Monday, 21 January 2013

J I Packer's Puritan Portraits

J. I Packer is one of those writers who is always a  pleasure to read. Any writer must consider it pure gold to have him do an introduction to their book. Also  Packer is at his best when he is talking up the Puritans. His introduction to the Death of Death is a classic in its own right and was essential reading when I was at college for the course The Person and Work of Christ. So right from the start Puritan portraits promises much. It's a compilation of his introductions to Puritan works with Christian Focus, they do however lose something as they belong with the books assigned, this is certainly felt in the shorter introductions. Although this is the case the Puritan Portraits is still an excellent read. The biggest loss is felt in the first section on Henry Scrougal. It may whet your appetite for Scrougal’s book, The Life of God in the Soul of Man, but it is as much about George Whitefield as Scrougal himself because of the effects that Scrougal’s work had on Whitefield and then through him the great awakening.  I have read The Life of God in the Soul of Man and loved it and this introduction stands well alongside it. Yet it isn’t much of a portrait of Scrougal. I suspect this is in part that as he died at such a young age these isn’t too much to say about it.
I wondered how I would react to those Puritans that I hadn't read, when I read Packers portrait of Stephen Charnock it gave me a desire to read Charnock for myself so I downloaded one of his works for my Kindle, so job done Dr Packer.

The Bunyan portrait is a good introduction to Bunyan whose Pilgrims progress is one of the most successful books of all time. Packer distils Grace Abounding to the Chief of sinners effortlessly whilst interviewing comments from Pilgrims Progress and the book he was introducing the Heavenly Footman.
Of Matthew Henry Packer  begins with ‘This write up of asset of six sermons was Matthew Henry’s final literary labour’ and could have been edited as it is clearly introducing a work that isn’t included in Puritan Profiles.  That said Packer offers us in this small section Henry’s view of God, the Word and the Church and this written in such beautiful prose that I am eager to read Henry afresh.  Packer urges us to get into Henry to discover that the Puritan reputation of being downcast is not true as Henry wants us to a joy filled life whatever circumstance we find ourselves in. Henry wants us to be devoted to God and to live our lives in the presence of God.
On the section on John Owen, Packer is in his element he acknowledges the enormous debt he owes to his hero Owen and he points us to why, we Packer rightly believes do not have the attributes of attributes of God, that is the holiness of God that Owen and Scripture have. We also don’t have the same view of our sinfulness and how to deal with our sin. Something that Packer found lacking in his own early Christian experience until he discovered Owen and found himself being challenged and changed as Owen exposed Packer to the word of God.
Packer introduces us to John Flavel whose work is heart-warming  and like many of the Puritans his work seeks to lead us into both understand how to say yes to God not just with actions but with a heart that longs to say yes.
With regard to Thomas Boston, Packer points out that this leading light of Scottish Reformed Theology was a man concerned with soul winning. We, Packer points out think of the conversion process as something that happens in an hour or two following a special meeting where someone shares the gospel, gives an appeal and then sends them those on a counsellor for follow up. Boston recognised in his own experience and that of those around him that the new birth could be a process of months. Boston believed in Evangelism, sharing the gospel through the preaching of the Word both in a worship setting and in the home.
Boston believed that we should be like our Lord in Fishing for souls, 1, faithfulness even at the risk of upsetting people. 2, to seek to recover lost sheep. 3, prayerfulness, Jesus prayed spending much time and energy in prayer so should we. 4, Singlemindedness.  5, Seek opportunities to move from earthly things to heavenly things.
Packer also walks us through Boston as the shepherd of souls, not just evangelising but ministering to those in need who have suffered. Packer reminds us that this is because this was something that Boston knew from experience. In very saints life comes hard times but these hard times are used of God for our good and are only for this time. Some of those will remain for all of our days on earth whilst we go through these times we must ask God to straighten the crook in our lives but being patient and seeking hard for the lessons that God is seeking us to learn during these times. 

For Packer the reason to read the Puritans is multifaceted but one of those reasons is because they are deep, they desire you to be serious about who God is and how serious sin is not just in general but your own sin. Packer acknowledges that the Puritans are hard going but that is because what most Christian books are today is just froth. He urges us to keep on with the Puritans, underline their headings and then go back again and read them again, in doing this you’ll realise it wasn’t a waste of time.

May the God of the Puritans be our God as we strive to live in light of His bountiful grace


Saturday, 19 January 2013

Mercy and Justice in Les Mis

I have just watched Les Mis at the movies, I have never read the book but enjoyed the musical about ten years ago. What an amazing story of mercy! When Jean Valjean leaves jail after nearly 20 years for stealing a loaf of bread he thinks he is free but  his past is going to haunt him as his papers say that he is a convict so he cannot get bread and he cannot get lodgings. His situation is utterly hopeless, hopeless that is until a priest shows him kindness by offering food and a bed for the night. How does Valjean react to this kindness? He steals all the silver he can find and flees in the night but he is caught very quickly and returned to the priest. The priest shows him even more undeserved kindness and tells the police that he didn't steal them, he was given them. He tells them that Valjean wasn't just given them but that he forgot the most valuable part of the gift, the large silver candlesticks and gives them to him. He then tells Valjean that he must use the gifts that have been given to him to become a better man. Valjean reaches a crisis point, he has been shown mercy and knows he cannot be the unloving person he has always been, he acknowledges his crimes and cries out to God dedicating his life to God. His crisis point ends as he determines that a new story must begin as Jean Valjean's story has now come to an end. Eight years later we find him running a factory and as mayor of a city. A man with a reputation for kindness and mercy who is respected by all and will help anyone whatever the cost. He is a new man.

Yet there is another figure we meet in the beginning, Javert the policeman. Javert is a law abiding citizen and doesn't understand how anyone could commit a crime or expect someone who commits a crime to ever be a changed man. They are lawless, always without grace and hope, and have no chance of finding God or heaven as they are damned. Javert is a tragic, heartless man, similar in many ways to a Pharisee. Javert meets the mayor and sees that he is Jean Valjean when the mayor shows mercy, as the mayor rescues someone stuck under a carriage and the mayor uses all his strength, it reminds Javert of Valjean . A light goes off in Javert's head that this man is Valjean and he relentlessly pursues justice from then on. The great tragedy that for Javert is that, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary, he cannot see that Valjean is a new man, a changed man.  It isn't until the end of the show that Javert, who has repeatedly seen the mercy and grace working in Valjean, reaches his own crisis point. Valjean is merciful, he has been merciful to Javert, but unlike Valjean, Javert is repelled by Grace. He will not be a debter to grace or mercy, not at the hands of a criminal like Jean Valjean. So Javert takes his own life rather than becoming a transformed man.

Victor Hugo writes a tale that could come out of the gospels with Valjean being like the tax collectors and sinners who were entering the kingdom whilst the Pharisees who sought to uphold the law were left outside. Valjean receives grace and becomes a grace-filled man who loves with compassion and whose crisis point leads on to a new life of mercy to others. He reveals himself to be a trophy of grace with his good works pointing away from himself to the one who showed mercy on him.

Are you a person who has known grace in your life, has this led to you becoming a trophy of grace displaying God's love to others? Jesus shows mercy to the undeserving for free, this leads to a new life of showing mercy to others.

Stephen <><