In a previous post we looked at the theme of ‘ascent’ in Christian spirituality. In this post we explore the theme of ‘pilgrimage’. In both cases we are contrasting biblical and Reformation spirituality with the Medieval and modern spirituality.

In the Old Testament Jerusalem was seen as a place of pilgrimage. The annual feasts encouraged worshippers to journey to Jerusalem. The Psalms of Ascent testify to the significance of this journey.

But with the coming of Jesus the nature of pilgrimage changes. Jesus himself is the temple (John 2:18-22). We come to him rather than journeying to a physical location (1 Peter 2:4-5). And we journey towards our future home in the new creation (Hebrews 11:8-16).

Nevertheless, in the Medieval world pilgrimage became a major feature of spirituality and a major money-spinner if you could establish yourself as a holy destination. Abbeys would compete for sacred relics. Canterbury was the key destination in Britain, partly as the shrine as Thomas à Becket after his martyrdom in 1170 (hence Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales).

Pilgrimage was physical act that required physical movement. For some it was an act that earned merit before God. For others it enacted the ascent of the mind. For most, perhaps, it was journey to sacred relics or sites that were thought to have inherent power. It was a chance to pray to a saint at his or her shrine for a miracle or time off purgatory.

Pilgrimage in Reformed spirituality

All of this might suggest the Reformed tradition would be quick to drop the theme of pilgrimage. But instead it retained it as a central feature of its spirituality, but with a radical reorientation.

The primary change was that pilgrimage became an image for the Christian life. John Bunyan’s Pilgrim Progress begins: ‘As I walked through the wilderness of this world, I lighted on a certain place where was a Den, and I laid me down in that place to sleep: and, as I slept, I dreamed a dream.’ The dream tells the story of how a man named Christian becomes a Christian (losing his burden) and then travels through life to the Celestial City. It is the story of life as a pilgrimage. Even the opening non-dream element alludes to pilgrimage: ‘As I walked through the wilderness of this world’. This world is a wilderness through which Christians are travelling.

Charles Hambrick-Stowe in his fascinating study of New England Puritan piety says: ‘The sense of being on pilgrimage structured Puritan religious experience from the first stages of conversion on through the saint’s growth in God’s grace, and it strongly coloured the daily and weekly disciplines of devotional activity.’ It was a re-appropriation of Catholic ideas of pilgrimage. But it drew primarily on the wilderness wanderings of Israel in Exodus and Hebrews 11. Thomas Hooker, among the first generation of Puritan preachers in New England, said:

There must be Contrition and Humiliation before the Lord comes to take possession … This was typified in the passage of the Children towards the promised Land. They must come and go through a vast and roaring Wilderness, where they must be bruised with many pressures, humbled under many overbearing difficulties, before they could possess that good land which abounded with all prosperity, flowed with Milk and Honey.

The New England Puritan poet Anne Bradstreet wrote a poem entitled ‘As Weary Pilgrim’ (1669) which includes the lines:

A pilgrim I, on earth perplexed

With Sins, with cares and sorrows vext,

By age and pains brought to decay,

And my clay house mold’ring away.

Oh, how I long to be at rest

And soar on high among the blest.

The experience of the Puritans, both individually and corporately, was interpreted in the light of Old Testament patterns, but always in the light of their fulfilment in Christ. Indeed Christ’s own forty-day wilderness temptation was another referent for this theme. So Puritans used the metaphor of pilgrimage in three ways.

First, to describe Christians as those who are estranged from the culture and honour of this world (1 Peter 1:1, 17; 2:11). This was particular expounded in the face of the hostility and corruption of the Established church.

Second, as a metaphor for pilgrimage to the individual soul, travelling through life towards heaven, by faith experiencing en route ever-increasing joy in Christ (Hebrews 11). The idea of keeping a spiritual journal, so popular among Puritans, itself had strong pilgrimage connotations. The words ‘journal’ and ‘journey’ both stem from the same root meaning ‘day’. In the Middle Ages the word ‘journey’ was used of the distance of about twenty miles, a day’s travel. People often kept a journal when travelling. So a journal was the record of a journey – either a literal journey or a person’s pilgrimage through life.

Third, for the Puritans in New England pilgrimage was a particularly strong theme because it had a physical counterpart in their experience. They were, after all, ‘the Pilgrim Fathers’. Their own lives had involved a journey made for spiritual reasons. They had travelled out of captivity in the Egypt of old England and saw New England as a staging post on their journey to the heavenly Jerusalem. They were not a settled people, physically and spiritually. Indeed, many of the first generation feared for the second generation as they began to settle down.

Pilgrimage in post-modern spirituality
The language of pilgrimage and journey remains common today. ‘We are all on a journey,’ we are often told. Or we are encouraged to embrace ‘fellow travellers’, even if we are at different places on our journey. It is a very postmodern affirmation. In other words, it does not affirm much at all. Indeed it is a kind of warning off. It is an exhortation not to assert truth, but to recognise a provisionality in everything.

The key difference between this view of journeying and that of Pilgrim’s Progress is this. The pilgrim of Pilgrim’s Progress knew where he was going. His destination is not in doubt. He is heading to the Celestial City. And the only way to get through was through confidence in the word and reliance of Christ. Indeed the narrow gate of Pilgrim’s Progress is precisely an image of the exclusive claims of Christ.

When ‘post-evangelicals’ co-opt the image, in contrast, they do so to stress the vagueness of the journey. Who knows were they will end up, but it will probably not be orthodoxy! We are in danger of wandering off course and calling this a spiritual virtue by misappropriating the language of pilgrimage.

Charles E. Hambrick-Stowe, The Practice of Piety: Puritan Devotional Principles in Puritan New England, University of North Carolina Press is available from Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk.

John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress is readily available online or from Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk.

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In this post we consider the theme of ‘ascent’ in Christian spirituality. In a future post we’ll look at the theme of ‘pilgrimage’. Both are biblical themes, but we can think about them in unhelpful ways.

Our culture is full of the language of ascent. We talk about ‘the ascent of man’, often as a synonym for evolution. Humanity has ascended above the animals and the sign of our ascent is our superior intellectual development. Or the ascent of man is a synonym for civilization. Our ascent is our move from primitive cultures to ‘high’ culture.

The image of ascending to God is an important feature of Medieval theology. This drew on Greek philosophical traditions of the ascent of the rational soul to join the logos, the rational principles that pervades the universe. It also involved transcending or even escaping the physical world.

Guigo II proposed a fourfold method for reading the Bible in which a monk passed from reading to meditation to prayer to contemplation. The title of the work was The Ladder of Monks. Clearly these represent progressive stages through which you ascend to higher spiritual levels. The sixteenth century Spanish writer St John of the Cross wrote the influential The Ascent of Mount Carmel. Again the mountain is symbolic of gaining insight and mastering techniques. The spiritual life is about progress towards the presence of God.

John Calvin, too, makes much of the language of ascent but in a radically different way.

Christ ascends physically

First, the ascension is physical. Ascension is not an escape from the body. Christ’s ascension was not his transition into a different mode of existence so that he has become some ethereal spirit. Rather, it was a physical departure into heaven:

It has been demonstrated by strong and clear passages of Scripture, first, that [Christ’s resurrection body] is bounded by the dimensions of the human body; and, secondly, that its ascension into heaven made it plain that it is not in all places, but on passing to a new one, leaves the one formerly occupied. (John Calvin, Institutes, 4.17.30)

In the first generation of Star Trek higher beings are those who have evolved to a point where they have left their bodies behind and become pure mind or pure love. They speak to Captain Kirk from the ether or communicate thought-to-thought through telepathy. This is how many people think about the ascent of Jesus. Jesus is somehow thought to be spiritually everywhere in a disembodied sense. Perhaps he has become one of Star Trek’s higher beings – pure mind or pure love, unconstrained in space by a body. We remake the ascension of Jesus in the image of our notions of human ascent instead of understanding human ascent in the image of Christ’s ascension. But the Bible refuses to leave the body behind in the ascent of Christ.

We ascend with Christ

For us ascent is not an achievement. It is not something that happens as a result of spiritual exercises or techniques. It is something we already experience through union with Christ by faith. Christ has ascended and we ascend with him: ‘And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus.’ (Ephesians 2:6) ‘Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.’ (Colossians 3:2-4)

Christ is present by the Spirit

The role of the Spirit is key to putting this all together. Jesus is present with us by the Spirit. If you ignore the role of the Spirit then Jesus can only be with us as the expense of his embodiment. If you ignore the role of the Spirit then Jesus can only be with us. He cannot also be absent. But the absence of Jesus is the sign that this world is not yet what it will be. The rule of Jesus would be the rule we see on earth now – and that would be a big disappointment for anyone who has read the Bible’s promises of God’s new world! It is the Spirit who means it makes sense to talk about both the absence and presence of Jesus.

For more on the ascension see Tim Chester and Jonny Woodrow, The Ascension: Humanity in the Presence of God, Christian Focus (available from Amazon.com and ThinkIVP).

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The affections and the imagination

In a previous post we looked at the importance of the affections in Puritan spirituality. In this post we explore the link between the affections and the imagination.

As we have seen in previous posts, our affections determine our behaviour. This means that simply informing people or commanding people is not enough. The affections must be won for Christ. An individual in besetting sin might know it is wrong. But he remains trapped because his affections are captured by the sin. What the individual needs is a clearer vision of the beauty, love and glory of God.

So the Puritans employed ‘fancy’ or ‘imagination’. This could be used to have a negative affect. But it could be used to shape the affections. Richard Sibbes said: ‘We should make our fancy serviceable to us in spiritual things.’ (Works 1:185) The imagination has great power over the soul ‘because it stirs up the affections … for as the imagination conceiveth, so usually the judgment concludeth, the will chooseth, the affections are carried, and the members execute.’ (Works 1:182).

This is reflected in the Puritan preaching which often had long passages designed to appeal to the imagination. Jonathan Edwards said: ‘Our people … don’t so much need to have their heads stored, as to have their hearts touched.’ (Cited in Harold Simonson, Jonathan Edwards: Theologian of the Heart, Eerdmans, 112)

Puritans would often rather boldly address their congregations in the first person as if Christ himself we addressing them. They also employed a technique called ‘composition of place’ which involved imagining you were present or entering into the scene. Arthur Dent in The Plain Man’s Pathway to Heaven encouraged his readers: ‘Nail down all our sins and iniquities to the cross of Christ, bury them in his death, bathe them in his blood, hide them in his wounds, let them never rise up in judgement against us.’ John Downame, in his directions for the stages of meditation, advised saints to let ‘our hearts [be] affected with a lively taste, sense, and feeling of the things whereon we meditate.’ In one sermon, Thomas Shepard concludes a sermon on the union of the believer with Christ by conducting the wedding in the sermon. ‘I pronounce Christ and you married,’ he says.

Citations from Charles E. Hambrick-Stowe, The Practice of Piety: Puritan Devotional Principles in Puritan New England, University of North Carolina Press is available from Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk.

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Three new books on sexual purity

Here are three recent books on sexual purity

Purity is Possible

Helen Thorne, Purity is Possible: How to Live Free of the Fantasy Trap, The Good Book Co.

Here’s the commendation I wrote for this book:

“At last a book on sexual temptation for women (though there’s much for men to learn here as well). Purity Is Possible is honest, real, realistic – all of which makes the hope that it offers truly hopeful. Above all it points to the freedom and purity that we find through faith in the work of Jesus.”

Available here from amazon.com and thinkivp.


Hide or Seek

John Freeman, Hide or Seek: When Men Get Real with God about Sex, New Growth Press.

I’ve not yet been able to get hold a copy of this, but John Freeman’s material was very helpful when I was writing Captured By A Better Vision or Closing the Window so I’m sure this will be good material.

Available here from amazon.com and amazon.co.uk.

Finally Free

Heath Lambert, Finally Free: Fighting for Purity with the Power of Grace, Zondervan.

Lambert offers eight gospel-centred strategies for fighting porn: using sorrow, accountability, radical measures, confession your spouse, humility, gratitude and a dynamic relationship with Jesus.

Available here from amazon.com and thinkivp.

Captured By a Better Vision

My own book on overcoming porn is published as Captured By A Better Vision: Living Porn Free in the UK and as Closing the Window in the US.

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The affections and change

In previous posts we looked at the importance of the affections in Puritan spirituality. In this post we begin to explore the link between the affections and change.

The Puritan Stephen Charnock said:

The Passions and Affections are the same, as to the Substance and Nature of the Acts; but the difference lies in the object … The acts of a renewed man, and the acts of a natural man, are the same in the Nature of acts; as when a man loves God, and fears God; or loves man, or fears man, ‘tis the same act of love, and the same act of fear; there are the same motions of the soul … the difference lies in the Objects.

Regeneration then brings about a change in the way view God. The object of love changes. The God we had once distained becomes the One we love. By the ministry of the word the Puritans sought this change of perspective in regeneration and then in strengthening the faith of believers through the work of the Spirit.

This change of affections – and not any change in emotions – was a key indicator of spiritual reality. In The Religious Affections Edwards gives twelve signs of a true work of God. But the last is key: ‘Gracious and holy affections have their exercise and fruit in Christian practice.’

Summarising John Owen, J.I. Packer says: ‘We grow in grace by the deliberate stirring up and exercise of the new powers and inclinations which regeneration implanted within us.’ He then cites Owen: ‘Frequency of acts doth naturally increase and strengthen the habits whence they proceed. And in spiritual habits [e.g. faith, hope, love] it is so, moreover, by God’s appointment … They grow and thrive in and by their exercise … the want thereof is the principal means of their decay.’

See J.I. Packer, ‘The Spirituality of John Owen,’ Among God’s Giants: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life, Kingsway, 1991. Available here from amazon.com and thinkivp.

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Bible reading plan for 2015

I’ve posted this Bible reading plan before. We use it in The Crowded House Sheffield. If you’ve been using it then you’ll be interested in postcard-sized weekly reading plan for 2015. If you’re not reading through the Bible then the approach of the new year is a good time to review your Bible reading habits. Here are a couple of old posts on why that would be a good idea – Hearing God Speak and Must I Read My Bible Every Day?

This plan has a number of differences from other plans.

1. Flexibility

The plan specifies a number of chapters for each week rather than for each day. This makes it more flexible. You can read a chapter or two each day or you can read it in two or three sittings. Or you can set out reading a chapter a day and then catch up at the weekend. It means it fits more readily around people’s lifestyle.

2. Communal
It is designed to be followed with a partner or among a group of people. There is only one section each week (occasionally two shorter books). So you don’t have to read a section from one book and then a section from another book each day. It means the sections are somewhat uneven, but it makes it easy to discuss what you have been reading when you meet up with other people.

We’ve been using it for a year now and it works very well in this way. I meet up with a friend each week for lunch. It’s easy for us to discuss what we’ve been reading because there is only one Bible book to focus on.

It also means I only need look at the Bible plan once a week – I don’t need to refer to it each day.

3. Realistic
Following this plan you read the OT in three years and the NT twice in three years. This works out at about nine chapters a week. It means you are not rushing through what you are reading to ‘get it done’. I’ve found with other plans I tend to read it with my mind disengaged. This plan gives time to meditate on the passage.

4. Balanced
The plan balances OT history, prophecy, wisdom, Gospel and Epistles throughout the year. You move between genres so you’re never faced with reading OT prophecy continuously for six months.

Here’s the complete three year plan.

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Quotes from One with Christ

I recently posted a review of One with Christ by Marcus Peter Johnson (available from amazon.com and thinkivp). Here’s a selection of quotes from the book which give a flavour of its content.

Calvin: ‘We must understand that as long as Christ remains outside of us, are we are separated from him, all that he has suffered and done for the salvation of the human race remains useless and of no value to us. Therefore, to share in what he has received from the Father, he had to become ours and to dwell with us … for, as I have said, all that he possesses is nothing to us until we grow into one body with him.’ (Institutes, 3.1.1) [I counted five occasions in which this quote is cited in the book!]

Robert Letham: ‘Strictly speaking, we are united to [Christ’s] humanity, but his humanity is inseparable from his deity, due to the hypostatic union. Thus, union with his humanity is union with his person. Moreover, since the person of Christ is that of the eternal Son, we are united to God. Once again, this does not mean any blurring of the Creator-creature distinction, any more than the assumption of humanity by the Son in the incarnation does. His humanity remains his humanity (without confusion, without mixture). So, we remain, creatures.’ (Robert Letham, The Holy Trinity, P&R, 468.)

John 6:54 says: ‘Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.’ Some (such as Roman Catholics) interpret this as meaning we are saved by partaking of the body and blood of Jesus in communion. Other (such as Zwingli) equate eating Christ’s flesh and drinking his blood simply with faith. So ‘whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood’ is seen as synonymous with ‘whoever believes’. But Calvin rejected this equation of partaking of Jesus with faith. Johnson says: ‘Saving intimacy or union with Christ is not the same thing as faith; rather, our saving union with him is the result of faith. The insight here, of Johannine and Pauline origin, is that while faith is surely saving, faith is not salvation; Christ is salvation.’ (52)

‘We are saved … not because of some intrinsic merit of our faith, but because we actually become united to the object of our faith Christ himself.’ (52)

Martin Luther: ‘And if they are one flesh and there is between them a true marriage … it follows that everything they have they hold in common, the good as well as the evil. Accordingly, the believing soul can boast of and glory in whatever Christ has as though it were its own, and whatever the soul has Christ claims as his own. Let us compare these and we shall see inestimable benefits. Christ is full of grace, life, and salvation. The soul is full of sins, death, and damnation. Now let faith come between them and sins, death, and damnation will be Christ’s, while grace, life, and salvation will be the soul’s; for if Christ is a bridegroom, he must take upon himself all the things which are his bride’s and bestow upon her the things that are his. If he gives her his body and very self, how shall he not give her all that is his? And if he takes the body of the bride, how shall he not take all that is hers?’ (The Freedom of a Christian)

J. I. Packer: ‘ God declares [believers] to be righteous, because he reckons them to be righteous; and he reckons righteousness to them, not because he accounts them to have kept the law personally (which would be false judgment), but because he accounts them to be united to the one who kept it representatively (and that is a true judgment). For Paul union with Christ is not fancy but fact – the basic fact, indeed, in Christianity; and the doctrine of imputed righteousness is simply Paul’s exposition of the forensic aspect of it.’ (‘Justification,’ Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, Baker, 596)

‘Once joined to Christ, believers well never be separated from him. This is not because our grasp on Christ is so strong, but because his grip on us is unbreakable. We are not only perfectly and eternally preserved in Christ because his grasp is insuperable, but, should we need even greater assurance, Jesus tells us that his hold on us is undergirded by the invincible grasp of his Father: “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.” (John 10:28-30) The Son and the Father have a common and mutually re-enforcing grasp on those who belong to them.’ (157)

One with Christ is available here from amazon.com and thinkivp.

Note, too, In Christ: In Him Together for the World by Steve Timmis and Christopher de la Hoyde which is part of the Porterbrook Network imprint with Christian Focus. It’s available from amazon.com and amazon.co.uk.

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The affections, emotions and appetites

In a previous post we looked at the importance of the affections in Puritan spirituality. In this post we explore the link between affections, emotions and appetites.


The Puritans employ a range of language which can be confusing. In particular, the Puritans (and Augustine) sometimes speak of the will driving the mind (or reason). This is because the affections so determine the will that they can speak of them synonymously. Jonathan Edwards said: ‘The affections are no other than the more vigorous and sensible exercises of the inclination and will of the soul.’ (The Religious Affections, Banner, 24)


The Puritans did not use the word ‘emotions’ (which only came in to common usage later). Thomas Dixon argues that after the eighteenth century, the word ‘emotion’ became a catch-all term that failed to distinguish between a variety of states that had been described in an earlier intellectual climate. Subtle distinctions that were encompassed in terms such as ‘passions’, ‘affections’, ‘sentiments’ and ‘appetites’ were lost. (Thomas Dixon, From Passions to Emotions: The Creation of a Secular Psychological Category, CUP, 2003.)


A helpful rule of thumb is that the term Puritans used for ‘emotions’ is ‘passions’. Our ‘passions’ are different from our ‘affections’. Our affections are our loves, desires, hopes, fears. Perhaps the nearest contemporary word is ‘motives’. Our affections are determined by what we consider the good that should be desired or the evil that should be shunned. These affections therefore drive both the will and passions.


Emotions or passion = affections + circumstances.

For example, if I desire the approval of the people (an affection) and my work is well-received then I’ll feel happy (an emotion). But if my work is not well-received (a change of circumstance) then I will feel sad (an change of emotion). My affection (the desire for approval) does not change, but it produces different emotions under different circumstances.

In Augustine when one’s love is ‘well-directed’ the affections that issue will also be good. These we will experience through a breadth of emotions – they will ‘both fear and desire, and grieve and rejoice’ – but ‘because their love is rightly placed, all these affections of theirs are right.’

Puritans could be wary of the passions because of their tendency to move us away from God. Puritans often distinguished between passions and affections (which were viewed more positively). Sometimes the passions were associated with the body and the affections with the mind.

The Puritans had another category: the appetites. The appetites are bodily responses (like hunger, thirst, tiredness). The Puritans were concerned that people should not be ruled by their appetites. In the self-controlled person, our affections conquer our appetites.

For more on affections and emotions in Puritan thought see Keith Condie, ‘The Puritans, Theological Anthropology and Emotions,’ in True Feelings: The Emotions in the Christian Life and Ministry, ed. Michael P. Jensen, IVP, 2012. True Feelings is available from Amazon.com and ThinkIVP.

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