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John Duncan and the Minister’s Self-Knowledge

Category Articles
Date August 29, 2003

It was the conjunction of these two factors – the searching nature of Christ’s dealings with us and the high standard of Christian character required of us by God – that produced in Dr Duncan a self-knowledge rarely surpassed in Christian biography

by John M. Brentnall

(A lecture delivered by John M Brentnall at a Banner of Truth Ministers’ Conference, in Leicester)

Introduction At the opening of his Institutes, Calvin remarks that true and substantial wisdom consists in the knowledge of God and of ourselves. This is true. Not only are the two inter-active, they are also proportional. The more we know God, the more we know ourselves. Conversely, the less we know God, the less we know ourselves. When on Dr John Duncan’s death his friend William Knight wrote: "With him has perished a breathing library of wisdom", he unwittingly acknowledged that John Duncan knew more of God and of himself than he was aware of. It is the second of these topics, Dr Duncan’s self-knowledge as a minister of the Gospel, that we wilt consider this evening. And in the manner of certain stereotyped preachers we will deal with only three points. and then seek to draw out some lessons from them for ourselves.

1. John Duncan’s knowledge of his lack of self-discipline.

Dr Duncan knew how undisciplined he was, even to the point of regarding his lack of discipline as a sin, with the result that he suffered the keenest self-reproach. Let us take three areas of indiscipline:

I. Study.

(a) Though Dr Duncan acknowledged with the strength of the deepest conviction that God is a God of order, yet he found himself constitutionally unable to order or pre-arrange his own study of languages. "I get so absorbed in linguistic studies," he confessed, "that I forget my duty to God and to my fellow-men." Again, he says, "My great temptation is to the inordinate study of language." And again, "I am deficient in order; it is sinful; we must remember that God is a God of order." In connection with his inordinate love of books he confesses, "These are my ‘world.’ What social dissipation is to another man, study is to me – worldliness." It was probably in connection with this undisciplined devotion to languages that on one recorded occasion the Lord deserted him, constraining the complaint," It is not a clean desertion. It is very dirty… I know the cause: a life of self-pleasing instead of to the glory of God – backsliding. And now, when there is the desire to return, there comes the difficulty. Oh, I have need of the hospital. ‘Heal my soul, for I have sinned against Thee.’ (Psa 41.4).

(b) This lack of self-discipline was evidenced by Dr Duncan’s habitual failure to be where he was expected to be and to do what needed to be done. Many a story I heard while living in Aberdeen of Dr Duncan’s absentmindedness resulting from his devotion to study. On one occasion, he was walking inland up Deeside to fulfil an engagement, and stopped to take a pinch of snuff. Of course, he had a book in his hand. Turning round so that the wind was at his back, he took his pinch and carried on walking, only to find himself back in Aberdeen! Such stories are legion, and Dr Duncan did nothing to discourage their circulation. Indeed, he once remarked that he had begun to believe them himself!

The most startling and almost incredible instance of this thoughtlessness, however, is connected with his second marriage. As the wedding hour drew near, his niece sent him to his room to dress. But the act of undressing was in his mind associated with going to bed, and going to bed was associated with taking a book to read. When the cab arrived, there was no sign of the bridegroom in his wedding suit. His niece went to inquire what had happened, and found him in bed sound asleep with a Hebrew book in his hand!

II. Teaching.

(a) A further area of Dr Duncan’s awareness of his lack of discipline was that of teaching and preaching, especially the former. His theological lectures often evoked complaints from his students that they lacked method. This may be the reason why he was unsuccessful in applying for the Chair of Oriental Languages at Glasgow University. As he was exegeting a passage from the Psalms, for example, he would stumble across a Hebrew word that would excite his linguistic curiosity, and would proceed to pursue its ramifications down By-path lane in Aramaic, Assyrian, Sanskrit, etc, with the inevitable result that the students completely lost track of him! The same was true of some of his sermons, especially at Milton Chapel, Glasgow. His lengthy cogitations in the pulpit were way beyond the grasp of most of his hearers, particularly when he plumbed the depths of the Spirit’s dealings with men’s hearts. Inevitably there was a thinning down of the congregation.

(b) Another factor in this connection was Dr Duncan’s inability to write out his lectures, sermons and Assembly speeches. He had a constitutional aversion to writing, and on one occasion confessed that the attempt to write made him physically sick. Evidently he did not need Lord Bacon’s dictum: "Reading maketh a full man, conference a ready man, and writing an exact man." His remarkable ability to think his way through a subject made the finished spoken product as precisely chiseled as a diamond.

III. Prayer.

One other aspect of Dr Duncan’s lack of discipline was the inordinate length of his prayers, both at family worship and before his class lectures. On one occasion his opening prayer occupied the entire hour allotted to the lecture! But his explanation, which was not pleaded as a mitigation or an excuse, was this: "I fear I have been very long today; but when one thinks he has got in, it is very difficult to get out again!" Incidentally, Dr Duncan took note of indiscipline in the public prayers of others. "We have far too many preaching prayers," he complained. "Many good ministers preach to God!"

[One example of his absent-mindedness cannot be omitted. Dr Moody Stuart observed: "He could be slyly absent when he did not care to be present." While he was in Scotland he often had to be roused from his bed to begin the day’s tasks; but at Pest in Hungary he was always first up and ready to take the early train. "Why is this?" inquired one of the party. "People at home think you’re not able to look after yourself" he replied. "I’m lazy, and they think I’m stupid, but at home I know I’ll be looked after."]

Lessons for Ourselves:

Before moving to our second designated area of Dr Duncan’s self-knowledge, let us draw two simple lessons for ourselves in the work of the ministry:

i] Some of us may need to confess the same lack of discipline as Dr Duncan had, whether in our studies, teaching, preaching, social lack of punctuality or prayer. We are so easily carried away by our impulsive natures or some short-lived enthusiasm. How many unfulfilled projects and good intentions lie scattered around our manses or our minds! How idolatrous we are about books and study, to the neglect of pastoral visits! or vice versa.

ii] We need to exercise strict self-discipline in all these areas. Let us seek grace to regulate our habits around the needs of our people and the Church of our Lord Jesus Christ at large. Let us not dissipate our energies, but redeem the time.2. John Duncan’s Knowledge of his pre-occupation with spiritual frames and feelings.

This aspect of Dr Duncan’s life was not so much the fruit of morbid introspection but of an extreme sensitivity to two factors that are always present:

(I) The searching way in which the Lord Jesus Christ deals with His people through their spiritual experience. This awareness was crystallized by Dr Duncan in the saying: "Christ casts out none that come to Him, but He searches all that come.

(II) The unattainably high standards of Christian character set forth in the Word of God. For Dr Duncan holiness meant HOLINESS – inward and outward separation from the least stain of sin coupled with the utmost dedication to God. He dreaded equally a shallow believism, a triumphalist activism and a mere intellectualism.

It was the conjunction of these two factors – the searching nature of Christ’s dealings with us and the high standard of Christian character required of us by God – that produced in Dr Duncan a self-knowledge rarely surpassed in Christian biography.

This self-knowledge expressed itself in four significant ways:

A. In the keenest sense of sin and duty.

Dr David Brown, his most intimate friend, remarked: ‘I never knew a more tender conscience on every point of duty, a more quick sensibility to whatever he thought morally or religiously wrong, and a deeper sense of compunction and distress at any deviation from duty, whether patent to the eye of man or not." A fine example of this appears in his saying one morning:

" What a wicked thought I had in going to bed last night: ‘If I were sure I were a Christian I would not pray tonight."’ Another example is provided by his rebuke of a student before the whole Hebrew class for handing in a poorly-worked exercise. When the student explained that he had been sitting up all night with a dying friend, Dr Duncan publicly apologized to him before the class. He regarded this as not only courteous but also as morally binding on him.

B. In his entertaining frequent doubts about his own salvation.

For these he offered the following explanation: "I am naturally of a sceptical turn of mind, and since I have been delivered from doubt about God and the great truths of redemption, my scepticism has taken the form of doubt about my own salvation." His perplexity appears in the subtle admission: "I have not come to the conviction that He will not save me; I believe that He is able, and I have not concluded that He is unwilling." He speaks the language of many when he said again: "I have never had any doubts about the truths of Christianity, about the sufficiency of Christ’s atonement. My doubts have been about my interest in Him, whether I were truly united to Him." More specifically: "My fearfulness is not at all from the law; it is from the gospel. The gospel, and that just when I could seek to embrace it, detects sin, detects unbelief, detects the carnal mind – that I am not willing to be saved in God’s way." Perhaps the most poignant expression of his anguish on this account was voiced only a few weeks before his death. To a friend seeking to comfort him with the promise, ‘When thou passest through the waters, I will be with thee.’ (Isa 43.2), he replied rather sharply: "What makes you so confident about me? You cannot search the heart like God. Is my Christianity so very apparent?" Yet even in such depths a gleam of gospel light gave him hope:

" If I am dying," he said once, "I don’t know where I’m going; but since it is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, even the chief I may be saved. I am not able to examine myself; my friends will have it that it is real – I must just go on the present offer of Christ; if I have not done it before, I may receive Him now." Indeed, knowingly or not, Dr Duncan later betrayed the presence of grace in his heart when he said: "Well, if I were sure of heaven, there is nothing I would like better than to depart and be with Christ." Clearly, what Dr Duncan lacked was not grace but assurance.

Now Dr Duncan fully acknowledged that all such doubting was sin. "In him who desires union to the Lord first above all things," he confessed, "doubt of the forgiveness is agonizing to himself and dishonouring to Christ." Hence, one of his most frequent requests to friends: "Pray for me; pray for pardon; pray for purity."

C. In the greatest concern to get a saving sight and an assured grip of the Saviour.

Of Dr Duncan’s sincere and ardent love for Christ even he himself was sometimes conscious. "Christ is a wonderful Being," he once said. "We could never do without Christ." And again: "Can you conceive anything more beautiful than the character of Jesus Christ?" And again: "It is death to be separated from Christ for a moment." And again: "There is an unknown attractiveness in Jesus Christ." Perhaps the sweetest example of this is found in his remark to the Hebrew class following the opening prayer: "Dear young gentlemen, I have just got a glimpse of Jesus."

So, although Dr Duncan called himself a Mr. Fearing, admitted to babbling about assurance he did not possess, and was very skilful in relieving the doubts of others, he was always conscious of the possibility of himself being saved. Though he knew that seeking would not save him (as he told a beggar woman on the streets of Edinburgh), yet he knew that in God’s mercy seeking would result in finding, and that finding would save him. And so we find him almost contentedly saying: "There are times when.. I cannot read my Bible and I cannot pray. But I go out into my garden to consider the lilies how they grow," and advising others: "Consider Jesus Christ, and if you can’t consider Christ, consider the lilies of the field, how they grow.

D. In the most intense desires for God.

Commenting on Asaph’s longing for God at the close of Psalm 73 he spoke from experience of "an intense desire, of such intensity of desire as has a tendency to debilitate the powers." Perhaps his remarks on the Answer to the First Question of the Shorter Catechism best exemplify this: "1 pass over the first part mainly with an intellectual approbation of its moral rectitude as a requirement -”Man’s chief end is to glorify God’ [What honesty!] – while every fibre of my soul winds itself round the latter part – ‘to enjoy Him forever’ – with unutterable, sickening, fainting desire." He proceeds: "But I pray the Lord my God to circumcise my heart to love the Lord my God; to love Him for His own essential, revealed excellencies with devoted love; that the Beloved (0 my soul, O Spirit of the Lord, is He or is He not my Beloved?) may be mine, and I His, and I His, AND I HIS!"

Lessons for Ourselves:

i] Let us beware of the tyranny of prolonged self-scrutiny. We are all vulnerable and frail. We are all imperfectly sanctified. And if we are sensitive, introverted by temperament, deeply serious in the things of God, or belong to a church whose emphasis is mainly experiential and which fails to keep a healthy balance between doctrine, experience and practice, we must beware of just how able are frames and feelings to lead us about wherever they please. In this Slough of Despond many have lost sight of the Saviour altogether. Some even struggle all their days to extricate themselves from the morass of feelings, impulses and ideas into which they have fallen. Did not M’Cheyne say, following Rutherford: "For every look at self, take ten looks at Christ."?

ii] Let us seek grace to avoid the opposite danger; namely, of making a saviour out of our spiritual experiences. It is dreadfully possible for people to glory in their imagined spirituality, and to confound their own spiritual motions and hunches with the leading of the Spirit of God, to the great dishonour of Christ and distress of others. This is nothing but wild fanaticism. Dear friends, beware of making a saviour of your doubts, fears, concerns, faith, love, tears, sincerity, assurance, service, anything! The heart is deceitful above all things, and Satan is ever near to entangle us in ourselves. CHRIST ALONE IS THE RESTING-PLACE OF YOUR SOUL. All our self-knowledge, if given by the Holy Spirit, will lead us to Him. And if we discern the least spark of grace in ourselves, let us humbly thank Him who gave it and who alone can increase it. And if we are shown the carnal mind within, working in enmity towards God, let us seek pardon and cleansing for it in the precious blood of Christ. He, and not our experience, is our Saviour.

3. John Duncan’s knowledge of the vast importance of language in expressing his thoughts on the great themes of the Reformed Faith.

Let us hear his own testimony on the subject: "The morel study language, the more I am convinced of this, that particular shades of thought are wedded to particular words. If you disuse the words, you lose the thought." Again: "I would advise everyone to be careful to use no more words than are necessary to express thought." So meticulous was Dr Duncan in applying this principle to the study of Holy Scripture that he closed his students in to the strictest exegesis of their set texts, sternly insisting: "We are not at liberty to leave apostolic exegesis for our own ideas." Accordingly, he himself was fastidious in his choice of words. As Dr David Brown confirms:" The words often dropped very slowly from his lips, but they were always apt words, worth waiting for." Dr Moody Stuart speaks to the same effect:" He had a fastidious sense of the music of words."

This being so, we find Dr Duncan’s language marked by three leading features:

1] A certain classical beauty of form.

[In considering this feature, we remember that Dr Duncan spoke the purest classical Latin fluently.] R.J.Sandeman, one of his students, observed this aspect of his teacher’s language: "He strove to give his thoughts a certain chaste beauty of form: some of his characteristic sayings, through being often repeated, became almost perfect in point of form." For compactness, theological comprehensiveness, equilibrium and musical rhythm, the following samples are gems:

(I) "All God’s Law is ‘Thou shalt love’, and all His Gospel is ‘God so loved."’

(II) "Beware of him who, if not in matter, yet in manner, preaches himself."

(III) "The creature’s first duty is to be what God made him. His next duty is to do what God ordains."

(IV) [On prelates in the House of Lords] "As lords they are not spiritual, and as spiritual they are not lords."

(V) "Our Lord was always without sin in Him, but He had a great load of sin on Him."

2. A Predilection for Aphorisms.

On this point William Knight remarked: "His thoughts naturally took an aphoristic form. . . . Brevity and sententious fulness always characterized them." Adds John Donaldson, one of his students: "His sayings, aided by their epigrammatic terseness and point, stuck fast in the memory, in their measure, like texts of Scripture."

Here are a few examples:

(1) "Never admit an Arminian into your pulpit."

(2) "Hyper-Calvinism is all house and no door; Arminianism is all door and no house."

(3) "The best preaching is: Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and keep the ten commandments."

(4) "The Gospel is a prepared feast for unprepared guests."

(5) "I am first a Christian, next a Catholic, next a Calvinist, next a PaedoBaptist, last a Presbyterian. I cannot reverse this order."

3. A Penchant for Startling Questions.

The examples cited reveal a rare angle of vision and the most acute spiritual perception:

(1) "Can you be happy just by thinking that God is happy?"

(2) "What will worldlings think when their god is all in a blaze?"

(3) "Who can tell the hatefulness of not loving God?"

(4) "What will the judgment-seat be to the graceless minister?"

Such striving for perfect form of expression was deliberate with Dr Duncan, and was therefore a conscious aspect of his self-knowledge as a minister. Lessons for Ourselves:

1. Let us never be careless or shoddy in our speech. As ambassadors of Christ, we should consciously seek out the most apt words for our thoughts (Prov 25.11) and cultivate good diction, pronunciation, articulation and voice-projection. How can we expect the Lord to bless our attempts to communicate His truth if our reading and preaching of Holy Scripture is slovenly or marked by offensive peculiarities?

2. Let us seek out the best ways of presenting God’s truth to others. We are not to be pale imitators, like Robert Leighton’s ape and Dr Lloyd-Jones’s chimpanzees. That would be both dishonest and foolish. But let us strive after Dr Shedd’s three ideals of plainness, force and beauty. These features characterized so much of Dr Duncan’s speech, and they should characterize ours. After all, consider the Saviour’s own reading and preaching.


In conclusion, let us recapitulate the three leading lessons we may learn from Dr Duncan’s intense self-scrutiny:

1. Let us seek grace to be thoroughly self-disciplined, in our studying, preaching, teaching, social habits and prayers. In view of the pressures on our time, our natural inclination to please ourselves and the fact that one fruit of the Spirit is self-control, this need is imperative.

2. Let us resist the tyranny of frames and feelings by taking them, whether sinful or gracious, to Christ.

As Dr Duncan himself put it: "When self-examination terminates. . .1 must just leave my case in His hands who can make it good if it is bad, and if it is good clear it up to me."

3. Let us study the best way to communicate the unsearchable riches of Christ.

Brethren, we have received the highest calling on earth, we are responsible for precious souls, and we must give an account of our ministry. May we pray for each other, that God will not be dishonoured by our carelessness, but that He would make us able ministers of the New Testament, to His glory, others’ benefit and our comfort.

Peace and Truth 2003:1: the magazine of the Sovereign Grace Union

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