Reviewed by Ray Van Neste
This little book is a gem of wisdom and spiritual insight distilled from the life and letters of Samuel Rutherford and some of his correspondents. Mrs. Cook obviously knows her subject well as she skillfully interweaves biographical sketches of the correspondents with Rutherford's counsel and confession to them. The book provides a brief biographical sketch of Rutherford and several of his correspondents, who include many of the important leaders of the church in Scotland in the perilous times of the 17th century. In this way, the book can serve as a supplement to the letters of Rutherford or as an introduction to them, as well as an overview glimpse of God's work in His church in these days. In addition to introducing Rutherford's correspondents, Cook also provides an overview of what Rutherford wrote to each one in their circumstances. In summarizing and discussing the correspondence of Rutherford with each person, Cook highlights his giftedness as a spiritual counselor. From both the lives of the correspondents and the counsel of Rutherford one can imbibe the ethos of these stalwart believers--a courage, conviction and forthrightness which seems too foreign in our day. There is weightiness to these men and women, which sets in stark contrast to the breeziness of our generation. As Mrs. Cook writes of some of the women to whom Rutherford wrote, 'It is immediately evident from these letters that some of these knew a degree of communion with Christ and a familiarity with the ways of God that is strangely rare in the Church of our day' (102).
There is not room here to touch all the high points of the book, so I will comment on a few relying largely on quotations and arranged by some of the different issues that Rutherford addressed. One interesting theme is the presentation of Rutherford as evangelist pleading with souls. This comes out especially in chapter three dealing with his correspondence with John Gordon, the Laird of Cardoness. Gordon had lived far from Christ and approached the end of his days. Rutherford wrote to him from exile with tenderness, alluring him with descriptions of the beauty of Christ, and with boldness, frankly confronting him with the terrors of judgment. His longing for the salvation of Gordon is seen as he writes:
Thoughts of your soul … depart not from me in my sleep. Ye have a great part of my tears, sighs, supplications, and prayers. Oh, if [only] I could buy your soul's salvation with any suffering whatsoever, that ye and I might meet with joy up in the rainbow, when we shall stand before our judge. (44)
Mrs. Cook aptly presents his evangelistic passion in this brief portrait. Seeing this side of Rutherford, one of the Westminster divines (!), puts the lie once again to the idea that Calvinism undercuts evangelism.
Another theme is affection for Christ, which is a well-known aspect of his letters. Indeed Mrs. Cook states, 'The dominant theme of all these letters is the majesty and loveliness of the person of Christ' (11). Tellingly she also notes, 'We only wonder at his exotic language [about affection for Christ] because we are largely unacquainted with his joys' (11).
One of the chief points of profit, perhaps, is the discussion of the theme of dealing with grief and trials. In our days of relative ease, it is possible to esteem our comfort too highly and to be surprised by affliction. Not so with many of the saints who have gone before us. 'Christians living in days far removed from the seventeenth century may perhaps think that a life of persecution is the exception rather than the norm, but it was not always so. "I am persuaded," wrote Samuel Rutherford to William Gordon, "that it is a piece of the chief errand of our life … that we might suffer here for a time amongst our enemies…"' (90). I will simply list some of the quotes gleaned by Mrs. Cook.
Kiss His wise and unerring providence…Learn to believe Christ better than His strokes, Himself and His promises better than His glooms… Let not the Lord's dealings seem harsh, rough, or unfatherly, because it is unpleasant. When the Lord's blessed will bloweth across your desires, it is best, in humility, to strike sail to Him, and be willing to be led any way our Lord pleaseth (58).
Humility is a strange flower; it grows best in winter and under storms of affliction (84-85).
Our pride must have winter weather to rot it (79).
If ye were not Christ's wheat, appointed to be bread in His house, He would not grind you (86; written to Alexander Gordon consoling him after the death of several of his children).
Rutherford provides a helpful model as he deals with the grieving, handling them tenderly but not fearing to speak clear and frank truth.
Lastly, Mrs. Cook shows how Rutherford, while dispensing spiritual counsel, felt no need to hide his own weaknesses.
Never does Samuel Rutherford stand apart from those to whom he writes, suggesting that he himself has attained to a high degree of holiness. With disarming honesty he confesses that he too finds the path of faith and godliness perplexing at times and contrary to the natural desires of his heart. "Believe me, that I find it to be hard wrestling to play fair with Christ, and to keep good quarters with Him," he admits, in a letter to John Gordon…. (45).
In another place, when writing to a younger man (William Gordon), he does not hide his weaknesses but rather writes, 'I never took it to be so hard to be dead to my lusts and to this world' (92). How tempting it is when speaking to those younger than us to speak as if we were greater than we are- but this, in addition to being sinful pride, is of no real help to those with whom we speak. Again, Rutherford is an example: 'Rutherford knew nothing of the triumphalism that has too often characterized much of the interchange between Christians in other times. He is ruthlessly honest with himself and consequently able to help others who are conscious of spiritual failure' (105). This genuineness and humility comes from one who 'truly feared the unwarranted praise of men' and once confessed: "My white side comes out on paper to men; but at home and within I find much black work, and great cause of a low sail, and of little boasting' (139).
This book is extremely helpful in putting forward a helpful example in ministry--one that is wise and bold, yet honest and humble. In fact, I think the book could be used with much profit by being read by a group of elders or local leaders together. It would help to train them in providing spiritual counsel as well as providing many personal lessons.
Seeking God: Jonathan Edwards' Evangelism Contrasted with Modern Methodologies, William Nichols, Ames, IA: International Outreach, Inc. 564 pages, $36.95.
Reviewed by Richard Smith
Alvin Plantinga wrote three books in the last decade in an effort to demonstrate what is called Reformed epistemology. It shocks some people to think that there is an epistemology that is Reformed. But if Reformed is biblical, then it would seem that it is a far more important issue (even vital) to set out a Reformed view of evangelism. But is there a Reformed evangelism? Surely we must admit that some of the evangelism practiced by Reformed people today is not distinguishable from that of Arminians with the stress placed on the choice of man. Was there a Reformed evangelism in the past? There was, and it was the evangelism practiced by the Puritans and Reformed ministers who followed them for the next century or so. The most famous proponents of Reformed evangelism in early America were Thomas Shepard, Thomas Hooker, Solomon Stoddard and Jonathan Edwards. But that form of evangelism is no longer recognized much less practiced, though it was the form of evangelism used by God to bring revivals and awakenings.
William Nichols brings the evangelism of the past into the present in this book by reprinting several sermons (some never published before) and writings of Jonathan Edwards. He also includes an introduction to each sermon that spells out in detail how Edwards practiced evangelism.
The rationale for getting this book into print is explained in the introduction by Nichols:
Over the years I have had opportunity to meet and talk with pastors who say they are students of the writings of Jonathan Edwards. But usually, in talking with them further and upon inquiring about their own evangelistic practices, I have found almost none who either understand or practice the evangelistic methodology of Edwards. I have often wondered: Where is the disconnect? What is the problem? Many obviously read Edwards; few understand how he did evangelism. This lack of understanding, and therefore lack of practical application of biblical theology to their own evangelism has left the modern day Evangelistic scene a mess. It is not a disaster waiting to happen; it is a full-fledged disaster that has already happened and almost nothing is being done to get things back on track. I am convinced that Jonathan Edwards can help us do that.
The issues of this book, then, are clear. Modern evangelicals would do well to go back to the evangelistic methods of Jonathan Edwards. Those methods must be clearly seen and practiced if there is to be true revival and true Christianity in our nation and world. But how does Nichols think that Edwards differs from the modern practice of evangelism? In virtually every way. The titles to the sermons demonstrate the differences with modern practice: "The Vain Self-Flatteries of the Sinner," "It Is God's Manner to Make Men Sensible of Their Misery and Unworthiness; Persons Ought to Endeavor to Be Convinced of Sin," and "God Is Very Angry at the Sins of Children."
In the introductions to these sermons and others Nichols shows that Edwards believed that sinners must realize that God is sovereign in salvation and that they should acknowledge that He is not obligated to save them. So the seeker should seek to humble his or her heart before God. Here is a clear and vital difference that Nichols demonstrates as the real issue between modern evangelism and the biblical evangelism practiced by Jonathan Edwards. Modern evangelism stresses the need for sinners to make a decision and pray a prayer. Reformed evangelism, as practiced by the Puritans, Reformed ministers and Edwards, stresses the necessity that sinners be convicted of sin and thoroughly humbled before God before they can be converted. They must have God change their hearts, understanding that they can in no way obligate God to save them. In other words, today the focus is on man and what he can do. But Reformed evangelists have historically put the stress on our sovereign God and on sinners using the means God has provided them for seeking their salvation.
In the conclusion William Nichols leaves us with these powerful and searching words:
Our evangelism needs to be radically reformed. A little tweaking around the edges will not suffice. Simply adding a few key words to our presentation, like repentance, accepting Christ as your Lord and Savior, etc., is not enough. The difficulties with today's evangelism are enormous. Untold millions are being led straight to hell when they are certain heaven will be their destination.
With these words ringing in our ears, here is a tip on how to read this 564-page book. Read the book in order as each introduction builds upon the previous one so that a picture of true Reformed evangelism emerges piece by piece. This title is available from International Outreach, Inc., P.O. Box 1286, Ames, IA 50014. Phone: (515) 292-9594. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org