A seventeenth-century Englishman once listened to some well-known preachers in Scotland. Of them he said, ‘I came to Irvine, and heard a well-favoured, proper old man, with a long beard, and that man [David Dickson] showed me all my heart. Then I went to St Andrews, where I heard a sweet, majestic looking man [Robert Blair], and he showed me the majesty of God. After him I heard a little, fair man, and he showed me the loveliness of Christ’.
The ‘little, fair man’ was Samuel Rutherford, whose influence lingers on today, particularly through his published Letters.
Rutherford was born 411 years ago at Nisbet near Jedburgh. He was converted to Christ, probably in his early twenties, while Professor of Humanity at Edinburgh. Very little is known about this event.
He faced the anguish of being predeceased by his first wife and all his children by her. He married again in 1640, and of the seven children from this marriage only one survived him (Agnes, who was eleven years old at his death). Rutherford’s ability to comfort others was refined in the crucible of his own trials.
To Lady Kenmure he wrote: ‘The thorn is one of the most cursed, and angry, and crabbed weeds that the earth yieldeth, and yet out of it springeth the rose, one of the sweetest-smelled flowers, and most delightful to the eye, that the earth hath.
‘Your Lord shall make joy and gladness out of your afflictions; for all his roses have a fragrant smell. Wait for the time when his own holy hand shall hold them to your nose; and if ye would have present comfort under the cross, be much in prayer, for at that time your faith kisseth Christ, and he kisseth the soul’.
In 1627 Samuel Rutherford began his ministry at Anwoth, in Kirkcudbrightshire. Great blessing resulted. Crowds from Anwoth and the neighbouring parishes flocked to his preaching.
Many were converted, including some from the nobility. His remarkable efforts to point the dying Lord Kenmure to the righteousness of Christ alone are recorded in the Last and heavenly speeches and glorious departure of John Viscount Kenmure.
However, the times were characterised by intense unrest. Struggles for the ascendancy raged between Puritans and bishops, Parliamentarians and Royalists, and later, England and Scotland.
The Stuart dynasty, straddling England and Scotland, claimed a ‘divine right’ to rule these kingdoms and Ireland as well. Its monarchs laid claim to the headship of the church exercised through the bishops it appointed.
Most Puritans rejected such pretensions. The Scottish Puritans responded with their National Covenant, in which they counter-asserted the exclusive ‘Crown rights’ of Jesus Christ over his church. Many were prepared to take up arms for this cause, and Rutherford provided a theological rationale for doing so in his treatise Lex rex.
Rutherford, a consummate theologian, was a Scottish commissioner to the Westminster Assembly in the early 1640s. Before that, he had published in 1636 a work entitled Exercitationes de gratia, against Arminian theology. For this and for his opposition to episcopacy, he was banished to Aberdeen in the same year.
Exile lasted only eighteen months, but it was a sore trial to Anwoth’s pastor. From that lonely spot he wrote many of his most spiritual letters, encouraging individual Christians and the whole congregation at Anwoth.
He gave rich, devotional counsel, warned against spiritual wolves, recounted his own experiences of affliction and divine grace, and exhorted the Lord’s people to be fervent in Christ’s cause.
A temporary change in Scottish puritan fortunes brought Samuel Rutherford’s release from Aberdeen in 1638, and soon afterwards he moved from Anwoth to St Andrews. It was from St Andrews that he was sent to the Westminster Assembly, and he returned there in 1644 to spend his remaining years.
These final years were not without controversy. In 1651 he incurred the wrath of the Laudian party by publishing De divina providentia, which included a further attack on Arminianism. Richard Baxter, who had Arminian leanings, later said that Rutherford’s ‘letters were the best piece, and this work the worst’, he had ever read!
Also in 1651, Rutherford was embroiled in a post-persecution dispute amongst the Covenanters. He did not escape the bitterness of that division, in which he was even ranged against David Dickson and Robert Blair.
At the last, he only narrowly escaped martyrdom. Death from a ‘lingering sickness’ rescued him from the wrath of the Restoration monarch Charles II. In 1661 Charles summoned the erstwhile author of Lex rex to appear before Parliament on a charge of High Treason.
But Rutherford sent word that, ‘Ere your day arrive, I will be where few kings and great folks come’. His dying words were said to be ‘Glory, glory dwelleth in Immanuel’s land!’ Hours later, on 30 March 1661, he went to that fair land.
What are the lessons of Samuel Rutherford’s ministry? Firstly, at a time when persecution could easily be avoided by soft-pedalling God’s grace, his preaching was full of that grace.
‘Christ knoweth them well whom he chooseth’, he wrote. ‘Grace is a rare piece of the choice and the flower of the love of heaven: there be many common stones, not many pearls, not many diamonds and sapphires … thousands go to hell … every man [has] grace if you believe himself; every man taketh heaven for his home and heritage’.
Again, an outstanding passage in one of his sermons states: ‘The omnipotence of grace working powerfully overawes the soul, leading the thoughts and reason captive. And Christ works so strongly on the reasoning faculty, ravishing the understanding … that all the witty reasonings are mastered, the mind is silenced and strongly drawn to apprehend Christ’s beauty.
‘So that, without a choice, the mind cannot but convincingly see that there is none so desirable, none so fair and lovely as Christ. The mind is brought to a spiritual drunkenness, a sweet fury of heavenly propension as to conclude “I cannot pass by such a lover as Christ”.’
Rutherford’s doctrine of irresistible grace must be ours too, because it is the teaching of Scripture.
Secondly, Rutherford was utterly Christ-centred. He loved the Lord Jesus Christ and longed for communion with him. ‘God save me from a draught of water without Christ! Peace and deliverance from the sword, without Christ and the gospel, are linked and chained to the curse of God…
‘All mercy — that is, graced mercy — is to be sought in Jesus Christ; every mercy is mercy, because it is in Christ’. When we read Rutherford, are we not challenged by Christ’s words to the Laodiceans: ‘I would thou wert hot or cold’ (Revelation 3:15)?
Listen to this outpouring in his letter on the prospect of the church meeting Christ at the Second Coming: ‘O when will we meet? O how long is it till the dawning of the marriage day! O sweet Jesus, take wide steps! O my Lord, come over the mountains at one stride! O my beloved, flee as a roe or a young hart upon the mountains of separation!
‘O, if he would fold the heavens together like an old cloak and shovel time and days out of the way and make ready in haste the bride for her Husband! … O heavens move fast! O time, run, run, and hasten the marriage day! For love is tormented with delays!’
This quotation brings us to a third aspect of Rutherford’s ministry. His sentences are rich in metaphor, and those metaphors are biblical, interacting with one another in a bold and daring way.
Such soaring language reflects a poetic temperament, as well as the glory of Elizabethan English, but there is more to it than that. Samuel Rutherford was a minister of the Word of God. His preaching and pastoral ministry was essentially and exclusively verbal.
That ministry consisted in prayer, preaching and writing; or, in other words, the public and private application of the Scriptures. Rutherford’s contemporaries said of him that he was ‘always praying, always preaching, always visiting the sick, always catechising, always writing and studying’.
Rutherford had no recourse to the rampant medievalism of his day. He warned his hearers against ‘the superstition and idolatry in kneeling in the instant of receiving the Lord’s Supper, and of crossing in baptism, and of the observing of men’s days, without any warrant of Christ our perfect lawgiver’.
Putting this in today’s context, the gospel does not need dance, drama or visual effects to further its progress; nor has it anything in common with the Catholicism so resurgent in our day.
As Rutherford puts it: ‘Ye heard of me the whole counsel of God. Sew no clouts upon Christ’s robe. Take Christ, in his rags and losses, and as persecuted by men, and be content to sigh and pant up the mountain, with Christ’s cross upon your back’.