Friday, November 19, 2010

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Excellent New Article

I am pleased to be able to post a new article about à Brakel and his theology. This new article is a paper written by Paul Smalley, a Th. M. student at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary (PRTS) in Grand Rapids. The title of this excellent and well-written article is, “Satisfied with the Lord’s All-Sufficiency.” In this paper, Paul argues convincingly that spiritual joy is one of the dominant themes of à Brakel’s theology. Highly recommended!

Click here to read the article.

Bartel Elshout

Saturday, September 11, 2010

New Article Posted & Digital Version of the Original Dutch Version of The Christian’s Reasonable Service

I have received and posted an interesting article by Mark du Preez, entitled Second Reformation Theology and the Question of Legitimacy: Calvin and À Brakel Compared. Mark wrote this paper for a course taught by Rev. C. Pronk of the Free Reformed Churches.

Mark Du Preez also forwarded a link to me to a Dutch web-site that posts a digital copy of the entire Dutch version of The Christian’s Reasonable Service (De Redelijke Godsdienst). Click here to access this version.

Furthermore, I want to introduce you to the blog of Joseph P. Grigoletti from Quebec. Joseph recently acquired the four-volume set of The Christian’s Reasonable Service from Reformation Heritage Books, and has committed himself to blog on a regular basis about his readings in this work. Click here to visit his blog.

Finally, I want to draw your attention to Dr. Joel Beeke’s recommendation of the scholarly paper by Dr. Richard A. Muller, entitled The Covenant of Works and the Stability of Divine Law in Seventeenth Century Reformed Orthodoxy: A Study in the Theology of Herman Witsius and Wilhelmus à Brakel. Dr. Beeke writes, “Dr. Muller's article not only elucidates with clarity the views of two of the most famous Dutch Further Reformation divines, Herman Witsius and Wilhelmus a Brakel, on the covenant of works, but also shows how critical the covenant of works is for the whole field of covenant theology. That note needs to be sounded today when so many who claim the mantel of being Reformed, have relegated the covenant of works to the dustbin of outdated orthodox scholastic theology. Muller ably shows us how misconceived those theologians are who deny any form of pre-fall covenant.”


Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Dr. Joel R. Beeke’s Endorsement of The Christian’s Reasonable Service

In my opinion, Wilhelmus à Brakel’s The Christian’s Reasonable Service is one of the most valuable set of books available in English today. I don’t say this because I had the privilege of organizing the task, raising the funds for its translation and printing, and serving as its final editor, but I believe this is true because of the rich doctrinal, experiential, practical, pastoral, and ethical content this classic conveys. When one reads Brakel, one is not surprised to learn that for centuries this set of books was as popular in the Netherlands as John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress was in English-speaking countries. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, most Dutch farmers who were of Reformed persuasion would typically read a few pages of “Father Brakel,” as he was fondly called, every evening to his family as an important part of their family worship. When he completed the entire work, he would start over!

This massive work is arranged in three parts. The first volume consists of a traditional Reformed systematic theology that is packed with clarity of thought, thoroughness of presentation, and helpfulness of application. The concluding applications at the end of each chapter, applying the particular doctrines discussed to the lives of believers and unbelievers, are the highlight of this section. I believe that à Brakel’s practical casuistry in these applications supersedes any other systematic theologian, both in his day and ever since. They represent Reformed, Puritan, experiential theology at its best.

The second part expounds Christian ethics and Christian living. This part covers the concluding section of volume 2, all of volume 3, and most of volume 4. It is the largest and most fascinating section of à Brakel’s work, packed with salient applications on a variety of topics pertinent to living as a Christian in this world. In addition to a masterful treatment of the ten commandments (chs. 45-55) and the Lord’s Prayer (chs. 68-74), this part addresses topics such as living by faith out of God’s promises (ch. 42); how to exercise love toward God and His Son (chs. 56-57); how to fear, obey, and hope in God (chs. 59-61); how to profess Christ and His truth (ch. 63); and how to exercise a host of spiritual graces, such as courage, contentment, self-denial, patience, uprightness, watchfulness, neighbor love, humility, meekness, peaceableness, diligence, compassion, and prudence (chs. 62, 64-67, 76, 82-88). Other topics treated most helpfully include fasting (ch. 75), solitude (ch. 77), spiritual meditation (ch. 78), singing (ch. 79), vows (ch. 80), spiritual experience (ch. 81), spiritual growth (ch. 89), backsliding (ch. 90), spiritual desertion (ch. 91), temptations (chs. 92-95), indwelling corruption (ch. 96), and spiritual darkness and deadness (chs. 97-98).

The third part (4:373-538) is devoted to a history of God’s redemptive, covenantal work from the beginning to the end of the world. It is reminiscent of Jonathan Edwards’s History of Redemption, though it is not as detailed as Edwards; à Brakel’s work confines itself more to Scripture, and has a greater covenantal emphasis. It concludes with a detailed study of the future conversion of the Jews from six passages of Scripture (4:511-38).

The Christian’s Reasonable Service represents, perhaps more than any other work, the Puritan heartbeat and balance of the Dutch Second Reformation. Here systematic theology and vital, experiential Christianity are scripturally and practically interwoven with a covenantal framework, the whole bearing the mark of a pastor-theologian deeply taught by the Spirit. Sweeping in coverage, nearly every subject treasured by Christians is treated in an unusually helpful way, always aiming for the promotion of godliness.

In my opinion, this pastoral set of books is an essential tool for every pastor and is extremely valuable for lay people as well. Happily, you can now read it freshly translated into contemporary English. Buy and read this great classic. You won’t be sorry. As publisher, we have already sold more than 10,000 sets and have never received a single complaint about it; rather, we have been inundated with encouraging comments about its merits.

Joel R. Beeke, President of Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary, Grand Rapids

Wilhelmus à Brakel, The Christian’s Reasonable Service, 4 vols., trans. Bartel Elshout, ed. Joel R. Beeke (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2001), Retail $160; available from Reformation Heritage Books for $90 plus postage.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Articles About À Brakel and The Christian’s Reasonable Service

One of the objectives of this developing web-site is to make this the one place where you will be able to find anything (and someday everything!) that has been written about à Brakel and The Christian’s Reasonable Service.

I have made a small beginning by posting four articles. Under the rubric “Articles” you will find:

1. Wilhelmus à Brakel and the Importance of Hope, written by Derek Baars in 2006 in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the course I teach at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary, entitled The Theology of Wilhelmus à Brakel.

2. Seeking God in Personal Devotions In Wilhelmus à Brakel’s The Christian’s Reasonable Service, written by Rev. Maarten Kuivenhoven in 2006 in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the course I teach at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary, entitled The Theology of Wilhelmus à Brakel.

3. Wilhelmus à Brakel—A Biographical Sketch, written by Rev. Cornelis Vogelaar (written in Dutch). Rev. Vogelaar is the pastor of the Gereformeerde Gemeente (Netherlands Reformed Congregation) of Zwolle, the Netherlands. During the years that I translated the CRS (1989-1995) he was my pastor, who, due to his expertise in seventeenth century Dutch, provided me with invaluable assistance in arriving at the correct translation of archaic vocabulary and/or idiomatic expressions.

4. The Covenant of Works and the Stability of Divine Law in Seventeenth-Century Reformed Orthodoxy: A Study in the Theology of Herman Witsius and Wilhelmus à Brakel, written by Dr. Richard Muller (Calvin Theol. Seminary). This is a scholarly article by one of the world’s foremost scholars of Reformation and Post-Reformation theology.

Early next year, the Lord willing, some papers from Th. M. students at PRTS, who took the course The Theology of Wilhelmus à Brakel this past May, will be posted as well.

I am actively searching for additional written material (English or Dutch) about à Brakel and The Christian’s Reasonable Service. Should you have access to such material, I would be greatly indebted if you would forward this to me, so that I can post it as well. Please contact me at Thanks.


Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Why should you read à Brakel’s The Christian’s Reasonable Service?

The Christian’s Reasonable Service (hereafter CRS) occupies without question a unique place in the genre of Reformed systematic theologies. Though à Brakel breaks no new theological ground in the CRS, it is a classic Reformed theological systematic theology nevertheless, and it is organized according to the classic framework of such systematic theologies.

What makes the CRS so unique, however, is that it is a devotional and experiential systematic theology; that is, it is a systematic theology written specifically for the edification of the church. When reading the CRS, you will quickly discover that à Brakel extracts spiritual instruction from the doctrines he expounds, making experiential application whenever and wherever possible. It is this warm, devotional, and experiential flavor that has endeared the CRS to theologians and believers in the Netherlands for more than three centuries—and is now endearing it to readers throughout the English-speaking world.

To stimulate you to discover this for yourself, let me give you a sample from the CRS’s chapter entitled The Person and Nature of our Lord Jesus Christ:

Meditation upon His Godhead will cause us to trust in Him according to His own command, “Let not your heart be troubled: ye believe in God, believe also in Me” (John 14:1). Oh, how confident a person may be who has received Him by faith, and when his entire case and all his circumstances have been given over into His hand! How safely is the soul preserved who has surrendered to Him. Such a soul may put all fear and concern aside and say with an assured and steadfast heart, “Thou shalt guide me with Thy counsel, and afterward receive me to glory” (Ps 73:24). He is God and therefore supreme goodness Himself. He is omniscient and thus knows the frame, desires, sincerity, and anxieties of the soul. He is almighty to deliver, keep, and comfort the soul, as well as usher him into eternal felicity. How blessed is such a soul which may have the Lord Jesus as his Savior! Let such a soul rejoice in His Name (CRS, Vol. 1, p. 512).

As you read this work, you will discover many such delightful spiritual delicacies. And therefore in addition to being an excellent resource in terms of Reformed systematic theology and Christian ethics (with an unmistakable Puritan flavor!), you will also find it to be devotional reading at its best. Tolle lege!

-- Rev. Bartel Elshout

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Monday, June 21, 2010

Monday, April 26, 2010

Regeneration Defined

Regeneration is a word derived from human birth. We must not understand this to refer only to giving birth itself, but it is inclusive of all that pertains to it, such as conception, fetal growth, and the birth itself. We must not be of the opinion that man possesses life prior to regeneration, as if there were a preparation for regeneration, which we would understand to be conversion. No, man is dead prior to regeneration and receives life by way of regeneration. There is no third state between death and life, and thus also not between being converted and unconverted.

Although we can make a distinction between calling, regeneration, conversion, and sanctification, considering them to be sequential—that is, the one issuing forth from the other—Scripture does not always use this distinction. Instead, Scripture comprehends all these in either one word or the other.

It is not the justice of God which requires regeneration, but it is a necessity as far as the will of God is concerned. Without satisfaction of the justice of God, absolutely no man can be saved. Regeneration, however, neither contributes anything toward satisfaction for guilt nor toward obtaining the right to eternal life. It would


therefore not be in conflict with His justice if it so pleased the Lord, at the moment of death, to translate a person who is chosen and reconciled through Christ’s death into the state of perfection and thus into eternal felicity. This is true for such children who die prior to birth or prior to the years of discretion. All the regenerate, whether they live a longer or shorter period and are converted at an earlier or later date, are made perfect in one moment at the hour of their death. However, it is the will and wisdom of God concerning those who have come to the years of discretion, not to bring them into heaven except He first regenerates them in this life by means of His Word.

Source: Wilhelmus à Brakel, The Christian's Reasonable Service, vol. 2, trans. Bartel Elshout (Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 1993), 233-34.

Friday, March 26, 2010

The Duty to Join the Church and to Remain with Her

In the previous chapter we have defined the nature of the church. It is, however, not sufficient to be acquainted with her as such, but everyone with a desire to be saved is obligated to join the church, to remain with her, and not to separate himself from her in order to establish a more orthodox church. Furthermore, he who wishes to remain with her must also persevere in having fellowship with her by the use of the holy sacraments. We shall now discuss each of these matters in detail.
It is the duty of everyone who desires to be saved to turn to the church, making diligent effort to be accepted as a member of the church community.
First, this is God’s way whereby He leads the elect unto salvation. “And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved” (Acts 2:47); “Neither let the son of the stranger, that hath joined himself to the Lord, speak, saying, The Lord hath utterly separated me from His people” (Isa 56:3).
Secondly, this has been the task of the apostles in accordance with their commission (Matt 28:19), as is to be observed in the entire Acts of the Apostles.
Thirdly, this is consistent with the nature of God’s children. As soon as they are converted, they cannot rest until they have been received into the bosom of their spiritual mother (Gal 4:26).
Fourthly, this is the consistent confession of the church of all ages, and particularly of churches of the Netherlands. In article 28 of the Belgic Confession we read: “We believe, since this holy congregation is an assembly of those who are saved, and that out of it there is no salvation, that no person of whatsoever state or


condition he may be, ought to withdraw himself, to live in a separate state from it; but that all men are in duty bound to join and unite themselves with it.” We have elaborated on this in chapter 24.
Fifthly, the church is the glory of Christ. It is there that Christ is confessed and proclaimed throughout the world, being held forth as a banner upon a hill around which one must gather himself. This is the city upon a hill, and a light shining in the darkness. She is the means whereby the truth is made known and preserved, and the means unto the conversion of souls. Everyone is therefore obligated to facilitate this by joining himself to the church.

Source: Wilhelmus à Brakel, The Christian's Reasonable Service, vol. 2, trans. Bartel Elshout (Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 1993), 55, 56.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Monday, February 8, 2010

à Brakel on Fasting

To fast [(ta‘anith)], is a derivative of the words to oppress, humiliate, torment, as well as to be distressed. Others translate this Hebrew word as “to fast”: “And at the evening sacrifice I arose up from my heaviness” (Ezra 9:5); “Is it such a fast that I have chosen? a day for a man to afflict his soul?” (Isa 58:5). Also the word Mwc (tsoom) means “to fast” (Isa 58:5). In Greek we have the word nestei/a (nesteia), which means not to eat. It is the latter which we wish to express by the verb “to fast.”

Fasting is a special religious exercise in which a believer deprives himself for a day from all that invigorates the body, humbling himself in body and soul before God as a means to obtain what he desires.

Fasting is a religious exercise—an exercise in which one seeks after God. Fasting due to poverty, avarice, illness, for health reasons, or a being prevented from eating food due to business activities is not applicable here. Rather we speak here of fasting as a religious exercise; it is God-focused and its intent is to seek God thereby. Since all practice of religion is neither to be self-willed nor practiced according to human institutions, but only according to God’s command and precept, this is also applicable for fasting. It does not consist of idleness, but is an activity which is a day-long engagement consisting of secret dealings with God.

It is a special exercise. It is not a daily activity such as prayer, reading, thanksgiving, and singing. Rather, it is practiced at special seasons of need, such as being threatened or oppressed by the danger of a plague, having to engage in a very weighty task, perplexity, or having to make a choice concerning a weighty matter. It can even relate to everyday matters such as seeking


communion with God, the need for strength to oppose specific sins, and growth in grace.

Fasting: To be Deprived of All That Invigorates the Body

Fasting primarily consists in a depriving one’s self of all that invigorates the body, being desirous to bring the body for that given day into a condition of withdrawal, distress, pliableness, and weakness.

It consists, first of all, in a depriving ourselves of all food (being expressed by the word fasting), for he who partakes of any food has broken the fast. Observe this in Esther 4:16: “... fast ye for me, and neither eat nor drink.” We do not fast by merely depriving ourselves of meat. In the Old Testament there was a distinction between foods and between clean and unclean; however, this is not related to fasting. Paul states, “It is good neither to eat flesh, nor to drink wine” (Rom 14:21). It is also not related to days of fasting; rather, this pertains to giving offense to a weaker brother. The latter occurred during that period when there were some who still made a distinction between foods as dictated by the law of the Old Testament. It is in reference to this that the apostle states: “Wherefore, if meat make my brother to offend, I will eat no flesh while the world standeth, lest I make my brother to offend” (1 Cor 8:13). That is, “I would rather deprive myself of this than that I should offend anyone.” Some had freedom to eat animals which had been sacrificed to idols. The apostle declared that there was such freedom, since the idol was in reality nonexistent. Others, however, did not believe they had such freedom and were offended when they observed that others did so. Therefore, not only did the apostle refuse to eat the meat of sacrificed animals, but he wanted to eat no meat at all, if someone would be offended by it. Except for such occasions, however, he would eat meat. Thus, these texts cannot be used in support of papal fasting, at which time they deprive themselves of meat. Else, they should also deprive themselves of wine and ought not ever eat meat.

Secondly, on a day of fasting we are to deprive ourselves of all external ornamentation. In Old Testament times the people covered their bodies with a type of material which was of the most inferior kind. They would then draw this as tightly around the body as if they were putting goods into a bag in preparation for transport, for they normally wore wide garments (Isa 3:24). Furthermore, they made this sack, which they wrapped around themselves, dirty by sprinkling dirt and ashes upon it, so that they would display themselves before God and men in the most wretched and humblest circumstances, thereby declaring that they were unworthy


of everything. “A day for a man ... to spread sackcloth and ashes under him?” (Isa 58:5); “My clothing was sackcloth” (Ps 35:13); “Gird thee with sackcloth, and wallow thyself in ashes” (Jer 6:26); “No man did put on him his ornaments” (Exod 33:4).

Thirdly, on a day of fasting we must deprive ourselves of all entertainment such as recreational games; taking a walk for the purpose of seeing gardens, ornamental works of art, or plantations; or going out by boat or horse and carriage merely for pleasure. “Behold, in the day of your fast ye find pleasure” (Isa 58:3). One must even refrain from marital union (1 Cor 7:5).

Fourthly, we must also refrain from performing the labors of our calling. “And whatsoever soul it be that doeth any work in that same day, the same soul will I destroy from among his people. It shall be unto you a sabbath of rest” Lev 23:30,32.

Fifthly, there must also be a refraining from sleep. On such a day we must arise early and retire no earlier than normal. On such a day we may also not slumber, for that would be entirely contrary to the objective of the day. Such slumber results in a loss of time, and it is as if we would bring a dead body before the Lord—as if it were the body that was fasting. It is in conflict with a humbling of ourselves. Sleep invigorates a person, and the purpose of this day is the humbling of the soul as facilitated by the faintness and weakness of the body—and thus to humble one’s self deeply.

Sixthly, above all things we must carefully guard against the commission of sins. It would be the abomination of all abominations if upon a day that we wish to humble ourselves over our sins and desire to pray for forgiveness—as well as to be spared from those plagues which we have made ourselves worthy of by way of sin—that at the same time we were to tempt the Lord by the commission of sin. “Is not this the fast that I have chosen? to loose the bands of wickedness” (Isa 58:6).

Fasting: A Humbling of Ourselves

The second aspect of fasting is a humbling of ourselves according to body and soul. Soul and body are so intimately united that the ill disposition of the one begets the ill disposition of the other. When the body, due to the withdrawal of all refreshment, is rendered feeble, pliable, and is subdued, the soul will also be in such a disposition; and thus the natural disposition takes on a spiritual dimension. Fasting, in and of itself, is not a religious practice. It is only so when it is a seeking after God by way of fasting. He who has merely deprived himself of all refreshment has not partially observed a day of fasting, for fasting and a humbling of


ourselves are not two separate duties. Fasting must be characterized by a humbling of ourselves, and the humbling of ourselves must be done by way of fasting. Fasting serves but one purpose: to facilitate the humbling of the soul; it has no significance beyond that. Since fasting facilitates this, however, the act as such is nevertheless required. It is an essential aspect of a day of fasting—however, only in union with, and thus inseparable from, the humbling of ourselves. They do not function in a dual sense, but in unison.

When, on a given day of fasting, we humble ourselves by way of fasting, then, at the very outset of the day, there will be a greater appetite for food than normal—already prior to the normal mealtime. This is not always due to the corruption of our nature—a nature which always hankers for that which is forbidden. Rather, it issues forth from the relationship between fasting and the humbling of ourselves. Sorrow over the deficiency of the soul engenders sorrow about that which the body is lacking, and a deficiency in the body engenders sorrow over the deficiency of the soul. They are thus both subservient to the humbling of ourselves (Deut 10:12). “... and ye shall afflict your souls” (Lev 23:27).

A humbling of one’s self consists in:

(1) The confession of sin, accompanied with grief and shame: “Now in the twenty and fourth day of this month the children of Israel were assembled with fasting ... and confessed their sins” (Neh 9:1-2); “O my God, I am ashamed and blush to lift up my face to Thee, my God: for our iniquities are increased over our head, and our trespass is grown up unto the heavens” (Ezra 9:6).

(2) Declaring ourselves to be worthy of judgment and a subscribing to justice if the Lord were to execute those merited judgments upon us. “Howbeit Thou art just in all that is brought upon us; for Thou hast done right, but we have done wickedly” (Neh 9:33).

(3) A supplicating for grace, frequently accompanied with weeping. Concerning the day of a solemn assembly we read in Joel 2:17: “Let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep between the porch and the altar, and let them say, Spare Thy people, O Lord.” This is also to be observed on the day of fasting recorded in Neh 9. Consider also the following passages: “I humbled my soul with fasting; and my prayer returned into mine own bosom” (Ps 35:13); “And when they had fasted and prayed ...” (Acts 13:3); “Howbeit this kind goeth not out but by prayer and fasting” (Matt 17:21);

(4) A renewal of the covenant with the wholehearted intent to forsake former sins and to live a godly life: “And because of all this we make a sure covenant” (Neh 9:38); “Is not this the fast that I have chosen? to loose the bands of wickedness” (Isa 58:6);


(5) The giving of alms: “Is not this the fast that I have chosen? Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou bring the poor that are cast out to thy house? when thou seest the naked, that thou cover him; and that thou hide not thyself from thine own flesh?” (Isa 58:6-7).

The Duration of Fasting

The duration of fasting is limited to a twenty-four hour period—from evening to evening.

(1) Moses Deut 9:9, Elijah 1 Kings 19:8, and the Lord Jesus Christ Matt 4:2 fasted for forty consecutive days, during which time the Lord preserved their lives in a miraculous manner. We are not commanded to imitate this; to do so is only superstition. Furthermore, no one can be without food for such a long period of time. We do not follow the Lord Jesus if we deprive ourselves of meat for such a period of time while yet eating something during the day. He did not eat at all during that period, nor did He designate His fasting to be an example to be followed by us. Many things He either did by virtue of His divinity or in regard to His mediatorial office, we are neither able nor permitted to imitate.

(2) We also read about seven days of fasting 1 Chron 10:12 and of three days (Esther 4:16). This is to be understood as a period during which something was eaten each evening. Or else, due to there being a warmer climate in those countries, they were able to be without food for a longer time, without doing harm to their health. However, the normal time period for fasting is one day—from evening to evening Lev 23; (Isa 58:5).

Question: Are all men obligated to fast for an entire day? Would one then, upon becoming somewhat faint and thus unfit for prayer and other duties of that day, be able to eat something, such as a piece of bread or something similar?

Answer: In respect to certain persons the rule applies, “I desired mercy, and not sacrifice” (Hos 6:6). This applies to women who have given birth, the sick, nursing mothers, those who are exceptionally weak (even though not sick), nursing babies, as well as children who must be dealt with according to their age. Some are not to be deprived of anything, others are to be given as little as possible, and again others need to learn how to fast. However, the healthy must deprive themselves of everything for the entire time. To become somewhat faint is the objective of fasting, and one must not shrink back from that objective. The pretense of being unfit for prayer issues forth from the opinion that fasting is no more than an exercise to become more fit for prayer and similar exercises. Such


believe that this faintness is not a part of fasting, thinking that it is only spiritual in nature. One will also experience that, rather than becoming unfit, this faintness will render one more fit to pray with increased humility, as well as cause one to call upon God with the disposition of one who is entirely destitute. Even if the manifestation of all this is not as vehement as is otherwise the case, toward the evening, prayer will become more earnest, and then at times a special blessing will follow.

The Distinction Between Public and Private Fasting

As far as the persons who fast are concerned, a distinction can be made between public and private fasting.

First, public fasting occurs when:

(1) It is proclaimed by the government due to a general national need—be it war, pestilence, famine, an insect plague, extraordinary drought, persistent rain, or similar occurrences. In such events, governments have the right to proclaim fast and prayer days. This does not mean that such a day of fasting is a commandment of men; no, the observance of days of fasting is commanded by God. Instead, governments do but designate the time as determined by God by way of extraordinary circumstances.

(2) A synod, classis, or elders of a particular congregation designate a day of fasting for the church under their supervision, doing so due to an extraordinary need in the church—be it persecution of that church or churches in other lands, the manifestation of false doctrine, the need for reform due to decline, the calling of ministers or the election of consistories, or other specific circumstances. This is also not a human institution, but the observance of a divine command.

Secondly, private fasting occurs when:

(1) some individual bosom friends agree to set apart a day—be it due to their own needs or the needs of others, or an exceptional desire to seek the Lord earnestly for a desired matter—either for body or soul;

(2) a father institutes a day of fasting for his family;

(3) an individual sets apart a day for himself. Everyone has personal freedom in doing this, be it that he sets apart a day for special occasions; that he schedules days of fasting which, in his judgment, are most suitable for him—this having been the custom of eminently godly persons—lest that by having to select a day anew each time the matter be neglected; or that he selects such a day each time anew. In so doing we will acquaint ourselves with the Lord; we will become more modest and holy, and the Lord


generally grants more spiritual grace to such. In setting such a day apart, every one is free as to the extent to which he wishes to do so. It can be that he will desist from his labors if he is self-employed and if it is not to the disadvantage of his family; he can do this without anyone else noticing this. Or it can be that he sets this day apart while nevertheless intending to do his work—this being required by his circumstances—and to eat a limited amount of food, so as to conceal from others the fact that he is fasting that day. The latter must very much be his objective according to the instruction of Christ in Matt 6:16-18: “Moreover when ye fast (this applies to private rather than public fasting), be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance. ... But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thine head (dress yourself in an honorable manner, as you are accustomed to do), and wash thy face; that thou appear not unto men to fast, but unto thy Father which is in secret: and thy Father, which seeth in secret, shall reward thee openly.” If, however, you cannot conceal this from your family, then you must not allow this to detract you. But, if this would cause you to be ridiculed, you must fully conceal this and eat a little.

Exhortation to Fasting

It is sad—a sign of great decay in the church—that so little work is made of fasting, both in public as well as secretly. Therefore all who wish to lead a life of tender godliness and desire to see the good of Zion ought to stir themselves up to exercise this duty, for:

(1) Has not God has commanded this? (Lev 23:27; Joel 2:12);

(2) Have not the church and the saints of all ages practiced this and left us an example to be followed? Observe this in (Judg 20:26); 2 Chron 20:3 and Neh 9:1. References to solitary fasting are to be found in Neh 1:4 and Ps 35:13. This was not only a duty and practice in the Old Testament, but also in the New Testament (cf. Matt 6:16-18; Matt 9:15; Mark 9:29; Luke 2:37; Acts 13:3; Acts 14:23; 1 Cor 7:5). Therefore, as obedient children of God and followers of the saints, fast frequently. This was the practice of the original Christian church and of believers at the outset of the Reformation—and even long thereafter. Do not allow this practice to die out.

If a public fast has been proclaimed, conduct yourself well in doing so. There are but few who fast well. If, therefore, there is perplexity in the land where the church resides, God’s eye will be upon you in a special manner. It will be pleasing to Him when He observes your standing in the breach to turn away His anger from the land. Perhaps He would deliver the land upon your prayer; and even if


the land were to be destroyed, the eye of the Lord and His mercy will be upon you and your loved ones. You will then have peace in your conscience wherever you go, knowing that you have endeavored to uphold the pillars of both church and country.

If some of the godly have agreed to set apart a day, endeavor to join them, and stir up some other godly person to do likewise. The Lord will most certainly be among you; He will come to you and bless you. It will engender a sweet bond of mutual love, a holy mutual fellowship, and quicken both love and the performance of good works. When you make work of having solitary days of fasting, you will experience that the promise is true and will be fulfilled for you: “Thy Father ... shall reward thee” (Matt 6:18). The Lord will manifest that this is pleasing to Him. He will increase your light, and strengthen your heart in faith; you will be nearer to God in your walk, and lead a life which is more sober and thoughtful; and your conscience will be more tender. You will have more strength against sin, and receive more comfort from the Lord. He who has exercised himself in this has never regretted that he has done so, and we wish to recommend it as an exceptional means unto spiritual growth.

When you thus have determined to observe either a public or secret day of prayer, you must prepare yourself for this ahead of time by removing all obstacles, by being moderate in your intake of food and drink in the evening, and by getting a moderate amount of sleep at night. Confess your aversion for such a day of prayer as a sin before the Lord, and ask that you may be fit to conduct yourself well on this day of prayer. If you intend to observe this with others, pray that the others may be fit for this as well.

If the day of prayer is spent as described above, let your conduct also be appropriate subsequent to this. Rejoice in the evening that you have food to eat, since you are not worthy of one bite of bread. Thank the Lord that He gives it to you in His favor—as having been purchased with the blood of Christ. Be moderate in your use of food as well as in sleeping. Preserve the impression of all that has transpired that day; that is, of all your initiatives toward God and of God’s manifestations toward you. Give close attention as to how God responds to your day of prayer, for God will respond to it. In this way you will accustom yourself to this duty, and discover so much sweetness in it, that you will long to have such a day of prayer by renewal.

Source: Wilhelmus à Brakel, The Christian's Reasonable Service, vol. 4, trans. Bartel Elshout (Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 1995), 3-10.

Friday, January 15, 2010

à Brakel on Singing

Singing is a religious exercise by which, with the appropriate modulation of the voice, we worship, thank, and praise God.

It is a religious exercise, for we make use of the skill and sweetness of our voice to move others to have dealings with God. God has given man a voice to make his thoughts known to others. He has given man the ability to modulate his voice to either a high or a low pitch, or to speak slowly or rapidly, thereby enabling him to render his voice sweet and pleasant. It is also God’s will that we shall use our voice in prayer, thanksgiving, and our speaking to Him: “Let Me hear thy voice” (Song 2:14). Since the modulation of our voices at a suitable rhythm is capable of unlocking our hearts and stirring our emotions, God thus also wills that we shall lift up our hearts to Him in singing: “... singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord” (Col 3:16). However, our voice and the melody in and of themselves are not pleasing to God; rather, it is the motion of the heart relative to the spiritual matters which we express before the Lord in singing which pleases Him. Both the voice and the melody are means to bring us into a spiritual frame and to lift up our hearts heavenward—as well as the hearts of those who hear us.

The Proper Use of the Voice

To singing belongs the appropriate modulation of the voice. One can sing in an unskilled manner when, for instance, we have an inclination to sing while being alone in order to give expression to those matters about which we are reading (and are recorded in non-poetic form), or those which issue forth from a godly heart. This is done while modulating the voice between a high and a low pitch and by singing either slowly or rapidly—not in an artistic


manner but according to the motions of the heart. A very godly farmer, whom I knew very well, used to say, “When I am alone in my field, I can sing all psalms, even though I do not know their tunes.” Many of the godly will be able to confirm this from their own experience. The Lord has given some people the ability to create artistic pieces of music which express the affections of the heart in a marvelous manner and wondrously stir up the emotions. As the builders of Noah’s ark received no advantage from the structure they built, it entirely being intended for Noah and his family, such is frequently also the case here. Many musicians greatly exert themselves; however, it is to the advantage of the godly. The entire world and all that is contained in it are theirs. This is also true for all forms of art; they may freely make use of them. The manner in which someone is moved by music will be consistent with the nature of his heart. A natural man will but be moved in a natural sense, whereas the melody will move the spiritual heart in a spiritual sense.

The Various Types of Songs

Some musical compositions are of a stately and dignified nature, by which the heart is inclined toward solemnity and reverence. Such is true for the tunes of the psalms of David which are sung in the church. Some are of a melancholy nature by which we are moved to be sorrowful—yes, even to weeping. Others are of a jubilant nature whereby the heart is lifted up to jubilate; such is the singing of the psalms in the Scottish churches. Again, others are of a very rhythmic nature, whereby the heart is stirred up to skip and leap for joy—as Hannah said in her heart: “My heart rejoiceth in the Lord” (1 Sam 2:1). Other compositions are very stern in nature, whereby the heart is ignited to anger and, so to speak, demands vengeance. If, however, the heart is spiritual, this spiritual heart, by way of various tunes, will become aware of spiritual motions consistent with these tunes, and by such inner motions will be drawn to God—be it prayerfully, jubilantly, joyously, or while giving thanks and praising Him. Thus, the spiritual man does not merely relate to the melody; rather, the melody is complementary to the spiritual matters, and spiritual matters complement the melody—in both cases the heart is involved. Thus, it can be that the heart, being in such a frame, will either yield both subject matter and melody, or the subject matter and melody will move the heart in such a manner. The more pleasant the voices or instruments are which sing or play these melodies, the more the heart is moved. When Jehoshaphat and two kings showed Elisha the peril in which their armies were, due to lack of water, he said, “But


now bring me a minstrel. And it came to pass, when the minstrel played, that the hand of the Lord came upon him” (2 Kings 3:15). By way of the playing of this instrument his spirit was quickened, and having been brought into a fitting frame, he received the revelation that they would receive water.

Singing Practiced from the Beginning of Time

Creatures have engaged in singing from the very beginning of creation. The angels, having been created upon the first day and being a witness to creation the following five days, glorified God concerning this in singing: “When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy” (Job 38:7). Not all that transpired prior to the time of Moses has been recorded, but it is credible that the godly, from the time of Adam, have delighted themselves in singing. Job, who is considered to have lived during Abraham’s time, makes mention of singing in his book: “Where is God my Maker, who giveth songs in the night” (Job 35:10). After the children of Israel had left Egypt and had gone through the sea on dry ground, they praised the Lord in song: “Then sang Moses and the children of Israel this song unto the Lord” (Exod 15:1). The ninetieth psalm has the following title: A prayer of Moses. Moses, his death being imminent, gave the children of Israel a song which had been dictated to him by the Lord (Deut 31:16-30). After Sisera had been defeated, Deborah sang a song (Judg 5:1).

David was the sweet psalmist (2 Sam 23:1). To sing unto the Lord with instruments, and to lift up voice and heart to God, was his daily work. In His goodness the Lord has given us David’s psalms in His Word. We have the substance of them, but both the Hebrew art of poetry and the melodies are mostly concealed from us. I maintain that all the music which is now to be found in the world is not comparable to David’s music. I believe that the melody was then composed in harmony with the motions of the heart, giving expression to this in a most appropriate manner. Since the melody proceeded from a spiritual frame of heart, it was wondrously capable of stirring these emotions in others as well. The melody of a psalm could thus not be used for any other song, since that melody was only applicable to that inner motion and that given word. The combination of musical tones, inner motions, and words was such that it would cause all who heard it to be in ecstasy. Our music does not have such an effect. We sing the melody irrespective of whether it is consistent with both the inner motions of the heart and the words. Since the art of poetry and song primarily consisted in this at that time, it is simply not practical to seek to discover David’s poetic art-form—much less the melodies


he composed. Nevertheless, there are some elements here and there which are also to be found in Greek, Latin, and Dutch poetry.

Scripture Enjoins Us to Sing

David did not merely sing by himself, but continually exhorts everyone to sing. For that purpose he also submitted his psalms to be sung in the temple by the appointed chief singers. The textual references to this are so numerous that there is no need to point them out. After David’s time we also find psalms among the prophets, along with many exhortations to sing. We find such exhortations also among those prophecies which declare that in the days of the New Testament men would praise the Lord with singing. “Sing unto the Lord; for He hath done excellent things” (Isa 12:5); “In that day sing ye unto her, A vineyard of red wine” (Isa 27:2); “O sing unto the Lord a new song: sing unto the Lord, all the earth” (Ps 96:1).

Not only are we exhorted in the Old Testament to sing, but this is true for the New Testament as well. “Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (Eph 5:19); “... teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (Col 3:16); “Is any merry? let him sing psalms” (James 5:13); “I will sing with the spirit, and I will sing with the understanding also” (1 Cor 14:15); “And they sung a new song” (Rev 5:9).

Other Spiritual Songs in Addition to the Psalms

A number of godly men have composed spiritual songs for this purpose with a variety of melodies. It appears that Luther has been the first one to do so during the Reformation. His songs are still sung today with edification by the Lutherans in their churches, as well as privately by us. In our days the unforgettable Justus Van Lodesteyn has composed a songbook which is second to none as far as spirituality is concerned. Cl. Marot has put the first fifty of David’s psalms to rhyme in the French language, and Theodore Beza the other one hundred. Subsequent to this, Claud. Gaudemelius, a famous musician in Paris (who perished as a martyr in the massacre of Paris), composed the melodies, which could not have been improved upon in the judgment of musicians. Petrus Dathenus has translated them in poetic form from the French, preserving the identical tunes. It would be desirable if an artistic and godly poet were to take upon himself the task to improve them by putting them to poetry in an identical fashion, and in better harmony with the original text, so that they could be accepted for public use in the churches.[1] The decision of


the Dutch Synods has been very correct indeed, namely, that none other but the Psalms of David are to be used in the churches.

The General Lack of Singing Lamented

It amazes me that the godly in the Netherlands have so little desire to sing, and also engage in this very infrequently. It is true that singing little is consistent with the lackadaisicalness of our nation (compared to other nations). Nevertheless, worldly people sing quite a bit, but they sing vain songs which stir up the heart toward vanity and immorality. The godly are, however, generally silent in these parts. The one says, “I am too busy”; the other, “I have no voice”; the third, “I do not know any of the melodies”; the fourth, “I do not dare for fear the neighbors would hear me and deem me to be a hypocrite.” All of this is, however, not truly the problem, but it is a lack of desire. If the heart were more spiritual and joyous, we would more readily praise the Lord with joyful song and thereby stir up ourselves and others. I am here not only speaking of singing in church. (Even there many do not sing; and for some the very best they can do is read the psalm silently.)

Exhortation to Sing

It is thus needful that I stir up everyone to sing—not only psalms, but also spiritual songs. Therefore, believers, dispense with this listlessness. “Serve the Lord with gladness: come before His presence with singing” (Ps 100:2).

First, you must know that singing is not a neutral matter in which you may or may not engage. Rather, it is God’s command. As we have shown you before, God requires this from you and desires to be served by you in this manner. Consider these and similar quotes and impress them upon your heart as being mandatory. Begin to engage in this duty with an obedient heart; break open your mouth and your closed heart will open as well.

Secondly, God has created this ability in the very nature of man. This is to be observed in children of three or four years old. Take note of how they walk around the house while singing at the same time. Observe how even in nature the birds in their own way already praise their Creator early in the morning by way of singing. If you go outside in the morning, or if you have birds in your home, you will hear it. Will the birds and small children rebuke you, and would you, who have the greatest reason in the world to sing joyously, be dumb and silent?

Thirdly, it is the work of angels, for they glorify the Lord in song (cf. Job 38:7; Luke 2:13-14; Rev 5:11-12), and it is the work of the church upon earth and in heaven: “And they sung a new song,


saying, Thou art worthy to take the book, and to open the seals thereof: for Thou wast slain, and hast redeemed us to God by Thy blood out of every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation” (Rev 5:9); “And they sung as it were a new song before the throne ... and no man could learn that song but the hundred and forty and four thousand, which were redeemed from the earth” (Rev 14:3); “And they sing the song of Moses the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb, saying, Great and marvellous are Thy works, Lord God Almighty” (Rev 15:3). If you have no desire to sing, then what will you do in church and in heaven? Furthermore, if you are desirous to magnify the Lord with an eternal hallelujah, you should presently begin upon earth.

Fourthly, God is particularly pleased when His children praise Him in song. There where the Lord is sweetly praised in song, there He will come with His blessings. “But Thou art holy, O Thou that inhabitest the praises of Israel” (Ps 22:3). It is noteworthy to consider what transpired at the dedication of the temple. “It came even to pass, as the trumpeters and singers were as one ... that then the house was filled with a cloud ... so that the priests could not stand to minister by reason of the cloud: for the glory of the Lord had filled the house of God” (2 Chron 5:13-14). When Jehoshaphat, together with his army, lifted up their voices in joyous exclamation and song (2 Chron 20:22), the Lord defeated their enemies. When Paul and Silas sang praises unto God in the middle of the night, the doors of the prison were opened and the bands of all the prisoners were loosened (Acts 16:25-26). Therefore, if you are desirous to please the Lord, and delight in having the Lord visit your soul and desire to experience His help, then accustom yourself to singing.

Fifthly, singing will move a heart which frequently remains unmoved during prayer. It can be that while singing the tears will drip upon the book. Have you not frequently experienced this? Have not you been stirred up by hearing the singing of others? Others will therefore also be stirred up by your singing. The Papists in France knew this, and therefore they strictly forbade the singing of psalms and meted out cruel punishment for this—even prior to massacring the church. Therefore, no longer be silent, but lift up your voices—in spite of the devil and all the enemies of God—to the honor and glory of your God, as this has done you too much good already (and still does) than that you would refrain from thanking the Lord with songs of praise. You must furthermore do so in order that you might stir up others to serve the Lord with gladness. It will then become manifest to all natural men that godliness is a joyous rather than a grievous life, and they will


become desirous for this as well. And if you sing, sing with understanding, with a fervent desire, conscious of the presence of the Lord (and thus reverently), with a modest demeanor, and with both inner and external attentiveness, so that it may all be becoming before the Lord and to the edification of others who surround us.

[1] This occurred in the year AD 1773.

Source: Wilhelmus à Brakel, The Christian's Reasonable Service, vol. 4, trans. Bartel Elshout (Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 1995), 31-37.