Today we are honored to hear from Donald John MacLean. Donald John was raised in a Christian home in Inverness, in the Highlands of Scotland, where Puritan theology was read and (more importantly) lived out daily. How cool is that?
By day, he works full time as an actuary. By night, he is a historical theology student finishing his MPhil thesis: “James Durham (1622-1658) and the Free Offer of the Gospel.” Once completed, he plans to begin a PhD on Manton, which appears to be the first academic thesis on the Puritan.
Donald John is married to Ruth and they have two children: Hannah (3 years) and Jonathan (2 months).
So why his deep interest in Manton? I asked him a simple question: Please provide us your top 10 reasons why busy pastors and Christians in general would benefit from reading the Complete Works of Thomas Manton.
What follows is his excellent and instructive list:
1.) Manton reminds us of God’s glory and our sinfulness. A great strength of the Puritan writers in general, they understood the glory and majesty of the Triune God. The church would be served to recover this sense of awe and wonder towards God. Manton is particularly strong here. And he also understands the true source of this awe and how practically to recover it—“The less we converse with God in private, the more the awe of God is lessened” (Works, 1:17). Simple—the more we are in God’s presence the more we will be caught up with the glory of God in our lives. A loss of the sense of God’s majesty indicates of a lack of time spent truly in his presence. This connection is why Manton’s wonderful sermons on prayer provide great practical help and insight (1:3-254).
Related in this awe-inspiring vision of God, we see in Manton another need in the church today—a sense of the sinfulness of sin and an awareness of our continued sinfulness. In Manton’s sermon on Matthew 6:12 (“And forgive us our debts”) he reminds us of our need to pray to “our Father” for the continued forgiveness of sin. Why? To be remind us that our hearts are still corrupt, that we are still sinful in our actions, a justified Christian praying for continued pardon, praying for forgiveness to obtain (or increase) a sense and manifestation of pardon and where that exists to increase it. All these points are backed by wonderfully rich biblical exegesis (1:176ff). Reading Manton will help renew our vision of God’s holiness and our sinfulness.
2.) Manton demonstrates a profound understanding of Christ’s work in redeeming sinners. Much of Manton’s work is focused on Christ. Volume one includes Manton on Christ’s Temptation, Transfiguration, and work showing Christ’s eternal glory and Divinity. But where Manton is so profoundly helpful—especially in view of the confusion over the atonement today in self-identified evangelical circles—is on the work of Christ in redeeming sinners as a penal substitution. His sermons on the great Christological chapter of Isaiah 53 (3:189-494) and his sermons on Christ’s High Priestly prayer in John 17 are all outstanding (10:107-11:149)! And Manton is helpful is in avoiding a caricatured view of penal substitution by notes that Christ enduring the wrath of God against sin on the cross is not to be mistaken as implying, “God is all wrath and justice, unwilling of himself to be reconciled to man, or that he delighteth in blood, and is hardly drawn to give out grace. Oh, no! These are false … and misrepresentations of God” (1:496).
Manton explains well the necessity of the cross. One wonderful quote is Manton commenting on 2 Corinthians 5:19 (“God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not imputing their trespasses to them”) where he writes, “There is more glory in these few words, and more of God discovered in them, than there is in all the world. Oh, what a deal of comfort, and what a foundation for the rejoicing of our faith, is there laid in this reconciliation in and by Jesus Christ our Lord! That one sentence discovers more of God’s intentions and good will to man than all the bounty of his providence in and by all the creatures put together” (7:467).
Quotable statements like these abound in Manton.
3.) Manton understands the priority of Word of God in the Christian life. Here I am thinking primarily of Manton on Psalm 119 (volumes 6-8 of the Works). On Psalm 119:97 (“Oh, how I love Your law! It is my meditation all the day”) Manton comments, “God’s people have a great love to his word; yea, such a hearty affection as can not easily be expressed” (7:463). Among the great reasons there are for that love surely chief is that “it reveals reconciliation by Christ” (7:468). Here Manton explains the various “uses” of Scripture—to increase our knowledge of God, to convert sinners, to humble, to cleanse, to comfort, to build up faith, to direct us in our practice. That zeal and love for the word of God needs to grow in us all (I speak to myself first) and I believe reading Manton on Psalm 119 will stir in our hearts a desire to swim deeper in God’s Word.
Manton’s sermons on Psalm 119 are a wonderful example of sustained, exegetical preaching (though I’m not suggesting every preacher produce 3 volumes worth of sermons on the chapter!). Spurgeon, who wrote a commentary on Psalm 119 himself, wrote, “While commentating on [Ps 119] I was brought into intimate communion with Thomas Manton, who has discoursed upon this marvelous portion of scripture with great fullness and power.”
4.) Manton is a marvelous example of preaching application well. Manton is a preacher, not a lecturer. His goal is not merely imparting knowledge but in moving his hearers to action. And this emphasis on application is in many places (from my perspective) a neglected part of preaching today.
The Westminster Directory of Public worship exhorts preachers not to “rest in general doctrine…but to bring it home to special use, by application to his hearers: which albeit it prove a work of great difficulty to himself, requiring much prudence, zeal, and meditation, and to the natural and corrupt man will be very unpleasant; yet he is to endeavour to perform it in such a manner, that his auditors may feel the word of God to be quick and powerful, and a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart; and that, if any unbeliever or ignorant person be present, he may have the secrets of his heart made manifest, and give glory to God.” James Durham said, “Application is the life of Preaching … the main part of a Pastoral gift, dexterously to feed by Application” (Commentary on Revelation, 335).
Manton wonderfully models Puritan application in practice. Because of his gift in applying the truth, it is very rare to read a Manton sermon without being humbled, rebuked, comforted, encouraged when necessary, and drawn towards Christ in praise and thankfulness.
5.) Manton is a passionate evangelist, revealing a God who offers delight to sinners. Manton is absolutely committed to the sovereignty of God in saving sinners, yet that does not hinder his great burden to see sinners saved. We see in Manton a wonderful picture of a Calvinistic evangelist. Manton believes it is a key duty of the ministry to win souls to Christ: “The great business of the ministers of the gospel is to persuade men to reconciliation with God” (13:295). A classic example of this are his sermons on Ezekiel 18:23 (“Do I have any pleasure at all that the wicked should die? says the Lord GOD, and not that he should turn from his ways and live?”). Manton begins his sermons by setting out the pastoral importance of the free offer of the gospel because if we have false views of God—that he is an “inexorable judge”—we simply have no grounds to turn to him for salvation.
Manton’s aim in these sermons is to counter this view of God that he feared was held by “many men” in the church, arguing: “There is nothing so necessary to draw us to repentance as good thoughts of God. In the first temptation the devil sought to weaken the reputation and credit of God’s goodness … as if he were harsh, severe, and envious in restraining them from the tree of knowledge … In the bosom of the church this conceit possesseth many men’s hearts, that God is harsh and severe, and delighteth more in our ruin than salvation … Oh, what a monstrous picture do men draw of God in their thoughts, as if he were a tyrant, or an inexorable judge, that gave no leave for repentance, or left any hope of pardon to the guilty” (21:463). Manton argues that Ezekiel 18:23 teaches us that “as God is a merciful God, and loveth all the creatures which he hath made, so their life is more pleasing than their death; a thing more acceptable in itself to such a being as God is” (21:464). And Manton closes his exposition of this passage with 7 reasons why God takes no pleasure in our eternal destruction (21:468-71). All this with the aim to draw men to Christ!
[As an aside, I think Manton is more helpful on texts like Ezekiel 18:23 than another Puritan giant, John Owen. In his otherwise masterful defense of particular redemption, Owen spends his exposition of Ezekiel 18:23 by refusing to take the text in its natural sense (Works, 10:387), which is unnecessary given a straightforward reading of the passage in no way endangers particular redemption!]
6.) Manton is a wonderfully levelheaded and balanced writer. He will help keep those who are “young, restless and reformed” from the danger of extremes. One example of this is how Manton works through the issue of the desire for purity as opposed to the desire for unity. For instance when discussing what is means to “earnestly contend for the faith” (Jude 3) Manton highlights certain truths which “are fundamentals … essentials in religion” which are so vital that even Paul must withstand Peter face-to-face. These fundamentals include “the creation of the world by God in six days out of nothing, God’s providence, man’s misery by sin, deliverance by Christ, the necessity of the new creature, the resurrection of the dead, and the everlasting recompenses … the mystery of the Trinity … the union of the two natures in the person of Christ, that the scriptures are the word of God” (5:118-9).
As a complement to this need for earnest contending we have Manton’s sermon “A Persuasive to Unity in things Indifferent.” The thrust of this sermon is that “when God’s people are divided in opinion, all lenity and mutual forbearance should be used to prevent things from coming to open rupture” (2:68). Manton observes that “Divisions in the Church breed atheism in the world,” and, “separation and distance from the rest of believers, doth not befriend godliness, but undermine it” (2:69). Manton is not promoting indifference to truth but we see his balance in his forceful reminder that although all truth is important not all truths must be contended for with the same degree of importance.
7.) Manton is discontent with Christianity as merely an abstract theological construct. Christianity is experiential, always reaching through the mind into the heart and outward in actions. One example of this is Manton’s observation that, “A great fruit and token of piety is provision for the afflicted…Works of mercy so well become them that do expect or have received mercy from God…Now one of the chief glories of the Godhead is the unweariedness of his love and bounty: he visits the fatherless and the widows; so should we: the spirit of our religion is forgiving; and therefore the cruel heart is made by Paul a kind of ‘denying the faith,’ 1 Tim. v.8” (4:176).
8.) Manton is full of homiletic hints for preachers. To illustrate this I opened Manton’s commentary on Jude at random and read the following: “Ministers must press those doctrines that are most needed. It is cheap zeal that declaimeth against antiquated errors, and things now out of use and practice. We are to consider what the present age needeth…[What use is it] now to handle the case of Henry the Eighth’s divorce?” (5:103). So here we have a Puritan urging us to be relevant and contemporary in our preaching!
As an aside to preachers: If given the opportunity, I would never teach a text covered by Manton without reading him first. I find his words helpful and stimulating. And given the nature of his writings (mostly sermons) they are more easily assessable in a way that some of the Puritan theological or polemic works may not be (e.g. John Owen).
9.) Manton takes great care to encourage the Christian life. Manton is not only a wonderful theologian but also exceptionally helpful in encouraging us to daily obedience. A fine example of this is his sermons on Ephesians 5 (volume 19 of the Works). From these sermons I’ll just pick out some of his comments on “husbands love your wives” (doesn’t get much more practical than this!). The thrust of Manton’s sermon is “that husbands must love their wives with a sincere and tender love” (19:468). He quotes Luther on Christ’s love for the church, “I see nothing in Christ but a prodigality and excess of love” and says this must be the pattern for a husband’s love to his wife (19:470).
What are the effects of this love? First, the husband “delights in her presence and company, not suffering himself to be separated from her for any long time.” Secondly, this love causes the husband to “direct and instruct [her] in all things that belong to this life and the better.” Third, this act of love is “in providing all things necessary for them that conduce to health, food and raiment.” Fourth, is “in a care to preserve and defend her” (19:471-2). Manton urges husbands to “love not as bare husbands, but as Christians” (19:475).
This is only a little flavor of the feast of teaching scattered throughout Manton’s 22 volumes of books and sermons.
10.) Manton has a firm grasp of church and secular history. Which is clearly evident from the range of writers he cites. For instance in one page of his work on Jude (5:117) he quotes Luther, refers to the dispute between the Western and Eastern Church over Easter, refers to Arius, Nestorius and the Council of Nice, and draws a lesson from Chrystostom and Epiphanius disagreeing over Origen’s writings. Now I’m not suggesting preachers need to start referencing Church history to this degree(!) but I do think Manton’s evident engagement with the history of the Christian church was important.
First, his wide reading helped him with illustrations—he could often refer to an event in church history to help make his point.
Second, I’m sure his wide reading helped add to his wonderful balance I referred to above. If we are always and only people of our own time we will fall into the blind spots of our age—reading Manton will help us avoid this!
To close, I’ll leave you with just one miscellaneous directive. Don’t start with his sermons on 2 Thessalonians 2:1-17 (3:1-186). Manton’s understanding of that passage is so radically different to what would be common today it might be an off-putting introduction.
But virtually everything else he wrote is easily accessible and deeply beneficial to your soul!
Tolle lege! Take up and read.