Stuart Olyott’s new book, Something Must be Known and Felt, wasn’t quite what I was expecting.
Wherever I’d seen it advertised, I’d got the impression this was a book on the emotions in Christian experience, and so I looked forward to a useful corrective to sentimentalism and mysticism on one hand and intellectualism and formalism on the other.
What it turns out to be, though, is both something more than that, and yet at the same time something slightly less.
The plus points
The chapters, for one thing, range over a fairly wide set of topics, not limited to the emotions. The most outstanding of these is a chapter on assurance. This covers the teaching of scripture that assurance of salvation is to be sought and is ordinarily to be expected by all believers, before dealing with the various (mistaken) reasons why not all believers do expect or experience it. There is a very straightforward and helpful discussion of how true assurance can be found, and by contrast the characteristics of false assurance. The chapter does not conclude without describing, again very plainly and cogently, the indispensable work of the Holy Spirit in granting assurance. This is all set out so clearly and concisely, in the space of just a few pages, that this chapter alone almost justifies the whole book.
If assurance is the best chapter, the second best is the one on regeneration. In 2009, the Banner of Truth magazine published an article by Mr Olyott on the error of mediate regeneration and the importance of affirming immediate regeneration. (Mediate here obviously refers to ‘using means,’ and immediate to ‘not using means.’) This article was easily the most excellent thing the Banner magazine had published for donkey’s years –fresh, pointed, topical, and compelling. Much of the substance of that article now makes an appearance in the chapter on ‘The Holy Spirit’s work in the soul.’ Olyott sets out the case that when the Holy Spirit regenerates a soul, he works on the human heart directly, without using any means – not even the Word itself. ‘[Regeneration] is not brought about by some influence or instruction from outside, but by the implanting of new spiritual life inside. The Holy Spirit does not work by the Word upon the will, but in the will itself, changing a person’s desires and giving to the active powers of his soul a completely new direction’ (p39). This is of course normally done in the context of the Word – if the first acts of the newly regenerated soul are faith and repentance, it’s only in the Word that the Christ to believe in and the God to repent towards are revealed. Or in other words, ‘The Holy Spirit gives them sight, but what they see is the truth of the Word. The Holy Spirit gives them hearing, but what they hear is the voice of Christ in the Word. The Holy Spirit gives them feeling, but what they love is the Word. The Holy Spirit gives them a new nature, and, as a result, they now freely choose to embrace Jesus Christ, who is presented to them in the Word’ (p39). Again, this chapter contributes considerably to the value of the book.
On the topic of the emotions itself, Mr Olyott has given us a much needed reminder that there is more to biblical religion than doctrine only or practice only. As he says right at the start:
‘Today’s Christianity is largely composed of doctrine (believing the right things), ethics (behaving in the right way) and methodology (doing church and evangelism in the best possible way). It is a three-legged stool, but it is not the same shape as the three-legged stool of God’s Word. There we find that methodology is not of any great importance. The three legs on which biblical religion stands are doctrine, ethics and experience – God’s revealed truth is believed, it is lived out, and it is felt.’ (p5)
Even if I was mistakenly expecting a treatment of the emotions, this book is actually an extended plea for what used to be called something like spiritual mindedness – which does include the emotions, but Mr Olyott is right to includes things like prayer, guidance, and ‘the felt presence of Christ,’ alongside. People don’t always like the term ‘spiritual’ any more, for fear that it’s too reminiscent of contemporary forms of ‘spirituality’ which reject the Scriptures and Biblical forms of worship. But believers do need to be spiritually minded, to care more about unseen, eternal, heavenly, divine realities than about temporal and earthly things. Believers need to be godly, living a life of communion with and adoration of the one living and true God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Believers need to be God-fearing, in awe of his holiness and majesty, concerned to be and do what pleases him and careful to avoid what displeases him. But godly, God-fearing, spiritually minded saints are notable more by their absence than by their quiet, unassuming presence among us – probably we can all remember some who were very old when we were very young, who lived and breathed an atmosphere of heavenliness, of devotion to the Lord and prayerful kindness towards the people around them – but there don’t seem to be so many of them around any more, even among older Christians. Mr Olyott’s book is a like a voice out of that dimly remembered past, prompting us to consider seriously that this is a real loss, both to individuals and to the church collectively – and that we shouldn’t be content to go on without having close personal dealings with the Lord.
I did have the occasional reservation though, as I couldn’t help feeling that the high standard of this material wasn’t maintained consistently throughout the book as a whole.
One minor thing to get off my chest to start with is that the discussion of the emotions itself was undermined by what seems to be an unnecessarily strong commitment to a particular view of the makeup of the soul – namely, that it is composed of just two faculties, intellect and will (the emotions are treated as ‘strong movements of the will’). Obviously, this isn’t a technical tome, so any reasonably mainstream view capable of being briefly expressed in layman’s terms is arguably fit for purpose, but as nobody regards the question of the number of the faculties as unequivocally revealed in scripture, it doesn’t seem necessary to insist so strongly on this particular view. (Thomas Boston in the Fourfold State explains in turn how each of five faculties of the soul have been affected by the fall – mind, will, affections, conscience, and memory.) It might even be better to avoid discussing distinct faculties of the soul altogether, and instead see what we think of as ‘the will’ as an activity of the whole soul willing, and ‘the conscience’ as an activity of the whole soul judging. But in any case, as I say, this is only a minor point.
Something that bothered me more was towards the end of the chapter on regeneration. The chapter concludes with a series of anecdotes which are intended to demonstrate immediate regeneration – examples of people who were prompted to seek God or pray to God without having first read the Bible. Although there’s no reason to doubt that these situations really happened, they remain unconvincing as evidence for immediate regeneration. The way to demonstrate immediate regeneration is not to search for instances of people who have been regenerated in isolation from the Word, because that is not the Holy Spirit’s normal way of working – in adults, or in anyone with mental capacity to understand the truth, he regenerates them, immediately of course, but nevertheless always in the context of the Word. As it is inaccurate to say the Word regenerates, so it is inaccurate to say the Spirit regenerates apart from the Word – while the act of regeneration itself is an immediate divine act, the environment and atmosphere where souls are regenerated is in the Word. To the challenge, ‘how can you explain these anecdotes if you don’t believe in immediate regeneration,’ at least one possible line of response springs to mind. Specifically, it isn’t right to say that every inexplicable impulse to come to know God is regeneration – granting that what these various people experienced could well have been a prompting from the Holy Spirit, we still can’t say it was regeneration if there was no known Word as to the identity and nature of the Saviour they were to believe in. The prompting, in other words, would be better interpreted as part of a preparatory (or if you don’t like the term, just a previous-to-actual-regeneration) work of the Spirit. Many people have strange impressions about needing to find God, without ever finding him, but mercifully in these cases these people were led on to find a church, find out about the Bible, and be converted. There needs to be a distinction made between ‘the Holy Spirit working outside the ordained means of grace’ and ‘the Holy Spirit regenerating (by definition without means) in the context of the ordained means of grace,’ because examples of the former are not relevant to substantiating the latter.
Something else that would have enhanced the book would have been a discussion of what happens to the emotions in regeneration – what the bible actually means when it talks in terms of taking away a heart of stone and giving a heart of flesh, for example. Unbelievers are obviously not stony-hearted in the sense of being emotionless, and not every emotion is a sign of having undergone the new birth. In fact it is important to be clear that even emotional responses to the truth are not a definitive evidence of regeneration – how hard-hearted must you be, not to feel sad to hear of innocent Jesus being cruelly crucified, or not to exult when the Israelites escape their harsh taskmasters at the Red Sea, or not to spare a longing thought to reach a place where all tears will be wiped away from all faces. But the emotions could be stirred along these lines, while the change from a heart of stone to a heart of flesh still needs to take place. So the hard-heartedness of the unregenerate is more like imperviousness to the promises and threatenings of the gospel, and resistance to acknowledging God as the Lord – it’s the incorrigibility of the carnal mind, which is enmity against God, and does not, can not change unless the Holy Spirit works. When the Holy Spirit does work, then, it’s not so much that he gives new emotions, but that the emotions are given a new channel to flow in, so that Christ is embraced as the altogether lovely one, where before we saw no beauty in him that we should desire him, and sin loses its attractiveness and comes to be felt to be that evil and bitter thing, against the Lord and which the Lord hates. These human emotions of ours, which used to be drawn out at best towards our family and friends and natural good, and at worst towards what’s wrong and impure and our own selves, now incline towards things that are above nature and contrary to fallen nature – the holy God, his holy law, his people being sanctified – and against things that appeal to fallen nature. This is not natural but supernatural – something that only the Holy Spirit can bring about. The first chapter on the emotions rightly says that ‘only those emotions are legitimate which maintain the integrity of the person in the sight of God’ (p28), but a more explicit statement that the emotions which meet these criteria can only exist in a supernaturally renewed soul would have been helpful too.
Finally, a merely stylistic point – that the book seemed to end very abruptly, with nothing by way of a concluding chapter to pull together the various strands. Especially the later chapters, on prayer and guidance, might have benefited from a line or two of summary.
This little book is one that has clearly come from a pastor’s heart, and conveys an earnest wish for believers to walk more closely with the Lord. There is an evident concern for the work of the Holy Spirit to be recognised as indispensible, and for us to plead more directly and specifically for the sovereign Spirit to work powerfully – since nothing happens in the Christian life, from regeneration, or before, to glorification, except as the Holy Spirit moves. When he holds back, no wonder we drift listlessly on at this poor dying rate, imagining that the Word alone does his work for him (chapter 1), failing to look for the comfort of our salvation (chapter 3), failing to feel our loss at the absence of the Lord (chapter 4), and churning out earth-bound, faithless prayers (chapters 6-7). Occasional weak patches aside, this book is an echo of invitations like, ‘O taste and see that God is good, who trusts in him is blessed,’ and the stronger that note comes through, the more this book has its value.
[Actually, that’s not the final word – I’ve got a bit more to say on this, but let me hold it over for a separate blog post, since this one is already long enough.]
Stuart Olyott, Something Must be Known and Felt, Bryntirion Press, 2014. Amazon