Monday, February 22, 2010

Sufficient Grace

"For I am now ready to be offered, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith."
(2 Timothy 4:6,7)

Part 11: Preparations for Sufferings

Do you have what it takes to finish the course? What if the course becomes rocky, full of sufferings, pain and persecution? Will you have what it takes to fight the fight and keep the faith? Will you be able to endure actual suffering? These are pressing questions which every serious Christian asks at various times in their life, particularly when facing a time of trial and tribulation.

John Flavel's classic writing* on the topic of "Preparation for Sufferings,"[1] provides some guidance to believers whose hearts are troubled about how they might endure persecution. Flavel contends that there is a necessity for a special work of grace upon the heart of a believer to ready them for actual suffering. This concept is completely foreign to the modern evangelical mindset, which views any special work of God as a means of some higher form of spirituality in the Gnostic sense.[2] In contrast to this heresy, Flavel's discussion of a special work of grace in the life of a believer, as the Lord prepares him for suffering and persecution, is based on Scripture.

Flavel notes how God specially equips a believer for perilous times. The Holy Spirit works "in the hearts of believers, thereby enabling them sensibly to see and feel" this work. Note that the word "sensibly" here means "of the senses," implying that a believer can actually know, feel and experience God's special grace at times. Flavel cites 1 Cor. 2:12: "Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit which is of God; that we might know the things that are freely given to us of God." He says that God's special mercy in this situation is "the sweetest thing in the world. It swallows up all troubles, and doubles all other comforts: it puts more gladness into the heart than the increase of corn and wine, Psalm 4:7."

Flavel explains this special work of grace as the "shedding abroad of the love of God in the heart" (Romans 5:5), "the lifting up of the light of God's countenance" upon the believer (Psalm 4:6), and Christ's "manifesting Himself to the soul (John 14:21)."[3] In this special work of grace, God illumines our darkness.[4]

Both in the continuation and removal of it the Spirit acts arbitrarily. No man can say how long he shall walk in this pleasant light, Psalm 30:7, "LORD, by Thy favour thou hast made my mountain to stand strong: Thou didst hide Thy face, and I was troubled." And when in darkness, none can say how long it will be ere that sweet light break forth again. God can scatter the cloud unexpectedly in a moment, Cant. [Song of Solomon] 3:4, "It was but a little that I passed from them, but I found him whom my soul loveth...." There is such an observable difference in David's spirit in some Psalms, as if one man had written the beginning and another the end of them.

Though God can quickly remove the darkness and doubts of a soul, yet ordinarily the saints find it a very hard and difficult thing to obtain and preserve the evidences of their graces. Such is the darkness, deadness, and deceitfulness of the heart; so much unevenness and inconstancy in their practice, so many counterfeits of grace, and so many wiles and devices of Satan to rob them of their peace, that few (in comparison) live in a constant and quiet fruition of it.

Despite our human frailties, God has made special provision for saints who must undergo actual suffering and persecution. Among the most important provisions of God's grace include:

Scripture: A believer is prepared best by going to Scripture: "Scripture-light... is able to discover the secrets of a man's heart to him; and is therefore compared to the Anatomizer's knife, Hebrews 4:12."[5]

Holy Spirit: It is also a work of the Holy Spirit in the heart, which "doth but plant the habits, excite and draw forth the acts, and also shine upon His own work, that the soul may see it; and that... begets peace, and quiets the heart, though it doth not fully conquer all of the doubts of it."

Love: There is also the grace of "the Christian's love to God" which "hath a mighty influence into all his sufferings for God. This grace of love enables him victoriously to break through all difficulties and discouragements," which "Many waters cannot quench love, neither can the floods drown it" (Song of Solomon 8:7).

Joy: And there is "a fountain of joy and comfort in the darkest and saddest hour" that gives "the glorious triumphs of saints in their afflictions." Flavel writes that to "suffer with joyfulness for Christ is a qualification that God's eye is much upon in his suffering servants, Col. 1:11" -- "Strengthened with all might, according to his glorious power, unto all patience and longsuffering with joyfulness."

Common Pitfalls

Flavel cautions about several pitfalls that believers encounter under trial, some of which should be quite familiar to those dedicated to serving the Lord. Several of these pitfalls are the result of an improper focus on self or others. The reader is exhorted: "Oh! take heed of these mistakes; they have been very prejudicial to the peace of many Christians!"

  • "Call not your condition into question upon every failing and involuntary lapse into sin," but rather lean upon God's promises, Psalm 65:3: 'Iniquities prevail against me: as for our transgressions, thou shalt purge them away.'"
  • "Question not the truth of thy grace, because it was not wrought in the same way and manner in thee, as in others."
  • "Conclude not that you have no grace, because you feel not those transports and ravishing joys that other Christians speak of." A good prayer is found in Mark 9:24, "Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief."
  • "Say not thou hast no grace, because of the high attainments of some hypocrites, who in some things may excel thee. When some persons read the sixth chapter of Hebrews, they are startled to see to what a glorious height the hypocrite may soar; not considering that ...1) self was never dethroned,... 2) the hypocrite never hated every sin,... 3) the hypocrite never acted in duty" from a new nature but rather "some external motives and advantages."
  • Do not "conclude you have no grace, because you grow not so sensibly as other Christians do," by comparing yourselves and measuring yourselves to others gifts and graces; or "by thinking that all growth is upward in joy, peace, and comfort; whereas you may grow in mortification and humility, which is as true a growth as the former."
  • Finally, "decline not sufferings when God gives you a fair call to them!"

The Truth:

"For the which cause I also suffer these things: nevertheless I am not ashamed: for I know whom I have believed, and am persuaded that he is able to keep that which I have committed unto him against that day." (2 Timothy 2:12)

1. Works of John Flavel (6 vol set), Banner of Truth Trust (1820, 1968), ISBN 0-85151-060-4. Flavel's dissertation titled "Preparations for Suffering, or The Best Work in the Worst Times" appears in Volume 6, pages 3-83.
2. For many illustrations on this point see Travers and Jewel van der Merwe's classic work Strange Fire: The Rise of Gnosticism in the Church (1995)
3. John 14:21 states: "He that hath my commandments, and keepeth them, he it is that loveth Me: and he that loveth Me shall be loved of My Father, and I will love him, and will manifest Myself to him."
5. Flavel refers to Isaiah 50:10: "Who is among you that feareth the LORD, that obeyeth the voice of his servant, that walketh in darkness, and hath no light? let him trust in the name of the LORD, and stay upon his God."
5. "Anatomizer" is an archaic term, meaning one who cuts apart the anatomy, i.e., dissects. See Hebrews 4:12 explains this process spiritually: "For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any twoedged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart."

NOTE: The title of this post is based on 2 Corinthians 12:9: "And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for My strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me."

*ED. NOTE: Italics in original, bold added. We have taken minor liberties to reformat some of the published text by altering some of the punctuation, Roman numerals, and other obsolete forms.