Recovering devotional reading (part 3): read MLJ and the Puritans...
Nothing has given me more encouragement in my reading than the sermons of Martyn Lloyd-Jones. I’m aware that reading sermons is not everyone’s cup of tea. Some find it enriching and others tedious. His sermons on Romans are excellent. These days I’m working through his preaching on the Sermon on the Mount. My wife has profited from his sermons on Philippians and Ephesians.
You can read the sermons of MLJ for many reasons. Though some read him for his theological exegesis of the text (see, e.g., Doug Moo’s comments on MLJ in his commentary on The Epistle to the Romans in the NICNT, p. xix), I read him to remind myself of the Gospel and to be challenged by his applications of Scripture. You can usually read a whole sermon in one or two sittings. Here are some sample gems ...
“You can really test what is being preached by one particular criterion, and it is this: the Gospel of Jesus Christ is always offensive to the natural man” (sermon on Romans 1:16-17).
“Well, the answer is – and here we come up against a great mystery which we shall never solve in this world – there is clearly a difference between what God desires and what God wills and brings to pass” (sermon on Romans 2:4).
“And my last word of all is again primarily to preachers – though, indeed, it is a word to everybody in the sense that if ever you are putting the Gospel to another person you have got a very good test as to whether you are preaching the Gospel in the right way. I can put it like this: if your presentation of the Gospel does not expose it to the charge of antinomianism you are probably not putting it correctly” (sermon on Romans 3:3-8).
“We must never say that it is our faith that saves us. Many people want to say that, and believe that. They say: under the Old Dispensation it was works of the Law that saved. It is not that now; the Law has been abrogated; it is believing on Christ that saves us now. It is not! It is not our faith that saves us … It is the Lord Jesus Christ Who saves you. If you say that your faith saves you, your faith has become a work, and you have something to boast of …” (sermon on Romans 3:21-31).
“I always distrust people who talk about their faith. That is the characteristic of the cults” (sermon on Romans 4:18-22).
“The true teacher says a thing, then says it again but with a slight variation and addition, and then works it out and elaborates it” (sermon on Romans 5:9,10).
“What then is this ‘old man’? First, it does not mean the carnal nature and all its propensities. Paul is not teaching that our carnal nature with all its propensities was crucified together with Christ … The ‘old man’ is the man I used to be in Adam … It is the man I once was, but which I am no longer. We have seen many times that the old man that I was in Adam is the one that was crucified with Christ” (sermon on Romans 6:5-6).
Thirty years ago, I was a student at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. During my time there, Carl F.H. Henry, the preeminent Evangelical theologian of the second half of the last century, donated his library to the school. Brewster Porcella, Trinity’s librarian, took the books the library didn’t need and sold them to students for dirt-cheap prices. He used to mark ten or fifteen books just before he went home about 6 PM and then put them out on a special shelf near the checkout desk. I lived on campus and learned his schedule. So I would kiss my wife, gobble down my food, grab a few dollars and race back to the library after dinner hoping to find some treasures that no one had picked yet.
While running back, I would have debates in my brain that, if I was really a Calvinist, I shouldn’t run so fast because if it was God’s will that I be the first to find the books, then I shouldn’t sprint so hard because no one could thwart His will. Unfortunately, I was not that sanctified and so I ran as fast as I could. One time, I was able to buy seventeen volumes of a twenty-volume set of sermons by Spurgeon for under $10. That price is not per volume. That was under $10 for all seventeen volumes. Spurgeon has a way of putting things that those who have read him understand. The dedicated labor he put into his preaching will feed your soul and give you insights you never had before.
Spurgeon and MLJ are modern day Puritans. Books by Puritan authors are excellent for devotional reading. Let me highlight a few of the most valuable. You’ve got to start with Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan. This book gives you a road map of the Christian life. Its vivid imagery helps us get a picture of what conviction of sin and conversion and doubt and legalism and false guilt and perseverance look like. I forget how many times Spurgeon said he read this book, but it was a lot. Forty? Fifty? A hundred? This book has pointed the way to Christ and to growth and to godliness to tens of thousands.
I found Bunyan’s more personal Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners to be a painful read. His questions and introspection will be helpful to those who are struggling in the same way that he did, but God doesn’t bring everyone to Christ in this exactly this way. However, it might scratch where you are itching.
Thomas Watson is one of my favorite Puritan authors. He has three volumes that cover his sermons on the Westminster Shorter Catechism: A Body of Divinity, The Ten Commandments, and The Lord’s Prayer. They are superb, especially the first two. He has a little book on repentance that is excellent. For some reason no one writes on this topic. To those of you who are readers, can you think of any books solely on repentance? The Doctrine of Repentance is the only one I can recall. Watson is clear on the inseparability of faith and repentance, yet he also talks about which comes first. His comments are very thought-provoking. He goes to Scripture to find examples of counterfeit repentance. Ahab and Judas were terrified sinners, but not repenting sinners. Similarly some will make resolutions or vows not to sin in the midst of a storm, a vow that will be forgotten once the calm descends (see Jeremiah 2:20). Somme will leave behind one sin, perhaps out of prudence, even while clinging to others. Many other comments could be made but I hope these will wet your appetite for more.
Banner of Truth has also published two short works by Bunyan on Prayer. The first is an explication of the following definition: “Prayer is a sincere, sensible, affectionate pouring out of the hear or soul to God, through Christ, in the strength and assistance of the Holy Spirit, for such things as God has promised, or according to his Word, for the good of the church, with submission in faith to the will of God” (p.13).
Thomas Brooks, another seventeenth century English Puritan, has written a book, the likes of which could not be written today. Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices is a careful catalog of the ways in which Satan tempts believers, along with the corresponding remedies. How does he keep saints from using the means of grace? What does he do to keep believers in a fearful, doubting condition? Like C.S. Lewis when he wrote The Screwtape Letters, Brooks found this book hard to write but we should be grateful that he did.
Lots more devotional works by the Puritans could be mentioned. Joel Beeke has written an excellent guide to the reading of Puritan books: Meet the Puritans.