Samuel Rutherford for the 21st Century Part II

Article by   March 2009
A Ministry of Sacrificial Labor
Being called to the small, obscure parish of Anwoth did not give Rutherford an opportunity to take it easy and get by with only minimal effort, which has no doubt been a temptation to many ministers in similar conditions. Instead, he gave the work of the ministry his all. So diligently did he do so, that he was said to be "always praying, always preaching, always visiting the sick, always catechising, always writing and [always] studying." He slept no more than six hours each night, in order that he might devote himself more fully to the work of the ministry. He regularly rose to begin each day at 3 a.m., spending the early morning hours in prayer and communion with Christ. Over the course of his lifetime, he wrote 13 major theological treatises, a detailed catechism, a short discourse on predestination, several political works, an account of the deathbed conversion of the Viscount Kenmure, and a testimony detailing the work of the reformation in Scotland. In addition to this, he carried on a letter-writing ministry with friends and parishioners until near his death in 1661. He served the church at the Westminster Assembly so faithfully that he was commended by the Assembly for his "great assistance" and "constant attendance." And he preached somewhere in the neighborhood of 1500-2000 sermons over the course of his ministry.

The point in all this is to say that Rutherford gave himself completely to the work of the ministry. He was a man driven to accomplishment for the sake of Christ. In this, he was no different than John Calvin, for instance, who was himself so driven that he once lamented his perceived uselessness as a minister of the gospel because he had not done anything in the past month besides preach a measly 20 sermons and lecture a mere 12 times! Calvin and Rutherford were men who wearied themselves in doing kingdom good. Far from gaining the reputation of not being able to make it in the "real world" of modern commerce, Rutherford, and Calvin, labored sacrificially and relentlessly. The pastorate was anything but a fall-back option for them. They were servants pressed into duty by the most high God, and their work ethic reflected it. Young ministers and church leaders today would do well to learn from this kind of an approach to the ministry.

Rutherford's Ministry in Anwoth (cont'd)

Rutherford's early ministry was marked from the beginning by profound difficulty. The first few years he spent in Anwoth were discouraging ones. In spite of his strong work ethic, Rutherford still reported that he had seen very little visible fruit after his first two years of ministry, and he doubted that there was even one person who had benefited spiritually from his preaching and teaching: "I see exceeding small fruit of my ministry, and would be glad to know of one soul to be my crown and rejoicing in the day of Christ." Even after nine years, Rutherford could still lament, "I fear I have done little good in my ministry."

Obviously this is Rutherford's own evaluation of his ministry. And perhaps it is an overly pessimistic one, stemming from his own acute awareness of his deficiencies and shortcomings. But Rutherford is not atypical at this point. His attitude is not unlike that of Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, who reportedly once evaluated his own influential preaching ministry similarly by acknowledging that he would not even cross the street to hear himself preach. Most ministers, I think, are all too aware of their deficiencies and struggles as preachers and pastors to be able to evaluate the impact of their ministries with anything but a degree of pessimism. It certainly would seem to be the case for Rutherford. But although he may have been discouraged about the impact his ministry was having in Anwoth, his friends and parishioners were apparently nowhere near as melancholy. For, as many of his biographers tell us, Rutherford was in Anwoth only a short time before he gained a reputation for being an effective preacher and pastor--a reputation that extended far beyond the bounds of the parish of Anwoth.

Rutherford's early ministry was also marked by profound suffering, which makes the extent of his accomplishments all the more astounding (not to mention convicting, for those of us who have had much easier lives and, yet, accomplished much less!). Within the first few years in Anwoth, Rutherford had to face the deaths of at least one child, his wife, and his mother, and his own ill health. His wife, whom he referred to as the "delight of mine eyes," died near the end of his third year in Anwoth (only the fifth of their marriage), after a thirteen-month struggle with an illness that Rutherford later described as an "exceeding great torment night and day." Her death wounded him so deeply that even four years later he said that it was "not yet fully healed and cured." During his wife's illness, Rutherford himself struggled with a tertian fever for about 3 months and was unable to carry out many of his pastoral duties. In his Letters, he laments that "life was never so wearisome" as it was for him at this juncture.

Following the publication of his first theological treatise, Exercitationes apologeticae pro divina gratia in 1636--which he published after being in Anwoth for 8 or 9 years--Rutherford was called before the Court of High Commission in Edinburgh, found guilty of non-conformity, and exiled to Aberdeen for the next eighteen months. While in Aberdeen, he was kept at a great distance from his congregation, forbidden from preaching--which he says was his "one joy out[side] of heaven"--and openly preached against in his hearing and insulted by passers-by in the streets. Though the signing of the National Covenant in February 1638 temporarily released him from his persecutions and enabled him to return to his beloved Anwoth, it did not provide permanent emancipation, as we will soon see.

Rutherford's Ministry in St. Andrews
The 1639 General Assembly removed Rutherford from Anwoth, despite Rutherford's protests and those of his congregation as well, and sent him to St. Andrews to serve as professor of theology at the university there. Rutherford ultimately acquiesced to their wishes on the condition that he could share in the regular preaching duties at the town kirk. This request was granted, and Rutherford moved to St. Andrews in October 1639.

The next 11 or so years were by far the most productive of Rutherford's life. During this time, he wrote and published 9 of his 13 theological treatises; he remarried and had 7 children with his new wife, all but one of which died before he did (4 of the 7 died during this 11-year period); he was selected by the church to represent it as a commissioner to the Westminster Assembly; he was named Principal of St. Mary's College and Rector of the university as a whole; he received at least three different offers to teach from universities outside of Scotland; and, besides sharing the preaching responsibilities in St. Andrews, he was widely sought after by the church at large as a preacher and pastor.

It was particularly this last part--the preaching--that Rutherford cherished most. No matter how gifted and influential he may have been in the classroom (and there is good reason to believe that he was quite gifted and profoundly influential), there can be no doubt but that Rutherford's real passion was to preach. That was the main reason he objected to the General Assembly's wishes to relocate him to St. Andrews. He could not bear to be kept from preaching. He had had his share of "silent Sabbaths," as he called them, while in exile in Aberdeen. And he did not like them one bit. He longed to preach. It was his "one joy, next to...Christ." And apparently it was something that he did quite well.

Rutherford as a Preacher
There is no getting around the fact that Rutherford was an exceptional preacher. Historian Robert Wodrow even goes so far as to refer to him as "one of the most moving and affectionate preachers in his time, or perhaps in any age of the church." That makes it all the more fascinating that he is said to have had poor elocution and a voice that was "rather shrill." One of his friends (note, a friend, and not an enemy!) once described his preaching voice as "strange...a kind of skreigh [or, screech], that I never heard the like."
What is it, then, that made Rutherford's preaching so moving and memorable? There are at least two things that I think set his preaching apart. We would do well to learn from each of them and to apply them to our own contexts.

1. Rutherford was a Christ-centered preacher.  
By this I mean that Rutherford's preaching was focused upon Christ in a way that was unique in the seventeenth century. His sermons, more than those of his contemporaries, concentrated on communicating the overwhelming beauty of Christ. This is probably best seen in the story told by historian Robert Wodrow of an English merchant who was once traveling through Scotland in the seventeenth century. Upon coming to Irvine, the merchant was able to hear David Dickson preach and described him as "a well-favoured, proper old man, with a long beard" who "showed me all my heart." Then in St. Andrews, the same merchant heard Robert Blair and described him as "a sweet, majestic-looking man" who "showed me the majesty of God." And after Blair, he heard Rutherford and described him as "a little, fair man" who "showed me the loveliness of Christ." It was this great concern for the loveliness of Christ that dominated Rutherford's preaching and that made it so appealing to his hearers.
 
If there is one thing that is missing from much 21st century preaching, it would seem to be this central theme that we find in Rutherford. The Evangelical church today seems to be full to capacity with "practical" sermons on topics like "How to improve your marriage" or "How to be a better parent" or "How to mange your money" or some such other. There is precious little preaching that seeks to exalt the majesty of Christ and to open people's eyes to the sheer beauty of the precious Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
 
2. Rutherford had an obvious unction in his preaching that flowed from his communion with Christ.

One need only read through Rutherford's Letters to see how intimate his communion was with Christ. He was a man enflamed with love for Christ. He longed to be like Christ and to be with Christ. Over and over again he refers to Christ as "that soul-delighting, lovely Bridegroom," "the Rose of Sharon," "the fairest...sweetest...most delicious Rose of all His Father's great field," "the Chief among ten thousands," and "the fairest among the sons of men." This is what has kept his Letters in print ever since their original publication almost 400 years ago. They exude the aroma of Christ and communicate Rutherford's own passion for Christ to all who take them up. And this is clearly what comes through in his preaching as well. His preaching was simply an overflow or an expression of his own love affair with Christ. It was, in the words of Rutherford's contemporary Richard Baxter, a communication of his heart to the hearts of his hearers.
 
This communication affected not only the content and the language of his sermons but also the manner in which they were presented to the congregation. The same friend that described the "strange" sound of his voice also said this about his preaching: "Many times I thought he would have flown out of the pulpit when he came to speak of Jesus Christ." Rutherford did not stumble upon a pulpit and lukewarmly acknowledge that he might or might not have a couple of things to say that the congregation might or might not find interesting. He was a man gripped by the overwhelming beauty of Christ and compelled into the pulpit by his longing to see others know Christ the way he did.
 
Before moving on, we need to pause and consider what lessons and encouragements we can glean from Rutherford's preaching. I find it interesting that Rutherford was regarded as an exceptional preacher and yet his elocution and his preaching voice were not what we would look for in a preacher of renown. This should be a lesson to us that elocution, the sound of our voices, and even our physical appearances (remember, Rutherford was said to be "little" and "fair," not tall, dark, and handsome!) will not determine whether or not we will be great preachers so much as our relationship with Jesus Christ. Eric Alexander--a name that many will be familiar with--once said that he used to read E.M. Bounds' Power Through Prayer at least once every year to remind himself that the power in his preaching and in his ministry stemmed not from his gifts and abilities so much as from prayer and his relationship with Christ. Rutherford seems to have understood this. Humanly speaking, our pulpits will be relatively weak until and unless we understand it too.

In spite of Rutherford's exceptional preaching ability and his all-out efforts on behalf of Christ, he still saw precious little fruit during the first few years of his ministry in Anwoth. And I think that there is encouragement in this also for current and future preachers of the gospel. There will not always be visible fruit from our labors in pulpit ministry. In fact, there may be seasons in which we receive no visible confirmation of our ministry at all. And yet we will still be called on to pour ourselves out and to spend ourselves in service to Christ. Numbers of conversions is not our primary goal so much as faithfulness in our calling. Even if we see little or no fruit from our ministries, we should be encouraged to know that a great preacher like Rutherford also experienced times when he saw little or no fruit from his ministry. This should make us more reliant upon God, who alone brings the increase, and less reliant upon ourselves and our abilities.

The End
After the Restoration of Charles II to the throne in 1660, Rutherford again found himself at the center of controversy. His book Lex, Rex was declared to be "a book inveighing against monarchie, and laying ground for rebellion" and was, therefore, recalled and burned in Edinburgh and St. Andrews. Rutherford himself was removed from his positions in the university as a professor of divinity and principal of St. Mary's College, deprived of his pastoral charge in the church, divested of his stipend, and placed under house arrest. He was charged with treason and called to appear before parliament to respond to the allegation. Many of his friends feared he would face execution along with James Guthrie and Archibald Campbell, the Marquis of Argyll. Rutherford himself said that "he would willingly dye on the scaffold...with a good conscience." But before he could do so, he became ill and was prevented from answering parliament's summons by what he referred to as an earlier and more important "summons before a superior Judge and judicatory." His message to parliament was: "I behove to answer my first summons; and, ere your day arrive, I will be where few kings and great folks come."
 
Rutherford died shortly thereafter, near the end of March 1661. But he did not die without leaving one final exhortation for those who were gathered around his bedside. It was the same message that had consumed him in life that also consumed him in death--the loveliness of Christ: "He is the cheife of ten thousands of ten thousands! None [is] comparable to him, in heaven or in earth. Dear bretheren, doe all for Him; pray for Christ, preach for Christ, feed the flock committed to your charge for Christ, doe all for Christ. Bewarr of men-pleasing, ther is too much of it amongst us."


Guy M. Richard is Senior Minister of First Presbyterian Church in Gulfport, MS.






Guy M. Richard, "Samuel Rutherford for the 21st Century Part II", Reformation 21 (March 2009)

This article was published in Reformation 21, the online magazine of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals.  The Alliance calls the twenty-first century church to a modern reformation by broadcasting, events, and publishing.  This article and additional biblical resources can be found at AllianceNet.org

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