Monday, July 9, 2012

Books that have Impacted My Christian Walk (Part 1 - Discipleship)

"Which books have most significantly impacted your life as a Christian?"  This question was posed to me a couple months ago and I was kindly granted an opportunity to share a few recommendations one Wednesday evening at Trinity Church (Montgomery, AL).

At first, a number of recently read titles came to mind.  However, I quickly recalled one book by ‎a Puritan author that I picked up and read during my undergraduate years which I have ‎always kept at arms length: Thomas Watson's The Godly ‎Man's Picture.  This book represents a primary area of study that I believe should be a ‎part of every Christian's reading diet, namely, Discipleship.

Let me begin by introducing this Puritan author author to you.  Thomas Watson was a Presbyterian minister during the 17th century who at one time was ‎imprisoned and nearly lost his head for sympathizing with the king over against ‎Cromwell.  Mercy was shown to him and he was released.

During his ministry Watson suffered many persecutions against nonconformists (or ‎Dissenters) by the hands of the ruling parties, yet he remained steadfast.  This particular ‎volume was written during a period of time when he, along with many other ministers ‎who opposed the Act of Uniformity, was ejected from his pulpit and restricted to live at ‎least five miles away from his old congregation. As C. H. Spurgeon wrote, "Bread eaten in ‎secret is proverbially sweet, and the word of God in persecution is peculiarly delightful."  This is a key fact worth remembering whenever you read any Puritan work.  Many of these pastors were writing and publishing books in order to minister to the congregations from which they had been exiled.  Their setting was one of great opposition.

I am not sure how this fact plays into the reception of the first edition of this work, but The Godly Man's Picture was published in 1666, the year of the Great Fire in London.‎  If nothing else, these words would be a great help to many who needed encouragement during a very trying time.

Of Watson, Spurgeon wrote:‎ "Watson was one of the most concise, racy, illustrative, and suggestive of ‎those eminent divines who made the Puritan age the Augustan period of ‎evangelical literature.  There is a happy union of sound doctrine, heart ‎searching experience and practical wisdom throughout all his works, and ‎his Body of Divinity is, beyond all the rest, useful to the student and the ‎minister.‎"

When one recommends the reading of the Puritans, a common reaction is the perception that they all are very difficult to read.  This is so in many cases, but Watson, I believe, is an exception.  A friend recently told me that one of the ladies in a church in which he previously ‎ministered was well acquainted with the works of Thomas Watson and had read through ‎his Body of Divinity (which is an explanation of the Westminster Shorter Catechism) at least twice with great profit.‎  Although Watson's Body of Divinity is arguably his best known work (or even his greatest ‎work), The Godly Man's Picture paved the way for it.  ‎

The full title of this work is The Godly Man's Picture: drawn with a scripture pencil, or, ‎some characteristic marks of a man who is going to heaven. ‎

Permit me now to introduce the various parts of this book and supply a selection of quotations to illustrate the readability and the richness of the content.  Rather than following the structure of the catechism, Watson unpacks twenty-four ‎characteristics of a godly person. Another way of stating this would be "the marks of ‎grace upon a Christian."  In this volume you will find practical Christianity, or radical ‎discipleship, explained from a perspective of free grace and evangelical zeal.‎

Watson begins this treatise on godliness by rooting the matter in the forgiveness of sins ‎found in God's free grace by Jesus Christ.  ‎
  • He defines godliness as "the sacred impression and workmanship of God in a man, ‎whereby from being carnal he is made spiritual" (12).  ‎
He, then, clears the way by reproving pretenders of godliness.‎
  • How many are painted only with the vermilion of profession, whose ‎seeming lustre dazzles the eyes of beholders, but within there is nothing but ‎putrefaction! (15)‎
  • He who has only a painted holiness shall have a painted happiness. (17)‎
Some of my favorite sections include: ‎
  • A Man Fired with Love to God
  • A Man Who Prizes Christ
  • A Man Who is an Evangelical Weeper
  • A Man Who Loves the Word
  • A Man of Prayer
  • A Heavenly Man
  • A Zealous Man
  • A Thankful Man
  • A Few Quotes
Some of the most memorable quotes include:
Fired with Love to God
Where is the man whose heart is dilated in love to God? Many court him, ‎but few love him. (31)‎
Many say they have Christ in high veneration, but they are not industrious ‎in the use of means to obtain him.  If Christ would drop as a ripe fig into ‎their mouth, they could be content to have him, but they will not put ‎themselves to too much trouble to get him.  Does he who will not take ‎medicine or exercise prize his health? (51)‎
He who sets a high value on Christ will part with his pride, unjust gain and ‎sinful fashions (Isa. 30:32).  He will set his feet on the neck of his sins.‎

A Zealous Man
When we are zealous in devotion, and our heart waxes hot within us, here ‎is a fire from heaven kindling our sacrifice.  How odious it is for a man to ‎be all fire when he is sinning, and all ice when he is praying! (115)‎

A Thankful Man
Many have tears in their eyes and complaints in their mouths, but few have ‎harps in their hand and are blessing and praising the name of God. (131)‎
That which may put another string into the instrument of our praise and ‎make it sound louder is to consider what spiritual blessings God has ‎conferred on us. He has given us water from the upper springs; he has ‎opened the wardrobe of heaven and fetched us out a better garment than ‎any of the angels wear. He has given us the best robe and put on us the ring ‎of faith, by which we are married to him. These are mercies of the first ‎magnitude, which deserve to have an asterisk put on them. And God keeps ‎the best wine till last. Here he gives us mercies only in small quantities; the ‎greatest things are laid up. Here there are some honey drops and foretastes ‎of God's love; the rivers of pleasure are reserved for paradise. Well may we ‎take harp and viol and triumph in God's praise. Who can tread on these ‎coals of God's love and his heart not burn in thankfulness? (136)‎

Thoroughly Trained in Religion
Evangelical obedience is true in its essence, though not perfect in its degree, ‎and where it comes short, Christ puts his mercies into the scales, and then ‎there is full weight. (174)‎

The Scripture speaks of the cedar and the bruised reed, the latter of which ‎is a true plant of the heavenly paradise as the other. So the weakest ought ‎not to be discouraged. Not all have these characteristics of godliness ‎written in capital letters. If they are only faintly stamped on their souls, God ‎can read the work of the Spirit there. Though the seal is only faintly set on ‎the wax, it ratifies the will and gives a real conveyance of an estate. If there ‎is found just some good thing towards the Lord (as it was said of Abijah), ‎God will accept it (I Kings 14:13). (190)‎

To conclude this book, Watson adds six final chapters including encouragements, ‎exhortations, counsel and comfort, capped off with a delightful discourse on the spiritual ‎union between Christ and believers.  Another highlight of this final section is the chapter ‎on Comfort to the Godly in which Watson exposits Matthew 12:20, ‎‎"A bruised reed shall he not break and smoking flax shall he not quench, ‎till he send forth judgment unto victory."‎

Supplemental Reading
As I mentioned above, The Godly Man's Picture represents to me an excellent introduction into the study of discipleship.  There are many other books worth recommending under this heading, however, permit me to suggest a few others.  Two books that I recently read and used in a Sunday School setting are Eugene Peterson's A Long Obedience in the Same Direction and Eric Routley's Ascent to the Cross. These are ‎studies through the Pilgrim Psalms with an eye toward the theme of discipleship.

I have also been studying through the Gospel of Mark which has a dual theme of discipleship and christology.  I would recommend James Edwards's commentary The Gospel According to Mark in the Pillar New Testament series.  Edwards does an excellent job of exposition and offers a very readable text.  Although a knowledge of Greek will assist the reader, it is not necessary at all in order to read through this commentary.  This is not a devotional commentary by any means, but it would be well worth the effort to be used devotionally.

A classic work that I read a couple of years ago is Dietrich Bonhoeffer's The Cost of Discipleship. You don't have to agree with all that Bonhoeffer represented in his theological connections to appreciate this excellent study.

An even great classic is John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress.

Finally, I want to recommend to you Paul David Tripp's Broken-Down House: Living Productively in a World Gone Bad.  This is an excellent intermingling of worldview and discipleship.  This revolutionized my understanding of my calling in God's world.  I read through it, reviewed it and then discussed it with a small group.  We all came away from this study having been greatly helped.

I recommend all of these to you!

Read the introductory post to this series: Thoughts on Christian Reading
Part 2 - When You Pass Through the Fire
Part 3 - Learning to Pray