William Gurnall on Imprecatory Prayer

GurnallWilliam Gurnall’s classic work on spiritual warfare, The Christian In Complete Armor,  is basically an extended exposition of Ephesians 6:10-20 (totaling some 1,200 pages!). In it he includes a lengthy section (over 300 pages long) on prayer, which is, of course, his treatment of v.18-20 (where Paul speaks of prayer in relation to the whole armor of God).

In that section on prayer, Gurnall takes the time to speak of a subject that is rarely heard of today – imprecatory prayers.

What is imprecatory prayer? An imprecatory prayer is that prayer of God’s people which is directed at or against the enemies of God and His people. They often consist in prayers, not just for deliverance for God’s people from their enemies and His, but also for God’s just judgment against the wicked. Gurnall himself defines it as that prayer “wherein the Christian imprecates the vengeance of God upon the enemies of God and his people” (Vol. 2, p.444).

The Psalms are practically filled with such prayers. Here are just a few examples: Psalm 3:7 says, “Arise, O LORD! Save me, O my God! For you strike all my enemies on the cheek; you break the teeth of the wicked.” Psalm 7:6 says, “Arise, O LORD, in your anger; lift yourself up against the fury of my enemies; awake for me; you have appointed a judgment.” Psalm 10:15 says, “Break the arm of the wicked and evildoer; call his wickedness to account till you find none.” If the idea of imprecatory prayer makes you uncomfortable, then you will find the book of Psalms to be a rather uncomfortable book indeed.

Not only does the book of Psalms include such prayers, but they are also found on the lips of the saints in the book of Revelation. In Revelation 6:9-10 we are shown “the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne” crying out out with a loud voice, saying, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” So even the martyrs in heaven are depicted as crying out for justice! They are crying out for the Lord to avenge their blood! And what does the Lord tell them? Does he tell them that they have the wrong idea? Does He tell them that such prayers are no longer appropriate? No! He tells them to “rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been” (v.11). Justice will come, and their blood will be avenged, but they might have to wait a bit longer.

Gurnall actually warns the wicked not to get the saints engaged in praying against them! He writes to them, “Take heed that by your implacable hatred to the truth and church of God, you do not engage her prayers against you” (p.448). He goes so far as to say:

“The prayers of the saints are more to be feared . . .than an army of twenty thousand men in the field” (ibid).

He points to the example of Esther (cf. Esther 4:16), whose prayers hastened Haman’s destruction on his own gallows; and also of Hezekiah’s prayers against Sennacherib (cf. Isaiah 37:14-20), which “brought his huge host to the slaughter, and fetched an angel from heaven to do the execution in one night upon them” (ibid.). He draws upon the examples given in Scripture to prove his point. The prayers of the saints really are to be feared indeed!

Now, Gurnall does offer some rules or guidelines as a caution against the possible abuses or misuses of imprecatory prayer. (See Vol.2, p.444-446.) They are as follows:

  1. “Take heed thou dost not make thy private particular enemies the object of thy imprecation.” So the right and proper subject of imprecatory prayer must be God’s enemies, the enemies of Christ and His people. And we must be careful not to presume that our own particular enemies are necessarily the enemies of God Himself, His Christ, or His church.
  2. “When thou prayest against the enemies of God and his church, direct thy prayers rather against their plots than person.” Our primary aim in such prayers should be that the Lord Jesus would defend His church. Imprecatory prayer (rightly conceived) should not preclude praying for the salvation of our enemies.
  3. “When praying against the persons of those that are open enemies to God and his church, it is safest to pray indefinitely and in general: ‘Let them all be confounded . . .that hate Zion,’ Ps.cxxix.5; because we know not who of them are implacable, and who not, and therefore cannot pray absolutely and peremptorily against particular persons.” In other words, you just never know whom God might have chosen to save. The Lord defended His church both by judging Herod (Acts 12:20-24), and converting Saul of Tarsus (Acts 9:1-19).
  4. “In praying against the implacable enemies of God and his church, the glory of God should be principally aimed at, and vengeance on them in order to that.” Just as the glory of God comes first in both sequence and priority in the Lord’s Prayer (i.e. “hallowed be your name” – Matthew 6:9; Luke 11:2), even so God’s glory must also then come first even in the right practice of imprecatory prayer.
So Gurnall cautions us against the improper use of imprecatory prayer, but nevertheless he also cautions the enemies of God’s people that if they should, through persecution or other such evil, incite the saints to the practice of imprecatory prayer against them for that evil, God will not count it as wasted breath. The prayers of the saints (as Gurnall states above) really are “more to be feared . . .than an army of twenty thousand men in the field.”

Do You Believe in Prayer?

Bumper Sticker1 Thessalonians 5:17 is rather short and to the point; it is only three (3) words long. There the Apostle Paul simply says, “pray without ceasing.”

Again and again the Word of God encourages believers to pray. And yet how many of us can honestly say that we don’t struggle with our prayer lives? Do any of us really pray without ceasing?

Do you believe that God answers prayer? If you are a Christian, I assume that you would answer that question with a resounding “Yes!” Don’t all Christians believe in prayer? If you say that you believe in prayer, allow me to ask you one more question: Do you pray? It is one thing to say that you believe in prayer, but it is another thing entirely to actually pray.

If we really believed that God hears and answers the prayers of His people, could anything keep us from praying? Would more of our churches not have regular prayer meetings? And would those prayer meetings not be some of the most well-attended assemblies in our churches?

I believe it is a sad testimony to our view of prayer (and so also, in a sense, of God’s ability or willingness to answer prayer) that we do not pray more regularly and fervently as churches. Did the Lord Jesus not say that His house was to be a “house of prayer” (Matthew 21:13)?

So let us devote ourselves to prayer! Pray for (and with) your family. Pray for (and with!) your friends. And devote yourself to praying with your brothers and sisters in the church. If your church has a regular prayer meeting, make it a point to be there if at all possible. If your church does not have a regular prayer meeting? Request one! Let the Lord’s house be a house of prayer!

And may God in His grace be pleased to bless, answer, and use your prayers for His glory this year and always!

Christmas & the Cross

Boice WHTGGChristmas and the cross must go together. Without the cross, the manger is essentially meaningless.

In his book, Whatever Happened to the Gospel of Grace?, James Montgomery Boice writes,

Christmas by itself is no gospel. The life of Christ is no gospel. Even the resurrection by itself is no gospel. The Good News is not just that God became man, nor that God has spoken in Christ to reveal a proper way of life for us, nor even that death, our great enemy, has been conquered. The Good News is that sin has been dealt with, that Jesus suffered its penalty for us as our representative, and that all who believe in him can look forward confidently to heaven” (p.105).

The story of the incarnation of Christ that we rightly focus on every year at Christmas, as wonderful as it is, saves no one apart from the cross. The life of Christ, as important as it is, saves no one apart from the cross. Christ certainly calls His people to follow Him (Mark 1:17; 8:34), and so to obey His commands and to emulate His example, but without the cross, the “right way of living” saves no one – it would still just lead to death.

The purpose of Christ’s incarnation was so that He would save His people from their sins (Matthew 1:21), and that means, first and foremost, that He was born so that He might die in the place of sinners.

Book Review: Knowing Christ, by Mark Jones

Knowing ChristKnowing Christ (as the title seems to suggest) is something of a companion volume or follow-up to J.I. Packer’s classic work, Knowing God (which is probably my all-time favorite Christian book). Packer’s Foreword in the beginning of the book makes it clear that he himself enthusiastically commends it.

It is no secret that J.I. Packer is a long-time aficionado of and expert on the Puritans, so it is especially fitting that someone like Jones (whom Packer calls “an established expert on many aspects of puritan thought”) would be the one to take up the proverbial mantel in writing this volume.

The influence of the Puritans is clearly evident throughout the book, as Jones freely cites such luminaries as Thomas Brooks, Stephen Charnock, John Flavel, Thomas Goodwin, John Owen, Richard Sibbes, and Thomas Watson. There are also numerous quotations from other giants in the Reformed tradition, such as John Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, B.B. Warfield, Herman Bavinck, Abraham Kuyper, and Geerhardus Vos. Most importantly, Jones grounds everything in Scripture, and backs up much of what he says with references to the Reformed Confessions and Catechisms.

Having said all of that in the above paragraph, what if I told you that this is truly one of the finest devotional books that you will ever read? That is one of the most remarkable things about this book – Jones takes what can be a very complex subject (Christology), brings the writings of some of the greatest theological minds in the history of the church to bear on the subject, and somehow makes it all eminently readable and accessible. And he does all of that in only 232 pages! Perhaps my only complaint (if anything) is that I wish the book were about twice as long. (I also wish it were available in hardback, but I digress.)

There are few things more needful for Christians in our day (or any day!) than to know Christ better. And yet there are (as Jones himself points out in the Introduction) shockingly few books available on that subject. This book will go a long way toward helping to fill that void. It is far and away my favorite new book of 2015.

Get this book. Read this book. Re-read this book.

May the Lord Jesus Christ be pleased to grant this book a wide readership for many years and decades to come. And may many people come to know Christ and/or know Him better through what is found within its pages

Thomas Brooks on the Lord’s Supper and Assurance

Brooks (Heaven on Earth)In his book, Heaven on Earth, Thomas Brooks (1608-1680) writes all about assurance of salvation – it is essentially a treatise on that great subject. There Brooks deals with such things as proving that believers may attain a well-grounded assurance, pointing out what means may be used in order to obtain assurance, giving reasons why believers may lack assurance,  and demonstrating the differences between true and counterfeit assurance. It is a very helpful and encouraging book.

There he also shows us the vital connection between the Lord’s Supper and assurance. He writes,

It was the principal end of Christ’s institution of the sacrament of the supper that he might assure them of his love, and that he might seal up to them the forgiveness of their sins, the acceptation of their persons, and the salvation of their souls, Mat. 26.27,28. The nature of a seal is to make things sure and firm among men; so the supper of the Lord is Christ’s broad seal; it is Christ’s privy-seal, whereby he seals and assures his people that they are happy here, that they shall be more happy hereafter, that they are everlastingly beloved of God, that his heart is set upon them, that their names are written in the book of life, that there is laid up for them a crown of righteousness, and that nothing shall be able to separate them from him who is their light, their life, their crown, their all in all. (p.27)

Brooks would have us to understand that the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper is primarily about assurance. It is “the principal end” (or main purpose) for which the Lord Jesus Christ instituted it for His people. The Supper is meant to reassure believers of Christ’s great love for them. It is, to use Brook’s words above, to “seal up to them the forgiveness of their sins, the acceptation of their persons, and the salvation of their souls.” A “seal” is given for the express purpose of assurance. It is “to make things sure and form among men.”

The Lord’s Supper is certainly not the only means whereby believers may attain, maintain, and be strengthened in their assurance of salvation, but it is certainly one of the most important, and one which must not be neglected. The very fact that the Lord Jesus instituted this Sacrament to be perpetually celebrated by His church until He returns (1 Corinthians 11:26) shows us our perpetual need for assurance. It also shows us how greatly our faithful Savior desires that His beloved people would have assurance of His great love for them.

William Perkins on Preaching

PerkinsThe great Puritan preacher and writer William Perkins (1558-1602) lived only 44 years (!), but has had a tremendous impact on preachers of the gospel of Christ for well over 400 hundred years. He is often referred to as “the father of puritanism.”

His influence lives on through his written works, one of the most helpful of which is his book, The Art of Prophesying, which deals with the work of the pastor in preaching and in prayer. In his Foreword to the Banner of Truth Trust “Puritan Paperbacks” edition of that very book, Sinclair Ferguson notes that “Perkins’ pulpit ministry was characterized by biblical exposition marked by great ‘plainness of speech’ (2 Cor. 3:12).” That same plainness of speech is also evident throughout the book.

Perkins there gives a very brief summary of what is involved in preaching. He notes that true biblical preaching basically involves four (4) things:

  1. Reading the text clearly from the canonical Scriptures.
  2. Explaining the meaning of it, once it has been read, in the light of the Scriptures themselves.
  3. Gathering a few profitable points of doctrine from the natural sense of the passage.
  4. If the preacher is suitably gifted, applying the doctrines this explained to the life and practice of the congregation in straightforward, plain speech. (p.79)

That list may seem rather simple, but how often are these things neglected or ignored? How common is it really to hear preaching that conforms to these basic standards? Consider Perkins’ fourfold description of preaching re-stated in the form of a set of diagnostic questions:

  1. Is a particular text of holy Scripture read? (Do the people hear the clear reading of the Word of God?)
  2. Is that same text then clearly explained? (Are the people made to understand meaning of that text of Scripture?)
  3. Are a few profitable points of doctrine being expounded from the text? (Are the people really being taught the great doctrines of the gospel?)
  4. Lastly, are those doctrines being applied to the life and practice of the congregation? (Are the people being made to see the difference that the gospel should make in their daily lives?)

If you are a preacher, how do you answer those simple questions with regards to your own preaching? I hope that you can say with a clear conscience that you preach the Word of Christ like this from week to week. It may not impress many of your hearers, but that is the way that sinners are led to the Savior; and that is the way that saints are built up in their most holy faith as well. Such preaching no doubt pleases God, and that should be our first concern, shouldn’t it?

If you are a church member who attends public worship regularly and so listens attentively (right?) to the preaching of the Word of God, are these the kinds of things that you look (or listen) for? Are these the things by which you judge preaching to be good or bad? If this is the kind of preaching that you hear from week to week, no matter how unimpressive and unspectacular it may seem – thank God for it! Count yourself truly blessed indeed! Many who sit under far more impressive-sounding preaching are not being fed and built up the way that you are.

What the church needs today (and has always needed) is not so much talented preachers who are able to captivate an audience (not that there is anything wrong with talent), but rather men of God who are willing to do the hard work of prayerfully studying the Scriptures, and plainly making known what is taught there.

May the Lord Jesus Christ be pleased to grant more such men in our pulpits – that His church may be built up, to the glory of His great Name.

The Westminster Standards on Preaching

Directory_for_Public_WorshipThe Directory for the Publick [sic] Worship of God (circa 1644) is a very helpful (even if much neglected) part of the Westminster Standards. It gives us clear instructions on nearly every aspect of the public worship of God in the church, including such things as how the Scriptures are to be read (and by whom!), the right manner of corporate prayer both before and after the sermon, the proper way to administer the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, as well as many other things.

Not surprisingly, it also contains a brief section outlining the right manner of preaching the word of God. These directions are as helpful as they are simple, and it would no doubt be of great benefit to the church to get back to these basics of biblical preaching.

In the Directory the Westminster divines note that the preacher ought to have three (3) primary concerns in his preaching:

First, the preacher must ensure that the matter be the truth of God. In other words, is what the preacher says truly biblical? Not just the truth, but specifically the truth of God. That is to say that the matter of the sermon must be found in the Word of God. Many things might be true enough in and of themselves, but are not really the subject matter of Scripture. A sermon simply must be true and biblical.

If what is being said in the pulpit is not the truth of God, then it really isn’t a sermon (at least not a Christian one) at all. It may be truly rousing oratory; it may be a very informative lecture; it may even be a fine motivational speech; but it is not a sermon in any meaningful sense of the word.

Second, the preacher must see to it that the truth that he preaches is contained or grounded in the specific text of Scripture that he is preaching. Sometimes preachers preach the right doctrine (see #1 above), but do so from the wrong text. In other words, the matter of the sermon must actually be the matter of the text itself. If not, how will the hearers understand how the preacher arrived at the points or conclusions that he is seeking to impress upon them?

You could say that every time a minister preaches a sermon (if he is doing so according to what the Westminster divines say here), he is not just teaching the flock what the Word of God says, but is also implicitly teaching them how to study the Word of God for themselves! What a blessing and added benefit that would be for any church!

Third, the preacher must primarily emphasize what the text itself primarily emphasizes. In other words, the preacher’s main point(s) ought to be so derived from the main point(s) of the Scripture text, that they are one and the same. And in this way the hearers are to be best edified. The central message of the sermon should be the central message of the text of Scripture. If not, can it really be said that the text itself was properly preached?

May the Lord Jesus Christ, the Head of His church, grant that His ministers would preach His Word faithfully. And may they preach according to these simple rules found in the Directory – that their preaching might be biblical, that it might be based upon the text of Scripture itself, and that it might emphasize what the text itself emphasizes.