By any accounts Samuel Rutherford was an extraordinary and remarkable man. The following comment by a contemporary does not overly exaggerate the high esteem in which Rutherford was held by many of his contemporaries:
“I have known many great and good ministers in this Church, but for such a piece of clay as Mr Rutherford was, I never knew one in Scotland like him, to whom so many great gifts were given, for he seemed to be altogether taken up with everything good and excellent and useful. He seemed to be always praying, always preaching, always visiting the sick, always catechising, always writing and studying... Many times I thought he would have flown out of the pulpit when he came to speak of Jesus Christ. He was never in his right element but when he was commending him. He would have fallen asleep in bed speaking of Christ.”
However idealised a picture of Rutherford this is, there is no doubting or denying that he was one of Scotland’s “spiritual giants.”
The early decades of the 17th century were marked by the Crown, through compliant bishops, seeking to bring the Reformed Church under its authority. The heady days of Presbyterian supremacy were an increasingly distant memory. Men like Andrew Melville had been first imprisoned and then exiled by James. Rutherford grew up, then, in a Church increasingly compromised and subject to the prelatic and episcopal views of James.
Rutherford was born, most probably, in 1600 in the village of Nisbet in Roxburghshire, the son of comfortably off parents. In 1617 he went to Edinburgh University where he excelled in Latin and Greek. Like John Calvin before him, Rutherford makes almost no mention of his conversion, neither its timing nor its circumstances. There are possibly only two references to his conversion in his writings. In a letter to Robert Stuart (June 17, 1637), he writes,
“Ye have gotten a great advantage in the way of heaven, that ye have started to the gate in the morning. Like a fool, as I was, I suffered my sun to be high in the heaven, and near afternoon, before I ever took the gate by the end.”
The second reference, which enables us somewhat to narrow down at least the timing of his conversion, occurs in a letter to Lady Kenmuir (July 28, 1636):
“... That honour that I have prayed for these 16 years, with submission to my Lord’s will, my kind Lord hath now bestowed upon me, even to suffer for my royal and princely King Jesus, and for His kingly crown, and the freedom of His Kingdom that His Father hath given Him.”
It would be reasonable to assume, then, that Rutherford was around twenty years of age when he was brought to saving faith. It is perhaps no bad thing that we know so little about the particulars of Rutherford’s conversion. At the least, we are being reminded that the vital thing about conversion is not when it happens, or how it happens, but the fact that it happens and shows itself in a transformed, Christ-centred, gladly obedient life!
In 1627 Rutherford was ordained and inducted to the charge with which his name is inseparably connected, Anwoth by the Solway. The fact that he was inducted “without giving engagement to the Bishop”, that is without having to acknowledge episcopal authority, provides the first striking example of a principle which ran like a golden thread through Rutherford’s life: “Truth before consequences!!” In a day when evangelicals have too easily accommodated biblical truth to ecclesiastical consensus, Rutherford’s example reminds us of the unyielding faithfulness that God seeks from his servants. It is not for us to play the game of “ecclesiastical statesmanship”, in the hope that evangelical influence can be promoted via the alter of ecclesiastical compromise. Like Rutherford, and more importantly like Daniel and the apostles before him, we must always choose to “obey God rather than men”.
For the next 10 years, Rutherford ministered happily and effectively in Anwoth. During this time, Rutherford’s first wife died after a long and sore illness. He was no stranger to personal grief and suffering; the comfort his ministry and letters brought to others was forged in the crucible of personal affliction. After Thomas Sydserff became Bishop of Galloway in 1635, Rutherford came increasingly under pressure to conform to episcopal authority. He was conscious that failure to do so could result in his being removed from Anwath. In a letter to Lady Kenmuir (18 January 1636) he writes:
“I expect our new prelate shall try my sitting. I hang by a thread, but it is (if I may speak so) of Christ’s spinning. There is no quarrel more honest or honourable than to suffer for truth.”
In another letter to Lady Kenmuir on 8 June, 1636, Rutherford wrote,
“Our prelate will have us either to swallow our light over and digest it contrary to our stomachs, howbeit we should vomit our conscience ... or then he will try if deprivation can convert us to the ceremonial faith.”
On 27 July 1636, Rutherford was removed from his charge and exiled to Aberdeen (It might seem strange to us that Aberdeen was considered a suitable place of exile; it was, however, strongly committed to episcopacy, and vigorously opposed the Reformed Presbyterianism so beloved by Rutherford) . However much he loved the people of Anwoth and cherished his ministry there, he chose to suffer the consequences of faithfulness to God’s truth, rather than “conform” to ecclesiastical principles that were contrary to Scripture. Rutherford’s cause was not helped by his recently published Exercitationes Apologeticae pro Divina gratia. This substantial defence of the doctrines of grace so “cut the sinews of Arminianism, and galled the Episcopal clergy to the very quick”, that Rutherford’s fate was sealed. (Stevenson’s History Vol 1, 149).
Rutherford was deeply affected by his removal from Anwoth:
“Next to Christ, I had but one joy, the apple of the eye of my delights, to preach Christ my Lord, and they have violently plucked that away from me”(to his Parishoners, July 13, 1637).
But while Rutherford’s exile was a sore trial to him, it was used by God to be the means of bringing blessing and comfort to multitudes. During his near two years of exile, Rutherford wrote 220 of his 365 extant letters! If Satan had intended to silence Rutherford by this exile, he found that God’s sovereign wisdom turned for good what he intended for evil! John Macleod described Rutherford’s “Letters” as “The most remarkable series of devotional letters that the literature of the Reformed Church can show”. Even Richard Baxter, one of Rutherford’s most trenchant critics, could write, “Hold off the Bible, such a book of Mr Rutherford’s letters the world never saw the like.”
What is remarkable is that Rutherford wrote his letters during a time of great personal trial. His letters flowed from a heart deeply wounded by the sorest of trials. When he wrote,
“I find it most true that the greatest temptation out of hell is to live without temptations; if my waters would stand they would rot. Faith is the better for the free air and the sharp winter-storm in its face; grace withereth without adversity,”
Rutherford was describing his own experience. His trials were great, but the comforts and consolations of Christ were greater: “I never knew before that his love was such in such a measure ... I have a fire within me; I defy all the devils in hell and all the prelates in Scotland to cast water on it.”
Rutherford’s greatest trial was his separation from his flock at Anwoth. His letters to them reveal how tenderly and anxiously he cared for them.
“my day-thoughts and my night-thoughts are of you: while ye sleep I am afraid of your souls ... My witness is above; your heaven would be two heavens to me, and the salvation of you all as two salvations to me.” (July 13, 1637)
During this period Rutherford’s letters throb with the praise of Christ -
"I find that my extremity hath sharpened the edge of His love and kindness, as that He seemeth to devise new ways of expressing the sweetness of His love to my soul ... (to John Nevay, minister of Newmilns in the parish of Loudoun, June 15, 1637).
It was during this time of exile that Rutherford entertained the idea of going to New England to escape persecution. Some of his friends believed he could find a sphere of useful service on the Continent. Robert Baillie wrote to Reverend William Spang,
“Always I take .... (Rutherford) to be among the most learned and best ingynes of our nation. I think he were very able for some profession in your colleges of Utrecht, Groningen, or Rotterdam ... If you could quietly procure him a calling, I think it were a good service to God to relieve one of his troubled ministers; and good to the place he came to, for he is both godly and learned; yea, I think by time he might be an ornament to our nation.” (16th January, 1637)
While Rutherford was tempted to leave Scotland, he could never fully contemplate taking such a step. In later years he wrote to a friend dissuading him from going abroad . His comments are revealing:
“Let me entreat you to be far from the thoughts of leaving this land. I see it, and find it, that the Lord hath covered the whole land with a cloud in his anger; but though I have been tempted to the like, I had rather be in Scotland beside angry Jesus Christ, knowing he mindeth no evil to us, than in any Eden or garden on the earth.”
In 1638, the signing of the National Covenant heralded a new dawn for Christ’s cause in Scotland. In June Rutherford returned to Anwoth, but only one year later the General Assembly appointed him to the strategic position of Professor of Divinity at St. Andrews : “my removal from my flock,” he wrote, “is so heavy to me, that it maketh my life a burden to me ... The Lord help and hold up sad clay.” (To Lady Kenmuir, Oct 1, 1639).
It was not surprising that Rutherford was one of the six Scottish Commissioners appointed in 1643 to the Westminster Assembly of Divines. It is hard to assess Rutherford’s contribution to the Westminster Assembly. Robert Baillie, writing to Robert Blair, 26 March 1644, declared, “Mr Samuel, for the great parts God has given him, and special acquaintance with the question in hand (Church government!), is very necessary to be here ...” However, Rutherford was a de jure divino Presbyterian. His views on Church government provoked Milton’s charge that “new presbyter is but old priest writ large.” On the other hand, Robert Baillie could write, “no people (the Westminster Assembly) had so much need of a Presbyterie” (Letters Vol II, 177)!!!
In 1644, Rutherford published his most enduringly notable controversial work Lex Rex, a trenchant reply to the theory of the divine right of kings. Rutherford denied that a limitless sovereignty belonged to the king, contending that the Crown is bestowed by the voluntary consent of the people, who are at liberty to resist a tyrant (we don’t appreciate just how much we owe our political freedoms and privileges to the Reformers and their spiritual and theological heirs, the Puritans).
During Rutherford’s time in London, two children from his second marriage died. So, in 1647 he returned once again to a childless home. He wrote sorrowfully of this to another bereaved parent:
“I was in your condition; I had but two children, and both are dead since I came hither ... The good husbandman may pluck His roses, and gather in His lilies at mid-summer, and, for aught I dare say, in the beginning of the first summer month ...” (from London 1645 to a Mrs Taylor).
In 1649, Rutherford was appointed Principal of the theological college at St. Andrews. With the spreading fame of his piety and learning, Rutherford received invitations to theological colleges in Holland (1648, 1651)
It might be worth mentioning in passing at this point that although Rutherford is best known (almost only known!) as a devotional writer, he was in fact also a highly speculative theologian, as much at home with abstract, philosophical theology as with homely piety. Rutherford’s more speculative thought is seen in his passionate espousing of supralapsarianism. In particular, Rutherford argued passionately that God is not required by his holy nature to punish sin. He wrote,
“God punished sin by no necessity of nature, nay, if He chose, He might leave it altogether unpunished.” (Apol.296)
In John Murray’s words, for Rutherford the cross was not “an absolute necessity, only a consequent absolute necessity!” (It is interesting to compare Rutherford’s view with Thomas Boston’s. Boston’s view is highlighted in the extended discussion in “The Marrow of Modern Divinity”, and passionately espoused by Boston.
“But sir, might not the Lord have pardoned Adam’s sin without satisfaction? Asks Nomista. ”No,“ replies Evangelista, ”for justice is essential in God. It is unjust to pardon sin without satisfaction." (Dabney has a helpful discussion on the Supra/Infralapsarian issue: p232f in his Lectures).
One of the saddest episodes in Rutherford’s life began to surface around 1650 with the increasingly bitter and acrimonious controversy between the Engagers (Resolutioners) and the Protesters. In 1647, Charles I (who was ready to promise anything to anyone) entered into an “Engagement” with Earls of Lanark, Lauderdale and Loudoun, on behalf of the Scottish Estates. In return for their support in his struggle against the English Parliament, Charles agreed to subscribe the Solemn League and Covenant and establish Presbyterianism in England for three years (a trial). This effectively split the Covenanters into two parties, with, as ever, godly men on both sides! There is little doubt (without benefit of history!) that the Protesters were in the right, but the controversy was sadly marked by great bitterness. No united front was presented against Cromwell, and the Church was totally ill-prepared for the accession of Charles II in 1660 . The striking lesson of this sad episode in the life of the Church in Scotland is that a “A house divided against itself cannot stand!”
Rutherford could be and often was accerbically dogmatic, but at heart he longed for concord and unity. In a sermon preached before the English Parliament in June 1644, Rutherford revealed his heart’s longing for peace and unity among all Christians:
“Shall we kill and devour one another all day and lodge together in heaven at night and can we say to one another in heaven ‘Hast thou found me, oh mine enemy?’ Shall there be any factions, any sides, either religions of Presbyterian and Independent in heaven or nations of England and Scotland ... and yet on earth must we be at daggers, at rents, at divisions; are there two Christs because two nations?”!
The accession of Charles II in 1660 meant that Rutherford’s days were numbered. In 1661, Rutherford was deprived of his offices, Lex Rex was ordered to be burned, and he was charged with treason. When Rutherford was deprived of his offices, Lord Burleigh said, “ye have voted that honest man out of the college, but ye cannot vote him out of heaven.”
When Rutherford heard that he was summoned to Edinburgh on charges of treason, he declared, “I have got summons already before a superior Judge and Judicatory, and I behove to answer to my first summons, and ere your day come, I will be where few kings and great folks come.”
Rutherford had long waited for the day when he would see his “Kingly King.” As he lay dying he repeatedly called for a “well-tuned harp.” On the last afternoon of his earthly life he said,
“This night will close the door and fasten my anchor within the veil ...” His last recorded words were, “Glory, glory dwelleth in Immanuel’s Land.”
He died on March 29, 1661 (on the very day the infamous Act Recissory was passed!) and went, as he had long desired, to “Immanuel’s high and blessed land” (Letter 333).
Rutherford’s Devotional Legacy
Rutherford’s legacy to the Christian Church is immense. There is little doubt, however, that his greatest legacy was his Letters. The spirituality and piety of his letters give the lie that Calvinism is cold, hard, or clinical. Whatever else it is, Calvinism, as we see from Rutherford’s Letters, is warm, evangelical and deeply affectional religion - cold Calvinism is a theological oxymoron! Calvinism is natively warm, natively affectional, natively evangelical, for one reason: Calvinism is biblical Xty, and the religion of our LJXt is a religion of “joy unspeakable and full of glory”.
Rutherford’s letters have a place in the hearts and minds of Christians, perhaps above all because they express a quality and ardour of devotion that we instinctively yearn after, because we recognise it as authentic biblical religion. Throughout his Letters a number of themes surface again and again, themes which were the hallmark of Puritan piety.
1. Rutherford’s Letters are supremely Christocentric. Jesus Christ is the thematic centrepiece of Rutherford’s Letters. Consider the note struck in the following selection:
“My sorrow is that I cannot get Christ lifted off the dust in Scotland, and set on high, above all the skies, and heaven of heavens.” (To D. Dickson, May 1, 1637).
“Give Christ your virgin love; you cannot put your love and heart into better hand. Oh! If ye knew Him, and saw His beauty, your love, your liking, your heart, your desires would close with Him and cleave to Him ... O Fair sun, and fair moon and fair stars, and fair flowers, and fair roses, and fair lilies and fair creatures, but O ten thousand thousand times fairer Lord Jesus” (to Laird of Cally, 1637).
“Christ is a well of life; but who knoweth how deep it is to the bottom? ... And oh, what a fair one, what an only one, what an excellent, lovely, ravishing one is Jesus.” (To Lady Hilconquar, 8 August, 1637).
The majesty and loveliness of Christ is the outstanding theme of his Letters. For Rutherford, the incomparable lovliness of Christ is the supreme delight of his heart:
“Oh, but Christ is heaven’s wonder, and earth’s wonder! What marvel that His bride saith, ”He is altogether lovely,“ ... Oh, pity for evermore, that there should be such a one as Christ Jesus, so boundless, so bottomless, and so incomporable in infinite excellency and sweetness and so few to take him.” (ditto)
Rutherford’s exile was such a profound trial to him principally because he could not preach Christ: “I had but one eye, one joy, one delight, ever to preach Christ, and they have taken this from me!” This is Calvinism at its purest and best! Calvinism is not less than “the five points,” but it is richer and profounder than “the five points.” It was B.B. Warfield who described Calvin as pre-eminently the “Theologian of the Holy Spirit”. And as the Holy Spirit’s great ministry is to “glorify Christ,” it should not surprise us that the most eminent Calvinists are those men and women who glory in the grace and lovliness of Christ.
2. Rutherford’s Letters reveal a deep concern for the souls of his people. Rutherford saw people in the light of eternity. He had a passionate care for their eternal wellbeing, a marked characteristic of Puritan piety and of the Reformed pastor.
“Thoughts of your soul depart not from me in my sleep ... Oh, if I could buy your soul’s salvation with any suffering whatsoever, that ye and I might meet with joy up in the rainbow, when we shall stand before our Judge.” (To Gordon of Cardoness, June 16, 1637)
“My witness is above; your heaven would be two heavens to me, and your salvation two salvations” (to Anwoth July 13, 1632).
In this deep concern for the souls of men and women, Rutherford was merely exemplifying a common feature of the Puritan pastor and more importantly, the LJXt himself cf.Lk.19:41-42 (cf.Paul in Roms.9:1-3;10:1)
3. Rutherford’s letters reveal a deep sense of the sinfulness of sin. Like all truly biblically taught men, Rutherford was most conscious of his own sin. He was perpetually conscious of his own “abominable vileness”: “Only my loathsome wretchedness and my wants have qualified me for Christ!”
It deeply troubled Rutherford that one so depraved should be admired as a master of the spiritual life. The truth surely, however, is that only those who have such a deep, Spirit-persuaded sense of their sinfulness before God can be effective ministers of God’s truth to others! Only someone who knows his own heart before God can begin to understand another’s! This is part of the innate appeal of the Letters to succeeding generations of Christians. They recognise in Rutherford a “man of like passions” as themselves, someone who understands the heart of man. Few so-called masters of the spiritual life today would speak about their “abominable vileness”, and “loathsome wretchedness”; or write, as Rutherford did, “Ye are as near heaven as ye are far from yourself”! But for Rutherford, as in Puritan piety in general, such sentiments were not expressions of low self esteem; rather, they were the confessions of men who stood in the piercing light of God’s truth and presence. This deep sense of the sinfulness of sin is markedly absent in present day evangelical Xty. But only a deep sense of sin will give you a deep sense of the grace and glory of the cross - “If thou wouldst know what sin is, go to mount Calvary” (Thomas Goodwin).
4. Rutherford’s Letters are full of counsel to afflicted saints. Tender compassion and strong counsel are distinguishing features throughout the Letters. To Vicountess Kenmure who was suffering spiritual depression, Rutherford wrote,
“Never believe that your tenderhearted Saviour, who knoweth the strength of your stomach, will mix that cup with one dram-weight of poison. Drink then with the patience of the saints, and the God of patience bless your medicine” (July 27, 1628).
In another Letter he wrote,
“Our crosses are like puffs of wind to blow our ship home; they convey us to heaven’s gate, but they cannot follow it into heaven!”
Rutherford’s profound spiritual counsel has been cherished over the centuries, perhaps above all because he wrote out of deep personal sufferings and anguish:
“My wife is so tormented night and day, that I have wondered why the Lord tarieth so long. My life is bitter unto me ... it is hard to keep sight of God in a storm” (To Marion McNaught Nov 17, 1629).
Although Rutherford’s piety soars to the very heights, it is shot through with reality. Rutherford knew firsthand the “dark night of the soul”. His own family circumstances, and sore exile, gave him, in God’s grace, a fellow feeling with afflicted Christians. His spiritual counsel was not formed in the study, it was forged in the sore trials that a sovereign and loving providence brought into his life.
5. Rutherford’s Letters are full of eagerness for heaven. The centre of Rutherford’s life lay in heaven, not on earth:
“Love is sick to hear tell of tomorrow.” “Oh, when will we meet! Oh, how long is it to the dawning of the marriage day! O sweet Jesus, take wide steps! O my Lord, come over the mountain at one stride.”
“O fairest among sons of men, why stayest Thou so long away? O heaven move fast! O time run, run, and hasten the marriage day.”
Rutherford once described himself as “A man often borne down and hungry, and waiting for the marriage supper of the Lamb.” This eagerness for heaven is a recurring pulsebeat throughout the Letters, and throughout Puritan piety in general. It is an echo of Paul’s “to be with Christ is far better”. This heavenly-mindedness, however, did not keep Rutherford from absorbing himself in seeking the present good of Christ’s cause in the world. On the contrary, it was his heavenly-mindedness that equipped him to be such a useful servant of Christ and his Church: the more heavenly-minded you are, the more earthly use you will be!
By any accounts, Samuel Rutherford was an extraordinary Christian: Devotional writer par excellence! Powerful preacher! Passionate apolgist! Skilled dogmatician! But if we ever desire to know what made Rutherford “tick,” we will need to see him through the lens of his dying words:
“Dear brethren, do all for Him. Pray for Christ. Preach for Christ. Do all for Christ; beware of men-pleasing. The Chief-shepherd will shortly appear.” For Rutherford, Jesus Christ was everything! In this, Rutherford exemplified the heart of true Puritanism: to live for the glory of God, to love and serve Jesus Christ, to do good to God’s people. Rutherford’s orthodoxy was not merely doctrinal; he epitomised “orthodox” Christ-centred living! Yes, he was, as he admitted, “a man of extremes”. He could be unnecessarily vitriolic in debate! His espousal of de jure divino Presbyterianism was often less than gracious and a hindrance to Christian unity! In his dying testimony, Rutherford admitted that the covenanters had concentrated on church government to the detriment of the life of the Spirit: “Our work in public”, he wrote,“ (was) too much in sequestration of estates, fining and imprisoning ... In our Assemblies we were more bent to set up a state opposite to a state; more upon forms, citations, leading of witnesses, suspension from benefices, than spiritually to persuade and work upon the conscience with the meekness and gentleness of Christ” (quoted in Scots Worthies p284)
Rutherford has left us a rich legacy of consecrated scholarship and Christ-centred, Christ-fuelled devotion. His last recorded words, more than anything else, sum up the man he was: “Glory, glory dwelleth in Immanuel’s land.” In this four hundredth anniversary of his birth, it would be no bad thing if we read again (or even for the first time) his Letters. At the very least, we would be reminded of the quality, intimacy, pastoral kindness and Christ-centred passion that should be, in every generation, a marked feature of those of us who call ourselves Calvinists.