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New Horizons

In the Valley of the Shadow of Death

J. V. Fesko

When the Westminster divines say that believers may have the assurance of their salvation shaken, diminished, and intermitted in many ways, there is a strong likelihood that the harsh times in which they lived gripped their minds. The English philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) famously described the life of man during that era as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”[1] The world was in the midst of a little ice age, which made for bad harvests. Ten out of sixteen years (1646–51 and 1657–61) had bad yields, which meant less food. A 30 percent reduction in a harvest could double the price of bread, whereas a 50 percent decline quintupled its price. The Thirty Years’ War (1618–48) raged and resulted in eight million dead. One Lutheran minister wrote in 1639 that of his one-thousand-member church, only a third remained a decade later. The English Civil War (1642–51) killed 7 percent of the population of England, Scotland, and Wales—some two hundred and fifty thousand. (If the United States lost 7 percent of its population today, nearly twenty-three million would die.)

In 1666, the Great Fire of London consumed eighty-four churches and thirteen thousand homes, leaving eighty thousand homeless. It basically destroyed London in the span of three days. As if this were not enough, the Black Plague wreaked havoc throughout Europe. In 1663–64, fifty thousand people in Amsterdam died, and it then spread to London where more than one hundred thousand people perished. Fifteen thousand people died in just one week (September 12–19, 1664). One to two thousand bodies were thrown into plague pits and buried every night.

Within this cauldron of suffering, King Charles II (1630–85) ascended the throne and ejected more than one thousand Reformed ministers from their pulpits in 1662.[2] Destruction, death, disease, war, famine, and persecution all converged in the middle of the seventeenth century.

The Divines’ Response

This historical context gives statements in our Confession of Faith greater texture and meaning. Such heartbreaking times might lead Christians to think that God had forgotten them, and thus they might be tempted to entertain doubts and fears about God’s goodness, faithfulness, and even their own state of salvation. Yet, the divines note that true believers are

never utterly destitute of that seed of God, and life of faith, that love of Christ and the brethren, that sincerity of heart, and conscience of duty, out of which, by the operation of the Spirit, this assurance may, in due time, be revived; and by the which, in the meantime, they are supported from utter despair. (18.4)

In spite of difficult circumstances and doubts about God’s love, the divines rested in the hope of God’s unceasing covenant faithfulness.

The divines did not ascend ivory towers and ignore the suffering around them. Rather, they were keenly aware of the comfort that the Bible offers to us. There are two noteworthy passages that the divines cite: “Though he slay me, I will hope in him” (Job 13:15), and “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning” (Ps. 22:1)?

These biblical texts lie on the long, winding path that culminates in the cross of Christ. Job is the righteous man who nevertheless suffered, a shadowy figure of Jesus Christ, the spotless Lamb who was silent before his accusers. Psalm 22:1 contains the words that Christ wailed from the cross in the darkest moment of his earthly ministry. The divines were convinced that we must always look at our lives through the cross of Christ. Only through Christ can we make sense of our lives. Our sinless Savior came into the world in the likeness of sinful flesh when he took upon himself our nature, “with all the essential properties, and common infirmities thereof” (Rom. 8:3; WCF 8.2). He stood in the breach and suffered unto death—he bore the curse upon the tree for us (Gal. 4:4–5). But Christ’s ministry did not end in ignominy and defeat but in his resurrection—his victory over sin and death (1 Cor. 15:54–55). This is the hope to which the divines clung and preached as they ministered in the midst of ruthless times.

Christ never leaves or forsakes us; he promised to be with us through the presence of his Spirit until the end of the age (Matt. 28:18–20; Rom. 8:9; 1 Cor. 15:45). The divines knew that God loved us enough to enter into our sin-fallen condition in order to redeem us and also be present with us throughout our lives, whether in times of plenty or want (Phil. 4:12–13). Christ never promised to eliminate suffering in our lives, but he does promise to be with us—to lead, guide, and provide for us.

The psalmist writes: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me” (Ps. 23:4). Christ, our good Shepherd, does not lead us around but through the valley, yet he is with us nevertheless! Christ’s presence and comforting speech through his word, gives us hope.

Psalm 22 begins with a forlorn cry but ends on a note of hope: “From you comes my praise in the great congregation; my vows I will perform before those who fear him. The afflicted shall eat and be satisfied; those who seek him shall praise the Lord! May your hearts live forever!” (vv. 25–26). The psalmist, and ultimately Christ, knew that God would not abandon him.

Christ and the Coronavirus

Thus, as we face COVID-19, our present-day plague, we must remember that we are not alone. We are in good company as we unite with the saints of ages past. Our theological forebears suffered intensely but looked at their lives through the cross of Christ. They recognized that their travails were the anvil upon which God was hammering them into the perfect image of Christ. They knew that their sufferings did not go around but through the cross. May we remember in these times of trial that God has not forgotten or abandoned us—far from it! Rather, he is pouring out his love to us in Christ, and nothing in this world can separate us from it.

Even though the Heidelberg Catechism was written in a different time than the Westminster Confession, its author drew from the same fount of truth when he wrote its famous opening question and answer:

What is your only comfort in life and in death?

That I am not my own but belong—body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood, and has delivered me from the tyranny of the devil. He also watches over me in such a way that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my Father in heaven; in fact, all things must work together for my salvation. Because I belong to him, Christ, by his Holy Spirit, also assures me of eternal life and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.

Not only are we joined in our sufferings by the scores of saints of days gone by, but Christ is always with us. He is always with us whether we walk on brightly lit and even ground or through the valley of the shadow of death. We must pray that God would help us remember that salvation is not merely about the destination of heaven, but that it is also all about the journey of the Christian life.

Endnotes

[1] Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (1651; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1904), 84.

[2] For these statistics and historical information, see Geoffrey Parker, Global Crisis: War, Climate Change and Catastrophe in the Seventeenth Century (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013).

The author is an OP minister and professor of systematic and historical theology at Reformed Theological Seminary, Jackson, Mississippi. New Horizons, May 2020.

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