The excellence of faith
In November’s issue of Evangelical Times we considered part one of Henry Scougal’s seminal treatise The life of God in the soul of man. In that part, poignantly and skilfully, he establishes on what sure foundations ‘true religion’ stands.
In this greatly treasured, hugely influential and edifying work, he first reminds each and every believer that the root of the divine life is faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, while the ‘chief branches are love to God, charity to man, purity and humility’.
In part two, to which we now come, he expands on this theme by turning to the excellence and advantage of the true Christian religion.
Firstly Scougal describes the wonderful change wrought in the newborn or regenerate man or woman, boy or girl. They were formerly dead in their trespasses and sins, but they have been made alive by the sovereign grace of God, with a consequent transformation to holiness of life (Ephesians 2:1-5).
‘Holiness’, writes Scougal, ‘is the right temper, the vigorous and healthful constitution of the soul’. He continues: ‘its faculties had formerly been enfeebled and disordered [by the insidious and pervasive effects of sin], so that they could not exercise their natural functions; it had wearied itself with endless tossings and rollings, and was never able to find any rest.
‘Now, that distemper being removed, it feels itself well, there is due harmony in its faculties, and a sprightly vigour possesseth every part’. Such is the experience of all born-again Christians.
The effects of the Fall
As the Canons of the Synod of Dort accurately confirm: ‘Man was originally formed after the image of God. His understanding was adorned with a true and saving knowledge of his Creator, and of spiritual things; his heart and will were upright, all his affections pure, and the whole man was holy.
‘But, revolting from God by the instigation of the devil and by his own free will, he forfeited these excellent gifts; and in the place thereof became involved in blindness of mind, horrible darkness, vanity, and perverseness of judgement; became wicked, rebellious, and obdurate in heart and will, and impure in his affections’.
Such a view of man stands in stark contrast to the conceited, egotistical and patently false construction beloved of the overwhelming majority of folk in our day. In spite of God’s revelation, man’s own conscience, and the evidence of contemporary history, all too many people cling to the idea that man is evolving to a higher or more perfect morality or state.
Others, in their arrogance and ignorance, could not care less. Their God is their belly! ‘Eat, drink and be merry’ is their philosophy of life. Self-attainment in the pursuit of riches and status; self-gratification and the pursuit of individual happiness; these are the only things that count to such individuals.
However, Holy Scripture states categorically that there is no one righteous, no not one (Romans 3:10). Do we not regularly pray that our great and gracious God would convict men and women of their sin? That he would show them their corruption and depraved nature? That they might recognise their total depravity and impotence before an infinitely just and holy God, and flee to the Saviour?
We do so because we know that there can be no righteousness before God without faith in Christ. And there can be no true faith in Christ without new life. Acknowledging the necessity of new spiritual birth, therefore, Scougal turns to the crucial importance of holiness in the Christian life. Why? Because this and the other fruits naturally spring from regeneration and are, indeed, the evidence that it has taken place.
Scougal rightly identifies holiness as the key to the Christian life. Holiness in a biblical sense, of course, means so much more than simply leading ethical or moral lives (although these qualities and virtues are integral to it).
God makes clear to believers that they are each called out of the world or set apart (sanctified) to serve and glorify him who is infinitely holy. Believers are commanded ‘be holy; for I am holy’ (Leviticus 11:44).
Crucially, it is God himself who calls his adopted children out of the world and furnishes them with the requisite grace to make their calling and election sure (2 Peter 1:10).
Lest we ever forget, let me repeat that God the Father calls, God the Son justifies and God the Holy Spirit sanctifies. Christians are called to be salt and light. God saves his elect, not on account of their good works, but to do God-glorifying good works (Ephesians 2:8-10).
After briefly and implicitly highlighting this fundamental truth, Scougal begins to outline the key characteristics of the new and abundant life in Christ.
Scougal passionately reminds his reader that ‘the worth and excellency of a soul is to be measured by the object of its love’. Love, he rightly insists, ‘is the worthiest present we can offer unto God’.
‘Perfect love’, he continues, ‘is a kind of self-dereliction, a wandering out of ourselves; it is a kind of voluntary death, wherein the lover dies to himself, and all his own interests, not thinking of them, nor caring for them any more …’
He who loves is one ‘whose soul is possessed with divine love, whose will is transformed into the will of God, and whose greatest desire is that his Maker should be pleased!’
Scougal exclaims: ‘Oh! the peace, the rest, the satisfaction that attendeth such a temper of mind!’ God commands every man to love him with all his heart, and with all his soul and with all his might! However, as Scougal correctly implies, only the man or woman born anew from above can truly love and glorify God, and enjoy him for ever.
If confirmation were required, Scougal aptly observes how the ‘exercises of religion’ are insipid and tedious to the unregenerate man or woman. But they ‘yield the highest pleasure and delight to souls possessed with divine love’.
The born-again Christian’s greatest pleasure and privilege lies in fellowship and communion with God. The believer delights in God’s glorious and infinite perfections, and marvels at his sovereign and amazing grace.
The Christian, Scougal insists, desires to tell God ‘a thousand times that they love him, to lay out their troubles or wants before him, and disburden their hearts in his bosom’. In other words, every believer needs to live a prayer-full life.
From love springs repentance, Scougal continues. ‘There is a secret sweetness which accompanieth those tears of remorse, those meltings and relentings of a soul returning unto God, and lamenting its former unkindness’.
This observation will elicit an ‘amen’ from every true Christian who, recognising their own depravity and unworthiness, are awestruck by the limitless depths of God’s love and grace in Christ.
Scougal humbly concludes that ‘it is impossible to express the great pleasure and delight which religious persons feel in the lowest prostration of their souls before God when, having a deep sense of the divine majesty and glory, they sink … to the bottom of their beings, and vanish and disappear in the presence of God, by a serious and affectionate acknowledgement of their own nothingness, and the shortness and imperfections of their attainments’.
Scougal goes on to conclude part two by noting that the Christian virtues of humility, charity and purity, together with a love and concern for those who are perishing in their unbelief, flow alike from a true knowledge of what God has done for his elect in Christ.
Lest we ever forget, born-again Christians have been redeemed at great cost and are called by faith into the glorious kingdom of the Lord of lords and Kings of kings.
Believers, indeed, are co-heirs with Christ. Let us, then, truly recognise that we are dead to self but alive in him. And let us strive to serve him faithfully, obediently and fruitfully to his praise and eternal glory.