Spiritual disciplines have now been a regular feature in Evangelical teaching on discipleship for several decades. This has been a good development, to the degree that it has led believers into renewed habits of bible reading, meditation, and prayer.
Many of these books, however, freely utilize the devotional writings of contemplatives and mystics from medieval Roman Catholicism, Jesuit writings from the Counter-Reformation, and the devotional writings of the Quakers. These are often quoted alongside Reformed, Puritan, and Evangelical authors, while paying little attention to their original theological and ecclesiastical contexts. The result is that much Evangelical teaching on devotional practices is only loosely connected to a robust understanding of the gospel of grace, or worse, leads undiscerning believers into practices more characterized by mysticism, asceticism, and legalism, than the gospel-grounded, grace-oriented piety of which Calvin spoke, namely, “that reverence joined with love of God which the knowledge of his benefits induces” (Institutes 1.2.1).
But godliness never flourishes unless it is planted in the fertile soil of God’s grace. Legalism subverts the gospel and obscures the redemptive work of Christ on the cross, which removes the debt of sin and cancels the curse of the law (Gal. 1:6-9; 3:13-14; Col. 2:11-17). Mystical experience, unmoored from God’s self-revelation in Scripture, leads to inflated emotionalism, but not genuine nourishment from Christ, the head of the body (Col. 2:18-19). And the practices of asceticism, while bearing a superficial resemblance to wisdom, are useless in truly mortifying the flesh (Col. 2:20-23).
The Puritans understood this and left behind the greatest library of biblical, evangelical (that is, gospel-oriented), practical, devotional literature that the church has ever produced. At the headwaters of the Puritan movement was a “spiritual brotherhood” of pastors and preachers, centered in Cambridge, who were heirs of the Reformers who went before them, and fathers to the generations that followed. This brotherhood included Lawrence Chaderton, William Perkins, Richard Greenham, John Downame, and Richard Rogers, the author of Holy Helps for a Godly Life. Together, these men became the leading architects of the Puritan theology of godliness.”
Though not as famous as William Perkins, Rogers was a significant leader among non-conformists in Elizabethan England. Rogers, like Enoch, walked with God. And he wrote a massive travel guide to help fellow pilgrims in their journey. This guide, Rogers’ most important contribution to Puritan literature, was called Seven Treatises.
Holy Helps for a Godly Life is a modernization of Rogers’ third treatise, which “lays forth the means, whereby a godly life is helped and continued.” These means, or helps (the terms are interchangeable for Rogers) are the spiritual disciplines, or what believers in the Reformed tradition sometimes call “means of grace.” While Rogers doesn’t use the full phrase “means of grace,” he does use the term “means” often, calling the focus of his third treatise, “the means whereby a godly life is helped and continued . . . As the Christian life does not begin without means, neither can it grow without them.”
Rogers divides these means into public and private. The public means are the preaching of the word, the sacraments, and public prayers, with the singing of psalms. Rogers lists seven private helps, namely: watchfulness, meditation, putting and keeping on the Christian armor, reflection on personal spiritual experience, godly conversation with other believers and within one’s family, private prayer, and the reading of both Scripture and godly literature. Rogers also addresses two extraordinary means: solemn thanksgiving and fasting.
Readers will benefit from Rogers most when they keep two things in mind: First, these helps are for Christians, that is, for true believers who have rested in the finished work of Christ for their justification. This is assumed by Rogers throughout, since he had already established it in the first treatise where he treats both man’s misery and God’s way of redemption from it, that is, the way of faith alone in Christ alone. Rogers could hardly be clearer on this point. “There is no way to receive Christ and all His merits (the full medicine of man’s misery) but by faith,” he writes. Secondly, the aim of these helps is to lead believers into both holiness and happiness. Rogers knew what modern believers sometimes forget: holiness is the way to true happiness. Discipline, though a restriction of sorts, leads to greater freedom. Godliness is the indispensable key to a life filled with spiritual comfort.
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