Book Review: The Fading of the Flesh
February 9, 2016
George Swinnock, The Fading of the Flesh and the Flourishing of Faith, ed. J. Stephen Yulie (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2009). 170pp.
When it comes to old books, I am a purist. Ordinarily, something is lost along the way in translations or abridgments. However, as a pastor, I have come to recognize that most Christians do not have adequate time or dedication to become familiar with the language of older authors. This means that a rich treasure of unparalleled Christian literature is lost to vast body of believers today. Reformation Heritage Books has sought to remedy this problem with the series, Puritan Treasures for Today. The books in this series are neither translations nor abridgments. Instead, the publisher has sought out authors who are familiar with the Puritans in order to smooth out difficult language for contemporary readers. The language is updated with great care in such a way that the original thought remains intact. Moreover, they have selected books that are short in length and that address issues of contemporary importance. The result is a series of small, inexpensive, and easily accessible books that bring the wisdom of the Puritans to a contemporary world. These small works encapsulate warm-hearted practical theology that is so rare in our age and that most church members do not know what they are missing.
The Fading of the Flesh and the Flourishing of Faith by George Swinnock is the first installation in this series. This book is based upon his sermons on Psalm 73:26: “My flesh and my heart faileth: but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.” In typical Puritan fashion, Swinnock begins with an overview of the Psalm in context, which gradually narrows to a brief exposition of his selected text. The subject matter is roughly divided into two parts. First, the concept that our flesh is fading and that we must consider death as an inevitable reality (chapters 1-8). Second, the glorious consideration that God alone is suitable to satisfy man’s soul (chapters 9-20). The book as a whole reads as an extended evangelistic tract that drives people to the conviction of their sins, faith in Christ, and the necessity of repentance. The most delightful part of the argument resides in the manner in which the author entices his readers by mediations upon the all-satisfying nature of God, so that every other means of satisfaction appears as dust and ashes by comparison. While it is true that sinners do not love God by nature, it is true as well that most people have never considered what the Bible says about the beauty and glory of the Lord. In chapter seventeen (“Choose God as Your Portion”), Swinnock becomes so enraptured with the pleasure that he finds in God that he bursts forth into exuberant doxology. In modern theology, this is often regarded as poor scholarship. In Swinnock’s time, it was treated as the apex of true theology.
Because the language of the book has been updated, you could even give this book to an unbeliever as an evangelistic tract and they would likely understand it. The only significant flaw in this work is an under-emphasis on the Holy Spirit. It is surprising that while the Father and the Son predominate in the author’s meditations on God’s glory, the Spirit is mentioned rarely if at all. Just like modern pastors, not all Puritans were created equal. Some were better systematic theologians (e.g., Owen, Goodwin, Manton, etc.) than others (e.g., Watson, Baxter, etc.). That caveat aside, this book is a feast for the soul. Swinnock’s use of illustrations rivals even Thomas Watson and the overall tone of the work is very comforting.