From Bavinck to á Brakel: Less is More

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(Post by Joel Heflin)

Wilhelmus á Brakel’s (1635-1711) pastoral theology is warm and deserving of its title, The Christian’s Reasonable Service. Á Brakel’s understated style and manner of writing is thoughtful, practical, and highly adaptable for ministers looking to convey real truth without fancy tricks or bling. To prove it Reformation Heritage Books is having a special offer: Receive an additional $10 off the 4 volume set of Brakel’sReasonable Service from now until August 15, 2009. Simply enter this coupon code Brakel2009 in the RHB shopping cart, or mention this post if ordering by phone. Á Brakel may be obscure to some readers today, but his devotional style and confident pastoral treatment of the Christian inner-life has an unbeatable shelf-life.

Down is Not Out

Self-denial is the Christian’s most active, most visible demonstration of faith. It comes more or less naturally, says á Brakel, from love to God and contentment in the knowledge and experience of His will. Perhaps there is no better interpretation of James 2:18, the thorniest verse in the NT, than a long steady life of self-denial. Self-denial is a grace given by God; it forms the will in the new life of the believer. God gives this grace according to sanctification. Self-denial is a high human virtue but it is not natural, that is to say, it is not necessarily a universal. There can be occasional acts of self-denial, but only the regenerate believer has this grace as a genuine disposition. Self-denial is not a random act of kindness that is able to outweigh a lifetime of selfishness.

Aesthetics or Ascetics?

Self-denial has a checkered past. Many early Christians took self-denial as an austere life in extreme conditions, though many famous Greek philosophers did similar things.* The believer, with a new love for God, finds something superior in the will of God above all else they could ever desire.** The objective is not simply to deprive one’s self of basic needs, or repress desire altogether; the object is God’s glory and the welfare of our neighbors. God’s glory, His real presence and communion in the renewed heart is simply incomparable with the beauties of the world. And putting the welfare of one’s neighbor first is golden link between Old and New Testament religion which can’t be beat. There are many benefits to self-denial ranging from debt-management to time management, allof which add to personal freedom. But there is nothing greater than experiencing real communion with God.

Above all, says á Brakel, God rewards such service to an infinite degree. “If we renounce our honor, He will give grace and glory (Psa. 84:12). If we deny possessions, the Lord will be our abundant gold… He will not permit all that we relinquish out of love for Him and for His Name to be unrequited. “He that loseth his life for My sake shall find it” (Matt. 10:39).

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* For example: Pythagoras lived in a cave for a year just to think about math.

** Á Brakel does not clearly elaborate on what he means by “the will of God” but he is referring to God’s holiness, justice (summarized in the Decalogue) providence, or ‘secret will’ and belief in Christ’s atoning sacrifice. See James Ussher’s Body of Divinity on God’s will as a possible source for á Brakel’s treatment.

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