03 July 2015

Gurnall on the "heroic impulse," and how it is not a good thing

by Dan Phillips

[I have been reading (and tweeting) Gurnall's classic, CHRISTIAN IN COMPLETE ARMOUR, reading the Logos edition. It's a great and rich book, based on Paul's section on the spiritual war and the armor of God in Ephesians 6. Its strength is not so much in its exposition of that passage as in Gurnall's wide-ranging, instructive, and admonitory treatment of Christian living.

[In this section he is riffing on Paul's command to "stand" (Eph. 6:14), developing it by unfolding and by contrast. Specifically at this point he's been warning of the dangers of leaving the place God has given you. I reproduce this subsection whole and unedited, except for breaking it up into paragraphs, and added bolding.

[I think you will see a lot of personal application, as well as a lot of warning that applies to boastful, chest-beating, big-talking celebrity pastors — and to those simply unwilling to take on the yoke of discipleship, submit to qualified elders and local church ministry, be taught and corrected, demanding instead to be the biggest frog in the pond.]

It is an erratic spirit, that usually carries men out of their place and calling. I confess there is an heroicus impetus, an impulse which some of the servants of God have had from heaven, to do things extraordinary, as we read in Scripture of Moses, Gideon, Phineas, and others.

But it is dangerous to pretend to the like, and unlawful to expect such immediate commissions from Heaven now, when he issueth them out in a more ordinary way, and gives rules for the same in his word; we may as well expect to be taught extraordinarily, without using the ordinary means, as to be called so. When I see any miraculously gifted, as the prophets and apostles, then I shall think the immediate calling they pretend to is authentic. To be sure, we find in the word, extraordinary calling and extraordinary teaching go together.

Well, let us see what that erratic spirit is which carries many out of their place and calling. It is not always the same; sometimes it is idleness. Firstmen neglect what they should do, and then are easily persuaded to meddle with what they have nothing to do. The apostle intimates this plainly, 1 Tim. 5:13: ‘They learn to be idle, wandering from house to house, and not only idle, but busybodies.’ An idle person is a gadder; he hath his foot on the threshold, easily drawn from his own place, and as soon into another’s diocese. He is at leisure to hear the devil’s chat. He that will not serve God in his own place, the devil, rather than he shall stand out, will send him of his errand, and get him to put his sickle into another’s corn.

Secondlyit is pride and discontent that makes persons go out of their place; some men are in this very unhappy, their spirits are too big and haughty for the place God hath set them in. Their calling, may be, is mean and low, but their spirits high and towering; and whereas they should labour to bring their hearts to their condition, they project how they may bring their condition to their proud hearts. They think themselves very unhappy while they are shut up in such strait limits; (indeed the whole world is too narrow a walk for a proud heart, Æstuat infœlix angusto limite mundi; the world was but a little ease to Alexander;) shall they be hid in a crowd, lie in an obscure corner, and die before they let the world know their worth? No, they cannot brook it, and therefore they must get on the stage, and put forth themselves one way or other.

 It was not the priests’ work that Korah and his accomplices were so in love with, but the priests’ honour which attended the work; this they desired to share, and liked not to see others run away with it from them; nor was it the zeal that Absalom had to do justice, which made his teeth water so after his father’s crown, though this must silver over his ambition. These places of church and state are such fair flowers, that proud spirits in all ages have been ambitious to have them set in their own garden, though they never thrive so well as in their proper soil.

In a third it is unbeliefthis made Uzzah stretch forth his hand unadvisedly to stay the ark that shook, which being not a Levite he was not to touch. See Numb. 4:15. Alas! good man, it was his faith shook more dangerously than the ark; by fearing the fall of this, he fell to the ground himself. God needs not our sin to shore up his glory, truth, or church.

Lastly, in some it is misinformed zealmany think they may do a thing because they can do it. They can preach, and therefore they may; wherefore else have they gifts? Certainly the gifts of the saints need not be lost any of them, though they be not laid out in the minister’s work. The private Christian hath a large field wherein he may be serviceable to his brethren; he need not break the hedge which God hath set, and thereby occasion such disorder as we see to be the consequence of this. We read in the Jewish law, Exod. 22, that he who set a hedge on fire, and that fire burnt the corn standing in a field, was to make restitution, though he only fired the hedge, perhaps not intending to hurt the corn; and the reason was, because his firing the hedge was an occasion of the corn’s being burnt, though he meant it not.

I dare not say, that every private Christian who hath in these times taken upon him the minister’s work, did intend to make such a combustion in the church as hath been, and still sadly is among us. God forbid I should think so! But, O that I could clear them from being accessory to it, in that they have fired the hedge which God hath set between the minister’s calling and people’s. If we will acknowledge the ministry a particular office in the church of Christ,—and this I think the word will compel us to do,—then we must also confess it is not any one’s work, though never so able, except called to the office. There are many in a kingdom to be found, that could do the prince’s errand, it is like, as well as his ambassador, but none takes the place but he that is sent, and can shew his letters credential.

Those that are not sent and commissionated by God’s call for ministerial work, they may speak truths as well as they that are; yet of him that acts by virtue of his calling, we may say that he preacheth with authority, and not like those that can shew no commission but what the opinion themselves have of their own abilities gives them. Dost thou like the minister’s work? Why shouldst thou not desire the office, that thou mayest do the work acceptably? Thou dost find thyself gifted, as thou thinkest, for the work, but were not the church more fit to judge so than thyself? And if thou shouldst be found so by them appointed for the trial, who would not give thee the right hand of fellowship?

There are not so many labourers in Christ’s field, but thy help, if able, would be accepted; but as now thou actest, thou bringest thyself into suspicion in the thoughts of sober Christians, as he would justly do, who comes into the field, where his prince hath an army, and gives out he comes to do his sovereign service against the common enemy, yet stands by himself at the head of a troop he hath got together, and refuseth to take any commission from his prince’s officers, or join himself with them: I question whether the service such a one can perform, should he mean as he says, which is to be feared, would do so much good, as the distraction which this his carriage might cause in the army would do hurt

[William Gurnall and John Campbell, The Christian in Complete Armour (London: Thomas Tegg, 1845), 202–203.]

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GAHCindy said...

Hey, thanks. That's just right.

Morris Brooks said...

O Lord, my heart is not proud, nor my eyes haughty; nor do I involve myself in great matters, or in things too difficult for me. Surely I have composed and quieted my soul; like a weaned child rests against his mother, my soul is like a weaned child within me. Psalm 131:1-2

A word for us all.

Michael Coughlin said...

Seems to me one primary defense against this is constant oversight by a local church in one's life. Thank you for posting this.

Tom Chantry said...

Just because I'm reasonably certain this verse has never been posted on Pyro before:

I Samuel 30:24

Think about it!

Pastor David Pitman said...


Pastor David Pitman said...

I see it.

Michael Coughlin said...

I think I do too!