Thomas Watson- The Art of Divine Contentment

Thomas Watson (c. 1620-1686), the Puritan preacher and author, was probably born in Yorkshire, although the exact place and date of his birth are unknown. He studied at Emmanuel College, Cambridge (BA, 1639; MA, 1642), where he was apparently a diligent student. Certainly his intellect is apparent in his writings, which show a profound grasp of the English language, as well as a solid understanding of Hebrew, Greek, and Latin. He quotes from the early church fathers, and his familiarity with the breadth of the scriptural canon is stunning. Cross-references from the entire biblical corpus are sprinkled throughout his sermons, revealing a deep understanding of many texts obscure to most modern day Bible students.

In about 1647, he married Abigail Beadle, daughter of John Beadle, an Essex minister of Puritan convictions. They had at least seven children in the next thirteen years, four of whom died young.

During the Civil War, Watson began expressing his strong Presbyterian views. He had sympathy for the king, however. He was one of the Presbyterian ministers who went to Oliver Cromwell to protest the execution of Charles I. Along with Christopher Love, William Jenkyn, and others, he was imprisoned in 1651 for his part in a plot to restore the monarchy. Although Love was beheaded, Watson and the others were released after petitioning for mercy.

Watson was formally reinstated to his pastorate in Walbrook in 1652.

C. H. Spurgeon says of him:

He executed for nearly sixteen years the office of a faithful pastor with great diligence and assiduity. Happy were the citizens who regularly attended so instructive and spiritual a ministry. The church was constantly filled, for the fame and popularity of the preacher were deservedly great. Going in and out among his flock, fired with holy zeal for their eternal welfare, his years rolled on pleasantly enough amid the growing respect of all who knew him.

With the Act of Uniformity in 1662, Watson was ejected from his pastorate. He continued to preach in private whenever he had the opportunity. In 1666, after the Great Fire of London, Watson prepared a large room for public worship, welcoming anyone who wished to attend. After the Declaration of Indulgence took effect in 1672, Watson obtained a license for Crosby Hall, Bishopsgate, which belonged to Sir John Langham, a patron of nonconformists. Watson preached there for three years before Stephen Charnock joined him. They ministered together until Charnock’s death in 1680.

In 1653 Watson preached a series of sermons from Philippians 4:11

Philippians 4:11 (ESV)

11 Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content.

After the series was finished his flock was so moved that they petitioned him to have the messages published.  Being so busy with caring for the church he really had not time to go back over the messages to make them more suitable for the printed page.  He writes, I was earnestly solicited by some of my hearers to publish it, and although it is not dressed in that rich attire of eloquence as it might have been, I am not about poetry or oratory, but divinity.

So, to the publisher it went in its original condition.

I wanted to bring this short book before our church in the 21st Century and glean the wealth of knowledge and Christian graces that so moved the Church in the 15th century.

Another thing I read that moved me to consider that this work is very fitting for us today, especially during the days of this virus is a statement Watson makes in the introduction of his book.

He writes, Discontent is to the soul as a disease is to the body: it puts it out of temper and much hinders its regular and sublime motions heavenward.  

While the world is concerned with the coronavirus and its impact on the body we should also and maybe even more so be concerned with a virus that attacks our soul.  This virus, according to Watson is discontent.

He goes on it the introduction to explain why this matters so much,

If there is a blessed life before we come to heaven, it is the contented life.  And why not be contented?

Watson continues, I know there will never be perfect contentment in this life.  Perfect pleasure is only at God’s right hand, yet we may begin here (referring to contentment) to tune our instrument before we play the sweet lesson of contentment exactly in heaven.

As Watson puts it, practicing contentment in this life is like tuning our instrument that we will play in heaven. 

It is my prayer that we will inoculate ourselves against the virus of discontent that would wreak havoc on our souls for the glory of God.

Let’s begin…

Chapter 1, Introduction to the Text

Philippians 4:11 (ESV)

11 Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content.

To begin his teaching, Watson looks back to Philippians

Philippians 4:6 (ESV)

do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.

Thomas Watson did not have the ESV Bible like we do but used the Geneva Bible, which is the Bible the Pilgrims brought with them to America.

In the Geneva Bible Philippians 4:6 goes like this:
6 Be nothing careful, but in all things let your requests be showed unto God in prayer and supplication with giving of thanks.

The word careful used in this context does mean anxious as the ESV has it.  It also goes further than that.  Paul is telling us to not be so concerned with matters that we over think or formulate our own outcomes even before we start.  This does bring on anxiety.  To care in this case is not a good thing when the care places us in a place where we thin=k we can figure out all the various possibilities and outcomes.  The Apostle Paul and Thomas Watson would tell us to not be careful.

He writes, And in this sense it should be the Christian’s care not to be careful. 

You may know someone who is so careful that they never do much.  They have figured out the worst case scenario for every situation and they’re so sure that is how things will end up that they never move forward but are always frozen with care.  Beloved this is not trusting God.  This brings Him no honor.

Watson writes, Care, when it is either distrustful or distracting, is very dishonorable to God.  It takes away His providence, as if He sat in heaven and did not mind what became of things here below, like a man who makes a clock and then leaves it to go by itself. 

Paul commands all Christians everywhere to not be anxious to not be careful but in all things by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.

Watson takes this principle from the Apostle Paul and sets it as the foundation on which verse 11 is built.   Rather than being careful and anxious Paul has learned to be content with what God has in store. 

To follow Paul’s argument is to discover if you are content with what God has given you will not be careful or anxious.

Let’s move forward with Watson’s two branches of the text…

Chapter 2, The First Branch of the Text:

Philippians 4:11 (ESV)

11 Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. The first branch of the text, as Watson puts it, is to learn our duty.  He wants us to understand that there is a massive difference between hearing and learning.  You may have some experience with this.  Children often hear instructions but too many times they don’t learn them.  As Christian we too may hear from the Word but do we really learn? 
Doctrine 1: It is not enough for Christians to hear their duty, but they must learn their duty.  It is one thing to hear and another thing to learn. 

Using the Lord’s parable of the soils our author explains that there are four sorts of ground or soil but only one good ground—an emblem of this truth that there are many hearers , but few learners.

Watson shows us that there are two things that keep us from learning:

1. Slighting what we hear.  This happens when we have a low view of Christ and the Gospel.  Jesus is the Pearl of Great Price and the Gospel is the rare mystery revealed in Christ.  When we have a different view of Christ and the Gospel we will invariably disobey the things heard.  No one learns things that he/she thinks are not worth learning.

2.  Forgetting what we hear.  How easily do we forget?  Watson notes that our minds are like sieves.  Put a sieve into the water and it is full, but take it out of the water and all is lost.  That while hearing a sermon we may remember something but when we leave the building we forget.

Luke 9:44 (ESV)

44 “Let these words sink into your ears: The Son of Man is about to be delivered into the hands of men.”

Here in the original Greek the verse begins, Put these words into your ears.  Watson writes that a man who would hide a jewel from being stolen locks it up safely in his chest.  We must lock the Word of God we hear into our hearts so it is not stolen by the fowl of the air of by the devil himself. 

Can this be tested?  Our author presents an argument proving that we need to learn God’s Word and not just hear it.  He writes, Some of you have heard much.  You have lived forty, fifty, sixty years under the blessed trumpet of the gospel.  What have you learned?  You may have heard a thousand sermons and yet not learned one.  Search your consciences.  You have heard much against sin.  Are you hearers or scholars (he used the word scholars here for learners).  You have heard much of Christ; have you learned Christ?  The Jews, as Jerome has said, carried Christ in their Bibles, but not in their hearts.  The prophets and apostles were trumpets of God, their sound going forth over all the land and yet most did not learn Christ even though they heard the blasts. 

A man may know many things about Christ and yet not learn Christ.  Even the demons know some things about Christ but they have not learned Christ.

Mark 1:34 (ESV)

34 And he healed many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons. And he would not permit the demons to speak, because they knew him.

A man may preach Christ and not know Christ.

Philippians 1:15 (ESV)

15 Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will.

 Some may profess Christ and still not know Christ. 

Matthew 7:22–23 (ESV)

22 On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ 23 And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’

QUESTION.  What is it, then, to learn Christ?

ANSWER 1.  To learn Christ is to be made like Christ, when the divine characters of His holiness are engraved upon our hearts. 

2 Corinthians 3:18 (ESV)

18 And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.

As we look to Christ in the Scriptures and behold His amazing traits and works for the sinner we will become more and more like Him.  We become what we worship. 
Psalm 115:4–8 (ESV)

   Their idols are silver and gold,

the work of human hands.

   They have mouths, but do not speak;

eyes, but do not see.

   They have ears, but do not hear;

noses, but do not smell.

   They have hands, but do not feel;

feet, but do not walk;

and they do not make a sound in their throat.

   Those who make them become like them;

so do all who trust in them.

If our affection is turned to God then we will be molded more and more into God’s likeness.

ANSWER 2.  To learn Christ is to believe in Him as my Lord and my God (John 20:28).  Watson adds, you have heard much about Jesus and yet cannot in humility say my Jesus.  The devil can state facts about Jesus but cannot truthfully say, my Jesus.

Answer 3.  To learn Christ is to live Christ.  When we are living according to God’s Word our lives reflect back to God the honor and glory that is His. 

Philippians 1:27 (ESV)

27 Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel,

Chapter 3, The Second Proposition

Philippians 4:11 (ESV)

11 Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content.

The words of Paul, I have learned are words that speak to the difficulties he endured to acquire this contentment in life.  It can by hard struggle and pressing on. 

DOCTRINE 2: Good things are hard to come by.  Christianity is not an easy business as many might imagine.  I have learned said Paul.  You do not need to teach a person to sin; this comes naturally.  It is an easy thing to be wicked.  Hell will never be taken by storm but is an easy stroll right up to the front door and the devil stands ready to open it wide for you. 

Watson writes, The trade of sin does not need to be learned, but the art of divine contentment is not achieved without holy industry.    

He gives us two reasons why there must be so much study and hard work as Christians in maintaining a right walk with Christ and a contented mind.

1.  Because spiritual things are against nature.  Everything in Christianity is contrary to our human nature.  For a person to deny himself and take up his cross and follow Christ is an act that goes against everything that comes normal and natural to us. 

Self-examination is another Christian duty that goes against human nature.  Watson comments on the difficulty of this act, For an man to take his heart (Like a watch) all in pieces; to set up a spiritual inquisition or court of conscience and traverses things in his own soul; to take David’s candle and lantern (Psalm 119:105) and search for sin, nay, as judge to pass a sentence on himself—is against nature.

2.  Because spiritual things are above nature.  In other words, the things of God are not naturally contemplated because they are so far above us and require diligence.  This is why, for example, the Roman Catholic Church has elected a pope to tell them what God says rather than diligently study the Bible for one’s self. 

Because the things of God go against nature we must have the Holy Spirit to teach us and spur us on to diligent study.

1 Corinthians 2:10–13 (ESV)
10 these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. 11 For who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. 12 Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. 13 And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual.

USE.  Let us beg the Spirit of God to teach us, for we must be divinely taught.  Paul wrote I have learned.  His learning was God wrought.  It came through a divine partnership, As a Christian Paul was diligent to learn and as our faith God, the Holy Spirit was faithful to teach him divine contentment.

The eunuch could read, but he could not understand until the Holy Spirit brought Philip to join him (Acts 8:29).  God’s Spirit must illumine our hearts to learn these truths. 

2 Corinthians 4:6 (ESV)

For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

In order for Paul to have contentment he had to learn it.  He tried to be careful and by anxiety struggle to make things happen a certain way or to gain certain thing he felt he needed.  Then one day, perhaps it happened as a flash of light in his conscience or perhaps it was a slow steady shine of God’s light into his heart, he discovered a wonderful truth.  Divine contentment is to the soul a sweet taste of heaven here and now.

Next time we’ll look together and the next branch of the verse…

Philippians 4:11 (ESV)

11 Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content.

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