George Swinnock was an English Puritan Minister of whom rather little is known beyond the outline of his biography. This work, “The Christian Man’s Calling” is an extensive treatise on the practical life of a Christian. He begins with a disarming short text for a work which expounds over 2.5 volumes of his collected works:
“But refuse profane and old wives’ fables, and exercise thyself unto godliness. Exercise thyself unto godliness”.—1 TIM. 4:7.
As is common among English Puritans, Swinnock begins his explanation of the text by putting into context. The first chapter makes some observations concerning the first sentence. The second sentence, “Exercise thyself unto godliness” will take up the remainder of the project. This will be a summary of his work, which is so very long that the gems will easily be unknown unless they are dug up and made plain.
Here, begins by a general consideration of the question of “the spring of ungodliness” which flows
into two main cursed channels, atheism and superstition; in one of which all the children of men swim by nature, and very many, as the silly fish, down the streams of Jordan, till they descend into the lake of Sodom, the dead sea of hell, and perish. Which of these two passages are most fatal and perilous, seems worth our inquiry. The waters in the former stream are deepest; atheism denieth the very being of God, but to prevent sinking in these waters, nature herself hath provided some skin-deep bladders; for though there be many atheists in practice, yet there be no atheists in principles. The being of a deity was so fairly written on the tables of man’s heart at first, that though it be exceedingly blotted and blurred by the fall, yet it is still legible….
The waters in the latter stream are not so deep, but they seem more dangerous; for nature is in some respect a friend to superstition, though an enemy to atheism; it would give God some worship, but it must be in its own way. Atheism denieth the being of a deity; superstition undermineth the authority of God. The atheist would have no God, the superstitious would be his own God; his will, not God’s word, is the rule of his worship. …
The text presenteth us with a caution against the poison of superstition…
And that is done by avoiding superstitious tales.
If thou wouldst not swim down with the tide of those apostatising times, take heed of steering thy course by profane, though ancient customs. Refuse them with scorn, reject them with anger; let thy spirit rise, and thy stomach turn at the very sight of such sins.
In Pilgrim’s Progress, he illustrates this temptation by Christian’s conversation with Formalist and Hypocrisy. “Chr. But will it not be counted a trespass against the Lord of the city whither we are bound, thus to violate his revealed will?
Form. and Hyp. They told him, that as for that, he needed not to trouble his head thereabout: for what they did they had custom for, and could produce, if need were, testimony that would witness it for more than a thousand years.”
The command to avoid is matched by a command to act:
Something he must also follow after; ‘Exercise thyself unto godliness.’ This is the special help which the skilful physician appointeth his beloved patient in those infectious times to preserve his soul in health. As a pestiferous air is very dangerous to the body, yet for a man to get, and make it his work to keep a sound constitution will be an excellent means to prevent infection. So an apostatising place or people is very dangerous to the soul; spiritual diseases are more catching and killing than corporal; but a spiritual habit of a real sanctity, with a constant care to continue and increase it, will be a sovereign means to preserve it in safety.
He then applies to this principal peculiarly to pastors who must not only provide correct doctrine but also be examples of a correct life
not only divide the word rightly, but also order his conversation aright. He must, as Nazianzen said of Basil, thunder in his doctrine, and lighten in his life. Singular holiness is required of those that minister about holy things; as painters, they must teach by their hands, by their lives, as well as by their lips.
Ministers must exercise themselves to godliness—that is, do their duties with the greatest diligence.
He then gives this charge:
Our churches must not be turned into chapels of ease. Christ neglected his food, spent his strength, wrought so hard that he was thought to be beside himself. We are called fishers, labourers, soldiers, watchmen, all which are laborious callings. We are compared to clouds; the clods of the earth lie still, but the clouds of heaven are ever in motion, and dissolve themselves to refresh others.
But, alas! how many fleece their flocks, but never feed them, as if their benefices were sinecures. The green sickness is the maid’s, and laziness many ministers’ disease. Who is instant in season and out of season?