May 28, 2017

The Christian in Complete Armor

by Mark Minnick

This article first appeared in FrontLine •  May/June 2010. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.

One of the saddest facts about today’s Christians is that they are unacquainted with so many older but valuable writers. There arose up a new king . . . which knew not Joseph. You could almost say that our ignorance of some of these authors and their works amounts to something bordering on the tragic.

Without the theological perspective obtained from familiarity with history, even the most sincere man or woman suffers from tunnel blindness. His only points of reference are the narrow slice of the half century or so through which he is presently living, combined with a superficial acquaintance with select facts or anecdotes from the relatively recent past.

One harmful consequence is that it is difficult for such people to follow and correctly process debates between their more historically versed peers. C. S. Lewis explained, If you join at eleven o’clock a conversation which began at eight you will often not see the real bearing of what is said. Remarks which seem to you very ordinary will produce laughter or irritation and you will not see why.

Understandably, this provokes frustration. But more seriously, it tempts a man to dismiss altogether the significance of the conversations he doesn’t entirely understand. That in turn makes him susceptible to becoming increasingly provincial, even sectarian in his outlook. If he is a leader, his influence can become divisive. Tragic.

But another, even more spiritually stunting consequence of not knowing older writers is the loss of their really extraordinary wisdom. A case in point is William Gurnall, author of The Christian in Complete Armor, first published in three volumes (1655, 1658, 1661).

The Christian in Complete Armor is unarguably the most sweeping meditation on Ephesians 6:10–20 ever written. More importantly, its rare insights are as relevant today as they were in the seventeenth century. It is a spiritual war you shall read of, wrote Gurnall in his dedication, and that not a history of what was fought many ages past and is now over, but of what now is doing . . . and that not at the furthest end of the world, but what concerns you and every one that reads it. The stage whereon this war is fought is every man’s own soul.

How many readers know this book? One in fifty? One in a hundred? Yet John Newton said that if he could read only one book besides the Bible it would be The Christian in Complete Armor. It was often recommended by the powerful 18th-century pastor-evangelist Rowland Hill (whose new and excellent biography, The Life of Rowland Hill, has just last year been published by Evangelical Press). Augustus Toplady (author of “Rock of Ages, Cleft for Me”) frequently referenced it in his own works, and I can’t resist repeating just one of Toplady’s quotations of it. It’s taken from a section in which Gurnall is assuring Christians that their Heavenly Father graciously receives even their poorest offerings and services. He accepts thy bent sixpence, and will not throw away thy crooked, broken mite, Gurnall writes. Love refuses nothing that love sends.

C. H. Spurgeon’s estimate of Gurnall’s book was that it is peerless and priceless; every line is full of wisdom; every sentence is suggestive. The whole book has been preached over scores of times, and is, in our judgment, the best thought-breeder in all our library. J. C. Ryle said of it, You will often find in a line and a half some great truth, put so concisely, and yet so fully, that you really marvel how so much thought could be got into so few words.

William Gurnall: Obscure Pastor

J. C. Ryle is our best source of information about the author of The Christian in Complete Armor. In the early 1860s Ryle investigated every known source of facts about William Gurnall’s life and ministry, but he was forced to conclude, Perhaps there is no writer who has left a name so familiar to all readers of Puritan theology, but of whose personal history so little is known.

The broad outline is this: Educated at Cambridge, minister at Lavenham (about forty miles east) for thirty-five years, Puritan in spirit and in preaching, but conformist to the Church of England in practice.

One of Gurnall’s few surviving letters, dated November 21, 1644, reveals his view of his pastoral responsibility. At length my frail bark, after a difficult navigation, has safely reached the port of Lavenham. Nothing now remains for me but . . . with sound principles to imbue, and with paternal care to instruct, the numerous people. . . . My only solace in this world will now be to preserve, by earnest and continued prayer, this my congregation, pure and unspotted amongst so many corruptions.

The fifteenth-century church building in which Gurnall preached, St. Peter and St. Paul, rises dramatically from the top of a slight hill in the middle of hilly country. Just a stone’s throw outside the church’s massive weathered oak doors, round, wooly sheep graze contentedly. The scene must be much the same as in Gurnall’s day, when wool and weaving were Lavenham’s chief industries.

Inside the church today an early edition of The Christian in Complete Armor lies displayed under glass. But every trace of Gurnall himself has long ago disappeared. Neither his home nor any personal possessions remain. Even in Ryle’s day his burial plot was unknown, though it is thought likely that he lies beneath one of the slabs of the church’s stone floor.

The Christian in Complete Armor: Comprehensive Counsel

The Christian in Complete Armor (CCA hereafter) is one of those occasional books which legitimately throws light on the entirety of Christian living through the prism of a single theme—in this case, spiritual warfare. Gurnall’s subtitle introduces his work as a magazine opened, from whence the Christian is furnished with spiritual arms for the battle, helped on with his armor, and taught the use of his weapon; together with the happy issue of the whole war. One might react that spiritual warfare is too narrow a lens through which to see all of the Christian life, but actually, this was generally the Puritan viewpoint. William Haller explains: The Puritan imagination saw the life of the spirit as pilgrimage and battle. . . . [The] soul was a traveler through a strange country and a soldier in battle. He was a traveler, who, fleeing from destruction, must adhere through peril and hardship to the way that leads home. He was a soldier who, having been pressed to serve under the banners of the spirit, must enact faithfully his part in the unceasing war of the spiritual against the carnal man. . . . Few sermons lacked and many abounded to such allusions to spiritual wayfaring and warfaring (The Rise of Puritanism, 142).

CCA, then, is comprehensive counsel on Christian living. I’ve been reading it off and on for over twenty years, and I’m constantly struck with its universal scope. There appear to be few if any significant topics that don’t surface. And yet there is a textual naturalness with which they do. Gurnall counsels within the parameters of the actual words and expressions of Ephesians 6:10–20. This can be seen most clearly by scanning the lengthy table of contents. For instance, let’s take the phrase the breastplate of righteousness. Here is a portion of the contents for that phrase.

Second Piece Of The Armor—The Christian’s Breastplate

The Development of this direction extends in three branches.

Branch First—Some reasons why the Christian should have special care to keep on his breastplate.

Branch Second—Some instances wherein, specially, every Christian is to express the power of a holy and righteous life.

First Instance. The Christian must maintain the power of holiness in his contest with sin: and in these particulars.

  1. He must shun the appearance of it.
  2. He must do so on noble principles.
  3. Seek to mortify it.
  4. Must grow and advance in the contrary grace.
  5. Have a public spirit against the sins of others.
  6. Renounce all confident glorying in this.

Second instance. The Christian must express the power of holiness in the duties of God’s worship.

  1. In making conscience of one duty as well as another.
  2. In a close pursuance of those ends for which God hath appointed them.

Third instance. The Christian must express the power of holiness in his particular calling and worldly employments. In these holiness in the Christian thus appears:

  1. When he is so for conscience’ sake.
  2. When he expects the success of his labor from God, and gives thanks accordingly.
  3. When he is content with the portion God allots him.
  4. When his particular calling does not encroach on his general calling.

Fourth instance. The Christian must express the power of holiness in his behavior towards others.

  1. To those within doors—family relations.
  2. To those without doors—our neighbors.

Notice how Gurnall applies the scriptural admonition comprehensively by progressing logically through the various categories of personal, ecclesiastical, occupational, domestic, and civic holiness. His entire work is marked by this same methodical and universal treatment of the successive phrases of the passage.

Spiritual Wisdom: Representative Samples

Looking at this sample from the table of contents, one might conclude that one of the strengths of CCA, its comprehensiveness, is at the same time one of its unbearable weaknesses—that it proceeds laboriously. But Gurnall’s style throughout is attractive, and pithy. Almost always a page will contain something expressed with such crisp wit that it is instantly memorable. For example,

God’s wounds cure, sin’s kisses kill.

One Almighty is better than many mighties. All these mighty sins and demons do not amount not one almighty sin or one almighty Devil.

Humility is a necessary veil to all other graces.

Compare Scripture with Scripture. False doctrines, like false witnesses, agree not among themselves.

The sins of teachers are the teachers of sin.

But perhaps the best way of sampling Gurnall’s style and substance is to take a portion of the outline we’ve already looked over and to fill it out now with selections from his development of the points.

Branch Second—Some instances wherein, specially, every Christian is to express the power of a holy and righteous life.

First Instance. The Christian must maintain the power of holiness in his contest with sin: and in these particulars.

1. He must shun the appearance of it.

The dove doth not only fly from the hawk, but will not so much as smell a single feather that falls from it. It should be enough to scare the holy soul from any enterprise, if it be but badly colored. . . . Liberty is the Diana of the times. O what apologies are made for some suspicious practices!—long hair, gaudy garish apparel, spotted faces, naked breasts. These have been called to the bar in former times, and censured by sober and solid Christians, as things at least suspicious, and of no “good report;” but now they have hit upon a more favorable jury that find them “not guilty.” . . . Professors are so far from a holy jealousy, that should make them watch their hearts lest they go too far, that they stretch their consciences to come up to the full length of their tether; as if he were the brave Christian that could come nearest the pit of sin and not fall in; as in the Olympian games, he wore the garland away, that could drive his chariot nearest the mark and not knock on it.

2. He must do so on noble principles.

Here lies the power of holiness. Many forbear to sin upon such an unworthy account, that God will not thank them for it another day. . . . Oh how many are there that go on to sin, for all that God says to the contrary! But when their credit bids, for shame of the world, to give over such a practice, they can knock off presently. When their profit speaks, it is heard and obeyed. Oh sirs! take heed of this; God expects his servants should not only do what he commands, but this, at his command, and his only.

3. Seek to mortify it.

A wound may be hid when it is not healed—covered and yet not cured. Some men, they are like unskillful physicians, who rather drive in the disease, than drive out the cause of the disease. . . . I have read that the opening of a chest where some cloths were laid up—not very well aired and cleared from the infection that had been in the house—was the cause of a great plague in Venice, after they had lain many years there without doing any hurt. I am sure we see, for want of true mortification, many who, after they have walked so long unblameably as to gain the reputation of being saints in the opinion of others, upon some occasion, like the opening of a chest, have fallen into abominable practices. . . . He that is inclined to a disease must not only take physic when he hath a fit actually upon him, but ever and anon should be taking something good against it.

4. Must grow and advance in the contrary grace.

Every sin hath its opposite grace, as every poison hath its antidote. He that will walk in the power of holiness must not only labor to make avoidance of sin, but to get possession of the contrary grace. . . . God will not ask us what we were not, but what we were.

5. Have a public spirit against the sins of others.

A good subject doth not only labor to live quietly under his prince’s government himself, but is ready to serve his prince against those that will not. True holiness, as true charity, begins at home, but it doth not confine itself within its own doors. . . . He that is of a neutral spirit and . . . cares not what dishonor God hath from others, calls in question the zeal he expresseth against sin in his own bosom.

6. Renounce all confident glorying in this.

They who climb lofty mountains find it safest, the higher they ascend, the more to bow and stoop with their bodies; and so does the Spirit of Christ teach the saints, as they get higher in their victories over corruption, to bow lowest in self-denial.

Some Personal Favorites

At the beginning of this year I determined to read a few pages of Gurnall each morning until someday I finish him completely. Hardly a day goes by without my highlighting or even copying out for further meditation some choice thing that I’ve happily discovered.

For instance, just this morning I was reminded by Gurnall of the need to resist the tendency to be concerned over little more than one’s own ministry.

Take heed of a private spirit. Let not only your particular safety, but of the whole army of saints, be in your eye and care. That soldier who can see an enemy in fight with his brethren, and not help them, he makes it but the more easy for the enemy to slay himself at last. Say not therefore, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” God would not keep him that cared not to keep his brother. Watch over one another, not to play critics on your brother’s failings, and triumph when he halts, but to help him up if he falls, or if possible, to keep him from falling by a timely rescue, as Abishai came to David’s succor.

Very early on in my reading I came across a truly striking passage having to do with the necessity of great courage and resolution to be successful in spiritual warfare. Gurnall argues that it requires more prowess and greatness of spirit to obey God faithfully, than to command an army of men; to be a Christian than a captain.

As proof of this, Gurnall points out that the Christian’s greatest battle is with himself.

The Christian is to proclaim and prosecute an irreconcilable war against his dearest sins, those sins which have lain nearest to his heart must now be trampled under his feet. Now what courage and resolution does this take?

The way in which he develops this thought is powerful.

You think Abraham was tried when he was called to take his son, his only son, Isaac, and offer him up with his own hands. Yet what was that to this? Soul, take your lust, your only lust, which is the child of your dearest love. Your Isaac, the sin which has caused you the most joy and laughter, from which you have promised yourself the greatest return of pleasure and profit. As ever you look to see My face with comfort, lay your hands on it before me. Run the sacrificial knife of mortification in the very heart of it, and do this freely, joyfully, for it is no pleasing sacrifice which is offered with a cast down countenance. Do all this now, before you have one more embrace from it.

Truly this is a hard demand. Flesh and blood cannot bear this command. Our lust will not lie so patiently on the altar as Isaac, or as a “lamb that is brought to the slaughter is dumb.” Our lust will roar and shriek, and even shake and rend the heart with its hideous outcries.

Here the valiant swordsmen of the world have showed themselves mere cowards, who have come out of the field with victorious banners, and then lived, yea, died slaves to a base lust at home. As one could say of a great Roman captain who, as he rode in his triumphant chariot through Rome, had his eye never off a courtezan that walked along the street: “Behold, how this goodly captain, that had conquered such potent armies, is himself conquered by one silly woman.”

Yet another passage that spoke to my heart was Gurnall’s observation on the admonition to “be strong in the Lord and in the power of his might.” Gurnall notes,

The strength of the general in all other armies lies in his troops. He flies upon their wings. If their feathers be clipped, their power broken, he is lost.

But in the army of the saints, the strength of every saint, yea, of the entire host of the saints, lies in their commander, the Lord of hosts. God can overcome His enemies without their hands, but they cannot so much as defend themselves without His arm.

I truly hope that not only Gurnall, but many of the older authors will be rediscovered and savored by a growing percentage of contemporary Fundamentalists, especially pastors and other leaders. A. W. Tozer observed of these classics,

Publishers dutifully reprint their books and in due time these appear on the shelves of our studies. But the whole trouble lies right there: they remain on the shelves.

Perhaps a good start at correcting this problem would be to follow some counsel from C. S. Lewis in his introduction to reading Athanasius. It is a good rule, he advised, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between.


Mark Minnick is pastor of Mount Calvary Baptist Church in Greenville, South Carolina.


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