Helpful Truth in Past Places: The Puritan Practice of Biblical Counseling [Review]
Page Count: 192
Publisher: Christian Focus
Many view the Puritan writers as too distant, too divorced from the world in which we now live, relics of an irrelevant age. What can they offer? I mean seriously, I got problems! What do they know about depression, and anxiety, and worry? Mark Deckard, the author of Helpful Truth in Past Places: The Puritan Practice of Biblical Counseling, states, however, “despite our modern prejudices, their problems were not all that different than our own.”(pg. 14) In fact, many of these men suffered banishment, imprisonment, ridicule, and untimely death.
A.W. Pink used to say that he felt he was born 300 years too late. I have felt that way, which is why the bulk of my reading is in past writers. Newer books often lack connectedness to the church of the past. Novelty is typically the order of the day. Through constant innovation and capitulation to the world around we lose much that makes us distinctly Christian. In this book, however, the author carefully avoids all of that.
Deckard looks at a number of issues: contentment, fear, anxiety, depression, worry, etc…and does so through the writings of John Flavel, Jeremiah Burroughs, John Owen, John Bunyan, Jonathan Edwards, William Bridge, and Thomas Brooks.
To begin with, let me say that weak doctrine produces weak Christians. Robust doctrine, assimilated and obeyed, produces strong stable Christians. Nowhere is this more evident than in Chapter 2 on God’s providence. What you believe about this issue will dramatically affect how you live your life.
Providence is normally defined as the unceasing activity of the Creator whereby, in overflowing bounty and goodwill (Psalm 145:9, cf. Matthew 5:45-48), He upholds his creatures in ordered existence (Acts 17:28; Colossians 1:17; Hebrews 1:3), guides and governs all events circumstances and free acts of angels and men (Psalm 107, Job 1:12, 2:6; Genesis 45:5-8), and directs everything to its appointed goal, for his own glory (cf. Ephesians 1:9-12). (pg. 20)
Is God in control? Is He sovereign in the only meaningful sense of the word? I don’t see how Arminians sleep at night. Or how they can claim the promise of Romans 8:28. Only when you know that God is sovereign. That He providentially guides history even down to the number of hairs on your head (Luke 12:7; Matt. 10:30) Then, when the whole world is caving in around you, you can go forth in peace, knowing that He is in control and that He knows best. You “may be blind at times but God sees both sides of the tapestry and even sees the finished product (Rom. 8:29-30).” (pg. 23)
Chapter 4 addresses the Christian’s battle with sin using John Owen’s Of the Mortification of Sin in Believers. Mortification is simply a fancy term for the ongoing work of “putting to death sin” in our lives. This is vitally important.
Do you battle sin? One writer has stated that the difference between a true Christian and a false professor is seen at this point. It is not that a believer will be perfectly sinless. That can never be this side of heaven. But, in the case of the true Christian the battle goes on till death. The true Christian hates sin, fights sin, and mourns over sin. In fact, the longer a Christian lives, and the more he grows in Christlikeness, the more acutely aware of his sin he becomes. The false professor has no such scruples, no conviction and no discipline from God (Hebrews 12:8).
This chapter shows what mortification is, and in true Puritan style, “what [it] is not” (pg. 83), effective ways of mortification and ineffective ways. One such “not” of mortification: you are not battling sin if you say, “Well, I will just sin. No big deal! I will just ask God’s forgiveness after I sin.” That is not mortification. That’s sinful presumption. (pg. 89) That approach to sin, “seeks to take advantage of the grace of God to forgive and forgets the terrible price that Christ had to pay upon the cross to bring us that grace of God.” (pg.90)
But, this book is hopeful, and so lest we become discouraged John Owen reminds us that mortification is ultimately not so much our work, but rather the Holy Spirit’s work. He ‘only is sufficient for this work; any ways and means without him are as a thing of naught.’ (pg. 81)
Other issues the book addresses are contentment, ‘Contentment does not come from my purposes or my wants but from denying myself to instead seek to focus on loving God and loving others’ (pg.65), depression, anxiety, fear, and so on.
I am thankful that Christian focus published this book. It was convicting. It showed me, and is still showing me areas of my own life that need to change. This book was heavy, but hopeful. You won’t be discouraged. You will be encouraged. I didn’t agree with everything I read, but there is so much gold here. In fact Mark Deckard’s insights drawn from his counseling experience are some of the best in the book. Buy a copy. You will be glad you did, and you will be better equipped to counsel others, including yourself. I know I was.