This week, we welcome Michael Reeves to the podcast, filling in for John Piper. Michael is the author of several books, including The Unquenchable Flame: Discovering the Heart of the Reformation, along with Delighting in the Trinity, one of my favorite books of 2012. He just finished work on a beautiful book titled Christ Our Life, scheduled to release on September 1 in the UK. It will be titled Rejoicing in Christ and released in the US early next year. Anyone who has read his books knows Michael is a gifted church historian and theologian, and a keen and incisive writer. He lives in the UK and currently serves as director of the online theology website Union and senior lecturer at Wales Evangelical School of Theology. We are grateful for his time. Michael, you write a lot about the glory of Christ. How does being Christ-centered — focusing ministry on the glory of Christ — change someone’s life?
Let me tell you the story of Thomas Goodwin’s conversion. Thomas Goodwin was a great Puritan theologian and preacher. He was born in 1600. He was born of Puritan parents, Puritan stock. He grew up quite religious. He even decided at quite a young age that he wanted to be a preacher. However, since he wasn’t a Christ-centered preacher who had experienced the sovereign grace of God in his life, he had a ministry in those early days of battering consciences — that is, of seeking to get people to improve.
“Don’t trust anything in yourself, whether performance or feelings. Look out and rest on Christ alone.”
Goodwin had a religious crisis, a meltdown in which he listened to a sermon. He was about twenty years old when heard a sermon that made him deeply concerned for his own spiritual state. He had seven years of gloomy introspection. He was grubbing around inside himself to see if he had enough faith to merit salvation, to see if he was being meritorious enough. At the end of those seven years, an old pastor told him, “Don’t trust anything in yourself, whether performance or feelings. Look out and rest on Christ alone.” And with that, he said, he was freed.
Freed by Christ
But what is so striking, I think, is not only was Goodwin’s own life freed, but his ministry profoundly changed, because he now became a Christ-centered preacher. Having seen through those seven years of introspection, and God’s grace having shone into his heart, he began to have a very deep, a radically deep understanding of sin. He couldn’t simply tell people to try to improve, because he saw now they couldn’t do it.
Instead, Goodwin began to have a big view not of our own ability sort ourselves out, but a big view of God’s grace in Christ that can rescue those who are dead and enslaved in sin. So, he became a Christ-centered preacher who preached that gospel with compassion for those who are addicted to sin and entirely enslaved to it.
Making Christ Clear
Goodwin had a mentor, the great Richard Sibbes, who, when he was a young man, told him, “Young man, if ever you would do good, you must preach the gospel and the free grace of God in Christ Jesus.” I think an example of this would be in one of his most popular works called Christ Set Forth. In that work he makes it very clear. He is aiming simply to hold Christ before the eyes of his readership.
Goodwin makes it very clear why he wants us to see Christ. Even in those days (the seventeenth century), which we often look back on as sort of a golden age of preaching, he believed that Christ simply wasn’t well known enough by people. People were ignorant of Christ or, as he put it, barren in their knowledge of him. Therefore, they wouldn’t look out of themselves to him, but they would trust in themselves. They would either be imprisoned in their own guilt or dependent on their own performance, not looking out to Christ. Goodwin, having seen the solution in the Savior, wanted for the rest of his ministry to set forth Christ with great clarity.
Now, I am someone who has had a similar experience as Goodwin. I have had a crisis of depending on myself, not knowing where to go, and then I saw the beautiful answer in Christ. Goodwin was a man who helped me through his writings. He is a man who still today sets forth Christ in a way that changes the reader, because you are liberated by God’s grace and not your own potential.
I think of maybe one other indication of how the man himself was changed. Goodwin’s dying words — he was eighty years old — were something like this: “My bow abides in strength now. Is Christ divided? No. I have the whole of his righteousness. I am found in Christ, not having my own righteousness, but his, the righteousness of Christ who loved me, gave himself for me.” Then at the end, he said, “Christ cannot love me better than he does. I think I cannot love Christ better than I do now.”
The Heart of Christ in Heaven
That’s a beautiful testimony. Unfortunately, Thomas Goodwin is not well-known in the United States. Many readers are probably hearing his name for the first time. Is there a better book for someone to start with if they want to read Thomas Goodwin than his book The Heart of Christ?
Yes, next to Christ Set Forth, the writing I mentioned, there was a book he put alongside called The Heart of Christ in Heaven Towards Sinners on Earth, in which he looks at how the ascended, glorified Jesus considers his beloved people today. It is one of the most striking reads. It was always Goodwin’s most popular book in his own lifetime, and you can see why it is an extraordinary thing that Goodwin has been forgotten today.
He has been called the greatest pulpit exegete that ever lived. One of the reasons I think he is rather forgotten is he is slightly tough meat, rather like John Owen to read, and therefore people have left him. But I think that is a mistake. Meat is worth eating, because it helps you grow strong. And Goodwin is worth reading because he will present Christ to you with an extraordinary clarity.