Consider the work of God: who can make straight what he has made crooked?

As we contemplate the way that God works in the world, He teaches us the right way to live. We learn to praise God for prosperity and trust God through adversity. We learn to live a God-fearing life that is free from wickedness and self-righteousness. Those are lessons it takes a lifetime to learn. But now we return to perhaps the hardest lesson of all: Learning to look beyond our present difficulties and see the work of God, accepting all of the crooked things in life until He chooses to make them straight.

We've already discussed Thomas Boston and his sermon on Ecclesiastes 7:13. Boston ended that sermon by listing some of the many reasons why God makes some things crooked.[1]These were biblical lessons that he had confirmed through his own experience of grief and pain—lessons about the sovereign purposes of God that can help us in our own suffering. Why does God make some things crooked, even when we pray for Him to make them straight?

First, said Boston, the crooked things in life are a test to help us determine whether we really are trusting in Christ for our salvation. Think of Job, for example, who was afflicted with many painful trials in order to prove the genuineness of his faith. Our own sufferings have the same purpose: by the grace of God, they confirm that we are holding onto Christ. Or perhaps they reveal exactly the opposite, that we have never fully trusted in Christ at all, but still need to trust him for our salvation. 

Second, whatever crooks there are in our earthly lot turn our hearts away from this vain world and teach us to look for happiness in the life to come. Suffering is part of our preparation for eternity. Consider the Prodigal Son, who did not head back home to his father until he lost everything he had. When something in your life seems crooked, remember that day is coming when God will make it straight.

Third, the crooked things in life convict us of our sins. The reason that anything is crooked at all is because there is sin in the world, including our own sin. The Holy Spirit often uses the crooks in our lot to touch our conscience, reminding us of some particular sin that we need to confess. Remember Joseph's brothers. When things went badly for them in Egypt, they thought at once of their guilt before God for selling their brother into slavery, many years before (see Gen. 42:21). It would be a mistake to think every time we suffer that it must be because of our sins. But it would also be a mistake to miss the opportunity that every suffering brings to repent for any unconfessed sin.

Fourth, the crooked things in life may correct us for our sins. There are times when suffering serves as an instrument of God's justice, as a punishment for our sin. So it was for David, after he had murdered Uriah: the sword never departed from his house (see 2 Sam. 12:10). When we suffer, it may be that as a consequence for our sin we are under the judgment or the discipline of God.

These are not the only reasons why God makes some things crooked. Thomas Boston listed several others. Sometimes God allows us to suffer in order to keep us from committing a sin, or else to uncover a sinful attitude of the heart so deep that it could only be revealed by suffering a painful trial. Or maybe—and this is the happiest reason of all—God puts a crook into our lot in order to display his grace in our godliness. We are prone to what Boston called "fits of spiritual laziness," in which our graces lie dormant. But when we have a crook in our lot, it rouses from our spiritual slumber and produces "many acts of faith, hope, love, self-denial, resignation, and other graces."[2]

The point of listing these possible reasons for our suffering is not to suggest that we can always figure out why God has put some particular crook in our lot. The point rather is that God knows why He has put it there. When something in life seems crooked, we are usually very quick to tell Him how to straighten it out. Instead, we should let God straighten us out! In His sovereignty over our suffering, God is hard at work to accomplish our real spiritual good, not just in one way, but in many ways. Therefore, we are called to trust in him, even for the things that seem crooked. 

Whenever we are having trouble doing that, the first thing we should do is consider the work of our Savior. Remember that our Good Shepherd once had a crook in His lot—a crook that came in the shape of a cross. In His prayer at the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus asked His Father if there was any way to make Calvary straight instead of crooked. But there was no other way. As Jesus considered the work of God, He could see that the only way to make atonement for His people's sin was to die in our place. So Jesus suffered the crooked cross that it was His God-given lot to bear. And He trusted His Father, waiting for Him to straighten things out when the time was right by raising Him up on the third day. 

If God could straighten out something as crooked as the cross, then surely He can be trusted to do something with the crook in your lot! This was the testimony that James Montgomery Boice gave the last time he spoke to his congregation at Philadelphia's Tenth Presbyterian Church. Dr. Boice had been diagnosed with a fatal and aggressive cancer; he only had weeks to live. This was the crook in his lot. So Dr. Boice raised a question that was based on the sovereignty and the goodness of God. "If God does something in your life," he asked, "would you change it?" To say this the way that Qoheleth would have said it, "If God gave you something crooked, would you make it straight?" 

Well, would you? Would you change your disability or disease? Would you change your job or your finances? Would you change your appearance, or your abilities, or your situation in life? Or would you trust God for all the crooked things in life and wait for Him to make them straight, just like Jesus did when He died for you on the cross? 

Dr. Boice answered his own rhetorical question by testifying to the goodness of God's sovereign will. He said that if we tried to change what God has done, then it wouldn't be as good; we would only make it worse.[3]The Preacher who wrote Ecclesiastes said something similar. "Consider the work of God," he said. "Do not try to straighten out what God has made crooked." Our Savior said the same: “Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done” (Lk. 22:42). 



[1]Boston, The Crook in the Lot, 3:511-16.

[2]Boston, The Crook in the Lot, 3:515-16.

[3]James Montgomery Boice, "Final Address at Tenth Presbyterian Church," in The Life of Dr. James Montgomery Boice, 1938-2000, edited by Philip G. Ryken (Philadelphia, PA: Tenth Presbyterian Church, 2001), 44-45.


Philip Ryken (PhD, Oxford) is the Bible teacher on Every Last Word, a weekly radio broadcast from the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. Dr. Ryken also serves as president of Wheaton College. He and his wife Lisa have five children: Josh, Kirsten, Jack, Kathryn, and Karoline. He is the author and editor of numerous books, including Art for God's Sake and Grace Transforming. When he is not preaching or playing with his children, Dr. Ryken likes to play basketball and ponder the relationship between Christianity and American culture. 


Editor's Note: This article was originally published on reformation21 in July 2009. To read more from Philip Ryken's "The Crook In the Lot" series,  see the list of articles below:

  1. The Crook In the Lot 
  2. Good Days, Bad Days
  3. Avoiding Two Dangers

 

 

Moving on from God’s historical execution (past and present) of his eternal decrees (timeless), we consider the “special act of providence” that God the creator exercised toward man when he was created (WSC, Q&A 12). In other words, God stooped down to freely enter into a relationship with man who was created in his image. This stems from what the Puritans would have regarded as a fitting summary for the entire Bible, God is determined to have a people for himself, a people in a living relationship with him by way of a covenant. Let’s consider in general (with all of its diversity!) a Puritan theology of the covenants. 
 
First, the Puritans manifested a mature covenant theology with connections to the development of such from the sixteenth century. Connections existed with such Reformers as Johannes Oecolampadius, Heinrich Bullinger, Wolfgang Musculus, John Calvin, Peter Martyr Vermigli, Zacharias Ursinus, Caspar Olevianus, Robert Rollock and William Tyndale. Rather than erecting something new, the English Reformed built upon groundwork already laid and without some supposed softening of the doctrine of predestination and in connection with such developments a two-covenant theology of works and grace associated with a two-Adam federal representation, an emerging emphasis on a pre-temporal covenant between the Father and the Son, the revelation in history of the covenant of grace immediately after the fall, election as the foundation for the covenant of grace and the unconditional yet bilateral nature of the covenant of grace. Prominent background figures for the emergence of a Puritan covenant theology include Robert Rollock (1555–1599), William Perkins (1558–1602), and William Ames (1576–1633). This seventeenth-century settlement of covenant thought can be seen in the Westminster Confession of Faith (1648) but also in related contemporary works such as Edward Fisher’s Marrow of Modern Divinity (1645), and John Ball’s Treatise on the Covenant of Grace (1645), both published as the Westminster Assembly sat. The Westminster Confession of Faith, exhibiting continuity with the Irish Articles (1615), in general sets forth the standard two-covenant approach in which God condescended to Adam in the covenant of works, which when broken made the covenant of grace in Jesus Christ necessary. 
 
Second, God entered into a “covenant of life” with man at the time of creation through Adam as a federal head (WSC, Q&A 12). In the Scriptures, covenants were established by God and between him and man as relational agreements. In a covenantal relationship, he promised and determined to be the God of his people and promised that they would be (and should be determined to be) his people. This covenant of life, also known as a covenant of “works” (WCF 7.2) was founded “upon the condition of perfect obedience,” and was made with Adam as a federal or “common head and representative for all mankind” after him (Thomas Vincent, An Explicatory Catechism, 1678). For the Puritans in general, God condescended in grace (unmerited favor not redemptive grace as shown to sinners) to Adam in the covenant of works by offering him something for his perfect obedience that he could never truly merit. So John Ball, in his Treatise speaks of God covenanting in “free grace and love” and offering a reward for his obedience “in strict justice,” but not according to merit. God could give less to Adam without doing any sort of “injustice” to him.
 
Third, Adam sinned and broke this covenant of life, bringing man under the wrath of God and subject to death and eternal punishment. So, when Adam fell into sin (defined as a lack “of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God,” WSC, Q&A 14), all mankind “sinned in him and fell with him” (WSC, Q&A 16). The Puritans spoke of “original sin” in its historical orthodox understanding, which involved the “imputation” of Adam’s sin, as his “disobedience” has “become ours” through his representative headship (Ames, The Marrow of Sacred Divinity, 1627). In summary, the relationship established by the covenant of life (works) was broken with man having “lost communion with God” and coming under his wrath to be subject “to all miseries in this life, to death itself, and to the pains of hell forever” (Q19).  
 
Fourth, God made a second “covenant of grace” to deliver perishing sinners through a Redeemer, Jesus Christ, by free grace and according to unconditional election (WCF 7.4, WSC, Q&A 20). Still, while there existed grace in the covenant of works, the covenant that followed manifested “grace” to fallen sinners through the strict merit accomplished by Christ as the Redeemer. So, WLC, Q&A 31 makes the two-Adam two-covenant theology prevalent among the Puritans very clear in stating that the  “covenant of grace was made with Christ, as the second Adam, and in him with all the elect as his seed” (based on Gal 3:16; Rom 5:15-21; Isa 53:10-11; 59:20-21). Jesus Christ as the Second (“last”) Adam (1 Cor 15:45) and as the federal representative accomplished what the first Adam did not - perfect obedience to the covenant of works. Furthermore, he undid the failure of the first – taking the full wrath of God in death as punishment for sin (Isa 53:6; 2 Cor 5:21). Our sins are imputed to him and his righteousness imputed to us (see John Owen, "The Doctrine of Justification by Faith through the Imputation of the Righteousness of Christ," 1677). Thus, as John Owen attests, “the covenant of works, both as to its commands and sanction, in the obedience and suffering of the mediator” is accomplished within the framework of the new covenant as an administration of the covenant of grace (Exposition of Hebrews, 8:1-10:39 in Works, 22:89,90).
 
Fifth, the Puritans differed on how they viewed the Mosaic covenant in relation to the covenants of grace and works. The Puritans differed on how to understand the moral law, effectively written on the heart within the covenant of works, as set forth in the Mosaic Covenant given at Sinai. Was it 1) a restatement of the covenant of works, 2) a mixed one of nature and grace, 3) a third subservient one related to tenure in the land, or 4) in substance an administration of the covenant of grace? The last of these was most common and was manifested in the Westminster Confession of Faith, which  sees the Mosaic Covenant in substance as the covenant of grace “differently administered in the time of the law” through the various types and shadows of the ceremonial law pointing ahead to the substance in Christ. Yet, even in such a scheme, it was possible to see the Mosaic Covenant depending on one’s status in Christ. In this way, “believers be not under the law as a covenant of works” (implying that unbelievers are) but only as “a rule of life” the duty in which they walk as conditions of the covenant of grace (WCF 19.6). This is the distinction that Anthony Burgess makes even as he sees the Mosaic Covenant in substance as a covenant of grace as he observes that the law “largely” considered relates to its presentation within the context of grace (“with the preface and promises adjoined”) and “strictly” considered relates to its presentation within the context of works as a “rule of righteousness” demanding “perfect obedience” (Vindiciae Legis, 1646, 222-223)
 
Sixth, the covenant of grace made with Christ implied an eternal “covenant of redemption” among the members of the Godhead. While an eternal covenant of redemption (pactum salutis) is implied in WCF 8.1 and explicitly stated in the otherwise identical section of the 1658 congregational Savoy Declaration (8.1), Puritans varied on the matter of covenant of redemption and whether it was the same as or distinct from the covenant of grace. WSC, Q&A 20 only says that God “did enter into a covenant of grace” without explicitly saying with whom. WLC, Q&A 31 gets more to the point and seems to imply an eternal covenant of grace made “with Christ as the second Adam, and in him with all the elect as his seed.” In his comments on this declaration, Vincent, sees an eternal covenant made with Christ as the mediatorial representative of the elect, which existed as “the foundation of all that grace that was afterward promised in that covenant of grace.” In the end, as J.V. Fesko (The Theology of the Westminster Standards: Historical Context and Theological Insights) points out, “from the earliest days of the reception and interpretation of the Confession” (and so Catechisms), we can safely conclude that “the covenant of redemption was viewed as compatible with” it (and so them). 
 
Seventh, the Puritans in general viewed the covenant of grace as both absolute and conditional. In general, the source of the covenant of grace, notes John Von Rohr, the Puritans saw in the “trans-historical” covenant of redemption (made between the Father and the Son) with its emphasis on Christ, the second Adam, as the foundation (The Covenant of Grace in Puritan Thought, 43-44). In this way, those who participate in the covenant of grace historically are those “elected for this favor” by predestination, which “lies behind covenant composition” and in this way “the covenant of grace” is absolute. Yet, in a manner in which they sought to distance themselves from the antinomian tendency to speak of the absolute nature of the covenant of grace in an imbalanced manner, the Puritans also saw the covenant as conditional keeping promise and duty together. So, Watson says that “the main condition” for the covenant of grace “is faith,” with works required not “as the condition of life” but “as signs of life.” Still, the focus is on the condition of faith in order to “exclude all glorying in the creature.”
Richard Snoddy, The Soteriology of James Ussher: The Act and Object of Saving Faith, Oxford Studies in Historical Theology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014). 287pp. Hardcover.
 
James Ussher (1581-1656) was a prominent theologian in Northern Ireland in the seventeenth-century who, until recently, has been largely neglected at present. He was archbishop of Armagh and he was invited to participate in the Westminster Assembly, though he declined due to his loyalty to the king (30). Richard Snoddy’s study of Ussher’s soteriology is one of the first attempts in recent scholarship to bring Ussher out of the shadows into the historical limelight. As readers have come to expect from this Oxford series, Snoddy’s treatment of Ussher’s soteriology is contextual sensitive, reflecting his national and international contexts. This makes this study a useful entry point into seventeenth-century trajectories of important aspects of the Reformed doctrine of salvation in Christ.
 
This book is both simple and thorough. The author introduces Ussher’s life and work, followed by treatments of key aspects of his soteriology. Subjects include the nature and extent of the atonement, justification by faith, sanctification, and personal assurance of salvation. One of the author’s great contributions to the study of Ussher is the fact that much of his primary source argumentation comes from Ussher’s unpublished sermon manuscripts and notes (11). This provides readers with access to material that they could not obtain elsewhere. Drawing from both Latin and English works, as well as from British and continental authors, Snoddy situates Ussher in the broader context of Reformed thought, revealing both what was common and what was peculiar about his teaching. In contrast to most Reformed authors, Ussher taught a form of hypothetical universalism, with the result that Christ died for all men and not for the elect only (78). In common with most Reformed authors, however, he affirmed that justification entailed both the forgiveness of sin and the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to believers. If anything, he strengthened this Reformed emphasis by treating forgiveness and imputation as implied in each other inseparable rather than as constituting two parts of justification (110). Such issues were filtered through the broader theme of union with Christ, which the author rightly calls “a central theme in Puritan theology and devotion” (123). The Reformed view of sanctification then flows from the broader theme of union with Christ (chapter 4). This leads finally to the question of personal assurance of salvation. The author argues that, in contrast to Calvin, Ussher believed that assurance was possible through faith exercising a reflexive act on itself and not merely toward Christ (213). Such points enable readers to grasp better the general contours of the Reformed doctrine of salvation and where Ussher fit into this broader tradition.
 
There are a few minor points at which the author appears to overreach his conclusions slightly. For example, he lists Bullinger, Musculus, and Ursinus among authors who leaned toward hypothetical universalism (78). This is controversial claim that requires a bit more evidence and explanation. In addition, the author notes that some Reformed writers made union with Christ the central aspect of soteriology while others preferred to exalt legal categories (122). This appears better to match contemporary debates, which Snoddy cites, than it does historical categories. A broader appeal to the standard systems of theology current in Ussher’s time could help clarify this issue. Lastly, Snoddy distinguishes between “habitual” and “habit” (156). He argues that something that was habitual referred to a disposition while a habit was acquired by repeated action. However, in the seventeenth-century, it seems better to say that there were two ways of forming a habit. The soul could already be habitually bent in the direction of sin or of righteousness, on the one hand. On the other hand, habits could be acquired through practice as well. In this way, a disposition could be strengthened through practice. In each case, further evidence could have sharpened the author’s excellent treatment of such subjects.
The author concludes that Ussher has only recently begun to receive the scholarly interest that he deserves, adding that Ussher exemplifies “the creativity of Reformed theologians in this period” as they sought to defend the sovereignty of God against increasing attacks (245). Ussher was an important theologian and soteriology is an important topic in Reformed thought. This volume is thorough and readable introduction to both.

It is one thing to say that we believe in the sovereignty of God, but it's another thing to live that out in a world that often seems meaningless. No sooner has the Preacher told us to consider the works of God than he struggles with some of the implications of God's sovereignty. 

Remember, the Preacher is totally committed to telling us the truth about life, in all its vanity. Here he tells us that sometimes life seems desperately unfair. "In my vain life I have seen everything," he says. "There is a righteous man who perishes in his righteousness, and there is a wicked man who prolongs his life in his evildoing" (Eccles. 7:15). 

This is the exactly the opposite of what most people would expect in a world that is governed by a good and righteous God. The righteous people are the ones who ought to rejoice in their prosperity, while the wicked suffer adversity until finally they are forced to admit that God is in control. All too often, what we see instead is what the Preacher saw: righteous people dying before their time, while the ungodly keep on living. 

This paradox almost seems to contradict what the Bible says in other places. God told his people that if they did what he said, he would bless them with long life in the land of promise (e.g. Deut. 4:40). He also threatened to punish his enemies with death for their disobedience. But sometimes things are not the way they are supposed to be. Godly pastors are martyred for their faith, while their enemies live to terrorize the church another day. Innocent victims get cut down in the prime of life; their killers escape or get lenient sentences. It's just not fair! 

These injustices are some of the crooked things in life that we wish we could straighten out. But knowing that we cannot do this, the Preacher gives us some practical advice: "Be not overly righteous, and do not make yourself too wise. Why should you destroy yourself? Be not overly wicked, neither be a fool. Why should you die before your time?" (Eccles. 7:16-17).

Some scholars believe that these verses are cynical, and maybe they are. Maybe the Preacher is saying something like this: "Look, if the righteous perish, while the wicked live to prosper, then why be good? Take my advice: don't try to be a goody two-shoes. I'm not telling you to be evil, of course. It would be foolish to tempt fate by living a wicked life. I'm just saying that if only the good die young, then there is nothing to be gained by trying to be good."

On this interpretation, the Preacher is advising "a kind of middle-of-the-road approach to life, not overzealous about wisdom or foolishness, righteousness or wickedness."[1]

 This kind of reasoning would have been right at home with the ancient Greek and Roman philosophers, who often advocated a life of moderation. Do not be too good, or too evil, they said. Too much piety or too much iniquity will lead to an early grave. This also happens to be the way that many people think today. They know better than to live a life of total wickedness because deep down they believe that God will judge people for their sins. Yet secretly they suspect that trying to be holy will take all of the fun out of life. Generally speaking, they try to be good, and they hope that they are good enough to get by God on the Day of Judgment. But their consciences are troubled too little by their sins. As long as they are not overly righteous, or overly wicked, they are happy the way they are. 

If that is what the Preacher means, then he must be looking at life under the sun again, leaving God out of the picture for the moment and thinking about good and evil the way that only an unbeliever can. 

There is an alternative, however. When he tells us not to be "overly righteous," he might be telling us not to be self-righteous. Grammatically speaking, the form of the verb that the Preacher uses in verse 16 may refer to someone who is only pretending to be righteous and playing the wise man.[2]In that case, the person the Preacher has in mind is too righteous by half. He does not have the true holiness that comes by faith, but the hypocritical holiness that comes by works. 

After all, if God's standard is perfection—if we are called to love him with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength—then how could anyone ever be "overly righteous"? No, our real problem is thinking that we are more righteous than we really are. Somehow there never seems to be any shortage of people who think that they are good enough for God. 

All of this leads H. C. Leupold to suspect that a "peculiar type of righteousness was beginning to manifest itself in Israel, an overstrained righteousness which lost sight of the ever-present sinful imperfections of men and felt strongly inclined to argue with God and to find fault with Him because He was apparently not rewarding those righteous men as they deemed they deserved to be rewarded."[3]

In response, the Preacher warns us not to be self-righteous. We should not think that trying to be more righteous will save us on the Day of Judgment. Nor should we think that we are so righteous that we do not deserve to suffer any adversity, that it is unfair for someone like us ever to have a crook in our lot. When we think too highly of ourselves, resting on our own righteousness, then it is easy for us to say, "I don't deserve to be treated like this. Doesn't God know who I am?" It is also a very short step from saying that to saying, "Who does God think he is?" So the Preacher cautions us not to be, as it were, "too righteous." In saying this, he is warning against a conceited righteousness that "stands ready to challenge God for His failure to reward" us as much as we think we deserve.[4]

That is not to say that we should be unrighteous, of course. The Preacher warns against this mistake in verse 17, when he tells us not to be too wicked. His point is not that it is okay for us to be a little bit wicked, as if there were some acceptable level of iniquity. When it comes to sin, even a little is too much. His point rather is that there is great danger in giving ourselves over to evil. It is one thing to sin from time to time, as everyone does. The Preacher will say as much in verse 20: "Surely there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins." But there is a world of difference between committing the occasional sin and making a deliberate decision to pursue a lifestyle of theft, deception, lust, and greed. "Don't be a fool," the Preacher is saying. "If you live in sin, you will perish." 

So there are two dangers. One is a temptation for the religious person: self-righteousness. The other is even more of a temptation for the non-religious person: unrighteousness. Both of these errors will lead to destruction; they may even lead to an untimely death. But there is also a way to avoid both of these dangers, and that is to live in the fear of God. The Preacher says: "It is good that you should take hold of this, and from that withhold not your hand, for the one who fears God shall come out from both of them" (Eccles. 7:18).

This verse is difficult to understand, but when the Preacher tells us to "take hold of this" and not to withhold our hand "from that," he is referring back to the advice that he gave in verses 16 and 17. So he is saying something like this: "The right life walks the path between two extremes, shunning self-righteousness, but not allowing one's native wickedness to run its own course."[5]When we do this, we will avoid the death and destruction that will surely befall us if we live sinfully and self-righteously. 

To say this more simply, the right way for us to live is in the fear of God. Notice in verse 18 that the person who "fears God" will escape the dangers of death and destruction. The fear of God is one of the great themes of the second half of Ecclesiastes, as the book moves from the vanity of life to the fear of its Creator. When we get to the end of Ecclesiastes, the Preacher will tell us to "fear God and keep his commandments" (Eccles. 12:13). Here he tells us to fear God and escape the coming judgment.



[1]Longman, 196

[2]R.N. Whybray, Ecclesiastes, The New Century Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1989), 120-21.

[3]H. C. Leupold, Exposition of Ecclesiastes (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1952), 163.

[4]Leupold, 164.

[5]Michael A. Eaton, Ecclesiastes: An Introduction and Commentary, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1983), 114.


Philip Ryken (PhD, Oxford) is the Bible teacher on Every Last Word, a weekly radio broadcast from the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. Dr. Ryken also serves as president of Wheaton College. He and his wife Lisa have five children: Josh, Kirsten, Jack, Kathryn, and Karoline. He is the author and editor of numerous books, including Art for God's Sake and Grace Transforming. When he is not preaching or playing with his children, Dr. Ryken likes to play basketball and ponder the relationship between Christianity and American culture. 


Editor's Note: This article was originally published on reformation21 in June 2009. To read more from Philip Ryken's "The Crook In the Lot" series,  see the list of articles below:

  1. The Crook In the Lot 
  2. Good Days, Bad Days

 

 

How can God, who is simple (theologically speaking), unchanging and impassible, meaningfully interact with a world that is constantly changing? The Westminster divine Anthony Burgess had to face this issue in his interactions with the so-called antinomians in London during the middle of the 17th century. My goal in this present article is to give an overview of the discussion that led him to address this particular issue.
 
In repudiating the antinomian position on punishments and chastisements, Burgess took the time to look at how God’s interactions with the world comport with his unchanging character. More specifically, how can God be unchangeably just when he administers different degrees of punishments to people for the same sin or when he allows the wicked to prosper? We might be tempted to think that God is not just with the wicked, and that he is more just with the one who suffers more and less just with the one who suffers less. Yet since God is unchangeable, he can’t stop being just or become more or less just. How are we to explain this apparent discrepancy? That is the point Burgess addresses.
 
The doctrine of immutability also surfaced, along with impassibility, in an objection against the importance of repentance as advocated by the orthodox. Since God doesn’t change because of what we do (he isn’t hurt by our sins or made happier by our obedience), sin isn’t such a great offense against God. Therefore, repentance isn’t such a big deal. Here is the objection in Burgess’ own words:
Why should there be such pressing of mourning and repenting for sin, and that because it is such an offence to God. For seeing God is all-sufficient and happy enough in himself, our sins do not hurt him, or make him miserable, no more then our graces adde to his happinesse, but as he is above our graces, so he is also above our sins: seeing therefore God is incapable of any injury from man, why should sin be such an offence?
The attributes of God played a part in Burgess’ discussion of justification. Justification involves forgiveness. But what kind of act is God’s forgiveness? Is it an immanent act or a transient act? An immanent act “is that which abides in God, so that it works no reall effect without,” whereas a transient act “is when a positive change is made thereby in a creature.” For example, God’s decree is an immanent act and creation is a transient act. The antinomians, along with some prominent Reformed theologians, argued that forgiveness is an immanent act. In refuting this position, Burgess expounded upon the simplicity and immutability of God.
 
One of the arguments that the antinomians used to defend the doctrine of justification before faith involved the immutability of God. They argued that if we are not justified before faith then God hated us before he loved us in justification. That would mean that God changed and therefore “why should Arminians be blamed for saying, 'We may be the children of God today, and the children of the devil tomorrow?'” In other words, God’s immutability demands eternal justification. To answer this objection Burgess had to show how God’s immutability comports with a transition from wrath to grace. He faced a similar dilemma in discussing the love of God. How does the eternal and unchanging love God relate to the creation, fall and redemption of mankind?
 
Interactions with the antinomians over important soteriological issues required Burgess to discuss the doctrine of God. Throughout the discussion, Burgess attempted to show how God is able to relate to his mutable creatures, without compromising the traditional doctrine of God.
 
Lord willing, we will begin to look at how he did that in the next article.

Many of us may struggle with the feeling that the church is already too old-fashioned. If so, why should we study church history? Shouldn't we stop looking backward to the 16th century and start living in the 21st century?

Contrary to our concerns, the church has always realized that a forward-looking church is also a backward looking church. Likewise, well-balanced, progressive Christians will be students of church history. 

The Bible supports this. Christianity, as revealed in Scripture, is an inescapably historical religion. The Christian conception of time itself is linear, not cyclical. That is, time has a beginning, a middle and an end. It is within this spectrum of time that the great themes of the Bible are all rooted. The Creation, Fall, Redemption and Restoration of humanity are not merely ideas; they are real events that remind us of the importance of history. 

Most Christians would agree that it's important to study this history (the Bible's history of redemption). But God's actions in history are significant and worthy of study whether they are recorded in Scripture or not. Consider the words of the Psalmist: "I remember the days of old; I meditate on all your works; I muse on the work of your hands" (Psalm 143:5). Along the same lines, the Apostle John ends his Gospel with these words: "And there are also many other things that Jesus did which, if they were written one by one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that would be written" (John 21:25). We don't know all of those works but they are real history as are all the other works of God.

The word "remember" is used 164 times in 39 of the 66 Bible books. In repeating this word, God is saying, "Don't neglect the past." Or as C.S. Lewis so memorably put it, "Don't be a chronological snob,"  only valuing the era in which you live. Henry Ford exemplified such snobbery when he said, "History is bunk." It's not. Instead, it's filled with meaning that God calls us to learn in our day. 

In 1 Corinthians 10, Paul reviews a portion of Israel's history, particularly their exodus from Egypt and their subsequent desert exile. Paul tells us in verse eleven that "all these things happened to them as examples, and they were written for our admonition..." 

Similarly, Stephen's sermon (Acts 7) is one monumental history lesson. It begins with the call of Abraham, moves to the people's bondage in and deliverance from Egypt, and an account of the construction of the tabernacle and temple. The point of this lesson is that the Jewish leaders have not learned from history. Instead they have perpetuated the sins of their fathers.

Not only are we to learn from history, we must also be teachers of history. Psalm 145:4 says, "One generation shall praise our works to another, and shall declare your mighty acts." The result of this command to teach God's history is recorded in Psalm 44:1. "We have heard with our ears, O God, our fathers have told us, the deeds You did in their days, in days of old". 

There are also practical considerations that urge us to study God's history. The following six reasons help demonstrate the value of learning from and teaching history. Knowing history helps us:

1. Appreciate the Sovereignty of God 

If you were to spend just one hour reading an accurate overview of church history, you might wonder how the church has continued to exist at all. From the Roman persecutions of the first three centuries to atrocities of today, the church has undergone tremendous opposition. The study of Church history reminds us of Christ's words: "I will build my church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it" (Matt. 16:18, Cf. Belgic Confession, Art. 27).

2. Apply Debated Biblical Teachings

We look to the practices of the early church to help us understand such important issues as church membership, baptism, worship and government involvement. For example, how do we know on which day we should rest from our labors and join together with other believers for worship? Not everyone agrees that the Bible answers this question with absolute clarity. But when we consider that the early Christians worshipped on the first day of the week and that this pattern has continued in a nearly unbroken string for 2,000 years, it lays a very strong precedent for modern churches to consider.

3. Defend Against Heresies and Cults

Take Athanasius. He fought a vigilant battle in the 4th century against the teachings of Arius, who denied that the Son is essentially equal to the Father. In the mind of Arius, Christ was neither fully God nor fully man, but belonged to an entirely different category.

Athanasius argued that only by the real Godhead coming into union with the full manhood in Christ could fallen men be made right with God. In other words, Jesus can only save if he is God.

Given that the Jehovah's Witnesses are modern-day, self-conscious followers of Arius, understanding Athanasius' arguments (especially in his bookOn the Incarnation) is extremely valuable today.

4. Resist Being Captivated by Fads

Many churches today are desperately trying to overhaul their image to be more hip. Churches seek to impress by embracing cultural fads of style, technology, music, movies and even shock-jock approaches to sexuality.

As historian Bruce Shelley once wrote, "Church history tends to separate the transient from the permanent, fads from basics."   

5. Reevaluate Common Church Practices

Ever wonder why, in some churches, when a minister gives a call to repent and believe the room becomes filed with sentimental music? Those stirred by religious sentiment are encouraged to come forward to make a decision. Why?

Likely, these are a few remnants of Charles Finney's 19th century revival techniques, which at the time were considered "new measures" of evangelism. There was, of course, a theological reason for the introduction of these new measures. Finney believed that God could not regenerate a person without that person's help. From this context it makes sense to encourage people to "give God permission" to save them.

A more expansive view of history would help us to understand that true revivals have come about not by novel advertising techniques or psychological manipulation but by the regular, powerful expository preaching of God's Word.

6. Live Courageous Christian Lives Today

Isaac Watts, the 18th century British Hymnist, asks a number of powerful questions making the point that the study of church history can be a spur to faithfulness:

"Am I a soldier of the cross, a follower of the lamb, and shall I fear to own his cause, or blush to speak his name? Must I be carried to the skies on flowery beds of ease, while others fought to win the prize and sailed through bloody seas? Are there no foes for me to face? Must I not stem the flood? Is this vile world a friend to grace, to help me on to God? Since I must fight if I would reign, increase my courage, Lord; I'll bear the toil, endure the pain, supported by Thy Word." 

Until the Lord comes again, the church is appropriately called the church militant. Many before us have fought well. But the fight continues.

Studying the history of the church soberly reminds us that we take our place in the ranks of the army of God. We take up the same battle-beaten armor that the saints of old used. We use the same weapon, the gospel of Jesus Christ. And we fight, not only to continue our heritage but to leave a lasting legacy for future generations as well.


William Boekestein is the pastor of Immanuel Fellowship Church in Kalamazoo, Michigan. He has written several books and numerous articles. He and his wife, Amy, have four children.


This article was originally published on reformation21 in October 2010. 

Trusting in the sovereign goodness of God helps us know how to respond to all the joys and trials of life.  Whether we are having a good day or a bad day, there is always a way for us to glorify God. So the Preacher says: "In the day of prosperity be joyful, and in the day of adversity consider: God has made the one as well as the other, so that man may not find out anything that will be after him" (Eccles. 7:14). 

Some days are full of prosperity:  The sun is shining, the birds are singing, there is food on the table and money in the bank.  If there is work to do, it is the kind of work that you enjoy doing.  If you are taking the day off, you get to spend it the way that you want to spend it, with the people you love.  Every day like that is a gift from God that calls us to be joyful. 

But not every day is like this. Some days the sun isn’t shining, the birds aren’t singing, and nothing seems right with the world.  There may be food on the table, but there is no money in the bank.  Work is a chore; vacation is boring; and you may feel like you don’t have a friend in the world.  Yet this day too is a day that comes from the hand of God, a day that is under his sovereign control.  The Preacher does not have the heart to tell us to be joyful on such a difficult day, but he does call us to a wise consideration of the ways of God.  When adversity comes, recognize that this too is a day that the Lord has made.  "Shall we receive good from God," Job asked on the day of his adversity, "and shall we not receive evil?" (Job 2:10).  No, we should acknowledge that both the good days and the bad days come from the hand of God.

The Preacher says further that it is impossible for us to know what will happen in the future.  Given what he said at the beginning of verse 14, we might assume that the righteous people are the ones that prosper, while the wicked always suffer adversity.  Yet sometimes exactly the opposite occurs: the righteous suffer adversity, while the ungodly prosper.  Thus it is impossible for us to predict what will happen in coming days.  As the Preacher says, "man may not find out anything that will be after him" (Eccles. 7:14).  We have no way of knowing whether the coming days will bring us greater prosperity or more adversity.  

Living with this kind of uncertainty need not cause us anxiety or despair; rather, it should teach us to leave our future in the hands of God. Most of us would prefer to control our own destiny.  Instead, we should entrust our lives to the loving care of our sovereign God.  If we do this, we will be well prepared for both the good days and the bad days.  In his comments on this verse, Martin Luther gave the following pastoral advice: "Enjoy the things that are present in such a way that you do not base your confidence on them, as though they were going to last forever...  but reserve part of our heart for God, so that with it we can bear the day of adversity."[1]

This is all part of what it means to "consider the work of God." When the Preacher tells us to "consider," he is telling us to do something more than simply see what God has done.  He is telling us to accept what God has done and surrender to his sovereign will.  He is telling us to praise God for all our prosperity and trust God through every adversity.  The Puritan Richard Baxter said it well: "Take what He gives, / And praise Him still, / Through good or ill, / Who ever lives."[2]


[1]Martin Luther, "Notes on Ecclesiastes," in Luther's Works, trans. and ed. by Jaroslav Pelikan, 56 vols. (St. Louis, MO: Concordia, 1972), 15:120.

[2]Richard Baxter, quoted in Derek Kidner, The Message of Ecclesiastes, The Bible Speaks Today (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1976), 68.

Editor's Note: To read more from Philip Ryken on the subject of God's sovereignty, head over to his previous article in this series.


Philip Ryken (PhD, Oxford) is the Bible teacher on Every Last Word, a weekly radio broadcast from the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. Dr. Ryken also serves as president of Wheaton College. He and his wife Lisa have five children: Josh, Kirsten, Jack, Kathryn, and Karoline. He is the author and editor of numerous books, including Art for God's Sake and Grace Transforming. When he is not preaching or playing with his children, Dr. Ryken likes to play basketball and ponder the relationship between Christianity and American culture. 


This article was originally published on reformation21 in June 2009. 

 

In our continual series through "The 39" Articles of Religion of the Reformed Church of England, Thomas Cranmer continues the exposition of the sacraments in a more specific study of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.
XXVIII—Of the Lord’s Supper

The Supper of the Lord is not only a sign of the love that Christians ought to have among themselves one to another; but rather is a Sacrament of our Redemption by Christ’s death: insomuch that to such as rightly, worthily, and with faith, receive the same, the Bread which we break is a partaking of the Body of Christ; and likewise the Cup of Blessing is a partaking of the Blood of Christ.
Transubstantiation (or the change of the substance of Bread and Wine) in the Supper of the Lord, cannot be proved by holy Writ; but is repugnant to the plain words of Scripture, overthroweth the nature of a Sacrament, and hath given occasion to many superstitions.
The Body of Christ is given, taken, and eaten, in the Supper, only after an heavenly and spiritual manner. And the mean whereby the Body of Christ is received and eaten in the Supper is Faith.
The Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper was not by Christ’s ordinance reserved, carried about, lifted up, or worshipped.
In just four paragraphs this article masterfully and pastorally sets out the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper. In the first paragraph it defines the Supper as a sacrament, repeating what was already written in article 25 concerning a Reformed understanding, that (rightly understood) sacraments are gifts of God to the church, they are “certain sure witnesses and effectual signs of grace towards us." It is one of two means through which God works “invisibly in us, and doth not only quicken (enliven), but also to strengthen and confirm our faith in him.” There is a difference between the Latin and the English here. The "ought to have" in the first paragraph is not in Latin.
 
The second paragraph describes the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation first as a doctrine that “cannot be proved,” then it is “repugnant to the plain words of Scripture” (especially those supporting the humanity of Christ or describing the Last Supper, when his physical body and blood remained physically separate and distinct from the bread and wine). Transubstantiation is rejected thirdly because it “overthrows the nature of a sacrament." Article 2 has already set out the distinct but not separated two natures of Christ; thus fourthly transubstantiation gives rise to a false Christology that robs Christ of his glory, leaving men and women to scramble in “many superstitions” of their own making. There are some differences between the Latin and the English version that has come down to us. The “or the change of substance” in paragraph two is not in the Latin original. 
 
The third paragraph was rewritten entirely in 1563. Anglicans continue to disagree as to what this change signifies. The usual argument is that by 1551 Cranmer has moved to a more Zwinglian position on the nature of the sacrament that required correction by 1563 to wording that would allow Lutheran consubstantiation. Although known Lutheran sympathizer Bishop of Rochester Edmund Gheast argued in convocation to that effect, the new edit survives in Archbishop Parker's handwriting in the original draft. Parker is well-known as being opposed to the Lutheran view of local presence, adding article 29 to guarantee that the Anglican doctrine does not allow for consubstantiation. When we apply our principle that the historical formularies must be understood as a whole, Cranmer’s original language is preserved in the final instruction to the minister at the end of the Service of the Lord’s Supper in the 1552/62 Book of Common Prayer: “the natural Body and Blood of our Saviour Christ are in Heaven, and not here; it being against the truth of Christ’s natural body to be at one time in more places than one.” 
 
Parker’s revision sets out the Reformed doctrine in three parts. The first is the fact that the elements are the instrument of spiritual blessing, “The Body of Christ is given, taken, and eaten, in the Supper” the manner of reception being, “only after a heavenly and spiritual manner.” In other words, the words given, taken, eaten are to be spiritually understood, Christ is not in any sense locally present but is truly present by the power of the Holy Spirit. The third confirms the Spirit’s efficacy, “And the mean whereby the Body of Christ is received and eaten in the Supper is faith.” We may now turn to the 1552/62 Book of Common Prayer for confirmation. In the Service for the Communion of the Sick, the instruction to the minister says,
But if a man, either by reason of extremity of sickness, or for want of warning in due time to the Curate, or for lack of company to receive with him, or by any other just impediment, do not receive the Sacrament of Christ's Body and Blood: the Curate shall instruct him that if he do truly repent him of his sins, and stedfastly believe that Jesus Christ hath suffered death upon the Cross for him, and shed his Blood for his redemption, earnestly remembering the benefits he hath thereby, and giving him hearty thanks therefore; he doth eat and drink the Body and Blood of our Saviour Christ profitably to his soul's health, although he do not receive the Sacrament with his mouth.
The fourth paragraph concludes with some examples when the doctrine of the Supper is distorted by suggesting any "change of substance" in the bread and wine: when the bread or wine is "reserved, carried about, lifted up, or worshipped." Which, as the final instruction [https://www.churchofengland.org/prayer-and-worship/worship-texts-and-res... again reminds us, “the Sacramental Bread and Wine remain still in their very natural substances, and therefore may not be adored; (for that were Idolatry, to be abhorred of all faithful Christians).”
 
One should note that the Puritan movement found no objection with this article or its application in worship, but times have changed. Perhaps you may consider attending an Anglican church while on vacation, or you've come to a point when you are considering a transfer to an Anglican diocese? If you are, pay close attention to the manner the Lord’s Supper is observed. Is there an expository sermon? Do you hear words that begin, “Dearly beloved in the Lord, ye that mind to come to the Holy Communion of the Body and Blood of our Saviour Christ, must consider how Saint Paul exhorteth all persons diligently to try and examine themselves, before they presume to eat of that Bread, and drink of that Cup…”? It is the Exhortation, cautioning and fencing the table to those who may approach to receive. Do you hear the word, “table” or “altar”? Is there a pause before it, a nod of the head, a bow, genuflection? Does the minister turn eastward with his back to you? Are there colorful robes, a cross, and candles? In the offering, is the bread raised in the air, the cup? Then strike a line through the name and move on. You have learned one thing for sure. The historical formularies are ignored, and the Thirty-Nine Articles are forgotten – and when they are forgotten, the gospel soon follows.
 

Meet the Puritans is a conversation of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. It is supported only by its readers and gracious Christians like you. Please prayerfully consider supporting us.


For previous articles in this series, see:
  1. Introduction
  2. One God in Trinity, Trinity in Unity (Art. 1)
  3. The Incarnation and Atonement (Art. 2)
  4. The Work of Christ (Arts. 3-4)
  5. The Holy Spirit (Art. 5)
  6. The Rule of Faith: Part 1 (Art. 6)
  7. The Rule of Faith: Part 2 (Art. 7)
  8. The Rule of Faith: Part 3 (Art. 8)
  9. Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude: Part 1 (Art. 9)
  10. Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude: Part 2 (Art. 10)
  11. Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude: Part 3 (Art. 11)
  12. Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude: Part 4 (Art. 12)
  13. Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude: Part 5 (Arts. 13-14)
  14. Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude: Part 6 (Art. 15)
  15. Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude: Part 7 (Art. 16)
  16. Grace Alone! (Art. 17)
  17. Christ Alone! (Art. 18)
  18. The Visible and Invisible Church: Part 1 (Art. 19)
  19. The Visible and Invisible Church: Part 2 (Art. 20)
  20. The Visible and Invisible Church: Part 3 (Art. 21)
  21. The Visible and Invisible Church: Part 4 (Art. 22)
  22. The Visible and Invisible Church: Part 5 (Art. 23)
  23. The Visible and Invisible Church: Part 6 (Art. 24)
  24. The Sacraments: Part 1 (Art. 25)
  25. The Sacraments: Part 2 (Art. 26)
  26. The Sacraments: Part 3 (Art. 27)

 

Having considered the decrees of God or his eternal purposes in which he foreordains whatever  comes to pass (WSC, Q7), we now look at how God “executes” or carries out these plans “in the works of creation and providence” (WSC,Q8). In connection with decree and execution, Edward Leigh (1602–1671) sees two basic works of God (A Treatise of Divinity, 1646):

  1. His decree as his “internal” (ad intra, within himself apart from all else) operation “before time” in which he “determined from eternity, what he would do in time;”
  2. His work occurring “in time” as his “external” operation (ad extra, outside himself and related to all else) in the “creation of all things” in the “past” and “government and preservation of all things” in the “present” (relatively speaking!)

Let’s open up the past and present external work of God in creation and providence, respectively, according to the Puritans.

First, God made all things out of nothing and all very good. William Ames (The Marrow of Sacred Divinity, 1627) observes that creation “respects the whole world, that is, whatsoever doth exist besides God.”  He created, notes Thomas Watson, ex nihilo, “without any pre-existent matter . . . out of the womb of nothing” and “at first very good (Gen 1:31), without any defect or deformity” prior to the fall (Thomas Watson, A Body of Divinity, 1692).

Second, God made all things by the word of his power and in the space of six days. Watson compares God’s creating with Solomon building his temple, the former of which was “wrought without tools” and accomplished simply “with a word” (Psa 33:6). Ames, like Calvin before him and the Irish Articles (1615) and Westminster Confession (1646) and Catechisms (1647) after him, uses the phrase “in the space of six days” to express creation’s duration. He like Calvin opposed the well-known Augustinian instantaneous view, arguing that creation “was not altogether and in one moment.” Using the same phrase at the Westminster Assembly may mean that they deemed it enough to refute instantaneous creation without specific mention to it.

Some point out that views existed seeing the creation days as figurative and not literal (so A.F. Mitchell, The Westminster Assembly, 1883; of Philo of Alexandria and Christian humanist, John Colet). Thus, the simple biblical phrase, “in the space of six days,” addresses duration with openness to non-literal views.  This seems unlikely to me. At times, the language of the Confession remained open-ended to make room for different views. Yet, in such instances, evidence existed of discussion and debate on such matters.  To my knowledge, no one has shown any member of the Assembly to hold a figurative view or that such were even being discussed, apart from instantaneous creation. It seems that those views (even Augustine’s) were really not much of an issue, and so went without mention. So, I ask, why read the statement “in the space of six days” as imprecise when there was no one (known at least) to accommodate?

In support of my arguments here, please consider Thomas Vincent (1634–1678) who while too young for Westminster was a contemporary to many divines, who knew of his commentary on the WSC (An Explicatory Catechism, 1675). Vincent obviously refutes instantaneous creation and presents a clear six literal day creation with some rationale to back it up: “God created all things in the space of six days. He could have created all things together in a moment, but he took six days time to work in, and rested on the seventh day, that we might the better apprehend the order of the creation, and that we might imitate him in working but six days of the week, and in resting on the seventh.” Given that his commentary received the commendation of several prominent Puritans (e.g. Thomas Brooks, Thomas Manton, John Owen) and at least two members of the Assembly (Joseph Caryl and Edmund Calamy), it seems quite reasonable to assume that Vincent understood the phrase “in the space of six days” just fine here.

Third, God created man in his image. God created man, notes Watson, as “the most exquisite piece in the creation,” in the image (likeness) of God.  Ames, very much pre-empting Larger and Shorter Catechism thinking, sees this image inwardly in the perfection of body and soul with man adorned with faculties as the “understanding and will” and the fitness to “live well” in “wisdom, holiness, and righteousness” (Eph 4:24, Col 3:10). The image manifests itself outwardly also in man’s “dominion over other creatures” (Gen 1:26, 2:19,20). John Bunyan (1628-1688) captures these aspects allegorically in The Holy War (1682) when he refers to man, by way of the city of Mansoul, as “the mirror and glory of all” that Shaddai (God), “even the top-piece . . . And as he made it goodly to behold, so also mighty to have dominion over all the country round about.”

Fourth, God in his ‘present’ external work of providence, upholds all that he has created in history. With an emphasis on man, WSC, Q11 renders the classic definition of God’s works of providence as “his most holy, wise, and powerful preserving and governing all his creatures, and all their actions” (see e.g. Heb 1:3, Neh 9:6, Prov 16:33). Watson similarly calls providence God’s “ordering all issues and events of things” as the “queen and governess of the world” that reaches from the “least of things” (e.g. birds and ants) to “all persons, especially the persons of the godly.” These views were continuous with standard Reformation (e.g. Calvin), medieval (e.g. Aquinas), and patristic (e.g. Augustine) theology and opposed Deism’s uninvolved and impersonal Creator and Socinianism and Arminianism’s dilution of God’s sovereignty over human decisions.

Fifth, God’s providence reached every aspect of life and warranted careful attention. The classic Puritan work on providence was John Flavel’s Divine Conduct, or the Mystery of Providence Opened (1678). Flavel stands as a representative for an exhaustive and eminently practical Puritan treatment of providence. For example, in considering that sovereign control does not rule out the use of means, Flavel speaks of them as “the tools of all sorts and sizes in the shop of Providence,” which make nothing by themselves apart from “a most skillful hand that uses them.” Up to the 17th century, no one thought and expanded upon providence to the extent of  the Puritans, which in part can be explained by the afflictions they endured. A wonderful treatment of how God uses afflictions in the Christian life (based on Rom 8:28) came with Thomas Watson’s A Divine Cordial (1663), where he claims, “nothing hurts the godly” when their inward and outward comforts are troubled in the “providences” of God. Such really do work together for the best of his saints like a cordial, “an invigorating medicinal drink concocted even with ingredients that may be poisonous by themselves.”

Two other relevant areas I want to briefly mention concern providence in relation to our sin and our understanding of God’s will. Watson, in A Body of Divinity, observes that God “is the cause of no man’s sin” yet he “permits” sin (more than “barely as in line with Calvin’s rejection of bare permission) in his control of all things in which has a hand in the action but not the sin. In the end, while it defies explanation, God so orders things that he uses man’s sin to fulfill his good divine purposes. Related to understanding God’s will for our lives, Watson argues that we should observe how God is at work in our lives by providence but without making such a “rule of our actions”: “Providence is a Christian's diary, but not his Bible.”

 

Meet the Puritans is a conversation of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. It is supported only by its readers and gracious Christians like you. Please prayerfully consider supporting us.


For previous posts in this series, see:

  1. What is Puritan Theology?
  2. William Ames and Puritan Theologizing
  3. William Ames and Shorter Catechism Q&A 1
  4. The Two Lights
  5. Scripture
  6. God Is
  7. Trinity
  8. God's Decrees

One of the first people that I hope to meet in heaven is the Scottish theologian Thomas Boston.[1]  I admire the man for the depth of his theology; Jonathan Edwards said that Boston's work on the covenants distinguished him as a "truly great divine."[2]I also admire for the breadth of his writing: twelve thick volumes on almost every doctrine of the Christian faith, taught from every book of the Bible. I admire Thomas Boston even more for his faithfulness as a pastor over twenty-five years in the same rural parish.  But I admire him most of all for his perseverance through suffering.

Thomas Boston was a melancholy man, prone to seasons of discouragement in the Christian life.  He was often in poor health, even though he never missed his turn in the pulpit.  His wife suffered from chronic illness of the body, and perhaps also the mind.  But perhaps the couple's greatest trial was the death of their children: they lost six of their ten babies.  

One loss was especially tragic.  Boston had already lost a son named Ebenezer, which in the Bible means "Hitherto hath the Lord helped us" (1 Sam. 7:12 KJV).  When his wife gave birth to another son, he considered naming the new child Ebenezer as well.  Yet the minister hesitated.  Naming the boy Ebenezer would be a testimony of hope in the faithfulness of God.  But what if this child died, too, and the family had to bury another Ebenezer?  That would be a loss too bitter to bear.  By faith Boston decided to name his son Ebenezer.  Yet the child was sickly, and despite the urgent prayers of his parents, he never recovered.  As the grieving father wrote in his Memoirs, "it pleased the Lord that he also was removed from me."[3]

After suffering such a heavy loss, many people would be tempted to drop out of ministry, to argue with God, or to even abandon their faith. Thomas Boston did none of these; he continued believing in the goodness andthe sovereignty of God.  Rather than turning away from the Lord in times of trial, he turned towards the Lord for help and comfort.  

Boston's perseverance through suffering is worthy not only of our admiration, but also of our imitation.  One way to learn from his example is to read his classic sermon on the sovereignty of God, which is one of the last things he prepared for publication before he died. Boston called his sermon The Crook in the Lot.[4]It was based on the command and the question that we read in Ecclesiastes 7:13: 

"Consider the work of God: who can make straight what he has made crooked?"

The command in this verse is a call to a careful observation of the way that God works.  The man who wrote Ecclesiastes—the Preacher who called himself Qoheleth and who may well have been King Solomon himself—took careful notice of the world around him. He studied the seasons of life, learning when it was time for this and time for that.  He watched the way people worked and played.  He saw how they lived and how they died.  Here in chapter seven he invites readers to consider God's work in the world, and then he asks a rhetorical question. 

So, how would we answer him? Who does have the power to straighten out what God has made crooked?  The answer, of course, is no one. Things are the way that God wants them to be; we do not have the ability to overrule the Almighty.

When the Preacher talks about something "crooked," he is not referring to something that is morally out of line, as if God could ever be the author of evil.  Instead, he is talking about some trouble or difficulty in life we wish that we could change but cannot.  It happens to all of us.  We struggle with the physical limitations of our bodies.  We suffer the breakdown of personal or family relationships.  We have something that we wish we did not have, or do not have something that we wish we did.  Sooner or later, there is something in life that we wish to God had a different shape to it.  What is the one thing that you would change in your life, if you had the power to change it?  

God has given each of us a different situation in life.  Thomas Boston explained it like this: "There is a certain train or course of events, by the providence of God, falling to every one of us during our life in this world: and that is our lot, as being allotted to us by the sovereign God."  We all have our own lot in life, and we all have things in our lots which we wish that we could change: 

In that train or course of events, some fall out cross to us, and against the grain; and these make the crook in our lot. While we are here, there will be cross events, as well as agreeable ones, in our lot and condition. Sometimes things are softly and agreeably gliding on; but, by and by, there is some incident which alters that course, grates us, and pains us... . Every body's lot in this world has some crook in it... . There is no perfection here, no lot out of heaven without a crook.[5]

"What God sees meet to mar,” as Boston said, “we will not be able to mend... ."[6]But neither Boston nor the Preacher were fatalists! Instead, they sought to frame their situations in terms of the sovereignty of God. According to Boston, this view "is a proper means, at once to silence and satisfy men, and so to bring them unto a dutiful submission to their Maker and Governor, under the crook in their lot."[7]

We are under the power of the sovereign and omnipotent Ruler of the universe.  We do not have the power to edit His plan for our lives. But far from driving us to despair, the sovereignty of God gives us hope through all the trials of life.  We do suffer the frustration of life in a fallen world.  But the Bible says that we suffer these things by the will of a God who is planning to set us free from all this futility, and who is working all things together for our good (Rom. 8:20, 28).



[1] Boston was actually the subject of my doctoral research in church history. See: Philip Graham Ryken, Thomas Boston as Preacher of the Fourfold State, Rutherford Studies in Historical Theology (Carlisle, UK: Paternoster, 1999).

[2] Jonathan Edwards, The Works of Jonathan Edwards, ed. John E. Smith (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1957), 2:489.

[3] Thomas Boston, The Complete Works of the Late Rev. Thomas Boston of Ettrick, ed. by Samuel M'Millan, 12 vols (London, 1853; repr. Wheaton, IL: Richard Owen Roberts, 1980), 12:205.

[4] Thomas Boston, "The Crook in the Lot," in Complete Works, 3:495-590.

[5] Ibid., 3:499.

[6] Ibid., 3:498.

[7] Ibid., 3:498.


Philip Ryken (PhD, Oxford) is the Bible teacher on Every Last Word, a weekly radio broadcast from the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. Dr. Ryken also serves as president of Wheaton College. He and his wife Lisa have five children: Josh, Kirsten, Jack, Kathryn, and Karoline. He is the author and editor of numerous books, including Art for God's Sake and Grace Transforming. When he is not preaching or playing with his children, Dr. Ryken likes to play basketball and ponder the relationship between Christianity and American culture. 


This article was originally published on reformation21 in June 2009.