Reviewed by: Jeremiah Montgomery
Date posted: 05/26/2013
An Honest and Well-Experienced Heart: The Piety of John Flavel, edited by Adam Embry. Published by Reformation Heritage Books, 2012. Paperback, 145 pages, list price $10.00. Reviewed by OP pastor Jeremiah Montgomery.
This is a fine little book. Embry's aim is to introduce us to the piety of John Flavel, a seventeenth-century English Puritan. First, he provides a brief summary of Flavel's life and ministry. Second, he presents a selection of passages culled from Flavel's published writings.
Embry divides his selections into four sections. These deal with Christ's rule in the heart, the Christian's duty to keep his heart, the Christian's life experience (seasons of the heart), and how we discern our hearts. Each section contains devotional gems as well as practical helps.
The first section reminds us that the gospel is not just true doctrine, but good news. In the gospel, God opens his heart to us and ours to him, so that "all men may now see that God has been designing and contriving for their happiness in Christ before the world was." Flavel uses potent imagery to describe "armies of convictions" overcoming "paper walls" in a sinner's heart, until finally the report of his conversion "sets the whole city of God rejoicing." Such vivid metaphors fire the imagination and stir the soul.
The second section exhorts us to guard our hearts amidst the many distractions of daily life. Flavel urges us to employ self-examination and divine meditation. At least once a day, we ought to inquire of our hearts, "O my heart, where have you been today?" Yet self-examination is pointless without biblical instruction: "It is the slipperiness of our hearts in reference to the Word that causes so many slips in our lives. Conscience cannot be urged, or awed, with forgotten truths."
The longest section is the third, which deals with seasons of the heart. Flavel provides sound pastoral counsel to those coping with the death of a child or of a spouse—both of which he experienced. He is particularly helpful when dealing with personal struggles with such things as anger, doubt, and preparing for one's own death.
In the fourth section, Flavel calls us to discern the condition of our hearts. The question is not, "Am I free of sin?" but rather, "Do I hate sin? Do I desire to be free of it?" Flavel warns us against morbid introspection, even as he calls us to honest assessment of our affections.
The picture of Flavel that emerges from this book is that of a minister who is concerned to promote experiential Christianity—a faith firmly rooted in the Word, yet warmly resonating in the affections. This is not just the piety of John Flavel. It is the gospel revealed in Scripture and summarized in the Reformed confessions.
Embry concludes his slim volume with a guide to reading Flavel's published writings. This is a fine parting gift for those—such as this reviewer—whom he has persuaded to undertake the endeavor.