An Offer Too Good To Refuse
What a wonderful surprise! That’s was my reaction to the very kind and generous offer made by one of the older members of my congregation. He is a retired missionary who possesses a deep theological knowledge. I couldn’t believe my ears: ‘Take any books you like – you can have first pick from my library!” So on the appointed day, and at a pre-arranged time, I went round to my friend, with some sturdy cardboard boxes, and filled my car boot [trunk] with dozens of weighty tomes.
The Secret Workings of Providence
This all happened around the time when we recently moved house, so half of my library is still in boxes. This explains why I haven’t had much time to survey the contents properly or the leisure to digest their accumulated wisdom. Yet, as providence would have it, I recently read a quotation from Thomas Goodwin in a Banner of Truth magazine (it was either imbedded in a magazine article or just the bare quote and nothing else). The quotation was something along the lines of (my heavy paraphrase) “Salvation will not be withheld from any penitent sinner who comes to God truly believing that the Lord is full of mercy.”
Isn’t is just marvellous the way God works in sovereign grace – very quietly & gently, a seed was planted in my heart, which stirred this simple thought: ‘As soon as I get a moment, I need to read Volume 8 of Thomas Goodwin’s ‘Works’ and find out a little more.’
Rich Pickings From The Library
Now, if I can press the rewind button, and return to my library appointment, I had a sense of mild surprise, when I started picking through his books. Among other volumes, I noted, was (you’ve probably by now guessed) Volume 8 of Thomas Goodwin on ‘Justifying Faith.’ All this took place 6 or 7 months ago. When I brought the volume home, I set it near the phone, one of a number of ‘faithful friends’, I mused, that I must not forget or fail to consult.
Dusting Down The Puritans – Finally!
There Goodwin sat, an old, neglected, friend, dust-gathering and yet-to-be-leafed-through. There was a fitful start, about 3 weeks ago, when I read the opening chapter: ‘Great!’ I thought that day ‘as I squinted at the print’ [8 font and my eyesight is not that great]; ‘This won’t be a very easy read’, but I sensed from the start, the Banner quotation was not misplaced. Yet as time was marching on, back went Goodwin to his shelf, with a bookmark now in place. He sat, patiently waiting, alone and forlorn, till yesterday morning, when I picked him up again.
Frankly, the venerable Mr G is, spiritually speaking, blowing my socks off!
‘O.K., O.K., you’ve got me interested now, so tell me a little more about this ancient author! ‘What, then,’ you ask ‘is Volume 8 of T.G. about?’ I haven’t read it all yet, we’ve just begun the conversation. But thus far, so good – Book One of this Volume 8, rather fascinatingly I think [I don’t think I would have started a treatise on justifying faith here but in Psalms, Romans or Galatians], is an extended, in-depth, fulsome, exposition of Exodus 34.6-7:
“The LORD passed before Him [Moses] and proclaimed ‘The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.”
It is not until p.139 that he rounds off the exposition with application or uses. With force, light and heat, Goodwin confronts us persuasively with the truth that this text “…is the main article of the Old Testament Creed,” p.24.
The Divine Name Declared
For Goodwin, he explains, there are two key pillars that prop up the tabernacle of Mosaic faith, namely: first, the promise of the Messiah and, second, the proclamation of the nature of the LORD, as a God of incredible mercy. He proceeds to note 13 separate elements of the text which enumerate names for God (which some reckon as 11). Of the two names which initially seem to look a little unmerciful, even punishment for generational sins can be classed as ‘merciful discipline’, the aim of correcting descendents being to restore the generations to Himself. That, according to Goodwin, only leaves one single wholly negative element, ‘refusal to clear the guilty’: this he notes is a necessary warning, accidental to the merciful Name, in light of amazing grace, to counteract the sin of presumption. Mercy, he concludes, heavily outweighs justice by a score of 12 to 1! Listen to Goodwin again:
“But here in this gospel declaration he plainly sets no number either of thousands or millions of thousands, none at all; for of His mercy there is no end. And at this very time [the Golden Calf incident where Moses shattered the Tables of the Law] whilst God renewed that law and those words in it with his own hands, he utters with his own mouth this proclamation of grace so far excelling, professing to pardon all sorts of iniquities, transgressions, and sins which he knew and foresaw the sons of men would commit against that law.”
Gleaning Fruit From Goodwin
Having started to gather my thoughts, and reflecting on my own initial reactions, I want to share some applications that have dawned upon my soul:
1. Forgiveness of Sin.
What amazing encouragement this truth gives the rebel sinner and sinning saint, to come to the LORD, on the basis of His Word, for remission of their sins, pardon of their transgression, washing of their defilement, cancelling of their debts. What is the function and purpose of the revelation and declaration of the character, words and nature of God, as He lays bear His heart to rebel lawbreakers like us, who have incurred an infinite guilt? This opened-arm proclamation invites, beckons, welcomes condemned creatures to come fearful, trembling, penitent, with a hope of pardon that will in no way be disappointed. Are your foul, filthy, naked, burdened, defiled, disobedient and now brokenhearted for your crimes – run as prodigals to the Father with tears and words of confession! As Goodwin stresses:
“What heart guilty of the most heinous sins, that is now humbled for them, should not this move and encourage to come in unto such a God.”
2. Object of Faith.
This is how God wants Himself, most basically and fundamentally, to be known by the Church, by saints of all sorts and by sinners of all stripes. Later Goodwin expounds the protest of Jonah ‘who knew what God was like’ as he cites this Mosaic text in his complaint to the LORD. The most wicked, brutes of Nineveh, would find Him ‘full of mercy and compassion.’ One of the dangers in Reformed circles, is that we are hypersensitive to liberal teaching on God’s love which is emptied of holiness, justice and wrath. We are wrong however, in upholding the truth, to overemphasize punishment or judgment at the expense of mercy. In seeking a corrective we can create a kind of lopsided, distortion of Yahweh, whose character is a balance of Justice and Mercy in 50:50 proportions (in the worst case scenario this god of our own making-distortion is more 85:15). We must always remember Jesus wept over recalcitrant soon-to-be-destroyed Jerusalem, and still holds out his hands all day to a stubborn, wicked, people. We are not called to preach a Gospel which is sparing with kindness and stingy with compassion. Has your preaching lost power? Can your eyes no longer weep? Has compassion shrivelled up in your heart? Perhaps sinner-saint, you need to redirect your gaze to this 12:1 Mercy-Justice LORD, and fall in love with Him again, with bowels of mercy, with the Father of all Compassion, the true object of Gospel faith.
3. Praying for Revival.
It is this ‘foot of Sinai’ text, Exodus 34.5-6, that forms the basis of the cries of the rebellious, backslidden, nation who are crying for relief. Goodwin goes on to show how Nehemiah, after nearly 1000 years, distills all the dealings and ways of God, into a prayer which has Yahweh’s revelation to Moses as its heartbeat. He cites Nehemiah 9.17-21; even when they stiffened their necks, even when they made the golden calf:
“You are a God ready to forgive, gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and did not forsake them …you gave them your good Spirit to instruct them …40 years you sustained them …and they lacked nothing.”
Faced with the fact of God’s overwhelming mercy, even though God has dealt righteously and Israel has done wickedly, the Governor cries out, 9.37, for mercy to God, vocalizing their plight to beseech pity and stir God’s compassion: “We are in great distress.” The bible makes it plain, throughout the Law and Prophets, whenever the Church finds itself in crisis or extremis, they turn back to this Name, as their confidence and hope. In these days of decline Goodwin urges us to turn to God for revival of the Gospel.
4. Character of Believers.
Do we claim to have been recreated in His Image, after the likeness of Christ, in true knowledge, righteousness and holiness? How harsh we can be, how quick to judge we are, how threadbare our pity is, how much compassion we lack. People should be able to look objectively at our character and conduct and progressively sum our lives by the umbrella heading ‘Mercy?’ Should tears not be flowing if we gaze in the mirror at our emaciated, unmerciful souls? Does it not bother us that we can worship His mercy, preach His mercy, harp His mercy, but be relative strangers to this grace? Cry out ‘LORD, LORD!’ renew your mercy to me in Christ. Pray down fresh supplies of heavenly mercy each day and seek to be merciful in all your dealings and ways with your brothers and your neighbours. Pray for mercy in your head, mercy in your heart, mercy as a parent, mercy with your spouse, mercy in your session, mercy in the flock, mercy in your outreach, mercy in your speech, mercy in your giving, mercy with the poor, mercy with the sinner – let your life be a sponge soaked in the holy water of the mercy of God. Oh that they might see a true reflection of the steadfast covenant kindness of God whose Name is Pity.
5. Fuel for Praise.
Goodwin takes some time to run through the Psalms where this text forms the basis for David’s lyrics. Specific citation is made of Psalms 136, 145 but especially 103 (where Exodus 34.5-6 is the referent in the ‘making known of His ways to Moses’ in 103.7-8). Never get tired of taking His own words of self-revelation of His own nature and ways to Him in praise. Put them on your lips and sing them with your heart.
6. Study in Depth.
Dissect the Old Testament citations of this foundational ‘Name of God’. Suck out the marrow from this nourishing biblical bone! Ponder His own personal dealings with you in compassion, and let mercy of His ways draw you to Himself.
7. Pray when Near.
Goodwin expounds (just by the way), the response of Moses to this revelation of the Name, once the LORD’s glory had passed by, for, as the text says:
“Moses made haste, and bowed his head towards the earth and worshipped.”
Has God drawn close? Has the LORD declared His mercies to you? Then don’t put prayer off, to some more convenient moment, but fall on your knees and worship, without delay, for the King may not pass your way very often or again:
“When God is near and greatly present to the soul ..that is the most acceptable time of praying for all or anything a believing soul desires.”
This made me reflect on David, in Psalm 32.6, who counsels (did he also learn this from Moses?):
“Therefore, let everyone who is godly offer prayer to you at a time when you may be found; surely in the rush of great waters, they shall not reach Him.”
Was it not vital for Bartimaeus to cry out ‘Have mercy’ when the Son of David passed by. How foolish for Antediluvians to ignore the merciful offer of refuge in the Ark, in the days of Noah. Goodwin urges the awakened sinner and saint not to let the Prince pass by but beseech Him for mercy.
8. Thank God for Goodwin and Pray for the Banner of Truth, Reformation Heritage Books, Presbyterian and Reformed, Cameron Press, and Crown and Covenant Publishers.
Is this not a terribly neglected subject of prayer among most of us. If it had not been for the Puritans, the likes of Martin Lloyd Jones, and the revival in the 1950s and 1960s of the interest in these old writings, together with those who have set us these works, are employed as staff, and have stuck faithfully to their goals, my old friend would not have purchased this volume 8 of Thomas Goodwin, and I would not have read this stirring exposition of the Mercy of God, nor be writing to you today. Of course in providence, God may have brought these things about a different way. Nevertheless, we owe an enormous debt to them under Christ, and should make these things a subject of enthusiastic thanksgiving, supplication and financial support. The best way we can repay them, and return thanks for grace received, is to use, study, circulate, recommend the old godly friends.
9. Worship the Father of Mercy and Christ of Compassion.
All these helps have been given by the exalted Lord Jesus Christ, as the Head of the Church, as a blessing to His body. It is He, in the purpose of God, by virtue of His Mediatorial office, and through the purchase of His redeeming blood, established and appointed, apostles, prophets and pastor teachers, and engineered the sovereign circumstances, in which these books would be written, as gifts to pastors in churches, to magnify the God of Mercy. It is for this reason we can expect great help, by His Spirit, in drawing sinners to God, through the free offer of the Gospel of the God of all compassion. Seek heavenly unction to magnify the tender mercies of our Saviour.
I’ve only started my journey with Goodwin, about 30 pages down the road! Why don’t your join me, 5 pages per day, in conversation with this friend. I’d be interested to learn how you find time spent with my new travelling companion and pilgrim, puritan Thomas Goodwin. I suspect the outcome would be mutual rejoicing, that in His mercy, the Lord let us meet on the road, that leads us to the Lamb, in whom we obtain mercy.
So slip on your hiking boots, get our your walking stick, buy fresh supplies of Goodwin, and pop him in your rucksack!
For those interested in ‘Getting into Goodwin’ it would probably help to read Joel Beeke’s article on the Reformation 21 website: