Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The Art of Living Well to God

Apparently it was Aristotle who coined the phrase 'the art of living well'. He said that 'those who educate children well are more to be honored than parents, for these gave only life, those the art of living well'. When we consider these matters from a higher perspective we will see that it is God who gives life and he must teach us how we are to live well. The Reformation philosopher Petrus Ramus built upon Aristotle's phrase in his Commentariorum de religione christiana (1576), he defined theology as ars bene vivendi “ the art of living well”, which he divided into “the need for proper faith” and “the actions of faith, man’s observance of God’s laws”. This showed that it was not a philosophical question but rather a matter that could only come from revealed truth. William Ames, who popilarised the ideas and method of Ramus, improved upon the phrase by defining theology (Marrow, pp.1-3) as the 'art of living well to God'. He, together with William Perkins, was very much a pioneer of the practical theology of the Puritans. Ethics must have a summum bonum - a highest good, God himself is the standard and highest good. The Westminster Divines defined this well in speaking of man's chief end as being to glorify God and to enjoy him forever. The art of living well is summed up in that.

This was very much the concern of the puritans. Hence their commitment to spiritual diaries which allowed them to examine their lives. To the Puritan the art of living was the highest art form, as Owen Watkins indicates, this was the principle that lay behind Puritan autobiographies, ‘that the only masterpiece worthy of the name was to be achieved in the most complex and difficult of all forms of creative endeavour: a human life’ (Watkins, p.1). This is also why the puritans laid such stress upon sermons full of practical and experimental divinity. It was through authentic experience of the Word of God that the saint would live the life exemplified in Scripture. John Owen shows the progression of the experience of the Word. It begins with divinely assisted understanding, then follows ‘a spiritual sense of the goodness, power, and efficacy of the word and the things contained in it, in the conveyance of the grace of God unto our souls...By the one...our minds are refreshed; and by the other, our souls are nourished’. ‘To complete the experience intended, there follows hereon a conformity in the whole soul and conversation unto the truth of the word, or the mind of God in it, wrought in us by its power and efficacy’. Puritan sermons were therefore weighted towards application or the 'uses'of the doctrine of Scripture.

The puritan George Swinnock has a book which is rather like Thomas Watson's 'The Godly Man drawn with a scripture pencil'. The book is called 'The Christian Man's Calling' and in it he writes: 'I have drawn the saint's picture, by which thou mayest perceive somewhat of the beauty of his person, and the excellency and loveliness of his life. This indeed is the true life, all other but the shadow of living'. Godliness is a Godlikeness, bearing the image of the One who is entitled 'The Beauty of Holiness' and who clothes his own people in holy beauties from the womb of the morning. It is a likeness to Christ and a conformity to His image. To me to live is Christ. Living must be done in dependence upon the Son of God who loved His people and gave Himself for them. John Willison writes: O that we could learn the heavenly art of living by faith on the Son of God, by continued dependence on him, and making application to him for righteousness and strength; righteousness for removing our guilt, and justifying our persons before God ; and strength for performing duties, conquering lusts, and bearing crosses!'

Where is this found in the New Testament? The people of God are his 'workmanship' (poiema) which means a created thing. They are 'created in Christ Jesus unto good works which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them' (Eph 2:10). In Titus 2:10 the saints are to 'adorn the doctrine of God our Saviour in all things' - they are to have an order and arrangement in their lives that corresponds to the truth of Scripture. There is an order in beauty - the best things in the best order, the most attractive things in the most attractive order. They live 'as it becometh the gospel'. The beauty of the gospel in its perfect wisdom and grace, the manifold wisdom and grace of God, is reflected in their lives. Swinnock says that man is made to be the mirror of God's glory: 'Man is made as a glass, to represent the perfections that are in God. A glass can receive the beams of the sun into it, and reflect them back again to the sun. The excellencies of God appear abundantly in His works; man is made to be the glass where these beams of divine glory should be united and received, and also from him reflected back to God again.'Who would not desire this?

The life of faith is available to all. The poorest among us, and the least educated can travel this road to Heaven. The poor may have little opportunity to become wealthy or honourable, but they can live a truly happy life through faith! They can live such a life just as much as the greatest princes and learned educators. Whoever you are, if you desire to lift up your condition and change the few days of your pilgrimage into happier and longer days, faith is the art of living well, and living long! (Samuel Ward)