Reviewed by Geoff Chang
When reading the biographies of the heroes of the faith, it’s easy to picture their lives as filled with historically significant moments of adventure and courage. However, in reality, the lives of these saints were mostly made up of ordinary moments in which they labored faithfully to shepherd God’s people and teach God’s Word. These ordinary moments of ministry also provide an important glimpse into their true character. In The Way of True Peace and Rest, we gain such an insight into the ministry of Robert Bruce (c. 1554-1631), who served as a minister in the Reformed Church of Scotland. In this collection of sermons, we encounter a faithful gospel ministry and the example of one who is preparing his people to suffer well.
The book begins with a brief sketch of Robert Bruce’s life, conversion, ministry at St. Giles Kirk in Edinburgh and eventual banishment by King James VI. Those who are unfamiliar with Bruce’s life will find these sermons even more encouraging by reading a fuller account of his life. The translator, David Searle, has edited these sermons to make them more accessible, but historians will want to turn to the original text for any academic work.
The body of the book is composed of six sermons on Isaiah 38, likely preached in Edinburgh between 1588-1590. In this passage, the prophet Isaiah confronts King Hezekiah with the news of his impending death, and yet God in his mercy provides a miraculous healing. In the first sermon, on verses 1-3, Bruce deals with the reality of disease and death in the life of the believer and warns Christians not to ignore this coming trial. Rather, like Hezekiah, the believer is called to turn to the only One who can save him. In the second sermon, Bruce unpacks God’s response through Isaiah in verses 4-6. Here, he meditates particularly on Isaiah’s task as a prophet, his obedience both in delivering difficult news and good news, and the implications for those who would speak God’s Word. The third sermon is on verses 7-11 and here Bruce explains the significance of Hezekiah’s sign. Also in his prayer, Bruce presents a model for how believers can prepare themselves to face death. The fourth sermon deals with verses 12-14, unpacking Hezekiah’s images of death and suffering. Here, Bruce’s pastoral gifts shine as he points his people to God’s purposes in the midst of suffering, and how to respond in faith and hope. The fifth sermon on verses 15-16 address Hezekiah’s response of thankfulness and the marks of a Spirit-filled life. Finally, in the last sermon on verses 16-22, Bruce focuses on Hezekiah’s salvation and holds out God’s promise of complete forgiveness for those who turn to him in Christ.
This book also contains two more sermons in the appendix, which highlight aspects of Bruce’s ministry. The first one is a sermon on 1 Corinthians 11:28, which is included particularly to highlight Bruce’s sensitivity to guarding our consciences. Appendix 2 is a sermon on 2 Timothy 2:15, ‘An Exhortation to the Presbyteries of Lothian.’ Here, the reader gains further insight into the character of pastoral ministry in the Scottish Reformed Church during Bruce’s day.
There were three aspects of this book which are worth commending for all Christians, but particularly those who are laboring in the ministry of the Word.
First, Robert Bruce’s preaching method is a good example of a faithful pulpit ministry. Not many would choose to preach on Isaiah 38, but here is an example of a preacher who believes in the inspiration of the Word of God and believes that God has something to say to His people in this passage. In reading these sermons, they do not seem to be particularly spectacular. Nor is there any indication of these sermons being associated with a revival. However, it is clear that these are sermons that seek to be faithful to the text and nourishing to the listeners. Here is an historical example of a pastor laboring in the Word to faithfully bring the truths of Isaiah 38 to his people.
In particular, Bruce is a model for thinking through application. He doesn’t neglect the exegesis and theological reflection needed on the text. However, he is not content merely to have an intellectual discourse, but he spends the majority of his sermons applying the text to the lives of his people. This application does not merely concern with outward behavior, but so often, Bruce does the more difficult application to the heart. For example, on the fifth sermon, he does not merely command Christians to express thankfulness. Rather, he meditates on the goodness of God and warns against the danger of ingratitude and pride. (118-9) In doing so, his goal is to promote his congregation’s thankfulness, to help them feel the rightness of it, rather than merely to command them to be thankful. This kind of heart-oriented application is a great example to preachers who struggle with superficial or simplistic applications.
However, it’s also important to point out that there are aspects of his homiletics which will likely not entirely translate into our day. For example, he never includes a proper sermon introduction. Rather, his sermons begin with a long review of the previous sermon. These introductions presume interest in the part of his hearers, rather than making the case for why they should listen to him. In a culture that is increasingly unchurched, preachers today will have to do some translation, rather than appropriating all of Bruce’s methods entirely.
Preaching about Suffering
Another commendable example in these sermons is Bruce’s preaching on suffering. Given Hezekiah’s illness, his reflections on suffering, and his subsequent healing, Bruce takes the opportunity in these sermons to teach on the reality of our fallen human experience. In preaching these sermons, he is preparing his people to suffer, knowing that their day will come. Sadly, for many preachers, they can get away with preaching lighter sermons because most of the people who are coming to hear them are not yet experiencing suffering. But here, Bruce shows that the time to think well about suffering, the sovereignty of God, and our appropriate response is when things are going well. To consider suffering when you’re in the midst of it is already too late.
In many ways, Bruce’s own life proved to be evidence of this. During the preaching of these sermons, he has the favor of the king, and even makes bold sermon applications directly to him. Before long, however, Bruce would be forced to choose between Christ and the king, and would end up banished from his home. In his exile, it is likely that Bruce reflected on his own teaching on God’s purposes in our suffering:
His purpose is for them to see clearly what Christ has suffered as he bore the full weight of his Father’s wrath inflamed against our sins; not only against the sins of those who are afflicted, but his wrath against the sins of all his elect children. He casts them into such extremities so that they will realize that as a result of Christ’s suffering for them they are now under obligation to their Lord; also so that they will understand a little of how precious that redemption, purchased by his blood should be to us all… you cannot truly value heaven unless you have had a taste of hell. (96)
However, one caution should be raised. One danger when it comes to preaching on God’s purposes in suffering is too closely associating particular sins with a particular suffering. This is what Job’s friends tried to do. Though proverbial wisdom warns us of the suffering that sin brings, we do not always know the reason behind the suffering God brings. Preachers who are speaking to a diverse congregation will need to speak carefully in this matter. Here, Bruce does not provide a good example. He writes, “Take away all sin and all punishment shall cease… Therefore, learn the lesson: whatever affliction the Lord chooses to visit upon us, whether some bodily ailment or a troubled conscience, we must hasten along that highway to God, examine our past life, acknowledge our offences and run to the throne of grace for mercy.” (145) Though this might sometimes be true, it cannot be universalized for all suffering. Such teaching could leave those who are suffering innocently (as Job was) in an introspective black hole. Bruce would come to find this out himself, even as he paid dearly for his own stand for the truth.
Preaching the Gospel
Finally, Bruce provides an example for a robust preaching of the gospel. Preaching in a state church context, Bruce did not assume that all his hearers were already Christians. Rather, he explicitly sought to make the gospel clear. Though the gospel provides the foundation of all his sermons, it particularly shines in the sixth sermon. Having warned his people of the way our sufferings reveal our sin and having laid out the various categories of sin in our lives, Bruce then moves on to the hope of the gospel:
Hezekiah does not say that God has delivered him from the first two categories of sin, but not from the third. No, states that he has cast all his sins away and delivered him from death and condemnation. So mark well that this is the nature of God in Christ: from the moment when he begins to call his children to repentance and to work in their hearts, he does not forgive only certain of their sins, but he forgives all their sins, past, present and those to come; his grace comprehends the whole of their lives. (147-8)
Preaching in a context where his people likely knew the facts of the gospel, Bruce does not hesitate to remind them once again of the forgiveness that is found in Christ. And it is out of this gospel that Bruce grounds his call to a life of obedience and perseverance, even in the face of suffering.
However, in light of his clarity on the Gospel, one more concern should be raised. Preaching in the context of a state church, Bruce applies his sermon not only to the church, but also to the nation. In doing so, there are times when he seems to confuse their identity as the members of the church, and their identity as citizens of the nation. For example, in one sermon, he thanks God for their recent deliverance from the Spanish Armada, and yet he chastises the nation for not living up to the blessing. (155-6) There’s no doubt that such a deliverance was from God’s sovereign hand. However, as a preacher, why would you ground your appeal in an earthly deliverance, when in the gospel we have a deliverance from a far more terrible enemy? Making such an application confuses the identity and expectations of those who belong to Christ with those who belong to the state. On these political matters, preachers today who are reading Bruce will want to read him charitably in light of his political context, but should tread carefully in following his example.
The Way of True Peace and Rest provides an encouraging glimpse into Robert Bruce’s faithful ministry. Discerning pastors who are looking for an example to improve their own preaching will find much good here. And suffering Christians who are looking for comfort in their trials will find much hopeful instruction.
For a short biography of Bruce’s life, see Murray, A Scottish Christian Heritage. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 2006, 37-72.
Geoff Chang serves as associate pastor at Hinson Baptist Church in Portland, OR and is a PhD student at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Buy the books
The Way to True Peace and Rest