Illustration: A portrait of Samuel Rutherford by Robert Walker
What has happened to Soul Exercise?
The question of bodily exercise is dominating life in our society today. It is a constant theme in the media in the light of the growing problem of obesity and certain diseases. We are bombarded with prescriptions for healthy eating and for exercise. As someone said recently, “Gyms are opening up as fast as churches are closing.” There is an obsession with the body, because for many that is all that their existence is about. We have been reminded recently in the preparations for the Olympic Games of the length that individuals will go to prepare their bodies for gaining a medal.
There have been times in the history of our nation when soul exercise was the great concern of many people. It was especially so in times of revival when there was a deep awareness of God’s presence in a community. Jonathan Edwards, in describing the awakening in New England in 1735, said: “a great and earnest concern about the great things of religion and the eternal world, became universal in all parts of the town and among persons of all degrees and all ages”. (Works, Banner of Truth, 1974, Vol.1, p.348) People were in agony of soul and cries and groans were heard throughout the community. The salvation of the soul took precedence over everything else. Spiritual and eternal things become overwhelmingly real.
A truncated gospel
It is now more than a century since we have had a significant revival in the United Kingdom. During that time there has been a shift from a God-centred outlook to a man-centred one. The ties with the supernatural have been loosed. The God-centred gospel has been replaced with a domesticated one. The gospel message that became popular in the 1950s was a gospel without law, faith without repentance, and the gift of salvation without the cost of discipleship. Evangelistic missions sought to precipitate quick decisions. With this there developed a culture of ‘easy believism’. The Christian life was depicted as a life of thrilling faith rather than one of soul conflict. In this way converts rested on a man-induced faith and were never faced with the question: Am I truly saved? The tone of evangelicalism became upbeat and positive. It is reflected in the multiplication of new worship songs. It is evident in the health and wealth gospel.
How different this is from the testimony of Scripture and the accounts we have of personal experiences recorded in the diaries and biographies of Christians. It is there that we come across true soul exercise manifesting itself in the ongoing Christian life. Let us consider some of the areas in which it manifests itself.
1) In coming to faith in Christ
This is where soul exercise begins. When a sinner has his eyes opened to behold the glory and holiness of God, there is a dawning awareness of the sinfulness of sin and of the threatened judgment against it. He sees himself in a lost condition and is constrained to cry: What must I do to be saved? Like Christian in The Pilgrim’s Progress, with the burden on his back, he hears the call: “Escape from the wrath to come.” At first he may do many things – increase prayer, attend church and generally mend his ways. The burden only increases and he is humbled to the dust and emptied of self. He is brought to despair of help in himself and casts himself down at the Cross of Christ. The burden falls off. Not all come through the same depths but there must be sufficient conviction of sin and helplessness to bring a person to rely on Christ alone for salvation. “The kingdom of heaven suffereth violence and the violent take it by force.” (Matt. 11:12)
2) In ongoing repentance and striving after holiness
When the soul is awakened to see the evil of sin and is enabled to embrace the Saviour, the outcome is contrition of heart and true repentance. In the words of the Shorter Catechism (Question 87) the sinner does “with grief and hatred of his sin turn from it unto God, with full purpose of and endeavour after new obedience”. Justification is an act of God’s free grace, but sanctification is a work. It is undoubtedly the Holy Spirit who works within the soul and on that basis the Christian “works out his own salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12-13). Christian living involves a life-long battle of maintaining faith, keeping short accounts with God, and the daily disciplines of prayer and Bible reading. The new life imparted has to be in daily exercise, seeking to be freed of all that displeases the Father, dishonours the Son and grieves the Holy Spirit. It is the call of a life being more and more conformed to the law of God and being delivered from all unChristlikeness. There will be progress and failures, but where the latter occurs there will be renewed repentance. There can be no let up. Philip Henry said, “I will take my repentance to the gates of heaven.” We are charged by the Apostle Peter, “Wherefore the rather, brethren, give diligence to make your calling and election sure: for if you do these things you shall never fall.” (2 Pet. 1:10)
3) In the ongoing warfare and conflict
The soul of the regenerate believer becomes a battleground. He is caught up in the cosmic conflict between Christ and Satan. The devil uses the flesh and the world to seek to win back the soul taken captive from him by Christ. “For the flesh lusteth against the Spirit and the Spirit against the flesh” (Gal. 5:17). In this life-and-death conflict, the Christian is required to “walk in the Spirit” and to “mortify the deeds of the body” (Rom. 8:13). The battle is vividly brought before us in Ephesians 6:10-20: “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.” That is why the believer has to “be strong in the Lord” and “put on the whole armour of God”. The sword of the Spirit is the weapon to attack Satan. “I fought,” said Valiant-for-Truth, “till my Sword did cleave to my hand.” There is a good fight to be fought and there is no discharge in that war. Mrs Cousins put in verse words that Samuel Rutherford spoke near the end of his life (Letters of Samuel Rutherford, Banner of Truth, 1984, p.743):
“I wrestled on towards Heaven
’Gainst storm and wind and tide:
Now, like a weary traveller
That leaneth on his guide.”
Without soul exercise there is no evidence of life in the soul. The degree of that exercise can vary according to the grace given to each one. Profesor John Murray said of his father, Alexander Murray: “He did not witness a greater intensity of spiritual exercise of soul in any other person and his very body moved in sympathy with the inner man.” (Collected Writings of John Murray, Vol.3, Banner of Truth, 1982, p.82) Such intensity was noted in Murray himself, particularly in his singing of the metrical Psalms. The ninety-year-old Alexander Murray, spent the last two days of his life on earth meditating on Psalm 51 (as above, p.82). The Psalms provide such a field for soul exercise, because they express the full range of human emotions. They are, as John Calvin declared, “an anatomy of all parts of the soul”.