New Year’s resolutions tend to be drowned in motivational and self-centred hype. Perhaps it’s no surprise that many quickly disappear without trace. No doubt we all need to change, but the change we really need is a revolution. We need our attitudes and perspectives turned upside down. That is where reformation begins.
1. Christ’s Way, Not Ours
Samuel Rutherford wrote two letters on the 1 January 1637. He lamented the prevailing spirit of comfortable apathy. Everyone wanted “moderation in God’s way”. Being strict or extreme was the worst fault. They didn’t want God to demand too much from them in terms of how they lived and how they served God. He spoke of how rare “the power of godliness” was in the land. It was a cheap form of Christianity. But heart-work is hard work and so it is neglected.
a bed watered with tears, a throat dry with praying, eyes as a fountain of tears for the sins of the land, are rare to be found among us.
Life and religion was both easy and self-centred. So it is today. What prevails is what fits best with own preferences and assumptions. Rutherford says: “how soon are we pleased with our own shadow in a glass [mirror]!”
Time, custom, and a good opinion of ourselves, our good meaning, and our lazy desires, our fair shows, and the world’s glistering lustres, and these broad passments and buskings [expensive decoration and attire] of religion, that bear bulk [carry weight] in the kirk [church], is that wherewith most satisfy themselves.
Few wish to offend. They like the status quo. They need approval from others and popularity. Rather than what pleases the flesh we need to seek the right way from God in Scripture. “It were good to be beginning in sad earnest to find out God, and to seek the right tread of Christ [the right path from Christ]”.
Rutherford was hardly to know that by the summer of that year revolutionary events would begin to unfold. Events that would release him from his enforced banishment in Aberdeen and bring about the Second Reformation in Scotland. The nation would be turned upside down. Truly, we do not know what a year may bring forth. As Rutherford expressed to Hugh Kennedy on that New Year’s day, Christ “can, in a month, make up a year’s losses”.
To Hugh Kennedy, he also expressed his contentment despite the trials he was experiencing. “I am every way in good case [condition], both in soul and body; all honour and glory be to my Lord. I want nothing but a further revelation of the beauty of the unknown Son of God”.
2. Christ’s Will, Not Ours
Rutherford had struggled with submitting to Christ’s will. Through his trials he had to learn how to abandon his own ideas of how his Lord should act. “I, like a fool, once summoned [as in a court summons] Christ for unkindness, and complained of His fickleness and inconstancy, because He would have no more of my service nor preaching, and had cast me out of the inheritance of the Lord”.
At first, he had been ready to challenge Christ’s Providence in removing him from his congregation and pulpit. He loved preaching Jesus Christ. Could it be right, good and wise? It turned all his expectations and hopes upside down. This seemed to render him useless at a time when the Church seemed to need its defenders most. Why did Christ’s will not recognise this? So he was contradicting Christ because “His whole providence was not yea and nay to my yea and nay”. It didn’t rubber stamp his own expectations. This is quite often why we take difficulties and changes in our lives so hard. We had a different plan and the Saviour has cut right across it.
Yet he learned to submit to Christ’s will. His Master could have responded in chastisement to these “weak apprehensions of His goodness”. But Christ was patient with him. He considered what his weak servant had a “desire to be, and not to what I am”. Instead of chastisement, Rutherford found that his experience of Christ’s love entered far greater depths.
He hath paid me my hundred-fold in this life, and one to the hundred. This prison is my banqueting-house; I am handled as softly and delicately as a dawted [fondled] child.
He had learned to judge things other than they appeared. Previously, he had “believed Christ’s outward look better [more] than His faithful promise”. “I hope to over-hope and over-believe my troubles. I have cause now to trust Christ’s promise more than His gloom [frown]”.
3. Christ’s Purpose, Not Ours
He had been grieved at the events that banished him far from his sphere of usefulness. He couldn’t see a purpose in the afflictions that Christ was laying on him. Yet he came to understand that there was a purpose why he must pass through the fire of affliction. Christ was purifying him. He “will see to His own gold, and save that from being consumed with the fire”.
Oh, what owe I to the file, to the hammer, to the furnace of my Lord Jesus! who hath now let me see how good the wheat of Christ is, that goeth through His mill, and His oven, to be made bread for His own table. Grace tried is better than grace, and it is more than grace; it is glory in its infancy. I now see that godliness is more than the outside, and this world’s passments and their buskings [expensive decoration and attire].
Grace is shown to be genuine when it is tried. There is a purpose of spiritual fruitfulness in such trials. Though it was painful to have the barren ground ploughed up, it would result in a spiritual harvest.
Why should I start at the plough of my Lord, that maketh deep furrows on my soul? I know that He is no idle Husbandman [farmer], He purposeth a crop. O that this white, withered lea-ground [untilled ground] were made fertile to bear a crop for Him, by whom it is so painfully dressed [painstakingly tended to]; and that this fallow-ground were broken up!
Christ owed him nothing. But neither had he lost anything by this experience. It was not the punishment that his enemies intended after all.
How blind are my adversaries, who sent me to a banqueting-house, to a house of wine, to the lovely feasts of my lovely Lord Jesus, and not to a prison, or place of exile!
4. Christ’s Glory, Not Ours
Christ’s glory was greater by this affliction, while Rutherford was humbled. He wanted to praise and glorify the grace and love of Christ. To Robert Gordon he says: “I charge you before God, that ye speak to others, and invite them to help me to praise!” He was in debt to Christ. It was a debt of glory and praise so great he could not estimate it.
Oh, my debt of praise, how weighty it is, and how far run up! O that others would lend me to pay, and learn me to praise! Oh, I am a drowned dyvour [debtor submerged in debts]! Lord Jesus, take my thoughts for payments.
5. Christ’s People, Not Ourselves
It must be clear to us that Rutherford was exiled for a purpose. He was to enter into a writing ministry there. Just as the Lord had a purpose in putting the Apostle Paul into a prison from which many letters were sent. Most of the letters we have from Rutherford’s pen were written during his time in Aberdeen.
Others were on his mind and heart. He wrote to strengthen them with the strength he himself had received. He sought to encourage them with fresh views of Christ and His love, to know that it was worth suffering. These and other spiritual influences encouraged many ministers and nobles to stand fast and embrace the Second Reformation. Certainly, Robert Gordon of Knockbrex would later be very useful, steadfast and active in Christ’s cause.
There was real affection towards the people of God. “Dear brother, ye are in my heart, to live and to die with you”. Rutherford realised the value of the prayers of Christ’s people. “Visit me with a letter. Pray for me”, he says to Robert Gordon. To Kennedy he writes, “Remember my love to your wife. Grace, grace be with you; and God, who heareth prayer, visit you, and let it be unto you according to the prayers of Your own brother, and Christ’s prisoner”.
He could not stop thinking about Christ’s people. How were some of them faring, he wondered. He mentions one individual. “Write to me your mind anent [about] Y. C.: I cannot forget him; I know not what God hath to do with him”. His prayerful thoughts and longings also went out to his flock at Anwoth. How were they “served in preaching”? Was there “a minister as yet thrust in upon them”? “I desire greatly to know, and…much fear”.
Rutherford was a moving preacher and writer of deep Christian experience. He is both exuberant and sublime in his commendation of communion with the Lord Jesus Christ. Yet uniquely homely in the powerful imagery also flow from his pen. Only the Bible exceeds his letters in spirituality. This was the opinion of both C H Spurgeon and Richard Baxter. There are 365 of Rutherford’s letters available and, of course, this means that you could read one of his letters every day. Starting today, in fact. There is an online edition which has each day of the year against each letter. Here are some spiritual priorities for the coming year.
Although written more than 380 years ago, we can glean some spiritual priorities from these two letters for the coming year. If we embraced them fully…they would turn our lives upside down.