Practical Sovereignty and Samuel Davies
Genevan Institute for Reformed Studies
by Bob Burridge ©2010
God’s sovereignty isn’t just a detached curiosity for theologians. It’s a practical and vital truth for us all to appreciate and cling to every day. It gives meaning to things hard to understand. It restores our awareness that we’re loved even when life seems to become cold and harsh.
If you imagine the world as independent of a god who is really God, then you have a universe uncertainly limping along from one meaningless event to another. With that view the weak give up and drop out, or are simply consumed by those stronger. The successful overindulge themselves and get bored with it all, while those who don’t know how to get ahead feel oppressed and confused. The ambitious only know to be moral so they can get ahead, and the lazy complain and expect others to do the work while they waste away. If there is no Sovereign God, then chaos takes all purpose and certainty away.
It’s not at all like the world in John Lennon’s admittedly beautiful and captivating song Imagine where a godless society has no religion and everybody just gets along. That song leaves out a most fundamental fact: humanity is fallen in Adam and needs a Savior.
Without a Savior we are blind yet think we see perfectly well. John Lennon was a musical genius and quite intelligent in many ways. But he like all the rest of us in our natural state wasn’t able to see the real world that’s all around us.
In that fallen estate, we see a fake, a deception. Our fallen soul tells us we can control it our own way. But we also sense a futility because for all these years of man on earth our basic condition is no better. We are miserable, lost and doomed if there is no God who has a purpose in it all, and if there is no Savor to deliver us from ourselves and join us back with God again.
But the good news is: there is such a God and there is such a Savior! Just as we all fell in Adam, Jesus came to represent his people to pay their penalty for them. He didn’t just take away guilt and leave us blandly neutral. He lived a perfectly righteous life and promised to credit that righteousness to anyone who would put their trust in him for deliverance from sin and its debt.
In Ephesians 2:1 the Apostle Paul wrote, “And you He made alive, who were dead in trespasses and sins”
Having a loving God who’s totally Sovereign and who has a firm and perfect plan puts all of life in a different dimension. The truth isn’t just a better anchor for the soul. It’s the only anchor.
The 18th century American Presbyterian minister Samuel Davies had a practical grasp of this. He didn’t preach a lot directly on the doctrine of predestination. He said to his people, “… my present design is to speak to your hearts about an affair which you are all concerned and capable to know, and not to perplex your minds with a controversy of which not many of you are competent to judge.”
But he was always clear about the truth of the gospel. He never made sinners think they could believe without God’s grace transforming them. He told them they would spend all eternity in damnation if they didn’t believe, and that they can’t believe if left on their own. He pointed out that they were well aware of this fact if they were honest. So he challenged them to come to God as broken helpless sinners pleading for Salvation in Christ alone.
The life of Davies is an astounding testimony of the blessing God offers when his truth is told. He was born November 3rd, in Delaware in 1723, 53 years before our country declared its independence. His mother told him he was named after the Samuel of the Bible because she asked the Lord for him. He later said that her prayers were used by God in blessing his life and ministry.
When he was 15 by God’s grace he made an open profession of faith in Christ, and became a communing member of the Presbyterian Church. He worked seriously as a student, mastering the classics and Christian Theology.
In 1746 when he was about 23 years old he had become very frail and weak physically. He married and was soon ordained as an evangelist to minister in the backwoods of Virginia. First he had to be licensed to preach. For that he had to go to the Governor of Virginia. At the time the only legal church was the Anglican Church of England. Others were classified as dissenting churches and were technically illegal. But Davies so impressed the Governor that he was the first non-anglican licensed in Virginia. He worked throughout his life to promote legal tolerance for all denominations.
In 1747, just a year after his marriage, his wife died giving birth to his first son who also died. He was deeply grieved and went through a hard time of adjusting to the loss. He hardly slept and let his health go even more. Some thought he would certainly die.
Through all this he kept on and worked all the harder. He didn’t minister to just one little church. There were five congregations without pastors. He rode alone on his horse studying along the way to preach in each one.
Soon that grew to seven churches in six counties. Then it grew to 14 churches. The closest meeting house was in Hanover County and held 500 people. It overflowed when he came there to preach. Soon they had to meet outside under the trees in the words for shade and shelter.
As he traveled on his circuit, he stayed in homes where he taught every night, even gathering a large number of slaves whom he taught to read and to believe. He opened his own home to teach them, to teach anyone who would come. These slaves numbered over 300 converts in the first few years. It became common to see them carrying Bibles and reading the puritans. A visitor to Hanover said it was “like the suburbs of heaven” there.
In 1752 he was sent to England to raise money for the College of New Jersey, a Presbyterian school which later became Princeton University and Seminary.
While in England, he was invited to preach at the Royal Chapel before King George II. This was quite amazing since he was considered there to be a dissenter from the Church. But Davies was known as one of the greatest orators of all times. Patrick Henry often attended his sermons and credited Davies with teaching him oratory. Davies spoke with a commanding voice, yet solemn and dignified. He told the truth plainly and clearly aiming at the poor slave as well as the educated noble.
While he was preaching, he saw King George making quiet comments to those around him. Davies stopped and stood in silence for a moment. Then he looked at the king and said, “When the lion roars, the beasts of the forest all tremble; and when King Jesus speaks, the princes of the earth should keep silence.”
The king took the comment well. Later the king explained to him that he meant no disrespect. He was just so taken in and astonished at the eloquence and solemnity of Davies, that he had a hard time not commenting to those around him.
Back in Virginia Davies organized the first Southern Presbytery in 1755 with 5 other ministers.
In 1759 Davies was drafted by the Presbytery and the College Board to become president of Princeton after the death of Jonathan Edwards. He served for 18 months then died in 1761 at the age of 37.
It’s said that he preached his own funeral message at Princeton on the New Year’s Day before he died. His text was Jeremiah 28:16, “This year thou shalt die.”
He warned that some of those present will with high probability meet death that year. He said “Perhaps I may die this year… It is of little importance to me whether I die this year or not; but the only important point is that I make a good use of my future time, whether it be longer or shorter.”
He died one month later on February 4th leaving behind his second wife and 5 children. He also left an unmatched, though often overlooked, legacy of a godly ministry.
He saw the root of his ministry in telling the hard truth of the gospel to everybody. He was horrified that most churches were teaching little morality lessons and giving false hope. He didn’t want anyone to think that they were able to decide for Christ for themselves. They needed to know that they had no hope in their own efforts, but in Grace alone.
He commented on such texts as Ephesians 1:11-12
“In Him also we have obtained an inheritance, being predestined according to the purpose of Him who works all things according to the counsel of His will, that we who first trusted in Christ should be to the praise of His glory.”
He explained, “I cannot be persuaded God has made such a world as this, without first drawing the plan of it in his own omniscient mind. I cannot think he would produce such a numerous race of reasonable and immortal creatures, without first determining what to do with them. I cannot think the events of time, or the judicial process of the last day, will furnish him with any new intelligence to enable him to determine the final states of men more justly than he could from eternity.”
God’s Sovereign power is that vital and practical anchor for your soul. His promises alone grip the real ground that holds you fast through life’s turmoils and trials.
One of the hymns he wrote for his people is Great God of Wonders. It’s a song of God’s pardoning grace, a grace unparalleled, rich and free. Look up the words. Better still, find the music and sing it with an awe-stricken heart.