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Suffering & sovereignty — John Flavel and the Puritans on afflictive providence

By Brian H. Cosby
October 2013 | Review by Richard Atherton


John Flavel wrote extensively on the subject of human suffering and how it relates to divine sovereignty. He himself experienced great suffering through the deaths of three wives and a son and continual persecution from state officials. Because many of his writings deal directly with the theme of suffering and because of his own experience with it, Flavel is a significant resource for understanding a Puritan theology of human suffering and divine sovereignty. In this book, Brian H. Cosby examines Flavel’s teachings on suffering and how that theology translated into practical application for suffering believers. Serious consideration is given to issues related to the origin and nature of suffering, how it relates to divine sovereignty, God’s purpose for it, how people were encouraged to respond to it, and the benefits of comfort and consolation such understandings produce in believers. Cosby ably gathers these elements together so as to present a Puritan theology of suffering drawn from Flavel’s writings.

  • Publisher: Reformation Heritage Books
  • ISBN: 978-1-60178-197-0
  • Pages: 164
  • Price: 20.00
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Book Review

Suffering & sovereignty — John Flavel and the Puritans on afflictive providence
Brian H. Cosby
Reformation Heritage Books, 164 pages, £20.00, ISBN: 978-1-60178-197-0
Star Rating : 3

‘If anyone tells me that the death of my child is God’s will, I’ll scream!’ This is an understandable reaction to sudden extreme suffering. The Puritan, John Flavel, suffered such bereavement in his life with each of his three successive wives and also through losing a child at birth.
As a result of this suffering, a major theme of his works is ‘afflictive providence’: the paradox that our kind and sovereign God ordains suffering for the good of his people.
We revere the great Puritan divines, but how many of us have read one of Flavel’s works? Brian Cosby has done an excellent job distilling from John Flavel’s works his teaching on suffering.
This book is not an easy read, but it is well worth working through the early chapters to reach the major chapter on ‘God’s purposes in ordaining suffering’. This is superb, as eight reasons are given for God ordaining suffering for his people.
Examples of these reasons are, to reveal our sinful nature, to mortify our sin and cultivate communion with Christ, the greatest sufferer of all.
Suffering, says Flavel, distinguishes the believer from the unbeliever in the way he responds; ‘there is no sin in complaining to God, but much wickedness in complaining of him’.
A whole chapter is devoted to the theme of our response to suffering. ‘There is a great solemnity at the suffering and trial of a saint: heaven, earth and hell are spectators, observing the issue and how the saints will acquit themselves in that hour’.
There follows a difficult chapter on the doctrine of assurance, but one which repays study. True faith can lack assurance, but the believer should strive to strengthen his assurance of salvation by the Word, prayer and the sacrament, so that he can acquit himself well when suffering afflicts him.
Brian Cosby tells us that the book grew from a PhD dissertation. It is ideal for Bible college students, but it is readable enough for the believer ‘in the pew’ and renders excellent service, enabling us today to appreciate the deep spirituality of John Flavel.
Richard Atherton


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