Packer on the Puritans on Preparation

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Below are the last few paragraphs from a chapter entitled “The Puritan Approach to Worship” in J. I. Packer’s book A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life.

But still one question remains. How do we begin to get from where we are to where the Puritans show us that we ought to be in our own practice of worship? How can we, cold-hearted and formal as we so often are — to our shame — in church services, advance closer to the Puritan ideals? The Puritans would have met our question by asking us another. How do we prepare for worship?

Here, perhaps, is our own chief weakness. The Puritans inculcated specific preparation for worship — not merely for the Lord’s Supper, but for all services — as a regular part of the Christian’s inner discipline of prayer and communion with God. Says the Westminster Directory: “When the congregation is to meet for public worship, the people (having before prepared their hearts thereunto) ought all to come….” But we neglect to prepare our hearts; for, as the Puritans would have been the first to tell us, thirty seconds of private prayer upon taking our seat in the church building is not time enough in which to do it. It is here that we need to take ourselves in hand. What we need at the present time to deepen our worship is not new liturgical forms or formulae, nor new hymns and tunes, but more preparatory “heart-work” before we use the old ones. There is nothing wrong with new hymns, tunes, and worship styles — there may be very good reasons for them — but without “heart-work” they will not make our worship more fruitful and God-honoring; they will only strengthen the syndrome that C.S. Lewis called “the liturgical fidgets.” “Heart-works” must have priority or spiritually our worship will get nowhere. So I close with an admonition from George Swinnock on preparation for the service of the Lord’s Day, which for all its seeming quaintedness is, I think, a word in season for very many of us:

“Prepare to meet thy God, O Christian! Betake thyself to thy chamber on the Saturday night, confess and bewail thine unfaithfulness under the ordinances of God; ashamed and condemn thyself for thy sins, entreat God to prepare they heart for, and assist it in, thy religious performances; spend some time in consideration of the infinite majesty, holiness, jealously, and goodness, of that God, with whom thouart to have to do in sacred duties; ponder the weight and importance of his holy ordinances…; meditate on the shortness of the time thou hast to enjoy Sabbaths in; and continue musing…till the fire burneth; thou canst not think the good thou mayest gain by such forethoughts, how pleasant and profitable a Lord’s day would be to thee after such a preparation. The oven of thine heart thus baked in, as it were overnight, would be easily heated the next morning; the fire so well raked up when thou wentest to bed, would be the sooner kindled when thou shouldst rise. If thou wouldst thus leave thy heart with God on the Saturday night, thou shouldst find it with him in the Lord’s Day morning.”

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How to Hear the Word Well

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A few of you have asked about some of the quotations cited in our recent sermons on Mark 4, so here they are. “Pay attention to what you hear: with the measure you use, it will be measured to you, and still more will be added to you” (Mark 4:24): how much we get out of hearing a sermon depends in large part on how much we put into hearing it. Let us hear well: below is some wisdom on how to do so.

The degree of benefit which men receive from all the means of grace depends entirely on the way in which they use them. Private prayer lies at the very foundation of religion; yet the mere formal repetition of a set of words, when “the heart is far away,” does good to no man’s soul. — Reading the Bible is essential to the attainment of sound Christian knowledge; yet the mere formal reading of so many chapters as a task and duty, without a humble desire to be taught of God, is little better than a waste of time. — Just as it is with praying and Bible reading, so it is with hearing. It is not enough that we go to Church and hear sermons. We may do so for fifty years, and “be nothing bettered, but rather worse.” “Take heed,” says our Lord, “how ye hear.”

Would any one know how to hear aright? Then let him lay to heart three simple rules. For one thing, we must hear with faith, believing implicitly that every word of God is true, and shall stand. The word in old time did not profit the Jews, “not being mixed with faith in them that heard it.” (Heb. vi. 2.) — For another thing, we must hear with reverence, remembering constantly that the Bible is the book of God. This was the habit of  the Thessalonians. They received Paul’s message, “not as the word of men, but the word of God.” (I Thess. ii. 13) — Above all, we must hear with prayer, praying for God’s blessing before the sermon is preached, praying for God’s blessing again when the sermon is over. Here lies the grand defect of the hearing of many. They ask no blessing, and so they have none. The sermon passes through their minds like water through a leaky vessel, and leaves nothing behind.

Let us bear these rules in mind every Sunday morning, before we go to hear the Word of God preached. Let us not rush into God’s presence careless, reckless, and unprepared, as if it mattered not in what way such work was done. Let us carry with us faith, reverence, and prayer. If these three are our companions, we shall hear with profit, and return with praise.

— J. C. Ryle, Expository Thoughts on the Gospels, vol. 2: Luke (on Luke 8:16-21, emphasis added)

The quotation from Phil Ryken came from an article on Reformation 21 entitled “How to Listen to a Sermon” which can be found here.

“The Silver Thread of Resurrection”

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How important is the resurrection of Christ? Here is an answer from C. H. Spurgeon (from the morning reading for May 10 in his Morning and Evening):

“But now is Christ risen from the dead” ~ I Corinthians15:20

“The whole system of Christianity rests upon the fact that ‘Christ is risen from the dead;’ for, ‘If Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain: ye are yet in your sins.’ The divinity of Christ finds its surest proof in his resurrection, since he was ‘Declared to be the Son of God with power, according to the spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead.’ It would not be unreasonable to doubt his deity if he had not risen. Moreover, Christ’s sovereignty depends upon his resurrection, ‘For to this end Christ both died, and rose, and revived, that he might be Lord both of the dead and living.’ Again, our justification, that choice blessing of the covenant, is linked with Christ’s triumphant victory over death and the grave; for ‘He was delivered for our offences, and was raised again for our justification.’ Nay, more, our very regeneration is connected with his resurrection, for we are ‘Begotten again unto a lively hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.’ And most certainly our ultimate resurrection rests here, for, ‘If the Spirit of him that raised up Jesus from the dead dwell in you, he that raised up Christ from the dead shall also quicken your mortal bodies by his Spirit that dwelleth in you.’ If Christ be not risen, then shall we not rise; but if he be risen then they who are asleep in Christ have not perished, but in their flesh shall surely behold their God. Thus, the silver thread of resurrection runs through all the believer’s blessings, from his regeneration onwards to his eternal glory, and binds them together. How important then will this glorious fact be in his estimation, and how will he rejoice that beyond a doubt it is established, that ‘now is Christ risen from the dead’!”

A Puritan Perspective on Christian Thanksgiving

John Flavel (c. 1630-1691)

The giving of thanks is a very important part of the Christian life, but true Christian thanksgiving is something quite different from what is depicted on the annual TV Thanksgiving specials. John Flavel, a seventeenth-century English Presbyterian minister, once preached a very helpful sermon on the giving of true thanks, and the following are a few excerpts from it (the full text can be found in publically available editions of his collected works under the title “The Seaman’s Return”).

Flavel begins by reminding us that it is the duty of all men to give thanks to God for His mercies to them and of how terrible an offense it is not to do so: “Why, how is it imaginable they should not? He hath the heart of a beast, not of a man, that would not. Did I say the heart of a beast? Give me that word again. There is a kind of gratitude even in beasts to their benefactors.” He then goes on to give six characteristics of the nature of true thanksgiving, which is, he maintains, much more “than a customary, formal, cold, ‘God be thanked.’”

Whoever would give thanks to God aright, Flavel argues, must first of all “be a heedful observer of the mercies he receives. This is fundamental to the duty. Where no observations of mercies have been made, no praises for them can be returned . . . . It is God’s charge against Israel, ‘She did not know that I gave her corn, and wine, and oil, and multiplied her silver’ (Hos. 2:8), i.e., she did not observe and take notice of these mercies as coming from My hand . . . .”

“Secondly, the thankful man . . . must particularly consider [those mercies] in their natures, degrees, seasons, and manner of conveyance.” In other words, we must meditate on God’s mercies in order to appreciate just how good they are in all of their details; for, as Flavel writes, “He hath little pleasure in his meat that swallows it whole without chewing.”

“Thirdly, the thankful person must duly estimate and value his mercies.” This is especially necessary with everyday blessings, for “the commonness or long-continuance of mercies with us, which should endear them the more and every day increase our obligation to God, causes them to seem but cheap and small things.”

“Fourthly, the thankful person must faithfully record His mercies . . . . Forgotten mercies bear no fruit; a bad memory in this case makes a barren heart and life.” He admits “that the mercies of God are such a multitude, that a memory of brass cannot retain them”: it is as “impossible to recount all of our mercies” as it would be “to number the drops of rain that fall in a shower.” But that is no excuse, and Flavel urges us to use “all the helps to memory” that we can find to help us in this endeavor.

“Fifthly, the thankful person must be suitably affected with the mercies he receives.” True Christian thanksgiving is not just an intellectual “but an affectionate remembrance” of God’s blessings. “Then God hath His glory, when the sense of His mercies melts our hearts into holy joy, love, and admiration.”

“Sixthly, the thankful person must order his conversation [manner of life] suitably to the engagements that his mercies have put him under. When we have said all, it is the life of the thankful, that is the very life of thankfulness. Obedience and service are the only real manifestations of gratitude.”