My friend Andy Murray (who fed me many times in my student days!) has posted an article of mine on Thomas Chalmers on his blog “Ragged Theology“. To visit the post go here:
Andy’s blog is well worth reading on a regular basis.
As Chalmers went about his leisurely ways he stumbled into the valley of the shadow of death. His brother and sister died of tuberculosis in 1806 and 1808 respectively. As the “clergyman” in the family he had to pastor them in their dying days. His brother asked Chalmers to do something that was distasteful to him, read aloud puritan sermons to him! His sister asked him to do something even more uncomfortable, namely sing the psalms to her! Over this period he sang through the Psalter 5 times to her.
Chalmers then became ill himself in 1809. While he recovered, he faced more crises, for example, another sister died. Through this time God was working in Chalmers, and in 1810 as Chalmers was reading William Wilberforce’s Practical View of the Prevailing Religious Systems of Professed Christians a revolution came about in his spiritual life. Chalmers was a converted man. He later wrote: “as I got on in reading it, [I] felt myself on the eve of a great revelation in all my opinions about Christianity … I am now most thoroughly of the opinion, and it is an opinion founded on experience, that on the system of “Do this and live” – no peace and even no true and worthy obedience, can ever be obtained. It is “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved.” When this belief enters the heart, joy and confidence enter along with it.”
Challenge: I love stories like this. Perhaps somewhere around Cambridge there is someone labouring in a parish, confused in unbelief, whom God will use, like Chalmers, to awaken a nation. May it be our prayer.
Chalmers Renewed Pastorate in Kilmany
A passion was ignited in Chalmers heart for the Bible. Before his conversion, one of the members of his congregation said to him: “I find you aye busy, sir, with one thing or another; but come when I may, I never find you at your studies for the Sabbath.” “Oh!” said Chalmers, “an hour or two on the Saturday evening is quite enough for that.” But regarding the converted Chalmers the same man said, “I never come in now, sir, but I find you at your Bible!” To which Chalmers responded: “All too little, John, all too little”.
Challenge: Perhaps we lack Chalmers success because we lack his acquaintance with the word of God?
This love of the bible became evident as Chalmers threw himself wholeheartedly into the work of the emerging bible society movement. Remember the Bible Society began in 1804 in London, and the Scottish Bible Society was founded in Edinburgh in 1809. Embracing the new, the innovative, never troubled Chalmers.
As well as the work for Bible Societies, and related to it, was Chalmers passionate attachment to mission and the emerging missionary societies. In 1813 he published a sermon “The two great instruments appointed for the propagation of the Gospel.” This was a powerful sermon on the text “faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word.” Here is his conclusion: “Those to whom Christ is precious will long that others should taste of that preciousness. Those who … [rejoice in] the sufficiency of the atonement will long that the knowledge of a remedy so effectual should be carried around the globe … In a word those who love the honour of the Saviour, will long that his kingdom be extended till all the nations of the earth be brought under his one grand and universal monarchy – till the powers of darkness shall be extinguished – till the mighty Spirit which Christ purchased by His obedience shall subdue every heart, shall root out the existence of sin, [and] shall restore the degeneracy of our fallen nature…” As a result of this he became a director of the London Missionary Society.
Another example of Chalmers willingness to embrace change was that he was willing to adapt the form [not content!] of his language to his hearers, stating that, “I feel that I do not come close enough to the heart and experience of my hearers, and begin to think that the phraseology of the old writers must be given up for one more accommodated to the present age.” It was said that [Blakie] “not a vestige did he borrow of traditional forms, hardly any of the traditional phraseology.”
In his famous sermon on “the common people heard him gladly.” Chalmers said that “We hear of the orator of fashion, the orator of the learned, the orator of the mob. A minister of Jesus Christ should be none of these; and if an orator at all, it should be his distinction that he is an orator of the [whole] species.” That was his goal, to speak to all in his age, what ever their station in life.
Chalmers by all accounts became an extraordinary preacher. This he achieved while breaking all the conventional rules of pulpit eloquence of his day. First, he read his sermon from a manuscript rather than preaching extemporaneously. Second, he suffered from “the obstacles of a provincial education, an ungraceful person, and an unharmonious voice.” But despite this(!) he had a power that captivated. Hear the classic description of his preaching: “His voice is neither strong nor melodious, his gestures neither easy nor graceful; but on the contrary exceptionally rude and awkward; his pronunciation not only broadly national, but broadly provincial, distorting every word he utters into some barbarous novelty … He commences in a low drawling key, which has not even the merit of being solemn, and advances from sentence to sentence, and from paragraph to paragraph, while you seek in vain to catch a single echo that gives promise of what is to come … But then, with what tenfold richness does this preliminary curtain make the glories of his eloquence to shine forth … I have never heard either in England or Scotland, or in any other country, any preacher whose eloquence is capable of producing an effect so strong and irresistible.”
Two key things about Chalmers preaching from his writings:
– “By far the most effective ingredient of good preaching is the personal piety of the preacher himself.” This is the “spiritual conviction” that was identified as the key to his preaching.
– “The great aim of our ministry is to win souls.”
Blakie: “his whole discourse was … a boiling, foaming current, a mingled stream of exposition illustration and application, directed to the one great object of moving his audience to action. His soul was so penetrated with his subject, his whole nature was so roused and electrified by it, that others could not but be roused and electrified too.”
Chalmers the Moralist
Chalmers was born in 1790, as we all know(!), in Anstruther in Fife. He grew up in a godly home as the 6th of 14 children. His parents were sincere Christians. At the age of 15 he went to St Andrews to study and there fell into the deadly trap of “Moderatism.” It is important to remember that there have been few if any “golden ages” in church history. We might think of the late 18th and early 19th centuries as prime candidates for such. The age before Darwin, the age before higher criticism, the age before atheism was the “default” position. But no. Unbelief manifests itself in many ways, religious as well as irreligious. For instance, it is hard to imagine a more religious people that the Pharisees, and yet it is also difficult to imagine a group of people so dead in unbelief. And so it was in the Scottish Church. Vital religion had largely died. There was the form of godliness but the power had long gone. To be “evangelical,” to be “serious” about religion was no less despised in those days than our own, particularly among ministers. The great, and none too tactful, Highland minister Lachlan MacKenzie of Lochcarron (1754-1819) said “If people go to perdition in these days it is not for want of ministers. The clergy are likely to become soon as plentiful as the locusts in Egypt, and which of them is the greatest plague of the two, time and the experience of the church will discover.”
So when Chalmers arrived in St Andrews, destined by his father for the gospel ministry, he encountered the chilling and deadly atmosphere of Moderatism. Chalmers said there that he “inhaled not only a distaste only, but a positive contempt for all that is peculiarly gospel.” When Chalmers finished his studies he eventually was called to the be pastor in Kilmany. At this stage he is unconverted with, as he said, a “contempt” for what he later embraced as the gospel. He rejected the substitutionary atonement of Christ, “The tenets … that the Author of Nature required the death of Jesus for the reparation of violated justice are rejected by all free and rational enquirers.” He rejected justification by faith alone, “Let us tremble to think that anything but virtue can recommend us to the Almighty.” And this he did as one who subscribed to the Westminster Confession.
Chalmers also had a very low view of the ministry, holding an assistantship in Mathematics at the University of St Andrews and offering lectures on science as well. Part of his natural drive and self-confidence can be seen in that he lost his position at the University through criticising his senior college in Mathematics. In a statement which he was later to bitterly regret he reflected his low view of the ministry by stating that: “The author of this pamphlet can assert from what to him is the highest of all authority – the authority of his own experience – that, after the satisfactory discharge of his parish duties, a minister may enjoy five days in the week of uninterrupted leisure for the prosecution of any science in which his taste may dispose him to engage.” Some years later when this statement was thrown back in his face a converted Chalmers said, “Alas! So I thought in my ignorance and pride. I have now no reserve in saying that the sentiment was wrong, and that, in the utterance of it, I penned what was most outrageously wrong. Strangely blinded that I was! What, sir, is the object of mathematical science? Magnitude and the proportions of magnitude. But then, sir, I had forgotten two magnitudes – I thought not of the littleness of time – I recklessly thought not of the greatness of eternity.”
Thomas Chalmers (1780-1847)
“Thomas Chalmers as all the world knows, was born in the Fifeshire town of Anstruther in the year 1780” If that was true in 1908 when William Beveridge published his “Makers of the Scottish Church” what a change the past 100 years have seen. In his own timeframe Thomas Carlyle called him “The chief Scotsman of his age,” he even came to the notice of Karl Marx who labelled him the “arch parson.” When he died it was said that though it “was the dust of a Presbyterian minister which the coffin contained; and yet they were burying him amid the tears of a nation, and with more than kingly honours.” But today, a forgotten and largely neglected figure. And that is nothing short of tragedy.
And in many ways it is hard to explain. Some people are forgotten because they don’t publish much. Not true of Chalmers. His collected writing published in his lifetime run to 25 volumes and there were 10 additional volumes of his works published posthumously – including his Institutes of Theology. Some might be forgotten because they don’t found anything that endures. But to take two institutions that Chalmers founded, the Free Church of Scotland and New College Edinburgh, both exist today. Nor was his influence confined to Scotland. William Wilberforce heard him preach and said that “all the world was wild about Dr. Chalmers.” In America the Princeton men read and appreciated Chalmers. Samuel Miller said that from Chalmers writings he received “impressions of his moral and heavenly grandeur.”
Perhaps there are two reasons. First, was that he addressed the practical problems as well as the spiritual and so wrote a number of works which are heavily dated. Even I struggle to get overly excited by works like “On Political Economy in connection with the Moral State and Moral Prospects of Society” with chapters like “On the Increase and Limit of Food”. Nor is a work like “On Cuvier’s Theory of the Earth” going to grab my attention. And because he wrote on social, and other themes secondary literature on Chalmers has often focused on these areas … perhaps creating the impression of a man who spoke to his time but does not have much to say to ours. Second, perhaps some who we might expect to warm to Chalmers are put off because of his view of the relation between science and Scripture. Chalmers for example accepted, and it is fair to say enthusiastically accepted, the views emerging in his day over the old age of the earth. Now, later I am going to be critical of Chalmers on this topic. But we shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater, and ignore Chalmers because of this. I remember a few years ago I was talking to someone at a church. He asked who I was reading. I said Thomas Chalmers. He looked and said “he was a raving liberal.” While we have to wrestle critically with Chalmers here, to call him a liberal is a tragedy.
Now, it is going to be hard to look at Chalmers in a brief evening discussion. His life moves from being a minister in a rural church, to leading large city congregations, to being a professor of moral philosophy, to being a professor of theology. He leads over 1/3 of the Church of Scotland out of the denomination to form the Free Church of Scotland and launches a massive church building programme and sets in place the structures to support the church. All the while he maintains his interests mission, science, economics, education and poverty relief. To cover even half of this adequately is not remotely possible.
What we will try and do is look briefly at his life and draw lessons from it as we go through.
No, it’s not that time of the year already! This post is about a sermon from the great Scottish preacher and theologian Thomas Chalmers entitled “On the Universality of the Gospel Offer” based on the words of Luke 2:14 (Thomas Chalmers, Sermons and Discourses, New York: Robert Carter, 1844, Vol 1, 234-241).
Why post on Thomas Chalmers? Well he is a significant figure in his own right and worthy of study. But more importantly he illustrates the way the disruption Free Church of Scotland understood the free offer of the gospel. There are two things necessary to understand how a creed functions within a church. First, it is necessary to understand the original intent of the confession. This is what I am looking at in my thesis. But in order to understand fully how a confession functions within a church it is necessary also to consider the animus imponentis or the intention of the church subscribing to the creed. Thomas Chalmers helps us to understand the intention of the disruption Free Church in confessing that Christ is “freely offered in the gospel” (WCF 7:3).
In his sermon on “good will toward men” Chalmers is not emphasising the terrors of the law (a necessary truth) or the glorious worth of the Saviour the gospel calls us to, but rather, he emphasises the well meant nature of the gospel offer. “The goodness of the things to which you are invited is one thing. The good-will with which you are invited is another. It is the latter argument which we are at present called upon to address to you.” (p235). By this good will Chalmers means “the desire of God after you – it is His compassionate longing to have back again to Himself, those sinful creatures who had wandered away from Him…” (p235)
Chalmers expounds on this good will in the gospel offer under three headings which we consider in turn.
I) The principle of the gospel message – good will
Chalmers here notes that it is a work of “greater difficulty” than might be expected to get sinners to accept the truth of “God’s willingness to take every sinner into acceptance” noting “there is a barrier in these evil hearts of unbelief, against the admission of a filial confidence in God.” (p236). This is a great tragedy for “If you saw the good-will of God, in all that kindly and endearing character which belongs to it, you would find a treasure in which you would greatly delight yourself.” (p236). This is of relevance for those who are “smitten and softened under a sense of unworthiness” and yet cannot obtain a sense of God’s goodness to them. Even though true in general, this goodness of God is particularly suited to help smitten sinners for it is those who feel sin who will seek a Saviour, “He pleads the matter with you. He beseeches you to accept of reconciliation at His hand. He offers it as a gift, and descends so far as to knock at the door of your hearts and to crave your acceptance of it.” (p237). Note the evangelistic use of Rev 3:20, the description of the offer as God “beseeching” and “craving” acceptance.
II) The object of the gospel message – men
Chalmers argues that “much is to be gathered, from the general and unrestricted way” in which Luke 2:14 is stated. In particular “the generality of the term may tell us that no one individual needs to look upon himself as shut out from the good-will of his Father in heaven. Let him be who he may, we cheer him on to confidence in God’s good will to him…” (p237). Chalmers insists, “We see no exception in the text; and we make no exception from the pulpit.” (p237). The universality of the gospel offer means that, “If the call be not listened to, it is not for want of kindness and freeness and honesty in the call… There is no straightening with God. It is all with yourselves.” (p238). Chalmers explains the good will in the gospel offer as follows, “Turn ye, turn ye, why will you die? We speak in the very language of God, though we fall infinitely short of such a tone and of such a tenderness as He has over you. If you think otherwise of God, you do Him an injustice.” (p238).
But there is of course a question to be answered, “how does the declaration of God’s good-will in the text, consist with the entire and everlasting destruction of so many of the species?” (p238). In answer to this question we are to understand, first, that “the good-will of the text, consists, not in the actual bestowment of eternal life upon all” – for that would be inconsistent. (p239). Rather the good will is “the holding out, in this world, the gift of eternal life to the free and welcome acceptance of all”. (p239). Because of this there is no inconsistency. For example, “We hold out a gift to two people, which one of them may take and the other refuse. The good will in me which prompted the offer, was the same in reference to both. God in that sense willeth that all men shall be saved.” (p239). There is no inconsistency here. Also, note that for Chalmers it is perfectly acceptable to speak of God willing the salvation of all.
Chalmers ends this section by urging, “Be assured every one of you, that God has good will towards each and towards all. There is no limitation with Him; and be not limited by your own narrow and fearful and superstitious conceptions of Him.” (p239).
III) The application of the gospel message
Chalmers concludes by noting that “You are guilty; and to you belong all the weakness, and all the timidity of guilt. The idea of God is apt to send terror into your hearts…” (p240). The grand application is to these people, that they should look to the truth of “God being gracious, of God being willing to take you back again unto himself, of God pressing your return with every offer of friendship and every feeling of tenderness…” (p240). In trusting these truths in Christ they would then “set to your seal that God is true” and be saved. (p240)
The doctrine of the free and well meant offer is the doctrine of the Free Church’s foremost founding father. May this doctrine always be the staple of the Scottish pulpit!
As an aside, Steve Carr has an interesting post on this verse over at Beholding the Beauty – it can be found here.