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Reformed Literature

The Godly Man’s Picture

Thomas Watson

The Banner of Truth

I suspect that most readers of this review will know exactly who Thomas Watson was and where and when he lived. However, all good reviews should not assume things on the behalf of the reader so Thomas Watson lived from 1620 to 1686 in that tumultuous period of English History that saw the execution of King Charles I and the establishment of Cromwell as the Lord Protector.

He was the minister as St. Stephen’s, Walbrook which is located in central London. He was a minister for the Church of England but at that time it was open to question whether the Church of England would turn into a Presbyterian or an Anglican body. In 1662, the Church of England ejected all its’ Puritan and Presbyterian ministers, including Thomas Watson. He was a member of the Westminster Assembly as it met from 1643-1649 and after his ejection he ministered at Crosby House, London as it became a place for Presbyterian worship.

He is widely viewed as one of the most easily accessible and profound Puritan writers who has an ability to convey thoughts and doctrinal truths in timeless language, that is as relevant to us in 2011 as it was to his hearers in the 1640s. He has a capacity to draw out spiritual truths with a range of pithy illustrations. The great Victorian Baptist preacher, C.H. Spurgeon writing about this book comments that it is ‘a happy union of sound doctrine, heart searching experience and practical wisdom’.

This book is a useful guide to a Christian seeking to delve into what it means to be a Christian and how piety ought to express itself. It begins with the quotation from Psalm 24:4, ‘Who shall ascend into the hill of the Lord?’ showing the Bible’s answer to be ‘He that hath clean hands and a pure heart’ and aims in the book to draw out what is meant in that description. Watson reminds us in the preface that Hugh Latimer used to say, ‘when I sit alone, and have a settled assurance of the state of my soul, and know that God is my God, I can laugh at all troubles, and nothing can daunt me.’ Encouraging us at the same time with the remark that we should study the character of the saint’s and not desist from that study until it has found itself stamped on our own souls.

The book begins with a three page statement of sin and salvation. Watson then moves into three more pages on what is meant by the term ‘Godliness’. It is refreshing to see this subject treated not as a list of do’s and don’ts, or a censorious critique of the lives of others but as a simple presentation of the reality of an internal change of heart and mind that inflames a person’s life permanently. He then moves to a four page reproof to those who pretend to have ‘Godliness’, those who are intent on keeping an outward set of rules and who delude others and sometimes themselves. At the end of this chapter he remarks most pointedly that there are two signs of someone who is still under the power and dominion of hypocrisy: these are, those who serve with a squint eye – when one is serving God for a sinister end;  and those who serve with a good eye – when there is a dear sin that the hypocrite cannot part with. For those affected with the fear of the later sign he guides them to go to Christ and beg him to subdue the sin and exercise spiritual surgery.

The book then moves into its main body, with a series of sections on the characteristics of the godly man. It is in this section that you will find many challenge and pithy remarks, such as, ‘knowledge which is not applied will only light a man to hell. It would be better to live a savage than to die an infidel under the gospel. Christ not believed in is terrible. Moses’ rod, when it was in his hand, did a great deal of good. It wrought miracles; but when it was out of his hand, it became a serpent. So Christ, when laid hold on by the hand of faith, is full of comfort, but not laid hold on, will prove a serpent to bite’. He quotes, Richard Greenham’s comment that he feared not papism, but atheism would be England’s ruin. In relation to zeal, he says ‘It is probable that many in King Henry VIIIs time were eager to pull down the abbeys, not out of any zeal against popery, but that they might build their own houses upon the ruins of those abbeys, like eagles that fly aloft but their eyes are down upon their prey. If blind zeal is punished sevenfold, hypocritical zeal shall be punished seventy sevenfold.’

In teaching that thankfulness is an important characteristic of the godly life, he says, ‘not being thankful is the cause of all the judgements which have lain on us. Our unthankfulness for health has been the cause of so much mortality. Our gospel unthankfulness and sermon-surfeiting has been the reason why God has put so many lights under a bushel. As Bradford said, ‘my unthankfulness was the death of King Edward VI’. Who will spend money on a piece of ground that produces nothing but briars?

In his concluding sections, he encourages us to value the company of the godly. ‘Novarinus tells us of an ancient king who invited a company of poor Christians and made them a great feast. On being asked why he showed so much respect to persons of such mean birth and extraction, he told them, ‘These I must honour as the children of the most high God. They will be kings and princes with me in another world’. The godly are in some sense higher than the angels. The angels are Christ’s friends; these are his spouse.’ The final sections provide words of both counsel and comfort to those who would be godly.

‘A philosopher asked a young man whether he would live to be rich Croesus or virtuous Socrates. He answered that he would like to live with Croesus and die with Socrates. So men would like to live with the wicked in pleasure but die with the godly.’ Quite rightly, Watson then says, ‘if godliness is so desirable at death, why should we not pursue it now?’