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Letters of Samuel Rutherford – A Review by Roderick MacLeod

Category Book Reviews
Date June 15, 2007

Letters of Samuel Rutherford1 is a compilation of 365 letters written by Samuel Rutherford in times of severe ecclesiastical trials in Scotland. They span a period from 1627 (possibly 1624) to 1661.

This is the second reprint the Banner of Truth has produced of the 1891 edition, which was edited by Andrew Bonar. There are over 700 pages of letters, a glossary of terms, notes elucidating the text and other material of antiquarian interest, and useful indices – of persons and subjects. The book also contains a useful 30-page historical sketch of the author; several pages give a helpful summary of the letters. The book closes with the “Last Words”, A. R. Cousin’s extracts from the letters, turning into poetry some of Rutherford’s “most remarkable utterances”.

Apart from a few exceptions, these are private letters and they bear the marks of such. Many, if not all of them, bear a pastoral character – they are the utterances of a minister of Jesus Christ who is about the business of His high and honourable calling. In them we hear the spiritual heartbeat of a true and able minister of the New Testament, and it would be good if, in reading them, we would acquire a little proficiency in the divine art of drawing from the same fountain of “grace for grace” that he drew from. The recipients are various: men and women, ministers and elders, nobility and commoners. The letters embody the spirit of the words of Jude “Beloved, when I gave all diligence to write unto you of the common salvation, it was needful for me to write unto you, and exhort [you] that ye should earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints” (Jude 1:3).

Having been asked to review Rutherford’s Letters, I have found it difficult to offer a critical appraisal of these most intimate expressions of the heart of this holy servant of Jesus Christ. I will therefore attempt to weigh this spiritual gold in the scales of another. When Dr John Kennedy, in The Days of the Fathers in Ross-shire, described the gospel work of ministers as (1) self-denied, (2) earnest, (3) faithful, (4) wise, (5) powerful, and (6) discriminating, he was describing its character in every age. I think the reader of these letters will discover that Rutherford conducted his ministry with a heart motivated, to an unusual degree, by these same heavenly principles. We will refer in turn to Kennedy’s characteristics.

Self-denied.

Samuel Rutherford’s theological abilities had already been recognised; he was later to become Professor of Theology in St Andrews University. Such a man might have been allowed to express himself in abstruse, technical terms, attracting much admiration from a certain class of people. However, like his Master, he chose to express eternal verities in pictures drawn by words, which the weakest intellect could not fail to understand. What Kennedy says of the preaching of others, we may say of the writing of Rutherford:

There are some who preach before the people, like actors on the stage, to display themselves and to please their audience. Not such were the self-denied ministers of Ross-shire.

Not such also were the self-denied letters of Rutherford. It is true that self-denial manifests itself in different ways in different men and in different times, and some find fault with Rutherford’s style. But it is to be feared that these critics thrive on the sap of a less noble vine and have learned little practical divinity in the school of self-denial. While there is a need for learned treatises (of which Rutherford wrote not a few), these letters are characterised by a pastor’s delight to reach the poorest of Christ’s afflicted ones.

Earnest.

Men of a certain bent often tickle the ears of their hearers with fine questions, cleverly propounded and wonderfully resolved. They scratch the itching ears of a godless generation who suppose they have a specialised knowledge in high matters. It is no concern to them that Christ’s wounded children languish without spiritual balm. Let us consult Kennedy again. He speaks of those

who preach over their people. Studying for the highest, instead of doing so for the lowest, in intelligence, they elaborate learned treatises, which float like the mist, when delivered, over the heads of their hearers. Not such were the earnest preachers of Ross-shire.

Not such also were the letters of Rutherford. Eternity is stamped on them. The true way thither is carefully expounded. A searching description of those who are in that way is insisted on. The hypocritical heart is lamented and laid bare.

The solemn issue of the eternal state of immortal souls is a reality in these earnest letters of Rutherford.

Let [leave] feathers and shadows alone to children, and go seek your Well-beloved. Your only errand to the world is to woo Christ (letter 127).

The spirit of his Master is conspicuous in him, constraining him to bind up the broken-hearted; he comforts his persecuted friends with great tenderness. Consoling one who was drinking deep draughts of the cup of affliction, he wrote:

In the great work of redemption, your lovely, beautiful and glorious Friend and well-beloved Jesus was brought to tears and strong cries; so as His face was wet with tears and blood, arising from a holy fear and the weight of the curse. Take a drink of the Son of God’s cup, and love it the better that He drank it before you. There is no poison in it (letter 41).

Faithful.

Kennedy said that some ministers

never take aim at the views and conduct of the individuals before them. They step carefully aside, lest their hearers should be struck by their shaft, and aim them at phantoms beyond them. Not such were the faithful preachers of Ross-shire.

Not such also were the faithful letters of Rutherford. One example of his faithfulness is in letter 174. Lord Craighall, who was supportive of the prerogatives of the King of Zion in some issues, seemed to waver on other equally-important matters. Rutherford wrote to him:

Give me leave to be plain with you, as one who loveth both your honour and your soul … Let me … most humbly beseech you by the mercies of God, by the consolations of His Spirit, by the dear blood and wounds of your lovely Redeemer, by the salvation of your soul, by your compearance before the awful face of a sin-avenging and dreadful Judge, not to set in comparison together your soul’s peace, Christ’s love, and His kingly honour now called in question, with your place, honour, house or ease, that an inch of time will make out of the way. I verily believe that Christ is now begging a testimony of you and is saying, ‘And will ye also leave Me?’

Wise.

Kennedy deplored those ministers who ‘serve out in a sermon the gossip of the week’, and seemed to be possessed with ‘the idea that the transgressor can be scolded out of the ways of iniquity. Not such were the wise ministers of Ross-shire.’ Not such also were the wise letters of Rutherford. For an example of tender dealing with those still apparently in their sins see letter 164. A young parishioner’s sympathetic letter to her pastor in prison gave him the opportunity to write:

Loving friend … I entreat you now, in the morning of your life, to seek the Lord and His face. Beware of the follies of dangerous youth, a perilous time for your soul.

These letters were written in a time when men suffered for standing against the encroachments of the state upon the liberties of the Church in Scotland. Because of this, many of them offer encouragement based, not on the strength derived from the arm of flesh, but from the arm of the Lord. To Alexander Gordon of Earlston he wrote:

I have heard of the mind and malice of your adversaries … I doubt not but Christ will count it His honour to back His weak servant.

Rutherford encouraged him to persevere in the face of sore trials and bereavement:

Ye see your Father is homely with you. Strokes of a father evidence kindness and care; take them so (letter 59).

Powerful.

Kennedy complained of those preachers

who aim well, but they are weak. Their eye is along the arrow towards the heart of their hearers, but their arm is too feeble for sending it on to the mark. Superficial in their experience and in their knowledge, they reach not the case of God’s people by their doctrine, and they strike with no vigour at the consciences of the ungodly.

Not such were the powerful preachers of Ross-shire. Not such also were the powerful letters of Rutherford. Their preservation through over 300 years testifies to their power, reaching the case of God’s people. Not only had they power over those who received them and preserved them, but over the following generations, who continued to read them. Notice the forcefulness with which Rutherford addressed the conscience, in a letter we have already quoted from (174):

Will ye then go with them, and set your lip to the whore’s golden cup, and drink the wine of the wrath of God almighty with them? O poor hungry honour! O cursed pleasure! and O, damnable ease, bought with the loss of God.

Who can question Rutherford’s knowledge and experience? The eminent Thomas Halyburton, on his deathbed, said that the few lines to a young man in letter 81 contained “more practical religion than a large volume”.

Discriminating.

When Kennedy contrasts the false and the true ministers of Christ, he bemoans those preachers who do not discriminate between the precious and the vile. Not such were the letters of Rutherford, who clearly delineated the marks of those who are in Christ and those who are not (in, for example, letter 172). He did not fail to see the danger in his day from those within the pale of the visible Church who had no love to her Head, the Lord Jesus Christ, nor to His kingly prerogatives.

The truth is, Christ’s crown, His sceptre, and the freedom of His kingdom, is that which is now called in question; because we will not allow that Christ should pay tribute and be a vassal to the shields [rulers] of the earth, therefore the sons of our mother are angry at us. But it becometh not Christ to hold any man’s stirrup (letter 69).

In conclusion, this peerless volume is recommended first to ministers and students of divinity. God’s servants – in Galloway and in Ross-shire, in the seventeenth and the nineteenth century – drew sap from the same eternal Vine and bore the same spiritual fruit: some more, some less. May the Lord of the harvest send forth many such servants in the twenty-first century. I believe it is the desire of every believer, and so, in particular, of all Christ’s true servants, to bear fruit on the same Vine, nourished on the same sap. It is perhaps appropriate in this context to quote the words:

If you would be a deep divine, I recommend to you sanctification. Fear Him, and He will reveal His covenant to you (letter 170, to Mr John Meine, who was possibly a divinity student).

It is further recommended to all who have an interest in the history of this period. Apart from the biographical sketch already mentioned, many of the prominent ministers, men, and women of that period are among Rutherford’s correspondents. It is of interest that he identifies at least one of those who were to rise to great usefulness after his departure.

Remember my love to … Mr John Brown. I never could get my love off that man: I think Christ hath something to do with him (letter 243).

Brown became the minister of Wamphray in Dumfries-shire and was later banished from Scotland. Taking up residence in Holland he wrote several volumes in defence of the Truth.

Lastly, it is recommended to all who love Zion and her illustrious King, especially in these troubled times, when it appears to human reason that the Church in Scotland is “old and grey-haired, near the grave, and no man taketh it to heart” (letter 7). This book will be relished by all who say of the ordinances of God’s worship:

The habitation of Thine house,
Lord, I have lovèd well;
Yea, in that place I do delight
where doth Thine honour dwell
(Psa. 26:7).

Here you will see how important our Presbyterian foundation is. It is important because it is biblical. It is important because the glory of the Lord Jesus Christ as Sovereign in His own Kingdom is bound up with it. Love cannot work in a void; it needs something to work on. In these letters, there is much matter to stir up spiritual love. Here you will find the King of Zion, His bride, and the Bethel where they ordinarily meet to banquet together.

Notes

    • Letters Of Samuel Rutherford
      price £18.50

      Description

      Letters of Samuel Rutherford1 is a compilation of 365 letters written by Samuel Rutherford in times of severe ecclesiastical trials in Scotland. They span a period from 1627 (possibly 1624) to 1661. This is the second reprint the Banner of Truth has produced of the 1891 edition, which was edited by Andrew Bonar. There are […]

An abridged edition, containing 69 of Rutherford’s letters, is published in the Trust’s Puritan Paperbacks series:

Reprinted from The Free Presbyterian Magazine, June 2007 with permission.

www.fpchurch.org.uk

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