In the late 1650s, the Puritan minister Elkanah Wales wrote a majestic book on the doctrine of God’s satisfaction in the atonement. He entitled it Mount Ebal levell’d or redemption from the curse.
He did not write because of ‘any itching desire to be seen in print’, but so he ‘would leave something behind … which might conduce to the building up of my hearers in the most holy faith and obedience’ something of ‘special necessity and worth, touching upon the three main pillars, or principles of Christian religion: man’s misery by the fall, his recovery by Christ, and his duty, arising thereupon’. Wales drew many practical spiritual applications for his own day that remain valuable for ours too.
J. I. Packer is on record that it would be fascinating to learn more about men like Elkanah Wales of Pudsey who was reckoned one of the most successful, soul-converting preachers in the land.
Elkanah Wales (1588-1669) did not mix with the great; nor did he pastor a big church in an influential parish. He was not influenced by the ambition of advancing his own career but in humility preferred to lift up his Saviour.
He was born in Idle near Bradford and, after studying at Trinity College, Cambridge, accepted the curacy of Pudsey Chapel, near the city of Leeds, in about 1614.
We are told that ‘he became very famous, purely for his work’s sake, being a person of great holiness and unspotted life’. He was greatly esteemed by Lord Thomas Fairfax.
Elkanah Wales was known as a humble, holy man of God. In Pudsey, he laboured in preaching and living the gospel. He was considered ‘an excellent preacher, of a profound judgment, and had an admirable art in pressing practical truths home upon the conscience, and illustrating things by pertinent and familiar similitudes’.
On the one hand, we read of many from the country round about flocking to hear him, monthly filling large auditoriums in Leeds; but, on the other, his own people in Pudsey, ‘for the most part continued ignorant and untractable’, and heard him with indifference or scarcely at all.
With such challenges in his own church and poverty resulting from low pay, it would be understandable if Wales had moved on from Pudsey. Numerous enticing opportunities did arise, as he was courted to move elsewhere by the grandees of that age. But, as a faithful pastor, time and again he refused to leave his flock.
After 50 years of ministry, Elkanah Wales was one of 2000 ministers forced out of their churches during the Great Ejection of 1662. Afterwards, he preached privately and taught from house to house, until the Five Mile Act came into force.
A neighbour then reported him to the authorities and he was thrown out onto the street when in his mid-70s. He subsequently moved to Leeds and was later arrested for preaching at a service in Bramley. He was taken before magistrates and only avoided prison because of his advanced age.
As Wales was finally forced to leave his beloved people it is reported that he said, ‘O Pudsey, Pudsey, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them which are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not!’ He died aged 80 years.
Shortly before his death Wales produced his masterful work Mount Ebal levell’d, his final message to the church. Edmund Calamy clarifies that Mount Ebal refers to the location where the curses of God were pronounced on the disobedient (Deuteronomy 27).
Yet here ‘this great mountain of curses [is] made to thee a plain before the Lord Jesus, who buildeth up his church, as an holy temple unto God’; the mountain of curses is flattened by Christ on behalf of believers.
Wales centres his exposition on Galatians 3:13: ‘Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us — for it is written, cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree’, against the background of Paul’s teaching that ‘we are justified by faith alone, without the works of the law’.
Wales digs deep into ‘the curse’ and paints the black picture of man’s condemned state. Then, striding forward into the positive work Christ completed in his time on earth, he examines why this redemption was necessary and what its beneficial effects are.
Finally he emphasises the response of unworthy, sinful man to redemption, from the curse, through conversion, to glorification. Thus the exposition moves through misery, deliverance and gratitude.
The overall theme, however, is that of the satisfaction of God. In every soul’s case God’s justice will ultimately be satisfied, either by the sinner being rightly punished for eternity because the curse remains on that sinner, or by Christ becoming a curse for his elect, in mercy taking the wrath of God on their behalf.
The judgement in every case is perfect, and the holiness of God is never compromised, but at every turn and in every way God is glorified.
Elkanah Wales’ desire from the outset was ‘to make it useful to raise the price of the grace of redemption in the hearts of those that heard it, or of any others, and to engage them more strongly to the love, and service of their dear redeemer’.
What other doctrine can be more important or relevant today? Here is a glorious and central gospel theme, masterfully opened by a plain speaking, no-nonsense Yorkshireman, writing for people of the same ilk as him.
His exposition of Galatians 3:13 was in three parts: first, the miserable estate of mankind — ‘under the curse of the law’; second, the remedy — ‘Christ has redeemed us’ from it; finally, the means by which he procured this blessing — ‘being made a curse’.
He followed this exposition with three conclusions relating to the doctrine of satisfaction. The first is that all men are under the curse of the law.
Wales tells us plainly that every human being is under the law of God. We have all broken the law, because we all fell in our first parent, Adam. Adam ‘was the tree, we are the branches; when the tree falls, all the branches fall with it’.
But not only have we broken the law in Adam, we have also broken it ourselves. The law is ‘a glass, which might both let him see his natural beauty (if he had any) and his deformity, and spots, which he hath brought upon himself. It’s a finger, which both points at the right way, and discovers to the traveller the wrong way’.
‘The law chargeth all men with sin, and thereby stops every one’s mouth, and makes all the world subject to the vengeance of God’.
We are indeed in a desperate position to be under such a curse. ‘The sinful soul under the curse of the law is like to a prisoner, bound hand and foot, and thrown into the dungeon, ready for execution. He cannot loose the chains nor get himself out…
‘No power, ability, disposedness in, or from the sinner himself can avail anything, towards the ridding of him from the jaws of the curse. No footstep or possibility of help by or from the creature, man or angel, to put to a little finger towards his release from it’.
Wales agrees that the natural man does not enjoy listening to the law being preached, because it is uncomfortable and reveals the sinfulness of the heart. Yet the law must be preached carefully, yet regularly, in different ways to different types of hearers.
In short, preachers must be discriminatory in their preaching, purposefully applying the law to sinners of all types, from those in obvious error through to professing Christians.
What a tragic position we are in by nature! But, thank God, we need not remain that way, for Elkanah Wales moves on to his second conclusion, and here we begin to see the diamonds of God’s grace sparkling against the dark backcloth.
To be concluded