Category: Puritanism

Memento Mori – Remember that you will die…

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[1]

 

I haven’t posted anything for nearly a month and the main factor has been lingering illness. For several weeks I was plagued with unpleasant symptoms and diminished capacity. I’m pleased to have recovered enough to have something like a normal week, but I wanted to return to writing with something I reflected upon while sick. Memento Mori. 

In art, religion and culture a memento mori is something that serves as a reminder of the reality of death. Throughout the ages, many people have used iconography, such as pictures of skeletal remains, or activities such as walking through a cemetery, to bring to the front of their minds the fact that they must someday confront death.

Anyone who takes life and spirituality seriously cannot ignore the brevity of earthly life and the imminence of bodily death. To invoke a reminder like a memento mori is to force ourselves to remember our mortal fragility and to make the most of our time on earth, which is oh so fleeting.

For me, being ill served as something as a memento mori. Falling ill does not come with the guarantee of recovery. While we have excellent healthcare in Australia and it’s easy to be melodramatic about one’s symptoms to the point that they seem more severe than they actually are (“man flu” anyone?), relatively young and healthy people can and do die suddenly in this country more often than we’d like to acknowledge. Sickness says, “Even if this isn’t the last struggle, one day this body will give out.” And in the context of eternity, that day is coming sooner than imaginable.

I don’t want to be morbid and obsessive when it comes to the topic of dying. But I think many Christians suffer from the same mental and social avoidance of the subject as our unbelieving neighbours do. If we’re good evangelicals, we talk a lot about the historical and spiritual significance of Jesus’ death: but it seems we are quite proficient at mentally and emotionally divorcing the reality of His death from the rapid approach of our own.

This ought to change. In my life and yours.

In my research recently I’ve revisited the connection between godliness and preparedness for death and eternity in Puritan thought and spirituality. It has been said of the Puritans that for them, “a holy death was . . . the culmination of a holy life.”[2] Everything about life now had eternal realities in view and death was the inescapable passageway between this life and life evermore with God. Thus, dying well was recognised as an important component of the Christian life for many generations before us. And dying well is difficult if you’ve spent your whole life avoiding the subject.

Thomas Watson (the main subject of my research) said that one of the surest ways to grow in godliness was to “think of your short stay in the world.”He adds, “The serious thoughts of our short stay here would be a great means of promoting godliness. What if death should come before we are ready? What if our life should breathe out before God’s Spirit has breathed in? Whoever considers how flitting and winged his life is, will hasten his repentance.”[3]

We are all in danger of failing to heed a warning like Watson’s. There are special seasons where thinking upon death comes more easily. The sudden death of a loved one. The death of someone “before their time.” A serious illness, injury or close encounter with the prospect of death. But next week will see most of us failing to have “serious thoughts” about the end of our lives for a number of reasons.

One is delusion. When the serpent enticed Adam and Eve to rebel against God, he assured Eve that, in contradiction to God’s clear Word: “You will not surely die.”  Part of what allows us to live lives that don’t take death seriously, is to believe a form of this deception. Some days we can live (and sin!) as though we will never have to die. As though God’s Word in Hebrews 9:27 “It is appointed for man to die once and after that comes judgement”, isn’t a reality.

Some of us may fall for a slightly watered down version though, when tempted to go on living in ignorance of eternity and disobedience towards God. Satan may assure us “You will not surely die yet,” “You will not surely die anytime soon.

A chilling example of this is when a friend of mine shared the gospel with a young man in the Brisbane CBD one weekend. The young man was dismissive and left without taking God’s Word to him about sin, salvation and eternity seriously. The youth in question participated in some risky behaviour later that night as part of the “planking” craze sweeping the world at the time. He fell to his death from a building only a few hours after failing to take heed to a message of life and death.

Christians may believe the gospel – but do we treat each day as though it could really be our last. Are we clinging to Jesus with the type of desperation that says we may need the gospel for our dying moments at any time?

Another thing that will stop us from serious consideration is distraction. We may recognise that we need to take death and eternity seriously and agree in principle that these realities should shape our daily lives. But there are just so many things that take our minds other places. So much that needs to be done. So many interesting things to engage the intellect. So many pleasures that beckon us to pursue them for a few minutes or hours instead of contemplating the end of life.

Finally, we can also be desensitised to some of the things that would normally serve as good memento mori to us.  This is especially true of our repetitive exposure to death in news media. Every time we hear about a murder, traffic accident, terrorist attack, fatal disaster or other event resulting in the loss of human life, we should think about our own mortality and whether we’re prepared for eternity (see Luke 13 for Jesus’ take on this). But because we are constantly presented with strangers dying, we can’t seem to bear the emotional toll of always taking such news to heart and so we grow cooler (if not cold…if not callous) towards news of death unless it’s much closer to home.

How might we overcome delusion, distraction and desensitisation when it comes to our need to confront the reality of death? Here are three practical suggestions.

  1. We can intentionally take time to think and speak about death more than we currently do. Turn those nightly news items into memento mori that challenge you to think about the shortness of your own life. Set aside time in your week or month to contemplate death and better prepare for it. Discuss death more openly and frequently with trusted Christian friends: they need to be prepared just as much as you do.
  2. Share the gospel with people more often. Faithfully pleading with others to consider the reality of death and what lies beyond is a good way to keep being reminded of it yourself. A gospel outline like Two Ways to Live brings up the issue of death quite clearly. Others like Way of the Master often lead in with a question like “If you died tonight do you think you’d go to Heaven?” To present the gospel faithfully, you must tackle the reality of death: and not only that of the person you’re sharing with, but your own.
  3. Consider spending time with people who are closer to death or at greater risk of death. If you have trouble confronting death in your day-to-day thought-life and lived experience, it may be helpful to get connected with those who are evidently facing death soon. Spend time with elderly relatives or church members, or visit a local nursing home or hospital.

    I’m not saying we should form relationships with the sick or elderly merely for the sake of turning them into functional memento mori – that would be morbid. There are much wider opportunities for mutual gain in relationships between younger and older generations. However, for the young who find it hard to treat death as something close or even imminent, one way our relationships with the elderly can benefit us is to see how they treat the subject of death when it is undeniably creeping closer.

So whatever you have planned for this week, this month, this year – remember to remember that you will die. Don’t allow the dark hues of death to colour your whole life: the resurrection of Christ enables us to enjoy life now and anticipate the fullness of life beyond death. But equally, don’t live in this world as if death is not something you will have to face and face soon.

To close with the enduring words of C.T. Studd:

Only one life, yes only one,
Soon will its fleeting hours be done;
Then, in ‘that day’ my Lord to meet,
And stand before His Judgement seat;
Only one life,’twill soon be past,
Only what’s done for Christ will last.
[4]

[1] Pieter Cornelissen “Skulls” flickr (CC BY 2.0)
[2] Dewey Wallace Spirituality of the Later English Puritans (Macon: Mercer University, 1987): 1.
[3] Thomas Watson, The Godly Man’s Picture (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1992): 207-208.
[4] You can read the poem in its entirety here: http://paulhockley.com/2016/05/24/quote-only-one-life-twill-soon-be-past-poem-by-c-t-studd/

What is Godliness?

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How would you explain “godliness” to a new Christian or a non-believer? Often this key word is used in a well-meaning but unprecise way by many Christians. Sometimes “godliness” becomes synonymous with other terms like “holiness” or “integrity” and other times familiarity with its meaning is simply assumed. For example, R. Kent Hughes’ best-selling book Disciplines of a Godly Man* takes 1 Timothy 4:7b “train yourself for godliness,” as its foundational text. The book’s introduction goes to great lengths to explain what is meant by “training” and “discipline”, while failing to define or explain what godliness is.

Other times godliness may be subsumed under other ideas of what a Christian should be. Larry Crabb asks in The Silence of Adam,* “what does a godly man look like?” He immediately asserts “you can substitute the phrase ‘manly man’ for ‘godly man,’ the two are the same,” and later suggests: “Men in whom masculine energy is suppressed or distorted are unmanly, ungodly men…” Here, godliness appears to be subordinated to a particular notion of masculinity.

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The biblical concept of godliness is a very important element of Christianity and it deserves better than to be used as shorthand for generic Christian living, or in any other way that diminishes its uniqueness. There is also a rich heritage of earlier saints who were deeply concerned with the nature and characteristics of godliness, which can be drawn upon from two millennia of church history.  Every Christian will be well served to explore what godliness means biblically and how it has been understood and lived out by those in centuries past.

Eusebeia and Theosebeia in the New Testament

The main Greek word translated as “godliness” in our English New Testaments is eusebeia. It appears around 15 times in the Greek New Testament (Acts 3:12; 1 Timothy 2:2, 3:16, 4:7&8, 6:3,5,6&11; 2 Timothy 3:5; Titus 1:1; 2 Peter 1:3,6&7, 3:11) with words from the same family appearing several more times (Acts 10:2&7, 17:23; 1 Timothy 5:4; 2 Timothy 3:12; Titus 2:12; 2 Peter 2:9).

The word breaks down to eu- (Gk: ‘good’ or ‘well’) and sebeia (Gk: ‘reverence’ or ‘worship’) – literally ‘well-worship’ or ‘good (i.e. proper) reverence.’ In Greek, the concept doesn’t relate exclusively to God, but conveys the idea of giving appropriate reverence to those one has a duty to honour. The similar word theosebeia (literally: ‘God-reverence’) appears once only in 1 Timothy 2:10, but is also usually translated “godliness” in English Bibles.

Thus, if we are to use the term “godliness” in any meaningful way that is anchored in its New Testament definition, it must relate specifically to showing proper reverence to God in our lives. But exactly what is the nature of this worship or reverence?

A helping hand from History

It’s at this point that it will help if we draw on the thoughts of Christians who have wrestled with the implications of this biblical sense of godliness long before we ever asked the question. While Christians in the early centuries of the Church often have valuable insights on this issue (Augustine for instance is sometimes credited with tweaking the sense of the Greco-Roman notion of piety into a more personalised devotion towards God),[1] it will be most helpful to consider the voices of the more recent forerunners of modern evangelicalism: namely the Reformers and Puritans.

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The Reformer John Calvin, defined piety (a synonym for godliness) as the “union of reverence and love to God which the knowledge of his benefits inspires.”[2] Here we see that proper reverence towards God must be accompanied by love towards Him. Calvin considered this reverence and love to be built upon a theological foundation: they were inspired by the knowledge of God and his benefits learned through the Gospel and instruction in the Scriptures. Piety was a heart-response to what the head had learned.

Calvin later said that the kind of godly reverence or fear he spoke of also led to “legitimate worship as is prescribed by the law.”[3] That is to say, the outward forms of worship (eg; a church service) which a godly person adopted would not only be characterised by a proper demonstration of reverence for God at all times, but would also be based on whatever forms of worship God had called for in the Bible.

The Puritans

 

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The English Puritans of the 16th and 17th centuries were perhaps more preoccupied with the meaning and centrality of godliness than any other movement in Christian history. They saw the biblical emphasis on worshipping God sincerely from the heart as a core truth that was denied by multitudes of nominal Christians who were “no better than baptised heathen!” (Thomas Watson, Godly Man’s Picture).

Like Calvin, they saw godliness as having the right appreciation and esteem of God as He really was. The Puritans emphasised the cultivation of godly affections – again chiefly fear and love – which showed God actually was being worshipped from the heart. The godly man or woman was a person who cherished God as their most precious treasure and who regarded Him as the Being of greatest magnitude and glory in the universe. This was only possible for those who had been regenerated and given a new nature by God’s Holy Spirit.

The Puritans were also concerned that outward worship be reformed to reflect that which God mandated in the Scriptures, as this was seen as an obvious means of showing they took God seriously. The English Church in which most of them worshipped (for some, until they were forced out) there was a mixture of biblical worship and the innovations of the Roman Catholic Church that found little Scriptural warrant. The Puritans sought to bring church services, corporate worship and private devotion in line with simple, God-honouring reverence and get rid of anything that reeked of superstition or took the focus away from God.

Summary

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I think the easiest way to emphasise the true meaning of godliness is to bold the first three letters: Godliness. In fact, perhaps bold them in size 200 font. Because godliness is all about your attitude towards God. When our heart beholds, by faith, the immense majesty of the King of Kings in His exalted-above-the-heavens glory and is inflamed with sincere love, while trembling with holy fear – that’s godliness. And the way that kind of heart-response shows up in our daily living and the way we gather and worship as a church is godliness-by-extension.

Now that you know what godliness is, it’s worth pondering whether you have it…

 

[1] Joseph Harp Britton, Abraham Herschel and the Phenomenon of Piety (London: T&T Clark, 2015): 26-27.

[2] Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion Book I, Chapter II.

[3] Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion Book I Chapter II.

*I have nothing against either author, nor do I intend to discredit these particular works: I simply sought to demonstrate from these books how commonly the meaning of godliness is either assumed or conflated with something else.

Religious Scandals – Thomas Watson

A special guest post from my good friend Thomas Watson (c. 1620-1686)

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I acknowledge the luster of religion has been much eclipsed and sullied by the scandals of men. This is an age of scandals. Many have made the pretense of religion, to be a key to open the door to all ungodliness. Never was God’s name more taken in vain. This is that [which] our Saviour has foretold. ‘It must needs be that offences come’ (Matthew 18:7). But to take off this prejudice, consider: scandals are not from true religion—but for lack of true religion. True religion is not the worse, though some abuse it. To dislike piety because some of the professors of it are scandalous, is as if one should say, ‘Because the servant is dishonest, therefore he will not have a good opinion of his master.’ Is Christ the less glorious because some who wear his livery are scandalous? Is true religion the worse—because some of her followers are bad? Is wine the worse—because some are drunkards? Shall a woman dislike chastity because some of her neighbors are unchaste? Let us argue soberly. ‘Judge righteous judgment’ (John 7:24).

God sometimes permits scandals to fall out in the church out of a design:

(1) As a just judgment upon hypocrites. These squint-eyed devotionists who serve God for their own ends, the Lord in justice allows them to fall into horrid debauched practices, that he may lay open their baseness to the world, and that all may see they were but pretend Christians, but painted devils! Judas was first a sly hypocrite, afterwards a visible traitor!

(2) Scandals are for hardening of the profane. Some desperate sinners who would not be won by piety—they shall be wounded by it. God lets scandals occur, to be a break neck to men and to engulf them more in sin. Jesus Christ (‘God blessed forever’) is to some a ‘rock of offence’ (Romans 9:33). His blood, which is to some balm, is to others poison. If the beauty of piety does not allure—the scandals of some of its followers shall spur men to hell.

(3) Scandals in the church are for the caution of the godly. The Lord would have his people walk tremblingly. ‘Be not high-minded—but fear’ (Romans 11:20). When cedars fall, let the ‘bruised reed’ tremble. The scandals of professors are not to discourage us—but to warn us. Let us tread more warily. The scandals of others are sea-marks for the saints to avoid.

Let all this serve to take off these prejudices from true religion. Though Satan may endeavor by false disguises to render the gospel odious—yet there is a beauty and a glory in it. God’s ‘commandments are not grievous’.

Let me persuade all men cordially to embrace the ways of God. ‘His commandments are not grievous’. God never burdens us—but that he may unburden us of our sins. His commands are our privileges. There is joy in the way of duty (Psalm 19:11)—and heaven at the end!

An excerpt from the closing paragraphs of Watson’s Beatitudes (1660). Available here.

Puritans vs Pharisees

Puritans and Pharisees can both get a pretty bad wrap from Christians and non-Christians alike. Stereotypes affect how we (mis)understand both groups and each term easily becomes a dismissive or derogatory label, rather than a word that helps us understand members of these two religious movements in their historical context.

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Pharisees [1]
But “Pharisee” deserves to be a negative byword due to Jesus’ evaluation of Pharisaism in the New Testament. It would be better if people used Pharisee specifically, rather than as a way of condemning anyone who is stricter on some point of ethics or theology than the speaker; and it would be more helpful if Christians understood what the main issues Jesus criticised in the Pharisees actually were – but there is such a thing as a “Pharisaic” outlook on life and it isn’t positive.

“Puritans” on the other hand get a bad wrap because they’ve been caricatured for centuries by people who disagree with their views on theology and their approach to the Christian life. The name itself is pejorative and meant to conjure the idea of someone who thinks they’re “holier-than-thou” and a restorer of “true religion.” But the dull and dour, no frills/no fun, legalistically strict Puritan is more a portrait drawn by their enemies (often enemies of the gospel) and often doesn’t reflect who they really were.

Desembarco_de_los_puritanos_en_América_(Antonio_Gisbert)
Puritan Pilgrims in New England

The Puritan is not in fact the Pharisee of 16th and 17th century England and America. Both may have shared a superficially similar emphasis on purity of religion and holiness of life – but the Pharisee on the pages of the New Testament and the Puritans of the still-fairly-young Protestant movement were fundamentally opposite to one another.

So what’s the main point of difference between the two? Well, generally speaking, for the Pharisee, outward displays of strict religious observance were where they placed all too much emphasis. The way they looked in front of others and the way they separated or distinguished themselves from “sinners” was often the key aspect of their daily devotion.

In perhaps the most famous denunciation of the Pharisees in the Bible (see Matthew 23), Jesus targets their desire for religious prestige before others (vv. 5-12); their selective, partial and unbalanced obedience to God’s commands (vv. 1-2 & 16-24); and their hypocritical inward corruption beneath their positive outward image (vv. 25-28). In the crescendo (vv. 29-39) Jesus effectively charges them with hatred of God, because of how they’re no different from their fathers who killed God’s messengers (and indeed they soon expressed their wicked rejection of God by conspiring to have His Son executed).

So when we use the name Pharisee as a negative label (by no means something we should do lightly!) we ought to use it to describe someone who is like an actor that dresses up as a “religious person” and performs for the approval of men and women, but who underneath is a different person (in other words a hypocrite). The Pharisee looks upright, especially in comparison to the more obvious “sinners”, but at heart he’s morally corrupt, unwilling to submit to God and in fact harbours hatred towards the true God and his servants.

Puritans at their best were anti-Pharisees. While they did believe outward behaviour and separation from certain kinds of sin (and sinners) were important (but for different reasons as we’ll see), they took Jesus’ warnings against the Pharisaic attitude very seriously. They held that godliness (which is properly understood as the right, personal, heart attitude towards God, as He reveals Himself to us) was essential for the Christian life and that anything done for God or man that was for outward show – rather than from the heart – was not only useless, but evil and dishonouring towards the King of Glory.

Consider these strong words from Thomas Watson, the Puritan I’m focusing my research on:
“To have only a name, and make a show of godliness, is odious to God and man.
The hypocrite is abhorred by all. Wicked men hate him because he makes a show, and God hates him because he only makes a show. The wicked hate him because he has so much as a mask of godliness, and God hates him because he has no more…The wicked hate the hypocrite because he is almost a Christian, and God hates him because he is only almost one.”

Being a religious hypocrite like the Pharisees, basically makes you a double loser!

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Thomas Watson (c. 1620-1686)

Watson also echoed Jesus’ attacks on the Pharisees’ failure to deal with their sinful hearts or obey God inwardly as well as outwardly:
He who fears God—dares not sin secretly. A hypocrite may forbear [avoid] gross sin because of the shame—but not clandestine, secret sin. He is like one who shuts up his shop windows—but follows his trade within doors. But a man fearing God dares not sin, though he could walk invisibly, and no eye see him.”

On the Pharisaic attitude towards God, he offers:
Hypocrites obey God grudgingly, and against their will; they do good but not willingly. Cain brought his sacrifice—but not his heart. It is a true rule—what the heart does not do, is not done,” and “Hypocrites take God’s name in vain: their religion is a lie; they seem to honour God—but they do not love him; their hearts go after their lusts.”

Finally, he summarises well the goal of Pharisaic religion, versus the kind of faith he was promoting himself:
The hypocrite makes use of religion, only [in the way] the fisherman [uses] his net, to catch preferment. He serves God for applause – hypocrites look not at God’s glory, but vain glory. They serve God rather to save their credit, than to save their souls…[but] an upright heart makes the glory of God his centre.”

The Puritans condemned religious hypocrites so heavily (Watson calls them “doubly damned” in hell) that they could scarcely afford to be found guilty of the same crime themselves! And so while people may accuse Puritans of being legalistic (generally a misconception, but space won’t permit a detailed defense here), they were not at all like the Pharisees of Jesus’ time. The main difference was that the Pharisees for the most part ignored Jesus’ charge of hypocrisy and selective obedience, whereas the Puritans listened to those same words and made every effort to deal with their inner corruption through repentance and faith, so that they might truly obey God from the heart by following Jesus instead of wanting to see him dead.

[1] Waiting For The Word TISSOT pharisees enraged (CC BY 2.0) flickr