July With the Puritans--George Swinnock--Part 2

This is the second outing that we are going to spend with George Swinnock whom was introduced in the previous post.  One of the chief ways of gaining insight into the Puritans is the need to read their sermons but even more so than that is to think and meditate on what they have written.  Early on you will discover that there were some matters that set the writings of the Puritans apart.  I intend on showing you some of the chief themes and characteristics about their preaching.  First, they were very concerned about the state of their conscience.  Secondly, they were very focused in on the brevity of life.  Thirdly, they used some of the most masterful word pictures in their preaching.  I have gathered most of the material I will write today from Volume 1 of George Swinnock’s work (pp. 1-26).    

The State of the Conscience

The condition of the human heart is sinful and has great proclivities toward sin.  This is the reason that men must be converted because of his fallen nature.  Never be surprised at the actions that sinners fall into.  “Men’s hearts naturally, are like Nebuchadnezzar’s, the hearts of beasts, grazing only in fleshly pastures, savouring only sensual pleasures, till their reason returneth to them; then they bless and honour the most high God, who liveth forever, Dan. iv. 34; then they mind spiritual dainties, and relish celestial delights” (pp. 3-4).  This is the kind of understanding of the human condition that has been seriously lost and sorely neglected by much of our world today.  Somewhere along the way, educators, politicians, news commentators, and even religious leaders have come to believe that man is basically good.  Take that single sentence that Swinnock wrote in the 17th century and make a comparison with any Christian bestseller today and you will notice a drastic difference in the content of the books.  In fact, the New York Bestseller List for the Religion/Spirituality list for today has a book about Scientology in the first slot.  The books that follow are those which are very marketable which means that there is very little of a call toward holiness and devotion to God but rather how to get God to do what we want Him to do.

What you find in the works of Swinnock is a very strong call to the conscience.  The only real way for the conscience of a spiritual man to be exercised is for it to be provoked.  Swinnock exhorted, “Do not muzzle the mouth of the conscience but give it leave to speak its mind freely.”  One of the ways that the conscience is settled down so that it cannot speak is the neglect of private prayer and the private spiritual disciplines that should be at work in the life of every child of God.  When we neglect these areas of commune with God, the spiritual authority slowly seeps out of us.  Before too long, Swinnock notes that life can become a liar to the conscience by allowing so many actions to smother out and hinder religious behavior.  We need religious behavior in our lives despite what some critics of this might say.  If you would see the true elements of conversion, they are summed up in 1 John 2.  The very first mark of conversion is that we obey the laws and commandments of God which is in turn, religious behavior.  Worldly behavior seriously stifles the voice of the conscience.  All through the section “To the Reader” there is a reach by Swinnock to stir the conscience.  He noted that to continually contradict the conscience will bring a dreadful vengeance on the soul.  You will find that he constantly uses questions to goad a man into thinking. 

The Brevity of Life

A second characteristic of the Puritans, Swinnock notwithstanding, was their heavy emphasis on the brevity of life and the length of eternity.  They were in the practice of regularly reminding their hearers that life was just a vapor and that a man’s relationship with God, His Word, and His church were the real priorities of life.  Swinnock writes like this about the brief time that we are here on this earth:

Believe it, death will search thee to the quick, and try to purpose what metal thou art made of.  When thou comest to lie upon thy sick-bed, and thy wealth, and honours, and relations, and flesh, and heart shall fail thee, what will become of thee, if God be not the strength of thy heart and portion forever?  What will he do to look death in the face, upon whom the jealous God shall frown?

Thy friends my carry thy body to its grave for a time, but frightful devils will carry thy soul to hell, to remain there forever and ever.  Religion, indeed, is like the stone Chrysolapis, which will shine brightest in the dark of death. 

Death is never sudden to a saint; no guest comes unawares to him who keepeth a constant table; but as when the day dawns to us in Europe the shadows of the evening are stretched on Asia, so the day of their redemption will be a long night of destruction to thee. 

When was the last time you have heard a preacher call out with those kinds of words?  Those sorts of words are strangely lacking in the vast majority of my own preaching so I cannot afford to cast any stones in other directions.  However there needs to be reminders to myself and those who hear me that life moves so very rapidly and we all will give an account as to our actions for the Lord.

Another reason that the Puritans were so acutely aware of the brief nature of life was the time period they lived in.  The Black Plague along with the Great Fire in London took place during their lifetimes.  They frequently lost children to a variety of illnesses that are well contained in our world today.  They found that there were farming accidents that caused the deaths of many who lived in the communities that were common to the time.  Childbirth was frequently a very dark experience with many mothers dying with the newborns in the process.  So seemingly everywhere the Puritans look there were constant reminders that death was always about them.  I read about one Puritan minister whose name slips my mind at this moment but he and his wife had 12 children or so and they buried seven of them because of a variety of illnesses and accidents.  When you are living in a situation such as that it will warrant a strong attention to the condition of the soul.   

Word Pictures in Preaching

The third matter that Swinnock falls into line with all the other Puritans is the ability to build a powerful word picture.  The majority of the Puritans were fairly well educated and they studied not only the English language but Hebrew, Greek, and Latin as well.  Because of this, they understood very clearly the very powerful impact that words could have on both the reader and the hearer.  The use of adjectives and adverbs to modify other words were used to their great advantage.  Some of the word pictures that Swinnock uses gives a great example of this. 

Silly are many men; how they do cark and care, toil and moil for this world, which they must leave forever!

The devil putteth old men’s spectacles on young and old men’s eyes, which cause them to think that the way to heaven is broad and large; when God himself hath told us that it is narrow and few go in it.   

Let no day pass without thy morning and evening sacrifices.  Fasting is bad for some bodies; I am sure to fast from spiritual food is exceeding injurious to thy soul. 

Satan catcheth many a soul with these baits, and then throweth them into the fire.  But if religion be thy business, that which is poison to others will nourishing food to thee. 
Satan, the crooked serpent, is ever busy to poison the air in thine house, and thereby to destroy thyself, servants, and whole household. 

Serious piety will abundantly profit thee, but careless service will highly provoke God.  Spiders’ cobwebs may better be suffered in a cottage than in a king’s palace. 

When the nights are long, the days are very cold; when there are long omissions of duties, godliness will cool.  Ah, didst thou but know what many a saint hath gained by that hidden calling, I am confident thou wouldst mind it, whatever thou didst omit.  Remember how often and earnestly I have urged thee to this duty. 

That is just a small portion of some of the work of Swinnock.  We will explore some other areas of his work as well. 

Thanks for reading. . . .

Philip Harrelson


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