Sunday, May 31, 2009

0 Wise Pastoral Counsel from Gurnall, Part II

Continuing the previous discussion of Gurnall's answers in The Christian in Complete Armour to the potential objection, wherein a believer asks, "I have asked God for strength against this corruption, and find that my hands are yet weak..." (p. 37) In the first two answers to this objection, Gurnall suggests that the objector consider a second time the response that God has given to the prayers he had made for strength - for God often answers prayers in different ways that we expect Him to. In his second two answers to this objection, Gurnall has somewhat more challenging responses to give us.

First, Gurnall asks the objector to consider whether in fact he himself might be the cause of his own continued struggles despite his prayers to God for strength. Gurnall writes, "If, after long waiting for strength from God, it be as thou complainest, inquire whether the [thing that hinders] be not found in thyself..." So blind we are to our own contributions to our condition that we sometimes are unaware that in fact we are obstructing our own prayers... To flesh this out, Gurnall offers three additional questions:
"1. Hast thou come indeed to God for strength to perform duty, to mortify corruption, and the like? Perhaps thou wilt say, Yes, I have waited on those ordinances which are the way in which he hath promised to give out strength. But is this all? Thou mayst come to them and [i] not wait on God in them.[/i] Hast thou not carnally expected strength from them, and so put the ordinances in God's stead?" (pp. 40-41, William Gurnall, The Christian in Complete Armour)
This is needed medicine for those who habitually attend worship and the Lord's Supper and somehow expect that without any further effort on their part to gain from these duties they'll automatically be blessed. The case is similar with those who believe that in order to raise Christian children all they must do is present them for baptism. Their duty is not merely to bring them to the font and mark them, laying hold of the promise of God "to you and your children", and there the work stops. This is not what it means to raise a Christian seed - it is the Reformed conviction that this is incumbent upon Christian parents, but what makes a Christian home is not the fact that all are baptized. Prayer, centering life on the Word, raising children to be obedient followers of Christ, and more are the duties of the Christian parents. In the same vein, we cannot simply expect a mechanistic connection to exist between attendance upon the Word in worship and the Lord's Supper when it is celebrated and Christian spiritual health. It doesn't simply connect in such a way as that. We must, as Gurnall argued, "come to God" in these means of grace in order to be blessed in them... and not mechanically seek our salvation in them as though our mere presence there is the operative fact.

Gurnall continues:
"2. Ask thy soul whether thou hast been thankful for that little strength thou hast.... dost thou through feebleness often fail in duty, and fall into temptation? Mourn in the sense of these; yet bless God that thou dost not live in a total neglect of duty, out of a profane contempt thereof, and that instead of falling through weakness, thou dost not lie in the mire of sin through the wickedness of thy heart. The unthankful soul may thank itself that it thrives no better." (p. 41, William Gurnall, The Christian in Complete Armour).
Thanksgiving for what God HAS given us helps us more humbly approach Him for that which we have not. It puts us also in a more appropriate frame; a more trusting frame; a more faithful frame.
"3. Art thou humble under the assistance and strength God hath given thee? Pride stops the conduit. If the heart begin to swell, it is time for God to hold his hand, and turn the cock, for all that is poured on such a soul runs over into self-applauding, and so is as water spilt, in regard of any good it doth the creature, or any glory it brings to God." (p. 41, William Gurnall, The Christian in Complete Armour)
The moment we puff ourselves up in pride over God's strengthening, the moment we reveal the fact that we do not understand who God is and what He has done for us. When the grace of strength is granted us, and we remain not humble, and thankful, we are liable to God's snatching away of that which He has graced us in order to discipline us and cause us to seek Him rightly. When God blesses, we must particularly be on watch that we be not proud in that which He has blessed us.... We are sternly warned against this in Scripture, as we are told to "take heed, lest ye fall." This is ESPECIALLY true when God has graciously given us strength to withstand a test or trial.

Gurnall expands on this third item, describing how pride appears:
"(1) It appears in bold adventures, when a person runs into the mouth of temptation, bearing himself up on the confidence of this grace received. (p. 42)"
"Pride goeth before a fall," we are told - and when pride swells the heart, in successes against temptation, such that we forget humility and that God provided the way out or the strength to succeed, we are particularly prone to a greater fall than we would have taken in the first place. When we trust in our gifts of grace (gifts that they are) rather than God Himself, we are liable to a great fall.
"(2) Pride appears in the neglect of those means whereby the saint's graces and comforts are to be fed when strongest. (p. 42)"
When we are prostrate before God, lying in the dust, fully laid out and reliant upon His grace - we are eager to wait on Him in worship, the Lord's Supper, prayer and in study of the Word. When strong, our pride has a tendency to rise up, and displace our need for these continual dispensings of God's manna. We have a tendency, when feeling spiritually strong, to neglect those very things through which God blessed us with strength in the first place. It is much easier to humbly wait on God when feeling weak (as we always should) and a much greater challenge to wait upon Him when feeling strong. The reason for this is simple: pride.

Finally, Gurnall adds a fourth answer to the objection spoken of above. I'll quote it simply as I've gone on far too long already in this post:
"If thy heart doth not smite thee from what hath been said, but thou hast sincerely waited upon God and yet hast not received the strength thou desirest, yet let it be thy resolution, to live and die waiting on him." (p. 42, William Gurnall, The Christian in Complete Armour)
We may need to wait forever... and that's okay. God may continually have us to be, as Luther's dog, waiting at His hand for blessing - and even blessing that never comes in this life. Our dependence should be that strong, and our willingness to persevere in waiting on Him that constant. For in Him and in Him alone are we strong, and in Christ, in Christ alone can we persevere in our weakness.

0 Wise Pastoral Counsel from Gurnall

William Gurnall, in his The Christian in Complete Armour, often steps aside from his primary exposition, as the Puritans were wont to do, and gives particular counsel to presumed objections that his readers might have. At the very end of the first part of this work, the author is dealing with the objection some might raise to the doctrine of the Christian's sure recourse to God's strength in dealing with temptation and trial. Throughout the first part of his work, Gurnall has been working through the phrase from Ephesians 6:1, wherein Paul writes, "Be strong in the Lord and in the power of His might." Gurnall has claimed throughout that the Christian does in fact have the infinite reserve of God's strength for his help in dealing with struggles against sin, and combatting the wiles of the devil. He recognizes, though, that many may not sense this fact, Biblical as it is, when they deal with sin in their lives. An objection he envisions, which surely has come to the minds of many who have read this great work, is the following: "So if God is my strength, and if I have prayed repeatedly for His help in my trials, why am I not succeeding in holding firm against temptations and doubts?" This is a natural question -and one which the careful shepherd will be prepared to answer... and Gurnall does just this at the tail end of part I of The Christian in Complete Armour.

His answer comes in several parts - first, he writes:
"Look once again, poor heart, into thy own bosom, and see whether thou findest not some strength sent unto thee, which thou didst overlook before; this may be, yea, is very ordinary in this case, when God answers our prayer not in the letter, or when the thing itself is sent, but it comes in at the back-door, while we are expecting it at the fore." (pp. 37-38, William Gurnall, The Christian in Complete Armour)
He very strongly counsels the person asking "where is the help I prayed for?" not to besmirch God with the charge of failing to answer his prayer in the way he expected Him to - but to consider that God ALWAYS answers prayer, and, for the Christian, always answers in such a way as is better ultimately for him than for Him to answer exactly as requested.

Perhaps, Gurnall reasons, God's answer to our prayers for strength to withstand temptation is not to give us strength as we request, but instead gave us the strength to pray more earnestly against it:
"Thou prayest before, but now more earnestly, all the powers of thy soul are up to plead with God. Before, thou wast more favorable and moderate in thy request, now thou hast a zeal, thouh canst take no denial... Now, poor soul, is this nothing? [Is this] no strength? Had not thy God reinforced thee, thy sin would have weakened thy spirit of prayer, and not increased it. (p. 38, William Gurnall, The Christian in Complete Armour)"
Such an answer to prayer is a good answer, indeed - and a great blessing. If God so deems it to be the proper answer for Him to make, then it is our best end in those prayers. For us, it is hard, I think, to accept partial successes. We always want complete success now against every sin and every temptation - and, in our flesh, we are likely to think that God has failed us when perfect success against sin and temptation does not result from our prayers. We must take care not to tar God with such a charge.

Secondly, Gurnall argues that it may very well be as we have suspected when we have prayed for strength and not received it. We should, though, "take heed of charging God so foolishl, as if God were not what he promiseth..." (p. 39) Rather, we should recognize that the Father is wiser than we are, and that he has "gracious ends" that stay his hand when we ask Him for strength. Gurnall gives three suggested reasons for denial of prayers for strength, and I appreciate all of them greatly:
"1. God may deny further degrees of strength to put thee on the exercise of that thou hast more carefully...
2. God may deny the Christian such assisting strength in duty, or mortifying strength of corruption, as he desires, purely on a gracious design that he may thereby have an advantage of expressing his love in such a way, as shall most kindly work upon the ingenuity of the soul to love God again...
3. God may communicate the less of his assisting strength, that he may show the more of his supporting strength, in upholding weak grace..." (pp. 39-40, William Gurnall, The Christian in Complete Armour)
We are so apt to assume that God only "answers" when He gives us exactly what we have asked for, not recalling, importantly, that He is the wise God He is - and that if we are His, then he always gives us what is ultimately best for us; no more, no less. In thinking He must answer as we have asked, we put ourselves above Him and forget that God is in charge, and that Father does indeed know best.

Two more answers to this objection William Gurnall gives later - and I'll post them next time.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

1 The Power of God in Soothing a Troubled Conscience

In reading closely Gurnall's The Christian in Complete Armour, I am discovering why some have called the work a broad and systematic teaching concerning the Christian experience as a life lived before God. Paragraph after paragraph offers deep and sound wisdom from the depths of a well clearly filled by weeks, months and even years of meditation on God's Word.

In discussing the grounding of faith on the promises of God to supply strength to His saints, Gurnall takes up a pastoral question of conflicted consciences in his readers. Part of the Christian life is dealing with our consciences when realization is made that we are walking awry in some way or another - and oftentimes this engagement with our consciences can give rise to great agony and pain over knowing our sin and understanding the offense it is to our Almighty God and Sovereign Lord. Gurnall offers in such cases great wisdom, and solid exhortation:
"In agonies of conscience that arise from the greatness of thy sins, fly for refuge into the almighty power of God. Truly, sirs, when a man's sins are displayed in all their bloody colours, and spread forth in their killing aggravations, and the eye of conscience awakened to behold them through the multiplying or magnifying glass of a temptation, they must needs surprise the creature with horror and amazement, till the soul can say with the prophet, For all this huge host, there is yet more with me than against me. For all this huge host, there is yet more with me than against me. One Almighty is more than many mighties. All these mighty sins and devils, make not one almighty sin, or an almighty devil. Oppose to all the hideous charges brought against thee by them this onely attribute... Thou mayest, poor soul, when accused by Satan, molested by his terrors, say, It is God that justifies; I have his hand to it, that I should have my life given to me as soon as I laid down my arms and submitted to him.... I commit myself to him as unto a faithful Creator." (p. 35, William Gurnall, The Christian in Complete Armour)
Surely all sin - God's lambs as well as those outside the fold. All, however, do not have recourse to God's living water. Oftentimes we who are in Christ will see more clearly and experience more forcefully the effects of sin in ourselves... for we see sin as it is - black and ugly, and a rebellion toward God our Father. Surely this realization is of a discomforting nature - and therefore the balm of Gilead must be applied to us if we are to survive that discomfort brought on by our self-awareness. This is promised to us, and a help toward obtaining that salve is the recognition of the promise of God's covenant bonds with us. When I am convinced of the promise of God to save His own, and the certainty of the declaration of Christ on the Cross, "It is finished", then I can declare with Paul, "thanks be to God," and "it is God that justifies".

We must, too, remember that this covering, this actual, realized atonement, is not ours by our obedience, or ours by our good intentions - but ours by bond of Christ, instituted by God Himself in eternity past, realized in time. It is the covenant union of Christ's sheep with Him as the Shepherd who laid down His life for them that brings the sheep through, and renders them acceptable and spotless as He is.

We must, as we approach God in penitential prayer, strive with our own flesh to approach Him in humility as recipients of the gracious gift of acceptance with Him. As we take refuge in Him with this understanding, we are able to grasp the promise of protection, strength, and grace that Gurnall has been talking about for some time in this first part of this work.

Gurnall next goes on to point out an inconsistency in some - an arrogance that is so easy to slip into when one is promised strength by the Almighty God. This arrogance is the attitude that, "since God is on my side, I can therefore test the waters of His promise and go live on the edge a little. I don't intend to actually dip my whole body in the pool of sin, but maybe dangle my feet in a bit, since I know the lifeguard is perfect. It'll be alright - God will understand that I'm fallible."

As the angel said to John when John bowed down to him in worship, "Don't DO THAT!" This is the height of arrogance and a manifestation of a complete misunderstanding of God's grace. Gurnall writes,
"while thou expectest the performance of the promise, and the assistance of the almighty power against thy corruptions, take heed that thou keep under the shadow of this attribute, and condition of this promise, Ps. xci.1. The shadow will not cool except in it. What good to have the shadow, though of a mighty rock, when we sit in the open sun? to have almighty power engaged for us, and we to throw ourselves out of the protection thereof by bold sallies into the mouth of temptation?" (p. 36, William Gurnall, The Christian in Complete Armour)
The beauty of God's grace is its freedom in His decree, and our freedom in it - but that freedom is a freedom to walk in His ways - not a freedom of licentious living. We cannot rightly expect ANY protection if we deliberately dabble in sin... that is not the purpose of God's grace, and it is an ugly thing to pursue paths of unrighteousness while clinging to the promise of God. Security in God's arms must have the effect of our longing to be drawn closer to, not test the boundaries of, His heart.

Monday, May 18, 2009

0 The Gift of Faith and its Growing Strength

William Gurnall continues in Part I of The Christian in Complete Armour to discuss the connection between the strength of the faith God has granted us and our obedience to Him and our comfort in Him. He makes what seems to be a very natural (and Biblically correct) statement - that "Our obedience and comfort are strong or weak, as our faith is on this principle." (p. 32, William Gurnall, The Christian in Complete Armour) When one's trust in the author and finisher of our faith is strong, obedience naturally follows, as with one's trust firmly placed in God's high tower, obedience comes more easily; consequences of a life led in obedient following of the Lord can more readily be ignored and scorn despised when one's faith is strong. Comfort, too, naturally follows from the seed of a strong faith - for the more firm one's trust is, the more comfortable in the trials of life one can be.

Concerning obedience in connection to faith, Gurnall goes on to write:
"Our obedience, that being a child of faith, partakes of its parent's strength or weakness. Abraham, being strong in faith, what an heroic act of obedience did he perform in offering up his son! His faith being well set on the power of God, he carries that without staggering which would have laid a weak faith to the ground. No act of faith more strengthens for duty than that which eyes God's almighty power engaged for its assistance. 'Go in this thy might', said God to Gideon, 'have not I called thee?' As if he had said, Can I not, will I not, carry thee through thy work? Away goes Gideon in the faith of this, and doth wonders. This brought the righteous man from the East to God's foot, though he knew not whither he went, yet he knew with whom he went, God Almighty." (p. 32, William Gurnall, The Christian in Complete Armour)
Faith, that which Paul clearly states is the undeserved gift of God, in Ephesians 2, germinates - and produces, according to its strength, thirty-fold, sixty-fold, one hundred-fold... all that increase is Gods - and all that increase is fruit. As Gurnall will argue in subsequent parts of his work, the strengthening of faith produces a more bountiful harvest of the fruits of obedient labor and comfort - and the strengthening of faith is bound to the means of grace - God's Word and Sacrament. Sanctification can never be separated from either the growth in one's firmness of trust/faith, or from the means of grace which God has ordained for the purpose of strengthening our faith and producing the spiritual growth that He has designed for us. Most importantly, we are drawn back to remembering that our justification, which comes by faith and not by works, does not stand or fall on how strong our faith is - but on the perfect righteousness of the sacrifice in whom our faith is placed. Yes, we can clearly see the strength of faith in the life of a believer... yes we can understand that he whose faith is growing grows in comfort... but let us take care to see the facts and connections rightly - Biblically - according to God's Word.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

0 The upshot of God's strength being promised to us

William Gurnall offers some helpful thoughts on the relationship of obedience to faith in the latter portion of Part I of his masterwork, The Christian in Complete Armour. In this portion of the work, he is discussing the statement Paul makes in Ephesians 6:10, namely "Be strong in the Lord and in the power of His might," and is working through a discussion of the fact that Christians ought to act his faith on this promise - "the almighty power of God as engaged for his help". (p. 31)

Gurnall argues that
"We, that is, every believer, may boldly say, that is, we may conclude, God [i]will[/i] help, not sneakingly, timorously, [i]perhaps[/i] he will; but we may boldly assert it in the face of men and devils, because He that is almighty hath said it." (p. 32, The Christian in Complete Armour.)
Today we are told by some to be [i]tentative[/i] in our statements of God's working on our behalf - not to appear before unbelievers to be too bold. I guess the reason is that to be bold in such a circumstance is to be off-putting. I suppose those that tell us to be [i]tentative[/i] in our statements concerning God and our faith think that such statements are offensive to the unbeliever and appear to be arrogant. Thus, these people, when speaking of God, almost lay completely off the sort of certainty that the Biblical authors ALL uniformly speak with - that Christ alone is the way, truth and life, and that God strengthens me to do His work.

Is "tentativeness" really incumbent upon us as Christians? I frankly think it's hogwash, and I don't see Gurnall taking that approach. He instructs us, with Paul, to "be strong in the Lord and in the power of His might". We are to lay claim to the promises, and promote them for people's good and promote them as pertaining to all who come to Christ. Why water it down? Why make a namby-pamby statement of "tentative" truth claims? The Lord is King - strong and mighty is He. He is the king of glory and there is no other. Why is it that the promoters of the position of "tentative evangelism" think that theirs is the right way? How can they argue that God is being served or glorified in their wimpiness? I don't get it.

I see the Lord calling His people to be STRONG in his power; this doesn't mean that one brashly claims the spotlight and is bold in himself... Certainly it is incumbent upon all who would speak for Christ to relinquish ALL personal contribution claims and acknowledge, nay advertise, that the Lord has done EVERY work and that ALL one's standing with God is of grace, that is to be sure. What we can NEVER do is lay out truth claims in some wimpy fashion as though it may very well be that we are wrong about Christ's power and exclusivity. God has revealed Christ and exalted Him to His right hand, authenticating His identity as THE way, THE truth, THE life. On this there can be no compromise, or tentativeness. To be strong in proclaiming these things requires the power of God with us - and at the same time, to be strong in proclaiming these things is EXACTLY what God calls us in His Word to do. So let us do it.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

0 The Acceptance of one Fleeing to the Protection of the Lord

William Gurnall, in Part I of The Christian in Complete Armour, encourages us to trust in the fulness of God's strength on our behalf by describing the certainty of the acceptance of the one who relinquishes all and flees to Christ. He has been describing, throughout this part of this wonderful treatise, the almighty power of God and the complete impotence of weak human beings to defend and help themselves. He writes,
'A heathen could say, when a bird scared by a hawk flew into his bosom, I will not betray thee unto thy enemy, seeing thou comest for sanctuary unto me. How much less will God yield up a soul unto its enemy when it takes sanctuary in his name, saying, "Lord, I am hunted with such a temptation, dogged with such a lust, either thou must pardon it, or I am damned; mortify it, or I shall be a slave to it; take me into the bosom of thy love, for Christ's sake; castle me in the arms of thy everlasting strength, it is in thy power to save me from, or give me up into, the hands of my enemy. I have no confidence in myself or any other: into thy hands I commit my cause, my life, and rely on thee.' This dependence of a soul undoubtedly will awaken the almighty power of God for such an one's defense. He hath sworn the greatest oath that can come out of his blessed lips, even by himself, that such as thus fly for refuge to hope in him, shall have strong consolation, Heb. 6:17.' (William Gurnall, The Christian in Complete Armour, p. 30)
What wonderful power there is for the one who calls upon the Lord's name. Nothing can overtake us - nothing can strip us from the fingers of the hand of God. As we flee to Him, we are safe in Him. In our day and age it is very easy to be self-satisfied, and feel quite smug about one's standing before God when we do the outward tasks incumbent upon his people - going to church weekly, reading the Scriptures, etc.; but have we entrusted ourselves to Him, leaving no thread of confidence in our own works, or own abilities, or our own knowledge? Have we flung ourselves at His feet with the plea, "Save me, or I die"? This is the faith of Scripture - one in which we relinquish all our own qualifications, all our own beauties, even all our own gracious gifts given to us by God. None of those saves us. We can only plead in humility and with downcast eyes for God to have mercy upon us that we might be saved. We carry nothing to the throne, nothing to the altar of the Lord's Sacrifice. What is required for us has come ENTIRELY from without... namely the gracious imputation of Christ's righteousness on our behalf, and the imputation of our sin and sinful record, past, present and future, to His account. Sin having been dealt with, we are free - free to strive with every bit of our life to serve the Lord, and, despite our failures, to glorify Him truly because we are accepted in the Beloved. Let us give thanks for this indescribable gift, and lay all our praise before the Lord of Hosts for everything He has done.

Monday, May 04, 2009

0 Alright... NOW I'm going to be returning to normal posting :)

Probably this kind of post is less believable than the last time I said things would return to normal, and that, less than the previous time.

But the semester's almost over, and... In Principio Deus *should*, Lord Willing, become a little closer to normal activity now. I think. :)

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