Mining the Riches of Manton #3: Vanity, Conscience & P.P.P.s

November 25, 2009

It is a common motif of Puritan preaching to demonstrate the vanity of living for the things of this world. Vanity is a key category in their discussions of the sin of earthly-mindedness and the joys of heavenly-mindedness. In this first sermon M. notes two ways the creature cannot satisfy, namely, their imperfection and their uncertainty. Regarding their imperfection, he points out that they cannot meet the “whole desire of man…. That which makes a man happy must bear a proportion to all the wants, desires and passages of the soul so that the heart may say, ‘It is enough.’

A crucial area where the creature’s imperfection fails to meet the desire of the soul is in the area of conscience. It is highly characteristic of Puritan preaching that the demands of conscience are brought forward again and again. Guilt is a fundamental aspect of the convicting work of the Spirit. Usually a person cannot be converted without the Spirit bringing his sin home to his heart. If a person feels no need of Christ’s saving work, what will motivate him to cast aside sin and self-righteousness and embrace the righteousness of Christ?

Our culture wants to drown the cries of conscience in any way it can. Has this attitude entered into our pulpits? In wanting to be positive and uplift people have we neglected to stir up their consciences and then soothe them once they have been stirred? M. writes, “Until we provide for the hunger of the conscience we cannot be happy.”

He goes on to say, “Pleasures being enjoyed do not satisfy; being loved, they defile; being lost, they increase our trouble and sorrow.” I like to refer to this kind of memorable statement as a Pithy Puritan Proverb or P.P.P. The famous Reformation slogan, “We are justified by faith alone, but not by a faith that is alone” is another good example. Thomas Watson and Oliver Heywood are just two among many 17th C. preachers who were gifted in creating such phrases. I point this out because such proverbial statements can be incredibly useful in fixing truth in the minds of one’s hearers. I am often struck by how such phrases comprise the working theology of many Christians. “Let go and let God,” is as erroneous as it is a classic expression of Quietism.

The ordinary believer cannot remember lengthy discourses, no matter how excellent. Today’s preacher uses stories and illustrations to attempt to do what the Puritans accomplished with their pithy proverbs. I will be writing about Puritan views of illustrating sermons in a post on “Puritan Preaching” in a week or two, but let me say here, that we should not neglect such proverbs. The more we can imbue our people with them, the more weapons they will have to defend themselves from the world, the flesh and the devil. (Another classic set of categories! See my remarks in Mining Manton # 2)

Secondly, the creature fails to satisfy because it is uncertain. M. launches into the standard Puritan critique of the vanity of this world due to its transitoriness. M’s conclusion is that nothing but the favor of God is from everlasting to everlasting. We must always be prepared for changes in this life. (I Corinthians 7:30-31.) It is the Apostle’s virtue to be content whether he is abased or he abounds. But the worldly person finds it “hard to go back a step or two.” Therefore, even when he abounds, he is subject to worries about losing some or all of it. Caveat lector!

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