Isaac Watts: Conservative or Charismatic?

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Here’s just another chance to plug Graham Beynon’s excellent book on Isaac Watts – it really is very good! Here’s a few notes from his chapter on Watts and ‘heart religion’.

Beynon begins by outlining the ‘cool’ intellectual religion of Watts’ day. He cites a few quotes from Watts which stress the importance of heart-felt religion:

“It is not enough for the eye to be lifted up to him, or the knee to bow before him . . . the heart with all the inward powers and passions must be devoted to him in the first place: This is religion indeed. The great God values not the service of men, if the heart not be in it.”

“Will it not fill the soul with overflowing gratitude, and make the lips abound in expressions of joy and praise? And will not these be attended with a peaceful and pleasing aspect, and establish a sweet serenity in the heart and eyes?”

“Come dear Lord, descend and dwell, by faith and love in ev’ry breast; Then shall we know, and taste, and feel the joys that cannot be expressed.”

However, Watts was also critical of some of the ‘enthusiasts’ of his own day:

“On the other hand, it must be acknowledged also, there have been many persons who have made their religion consist too much in the working of their passions, without a due exercise of reason in the things of God. They have contented themselves with some divine raptures without seeking after clear conceptions of divine things, or building their faith and hope, and practice, upon a just and solid foundation of sacred knowledge.”

“Ten thousand Saints are arrived safe at Paradise, who have not been favoured, like St Paul, with a Rapture in the third Heaven, nor could ever arise to the affectionate Transports, and devout Joys of Mrs Rowe.”

Beynon notes of Mrs Rowe that she was ‘someone who had written about her experience of God. Watts saw her as an example of the more unusual ‘raptures’ that God can give. Watts says her example is not to be laughed at, but that the majority of Christians arrive safely in heaven without ever having had such experiences.’ A key factor in the real experience of God’s truth and love is seen in the life of the believer:

“Value mortification to sin more than raptures; for mortification is a certain sign that the Spirit of God dwells in us, and that we are heirs of life.”

“What a reproach it is to the profession of the gospel to see a Christian just come from church and holy ordinances where his devout affections have been raised, and immediately to find him breaking out in vain, earthly merriment and carried away with idle and sensual discourse.”

Near the end of the chapter Beynon gives five ways in which affections can be grounded and expressed (read the book!), and concludes that for Watts, ‘Seeing God clearly must lead to loving God deeply. Loving him deeply leads to living for Him well.’ Deep study of truth is not opposed to deep affective experience of God’s love. In fact the former should lead to the latter, and the fruit of both will be seen in the holiness of life in the believer. So, was Watts more like a modern conservative or charismatic. Answer: Both! He had a passion for understanding, and deeper knowledge stirred his passion, and both together brought forth fruit in his lief. Beynon rightly concludes, ‘This kind of thinking needs to be promoted in our churches today.’ Amen!

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