Triumphing Over Sinful Fear (Puritan Treasures for Today) Paperback – 12 May 2011
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From the Inside Flap
"To some degree, everyone experiences fear. It impacts the decisions we make and leaves us feeling helpless. John Flavel begins this book by examining various fears and discussing general ways God governs it in this world. He then turns to sinful fear in particular, explaining its causes and disastrous effects. His longest chapter discusses rules for dealing with sinful fear, showing how a proper fear of God is the ultimate remedy for all other fears. This practical book will help you avoid making excuses for sinful fear and encourage you to trust in Christ's commitment to settle His people's feeble and trembling hearts.
Interest in the Puritans continues to grow, but many people find reading these giants of the faith a bit unnerving. This series seeks to overcome that barrier by presenting Puritan books that are convenient in size and unintimidating in length. Each book is carefully edited with modern readers in mind, smoothing out difficult language of a bygone era while retaining the meaning of the original authors. Books for the series are thoughtfully selected to provide some of the best counsel on important subjects that people continue to wrestle with today."
About the Author
John Flavel (c. 1627-1691), an English Presbyterian clergyman, theologian, and author, was born at Bromsgrove in Worcestershire, England, the elder son of a minister. After receiving his early education partly at home and partly at the grammar schools of Bromsgrove and Haslar, he attended University College, Oxford. He served as a minister in various locales and also preached to followers privately in his home. He was a prolific writer, and his works are still being published today. His best-known works include Keeping the Heart, The Mystery of Providence, and The Fountain of Life.
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His outline is like this (following an introduction): 1) Types of Fear (natural fear, sinful fear, and godly fear), 2) God's Uses of These Types of Fear (restrain sin, punishment, and the Christian's good), 3) Causes of Sinful Fear (ignorance, guilt, unbelief, confusion, immoderation, and Satan), 4) Effects of Sinful Fear (distraction, deception, vulnerability, cowardice, apostasy, and bondage), and 5) Remedies for Sinful Fear (study the covenant of grace, consider the misery of sinful fear, prepare for future suffering, commit yourself to God, mortify your love of the world, imitate faithful Christians, confirm your interest in Christ, keep your conscience pure, record the examples of God's faithfulness, consider Christ's kingdom, let faith triumph over sinful reason, and grow in the fear of God). After these chapters there is a short section where Flavel answers objections.
As you can tell from the extended outline of the book, this is not speculative philosophy - nor is it nauseating self-help advice. In each of these points and subpoints, Flavel grounds his discussion in Scripture. I appreciated how his descriptions of sinful fear were convicting and his methods for fighting sinful fear were refreshingly gospel centered and steeped in Scripture. I came away from this book knowing more about my own sinful fear, the Word, and the gospel.
I really cannot recommend this book enough if you want a biblical study on the topic of fear. To make it easier for modern readers, the editor (Stephen Yuille) updated the language a bit. The editing didn't take away from the contents of the book, however (I've read the original, which is very difficult older English). I'm guessing any Christian who reads to some extent will benefit from this book. It isn't daunting - just 124 pages in a book that is smaller in size than average (4x6 or so). Honestly, don't think too long about getting this; not only is it inexpensive, more importantly it is biblical and eminently practical.
It is noteworthy that Flavel began by introducing a third category of "natural" fear. Some people are more fearful by disposition, and there are forms of "natural" fear that are not inherently sinful. Even Christ was subject to "natural" fear as He contemplated the cross (8). "Natural" fear of punishment is also necessary in order to uphold civil order (21). After establishing the parameters of the question, Flavel set forth the causes of sinful fear (chapter 4), its effects (chapter 5), its remedies (chapter 6), followed by answers to some objections (chapter 7).
At root, the author argued that ignorance of the provisions of the covenant of grace was the primary cause of sinful fear (31). The corollary to this is unbelief in God's promises (35). As a result, "carnal fear is the very root of apostasy" (56). From this point on, Flavel turned his primary attention to sinful fear that results from persecution. Even good people may be overwhelmed and fall in such circumstances (68). He sought to counter this temptation through a series of useful meditations such as the following: "To trust in God in part and the creature in part is to put one foot upon the rock and the other on quicksand" (83). "No death is more honorable to God or comfortable to you as a violent death for Christ" (89). "An assured Christian is never a coward in suffering" (94). "Although a natural death has less horror, a violent death for Christ has more honor" (96). "A natural death in Christ is safe for us, but a violent death for Christ is beneficial for others" (97). "It is a great mistake to think that the strength of a natural constitution can carry anyone through suffering for Christ" (114). "In extraordinary trials we can expect extraordinary assistance" (117).
Ministers often attest to the fact that there is sometimes a peculiar blessing of the Holy Spirit upon their preaching. When this happens, both the content and the form of delivery are blessed beyond the natural gifts of the pastor. I cannot help but think that this work represented one of those moments in Flavel's ministry. Sometimes the profit that we receive from a book depends as much upon our own present spiritual condition as much as upon the inherent value of the material. This volume presents a clarion call to our present generation in which persecution is subtle and not recognized easily. It was edited and prepared for the average person in the pew and it fulfills its purpose abundantly.
Ryan M. McGraw
Grace PCA, Conway, SC
(Published previously in Puritan Reformed Journal)
Reformation Heritage Books is a very helpful ministry that is devoted to reintroducing the writing ministry of the Puritans to an age that is increasingly tied to technology and postmodernism. This title is appropriately retitled, Triumphing Over Sinful Fear and comes highly recommended.
John Flavel is quick to remind readers that the ultimate remedy for fear is a healthy fear of God. This kind of fear is defines as "a gracious habit or principle planted by God in the soul, whereby the soul is kept under a holy awe of the eye of God, and from thence is inclined to perform and do what pleases him, and to shun and avoid whatever he forbids and hates."
Flavel draws a sharp contrast between the carnal man who "fears man, not God" and the godly person who "fears God, not man." He adds, "The weak Christian fears man too much and God too little."
Flavel continues, "There is a fear which is the effect of sin. It springs from guilt and hurries the soul into more guilt. There is a fear which is the effect of grace. It springs from our love for God and His interest and drives the soul to Him in the way of duty. The less fear a person has, the more happiness he has - unless, of course, it is that fear which is his happiness and excellency."
So in a few words, the Puritan divine sets himself in opposition to the world that has invented a multitude of explanations for fear. Flavel cuts through all the so-called justifications for fear and helps readers understand that sin is at the core of our struggle with fear. "Sinful fear," he says, "will cause the best people to attempt to help themselves through sinful compromises."
Flavel utilizes Isaiah 8:13 as his primary text which he offers as a remedy for fear. He comments, "The fear of God will swallow up the fear of man. A reverential awe and dread of God will extinguish the creature's slavish far, as the rain puts out the fire. To sanctify the Lord of hosts is to acknowledge the glory of His sovereign power, wisdom, and faithfulness. It includes not only a verbal confession, but internal acts of trust, confidence, and entire dependence upon Him. These are our choicest respects towards God, and give Him the greatest glory." So fearing God is the primary remedy in the battle with fear.
The Puritan preacher alerts readers to the various kinds of fear: Natural fear, sinful fear, and religious fear. Additionally, he argues that fear has several uses. Sinful fear may be utilized as a tool in the hand of God as a "scourge to punish His enemies." Secondly, God may use sinful fear to "punish His enemies in hell." And God may use sinful fear to "scatter wicked people, especially when they align themselves against God."
Religious fear may be uses to "excite and confirm His promisees in the way of their duty," namely - to fear God and obey His commandments. Religious fear may be used to "preserve our conscience's peace and purity." And finally, religious fear may be used by God to "make us prepare for future distress."
Next, Flavel helps readers understand the various causes of fear including ignorance, guilt, unbelief, confusion, immoderation, and Satan. The effects of sinful fear are set forth as well. These effects may include but not be limited to distraction, deception, vulnerability, cowardice, bondage, and apostasy.
Finally, Flavel unpacks several rules for combatting fear:
1. Study the Covenant of Grace
2. Consider the Misery of Sinful Fear
3. Prepare for Future Suffering
4. Commit Yourself to God
5. Mortify Your Affections to the World
6. Imitate Faithful Saints
7. Confirm Your Interest in Christ
8. Keep Your Conscience Pure
9. Record Your Experiences of God's Faithfulness
10. Consider Christ's Providential Kingdom
11. Subject Your Carnal Reasoning to Faith
12. Exalt the Fear of God in Your Heart
This short review only scratches the surface of John Flavel's excellent treatment on fear. "You must exalt the fear of God in your hearts and let it gain the ascendency over all other fears." More than anything else in the book, this is the constant theme that emerges. This is the constant theme that fear mongers must return to again and again. Then and only then, will sinners be able to triumph over sinful fear.