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God’s Will, not Ours

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Date September 21, 2006

Joseph Alleine was an altogether remarkable man in an age of remarkable godliness. Born in Devizes in 1633, he was just 10 when his diligence in private prayer was noticed; from then on he lived an exceptionally godly life. At Oxford University, he gave himself with characteristic earnestness to his studies; indeed it would seem that his conscientiousness had a serious effect on his health by the time he was in his thirties.

In 1655 Alleine became assistant minister to George Newton in the Somerset town of Taunton. There he continued to be an earnest student, but he also give himself wholeheartedly to preaching and visitation. He is best known for his often reprinted An Alarm to the Unconverted (still in print, under the alternative title of A Sure Guide to Heaven [Banner of Truth]).

With the Restoration of 1660, when Charles II came to the throne, the outlook for faithful preachers became decidedly bleak. And in 1662 around 2000 English ministers gave up their churches and stipends rather than submit to the Act of Uniformity, which demanded that they gave “their unfeigned consent and assent” to everything in the Book of Common Prayer. In spite of the threat of imprisonment, Alleine was convinced it was his duty to continue preaching. Realising that his time was short, he now gave to the work of spreading the gospel much of the time he would otherwise have spent in studying. His wife Theodosia wrote of that period: “I know that he hath preached 14 times in eight days, and 10 often, and six or seven ordinarily in these months . . . besides his frequent converse with souls”.

He was often threatened, but the authorities did not take to do with him further for a full nine months after the Act came into effect. He was arrested on a Saturday but succeeded in postponing his imprisonment till the Monday, and used the Sabbath to teach his people, and take his farewell. Theodosia recorded how “he pitied the condition of his enemies, requesting for them, as the martyr Stephen did for those that stoned him, that God would not lay this sin of theirs to their charge. The greatest harm that he did wish to any of them was that they might thoroughly be converted and sanctified and that their souls might be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.”

In July, Alleine was brought to court but the prosecution was unsuccessful. In such a situation it was normal for the prisoner to be released, but Alleine was kept in custody. Remarkably, he and other imprisoned ministers were able to preach in the jail. During this time the judges threatened him and his mother-in-law with banishment or close imprisonment on an island if they kept on proclaiming the truth. Yet Theodosia records: “The Lord preserved them by His power and thus ordered it that their imprisonment was a great furtherance to the gospel and brought much glory to Him, both by their preaching and conversing with souls, in which they had great success through His blessing on their labours”. For some time, while the chaplain was unable, through sickness, to carry out his duties, Alleine was able to proclaim the gospel to the criminals in the jail.

After his release he continued his work among the people, but his opportunities for doing good did not last. After little more than three months he took seriously ill. He did recover somewhat and suffered further imprisonment. For some time after his release, he was completely paralysed. Although he made a partial recovery, he suffered much and was removed to a better world in 1668, at the age of only 34.

One of Alleine’s more remarkable statements expressed his reaction to his continued imprisonment. He told some friends: “Let us bless God that His will is done, and not the will of such worms as we” (The Life and Letters of Joseph Alleine, p 74). Alleine was not without human feelings, but he obviously had a most unusual sense of the goodness and wisdom of God, and an outstanding degree of submission to His will. It is all too easy for us to map out the future, convinced that we know what is best for us and what is most likely to bring us happiness. But how often we are wrong! We do not know the future; we do not know the consequences which would flow from what we desire to happen. But God does. He understands not only the significance of everything that will take place; He understands the significance of all possible events which will not occur. And out of the myriad of possible courses of events which might befall His children, God has in His wisdom chosen those which will be most for their good, and for His glory.

This is what Alleine grasped as he viewed the Most High’s dealings with him – and he grasped these facts far more clearly than is normal among the children of God. He trusted God in the light of what is revealed of His goodness in the Scriptures. If the Lord is good – if He is willing to bless His children in all His dealings with them – then they should believe that God is acting towards them in a loving way in all their circumstances, no matter what appearances might suggest. Alleine would no doubt have recognised that imprisonment, besides bringing hardship, was likely to bring his usefulness to an end, but he knew that God understood the end from the beginning. And so, had he never been able to preach again, Alleine would have seen that as part of God’s good providence, ordered in His wisdom. In fact, events turned out otherwise. But, however events may turn out, we should never lose sight of the truth that God orders everything that happens, and that He does so in His wisdom, and with an eye to the good of His children.

Alleine went to prison confident in the fulfilment of Christ’s promise in the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for My sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you.” And, by God’s grace, he did rejoice, for he looked beyond what is seen and temporal to what is unseen and eternal – to God’s wise ordering of all events.

Even in the midst of the fiery trial he had to pass through, Job had something of that sense of God’s goodness to him. That was why, in strong faith, he could declare: “He knoweth the way that I take: when He hath tried me, I shall come forth as gold” (Job 23:10). There was much that Job could not see in his troubles – for instance, the purpose of God to demonstrate that, though Satan could go far in his attempts to damage Job, yet the Lord’s power was supreme. Yet Job could understand, at least some of the time, that God intended to do him good in the end.

Job spoke unwisely on occasion but, having been tried, he was brought forth as gold. The Lord, in His goodness, brought him to the end of the journey, when, in the words of the Shorter Catechism, his soul was “made perfectly blessed in the full enjoying of God”. No doubt Alleine also spoke unwisely from time to time; presumably he did not always have the same sense of God’s wisdom and goodness. But he too has been brought forth as gold and is now enjoying fully the perfect blessedness of heaven in the immediate presence of God.

It was with such thoughts in mind that Theodosia concluded her account of her husband’s life: “His whole life was a continual sermon, holding forth evidently the doctrines he preached; humility, self-denial, patience, meekness, contentment, faith and holy confidence shining in him, with most dear love to God and His Church and people. And where he longed and panted to be he is now shining, in heaven, singing praises to God and to the Lamb, which work he much delighted in whilst here on earth.” He ran the race set which was set before him, and he endured because he was looking unto Jesus. Let us seek grace to run the same race, in the same way.

Reprinted with permission from the September 2006 Free Church Presbyterian Magazine.

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