Book review: The Works of John Flavel (0851510604)
Posted by Tony Reinke
The Works of John Flavel (6 volumes)
“Some Puritans might be more learned than he, and some more quaint, but for all-around usefulness none was his equal.” Iain Murray on John Flavel
It’s no exaggeration to say the six volume Works of John Flavel are one of the most useful of all the Puritans. Comprised of 22 books and 116 sermons covering a wide range of issues, I have found Flavel’s works to be useful on all topics in my expositional work. A simple scan through Martin’s topical index (A Guide to the Puritans) will bear this out.
John Flavel’s (1628-1691) preaching was experiential and strong. His biographer writes, “He preached what he felt, what he had handled, what he had seen and tasted of the word of life, and they [his hearers] felt it also” (1:xii). One of his hearers said, “that person must have a very soft head, or a very hard heart, or both, that could sit under his ministry unaffected” (1:vi).
Flavel was known for his personal godliness, commitment to prayer, faithfulness under hard trials, and generosity towards the poor. He was aware of the controversial issues but chose not to jump into the debates, instead filling the role of peacemaker. He lived through the persecution of Puritan preachers (between 1662-1687) and was given a few years of freedom in his last years. Yet during this time of turmoil, Flavel (like Owen, Goodwin, Bunyan, Manton and the other great Puritans) continued to produce the precious works we now own, collect and use.
The glory of Christ
The great litmus test of a preacher or author is this: What do they say about the preciousness of Christ? I am amazed at the number of popular books published under the category ‘Christian’ that — while talking much on theology or marriage issues or child-raising or personal fulfillment — totally neglect the beauty of Christ. Not so with Flavel. To him, the knowledge of Christ is of utmost importance for joy eternal and joy now.
At the beginning of his famous collection of sermons titled, The Fountain of Life Opened Up: A Display of Christ in His Essential and Mediatorial Glory, Flavel writes,
“Knowledge is man’s excellency above the beasts that perish (Ps. 32:9). The knowledge of Christ is the Christian’s excellency above the Heathen (1 Cor. 1:23, 24). Practical and saving knowledge of Christ is the sincere Christian’s excellency above the self-cozening hypocrite (Heb. 6:4, 6). But methodical and well-digested knowledge of Christ is the strong Christian’s excellency above the weak (Heb. 5:12, 13, 14). A saving, though an immethodical knowledge of Christ, will bring us to heaven (John 17:2) but a regular and methodical, as well as a saving knowledge of him, will bring heaven to us (Col. 2:2, 3). For such is the excellency thereof, even above all other knowledge of Christ, that it renders the understanding judicious, the memory tenacious, and the heart highly and fixedly joyous” (1:21).
This paragraph ignites into 500 pages of sermons to build in the reader’s knowledge of Christ and bring the heart a high and fixed joy.
Contrasted to men like John Owen and Thomas Goodwin, Flavel’s works are very easy to read. Like all Puritans, his content is dense, but his sermons and books flow gracefully.
The six-volume Banner of Truth edition is comprised of 22 books and 116 sermons. Volume one includes a short but helpful biography of Flavel’s life. A 500-page book, The Fountain of Life, follows and makes up most of the first volume. Spanning 42 hefty sermons, Flavel explores the beauty of Christ in His person and then in His work as the Mediator. He also explores the seven sayings of the Cross. As we saw earlier, a deep knowledge of Christ’s beauty brings heaven down to us and this he accomplishes in this first volume.
The second volume is a collection of 38 sermons. The first 35 comprise The Method of Grace in the Gospel Redemption, a series explaining how we are saved, why sinners should come to Christ, the benefits of Christ towards the believer, what happens to bring sinners up to the point of salvation (like conviction), distinguishing between the genuine and false believers, and the present and eternal state of the unregenerate. These sermons cover a broad landscape of evangelical themes. Three sermons in the nature of man’s soul complete volume two and continue into the first five sermons of volume three.
Volume three is given to a number of issues including the difference between sinful and non-sinful fear, God’s protection of His children in times of judgment upon the earth, the dangers of doctrinal error, and the importance of unity in the church around the Gospel.
Volume four includes 11 sermons delivered in England after the persecution of Puritans concluded in the late 1680s. In the midst of this evangelical freedom, England and its people should ever seek to repent, turn from sin and press close to Christ. “England hath now a day of special mercy: there is a wide door of opportunity opened to it; O that it might prove an effectual door! It is transporting and astonishing, that after all the high and horrid provocations, the atheism, profanes, and bitter enmity against light and reformation: the sweet voice is still heard in England, Behold, I stand at the door and knock” (4:3-4).
Following this, Divine Conduct or The Mystery of Providence highlights the many ways God has put each of us where we are from our birth, family heritage and spouse. God is in control and we should take note of His activities. How we encounter temptation is the theme of Antipharmacum Saluberrimum. Pressing close to Christ, not surprisingly, is where he begins. Two short books on the danger of “Popery” and one on letters of seamen saved from storms at sea close the volume.
Volume five includes a 200-page book, Husbandry Spiritualized: The heavenly use of earthly things based upon 1 Corinthians 3:9 (“You are God’s field”). In it Flavel takes the natural and common and teaches eternal truth. Like Divine Providence, it’s seeing God speaking in everyday life. Navigation Spiritualized: A new compass for seamen is a 100-page book spiritualizing sailing terms for the purpose of converting sailors. A Caution to Seamen follows on the prevalent sins of this profession like drunkenness and swearing. Another book for seamen and then a book on the important duty of watching over our own hearts follows. Books on discovering hypocrisy and another for those who mourn the loss of loved ones ends the volume.
The final volume includes several books. Preparations for Suffering teaches us to prepare and endure suffering and trials. Other topics include an exposition of the Westminster Shorter Catechism, twelve sacramental sermons for the Lord’s Supper, the necessity of conversion and personal reformation, importance of pastoral ministry and indexes.
The subject index is adequate, spanning 40 pages. However, the textual index is limited to primary sermon texts (unnecessary if you use one of the two Puritan sermon indexes). Navigation through the works will certainly be hindered by this weakness but this should not detract from the value of Flavel.
Warmly devotional and diverse in content, John Flavel’s works are a ‘must-have’ for a Puritan library. He is one of the most readable and helpful of the Puritans and will be a great friend to your expositional preparations. Flavel will help you to see God’s work in the world, encourage evangelism, and (most importantly) point you towards the beauty of Christ in all topics.
Boards: clothbound, hardcover (burnt orange, gilded)
Dust jackets: yes
Binding: Smyth sewn
Paper: normal, top edge painted (red)
End papers: front of each contains outline of all six volumes
Text: facsimile of 1820 version (W. Baynes and Son)
Topical Index: yes (good; end of vol. 6)
Textual index: yes (poor; end of vol. 6)
Biography: yes (short but excellent; vol. 1)
Publisher: Banner of Truth Trust
Price USD: $165/$123 at Monergism books
Indexed: yes, both Martin and PCA
ISBNs: 0851517234, 0851517226, 0851510604, 085151720x, 0851517196, 0851517188