Are We Becoming "Reformed Men"?
by Maurice Roberts
[Reproduced with the permission of the author]
[Extracted from The Banner of Truth magazine, Issue 330 (March 1991), pp. 1-7]
Spurgeon somewhere speaks rather disparagingly about the practice of keeping a spiritual diary, and his disciples and admirers have been too ready to take his word on the subject as final. That is a pity and we would suggest it is time to have our second thoughts.
Every good habit, of course, can go to excess, and it was right for Spurgeon, being the spiritual genius he was, to call in question the wisdom of straining every day to record each spiritual and unspiritual frame or feeling in a ledger. In Spurgeon’s day there was a surfeit of biographies, journals, and memoirs. Ministers especially were held in such high regard that their diaries of the spiritual life were read with what must many a time have been undue veneration. Many Victorians took their hero-worship to an extreme.
Hero-Worship and its Opposite
A change had to come and it did come. Biographers of our century, at least since Lytton Strachey, have reacted to the previous hagiography, and they have reacted with a vengeance. Whereas our fathers perhaps went to a fault with their photographs of ministers all over the house and their uncritical acceptance of all that their leaders said, we have swung to the opposite extreme. We no longer believe in having heroes from the past and — with but a few exceptions — find it impossible to see any spiritual heroes worthy of the name in this present generation. Hence, we have no pattern to follow and are left to our own wits.
One regrettable consequence of our modern rejection of hero-worship is that we tend, even as evangelical Christians, to have a half-sneering attitude towards the earlier view of our fathers. But it still remains true that to have and to follow a spiritual model can be a beneficial practice and one that is productive of great good.
There are sound reasons for believing, however, that our modern recoil against hero-worship has left us spiritually worse off. More than that, it has turned the attention of most Christians away from the practice of the Christian life to an interest simply in general Christian topics.
As Christians, we are forever reaching out of ourselves to acquire more information about external religious events, but we are afraid of reaching down into our own hearts to make a deeper study of ourselves. There was more than a grain of truth in the ludicrous accusation made some years ago about modern education: “Children are learning more and more about less and less, and they will end up by knowing everything about nothing.” Is it not our danger today, when news and information is being directed at us from every side and when we feel duty-bound to absorb all that is reported in the religious world, that we shall end up by knowing ‘everything’ about external matters and ‘nothing’ about ourselves and our own souls?
In the Crucible
In the first volume of his scholarly work A History of Protestantism, the French historian, Émile G. Léonard, asserts that Calvin created “a new type of man” and was the founder of our very civilisation. He refers to this new type of person as “Reformed man”. The term is a happy one. The Reformation did not just produce a new and different set of theological textbooks with a different theory of the papacy, let us say, or of the mass. It produced also a different spiritual character in its converts. The Reformation affected all who came under its spell by generating spiritual warriors, men and women of granite and of steel. The learned Frenchman was right to make the point in that way.
It is worthwhile our taking note of this term which Léonard uses — ‘Reformed men’. The question needing an answer is, Are we becoming such men? Books and other religious aids, vital as they are, are not enough of themselves to create ‘Reformed men’. For that to happen, men must be directly and re-creatively influenced by God Himself. But so long as we thirst only for religious information and do not expose our naked souls to the immediacy of God’s personal dealings in grace, we forfeit that grace in its fullest measures and we shall see little progress in our spiritual character.
It would be a tragic irony if we were to forget that the Reformers themselves became the men they were only as a result of being in the crucible of conviction. They passed through deep searchings of heart and felt their own danger and depravity. Hence, when they got deliverance through the gospel, they broke out into Christ’s glorious liberty like men released from a dungeon. The experiences of Luther and Calvin are identical in this respect and a few passages cited from their lives may serve to remind us of the immediacy of their experience of God’s power to save.
The Experience of Our Reformers
The following extracts from the life of Luther are drawn from D’Aubigne’s History of the Reformation in Europe:
His conscience incessantly reminded him that religion was the one thing needful, and that his first care should be the salvation of his soul. He had learned God’s hatred of sin, — he remembered the penalties that His Word denounces against the sinner, — and he asked himself tremblingly if he were sure that he possessed the favour of God. His conscience answered, “No!” ... One day, when he was overwhelmed with despair, an old monk entered his cell, and spoke kindly to him. Luther opened his heart to him, and acquainted him with the fears that disquieted him. The respectable old man was incapable of entering into all his doubts, as Staupitz had done; but he knew his ‘Credo’, and he had found there something to comfort his own heart. Calling his attention, therefore, to the Apostles’ Creed, which Luther had learnt in his early childhood at the school at Mansfeld, the old man uttered in simplicity this article, -- “I believe in the forgiveness of sins.” These simple words, ingenuously uttered by the pious brother at a critical moment, shed sweet consolation in the mind of Luther. “I believe”, repeated he to himself on the bed of suffering, “in the remission of sins.” (pp. 159, 187)
This hint of forgiveness was a hinge in Luther’s spiritual experience. A further stage was reached in this way:
In these spiritual conflicts and inward wrestlings, how grievously he was encumbered, fighting against incredulity, error, and desperation, marvellous it is to consider, insomuch, that three days and three nights together, he lay on his bed, without meat, drink, or any sleep, labouring in soul and spirit on a certain place of St. Paul (Rom. iii, 25, 26) which was — “to show His justice”, — thinking Christ to be sent for no other end but to show forth God’s justice as an executor of His law, till at length, being answered and satisfied by the Lord touching the right meaning of these words — signifying the justice of God to be executed upon His Son, to save us from the stroke thereof, — he immediately upon the same started up from his bed, so confirmed in faith, as that nothing afterward could appall him. (Preface to English Version of Luther’s Commentary on Galatians, 1575, page v)
Then at last God brought him into the fullness of gospel joy:
His great terror was the thought of “the righteousness of God”, — by which he had been taught to understand His inflexible severity in executing judgment against sinners. Dr. Staupitz and the confessor explained to him that “the righteousness of God” is not against the sinner who believes in the Lord Jesus Christ, but for him, — not against us, to condemn, but for us, to justify. “I felt very angry”, he said, “at the term — ‘the righteousness of God’; — for, after the manner of all the teachers, I was taught to understand it in a philosophic sense — of that righteousness by which God is just and punisheth the guilty ... At last I came to apprehend it thus — Through the Gospel is revealed the righteousness which availeth with God, — a righteousness by which God, in His mercy and compassion, justifieth us, as it is written, ‘The just shall live by faith.’ Straightway I felt as if I were born anew: it was as if I had found the door of paradise thrown wide open. The expression ‘the righteousness of God’, which I so much hated before, became now dear and precious, — my darling and most comforting word. I see the Father — inflexible in justice, yet delighting in mercy — ‘just’, beyond all my terrified conscience could picture Him, He ‘justifies’ me a sinner. (Chronicles of the Schonberg-Cotta Family, pp. 159, 160)
The point needs to be made that Luther had entered deeply into his own soul in the presence of God before the glorious change came. Furthermore, he never ceased to study his own soul or to examine his heart until his dying day. He was forged into a great Reformer on the anvil of experimental knowledge. It was not learning or information alone, or even primarily, which made him a ‘Reformed man’. It was his realisation that man’s deepest problem is his own sinful heart which sent him forth from a monastery to shape the destinies of men and nations.
Let us turn now to the less well-known story of John Calvin, as this is related in D’Aubigne’s History of the Reformation in the Time of Calvin:
The experience of Calvin was similar to that of Luther:
The Reformation was not the fruit of abstract reasoning; it proceeded from an inward labour, — a spiritual conflict, — a victory, which the Reformers won by the sweat of their brow, or rather, of their heart. ... We have on a former occasion sought to discover the generative principle of the Reformation in the heart of Luther: we are now striving to discern it in the heart of Calvin. (vol. 1. p. 20)
Calvin shut himself up in his room and examined himself. “I have been taught that Thy Son has ransomed me by His death; but I have never felt in my heart the virtue of His redemption.” His popish professors spoke to him. “The highest wisdom of Christians”, they said, “is to submit to the Church, and their highest dignity is the righteousness of their works.” “Alas!” replied Calvin, “I am a miserable sinner.” “That is true; but there is a means of obtaining mercy. It is by satisfying the justice of God. Confess your sins to a priest, and ask humbly for absolution. Blot out the memory of your offences by good works.” ... Calvin went to church, fell on his knees, and confessed his sins to God’s minister, asking for absolution, and humbly accepting every penance imposed upon him. ... “O God,” he said, “I desire by my good works to blot out the remembrance of my trespasses.” He performed the satisfactions prescribed by the priest; he even went beyond the task imposed upon him; and hoped that after so much labour, he would be saved. But, alas! His peace was not of long duration. ... “Every time I descend into the depths of my heart, — every time, O God, I lift up my soul to Thy throne, — extreme terror comes over me.” ... His heart was troubled; it seemed to him that every word of God he found in Scripture tore off the veil, and reproached him with his trespasses. “I begin to see,” he said, — “thanks to the light that has been brought to me, — in what a slough of error I have hitherto been wallowing, — and how many stains I am disfigured, — and, above all, what is the eternal death that threatens me.” A great trembling came over him. He paced his room, as Luther had once paced his cell at Erfurth. He uttered, he tells us, deep groans, and shed floods of tears. Terrified at the divine holiness, like a man frightened by a violent thunderstorm, he exclaimed, “O God! Thou keepest me bowed down, as if Thy bolts were falling on my head.”
Then he fell down, exclaiming, “Poor and wretched, I throw myself on the mercy which Thou hast shown us in Christ Jesus; I enter that only harbour of salvation.” He applied to the study of Scripture, and everywhere he found Christ. “O Father,” he said, “His sacrifice has appeased Thy wrath; His blood has washed away my impurities; His Cross has borne my curse; His death hath atoned for me. ... Thou hast placed Thy Word before me like a torch, and Thou hast touched my heart, in order that I should hold in abomination all other merits save that of Jesus.” Calvin’s conversion had been long and slowly ripening; and yet, in one sense, the change was instantaneous. “When I was the obstinate slave of the superstitions of popery,” he says, “and it seemed impossible to drag me out of the deep mire, God by a sudden conversion subdued me, and made my heart obedient to His Word.” (Ibid., vol. i. pp. 525-530)
These two experiences were to prove world-shaking in their significance. They bear out our contention that spiritual character is formed in the crucible of God’s personal dealings with the individual. Later Reformed men and women may not have had such a historic role to play, but they had the same experience of God’s life in the soul.
Spiritual Diaries — An Aid to Self-Knowledge
It is no accident, in the light of what we have said above, that ‘Reformed men’ who followed in the train of Luther and Calvin made it their frequent practice to keep a spiritual diary. The logic of this practice is inevitable once men have felt the urge to become moulded in heart and life to the pattern of Christ. No one will keep a record of his inward groans, fears, sins, experiences, providences, and aspirations unless he is convinced of the value of the practice for his own spiritual progress. It was this very conviction which made it a commonplace practice in earlier times. We suggest the practice should be revived and something needs to be said in its defence.
A spiritual diary is of value in that it reveals to a Christian how herculean is the task in this life of striving for perfection of heart and life. It is a great mistake for the believer (and especially for the minister) to spend all his energies on the external task of spreading the gospel. Some time must be redeemed for the inward life of the soul. We owe it both to God and to ourselves. It is holy people whose witness God blesses, and there is reason to believe we should do more good if we were more sanctified, even if the price was less time for the external aspects of our work and witness.
A spiritual diary is meant for the eye of God. It is not a letter to a fellow-man but a sacred act of personal reformation done before the face of a heavenly Father and in secret. In such a book a believer puts down his resolutions after a more perfect obedience to his Master. Then he keeps a regular, perhaps daily or weekly, tally on his own performance over the period of time under review. It is laborious work but, when done in the right spirit, it is a rich means of grace.
The keeping of a diary of the soul quickly discovers that the problem of his life is not really in outward things but in himself and in the desperately wicked condition of his own heart. This discovery is the mainspring by which he learns to pray, to search the Scriptures for light on his problems, and to seek out a terminology of spiritual experience. There is gain at every point.
A spiritual diary will tend to deepen and sanctify the emotional life of a child of God. There is great value to us of becoming more deeply emotional over the great issues of our faith. Our age is not deep enough in feelings. Biblical men are depicted as weeping copious tears, as sighing and groaning, as on occasion rejoicing with ecstasy. They were ravished by the very idea of God. They had a passion for Jesus Christ — His person, offices, names, titles, words, and works. It is our shame to be so cold, unfeeling and unemotional in spite of all that God has done to us and for us in Christ. It must make the devils themselves marvel to see us able to receive a pardon and a title to everlasting glory with scarcely more than a few cold syllables of gratitude to God. If we loved more we should be more biblically emotional, and the keeping of a diary might help to put us right in this respect also.
The keeping of a diary is of immense value to the Christian who views his life as a journey or pilgrimage. Here a temptation is negotiated, there a snare is avoided; here a blessing is recorded, there a time of guidance; here a fall is noted with shame (but never despair), there a time of gracious visitation by Christ to cheer the soul in a lonely hour. If such diaries had not existed in Puritan times, should we have had Bunyan’s writings? Should we have had the Puritans’ experimental preaching? Indeed, should we have had the Puritans themselves — or those who took the Puritans as their great models in after-times, such as Edwards and Whitefield, Andrew Bonar and M’Cheyne? Let those who shelter behind Spurgeon’s strictures on spiritual diaries remember that he deliberately and consciously took Whitefield as his model. C. H. Spurgeon and Dr Lloyd-Jones were hero-worshippers.
Those who keep a spiritual record will find it no distraction nor encumbrance provided they canonise only biblically-sanctioned experiences and not their own. Rightly used, a day-book (to use an old term) will act as a catalyst to faith and repentance in every department of life. It will prove a companion by which to cheer our days and nights as we travel along the way.
The typical Christian of today is not half hard enough on himself but allows himself in repeated and unrepented transgressions of God’s law. But this is folly and spiritual loss to him. ‘To obey is better than sacrifice.’
A third-rate obedience to God’s revealed will may be seasoned with prayers for revival or else spiced with the language of much love for God. But this is only to add insult to injury before a holy God. What does the Lord require of us but to take sin and obedience most seriously. And must that not involve us in regular heart-searching and self-hatred? Those who read M’Cheyne will know that before the Dundee revival came years of daily self-discipline, heart-searching, and practical endeavour for personal reformation. The former did not come without the latter.
A Christianity which is, like that of today, too healthy by half is a poor substitute for the religion of the Bible. Much modern evangelicalism is terminally ill due to over-confidence. Then let all faithful souls awake to the sound of God’s trumpet. Providence itself beckons us to be more serious. What the times require of us is that we be not merely Reformed in our clichés or in our shibboleths but that we become ‘Reformed men’.
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