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James Barry 1641-1719: The Only Refuge of the Troubled Soul

Category Articles
Date May 8, 2002


The All-Sufficiency of Christ in the Life and Writings of James Barry (1641-1719)

by David N Samuel

James Barry, I believe, exemplifies in a remarkable way, in his life and writings, this great truth of the Christian faith – the all-sufficiency of Christ as Saviour. James Barry was the son of an Irish bishop and was expected to follow his father into the Church, but from the beginning of his life he seemed to be marked out for a different course. When he was an infant, he was thrown out on a dunghill in midwinter, in a great snowstorm, by his Irish papist nurse, because she feared she would lose her life for nursing a heretic’s child. This was the year 1641, in which the great Irish massacre began. He lay there on the dunghill for five hours, until a servant of his father’s, happening to be passing and, hearing his cries, rescued him and took him to his parents. They immediately sent to Dublin for a physician, but the child was not expected to survive. However, despite the prognostications he did survive, but was sickly and misshapen, and his sickness continued and increased until one day, in the arms of his nurse, he spotted some speckled-shell snails. He cried for them and then played with them, after which he motioned for them to be roasted, and ate them. From that time he began to recover.

I mention these things because I think they are interesting and have no reason to doubt them as facts, and because they speak to us of the strange providences of God that sometimes attend His servants, of which we need to be mindful. He escaped from many other dangers which threatened his life in childhood, of which he exclaims: “O the adorable and unfathomable depth of God’s incomprehensible providence!”

When he was between fourteen and fifteen years of age, he began to experience the beginnings of conversion in his soul. The thought came into his mind, as he was profaning the Lord’s Day, that he must either be converted or sent to hell to be damned. He did not really understand what these things meant, but he recalled having heard about them. This made such an impression upon him, that he started on the work of self-reformation, thinking that was what conversion was, and that it was something within his own power to accomplish. He became zealous in his religious duties. He spent most of his time in a little room at the top of the bishop’s castle fasting, praying and reading books. The change in his behaviour was noticed and his reputation for piety grew amongst friends and relations. But, he says, “I was at that time but a hypocritical formalist, and a painted legalist, knowing nothing of Jesus Christ and the Covenant of Grace, no, not so much as the notion”.

Now, it was when he was in the midst of his religious zeal, that God sent upon him the “spirit of bondage”. By this he meant that he was suddenly apprised of the fact, that all his religious exercises, in which he had taken such pains and pleasure, were worthless; that all these things which had become the very ground of his confidence of salvation were seen to be no more than a refuge of lies. He felt completely undone. He went to the minister of the parish, who thought he looked ill. When he acquainted him with his problem, he mentioned some texts, and advised him to take some exercise and visit his father. He did visit his father, who could not understand the distress of his son, which to him seemed all imaginary. In this we see a remarkable parallel to Luther and his experience of coram Deo, of living before God, before whom the secrets of all hearts are revealed; and to Bunyan in his relation in Grace Abounding of his experience of the perpetual and oppressive consciousness of his sin and guilt. In each case also there were those who advised them spiritually to regard their problems as imaginary and the products of a fevered mind.

Having gone to several ministers and dignitaries of the Church, and finding no relief from their counsel, he concluded that his ease was hopeless. A feature of his experience at this time, which also has parallels elsewhere, was the temptation to blasphemous thoughts against God and against Holy Scripture. Under these assaults he felt himself to be sinking physically as well as spiritually, and his body to be giving way. But what is interesting is, that in all these temptations his mind was sharp and active, seeking answers to the doubts and questionings that arose, and searching for refutations of the devil’s charges. This reminds us of Luther’s words, that he learned his theology not from books but from his temptations.

The end of this bondage state came when he was enabled by the Holy Ghost to see clearly the meaning of a Scripture that repeatedly came to his mind; Isaiah 43:25: “I, even I, am he that blotteth out thy transgressions for mine own sake, and will not remember thy sins.” Until then, from the time of his first awakening, he had thought that conversion was self-reformation, and that it was the power of the individual to effect this, by repentance and amendment of life. He was in consequence under a legal spirit, acting under the covenant of works. This led to his zeal for religious exercises, until he came to see that it was unavailing before God. “1 was all for doing and working; and the more works I did the farther I found myself from true peace and comfort.” The Spirit of adoption, who now came into his heart, enabled him to see, “My chief and only work now was believing in the Son of God, in whom alone that righteousness is to be found which reconciles a sinner to an offended God”. The Holy Spirit effected the following things which united him with Christ:

1. He made known to him who the Lord Jesus was and why He came into the world.

2. He made known the almighty power of Christ to save and reconcile to God the worst of sinners and that His righteousness alone is that by which the sinner is justified and accepted by God, and that whole righteousness, active and passive, is accounted to the sinner as if the sinner had personally performed the same himself, and that by imputation.

3. He convinced him that God the Father was ready to receive him for Christ’s sake alone.

4. He persuaded him of the “full and complete provision made by God in the covenant of grace for the eternal happiness of those who trust in Christ”.

5. He showed him that there was such a way as the cross, that we must not look for worldly advancement, that we must be ready to sacrifice reputation and credit among men, to become accounted madmen and fools for Christ’s sake, and to prefer Christ before everything and everyone else.

He saw that the Saviour was infinitely desirable to the sinner who is brought under the convincing power of the Spirit. Christ is the only and all-sufficient Saviour and will admit of no competitors. “I am fully convinced that He needs no coadjutors to help Him out in this work of saving sinners, seeing He is the holy and almighty God, able to save to the uttermost.” As before, the Holy Ghost powerfully convinced him of sin, when he disciplined him with bondage, so now he convinced him of “the spotless and everlasting righteousness of the Mediator, God-Man, by and for which I was justified in the person of my Surety”.

Here we see the truth of the words, “Ye have an unction of the Holy One, which teacheth you all things”, amply illustrated, for the Holy Ghost does teach the believer of all things necessary to his salvation. All this was accompanied by a powerful sense of the love of God as it was shed abroad in his heart by the Holy Spirit. “Marvellous and unutterable were those manifestations of God’s love let out upon me His poor nothing creature in that moment of His Spirit’s sealing me in believing, and by the sense whereof the Holy Ghost filled up those valleys and bottoms in my soul occasioned by the sharp and terrible workings of the spirit of bondage.”

He went to his bed that night with a sense of peace and joy in the Holy Ghost. His mind was employed upon Christ, and even bodily he felt as if set free from a great burden which had bowed him down.

His story of his conversion is unusual in many of its circumstances, but rings true in its reflection of the work of grace in the soul, as detailed in Scripture. He cautions the reader not to regard it as typical, or to question his own experience of conversion because it does not resemble in all particulars that which he has related, or because he has not had such sharp experiences of guilt or such exalting experiences of grace.

The value of his autobiography is as an introduction to the small treatise he wrote called The Mystery of the Apple Tree, which sets out in a clear and beautiful way the all-sufficiency of Christ as Saviour. It was his experience which gave rise to this and which makes it so real and vivid. Its value today is that it comes as news from a far country. Generally speaking, Christians are unfamiliar with its ideas and strangers to the comforts of which it speaks. This is because we have lost the theology out of which this experience comes and which in turn gives rise to it.

The treatise is called, The Only Refuge of a Troubled Soul in Times of Affliction or The Mystery of the Apple Tree. It consists of two sermons preached on the text from Canticles 2:3: “As the apple tree among the trees of the wood, so is my beloved among the sons. I sat down under his shadow with great delight, and his fruit was sweet to my taste.” The Song of Songs was often used by the Reformers and the Puritans in their preaching, because it depicts the relationship between Christ and His Church. Barry was persuaded to print these sermons at the insistence of friends who had benefited from them, but also because of the “real sweetness and soul-ravishing delight which, with the spouse, I found under the shadow of the sweet precious Jesus who is allegorically set forth in this metaphor”.

In this first sermon he speaks of how Christ, the Church’s apple tree, shelters and protects the believer and, in the second, how He feeds and provides. Together they set forth the all-sufficiency of Christ as Saviour in a powerful and compelling manner.

Rev. Dr. David N. Samuel, Devizes, Wiltshire.

The Gospel Magazine, May-June 2002 With Permission.

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