He was a Cambridge educated pastor of a Congregationalist church near Boston for more than fifty years. But he is remembered primarily for his cross-cultural missions.
John Eliot (1604–1690) ventured “outside the camp” (Hebrews 13:13) to minister among the Algonquin and other tribes of the colonial eastern seaboard and helped produce the first complete Bible in an American language. Besides the publication of catechisms and language learning tools in the Algonquin tongue, Eliot also translated three Puritan devotional classics for use by Native Christians. His longest extant original composition in English is titled, The Harmony of the Gospels, in the Holy History of the Humiliation and Sufferings of Jesus Christ, from His Incarnation to His Death and Burial (1678). It was Eliot’s contribution to the growing body of Lord’s Supper preparation literature that was a popular genre of the day in New England.
Fetch Grace at the Table, Among the Body
The septuagenarian pastor believed passionately that the ideal way to “go forth” unto Jesus and “fetch grace” from him in order “to enable us unto any Service in doing or suffering the good pleasure of the Lord, whatever it be” was to engage in the Lord’s Supper with faith and joy.
For Eliot, that meant participation in the Lord’s Supper with the other members of a congregation with whom one had entered into a covenant commitment to live in harmonious fellowship. It meant the taking of the bread and wine, in a thoughtful way, with a body of brothers and sisters who were pursuing faithfulness to Jesus together, who were “truthing it in love” when the need arose and were carrying one another’s burdens in tangible ways that bore witness to the Spirit’s presence among them. Eliot writes,
When we celebrate the death and sufferings of Jesus Christ in our Sacramental Communion with God, it doth revive our damped and discouraged Faith, it seals our inseparable union to Jesus Christ, enabling us to say what shall separate me? It doth also quicken, animate, and encourage Faith to venture upon the greatest, most difficult, and dangerous enterprise, when called thereunto; it enables the Soul to say, my life is not dear to me, so I may but finish the Lord’s work, unto which he hath called me, whatever Sufferings, sorrows, Trials, Temptations I am thereby exposed unto. When Faith is strengthened, all grace is on the thriving hand. (65)
Eliot had pastoral words of instruction and encouragement for readers facing sufferings, sorrows, trials, or temptations — four separate categories of what Christ has endured for us and what believers each must also encounter. He considered the successful withstanding of temptations to be an important part of growing in Christian maturity.
He writes, “A right walking with God in Temptations, is an eminent practical point of Religion: it renders a man to be a true follower of Jesus Christ, and very acceptable unto him” (63). He teaches that “a stone hewed by the Axe and Hammer of Temptations, is fit to be built into a Gospel Church, and to enjoy full Communion at the Lord’s Table, and voting in the Church, and one fitted and humbled by Temptations, is fit to undertake the Gospel Ministry in a Gospel Church” (58). He also says, “It is an experimental saying of holy men, that prayer, meditation and Temptation make a good Christian, a good Minister, a good Magistrate, it fitteth a soul for any service that the Lord shall call him unto” (64).
Temptation Is an Opportunity
What is it about temptations that made Eliot consider them so crucial to Christian growth? He explains,
Temptations are humbling providences, they are rods of correction and Instruction, that wean us from all kind of self confidence, or self seeking; they rectify and purge us in our grounds and ends, in all our motions: and when a Christian is duly sanctified in his grounds and ends, he is a fitted instrument to glorify God in any service whatsoever. The less of man, the more of God. (65)
Should we then pursue temptations? Eliot counsels against that, citing Peter’s following of Christ into the courtyard of the high priest’s house as an illustration: “It is dangerous to intrude ourselves into a place or way of Temptation, as Peter did; it may expose us to lie or deny Christ, and curse ourselves; as all these falls and knocks Peter felt” (78).
God’s Permit to Carry
Eliot reminds readers that “Jesus Christ hath suffered Temptations deeper than any ever did, and therefore experimentally knoweth how to relieve us” (65). Besides going to God in prayer and drawing near to Christ by way of taking Communion with the body, Eliot points readers to the word of God as another weapon with which to fight temptation to sin. He looks to the wilderness experience of the Word-made-flesh as our example and divine precedent for wielding the Sword of the Spirit against Satan’s assaults.
See the constant way by which the Lord Jesus doth answer, expel, and conquer every kind of Temptation, [namely] by resisting it by the Sword of the Spirit, the Word of God. The Scripture is a weapon mighty through God, and if we be diligent it is always ready at hand, for our use and defense, when all our actions and conflicts are regulated by a command, the promise will ever be ready to assist, and protect us. See the powerful Effect of a pertinent application of a Scripture in our management of the Spiritual War, in repelling and resisting of Temptation, James 4:7. . . . The Sword of the Spirit is an holy weapon, that he dares not conflict with, if Satan assault thee, and find thee well armed and furnished with the Scripture, he will soon depart, and let his Temptation fall, only by at present, watching for a fitter season, for that or any other Temptation whereby he may do thee a mischief. (62)
In particular, note Eliot’s reference to both a command and a promise in the Scriptures. He says, “when all our actions and conflicts are regulated by a command, the promise will ever be ready to assist, and protect us.” He specifically mentions James 4:7: “Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.”
Eliot’s advised way of “repelling and resisting” the temptation to sin that comes from the devil is “a pertinent application of a Scripture.” His logic here is intriguing. Eliot is motivated by obedience to the commands of God by an expectation that God will fulfill the respective promises attendant to those commands. Here is a man living in the seventeenth century, and fighting the temptation to sin, we might say, by the purifying power of faith in future grace.
Much has changed, no doubt, in the three and a half centuries since, but the biblical tactics against temptation endure. The instruction and promises of God are timeless weapons in the battle with sin, as God works even through temptations to conform us to Christ and fit us for the humble service of others.