Confessional Reformed Devotional Literature?

In Recovering the Reformed Confession I defined the the “Reformed Confession” both narrowly (referring to the confessional documents adopted by the churches) and broadly referring to the theology, piety, and practice in, with, and around the confessions themselves.

Subsequent discussions here and elsewhere have tended to focus on two of the three aspects: theology and practice. To be clear, all three aspects are integrally related so that to discuss the one necessarily connects the others. Further, when I say “piety” I do not assume, as I suspect many do, that it first of all refers to acts of or the practice of private devotions. Rather, I think the reverse is true, that private devotion is the result and consequence of public worship.

Nevertheless, though it has certainly received attention here (and here and here) private devotion and piety have perhaps not received as much attention as they should have. This morning I had a query from a dear friend asking for good examples of confessional Reformed devotional literature. Let’s define our terms.

By “confessional” I mean that which breathes the intent of churches in adopting the confessions and by “Reformed” I mean that which embraces the essential commitments of Reformed piety, i.e., it begins with God’s Word (rather than the subjective) and unites the Word with the Holy Spirit.

By “devotional” and “piety” I mean the approach to God that begins with corporate, public worship and the “due use of ordinary means” (Word and sacrament—Westminster Confession of Faith, 1.7) and continues with private prayer, reading of God’s Word, and doxology. So, the question is, what are some titles that foster such hearty approach to private devotion?

One other caveat before we begin compiling a list. My motto (certainly not original with me) is “pray while you study and study while you pray.” I don’t accept the notion that there is “study” of Scripture or the faith and “devotion” as if the two were mutually exclusive. If we’re reading God’s Word properly it wants us to pay close attention. That’s a form of study but any close attention to the Word necessarily produces praise (doxology) and that’s “devotion.”

We are created and constituted body and soul but we are one person. We have an intellect, a will, and affections. We cannot alternately activate one faculty (e.g., the intellect) and shut down the others. Yet I have heard sincere brothers and sisters in the Lord talk about piety in just that way. I think we are meant to engage God’s Word with and it intends to engage us in each of our faculties. We should not have to choose between them and we do not have to.

Now to the list:

My first instinct, of course, is to say “The Psalms!” The Psalter is the divinely inspired songbook. No uninspired devotional material comes close to matching the heartfelt, realistic, honest, Christ-centered piety and devotion of the 150 Psalms. This, of course, is just one reason why the Reformed and Presbyterian Churches sang the Psalms from the very beginning of the Reformation and why the Psalter was perhaps the dominant force in the piety of the Reformed and Presbyterian Churches until the modern period, beginning in the late 18th century. For one example of the centrality of the Psalms to Reformed piety see the Church Order of the Synod of Dort (1619) art. 69:

69. In the churches only the 150 Psalms of David, the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, the 12 Articles of Faith, the Songs of Mary, Zacharias, and Simeon shall be sung. It is left to the option of the churches whether to use or omit the song, O God, who art our Father.

Apart from the use of the Apostles’ Creed (the 12 Articles), which was used is as a confession of the Word of God, all the songs authorized by Synod for use by congregational response to the Word (Reformed worship has two elements essentially, Word and prayer and the service is structured by Call (i.e., the Word) and Response or prayer) were divinely inspired. The material I’ve read claims that song “O God, who art our Father” was an uninspired hymn but I suspect now that it might a paraphrase of the Lord’s Prayer.

2Timothy 3:16 says:

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness

Thus, all of God’s Word is profitable for private devotional use and so it should receive the first attention and remain the principal text in private devotions. Nevertheless there are excellent titles that meet the tests set above. Here is a starter list.

  • Bavinck, Herman. The Certainty of Faith. Ontario: Paedei Press, 1980.
  • Belgic Confession (1561)
  • Berkhof, Louis. Assurance of Faith. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1939.
  • Bennett, Arthur, (ed.) The Valley of Vision: A Collection of Puritan Prayers and Devotions. Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1975.
  • Calvin, John. The Golden Booklet of the True Christian Life (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2004).
  • Dathenus, Petrus. The Pearl of Christian Comfort. Translated by A. Blok. Grand Rapids: 1997.
  • Heidelberg Catechism (1563)
  • Hodge, Charles. The Way of Life. New ed. Philadelphia: American Sunday School Union, 1893.
  • Kuyper, Abraham. Our Worship. trans. Harry Boonstra. Grand Rapids, Mich: William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co, 2009.
  • Olevianus, Caspar. A Firm Foundation. An Aid to Interpreting the Heidelberg Catechism. Translated by Lyle D. Bierma. Edited by Richard A. Muller. Texts and Studies in Reformation and Post-Reformation Thought. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1995.
  • Westminster Shorter Catechism

Some of these titles may not fit well but I included them because they sketch the movement from profession/confession to doxology and back again. What titles would you add?

Remember, recommendations should balance the objective and the subjective. I’m not looking for overly mystical (i.e., those that divorce Word and Spirit) texts or those that are principally subjective (all about personal experience) but for those volumes that keep Word and Spirit together and that begin with the objective truth of God and move to its subjective appropriation and affects.

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  1. Ironically, Dr. Clark, your caveat pointing us to the motto “pray while you study and study while you pray” may make this exercise impossible in the long run. Reading Turretin or Hodge or any other work of systematic theology is (or at least should be) a “devotional” exercise. If my heart is not warmed, and if I’m not led to praise God while studying the hypostatic union, for example, I need to repent. If viewed from this perspective, the Reformed confessions and catechisms themselves are devotional works in that they lead to prayer and devotion.

    By their very nature, some works are more, some less, directly “experiential” or “experimental” or “applicatory” than others. This is the way it should be, according to the genre and the intended audience. If the devotional element already is in the text, fine; if it is not, I should supply it myself. Either way, study without devotion is never a good thing. All study should lead to devotion, and all devotion should draw us more deeply into God’s truth.

    Here’s a famous quotation from C. S. Lewis from the essay “On the Reading of Old Books” that says it a thousand times better than I ever could:

    “For my own part, I tend to find the doctrinal books often more helpful in devotion than the devotional books, and I rather suspect that the same experience may await many others.

    I believe that many who find that ‘nothing happens’ when they sit down, or kneel down, to a book of devotion, would find that the heart sings unbidden while they are working their way through a tough bit of theology with a pipe in their teeth and a pencil in their hands.”

  2. I assume really old stuff will be most highly recommended by others so I will error on the side of more recent writings that incorporate old stuff.

    Bite Size: Training Hearts, Teaching Minds: Family Devotions Based on the Shorter Catechism by Starr Meade

    A Mouthful: Concise Theology: A Guide to Historic Christian Beliefs by J.I. Packer. WCF or Catechisms quoted in almost every entry.

    A Feast: The Christians Reasonable Service by A’ Brakel or Horton’s The Christian Faith.

  3. Material I am now using (along with the Word, of course) in my personal devotional time:

    Samuel Rutherford’s “Letters”
    J. C. Ryle’s “Expository Thoughts on the Gospels”
    John MacArthur’s “Moments of Truth”
    John MacArthur’s “Daily Readings from the Life of Christ” (Volume 3)
    “Glorifying God,” based on Thomas Watson’s writings
    Ligonier Ministries’ “Table Talk” magazine

    As I finish each one, it’ll be swapped out for something else.

    It can be difficult to find decent published material since so much of it is experience-driven subjective dreck. But, there are some worthy items out there.

    • Richard,

      I appreciate this. Do you think John McArthur meets the tests I set in the post? He sympathizes with some aspects of Reformed theology and piety but he’s also quite critical of the same, don’t you think? He’s not thinking of uniting with a Reformed church is he? 🙂

  4. Dr. Clark:

    No, I don’t think he’s thinking of going full-on Reformed (unfortunately). In fact, some years ago, my OPC Presbytery (Southern California) invited him to one of its stated meetings. While there, he was asked whether – due to his obvious sympathy with some of Reformed theology – he could come all the way in (as it were). He said no, because he still believes that there is a definite difference between Israel and the Church (he self-describes as a “leaky dispensationalist”).

    When I read his writings, I remind myself that he’s not Reformed. However, a lot of what he writes ([cough] or has written for him [cough]) is a lot more serious, both in content and tone, than much else that is published out there in general-evangelicalism-land. As my pastor surprised me once by saying, “I don’t like his dispensationalism, of course, but MacArthur has a lot of good things to say about the Book of Revelation.”

    So – no, he doesn’t meet all the tests, but he does meet some of them, if only due to the seriousness with which he takes the Bible. Sometimes, half a loaf is all you can get. But, if it’s a good half a loaf, that’s better than nothing.

  5. Hi Dr. Clark,

    Thank you for this entry. I appreciate your answer as well and want to specifically affirm one of your suggestions: Recently, I read through the Belgic Confession one article/day, studying it and praying it back to God. I loved it. It really was a great “devotional” book. Articles 22 and 23 on justification blew my circuits. I think these 2 articles are the best statements on justification (outside of the Bible of course) I have ever read. Though they are concise, they say it all. They are encouraging.

    Do you know of any good commentaries on the BC? Also a good biography on De Bres?

    Once again, thank you!

  6. Following up with the Psalms, reading Calvin’s commentaries alongside is a good practice. I was given a book called “Heart Aflame” which has daily readings in the Psalms and an extract from Calvin’s commentary. It’s very good as a taster for the broader work.

  7. There’s a nice little illustrated children’s book by William Boekestein, “Faithfulness Under Fire: The Story of Guide de Bres,” from Reformation Heritage Books. Many adults will be able to understand it, too.

  8. I enthusiastically second Mark’s recommendation of the 4-volume “The Christian’s Reasonable Service” by Wilhelmus a’Brakel (Reformation Heritage Books), first published c. 1700. At the Reformation Worship Conference in Georgia in October, RHB sold the entire set for $70! My wife and I use a’Brakel in our personal devotions together. It’s so packed with content that two pages at a time is usually all we can handle.

    “The Christian’s Reasonable Service” is a complete systematic theology, with additional “practical” topics. It’s pretty much the gold standard for solid, classic Reformed orthodoxy wedded to rich application for the mind and heart. I can’t imagine a better balance between the objective and the subjective. There was a time when this work held a cherished place in thousands of Dutch homes.

    Dr. Joel Beeke has called this set his “desert island” choice. I’ve heard him say several times that if he had to choose one work in addition to the Bible, it would be a’Brakel.

    • Great recommendation. I actually bought the set at that conference.

      Dr Fesko introduced us to Christ in the Psalms by Reardon. (Orthodox authors are otherwise off of our radar.) We’ve been using it since in family worship as a guide when reading through the Psalter.

    • I remember “Christ in the Psalms” being recommended on Office Hours by (I think) Steve Baugh.

      I am rather put off by the cover image though – what are Reformed Christians to think about books which are clearly trying to portray Christ on their covers? (Sorry if this is a little off topic, I only ask because Mike K mentioned the book.)

      I am referring to the cover which you can see here: but notice that there is also another cover uploaded to amazon by a user, that appears to be a picture of David.

      Might I also suggest the whole of Calvin’s Institutes as fitting your requirements (I know you listed The Golden Booklet of the True Christian Life, but the work in its entirety seems equally fitting to me, although of course it is much larger).

  9. Read experiential Reformed works. Start with the Puritans. My “experiential” shelf currently has, among others:

    Lewis Bayly, “The Practice of Piety”
    Thomas Boston, “Human Nature in its Fourfold State”
    Ralph Erskine, “Gospel Sonnets”
    John Flavel, “The Fountain of Life”
    John Flavel, “The Method of Grace”
    Thomas Goodwin, “The Objects and Acts of Justifying Faith”
    William Guthrie, “The Christian’s Great Interest”
    James Janeway (and Cotton Mather), “A Token for Children”
    Walter Marshall, “The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification”
    Matthew Mead, “The Almost Christian Discovered”
    John Owen, “The Grace and Duty of Being Spiritually Minded”
    Willem Teellinck, “The Path of True Godliness”
    Thomas Watson, “The Godly Man’s Picture”

    Also highly recommended would be almost anything by Joel Beeke or Maurice Roberts.

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