Extended Biography of Stephen Charnock
STEPHEN CHARNOCK, B.D. one of the greatest men in the church of Christ, with respect to his depth, clearness, and accuracy in true divinity, was born in the year 1628. He was the Author of those unparalleled discourses on the Existence, Attributes, and Providence of God, with a course of excellent sermons on Regeneration. On these subjects, they have no equal in our language; and it is a striking evidence of the depraved and frivolous taste of the present age, that these admirable volumes are almost universally neglected. It is the honor of some few of our divines to know the worth of them, and to study them with attention and delight. The best account we can give of this great divine must be taken from Dr. Calamy, and Mr. Charnock's funeral sermon, preached by Mr. Johnson.
Dr. Calamy, in the second volume of his account of ejected ministers, page 57, speaks thus: “Mr. Stephen Charnock, B. D. first of Emanuel college in Cambridge, and afterwards fellow of New college in Oxford. He was senior proctor of the university in 1652, and managed that office with great honor and reputation, and was much applauded for his exercises at the act. From thence he went into Ireland, where he lived in the family of Henry Cromwell, and that with abundant respect; at which time he used to preach on Lord's days, in the afternoon, in the city of Dublin, and had all the gentry and persons of quality in the city for his auditors. This continued till King Charles's restoration; a little after which he returned into England, and spent fifteen years in and about London, following his studies without any fixed settled employment, taking now and then a turn beyond the seas into France or Holland. At length he became pastor of a congregation in London, and was much admired as a preacher by the more judicious part of mankind, but not popular nor much followed, because of his disadvantageous way of reading with the help of a glass. He was a very considerable scholar, and an eminent divine. His natural parts were excellent; for he had a strong reason, a great judgment, and a curious fancy (which rarely meet) joined together. His improvements by diligence and industry were unusual. There was no part of learning of any moment which he had not an insight into. And his love was as large as his knowledge; for his benevolence was universal, and his love took in whatsoever person or thing had any thing lovely in it.
“He published nothing while he lived, but a sermon of ‘The sinfulness and cure of thoughts, in the supplement to the morning exercise at Cripplegate:’ But various things of his were printed after his death, in two volumes in folio, which are valued by all that are judges of good sense or divinity. They are indeed no other than his ordinary performances, his usual sermons in his common course; and they were transcribed from his notes, and cannot therefore but want that perfection and beauty they would have had, if he had himself sent them to the press. And yet (to speak modestly) they are not equaled by many, but exceeded by few, if any. His preaching was mostly practical, yet rational and argumentative to his hearers' understandings as well as affections; and where controversies came in his way, he showed great acuteness and judgment in discussing and determining them, and no less skill in applying them to practice. There is besides the two folios, an octavo, published by the same persons, containing some of his sermons on our natural enmity against God, and the sinner's salvation, which are of a piece with the others. He died at London, July the twenty-seventh 1680, aged fifty-two.
“His funeral sermon was preached by Mr. John Johnson, who had been his fellow-collegiate at Cambridge, in 1644, when Mr. Charnock was only sixteen years of age. In Dr. Calamy's continuation, vol. iii. page 81, he gives this farther account of our Author: Mr. Johnson's funeral sermon for him was on Matthew 13:43. He (who had been acquainted with him thirty-six years) gave him an excellent character, and among other things said, that he never knew a man in all his life that had attained near unto that skill that Mr. Charnock had in the originals of the Old and New Testament, except Mr. Thomas Cawton. His library was burnt in the fire of London. It was only in his latter years, when his memory began to fail him, that he penned and read his sermons verbatim: But in his younger days he used no notes in the pulpit.”
In the preface to his funeral sermon, Mr. Johnson writes thus: “He was, as to manners and deportment, venerable and grave, like an aged person from his youth: Then well trained up, and learned in all the wisdom couched under foreign languages: In his skill in both the originals of sacred writ, the wisdom taught by the holy languages, was he instructed, and so augmented arid grew ripe as in years. He was the rational house of God, Christ's spiritual building, the temple of the Holy Ghost, framed and made up of orthodox doctrines and good works: A person really transformed into the very image of God himself. Always serving the only true and living God, as becomes such a God. All the work wherein he employed and exercised himself with diligence, skill, and constancy, was love to God and souls. His life he examined and squared, until it was exact according to the rule of God's word.” His gravity not with affectation in the least: His very silence was more efficacious many times than his own, oftentimes than the speech of others. But all his ministerial service always such as brought down fire from heaven upon the spiritual sacrifices. The doctrines he set before his hearers for food and physic, were most divine, whom he never directed into any way of truth, wherein he had not walked before them. Christ's most fruitful vine overspread the walls of his auditory, well hung with lovely clusters, and flourishing with pleasant fruit of all the salutary doctrines of the Gospel, whence ministers and others carried home baskets full, to rejoice the hearts of new-born babes, which they were to bring up for Christ. Herein lay his eminency. He had resigned all into the hands of his Lord and Saviour, who had received him, viz. his estate, reputation, health, life, and whatever might be for his comfortable being here, even his learning and learned discourses, enjoying thus much of all these things, that he overlooked them, and had wherewith he might make it appear how much he esteemed Christ before them.
“In all his sermons, prayers, and conversation, gospel light appeared to each that had any thing of the spirit of discerning, and love did abound more and more in knowledge, in all judgment and experience. How would he deeply search into, and prove things that differ, and allow only what he found pure and excellent, whereby he might make himself and others, sincere, without offence, and to be filled with the fruits of righteousness! For this I had him in my heart, at my first acquaintance with him in Cambridge, thirty-six years since, 1644. I found him one that, Josiah like, had turned to the Lord with all his heart, all his soul, and all his might, and none like him which did more endear him to me. How had he hid the word of God in a fertile soil, a good and honest heart, which made him flee youthful lusts, and antidoted him against the infection of youthful vanities. His study was his recreation: The law of God all his delight. Had he it not, think ye, engraven on his heart? He was as choice, circumspect, and prudent in his selection of society, as of books to converse with: all his delight being in such as excelled in the divine art of directing, furthering, and quickening him in the way to heaven, the love of Christ, and souls. Most choice he was of the ministers that he would hear. What he learnt from books, converse, or sermons, he prayed over till he was delivered into the form of it, and had Christ's grace and the spirit formed in him. True, he had been in darkness, and then full of doubtings, fears, and grievously pestered with temptation. It is in the night the serpent crawls forth. Alas! he was to be trained up, as he might counsel and comfort others; but God vouchsafed to dart such rays into his heart, as gave the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of the person of Jesus Christ. So was he made light in the world, and, believing on Christ and God in him, filled with inward peace and comfort. He was a sound believer, and oft said, he esteemed his own righteousness as none at all, nor would he be found in it: it was impure, imperfect, defiled. All his desire was to be found in Christ, and arrayed with the fine linen, clean and shining, the righteousness of the saints.
“One excellency of this eminent divine lay in his knowledge, belief of, and the soundness of his judgment, to clear unto the understanding of others, fundamental truths, viz. concerning the first covenant, the apostasy and defection of our first parents, by which time the fathers, in the primitive times, judiciously delighted to delineate the fall of Adam, and ours in him. The first promise concerning Christ, the seed of the woman, and that before the judiciary sentence past; the covenant of redemption; the new covenant of grace, which filled up the greatest room in his head, heart, meditations, prayers, and discourses; the nature of original sin, want of original righteousness, corruption of nature, impossibility of being justified by the law, by works, justification by Christ, by faith in him, the sufferings of Christ, regeneration, etc. and the love of God in all. How oft have we found him magnifying and adoring the mercy, love, and goodness of God, the freeness and the riches of his grace, in giving the promise before the sentence, giving Christ, righteousness, and faith in him? O! (said he oft to this effect) the grace of God! the freeness and exceeding riches of his grace, who is rich in mercy for his great love, wherewith he hath loved us! He' was pleased to make us vessels of grace and mercy, when he might have made us vessels of wrath! That ever the Lord should have thoughts of mercy on such sinful creatures, such vile wretches, worse than worms or toads! they have poison in them, but no enmity against God. O that God should give his Christ for us, to us, and faith in Christ! both work it, and preserve it in us. Yea, he was one that lived by faith, and he is gone to receive the end of it, the salvation of his soul. He was no Solifidian, (i.e. one who is for faith alone without works, or one who pleads for a dead faith) but being sanctified in part, truly righteous.
“Having infused habits of grace and righteousness in him, light and love, faith and hope, inclining him to walk in new obedience, and worthy of the Lord, unto all pleasing. Knowledge, without which the heart is not good. He knew the grace of God in truth, and, through grace, had treasured up a large stock of saving, solid, practical, experimental knowledge, which furnished him with great abilities, not only to convince gainsayers, which crept in as new lights, of their broaching old errors, but to give knowledge .and discretion to weaker Christians, and to illuminate and instruct the righteous. Many able ministers loved to sit at his feet, for they received by one sermon of his those instructions which they could not get by many books, or sermons of others. His heat and zeal for the honor of God, and the good of souls, was proportioned to his light; he was as much a burning as a shining light.
“In Southwark, where seven or eight, in that little time Providence continued him there, owned their conversion under God to his ministry, and wear the seals and letters testimonial thereof. Then in the university of Oxford, and adjacent parts. After in Dublin, where it might be said of his, as it was of the Lord's preaching in the land of Zabulon, The people which sat in darkness saw great light, and to them which sat in the region of the shadow of death, light sprang up. And lastly, in this great city, where his sphere, being not spacious enough for so great a light, was enlarged. Here he intended to have given forth a complete body of divinity; but, alas ! after he had demonstrated the being and existence of God, his sun set before he had gone over all his transcendent excellencies 'and perfections. The last subject he treated on and finished, was the Patience of God. He was looking what to say next of the mercy, grace, and goodness of God, which he is gone to see and to admire: for he found that which he most looked and longed for, the mercy of our Lord Jesus unto eternal life in heaven, where he shines now. Indeed, all the while he was upon the attributes of God, he moved with that extraordinary strength and celerity, it was an argument of his near approach unto his center, his everlasting rest; and, if it be true, as some say, that the soul doth prominere in morte, his words were too true predictions, and from his soul, when he said, “That concerning divine patience would be his last sermon, which the Lord grant might prove salvation to all that heard him.”
To this character, given by his old friend and colleague, may be subjoined another by the editors of some of his Posthumous Pieces, Mr. Richard Adams and Mr. Edward Veal, who appear to have been well acquainted with Mr. Charnock.
“He was (say they) a person of excellent parts, strong reason, great judgment, and (which do not often go together) curious fancy, of high improvements, and general learning, as having been all his days a most diligent and methodical student, and a great redeemer of time, rescuing not only his restless hours in the night, but his very walking time in the streets from those impertinences and fruitless vanities, which do so customarily fill up men's minds, and steal away their hearts from those better and more noble objects, which do so justly challenge their greatest regards: This he did by not only carefully watching, (as every good Christian should do) but constantly writing down his thoughts, whereby he both governed them better, and furnished himself with many materials for his most elaborate discourses. His chief talent was his preaching gift, in which, to speak modestly, he had few equals. To this therefore, as that for which his Lord and master had best fitted him, (neglecting the practice of physic, in which he had arrived at a considerable measure of knowledge) he did especially addict himself, and direct his studies, and even when Providence denied him opportunities, yet he was still laying in more stock, and preparing for work against he might be called to it. When he was in employment, none that heard him could justly blame his retiredness, be being even when most private, continually at work for the public; and had he been less in his study, he would have been less liked in the pulpit.
“His library furnished (though not with a numerous, yet) a curious Collection of books, was his workhouse, in which he labored hard all the week, and on the Lord's Day made it appear he had not been idle, and that though he consulted his privacy, yet he did not indulge his sloth. He was somewhat reserved where he was not well acquainted; otherwise very free, affable, and communicative where he understood and liked his company. He affected not much acquaintance, because he would escape visitants, well knowing how much the ordinary sort of friends were apt to take up his time, which he could ill spare from his beloved studies, meeting with few that could give him better entertainment with their company, than he could give himself alone. They had need be very good, and very learned, by whose converse he could gain more than by his own thoughts and books. He was a true son of the church of England, in that sound doctrine laid down in the articles of religion, and taught by our most famous ancient divines and reformers; and a real follower of their piety, as well as a strenuous maintainer of the truth they professed. His preaching was mostly practical, yet rational and argumentative, to his hearers' understandings, as well as affections; and where controversies came in his way, he shewed great acuteness and judgment in discussing and determining them, and no less skill in applying them to practice: So that he was indeed a workman that needed not to be ashamed, being able by sound doctrine, both to exhort and convince gain-sayers. Some have thought his preaching too high for vulgar hearers, and it cannot be denied but his gifts were suited to the more intelligent sort of Christians; yet it must withal be said, that if he were sometimes deep, he was never abstruse; he handled the great mysteries of the Gospel with much clearness and perspicuity; so that if in his preaching he were above most, it was only because most were below him. Several considerable treatises on some of the most important points of religion, he finished in his ordinary course, which he hath left behind him, in the same form he usually wrote them for the pulpit.”
To this may be added the testimony of a more modern writer: “I have met (says the late Mr. Toplady) with many Treatises on the Divine Perfections! but with none, which any way equals that of Mr. Charnock. Perspicuity, and depth; metaphysical sublimity, and evangelical simplicity; immense learning, and plain, but irrefragable, reasoning, conspire to render that performance one of the most inestimable productions, that ever did honor to the sanctified judgment and genius of an human being. If I thought myself at all adequate to the task, I would endeavor to circulate the outlines of so rich a treasure into more hands, by reducing the substance of it within the compass of an octavo volume. Was such a design properly executed, a more important service could hardly be rendered to the cause of religion, virtue, and knowledge. Many people are frightened at a folio of more than 800 pages, who might have both leisure and inclination to avail themselves of a well-digested compendium.”
Source: Erasmus Middleton. Evangelical Biography; or, an Historical Account of the Lives and Deaths of the Most Eminent and Evangelical Authors or Preachers, etc. Vol. 3. London: W. Baynes, 1816.