The Christian’s Great Interest
Faith is vital in the matter of assurance – indeed all other marks are worthless without it
by Matthew Vogan
William Guthrie is most famous for the valuable little book that he wrote called The Christian’s Great Interest. This book has gone through numerous editions (currently it is available from the Banner of Truth Trust) and been translated into various languages. It was first published in 1658, shortly before the restoration of Charles II. The subject of the book is assurance of salvation. It gives various tests by which someone may know that he is a Christian and in doing so also sets out very clearly the way of salvation. It has been greatly valued by many. On one occasion the great Puritan theologian John Owen was speaking with a minister of the Church of Scotland. Having been asked if he knew of William Guthrie, Owen drew a little gilded copy of Guthrie’s treatise from his pocket saying, "That author I take to have been one of the greatest divines that ever wrote; it is my Vademecum (a handbook or aid carried about so that it can be of immediate use) and I carry it and the Sedan New Testament, still about with me. I have written several folios, but there is more divinity in it than in them all".
"The best book I ever read"
Thomas Chalmers, the leader of the Free Church of Scotland at the time of the Disruption once wrote concerning it, "I am on the eve of finishing Guthrie which I think is the best book I ever read". He went on to speak of its character and popularity: "It has long been the favourite work of our peasantry in Scotland. One admirable property of this work is that, while it guides, it purifies".
The best author for such a book
It seems that William Guthrie was eminently suited to writing such a book. He was by nature introspective or as James Stirling put it’ "William Guthrie was a great melancholian". He had, however, overcome the extremes and potential dangers of this aspect of his character over the years. Samuel Rutherford once said that "If a man’s melancholy temperament is sanctified, it becomes to him a seat of sound mortification and of humble walking". This was Guthrie’s experience and he was the better able to be a faithful minister for it. Guthrie was helped to overcome that melancholy temperament by a vigorous sense of humour. No doubt he could feel that this was a dangerous tendency too: "My merriment!" he confessed to one who had rebuked him for it, "I know all you would say, and my merriment costs me many a salt tear in secret".
Yet he was not unfitted for spiritual things by it. One instance that demonstrates this was a time when Guthrie and fellow minister James Durham were at dinner in a gentleman’s house and Guthrie was keeping the company entertained. Durham, characteristically solemn, laughed and laughed. Family worship was taken immediately after dinner and William Guthrie was called upon to lead in prayer. The prayer was so heavenly and full of earnest spirituality that all gathered were affected by it. "0 Will", exclaimed Durham afterwards, "you are a happy man! If I had been so daft, I could not have been in any frame [to pray] for eight-and-forty hours". As Robert Wodrow notes, "It was often observed that, let Mr Guthrie be never so merry, he was presently in a frame for the most spiritual duty, and the only account I can give of it is that he acted from spiritual principles in all he did, and even in his relaxations".
Guthrie enjoyed fishing as a way of lawful relaxation and physical exercise in order to help his poor health. No doubt it also gave him food for spiritual meditation. The story is told of a visit that Guthrie paid to an older man in Haddington (a long distance away) whose spiritual life had been marked by certain extraordinary experiences. He was writing The Christian’s Great Interest at the time and the visit was helpful to him for that purpose. Guthrie listened carefully all that night and all the next day and could not tear himself away from the conversation of the man and his wife. Then suddenly his face brightened up as he remembered a delightful trout stream he had passed on his way to town. He asked the man if he had a fishing rod he might borrow. The man was pleased to think that such a minister as Guthrie might use his old fishing rod, but his wife expressed her shock at this indulgence in things earthly.
The purpose of the book
The word "interest" in the title of Guthrie’s book does not just mean that the book deals with the matter of greatest importance to a Christian. It also has a legal sense in which to have an interest means to have a valid stake or share in something to our benefit. Guthrie’s book deals with how the Christian may know that he has a legal claim within the Will and Testament or Covenant that the Lord Jesus Christ graciously makes with His people. Guthrie helps us to put ourselves in a courtroom trial where we are under Scripture as a judge to determine whether or not our claim is a true one.
Guthrie opens the book with a concern that there are many "pretending, without ground, to a special interest in Christ". On the other hand many others "who have good ground of a claim to Christ are not established in the confidence of His favour, but remain in the dark without comfort, hesitating concerning the reality of godliness in themselves". This state of affairs prompts two questions: 1. How can someone know if they are in Christ and whether or not he may lay genuine claim to God’s favour and salvation? 2. What should we do if we cannot find in ourselves the marks of a saving interest?
How can someone know whether they are in Christ?
It is important to be clear that assurance is possible, and more easily attained than many realise. It is of the utmost importance to be "savingly in covenant with God". Scripture must be the rule by which we are able to judge whether or not this is so. Only a few, however, seem to reach this assurance. There are many different reasons for this. Far too many are ignorant of the different ways in which God works. Others deal deceitfully with God and their own conscience in holding on to sin. There is also a lazy apathy that resists the effort of examining ourselves, but it is "a work and business which cannot be done sleeping". Assurance must be laboured after, it is not something that falls effortlessly into our laps. Many are ignorant concerning what evidence will satisfy the quest for assurance, despite the fact that it is clear in Scripture. Some are looking for entirely the wrong evidences such as attaining sinlessness or continuous rapturous prayer. Many that are struggling to attain assurance can make the following mistakes: (a) they think that all who are in Christ know that they are; (b) they think that all who have assurance have the same degree of certainty; (c) they think that this persuasion should be continuous; (d) they think that a person must be able to answer every objection against their assurance. The sin against the Holy Ghost can be a great stumbling block to those who believe they have put themselves beyond pardon and this is carefully and helpfully defined from the Scriptures, very importantly, Guthrie is able to tell us what it is not.
Guthrie speaks of the different ways in which people are drawn to Christ. Some indeed may be drawn lovingly or called suddenly in a very direct way. The "ordinary" way involves being humbled by conviction during which the conscience is awakened till the soul is full of concern about salvation and driven from resting in anything of themselves, to casting their all on Christ for salvation. This is carefully distinguished from the temporary convictions of those that fall away.
Faith and the New Birth as Evidence
The first evidence that Guthrie calls for in this trial is faith. Faith is vital in the matter of assurance – indeed all other marks are worthless without it. Yet it can be mistaken. It is not as difficult or mysterious as some men think. Scripture speaks of it as a simple trusting, resting, and looking. It can be found in various marks of submissive obedience and devotion to Christ. "If men but have an appetite, they have it; for they are blessed that hunger after righteousness". Thus Guthrie identifies the marks of true faith, but also distinguishes it from false faith. The second set of evidence called upon relates to regeneration. There is a total renewal when a man comes to saving faith in Christ. In mind, heart and will he is changed from being self-oriented and self-serving to serving and glorifying God. Attitudes to all aspects of life are renewed whether it is work or worship, or relationships, or recreation or eating and drinking. There is a respect to all of God’s commandments, and a submission to and valuing of Christ alone that hypocrites never have despite their outward similarities with believers.
The great question in the minds of many, however, is why some believers doubt. Guthrie opens this up in considerable depth dealing with God’s sovereignty and our own responsibility in these matters. He speaks of twelve areas where different levels of experience may be enjoyed and where assurance may be obtained. Part Two of the book proceeds to deal with the second question raised: what should we do if we cannot find in ourselves the marks of a saving interest? Many may believe that they have closed in with Christ in the gospel very few, however, really have. Yet there is a duty that lies on all under the terms of the covenant of Grace as it is preached to all. There must be a "coming" on our part. "God excludes none it they do not exclude themselves". "It is a coming on our part, and yet a drawing on His part". what is it to close with God’s offer of salvation in the preached covenant? It means to recognise the full guilt of sin, our need of salvation and the impossibility of any salvation without God’s appointment in Christ. We must "quit and renounce all thoughts of help or salvation by our own righteousness". Faith is humble though resolute, hearty rather than mere mental assent though it must depend upon knowledge.
The covenanters and Puritans found great benefit in personal covenanting with God. usually this involved explicitly accepting of Christ and confessing sin and expressing satisfaction with the gospel way of salvation. The covenant was often renewed at communion seasons and times of difficulty or desertion. Guthrie counsels those who lack assurance to make a covenant explicitly with God, writing down and speaking their acceptance in order that they may return to it in times of doubting. The author patiently removes any obstacles or objections that readers may have about covenanting; showing that it has clear scriptural warrant. The covenant was to be no mere decision card that was signed off unthinkingly. It was a solemn holy vow before God in dealing with our never-dying souls, and to be taken with due meditation and consideration. Guthrie compares the covenant to marriage vows between the soul and Christ, as a way of formally confessing with the mouth the same covenant that the believer makes in the heart.
A Precious Book
Fellow minister John Livingstone gave the following opinion of Guthrie: "In doctrine he was as full and free as any man in Scotland had ever been … he was a man of most ready wit, fruitful invention, and apposite comparisons, qualified both to awaken and pacify the conscience, straight and zealous for the cause of Christ". Let us hear Thomas Chalmers once again on the book: "I still think it the best composition I ever read relating to a subject in which we are all deeply interested, and about which it is my earnest prayer that we may all be found on the right side of the question". Most suggestive of all, though, is the sublime crescendo with which Guthrie closes this short but full little book:
"O blessed bargain of the new covenant, and thrice blessed Mediator of the same! Let Him ride prosperously and subdue nations and languages, and gather in all His jewels, that honourable company of the firstborn, that stately troop of kings and priests, whose glory it shall be to have washed their garments in the blood of that spotless Lamb, and whose happiness shall continually flourish in following Him whithersoever He goes, and in being in the immediate company of the Ancient of days, one sight of whose face shall make them in a manner forget that ever they were on the earth. Oh, if I could persuade men to believe that these things are not yea and nay, and to make haste towards Him, who hasteth to judge the world, and to call men to an account, especially concerning their improvement of this gospel. ‘Even so, come, Lord Jesus"’.
Free Church Witness April 2003
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