There is a story told by historian Robert Wodrow about an English merchant who was traveling through Scotland on an extended business trip in the seventeenth century. Upon arriving in the town of Irvine, he attended church and was able to sit under the preaching of David Dickson. Afterwards, he described Dickson as “a well-favoured, proper old man, with a long beard” who “showed me all my heart.” In St. Andrews, the same merchant heard Robert Blair preach and called him “a sweet, majestic-looking man” who “showed me the majesty of God.” After Blair, he heard Samuel Rutherford in St. Andrews and referred to him as “a little, fair man” who “showed me the loveliness of Christ.”
The merchant’s testimony is a familiar story in the church across many different places and times. God has consistently allocated His gifts to His servants in the church with a great variety. In the sixteenth century, as Hughes Old has pointed out, “none thundered more loudly than [William] Farel, none piped more sweetly than [Pierre] Viret, [and] none taught more learnedly than [John] Calvin.” In the seventeenth century, Richard Sibbes was commonly known as “the Sweet Dropper” for his ability to “unfold the mysteries of the gospel in a sweet and mellifluous way.” And if we go all the way back to the pages of the New Testament, we can see in the apostle Paul’s own words that there were clear differences between Paul’s own preaching ministry and that of Apollos. While we may not know exactly what those differences were, we do know that they were there and that at least some in the Corinthian church not only saw them but also preferred the unique gifts and abilities of one over the other (1 Cor. 3:4).
Samuel Rutherford’s unique gift as a preacher, as the English merchant perceived for himself, was his ability to communicate the overwhelming beauty of Christ to his hearers. He wanted them to see and be overcome by the loveliness of Jesus. This wasn’t simply a duty with which he felt tasked; it was the overflow of his own all-consuming passion for Christ. A quick perusal of Rutherford’s Letters is all it takes to see this passion on display. Over and over again in the Letters he refers to Christ with such ardent superlatives as “the Rose of Sharon,” “that soul-delighting, lovely Bridegroom,” “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.” Over and over again he lavishes praise upon the God-man with vivid word-pictures that seek to exalt His name far above every other: if we were to establish “ten thousand thousand new-made worlds of angels and elect men, and double them in number, ten thousand, thousand, thousand times;” if we were to “let their heart and tongues be ten thousand thousand times more agile and large, than the heart and tongues of the seraphim that stand with six wings before Him (Isa. vi.2), when they have said all for the glorifying and praising of the Lord Jesus, they have but spoken little or nothing.”
Rutherford’s captivation with Christ so permeated his life that he is known to have fallen asleep at night still talking about Christ, to speak about Him while asleep, and even to dream about Him as well. It was this passion that overflowed into Rutherford’s preaching. Interestingly enough, one of Rutherford’s friends criticized his elocution as being poor and his voice as being “a kind of skreigh [i.e., a harsh screech]” but praised his pulpit presence as being especially captivating. “Many times,” Rutherford’s friend reported, “I thought he would have flown out of the pulpit when he came to speak of Jesus Christ.” He may have been “a little, fair man” with a rather unpleasant voice, but he held forth the loveliness of Christ for all to see and was adored for it both in his own day and in the generations that have come and gone ever since. This, more than anything else, was the real strength of his preaching.
As I reflect on this dynamic in Rutherford, I am reminded of something that Francis Grimké once said about the purpose of preaching:
The function of the pulpit is not to entertain, to amuse, to satisfy an idle curiosity: it is to instruct, to inspire, to fire the heart and mind, to implant within us noble desires and ambitions: and, above all to keep ever before men the one supreme figure in history, the Lord Jesus Christ, and to beget within them a passion for him, and for a Christly life.
With that rubric in mind, Rutherford’s preaching clearly passes muster. Whatever deficiencies he had—and he most definitely had them—he labored “above all to keep ever before men the one supreme figure in history, the Lord Jesus Christ, and to beget within them a passion for him, and for a Christly life.”
But as I think about Rutherford’s preaching, I am also reminded of something that Thomas Chalmers once called “the expulsive power of a new affection.” In taking up this language, Chalmers was highlighting the way that change works in our lives. Change doesn’t happen, at least it doesn’t happen very successfully, by the preacher railing against whatever current desires his people may have but, instead, by him setting before them a new and better desire. This “new affection” carries an “expulsive power” to drive out all others. Jesus said as much in Matthew 13:44-45, when He spoke about the man who found treasure in a field, only to cover it up and sell everything else he owned in order to buy the field, and when He spoke about the merchant who found “one pearl of great value” and, likewise, sold everything in order to purchase it. In both cases, the desire for the newly found treasure was great enough to drive out the desire for everything else the two individuals owned.
With this in mind, we can see that Rutherford was onto something in his preaching and letter-writing. In seeking to set the loveliness of Christ before others in as persuasive a way as possible, Rutherford was seeking to inculcate real change in the lives of those to whom he was ministering. He was setting before them the “one pearl of great value” in order to motivate them to sell all and buy it—and not just once at the beginning of the Christian life but over and over again in the years that followed. The loveliness of Christ was the greatest possible object of our affection that carried with it the greatest possible expulsive power, if only we could see it for ourselves. One of Rutherford’s unique contributions to the church in seventeenth-century Scotland and beyond was that he wanted to do all that he could to ensure that those with whom he came into contact did in fact see it.
In an effort to follow after Rutherford’s example, which has been quite influential in my own life and ministry, I want to set the loveliness of Christ before those with whom I come into contact with as much persuasiveness as possible. I long for everyone to see that Jesus really is better than health; better than wealth; better than family; better than reputation; better than Auburn football (!); better even than life itself. One day we will finally arrive on the shores of the Celestial City, and, to borrow Anne Cousin’s words—which are themselves borrowed from Rutherford’s Letters—we will see our “King…in his beauty without a veil.” When we do, we will be far more interested in Him than in anyone or anything else, because, in heaven,
The bride eyes not her garment, but her dear bridegroom’s face;
I will not gaze at glory, but on my King of grace;
not at the crown he gifteth, but on his pierced hand;
the Lamb is all the glory of Emmanuel’s land.
When we can behold something of this beatific vision now in this life, then we are truly living in the suburbs of heaven.