John Flavel, Triumphing Over Sinful Fear. Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2011. 124pp. Softcover. $10.00.
Reviewed by Ryan M. McGraw
This is easily the most important book that I have read out of the last one hundred. It is deeply convicting, full of Christ, and loaded with sound pastoral wisdom on a vital, yet neglected topic. This work distinguishes between “the fear of the Lord” and sinful fear that results from unbelief. In essence, the fear of the Lord is the single greatest remedy to all forms of sinful fear.
It is noteworthy that Flavel began by introducing a third category of “natural” fear. Some people are more fearful by disposition, and there are forms of “natural” fear that are not inherently sinful. Even Christ was subject to “natural” fear as He contemplated the cross (8). “Natural” fear of punishment is also necessary in order to uphold civil order (21). After establishing the parameters of the question, Flavel set forth the causes of sinful fear (chapter 4), its effects (chapter 5), its remedies (chapter 6), followed by answers to some objections (chapter 7).
At root, the author argued that ignorance of the provisions of the covenant of grace is the primary cause of sinful fear (31). The corollary to this is unbelief in God’s promises (35). As a result, “carnal fear is the very root of apostasy” (56). From this point on, Flavel turned his primary attention to sinful fear that results from persecution. Even good people may be overwhelmed and fall in such circumstances (68). He sought to counter this temptation through a series of useful meditations such as the following: “To trust in God in part and the creature in part is to put one foot upon the rock and the other on quicksand” (83). “No death is more honorable to God or comfortable to you as a violent death for Christ” (89). “An assured Christian is never a coward in suffering” (94). “Although a natural death has less horror, a violent death for Christ has more honor” (96). “A natural death in Christ is safe for us, but a violent death for Christ is beneficial for others” (97). “It is a great mistake to think that the strength of a natural constitution can carry anyone through suffering for Christ” (114). “In extraordinary trials we can expect extraordinary assistance” (117).
Ministers often attest to the fact that there is sometimes a peculiar blessing of the Holy Spirit upon their preaching. When this happens, both the content and the form of delivery are blessed beyond the natural gifts of the pastor. I cannot help but think that this work represented one of those moments in Flavel’s ministry. Sometimes the profit that we receive from a book depends as much upon our own present spiritual condition as much as upon the inherent value of the material. This volume presents a clarion call to our present generation in which persecution is subtle and not recognized easily. It was edited and prepared for the average person in the pew and it fulfills its purpose abundantly.