Book Reviews > Christian Living > Samuel Rutherford and His Friends
Director of the RC Ryan Center for Biblical Studies and Assistant Professor of Christian Studies
This little book is a gem of wisdom and spiritual insight distilled from the life and letters of Samuel Rutherford and some of his correspondents. Mrs. Cook obviously knows her subject well as she skillfully interweaves biographical sketches of the correspondents with Rutherford’s counsel and confession to them. The book provides a brief biographical sketch of Rutherford and several of his correspondents, who include many of the key leaders of the church in Scotland in the perilous times of the 17th century. In this way, the book can serve as a supplement to Rutherford’s letters or as an introduction to them, as well as an overview glimpse of God’s work in His church in these days. In addition to introducing Rutherford’s correspondents Cook also provides an overview of what Rutherford wrote to each one in their circumstances. In summarizing and discussing Rutherford’s correspondence with each person, Cook highlights Rutherford’s giftedness as a spiritual counselor. From both the lives of the correspondents and the counsel of Rutherford one can imbibe the ethos of these stalwart believers- a courage, conviction and forthrightness which seems too foreign in our day. There is a weightiness to these men and women which sets in stark contrast the breeziness of our generation. As Mrs. Cook writes of some of the women to whom Rutherford wrote, 'It is immediately evident from these letters that some of these knew a degree of communion with Christ and a familiarity with the ways of God that is strangely rare in the Church of our day’ (102).
There is not room here to touch all the high points of the book, so I will comment on a few relying largely on quotations and arranged by some of the different issues which Rutherford addressed. One interesting theme is the presentation of Rutherford as evangelist pleading with souls. This comes out especially in chapter three dealing with Rutherford’s correspondence with John Gordon, the Laird of Cardoness. Gordon had lived far from Christ and approached the end of his days. Rutherford wrote to him from exile with tenderness, alluring him with descriptions of the beauty of Christ, and with boldness, frankly confronting him with the terrors of judgment. Rutherford’s longing for the salvation of Gordon is seen as he writes: ‘Thoughts of your soul … depart not from me in my sleep. Ye have a great part of my tears, sighs, supplications, and prayers. Oh, if [only] I could buy your soul’s salvation with any suffering whatsoever, that ye and I might meet with joy up in the rainbow, when we shall stand before our judge.’ (44)
Mrs. Cook aptly presents Rutherford’s evangelistic passion in this brief portrait. Seeing this side of Rutherford, one of the Westminster divines (!), puts the lie once again to the idea that Calvinism undercuts evangelism.
Another theme is affection for Christ, which is a well-known aspect of Rutherford’s letters. Indeed Mrs. Cook states, ‘The dominant theme of all these letters is the majesty and loveliness of the person of Christ’ (11). Tellingly she also notes, ‘We only wonder at his exotic language [about affection for Christ] because we are largely unacquainted with his joys’ (11).
One of the chief points of profit, perhaps, is the discussion of the theme of dealing with grief and trials. In our days of relative ease it is possible to esteem our comfort too highly and to be surprised by affliction. Not so with many of the saints who have gone before us. ‘Christians living in days far removed from the seventeenth century may perhaps think that a life of persecution is the exception rather than the norm; but it was not always so. “I am persuaded,” wrote Samuel Rutherford to William Gordon, “that it is a piece of the chief errand of our life … that we might suffer here for a time amongst our enemies …”’ (90). I will simply list some of the quotes gleaned by Mrs. Cook.
'Kiss His wise and unerring providence ... Learn to believe Christ better than His strokes, Himself and His promises better than His glooms ... Let not the Lord's dealings seem harsh, rough, or unfatherly, because it is unpleasant. When the Lord's blessed will bloweth across your desires, it is best, in humility, to strike sail to Him, and be willing to be led any way our Lord pleaseth' (58).
‘Humility is a strange flower; it grows best in winter and under storms of affliction’ (84-85).
‘Our pride must have winter weather to rot it’ (79).
‘If ye were not Christ’s wheat, appointed to be bread in His house, He would not grind you’ (86; written to Alexander Gordon consoling him after the death of several of his children).
Rutherford provides a helpful model as he deals with the grieving, handling them tenderly but not fearing to speak clear and frank truth.
Lastly, Mrs. Cook shows how Rutherford, while dispensing spiritual counsel, felt no need to hide his own weaknesses. ‘Never does Samuel Rutherford stand apart from those to whom he writes, suggesting that he himself has attained to a high degree of holiness. With disarming honesty he confesses that he too finds the path of faith and godliness perplexing at times and contrary to the natural desires of his heart. “Believe me, that I find it to be hard wrestling to play fair with Christ, and to keep good quarters with Him,’ he admits, in a letter to John Gordon….’ (45).
In another place, when writing to a younger man (William Gordon), he does not hide his weaknesses but rather writes, ‘I never took it to be so hard to be dead to my lusts and to this world’ (92). How tempting it is when speaking to those younger than us to speak as if we were greater than we are- but this, in addition to being sinful pride, is of no real help to those with whom we speak. Again, Rutherford is an example: ‘Rutherford knew nothing of the triumphalism that has too often characterized much of the interchange between Christians in other times. He is ruthlessly honest with himself and consequently able to help others who are conscious of spiritual failure’ (105). This genuineness and humility comes from one who ‘truly feared the unwarranted praise of men’ and once confessed: “My white side comes out on paper to men; but at home and within I find much black work, and great cause of a low sail, and of little boasting’ (139).
This book is extremely helpful in putting forward a helpful example in ministry- one that is wise and bold, yet honest and humble. In fact, I think the book could be used with much profit by being read by a group of elders or local leaders together. It would help to train them in providing spiritual counsel as well as providing many personal lessons.
(This review previously appeared in the Founders Journal, www.founders.org)