The first editor of the Letters, Robert McWard says that they contain “many volumes wrapped up together in a few words”. They are like “a great soul shut up in a little body”. Much of the true substance of “real religion” is “enclosed in every line”. He drew attention to the highs and lows of spiritual experience that they contain. They witness to times of either the felt presence of Christ or the felt absence.
The later editor, Andrew Bonar says that these letters will always be precious to:
1. All Who Mourn Over Sin
All who are sensible [conscious] of their own, and the Church’s decay and corruptions. The wound and the cure are therein so fully opened out: self is exposed, especially spiritual self. He will tell you, “There is as much need to watch over grace, as to watch over sin.” He will show you God in Christ, to fill up the place usurped by self. The subtleties of sin, idols, snares, temptations, self-deceptions, are dragged into view from time to time. And what is better still, the cords of Christ are twined round the roots of these bitter plants, that they may be plucked up.
Nor is it otherwise in regard to corruption in public, and in the Church. We do not mean merely the open corruption of error, but also the secret “grey hairs” of decay. Hear him cry, “There is universal deadness on all that fear God. O where are the sometime quickening breathings and influences from heaven that have refreshed His hidden ones!” And then he laments, in the name of the saints, “We are half satisfied with our witheredness; nor have we as much of his strain who doth eight times breathe out that suit [request] (Psalm 119), Quicken me!” “We live far from the well, and complain but dryly of our dryness.”
2. All Who Delight in Christ’s Righteousness
All who delight in the Surety’s imputed righteousness. If thoroughly aware of the body of sin in ourselves we cannot but feel that we need a person in our stead — the person of the God-man in the room of our guilty person. “To us a Son is given;” not salvation only, but a Saviour. “He gave Himself for us”.
These letters are ever leading us to the Surety and His righteousness. The eye never gets time to rest long on anything apart from Him and His righteousness. We are shown the deluge-waters undried up, in order to lead us into the ark again: “I had fainted, had not want and penury chased me to the storehouse of all.”
3. All Who Rejoice in the Gospel of Free Grace
Lord Kenmure having said to him, “Sin causeth me to be jealous of His love to such a man as I have been,” he replied, “Be jealous of yourself, my Lord, but not of Jesus Christ,” In his Trial and Triumph of Faith he remarks, “As holy walking is a duty coming from us, it is no ground of true peace. Believers often seek in themselves what they should seek in Christ.” It is to the like effect he says in one of his letters, “Your heart is not the compass that Christ saileth by,” — turning away his friend from looking inward, to look upon the heart of Jesus. And this is his meaning, when he thus lays the whole burden of salvation on the Lord, and leaves nothing for us but acceptance, “Take ease to thyself, and let Him bear all”. Then, pointing us to the risen Saviour as our pledge of complete redemption, “Faith may dance, because Christ singeth;” “Faith apprehendeth pardon but never payeth a penny for it.”
On his death-bed he said to his friends, “I disclaim all that ever God made me will or do, and I look upon it as defiled and imperfect.” And so in his Letters he will admit of no addition, or intermixture of other things, ”The Gospel is like a small hair that hath no breadth, and will not cleave in two.” He exhorts to Assurance as being the way to be humbled very low before God: “Complaining is but a humble backbiting and traducing of Christ’s new work in the soul.” “Make meikle [much] of assurance, for it
keepeth your anchor fixed.” He warns us, in his Trial and Triumph of Faith not to be too desirous of keen awakenings to chase us to Christ. Let Christ tutor me as he thinketh good. He has seven eyes; I have but one, and that too dim.” In a similar strain he writes:
“The law shall never be my doomster, by Christ’s grace; I shall find a sure enough doom in the Gospel to humble and cast me down. There cannot be a more humble soul than a believer. It is no pride in a drowning man to catch hold of a rock“.
How much truth there is here! Naaman never was humble in any degree, until he felt himself completely healed of his scaly leprosy; but truly he was humbled and humble then. And what one word is there that suggests so many humbling thoughts as that word “grace“.
4. All Who Seek to Grow in Holiness
The Holy Spirit delights to show us the glorious Godhead, in the face of Jesus. And this is a very frequent theme in these Letters. “Take Christ for sanctification, as well as justification,” is often his theme. And in him we see a man who seems to have fought for holiness as unceasingly and as eagerly as other men seek for pardon and peace. In him “Holiness to the Lord” seems written on every affection of the heart, and on every fresh-springing thought.
Fellowship with the living God is a distinguishing feature in the holiness given by the Holy Spirit; we get “access by one Spirit to the Father through Him.” Rutherford could sometimes say, ”I have been so near Him that I have said, ‘I take instruments [legal testimony] that this is the Lord.'” And he could from experience declare, “I dare avouch, the saints know not the length and largeness of the sweet Earnest, and of the sweet green sheaves before the harvest, that might be had on this side of the water, if we should take more pains [effort]”.”I am every way in your case, as hard-hearted and dead as any man, but yet I speak to Christ through my sleep.” All this is from the pen of a man who was a metaphysician, a controversialist, a leader in the church, and learned in ancient and scholastic lore. Why are there not such gracious, as well as great men now?
5. All Afflicted Ones
Here he had the very “tongue of the learned, to speak a word in season to him that was weary.” And with what tender sympathy does he speak, leading the mourner so gently to the heart of Jesus! He knew the heart of a stranger, for he had been a stranger. “Let no man after me slander Christ for His cross.” Yes, says he, His most loved are often His most tried: “The lintel-stone and pillars of His New Jerusalem suSer more knocks of God’s hammer and tools than the common side- wall stones.” Even as to reproach and calumny, he declares,” I love Christ’s worst reproaches.”
It was to Hugh M’Kail, uncle of the youthful martyr, that he penned the words, “Some have written me that I am possibly too joyful of the cross; but my joy overleapeth the cross — it is bounded and terminated on Christ.” And there it was he found a well of comfort never dry.
6. All Who Love the Person of Christ
We have too often been satisfied with speculative truth and abstract doctrine. On the one hand, the orthodox have too often rested in the statements of our Catechisms and Confessions; and, on the other, the “Election-doubters” (as Bunyan would have called them) have pressed their favourite dogma, that Christ died for all men, as if mere assent to a proposition could save the soul. Rutherford places the truth before us in a more accurate, and also more savoury way, full of life and warmth. The Person of Him who gave Himself for His church is held up in all its attractiveness. With him, it is ever the Person as much as the work done ; or rather, never the one apart from the other. like Paul, he would fain know Him, as well as the power of His resurrection (Philippians 3:10).
Once, when Lord Kenmure asked him, “What will Christ be like when He cometh?” his reply was, “All lovely“. And this is everywhere the favourite theme with him. At times he tells of His love. “His love surroundeth and surchargeth me.” “If His love was not in heaven, I should be unwilling to go thither.” Often he checks his pen to tell of Christ Himself, “Welcome, welcome, sweet, sweet cross of Christ;” — then correcting his language, “Welcome, fair, lovely, royal King, with Thine own cross” ” if I could doat as much upon Himself as I do upon His love.” “I fear I make more of His love than of Himself“. How startling yet how true, is this remark, “I see that in communion with Christ we may make more gods than one,” — meaning that we may be tempted to make the enjoyment itself our god. It was his habitual aim to pass through privileges, joys, even fellowship, to God Himself: “I have casten this work upon Christ, to get me Himself“. “I would be farther in upon Christ than at His joys; in, where love and mercy lodgeth, beside His heart.” “He who sitteth on the throne is His lone [alone] a sufficient heaven.” “Sure I am He is the far best half of heaven.”
In a word, such was his soul’s view of the living Person, that he writes, “Holiness is not Christ, nor the blossoms and flowers of the tree of life, nor the tree itself.” “He had found out the true fountain-head, and would direct all Zion’s travellers thither. And let a man try this; let the Holy Spirit lead a man to this Person; — and surely his experience will be, “None ever came up dry from David’s well.”
7. All who love the Hope of Christ’s Appearing
The more we love the Person of Christ, the more ought we to love hat blessed hope and the glorious appearing of the great God our Saviour; and the more we cherish both feelings, the holier shall we become. Rutherford abounds in aspirations for that day; he is one who “looks for and hastens unto the coming of the day of God!” While in exile at Aberdeen in 1637, he writes, “O when will we meet! O how long is it to the dawning of the marriage day! sweet Jesus, take wide steps! my Lord, come over mountains at one stride! O my Beloved, flee as a roe or young hart upon the mountains of separation.”
Now and then he utters the expression of an intense desire for the restoration of Israel to their Lord, and the fulness of the Gentiles; but far oftener his desires go forth to his Lord Himself. “O fairest among the sons of men, why stayest Thou so long away? heavens, move fast! O time, run, run, and hasten the marriage day!” To Lady Kenmure his words are, “The Lord hath told you what you should be doing till He come. ‘Wait and hasten’, saith Peter, ‘for the coming of the Lord.’ Sigh and long for the dawning of that morning, and the breaking of that day, of the coming of the Son of Man, when the shadows shall flee away. Wait with the wearied night-watch for the breaking of the eastern sky.” Those saints who feel most keenly the world’s enmity, and the Church’s imperfection, are those who will most fervently love their Lord’s appearing. It was thus with Daniel on the banks of Ulai, and with John in Patmos; and Samuel Rutherford’s most intense aspirations for that day are breathed out in Aberdeen.
His description of himself on one occasion is, “A man often borne down and hungry, and waiting for the marriage supper of the Lamb.” He is now gone to the “mountain of myrrh and the hill of frankincense;” and there he no doubt still wonders at the unopened, unsearchable treasures of Christ. But O for his insatiable desires Christward! for ten such men in Scotland to stand in the gap! — men who all day long find nothing but Christ to rest in, whose very sleep is a pursuing after Christ in dreams, and who intensely desire to “awake with His likeness.”