A Gathering Voices Post by Don McKim
I did my doctoral dissertation on the English Puritan, William Perkins (1558-1602). To me, Perkins will always be the greatest of the Puritans, a judgment shared by a number of scholars who have noted that his works lined the bookshelves of clergy in England and New England for generations.
Despite caricatures of the Puritans, their “dry and dusty” works, are nevertheless a deep resource for Christian faith and devotion. The “godly Puritans,” including Perkins and those who followed him, have profound insights into the nature of Christian life and experience. Dipping into the works of these theologians uncovers nurture for living which nourishes the mind, heart, and soul.
I dipped into my notecards this morning and found some sentences from John Downame (1571-1652), a graduate of Christ’s College, Cambridge and student of Perkins who wrote one of the great books on navigating the Christian life: The Christian Warfare Wherein is first generally shewed the malice, power, and politike stratagems of the spirituall enemies of our salvation, Satan and his assistants the world and the flesh; with the meanes also whereby the Christian may withstand and defeate them. This volume appeared in 1604 and weighed in at nearly seven-hundred pages. By its fourth edition, in 1634, it stretched to nearly twelve-hundred pages. This is more about the Christian life, Satan, and withstanding temptation than many Christians would want to read! But Downame’s first and special purpose in writing this tome was “to comfort those who are afflicted in conscience, in the fight and sence of their sinnes, by offering unto them certaine assurance, that their sinnes are remitted, and that themselves are elected to eternall life, in the state of grace, reconciled unto God in Christ and received in his love and favour” (“The Epistle Dedicatorie,” 1604). What could be a better purpose?
What did I find when I dipped?
It is tucked into chapter thirty-two, section four (1604 edition), under the “Reasons to perswade the weake Christian of the forgiveness of his sins,” the “first whereof are grounded on Gods own nature,” and the first argument: “grounded upon Gods infinit mercie.” After considering some Scripture verses that are “testimonies of Gods infinite mercies” (Psalm 103:8; Psalm 86:5; Joel 2:13) with Ephesians 2:4 and 2 Corinthians 1:3 where God is called “the father of mercies, and God of all comfort,” Downame wrote:
Seeing then, mercie is one of Gods attributes, therefore it is also of his essence, and being, for there is not in Godes most perfect nature, any qualities or accidents, but whatsoever is in God, is God, so that God is mercie itself, and consequently, to shew and exercise his mercie, is to shew and exercise his own nature (427).
This is a supreme assurance to sinners that God’s mercy is all-encompassing. It is God’s “pleasure and delight” to pardon repentant sinners, since God is “delighted, and well pleased, in shewing, and exercising his owne nature, and attributes” (428).
So the assurance is that God is merciful and extends mercy to us since this is who God is. God shows and exercises God’s own nature and attributes. Indeed, “God is mercie itself.” Can we think of a better word of comfort than this? No matter how great our sin, God who is “rich in mercie” (Ephesians 2:4) “can and wil as easily forgive us the debt of ten thousand millions of pounds as one pennie” (430). How great is God’s mercy!
Relatedly, we can go beyond Downame here and say that since God is “mercie itself,” then we are never more like God than when we are extending mercy to others. How often does this opportunity present itself! We frequently face the question of whether we will be hardline, or merciful? Will we nurse grudges or be merciful? Will people think of “mercy” as a primary description of our nature—who we are; and what we do? We can do no better than obey Paul’s injunction: “Be imitators of God” (Ephesians 5:1). So we are merciful.
We extend mercy to others because God has extended mercy to us. God gives us mercy because it is God’s nature to be merciful. And God expresses the divine nature in the actions God does. Thank you, John Downame, for reminding us of this theological truth which provides a basis for what we believe and how we live as Christians!