"...if anyone makes the assistance of grace depend on the humility or obedience of man and does not agree that it is a gift of grace itself that we are obedient and humble, he contradicts the Apostle who says, "What have you that you did not receive?" (1 Cor. 4:7), and, "But by the grace of God I am what I am" (1 Cor. 15:10). (Council of Orange: Canon 6)


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  • « The Reformation - Has the Holy Spirit Moved On? by Pastor John Samson | Main | Ministry Update »

    Book Review: The Art of Manfishing by Thomas Boston

    Book Review: The Art of Manfishing, by Thomas Boston

    (Reviewed by Nathan Pitchford)

    Thomas Boston, a Scottish Puritan of the eighteenth century, produced at the beginning of his ministry what was to become a classic expression of the Puritan, and indeed the Reformed, attitude towards evangelism. Today we know this passionate and soul-searching meditation as The Art of Manfishing. Anyone who has ever been brought to despair by the lack of success attending his ministry, or the dullness of heart which he often finds seeping into his soul, would find much balm in these weighty words, written by one who truly feels that of which he speaks; and who knows, moreover, where the healing and hope is to be found.

    The caricature of Puritanism as a condemnatory and passionless religion of self-satisfied curmudgeons could scarcely be further from the reality, as Boston’s little treatise convincingly demonstrates. Within its pages are to be found deep humility, a passion for souls, and a desperate desire that God be glorified. This is Puritanism at its best; and even at its worst, Puritanism has much to offer the modern church, as she pursues her task of evangelizing the lost. It is primarily in two particulars that we, as modern evangelists, stand to learn from the scripturally-saturated reflections of Thomas Boston.

    The first of these is humility. True humility, which ever despairs of oneself and looks to Christ alone for succor, is always in short supply. Thomas Boston habitually and systematically taught himself to remember his own weakness and apply to Jesus for aid. He did not consider his own conversion as certain, unless the Savior should lay hold of him; and so he was ever mindful not to base the likelihood of the conversion of those to whom he preached on their own merits. Precisely in proportion as he despaired of all human effort in evangelism, he leaned upon Christ; which is an attitude as likely to be put to much use as it is unlikely to be found.

    The second particular is genuine fervor for lost souls. Rare is the man who can cry out with true and empathetic passion for the lost sheep of his homeland. This the apostle Paul did, as you may remember from Romans 9:1-5. More to the point, this is what Christ did, when he wept for Jerusalem, and was stricken with compassion for the scattered multitudes. If we would follow Christ, we must be affected as he was affected. This eminently Christ-like love is a sovereign gift that serves always as the foundation for a Christ-honoring evangelism. If we would be true “manfishers,” let us cry out to Christ for a measure of this same spirit!

    Perhaps this humility and passion, which are so evident in Boston, sprang from his conception of the ministry of evangelism. He saw conversion not as a glib, one-time decision, but an often long and always weighty process of being broken down by the law, so that one might be bound up by the free grace of the Savior. And he saw this process, moreover, as a supernatural affair, impossible to be counterfeited by human measures, and occurring ever as a testimony to God’s surprising power and grace. This may well be why Boston, who loved Jesus much, so desperately desired the conversion of souls. It may be why he was so ardently devoted to pursuing Christ in his evangelistic office. It is certainly why he was so humbly inclined to despair of himself as he looked instead to the one who alone is able, for all his strength both to persevere, and to preserve the gospel free from corrupting influences and motivations. In all of these particulars, we would all do well to drink deeply from the same spring.

    Available at Monergism Books

    Posted by John on October 28, 2006 04:01 PM


    A book about humility is apt to be edifying. I would promote this book with the unBiblical tags of "Puritan" and "Reformed" however.

    It is also important to remember than evangelism (teaching) must start at home.


    Did you mean, "I would not promote this book with the unBiblical tags of 'Puritan' and 'Reformed' however."?

    "Puritan" is not a biblical term, but it is a historical word, that sets the book in a precise context. It is often helpful to know the surrounding circumstances of the authors who wrote outstanding works. That Boston was an eighteenth-century Scottish Puritan is a historical tidbit that possesses some relevancy as one looks into his work.

    "Reformed" is another indicator of historical context (the Puritans were, in many ways, heirs of the Reformation). It is particularly valuable to note that this author was an heir of the Reformation and a Puritan, because he wrote in ways that flatly contradict the false conceptions many persons retain concerning those two terms.

    So I wouldn't claim biblical warrant for the decision, but I believe the historical relevancy is a sufficient cause to keep the two labels in the review.

    Blessings in Christ,

    Nathan, Yes, I did mean to insert the "not". I understand the connection, but unfortunately, there is often a negative knee jerk reaction to words like "Puritan," "Reformation," etc., on the part of people who would otherwise benefit from the book.
    Thank you for your reply.


    Negative reaction by whom? I mean, some secularists who focus on an isolated incident like Salem witch burnings in early US history but the writing of the English Puritans and the Reformers, to most Christians, are one of our greatest treasuries of literature. If anything, that the book is written by a Puritan would encourage, rather than discourage me from reading it .. especially when compared with the light fare we read from Christians today.

    Read Crook in the Lot and The Art of Manfishing by Boston and you will never want to go back to much of the scribble we read today, many titles, of which, should never have been published. These books, including the one Nathan endorsed, are saturated with Scripture. KNowing they are Puritan writers is something I would think most Christians would think of immediately as something of excellence.

    Or read The Holy Spirit by John Owen. Incredibly helpful literature. Hearing that it is Puritan in orign makes me think that it was probably a well considered, thoughtful writing.

    JW, I agree with you from our perspective. I was thinking about the postmodern believers who find themselves highly scrutinized, if not under attack, by fundamental theology. Unfortunately the confidence that comes from knowing the Truth in Christ, often purveys a self righteousness. I think it best to lead people to Philippians chapter 2 before we introduce them to, say, Ephesians.

    I think we all could stand to humble ourselves as little children, not only before Almighty God, but before each other as well.


    Yes postmoderns indeed. Whjile we should respect persons from every era that does not mean we should self-censure. With humility, we should challenge them to have skepticism in their own skepticism. What power motive to modern leaders/teachers have in marginalizing eveything that used to be central ...and bringing the what was marginal to the center as postmoderns do? While some of this may be good, the motive you can hear from their own lips .. that they want to empower people. What makes one group in power any better than others? Better to glance at God's majesty and have all be humbled.

    Human nature is a cauldron of inquity, so persons are going to find evil now and in every era of the past and present they look in. Empowerment is not the answer. Christ is.

    And so it would be wrong for us to shut out a great era of history simply because people have the wrong impression. We should rather, promote what is good from every era. If postmodern Christians are offended by the Puritans it means they are offended by their ideas, that God alone saves. Modern Christians are offended by the very idea because they refuse to stand on the shoulders of those who went before them. Is not this itself arrogant?

    Oh, there is no debate from me about the arrogance of the post modern believers who are apparently more concerned about self-esteem rather than Christ-esteem.

    Where do you think these post modern Christians came from? Jonathan Edwards convinced their forefathers that they were dispicable scum in God's eyes, and that they didn't have any choice in the matter. (I know that wasn't the complete message, but that is what stuck, I'm sorry to say). What did you expect?

    They are not so much offended by the Truth that God saves, as they are by the fact that they don't have a choice in the matter, as a lot of fundamental, and especially Calvinistic theology, presents itself to them. You see, they don't understand that doctrine of sovereign grace because it is not specifically spelled out for them in the Bible. The words "sovereign" and "grace" never appear together in the Bible.

    So the question remains: Do you want to be a vessel used of God to help bring people to Christ, so the Holy Spirit will not be impeded by someone being confused?


    Perhaps you may misunderstand. That someone knows they are in bondage to sin, and have no hope left in themselves, is the very thing the Holy Spirit uses to bring people to God through Christ, because it is only when we recognize (that we have no resources in ourselves) THAT we properly begin to understand grace. That the Holy Spirit alone can open our spiritually blind eyes, and that we cannot count on drawing from any of our own innate resources to see the beauty and excellency of Christ and that it is He alone that gives us eyes to see ... do we finally recognize complete dependence on Him for everything. Only then do we see that He is God and we are not.

    The last bastion of pride is to believe that we are the authors' of our own faith. When a person utterly dispairs of Himself when they hear the law and the gospel and recognize their own impotence ... this is the very place God wants them. For it is then, when our own spiritual impotence is recognized, that it is apparent that God is doing a work of grace in someones heart to believe. Paul said true Christians are those who:

    1) Worship in the Spirit of God
    2) Glory in Christ
    3) And put no confidence in the flesh (Phil 3)

    Apart from Jesus we can do nothing, including believe. No one can believe in Jesus unless God grants it, says Jesus (John 6:65) Salvation is all of grace, not a cooperation between God and man. That is not to say that God will not save people in spite of their bad theology, He does. Otherwise grace would not be grace.

    But if the Bible teaches something (the bondage of the will, for instance) and we withold it from others for fear of offending man, then we are not properly representing Jesus as He has represented Himself to us. This is to promote idolatry.

    So when we preach the gospel we are casting forth the seed, of which no unregenerate heart will respond positively to, for they love darkness. The seed must be germinated by the Holy Spirit, so to speak, or all would follow their own proud hearts.

    As John Owen said: "To suppose that whatever God requireth of us that we have power of ourselves to do, is to make the cross and grace of Jesus Christ of none effect."

    We point people to the cross and ask them to do what they are unable to do. That is the whole point. The purpose of the divine legislation is not to show our ability but our inability (Rom 3:20) >>through the law we become conscious of sin. That does not stop us from issuing God's command to do so. And this is the command to believe in the one he sent. For what is impossible with man, (faith and repentance) is possible with God, for Jesus does for us what we cannot do for ourselves. i.e. grants us a new heart (sets us free from the bondage to sin).

    Spurgeon said: "We hold that man is never so near grace as when he begins to feel he can do nothing at all. When he says, 'I can pray, I can believe, I can do this, and I can do the other,' marks of self-sufficiency and arrogance are on his brow."

    It is all of grace, not Jesus plus man's effort (Rom 9:16)

    I would be pleased if you show me where the Bible says "bondage of will." I really care very little for what Martin Luther had to say on the matter of will. You are mistaken if you can honestly say you don't have some sort will to make choices. (Saved or unsaved). It is that "bondage of the will" rhetoric that brings strife and confusion to Christianity. Your "grace doctrines" give man justification for his failure to either receive the promises of all things in Christ, or to obey his commandments. This error makes a man an offender for a word, and lays a snare for him that reproves in the gate, and turn aside the just for a thing of nought. (Isaiah 29:21). You believe, then you do well.


    The will is evil by corruption of nature and becomes good only by a correction of grace. Natural man know the truth and know God, but necessarily suppress truth in unrighteousness (Rom 1:18). Every page of Scripture teaches that the natural man is in bondage to a corruption of nature. The Bible calls it sin. If he was not a sinner by nature, he would not need a Savior and the Holy Spirit to unite you to Him, because he could just use his "free will" to stop sin in himself (and others). If you are free then stop sinning. Unfortunately, apart from Jesus' merciful intervention, you and I cannot do otherwise.

    Apart from Jesus, do you know anyone who chooses not to sin of his own will? What does it mean that man is a sinner? It means when the commandements are put before him, he is not willing or able to obey them. Do you obey any commandment of God perfectly? I did not think so. Why not, because your will (your chooser) is broken (it loves sin John 3:19). That means your will is in bondage, a slave to sin (John 8), as Jesus calls it. Slaves to sin until Christ sets us free, as the Scripture says. Of necessity you willingly choose to sin. Rom 3:20 says the purpose of the law is to reval sin in man. "Through the knowledge of the law comes sin." That means it reveals, not his ability but his inability. his limitations. His bondage to sin. This means that he chooses to sin of his own volition, willingly and necessarily, apart from grace. If something is done of necessity, then it is not free from what causes him to do so. In man's case it is his corruption.

    So is it your claim, then, that a person is able to believe the gospel apart from the work of the Holy Spirit? If man needs the Holy Spirit at all to make this choice then his choice is not free but in bondage to his own corruptions. The need for the Spirit proves man's need of grace lest he continues in darkness. If we were to preach the word only and the Spirit did nothing to germinate that seed in men's hearts, man would be left without the desire or understanding of Christ. Apparently you believe man is free and needs no outside help to change his hard and blind heart.

    You rob people of the very gospel when you tell them they are not in bondage to sin. When Jesus told the Jews in John 10 that they were slaves of sin and only he could set them free, they were deeply offended just like you seem to be at the suggestion that man has never been in bondage. It is a hard teaching that people are enslaved by their sin, but people need to heart it because Jesus plainly teaches it. Only Christ can save them, not some cooperative effort between God and man as if Christ was not enough. Either Christ saves completely or you are attemoting to add to the price of his redemption.

    4For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you, 5because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction.

    The Bible, over and over again says that man is a slave to sin until Christ sets him free (Rom 6). And a slave is not free. Apart from the Holy Spirit, left to himself, humans have no understanding or desire of Spiritual things, in fact they think they are foolish (1 Cor 2:14). In his natural state, apart from grace, we love darkness and hate the light and will not come into the light. God commands you to obey the Ten commandments and love him with all your heart and mind and soul. Do you. Is your will free to do so? No it is in bondage to corruption and unless God acts you have no hope. Try as you may of your own power and resources, you will never obey one commandment. What kind of freedom is that? And even if you do outwardly, your motive is not the love of God unless God enables you. John 6:65 states that no one can believe in Jesus UNLESS God grants it.

    Human beings have severe limitations. Jesus says anyone weho sins is a slave to sin (John 10) Last time I looked a slave is not free - UNLESS CHRIST SETS HIM FREE

    You keep talking about how your ideas are based on the Bible. This is odd, since there is no mention of the free will of the natural man ANYWHERE in the Bible. The Bible does not even assume this. It is an unbiblical concept which you presuppose but do not draw out of scripture.

    None of us believe man is coerced against his desires to do anything. But he acts according to his nature, which is corrupt. So his lack of free will is not one of coersion by of necessity. Of necessity he thinks evil thought apart from grace. None of his good works are done out of aheart that loves God, unless God change his heart. He must be born again. Born not of the will of man but of God (John 1:13) .God will have mercy on whom he will have mercy, so id does not therefore depend on the man who wills or runs but on God who has mercy (Rom 9:16)

    Please show in the Scripture anywhere where the Bible presupposes man has a free will?


    Just to answer your question about where the bible says fallen man's will is bound, I have a brief list (which could be expanded almost indefinitely) of things the bible says man's will is incapable of (i.e. bound with respect to):

    Man's will cannot

    Come to Christ (John 6:44);
    Come to the light (John 3:20-21);
    Understand or even seek God (Romans 3:11);
    Hear Christ's words (John 8:47);
    Receive the Spirit of truth, hear him, or know him (John 14:7);
    Obtain God's mercy (Romans 9:16);
    See the Kingdom of God (John 3:3);
    Receive the things of the Spirit of God (I Corinthians 2:4);
    Say that Jesus is Lord (I Corinthians 12:3).

    The will may be free with respect to some things (e.g. whether one chooses chocolate or vanilla ice cream); but with respect to the entire preceding list, which contains everything necessary for life and salvation, it is, by scriptural testimony, bound. When we recognize that, we are constrained to glorify God's powerful grace, and not our own wills, in all matters of salvation.


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