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A Lecture on Samuel Rutherford

Category Articles
Date October 30, 2003

Given by Ian Hamilton, of the Cambridge Presbyterian Church, during the Aberystwyth Conference

I am no expert on Rutherford, and I have been selective in what I have chosen to speak on him. How are we to glory in a man who viewed himself as a ‘sad piece of clay’? If we are to understand how he walked with God we will need to remember that. That assessment of himself is not a glimpse of Rutherford’s low self esteem, but of a man who had come to know God and who walked with God. That attitude is what we are all to attain, weak and fragile sinners saved by the grace of God, easily broken, but very favoured men too, in whom the power of God is being shown. What are the pulse beats of Rutherford’s walk with God – especially in the light of his letters? Richard Baxter thought his letters ‘almost inspired.’ (and Baxter was no lover of Presbyterianism).

  1. The life lived for God is a life of Christo-centrism. His longing was to lift the Lord Jesus high in the nation of Scotland. The majesty and loveliness of Christ was the outstanding theme of his life, and his letters show this. This is quintessential Calvinism. It is experimental divinity. Others have made much of religious experience. We Calvinists are charismatic Christians because we love the Lord Christ who first loved us. The most eminent Reformed men through the ages are those who have esteemed Christ highly. Jesus Christ is the glory of his church.
  2. A life lived for God puts truth before consequence. Rutherford lived in a day when the established church had moved far from its moorings. His opposition to every betrayal of Christ brought him into troubles, some of which was caused by his own excess. There is no quarrel more honest than to suffer for the truth. God is able to set tables in the wilderness for his own people. It is better to be there with God than anywhere without him.
  3. A life lived with God shares in his deep concern for God’s people. Rutherford had vast learning, and yet he knew the need for shepherds to care for the Christ’s sheep. It is one of the most moving features that in spite of all their massive learning and theological controversy they laboured night and day for the souls of their flocks. The people we minister to are the flock of God
  4. A life lived for God cultivates a deep sense of the sinfulness of sin. He was conscious of his ‘abominable vileness.’ It is only a deep Spirit-generated awareness of his own heart that can make us aware of other hearts’ needs. Rutherford was a man of like passions as ourselves. When you read John Owen you realise that that Puritan knows our hearts. We have tried so hard to be relevant to our culture that we have lost our the biblical view of sin. If you would know what sin is then go to Mount Calvary, exhorted Thomas Goodwin. Rutherford never sought to escape from that view of his abominable vileness. That is one of the distinguishing marks of gospel Christianity
  5. A life lived for God ministers Christ’s compassion to Christ’s storm-tossed saints. You see this in so many of his letters as Rutherford seeks to comfort and strengthen his people. ‘It is hard to keep sight of Christ in a storm,” he wrote. I sometimes look at the books that men have recently written, and I think, “This has all come from the study.” But Rutherford’s books came from his heart and his ministry to others.
  6. A life lived for God is a life of manifold and increasing temptations. The greatest temptation out of hell is to live without temptations, he wrote. Grace withers without adversity. Jesus Christ from his birth to his death was assailed with temptations. If we are walking with God we will be pressed even beyond measure. If our Saviour knew what it was to experience constant temptation should we experience anything less? We have allowed the world to imagine that an evangelical is a professing Christian with a perpetual grin on his face. “Hast thou no scars,” wrote Amy Carmichael in her most well-know poem as she searches us about our lack of suffering for Christ. Rutherford could not escape the cost of following Jesus Christ.
  7. A life lived for God submits uncomplainingly to God’s providence. Rutherford knew the loss of both his children, accepted this, and comforted others in the same trial.
  8. A life lived for God has an eagerness for heaven. The centre of Rutherford’s life was Jesus Christ; his goal was to be with Christ, the dawning of the marriage day, the Lord finally coming over the mountains to us. He described himself as often borne down and hungry for the wedding feast above. They were heavenly-minded men and women. Their lives were full of longings for Christ and his glory. Rutherford and his colleagues engaged with their world, and they sought to reclaim it for Christ, but their great goal was to be with Christ.

Rutherford was a man of extremes. So was Samson. Consider the book of Judges being put in the canon of Scripture. Rutherford was extraordinarily generous-spirited, but also a bitter controversialist. He opposed godly David Dickson bitterly. In Rutherford’s day many men could not see further than their own convictions, and yet he also expressed a better spirit too, longing for a better day.

If you are a Christian at all you will read Rutherford’s writings, especially his letters, and your heart will be quickened by it. Rutherford was a brilliant all-round Christian. In his dying words he said, “My Lord and Master is chief of ten thousand of thousands. None is comparable to him in heaven or in earth. Dear brethren, do all for him. Pray for Christ. Preach for Christ. Do all for Christ. Beware of men-pleasing.”

I hope we have been reminded of these above points which are the distinguishing marks of those who call themselves ‘reformed’ The heart of biblical religion is love for Christ, and while that love has got us in its grip, though we may never be a Rutherford, we will be assured that Christ in love pitied us when we were damnable and he saved us.

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