Thursday, March 28, 2013

Book Review: "The Works of John Flavel: Volume 4" by John Flavel

John Flavel is one of those Christian writers I wish more people would read- not least because he is a Puritan writer with a sense of humor. (Can that point really be over-stressed?) Thanks to the hard work of the good folks at the Banner of Truth Trust, some of his books are available in cheap editions, but the true gem in the Flavel ring is as yet only available in any kind of readable edition in The Works of John Flavel: Volume 5. This of course is Husbandry Spiritualized, in which Flavel walks through various aspects of agriculture and uses farming as a springboard to devotional meditation.

So if you've never read any Flavel, I recommend starting with one of the Banner of Truth stand-alone editions, or with Volume 5. If you've been exposed to Flavel and want more, then and only then should you pick up the volume currently under consideration: The Works of John Flavel: Volume 4.

This volume contains the following works:

  • England's Duty Under the Present Gospel Liberty (1689) [Referred to as "England's Duty"]: This is a series of eleven sermons on Revelation 3:20. At least, that's what it claims to be- in fact it's a series of reflections -worthwhile enough in themselves- only loosely tied back into the Biblical text at hand. So if you're looking to really know Revelation 3:20 by reading 300 pages on it, this is not for you. But if you go into this looking for good Puritan reflection on conversion and the Christian life, this selection is excellent. 
  • An Appendix to England's Duty: This is an additional sermon on Romans 1:18, and holy cow, if you want to be convicted of your sin in the face of God's mercy, this is the sermon for you. And if you don't want to be so convicted, then this is really the sermon for you. Flavel walks through what it means to be shown God's mercy, then asks how we can claim to be God's people when we receive his mercy and not only are not really grateful for it, but go ahead and sin anyway. Which of course we all do. Flavel then calls us to praise God for His mercy and live a life reflecting our gratitude in obedience.
  • Mount Pisgah: A Sermon Preached at the Public Thanksgiving, February 14, 1688-9, For England's Deliverance from Popery, Etc [Including an Epistle Dedicatory: This sermon reflects on, well, what it says it does- England's deliverance from Rome. Specifically, it uses Moses' desire to go into the promised land (and not being allowed to do so) as a God's mercy and how we should be greatful for it. 
  • Divine Conduct, or The Mystery of Providence: A Treatise Upon Psalm 57:2: Available in a stand-alone edition from Banner of Truth, this is probably the reason most people would pick up this particular volume of Flavel's works. And with good cause- in this treatise Flavel explores God's providence from several different perspectives, as well as examining what our response to God's providence should be. 
  • A Narrative of Some Late and Wonderful Sea Deliverances: This is the weakest link in the collection- it's just a reprinting of how a few individuals were saved at sea. Perhaps this meant more to Flavel's congregation in the small seaside town where he pastored, but much of it was lost on a land-lubber like myself. 
  • Antipharmacum Saluberrimum: A serious and Seasonable Caveat to All the Saints in this hour of Temptation: In addition to having the most awesome title of any book ever (in case you're wondering, it means something to the effect of "Health against the Poison" or "Healthiness against Sorcery"), this book is a wonderful reminder of the dangers of idolatry and backsliding to which all Christians are prone. Flavel provides a number of warning signs, as well as advice as to how this "poison" may be resisted.
  • Tidings from ROME: or, ENGLAND'S Alarm: I assume (though we're not told) that this work was written either under the rule of Charles II or James II, when it looked like England was going to slip back to Roman Catholicism. This short work is a series of reflections and instructions on the responsibilities of Christians in such circumstances. How do we as Christians react when it seems that the dominant political culture is against us? Clearly, Flavel's advice has much to say to the modern world... Interestingly, Flavel comes out strongly against any kind of coercion by the state against religious minorities- even if it is the Puritan majority coercing a Catholic (or Quaker, or Baptist, or whatever) minority, since 1) it is simply contrary to the Gospel; and 2) it's a bad precedent to set. 
Overall, an excellent volume and worth reading if you're a Puritan devotee. If you're not a Puritan devotee, then I would recommending picking up something else of Flavel's instead- this is not the place to start. 

A few gems from the book:

When Christ comes into the soul of a sinner, he brings a pardon with him, a full, free, and a final pardon of all the sins that ever that soul committed. This is a feast of itself, good cheer indeed.... [The] thing that makes this mercy delicious and ravishingly sweet to the soul, are the properties of it, which are four: 1) God writes upon thy pardon FREE: it is a mercy which costs thee nothing; 2) God writes upon thy pardon FULL: as well as free, the pardon extends to all the sins that ever thou committedst. The sins of thy nature and practice; the sins of thy youth and age; great sins and lesser sins are all comprehended within thy pardon. Thou art acquitted not from one, but from all! 3) God writes upon thy pardon FINAL: without revocation, the pardoned soul and its pardoned sins can never more meet unto condemnation; 4) God writes upon thy pardon SURE: it is a standing mercy never to be recalled, vacated, or annulled. Now the labouring conscience that rolled and tossed upon the waves of a thousand fears may drop anchor, and ride the quiet in the pacific sea of a pardoned state... This is heavenly manna, the sweetness of it swallows up all expressions, all conceptions; no words, no thoughts can comprehend the riches of this mercy. (214-216)

The gospel hath two great designs and intentions. One is to open the heart of God to men, and to shew them the everlasting counsels of grace and peace which were hid in God from ages and generations past: that all men may now see what God hath been designing and contriving for their happiness in Christ before the world was... The next intention and aim of the gospel is, to set open the hearts of man to receive Jesus Christ, without which all the glorious discoveries of the eternal counsels and gracious contrivances of God for and about us, would signify nothing to our real advantage. (194)

We are fallen into the dregs of time; sensuality runs every-where into atheism... The largesses of Providence have so blinded, and perfectly stupified the minds of some, that they neither own [i.e. "believe"] a Providence, nor a God... (337)

As God hath stretched out the expansum, or firmament of heaven, over the natural world, so hath he stretched out his word over the rational world; and as in that he hath placed the stars and luminaries to enlighten the earth, and to be for signs and seasons... so hath he placed a constellation of scriptures in this also, by which they that are skilful [sic] in the word of righteousness may discern very much the designs and issues of these rolling and amazing providence that are over our heads. (515)

Oh if Jesus be in the midst of you, no matter how many enemies combine against you: if he speak peace to you, no matter who prepares war against you: it is worth the venturing far to meet with Jesus Christ and enjoy fellowship with him..." 

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