The Christian’s Great Interest
One book was destined to become a spiritual classic almost as soon as it was published. Thomas Chalmers called it ‘the best book I ever read.’ And John Owen said of it that there was more divinity in it than in all his writings. I am referring to William Guthrie’s little classic, The Christian’s Great Interest1.
Born in Scotland in 1620, Guthrie pastored only one church, Fenwick in Ayrshire, from 1650 to 1664, where he became known as ‘a great light in the West of Scotland.’ Having poured all his teaching and pastoral experience into this work – his one book – he ministered to thousands of Christians during his lifetime and many more thousands have benefitted from this spiritual gem since his death in 1665. On the cover of my copy of Guthrie’s book it says, ‘From the riches of these pages Christians, and those still seeking Christ, have been drawing for three hundred [by now 350] years as the book has passed through more than eighty editions.’ Why is this book still so popular? Because of its great importance. Listen to what Guthrie says in his introduction:
Since there are so many people living under the ordinances [means of grace] pretending, without ground, to a special interest in Christ . . . And since many who have good ground of 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 . . . I shall speak a little respecting to things of the greatest concern. The one is, how a person may know if he doth lay just claim to God’s favour and salvation. The other is, in case a person falls short of assurance in this trial, what course he should take. [p.22]
A Model of Balance
Guthrie’s treatment of these difficult questions is a model of balance. While clearly showing how the true believer’s experience differs from that of the hypocrite, he resists the temptation to raise the minimum standard of experience necessary for salvation higher than Scripture does.
Guthrie maintains, first of all, that it is of the utmost importance for a man to be savingly in covenant with God, and he rebukes those who will not take any pains to discover their true position. Quoting 2 Corinthians 13:5 and 2 Peter 1:10, he continues,
Be ashamed, you who spend so much time in reading of romances, in adorning of your persons, in hawking and hunting, in consulting the law concerning your outward state in the world, and it may be in worse things than these . . . Be ashamed, you that spend so little time in search of this, whether ye be an heir of glory or not. [pp.32-33]
But how can we tell whether a person has a valid title to life eternal? There are, says Guthrie, various characteristics peculiar to the children of God, and he selects for consideration ‘two great and principal marks’ from among these, namely justifying faith and personal renewal in holiness.
The Preparatory Work of the Law
Before dealing with these, however, he pauses to discuss the law-work, which, he says, the Lord usually uses in preparing His own way in men’s souls. Not all experience such a law-work, Guthrie says. Some are called from the womb, as John the Baptist, or in early childhood as Timothy. Others are brought to Christ in a sovereign gospel way by some few words of love as Zacchaeus, and others, who upon a word spoken by Christ, did leave all and followed Him. We hear nothing of a law-work dealing with them before they close with Christ Jesus. All these, however, are deeply convicted of sin after coming to faith, as Zacchaeus’ case shows. Others, again, are called on their deathbeds, but only few are saved this way. Ordinarily, however, a clear and discernible law-work of conviction and humiliation precedes faith.
Some Evidences of a Saving Law
This work may be violent, as is the case of Paul and the Philippian jailer. But, says Guthrie, the Lord sometimes carries on this work more calmly, softly and gradually, protracting it so that the several steps of man’s exercise under it are very discernible. He is convinced, first, of certain particular sins, then of more sins and of sin itself and of his own unbelief and ungodliness.
He is now preoccupied with the quest for salvation. He is frightened of dying unsaved. He may be tormented with fear of having committed the unpardonable sin, and be tempted even to suicide; but God upholds him, ‘quietly and . . . by infusing into his mind the possibility of his salvation’ (p.47). He seeks salvation by his own works; but then ‘the Lord makes a new assault upon him,’ convincing him even more thoroughly of the spirituality of the law, his own utter corruption and the filthiness of his fancied righteousness. He withdraws from company to seek God in self-abhorrence and despair, and in grief for his past contempt of true Christians and abuse of the merciful long-suffering of God, he begins to pray. ‘Now,’ says Guthrie, ‘it is about the dawning of the day with the man’ (p.52).
Varying Degrees of Intensity
Guthrie reaffirms that this preparatory law-work is not experienced by all. Nor do all who do experience it, do so to the same degree of intensity, or for an equally long period. The main thing we are to look for in these legal awakenings is whether these stirrings and convictions accomplish the purpose for which the Lord sends them into the soul, namely self-despair, fear of sin, a high valuation of Christ and the Gospel and a readiness patiently and thankfully to submit to his saving lordship.
Guthrie next turns to the first of his two ‘principal marks’ of a saving interest in Christ, namely justifying faith. He argues,
Faith is discernable in two ways: by the heart’s closing with Christ in the Gospel and by the heart’s satisfaction with God’s plan of salvation through Christ . . . Faith is not a difficult, mysterious thing, hardly attainable; . . . if men have but an appetite, they have it; for they are ‘blessed that hunger after righteousness.’ Is it a matter of such intricacy and insuperable difficulty, earnestly to look to that exalted Saviour . . . (Isa. 45:22), and to receive a thing that is offered, held forth, and declared to be mine, if I will but accept and take it, and in a manner ‘open my mouth’ and give way to it? (Psa. 81:10). Such a thing is faith (p.63), a thing more easy than men do imagine. [p.61]
Faith involves both the heart and the understanding; it is a matter of accepting Christ and acquiescing in the truth about him. Faith may be weak, but even the weakest faith is saving faith and those who have it may know they have it, for
a man may clearly know, if from known distress in himself, upon the report and fame of Christ’s fullness, his heart is pleased with God’s device in the new covenant; if it goes after Christ in that discovery and approves Him as Lord of the life of men, terminating in and resting there, and nowhere else . . . this is a discernable thing. [p.72]
Renewal of Man in Holiness
Guthrie now moves on to his second ‘principal mark’ of a saving interest in Christ, namely the renewal of the whole man in holiness.
A man in Christ, Guthrie says, is a ‘new creature’ (2 Cor. 5:17); he has put on the ‘new man,’ and consequently is renewed to some degree in the image of Christ (Col. 3:10) (p.76). His understanding is renewed, so that he recognizes the gospel to be the wisdom of God and discerns the reality of the things of God. His heart and affections are also renewed; the law of God is written upon his heart so that he loves God and God’s image in his saints and hates sin and everything that robs God of his glory (Jer. 31:33, Ezek. 36:26-27).
In addition to this, Guthrie says,
the very outward members of the man are renewed . . . the tongue, the eye, the ear, the hand, and the foot, so that those members which were once abused . . . are now (employed) as weapons of righteousness unto holiness (Rom. 6:19). [p.80]
Guthrie equates this renewal of life with the ‘holiness without which no man shall see the Lord.’ Although no Christian is able to present evidence of the new life to a perfect degree, Guthrie insists that it is necessary that some measure of change appear throughout the whole man (p.83). However, if a man is overcome by a particular sin and is displeased and distressed about it, there is no need to conclude from this that he is for that reason unrenewed.
Differences between Hypocrites and True Believers
Guthrie now turns to discuss the case of a hypocrite who possesses to a certain extent a counterfeit of all the marks of a true believer, such as ‘great stirrings of conscience about sin, a sort of faith and a real change in his manner of life.’ To help us see the difference between the experiences of the hypocrite and the true believer he draws up the following list:
1. The hypocrite’s conviction
Guthrie mentions three things that are rarely found in the experience of a hypocrite but generally found in the person who becomes a true believer.
a. the convictions of a hypocrite usually concern only a few gross transgressions or sinfulness in general without referring to any specific sins. A true law-work, on the other hand, produces conviction of both general and specific sins.
b. Hypocrites’ convictions seldom result in recognition of inner corruption, inability and helplessness, so that they still ‘go about to establish their own righteousness’ (Rom. 10:13).
c. Hypocrites’ convictions are usually short-lived. Cain goes and builds a city and no more is heard of his convictions. Felix waits for a more convenient time and we hear no more of his trembling. Or, if conviction continues and increases, it leads to utter despair ending in suicide as in Judas’ case.
2. The hypocrite’s faith
Hypocrites may profess a kind of faith but
a. They never give up works so as to forsake every other ground of confidence to close with Christ alone.
b. They never receive Christ as King to rule over man in all things, as Priest to procure pardon for sin and to make peace, and as Prophet to be our wisdom, and to teach and counsel us in all matters.
c. They are seldom prepared to accept all the inconveniences that result from following Christ, but shy back at certain points.
3. The hypocrite’s reformation of life
a. Hypocrites may appear to be changed men. They may display much knowledge (Heb. 6:4), receive the word with joy (Matt. 13:20), avoid many sinful practices and give themselves to religious duties, like the Pharisees (Luke 18), and approve to a degree the things of God (John 7:46), confess their sins (1 Sam. 26:21) humble themselves (1 Kings 21:27), give much or even all of their goods to God and to the saints (Acts 5:2, 1 Cor. 13:3), and even submit to martyrdom (1 Cor. 13:3).
b. They may have striking experiences and ‘taste of the good word of God and the powers of the world to come’ (Heb. 6:4 – p.90).
c. In fact, says Guthrie, they have counterfeits of all saving graces. Yet they lack the three great essentials of religion:
(1) they are not broken in heart and emptied of their own righteousness so as to loathe themselves;
(2) they never embrace Jesus Christ as the only treasure and jewel that can enrich and satisfy;
(3) they never in earnest close with Christ’s whole yoke without exception.
Therefore, Guthrie concludes, whoever you are, if you can lay a clear and just claim to these things, you are beyond the reach of all atheists, hypocrites and reprobates, since you have answered the great purpose and intention of the law and the gospel (p. 94).
How We May Become Sure of Our Salvation
We now come to the second part of Guthrie’s book, which deals with the question as to how those who cannot and dare not lay claim to being in saving relationship to Christ may come to a such an interest. Guthrie starts out by reminding his readers that ‘it is the duty of all who live under the gospel to personally and heartily close with God’s device of saving sinners by Christ Jesus’ (p.116).
God’s Covenant with Believers and their Children
God made a covenant with Israel as a nation, Guthrie argues, promising to be their God and placing them under obligation to serve and obey Him (Deut. 26:17,18). This promise and obligation also included the children, both present and future (Deut. 29:1-15). This arrangement applies also to the Church of the New Testament because the covenant of grace is essentially the same in both dispensations. Guthrie writes:
The Lord makes offer of Himself to be our God in Christ Jesus and the people professing their satisfaction in that offer, and in testimony thereof subjecting themselves unto the ordinances, they are reckoned a covenanted people, receiving a seal of the covenant, without any further particular previous trial. [pp.118-119]
Outward Covenant Relationship is Not Enough
Guthrie, of course stresses that this outward relationship to God is not enough for salvation. ‘Many deal treacherously with God in this covenant,’ being content with covenant privileges, calling Abraham their father, while their heart is not right with God (Psa. 78:36,37, John 8:39). This was true of many in Israel and this is still true today.
There be but very few who really and cordially close with God in Christ Jesus as He is offered in the Gospel: and so there be but few saved as we read in Matt. 7:14, ‘Many are called but few are chosen’. [p.120]
Guthrie insists, however, that it is the duty of all who hear the Gospel to close with this offer of salvation as if it were in their own power to do so (p.120).
The Lord, through these commands and exhortations, wherein He obliges men to do this, conveys life and strength to the elect . . . so then, it is a coming on our part, and yet a drawing on His part (John 6:44) . . . It is a believing or receiving on our part (John 1:12) . . . yet ‘it is given us to believe’ (Phil. 1:29). [pp.120-121]
Closing with God’s Plan of Salvation
Guthrie next explains just what it means to close with God’s plan of saving sinners by Christ Jesus. This is what we must do, he says:
1. Quit and renounce all thoughts of help or salvation by our own righteousness and agree with the way God has devised.
2. Value and highly esteem Christ Jesus as the treasure sufficient to enrich poor sinners and believe with the heart this record that there is life enough in him for men.
3. Approve this plan and acquiesce in it as the only way to true happiness.
This closing with God’s device or believing in Christ is commanded everywhere in Scripture (Isa. 55:1, Matt. 11:28, 1 John 3:23) (pp.123-124).
This does not mean, however, that faith in Christ is all man’s work. Guthrie stresses that all the exhortations, warnings and invitations ‘will not take effect with people until God pours out His Spirit from on high to cause them to approach to God in Christ.’ Yet, he adds,
we must still press men’s duty upon them and entreat and charge them”¦that they give the Lord no rest until He send out that Spirit which He will give to them who ask (Luke 11:13). [p.127]
Prerequisites for Coming to Christ
While Guthrie is careful not to restrict the freeness of the offer by giving a list of qualifications to be met by the sinner before he may come to Christ, he does mention some things that must be present in a person or else he will never ‘knowingly and cordially perform the duty of believing on Christ Jesus’ (p.128). Among these things are:
1. Knowing that he was born a rebel and that he has transgressed God’s law in many specific ways.
2. Realizing that the wrath of God rests on all such sinners, hence also on him personally.
3. Being convinced that he has nothing of his own to procure his peace and that nothing he can do in his own strength will please God.
4. Understanding that he lacks all the saving graces: love to God, fear of God, godly sorrow, and faith in Christ.
5. All these things need to be taken with the utmost seriousness, for only then the sinner will take salvation to heart so that it becomes for him ‘the one thing needful’ and the ‘pearl of great price.’
6. It will break his heart so as to produce ‘mourning as over a first-born son’ (Zech. 12:10), although Guthrie grants that only by looking to Christ as pierced for his sins will the sinner’s heart really be melted.
7. It leads the man to self-loathing.
8. He becomes anxious to find relief and cannot delay. He is pursued by the law and must run to the City of Refuge.
9. He must resolve to break all covenants with hell and death (Isa. 28:15). He must part with all known sins as there is no concord between Christ and Belial (2 Cor. 6:14-18) (pp.128-133).
Again, Guthrie grants that such a resolve will only follow the sinner’s closing with Christ. We can only know that we have closed with Christ by our consequent attitude to sin so that we say with repentant Ephraim, ‘what have I to do with idols anymore?’ (Hosea 14:8).
How to Close with Christ
Next Guthrie explains how one should close with Christ.
1. It must be a personal thing: ‘the just shall live by his faith'(Hab. 2:4).
2. It must be a cordial thing:
the matter must not swim only in the head or understanding but in the heart: the man must not only be persuaded that Christ is the way, but affectionately persuaded of it, loving and liking the thing. [p.135]
– It must be rational, involving knowledge and understanding, not in a fit of emotion. Christ must be known in his offices, as prophet, priest and king.
– It must be done resolutely and violently (Matt. 11:12). If he cannot have access by the door, he will break through the roof of the house (Luke 5:19) (pp.134-138).
A Sobering Conclusion and Solemn Warning
If the above is true, Guthrie says, we have to conclude that many in the visible church need to do more for their souls than they appear to have done so far in regard to appropriating the promises of the covenant sealed to them at baptism. He closes this section with this serious warning:
Ignorant, senseless, profane men cannot with any shadow of reason, pretend to an interest [in the free grace of God in Christ]. Many claim to believe in Christ but they have never cordially, rationally and resolutely gone after Christ because they refuse to give up their sins. [p.138]
Some Effects of Saving Faith
What are some of the effects of saving faith? Guthrie emphasizes the following three:
1. It consists in the believer’s union with Christ like that of the union between husband and wife. As the Father is in the Son and Christ is in the Father so believers are one in the Father and the Son (John 7:21-26).
2. There is sympathy and fellow feeling between God and the believer. He who touches the believer touches the apple of God’s eye. Christ is touched with the feeling of his people’s infirmities (Heb. 4:15). What is done to them is done to him (Acts 9:4).
3. There is communion, intimacy and familiarity between God and the believer. He may draw near to his heavenly Father with all his problems (pp.139-145).
The Origin of the Term ‘Closing with Christ’
Our readers must have noticed that Guthrie often refers to the sinner’s duty to ‘close’ with Christ. This is an expression the Puritans used frequently but with which those with a Dutch Reformed background are not so familiar, although some Second Reformation divines do speak of it, e.g., Peter Immens in his Godvruchtige Avondmaal ganger.2 Immens uses the term ‘inwilliging’ or entering into the covenant or consenting to its terms with joy and wholehearted agreement. Sometimes this involved writing down certain promises and vows and presenting them verbally to the Lord in a solemn manner. Guthrie explains that such formal covenanting, while not absolutely necessary for salvation, is nevertheless useful ‘for the better wellbeing of a man’s state and for his more comfortable maintaining of an interest in Christ Jesus’ (p.169).
The warrant for this practice he finds in all those passages that speak of entering or renewing the covenant bonds with God, e.g., Isaiah 44:5; 45:24, Jeremiah 3:4, Zechariah 13:9. Guthrie and Immens, the latter perhaps influenced by this and other Puritan authors, believed that this practice of covenanting is especially helpful when preparing for the Lord’s Supper, for it is especially at such times that believers ‘should cordially close with God in Christ . . . [The Lord’s Supper] is a feast of love; and then and there we come under a solemn professing of closing with God in Christ personally and openly, and to receive the seal of it.’
Having read and now reread Guthrie’s The Christian’s Great Interest, I hope that the brief overview of this little book has demonstrated how important and valuable a spiritual gem it is for all who are concerned to know the way of salvation, not only doctrinally but also experientially. As Calvin writes in his Institutes, III,I, 1:
As long as Christ remains outside of us, and we are separated from him, all that he has suffered and done for the salvation of the human race remains useless and of no value for us . . . All that he possesses is nothing to us until we grow into one body with him . . . Since we see that not all indiscriminately embrace that communion with Christ which is offered through the gospel, reason itself teaches us to climb higher and to examine into the secret energy of the Spirit by which we come to enjoy Christ and all his benefits.
Guthrie can help us do exactly that: climb higher into this secret of the Lord, which is with those who fear him because it is to them alone that he will show the treasures of his covenant (Psa. 25:14).
One book was destined to become a spiritual classic almost as soon as it was published. Thomas Chalmers called it ‘the best book I ever read.’ And John Owen said of it that there was more divinity in it than in all his writings. I am referring to William Guthrie’s little classic, The Christian’s Great […]
- The Pious Communicant, pp.241ff.
The above appeared as the editorial in the March and April 2008 issues of The Messenger, the official publication of the Free Reformed Churches of North America, and written by the editor Cornelis Pronk. It is reproduced here by permission. The page numbers for the quotations relate to the Banner of Truth edition.
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