into subjection, and then used for the protection of the weak, the advancement of all righteous causes, and the subduing of the earth which God has given to the children of men. He does not hold that mere strength or activity are in themselves worthy of any respect or worship, or that one man is a bit better than another because he can knock him down, or carry a bigger sack of potatoes than he.35
Kingsley and Hughes, with many similarities and dissimilarities, took the pen to sketch out what they believed young men needed: faith, goodness, and physical strength.
Primitive Bodies, Civilized Ideals
To modern ears, the last of these three may strike us as odd. What do push-ups have to do with eternal life and faithful Christian living? The McKays helpfully summarize several lines of reasoning built within Muscular Christianity’s framework:
Physical training builds the stamina necessary to perform service for others.
Physical strength leads to moral strength and good character.
Sports provided a platform to evangelize the unchurched.
Physical sports and exercise connect boys and men with masculinity.36
And recall the backdrop of “overcivilization” nagging at the Muscular Christian’s mind. Sitting, typing, and managing did not properly steward the strength given from God to men for worldwide good.
In the best of the movement, power did not serve as an end in itself, as voiced by Hughes. The Muscular Christian did not want to simply travel back in time “to do preindustrial chores such as hunting and farming; [the body] had a higher purpose. Instead of just being a tool for labor, the body was viewed by muscular Christians as a tool for good, an agent to be used on behalf of social progress in world uplift.” The goal was “primitive bodies to further civilized ideals.”37
The creed that upheld this? The social gospel, which emphasized practicing the social ethic of Christianity, but to the minimizing of orthodox belief. “Convinced that the archetypal buttoned-down Victorian gentleman was ill-equipped to handle the challenges posed by modernity, many Progressives proposed a new model for manhood, one that stressed action rather than reflection and aggression rather than gentility.” Given this world uplift, and the chiseled arms of Christian men holding it up, all attainable health became a duty; all avoidable sickness, a sin.38
To highlight a few more specifics of the movement, we look to the legacy. What came of this predominantly liberal Protestant movement that peaked in America from the 1880s to the 1920s?
David slayed a giant, Jacob wrestled the angel, Jesus and his disciples walked miles, and Muscular Christians prepared their bodies for good works in places still in operation today. The foremost being the YMCA.
Many modern readers will be surprised to realize that the YMCA, the Young Men’s Christian Association, was originally just that: a Christian organization. And many more will be surprised that the first iterations in England and the U.S. did not have what many consider their trademark today: gyms.
At first its purpose was simply the evangelization of young men in the cities through traditional means: tent meetings, street corner preaching, and pamphleteering. But once the New York City “Y” pioneered the use of gymnasia as a means of Christian outreach in 1869, English YMCAs generally followed suit.39
The YMCA used gyms to attract the interest of boys not interested in Bible studies and teas, and sought to give them purpose: committed souls to Christ and fit bodies for social service. Muscular Christianity even aggressively promoted mission work, in conjunction with the acclaimed Student Volunteer Movement, as hard work, heroic work — manly work.
But as we can see from modern-day YMCAs, the focus grew more and more secular, less about souls and more about “character building” and fitness for its own sake.40 Factions deepened between religious instructors and the ex-circus men who typically led the gymnastics instruction. The weaker brother complained about the “physical department being unmanageable and a disgrace to the Association,” and the stronger about the “spider-legged, namby-pamby hypocrites in management who want them to play girls’ games.”41 The latter eventually unseated for former, serving as a parable for the whole movement.
The Muscular movement did not just focus on the brawn of its current men, but gave attention to its future men — a future many in the movement considered bleak. The schools they considered too bookish, too sanitized, too domestic under its “army of women teachers” who were unfit to impart a masculine education.42 The church, with its Sunday schools also “manned by women,” could not give the “hero-worshiper” a suitable champion to imitate.43 Therefore, they created youth “gangs” such as the Boys Brigade, Knights of King Arthur, and the most successful, the Boy Scouts.
The Boy Scouts took spirited boys and taught them to hone the inner (and sometimes buried) primitive inclinations on camping trips away from their mothers. It “took ‘sissified’ boys from the suburbs and sent them on rigorous trips into the forest . . . to endow white boys with ‘brute strength’ and basic survival skills.”44 Going the way of the Y, character building and wholesome values eventually outstripped its initial spiritual component, transforming it into the secular-humanist project we know today.
“By far the biggest impact of Muscular Christianity,” write the McKays, “has to do with the way it shifted societal perceptions of physicality.”45 Our sports and fitness culture today, detached as it is from faith, is Muscular Christianity’s greatest legacy.
Prior to the movement, Protestant America frowned upon sport. Historian Richard Swanson adduces four reasons:
The belief that recreation distracted from spiritual devotion.
The belief that recreation wasted time.
The belief that recreation stood as a gateway to taverns and gambling.
The belief that recreation would prove too addictive for fallen human nature.46
The movement helped breach these assumptions, storming the shores of American culture and making way for the all-too-addictive fitness and sport culture common today — a culture that neo-muscular Christian movements today try to utilize for better purposes.47
Atrophy of a Movement
The peak, at least in its more successful American iteration, came to a close in the 1920s. After 1920, Putney writes, “pacifism, cynicism, church decline, and the devaluation of male friendships combined to undercut muscular Christianity — at least within the mainline Protestant churches.”48
The Great War dealt a mighty blow to muscular rhetoric. The aftermath of WWI
extinguished much of the energetic idealism of the previous decades, and replaced it with disillusionment and cynicism. There wasn’t much societal appetite for talk of keeping one’s body in fighting shape, nor of the celebration of masculine, battle-related virtues like courage or honor. Notions of Christian chivalry got significantly muddied in the trenches.49
The end of WWI dampened the nationalistic zeal and clouded the nation in cynicism concerning the need for fit, soldier-ready bodies.
Along with this cynicism came a devaluation of the church and religion in general. Alternative answers to life’s hard questions arose. A new religion survived, less interested in saving the world as it was “being good to yourself.”50 Radios and cars, a new era of entertainment, and golf on Sundays took hacks at religious commitment. Pastoral authority also waned, giving way to the psychologist.51 The soothing tones of the therapist drowned out the muscular sergeant’s voice calling for fit bodies and world uplift.
O Men, Where Art Thou?
This has been the story of a time when Christianity wanted more muscle and more men. And it is a story relevant for today.
While we may chafe at some of the theology behind Muscular Christianity, many ask the same questions that prompted the movement. In his book Why Men Hate Going to Church, David Murrow cites a Barna study that found women to be
57 percent more likely to participate in adult Sunday school,
54 percent more likely to participate in a small group,
46 percent more likely to disciple others, and
39 percent more likely to have a devotional time or quiet time.52
With all of its flaws (many left unmentioned above), what can we learn from the Muscular Christian movement just beginning to decline one century ago?
Reclaim the Body
God’s design for man is as assaulted today as it is underappreciated. Muscular Christianity is an enigma to modern ears, in part, because we have an anemic theology of the body.
We too fail to celebrate raw masculine strength. Anthony Esolen gives us one example, casting men as world-builders:
Every road you see was laid by men. Every house, church, every school, every factory, every public building was raised by the hands of men. You eat with a stainless-steel fork; the iron was mined and the carbon was quarried by men. . . . The whole of your civilization rests upon the shoulders of men who have done work that most people will not do — and that the physically weaker sex could not have done.53
“Dominion over the world, even in the postindustrial West, still needs the strength of men. Good men. Christ’s men.”
Men, despite what our silence on the topic may suggest, are embodied creatures. Our souls remain framed in strength given to cultivate and construct civilization. Dominion over the world, even in the postindustrial West, still needs the strength of men. Good men. Christ’s men.
So while Paul says bodily training is of some value (1 Timothy 4:8), and Muscular Christianity may have posited too much value, we must not think it is of no value. Though the eternal soul takes precedence over the temporal body, the man is never just his soul. Can we wonder long why the world stands confused as to what a man or a woman even is anymore?
Reclaim the Heroic
How many men, especially within the church, view the Christian life as heroic? How many feel the adrenaline pump, the stiff wind of purpose greeting the face and animating them to the helm of life, steering for the harder way?
It may sound counterintuitive, but men retreat instead of rally when trumpets do not sound alarms of war. They grow bored and listless, and they will not easily forfeit their strength on unworthy pursuits. Is what Josiah Strong observed in 1901 untrue?
There is not enough of effort, of struggle, in the typical church life of today to win young men to the church. A flowery bed of ease does not appeal to a fellow who has any manhood in him. The prevailing religion is too comfortable to attract young men who love the heroic.54
“Jesus looks at young men and promises them discomfort, sacrifice, and death. Minimize this call and you forfeit men.”
Jesus looks at young men and promises them discomfort, sacrifice, and death. Minimize this call and you forfeit men. God made me for this. Muscular Christianity attempted to awaken the daring in men. They knew that if you “promise young men battles instead of feasts, swords instead of prizes, campaigns instead of comforts . . . the heroic which lies deep in every man will leap in response.”55
Without losing the gospel or the focus on Jesus Christ and the immortal soul, the Christian religion must never lose its genre as epic. We live in a greater story than we find in Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter or Star Wars or Gladiator. “To those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life” (Romans 2:7).
Reclaim the Hero
Muscular Christianity worked tirelessly to rescue the one-sided image of Christ. The gentle Lamb often brings little resistance, but what of the “lion . . . marked by traits like justice, boldness, power, and self-mastery . . . Jesus the carpenter, the desert camper, the whip-cracker”?56
Many men today have refused to follow Jesus not because they have seen “the man Christ Jesus” himself (1 Timothy 2:5) and turned away from his summons. They have turned from the soft-to-touch, cuddle-up-in-green-pastures, silky-hair-and-whispering parody. True — he does lay his sheep down in green pastures; he does lead them beside still waters. But he can do both because his rod and his staff comfort us (Psalm 23:4). Sheep do not feel safe to lie down where their shepherd cannot defend them from wolves. Jesus is worshiped as Lamb because he ever lives as Lion.
“Men must see the Jesus of the Scriptures, not the sentimentalized substitute.”
Men must see the Jesus of the Scriptures, not the sentimentalized substitute. They must see the Commander of the Lord’s armies, the Lord of lords, the Master, the Ruler of the kings on earth, the Son of Man, the Alpha and Omega, the man of war, the Son of the Most High God. The one who did not have his life taken from him but lays it down of his own accord; the one who wields the scepter and wears the crown; the one to whom all must swear fealty, bowing and kissing his ring; the Hero of the story who commands all men everywhere to repentance and faith, for he has fixed a day to judge the world (Acts 17:30–31).
This is the King of kings, who invites us, even men, to follow him and reign with him, forever.
By Tony Reinke — 10 months ago
Hello, everyone. Tony Reinke here with a solo episode — just me today. An exciting day for me today because my new book is out: God, Technology, and the Christian Life. That’s the title, and I get to share with you a few thoughts today on why I wrote it.
I’ve dreamt of writing this book for several years. Back when I wrote 12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You, it proved hard to write, harder than I expected, because I couldn’t find a baseline theology of technology that would root my thinking with smartphone habits specifically. I came to discover a theological gap in how Christians think about modern-day technology, which surprised me.
Without that foundation, I had to build one of my own. So, I wrote a little ten-page introduction in the smartphone book, and I called it “A Little Theology of Technology” (pages 29–39). Some big categories had to be in place before we addressed Steve Jobs, his iPhone, and our social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube.
I also knew this smaller theology of technology would need to eventually become a larger theology of technology. And I knew, if I could pull this off, it would serve a need in the church in the tech age. But I would have to answer one massive question: What is God’s relationship to Big Tech? What does he think of smartphones, and space travel, and nuclear power, and agricultural innovations, and on and on? I had to answer that huge cluster of questions. Are the innovations we use today from God? Or is it all a product of godless worldliness? Because what we do with our technology will never be clear if we cannot answer this more fundamental question.
Bigger Theology of Technology
So, I am thrilled to announce that my fuller theology of technology is written, published, and now out from our friends at Crossway Books. Soon I will be, Lord willing, inside Silicon Valley, busy with four events spread over two days across the Bay Area, to celebrate the book launch and to give away hundreds of free copies. It’s never about book sales. It’s about books distributed. So, we are giving away hundreds of copies of my new book to key leaders inside Silicon Valley, something possible because we have generous ministry partners making those giveaways possible. So, thank you for your support! You make it possible for us to do this.
Your prayers would be greatly appreciated for those events, if you think of me, on January 25th and 26th. One event, on that first day, January 25th, is scheduled to be livestreamed online. Watch Desiring God’s social channels for details if you want in on that. I’ll be talking about the origins of electricity and jumping into a huge theological debate that Ben Franklin accidentally stirred up in New England. It’s a great story. I’ll be sharing it on January 25th. And we are launching my book through our friends at Westminster Bookstore, our official retailer. There you can get the book for 50 percent off. Check it out at wtsbooks.com if you’re interested.
Hard Reset on Tech
So seven years ago, when I began writing my smartphone book, I came to see that the church lacked a basic framework for evaluating technology. This is tragic because, on the one hand, it breeds a Christian dystopianism, where it seems like one key to holiness is to shun innovation, or at least never say anything nice about it — furrow your brow, squint your eyes, turn up your nose, be suspect of all new tech like you would treat a new R-rated movie. That’s godliness.
But it’s not godliness. It’s a mindset that often leads to a type of wannabe agrarian who lives with this air of anti-technology about him, but who also has an iPhone and drives an SUV and sees no irony in it.
On the other hand, without a clear framework for approaching tech, it also breeds a Christian who eagerly adopts every new gadget from Apple without working through any of the consequences of how the new, shiny device will serve him or undermine his life. Both of them — the wannabe agrarian and the eager adopter — tend to live from a flat, overly simplistic view of the world.
So, I came to discover that the church could use a hard reset. In understanding God’s relationship to science, innovation, and Silicon Valley, we need to take this whole topic and unplug and re-plug it back in. That’s how I typically fix electronics problems. And that’s what I’m trying to do in this new tech book. It’s a restart. Power down. Power up. Let’s clear the cache and start from scratch.
But it also means returning to an age when theologians began building the scaffolding for the vision that we need today. I’m particularly thinking about the French Reformer John Calvin in the sixteenth century. Calvin was a Reformer — he sought to bring reform to the church. And he did reform the church in many important ways, three of them significant for how Christians relate to science and industry.
First, Calvin destigmatized wealth. He distinguished the sin of loving and hoarding wealth from the virtue of capital employed for the good of society at large. That was big, especially when a dominant vision of peak spirituality was the monk in a desert monastery. Calvin said, “No, you can be a shining example of godliness as a wealthy Christian who stewards that fortune selflessly to employ others, to grow industries, and to serve needs.” And of course, that’s where new innovations originate — from industrial wealth. So, Calvin unleashed diligent Christians to pioneer new businesses.
“Calvin set a vision of science and human innovation that was radically God-centered.”
Second, Calvin unhitched the church from what Rome attempted to do, which was to adjudicate major scientific discoveries. He said, instead, “No, the Protestant church will preach Christ and him crucified. Scientists will do their thing without the church meddling in their business as the final arbiter.” When you remove the threat of heresy for observable phenomena, it changes the church’s whole relationship to science, it encourages new discoveries, and it encourages Christians to make those discoveries.
Third, and maybe most importantly, Calvin set a vision of science and human innovation that was radically God-centered, a vision we simply call “common grace.” He said there were two plans enacted by God. God was unfolding his plan for the church — “uncommon grace” or “special grace” in Christ, in his gospel, and in his people. But God had a second plan — a “common grace” for the growth of society, economics, and industry. And Calvin went so far as to say that the same Holy Spirit that regenerates us is the same Holy Spirit that causes profitable human culture and scientific discovery and innovative creativity among Christians and non-Christians alike. Amazing.
Fifty Years That Changed Everything
Calvin’s remarkable vision of the world would later find its highest expression inside the world’s greatest watershed of human innovation. When we speak of tech today, we often make the mistake of limiting our discussions to Apple gadgets, computers, smartphones, smartwatches, electric cars, robots, AI, and things like that. But the story of tech stretches way back to past centuries. One of the most important came in the late 1800s.
Three hundred years after Calvin died came a fifty-year span of human innovation in which everything changed: 1863 to 1913. During this generation, cities were electrified. Light bulbs replaced candles in homes. Electrical motors came to power industry. Music was first recorded. Photography was first employed. Video recordings were invented, made, and movies projected. Airplanes first lifted off the ground. Huge iron, ocean-worthy vessels connected continents. Gas-powered engines began to pop. Cars replaced carriages and family horses. Tractors replaced farm horses. Typewriters replaced pens. The QWERTY keyboard layout we still use today was invented. Telegraph wires began sending electronic messages at unthinkable speeds over unbelievable distances. Wireless radio waves united mass audiences by live broadcast. Medical advances in germs and vaccines ended many awful killing diseases and viruses.
Literally everything in life changed between 1863 to 1913 — advances in science and medicine and travel and shipping and communications and industry, permanent changes that continue to shape our daily lives today.
With all this new innovation speeding along at full tilt, Christian thinkers leaned in and asked the key questions: What does it mean to be a people of faith living inside such a massive, life-altering technological revolution? How are we to think of these endless scientific discoveries and new innovative promises? Where does it come from? Is this innovation of God? Is it of the world? Is technology godly? Is it godless?
Inside this tech era, a writer by the name of Abraham Kuyper took up these questions and returned to Calvin’s old vision. Kuyper was a journalist, theologian, and one-time Dutch prime minister. He knew the world, he knew politics, economics, industry, and he experienced this great, watershed technological revolution firsthand. And he knew his Bible well. And he came to see — like Calvin three centuries earlier — that God was still governing the story of human innovation by his Holy Spirit in his gifts of common grace.
So, it seemed like the church was progressing well in understanding innovation in the nineteenth century. But this technological revolution, these fifty years, with all its incredible promise and progress, was abruptly followed by World War I, followed by World War II, followed by the Cold War. And it became really clear, really fast, that for all our new innovative powers to heal, humanity had also mastered the art of massacring at a scale never before witnessed.
The conversation over God’s common grace changes when your tech can now incinerate 100,000 people in the hyperblink of a nuclear explosion. Theologians would have to account for new powers of mass destruction. Following two world wars, then the nuclear standoff of the Cold War, the church’s theologians changed their tune. The tenor of the Protestant conversation about human technology veered dystopian. Our theologians more likely demonized technology in Babel-like categories — innovations as agents of power, dominance, inequality, and mass destruction — rather than as expressions of God’s Spirit and gifts of his common grace.
Reclaiming Common Grace
And so, without diminishing very legitimate concerns, I’m bridging back, over two world wars, to a vision of God’s common grace in which there were both tech warnings alongside a healthy dose of Godward thanks for the technologies that adorned daily life. Those must exist together: warnings and appreciations. And they do — they hold together nicely when we turn our attention to the Bible.
So, we need to look afresh at the origins of industry and the birth of human innovativeness (as we find them in Genesis 4). And we need to see where technologies — the actual material technologies themselves — emerge from the created order (as we discover in Isaiah 28). And we need to look at God’s relationship to the most powerful and dangerous technologists in the world (as we see in Isaiah 54). And we need to look at how man so easily idolizes his technological powers as idols and false saviors (as we see in Psalm 20). There are idols at play, but the incredible generosity of the Creator is also at play in giving us a universe loaded with oil and gas and electricity and uranium and metals and plastics and silicon and computer chips and the sixty natural elements that comprise our smartphones. All our innovations are owing to the incredible generosity of our Creator.
“For me, talking about tech is just another way to explore the generosity of our God.”
In other words, the challenge is to reclaim a vision of human innovation in which we see God’s common grace once again. For me, talking about tech is just another way to explore the generosity of our God. And so, I’m asking, Which is bigger? Is Big Tech bigger than your God? Or does your God dwarf the powers of Big Tech?
We know the right answer in our heads. But do we believe it — truly believe it in our hearts? Because I fear when it comes down to practice, for many Christians, Big Tech seems stronger than God. So, we get insecure and threatened by tech, because we hold a vision of a god bullied by the power players inside Silicon Valley. That must be reversed. And it’s not reversed by demonizing tech, but by seeing the gift of God in the tens of thousands of innovations we use daily and take for granted, not to mention for the layers of innovations at play for you to hear me right now. All of these are gracious gifts of common grace.
This Book Is For You
I wrote this book for non-Christians, for Christians, for techies, for non-techies. And I’m launching it inside the belly of the beast, inside Silicon Valley. But you don’t have to live in a tech center to see its relevance. We all live in the tech age.
Ultimately, I want all the innovations you take for granted every day to turn your eyes to see the generosity of our eternal, unchanging God. So, you can imagine my thrill when Pastor John took time to read my book slowly, and then said, for him, it was “a worship experience.” That’s my aim. I hope you’ll join me in worship. God, Technology, and the Christian Life — my new book — is now out.
By Joel Beeke — 9 months ago
ABSTRACT: The Puritans wrote dozens of books on faith and assurance, seeking to clarify and apply these doctrines for the members of their churches, and especially for the weakest of the sheep. Among all the Puritans’ writings, chapter 18 of the Westminster Confession of Faith captures their pastoral wisdom on assurance in four clear, succinct paragraphs. Here, the Westminster divines clarify the hope of assurance, the ground of assurance, the means and fruits of assurance, and the loss and recovery of assurance — all with an eye toward offering wise pastoral counsel for all the believers in their flocks, whatever their spiritual circumstances.
For our ongoing series of feature articles for pastors, leaders, and teachers, we asked Joel Beeke, President and Professor of Systematic Theology and Homiletics at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary, to offer lessons from the Puritans on assurance in pastoral practice.
With regard to Christian doctrines, the Puritans were not, for the most part, great innovators, but they were great appliers. Generally speaking, they were thoroughly Reformed and intentional in their theology. As with their theological forbears, the Reformers, the Puritans resolved to be thoroughly scriptural and happily stood on the shoulders of the Reformers and taught the same biblical doctrines to their generation. But they did so with a great deal more emphasis on application.
This ought not be surprising. The Reformers were occupied largely with hammering out great cardinal doctrines such as justification by faith alone, how to worship God publicly, God’s irresistible free grace versus human free will, and more — much of which is summarized in their five major solas: sola Scriptura, sola fide, solus Christus, sola gratia, and soli Deo gloria. Thus, the Puritans, having the luxury of the Reformers’ biblical treatises before them, could afford the time to address the “how-to” questions of application: How does Bible doctrine apply to daily life? How can I live soli Deo Gloria as a godly husband, a godly wife, a godly child?
Hence, the Puritans wrote at least thirty books on how to live to God’s glory in marriage and family life. They wrote at least forty books on how to meditate. They added more volumes on how to do our daily work to God’s glory, how to live a godly life in our secular professions, and how to live zealously for the glory of God in every area of life.
How Can I Find Assurance?
The Puritans also wrote extensively on the practicalities of living by faith, practicalities that boiled down to this: How can I live so fully by faith that I may know with certainty that I have saving faith — that is to say, how can I be assured in the depths of my soul that, in union with Christ, I have been regenerated and adopted into God’s family, and will be with Christ forever in heaven? Hence, they wrote dozens of books on faith and assurance, and called their hearers to practice self-examination to “make their calling and election sure” (2 Peter 1:10).
The Puritans did not write extensively on assurance of faith because they wanted to be excessively introspective or “navel-gazers,” as they have been accused by some who have, for the most part, not read their books. Rather, they wanted to trace out in detail the Holy Spirit’s saving work in their own souls in order to (1) give glory to the triune God for his mighty and miraculous work of salvation in them, (2) do good to their own souls by building up their convictions about God and their own salvation, and (3) assist weak believers who needed pastoral advice and assistance to grow in their knowledge and assurance of Jesus Christ as their personal Savior and Lord, and through this precious Mediator, to grow in their knowledge of each divine person of the Trinity.
Look with me especially at this third point as we address the question, How did the Puritan pastors use their doctrine of personal assurance of salvation to assist believers in living the Christian life? And what lessons can we learn today from their pastoral specialization in the vast field of experiential Christianity connected with the assurance of salvation?
An exhaustive article on this subject would certainly turn into a book, as there are scores of areas that could be discussed. Rather than skate over the surface, I want to address twelve of the most important pastoral ways that Puritan pastors, as physicians of souls, assisted the members of their flocks, helping them to gain robust measures of full assurance of faith. We find the most important confessional chapter ever written on the subject in the Westminster Confession of Faith, chapter 18, “Of the Assurance of Grace and Salvation.” I will provide three pastoral helps from each of these four paragraphs (hereafter: WCF 18.1–4).
WCF 18.1: Hope of Assurance
Although hypocrites, and other unregenerate men, may vainly deceive themselves with false hopes and carnal presumptions of being in the favour of God, and estate of salvation (which hope of theirs shall perish): yet such as truly believe in the Lord Jesus and love Him in sincerity, endeavouring to walk in all good conscience before Him, may, in this life, be certainly assured that they are in the state of grace, and may rejoice in the hope of the glory of God, which hope shall never make them ashamed.
Pastoral Help 1: An important distinction exists between the false hopes and carnal presumptions of the unbeliever on the one hand, and the true assurance and well-grounded hope of the believer on the other.
To make this distinction clear, Puritan pastors distinguished for their church members the difference between what they called historical and temporary faith on the one hand, and saving faith on the other. The former ultimately rests on self-confidence born merely out of intellectual convictions (historical faith) or emotional joy (temporary faith) — as, for example, in the parable of the sower (Matthew 13:20–21) — while the latter humbles us before God and teaches us to rely wholly on the righteousness of Christ alone for salvation.
Pastoral Help 2: Some degree of assurance of salvation is biblical and normative in the lives of God’s people.
Pastorally, this helped Puritan pastors maintain in their people the conviction that though full, robust assurance of salvation may not be common to all believers, some degree of assurance is (even if it is only in seed form) and is always inseparable from saving faith in Christ. Every part of WCF 18.1 is connected with Jesus: believe in him; love him; walk before him. By maintaining this conviction, Puritan pastors sought to avoid the problem of a two-tier Christianity in which few in the first tier ever make it to the second. This emphasis also encouraged believers, whatever degree of assurance they may have possessed, always to strive for more, so that they might grow in the grace and knowledge of their Savior.
Pastoral Help 3: Assurance of salvation is not essential for salvation or for the being or existence of saving faith, though it is essential for the well-being of faith.
The Puritans made this distinction so that weak believers or newly saved believers would not despair if they did not yet possess full assurance of salvation, but also that they would not rest content without full assurance of salvation. This kept believers biblically balanced in recognizing that though it is possible to be saved without assurance, it is scarcely possible to be a healthy Christian without assurance.
In Puritan thinking, this also implies that believers may possess saving faith without the joy and full assurance that they possess it. This helped Puritan pastors deal with the reality that some believers seem to possess a great deal more faith and assurance than they realize, whereas other believers seem to more easily become fully conscious of possessing a full assurance of faith. In this, the Puritans followed Calvin, who said in his Commentary on John 20:3 that the disciples seem to have had saving faith without awareness that they had it as they approached the empty tomb.
WCF 18.2: Grounds of Assurance
This certainty is not a bare conjectural and probable persuasion grounded upon a fallible hope; but an infallible assurance of faith founded upon the divine truth of the promises of salvation, the inward evidence of those graces unto which these promises are made, the testimony of the Spirit of adoption witnessing with our spirits that we are the children of God, which Spirit is the earnest of our inheritance, whereby we are sealed to the day of redemption.
Pastoral Help 4: Assurance of salvation is grounded in the promises of God and buttressed by personal sanctification and the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit.
The proper starting point for all true assurance of salvation is “the divine truth of the promises of salvation” set forth in Holy Scripture, “the promises of God” sealed with God’s own “yea and amen” in his Son, Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 1:19–20). Puritan pastors taught their hearers that though self-examination is important, they should nevertheless take ten looks to Christ for every look they take to their inner spiritual condition. They taught that as assurance grows, God’s promises become increasingly real to the believer personally and experientially, as they experience the truth and power of those promises. The promises ground our assurance, and our assurance emboldens our faith to make further appropriation of the promises, which brings us into fuller, more intimate communion with Christ.
“Though full, robust assurance of salvation may not be common to all believers, some degree of assurance is.”
Further to encourage believers pastorally, the Puritans stressed that the more we know experientially of all three kinds of assurance, the more robust our assurance will be and the more we will live entirely for God. Happily, the Puritans taught their parishioners that the Holy Spirit, upon whom we are dependent for all our assurance, is more than willing to work all three kinds of assurance in us — in fact, without him, we would lose all genuine assurance, and even faith itself.
Pastoral Help 5: Assurance of salvation is strengthened by the Spirit shedding light on the believer’s biblical marks of grace — such as the Beatitudes in Matthew 5, the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22–23, and the various evidences sprinkled throughout 1 John — so that the believer can clearly see at least some of these saving marks of grace being worked out in his or her own heart and life by the very grace of that same Spirit, and thus cannot but conclude he or she is a child of God.
The Puritan pastor would tenderly advise the church member longing to grow in assurance of salvation, “Turn to the evidences of grace that are laid out for us in Scripture; ask the Spirit to shed light on them for you; then, as you examine yourself, if you can say with assurance that even one of these evidences is your experience, you can be assured that you are a child of God — even if you can’t see other evidences in you.”
Pastoral Help 6: Assurance of salvation is also strengthened by the direct witnessing testimony of the Holy Spirit himself speaking in God’s word.
A number of Puritans (such as Thomas Goodwin and Henry Scudder) taught that a direct witness of the Holy Spirit to the believer’s soul through the word can give a substantial increase to a believer’s assurance and comfort, especially in times of great need. For example, when the Spirit applies to the soul a special promise, such as, “I have loved thee with an everlasting love: therefore with lovingkindness have I drawn thee” (Jeremiah 31:3 KJV), with considerable power and sweetness — such that the believer enjoys a profound experience of communion with God and of his love and a profound sight of the beauty and glory of Christ — that immediate or direct witness of the Spirit to the believer can give a large boost to his or her assurance. At such times, the believer feels that the intimately personal application of the word to his soul seems to be the most suitable text in the entire Bible for his particular need.
WCF 18.3: Means and Fruits of Assurance
This infallible assurance doth not so belong to the essence of faith, but that a true believer may wait long, and conflict with many difficulties, before he be partaker of it: yet, being enabled by the Spirit to know the things which are freely given him of God, he may, without extraordinary revelation, in the right use of ordinary means, attain thereunto. And therefore it is the duty of every one to give all diligence to make his calling and election sure, that thereby his heart may be enlarged in peace and joy in the Holy Ghost, in love and thankfulness to God, and in strength and cheerfulness in the duties of obedience, the proper fruits of this assurance; so far is it from inclining men to looseness.
Pastoral Help 7: Though God remains sovereign in granting various degrees of assurance, assurance of salvation usually grows by degrees within believers in conjunction with the growth of knowledge, faith, and experience, especially through trials.
To encourage young believers who struggled with acquiring larger degrees of assurance, the Puritans stated that “a true believer may wait long, and conflict with many difficulties, before he be partaker of” assurance (WCF 18.3), but the relationship between faith and assurance usually strengthens over time, “growing up in many to the attainment of a full assurance” (WCF 14.3). Grace usually grows with age, and as faith increases, other graces increase. Age and experience, however, do not guarantee assurance. And it is possible for God to plant faith and full assurance simultaneously.
By maintaining the normativity of assurance growing over time through exercises of faith and various trials in the daily experience of life, and yet allowing for young believers at times to have large dosages of assurance, the Puritans aimed to minister pastorally to their people, encouraging them to press on to make their calling and election sure (2 Peter 1:5–10).
Pastoral Help 8: God normally uses the spiritual disciplines he has appointed for his people as the means to grow assurance of salvation.
The Puritans are abundantly clear in stating that the believer “may, without extraordinary revelation [contrary to Roman Catholicism], in the right use of ordinary means, attain” to assurance (emphasis mine). Four means are predominant in Puritan thought: God’s word (read and preached and meditated upon), the sacraments (baptism and the Lord’s Supper), prayer (personal, domestic, and public), and affliction (including conflicts, doubts, trials, and temptations). By stressing these spiritual disciplines as means that the Spirit uses to grow assurance, the Puritans were teaching their people that it is every believer’s duty to pursue assurance diligently, and how best to do it.
In short, God commands us to pursue assurance prayerfully, obediently, and fervently, promising that his normal way is to bless these endeavors. Then too, the Puritan stress on duty reinforced the conviction that assurance must never be regarded as the privilege only of exceptional saints, but that at least some degree of it is normative for every believer.
Pastoral Help 9: Assurance produces God-glorifying, delightful fruit.
The Puritans conclude WCF 18.3 by stating that these fruits are such that the believer’s “heart may be enlarged in peace and joy in the Holy Ghost, in love and thankfulness to God, and in strength and cheerfulness in the duties of obedience.” They taught that assurance elevates God-glorifying and soul-enlarging affections. It produces holy living marked by spiritual peace, joyful love, humble gratitude, cheerful obedience, and heartfelt mortification of sin.
In a word, assurance enables faith to reach greater heights, from which all other aspects of Christian character flow. This invigoration of faith results in a new release of spiritual energy at every point in a person’s Christian life. All of these fruits helped the Puritan pastor make assurance of salvation appear most desirable, and certainly worth the effort of pursuing and cultivating with all of one’s soul, mind, and strength.
WCF 18.4: Loss and Recovery of Assurance
True believers may have the assurance of their salvation divers ways shaken, diminished, and intermitted; as, by negligence in preserving of it, by falling into some special sin which woundeth the conscience and grieveth the Spirit; by some sudden or vehement temptation, by God’s withdrawing the light of His countenance, and suffering even such as fear Him to walk in darkness and have no light: yet are they never utterly destitute of that seed of God, and life of faith, that love of Christ and the brethren, that sincerity of heart, and conscience of duty, out of which, by the operation of the Spirit, this assurance may, in due time, be revived; and by the which, in the mean time, they are supported from utter despair.
Pastoral Help 10: Assurance of salvation may be disturbed, diminished, or even lost for a time, in the experience of a believer, due to his or her own fault or due to God’s sovereign withdrawal.
WCF 18.4 stresses that the reasons for a loss of assurance are found primarily in the believer. They include negligence and spiritual slothfulness, falling into sin, or yielding to some temptation. The Puritans are clear here and elsewhere in teaching pastorally that the Christian cannot enjoy high levels of assurance while he persists in low levels of obedience. They stressed this linkage between assurance and obedience in very practical ways, stating that the believer ought to lose his assurance when he backslides and starts acting like an unbeliever. For example, if you are unfaithful to your spouse, you had better lose your assurance that you have a wonderful marital union in which you both are assured of each other’s love. The Puritan pastor used this truth to encourage believers to walk in faithfulness before God in accord with his word, and to avoid every backsliding as a serious offense to God and as destructive to their own soul.
“The Christian cannot enjoy high levels of assurance while he persists in low levels of obedience.”
A second reason for the loss of assurance is not in the believer as such but in God. For the Puritans, this point is preeminently pastoral, because each minister would have believers in his flock who at times would seem to lose ground in growing their assurance even when they were diligently engaging in the spiritual disciplines. How encouraging then it was for the believer to hear from his pastor that, according to his sovereign and mysterious will, God may withdraw the light of his countenance, or permit a believer to be tried with vehement temptations or intense afflictions that do violence to his peace and joy. The Puritans taught that this may actually benefit believers, as it may have the purpose of allowing them to taste the bitterness of sin, or to grow in humility, or to treasure the gift of assurance more, or to depend more fully on the grace of Christ and endeavor after a closer walk with God. God’s withdrawals and his placing of trials in the path of the believer are motivated by his fatherly discipline, which teaches them to walk uprightly; by his fatherly sovereignty, which teaches dependence; and by his fatherly wisdom, which teaches that he knows and does what is best for his own. God ordains these trials for his glory and the benefit of his elect, so that they learn, like Job, to trust in a withdrawing God as our greatest friend, even when he seems to come out against us as our greatest enemy (Job 13:15).
Pastoral Help 11: Happily, assurance of salvation can be revived.
The Puritans stress in WCF 18.4 that even in the believer’s darkest struggles for assurance of salvation, the Holy Spirit abides in him and bears him up, keeping him from “utter despair.” Indeed, the child of God may be losing assurance even while he advances in grace. This is because the grace and essence of faith abides with the believer even though he is blind to the acts and practice of faith. This gracious preservation of faith offers hope for the revival of assurance, for the flame of God’s life within the soul can never be completely snuffed out. The embers burn, although barely and subtly at times, but can be fanned into the full flame of assurance by the persevering use of God’s appointed means.
Pastoral Help 12: Assurance is revived the same way it was obtained the first time.
“If Job and David recovered from their loss of assurance, why shouldn’t the believer today?”
Believers should review their lives, confess their backsliding, and humbly cast themselves upon their covenant-keeping God and his gracious promises in Christ, being sure to engage continually in fresh acts of ongoing conversion through faith and repentance. If Job and David recovered from their loss of assurance (Job 19:25–27; Psalms 42:5–8; 51:12), why shouldn’t the believer today? The loss here is only for a short time; soon we will have perfect assurance and perfect enjoyment of God forever in the eternal Celestial City.
Physicians of Souls
The Puritans fleshed out the doctrine of assurance of salvation in WCF 18 with pastoral precision to undeceive the false professor of faith, to awaken the unsaved, to mature the young in grace, to comfort the mature in faith, to arrest the backslider, and to provide wise pastoral counsel for all believers in their flock, tailored to each one’s spiritual circumstances. The terminology they developed, their treatises on assurance, their pastoral compassion for the weak in faith, and their pressing admonitions and invitations to grow in faith showed their great appreciation for vital union and communion with Christ.
Their laudable goals can still help pastors today to assist their church members in developing assurance, all the while recognizing the individuality of each one. As with the Puritan pastors, God calls pastors today to be wise physicians of souls who prescribe the right medicines for each believer — medicines that the Holy Spirit uses to lead them to cultivate and grow in the assurance of their salvation in Christ Jesus our Lord.