Our Reformed Heritage
Brave Christianity (Luke 12:6)
Lesson 10: the life and example of Robert Lewis Dabney and Stonewall Jackson
by Bob Burridge ©2019
What we call “bravery” can be caused by very different inner motives. Some appear to be brave because they’re foolish and fortunate. Though they charge into unwise and dangerous situations, God in his providence spares some of them from harm, and may even use them to accomplish good things. But foolishness is not courage, it’s not real bravery.
Some “brave” acts are done to impress others. But that kind of bravery is just an attempt to prove yourself to someone, or to yourself. The person is driven to do dangerous things because of an inability to face what he is. Rather than to be ordinary, average, or unappreciated, they take risks for self-promotion.
Real bravery comes from deep commitment to things more important than the harm we face. The brave person faces dangers because he sees things at risk that are greater than his own comfort and safety.
The Committed Christian has an additional motive for bravery. He knows what must be done, and he moves ahead without fear because he’s been given this conviction by the work of the Holy Spirit in his heart. He has been changed by the work of Christ who died in his place restoring him to fellowship with God. He knows that in whatever he faces, when he honors his Creator and Lord, God is with him.
One brave and important Christian was Robert Lewis Dabney. He was one of history’s greatest theologians and a highly honored Christian philosopher. In politics he was a conservative strict interpreter of the US constitution, and a committed Virginian. He was an excellent farmer, mechanic, surveyor, and architect. He built two homes for his family and designed other homes and churches. He held several patents on some of his own inventions.
Most of all, he was a dedicated Presbyterian pastor and scholar. His biographer said that he wasn’t only a Calvinist. He knew why he was a Calvinist. His theological writings were filled with expositions of Scripture texts supporting his views.
He was born in 1820 on the South Anna River in Virginia. He was only 16 when he enrolled at Hampden-Sidney College, and there became a Christian. By 1847 he’d became Pastor at Tinkling Springs Presbyterian Church, and in the next year married Margaret Morrison. After about 12 years in the pastorate he was elected Professor at Union Theological Seminary.
When the Civil War came he was asked to serve with his good friend and fellow Presbyterian, Lieutenant General Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson. Dabney served first as a chaplain in the Confederate Army then became Chief of staff to General Jackson. One of Jackson’s officers commented about Dabney, “The parson isn’t scared of Yankee bullets …”
With the loss of his dear friend Jackson due to a war wound, Dabney was asked by Jackson’s wife to write a biography of her husband.
Awhile after the war, Dabney took on a professorship at the University of Texas. Then he took part in the founding of Austin Theological Seminary. He taught there until 1894 when he became blind and his health failed. In 1898 he died in Texas and was buried at Hampden-Sidney in Virginia.
The authorized biography of General Jackson was one of Dabney’s most important books. The two men had a close friendship and worked together taking the responsibility for the lives of the military men under their leadership, and for the military campaigns they were sent on. Jackson became a devoted Presbyterian after struggling to understand God’s word.
In his article about Christian bravery called “True Courage“, Dabney used Jackson as an example to show where the Christian gets his courage. Dabney wrote, “… he is the bravest man, who is the best Christian. It is he who truly fears God, who is entitled to fear nothing else.”
Dabney gives three foundations for Christian bravery.
First: He whose conduct is governed by the fear of God, is brave. Dabney said that since, “the powers of his soul are in harmony.– There is no mutiny or war within, of fear against shame, of duty against safety, of conscience and evil desire, by which the bad man has his heart unnerved.”
In support he quoted Psalm 33:8, “Let all the earth fear the Lord; Let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of Him.”
We often move through God’s world not being consciously aware of God’s awesome presence. His infinite and all-controlling power is behind everything happening around us. To forget that can fill us with fear and frustration.
Psalm 135:6, “Whatever the LORD pleases, he does, in heaven and on earth, in the seas and all deeps.” The “Whatever” includes everything. Every little challenge of every day is part of that larger plan of our Creator.
Nahum 1:3, “The LORD is slow to anger and great in power, and the LORD will by no means clear the guilty. His way is in whirlwind and storm, and the clouds are the dust of his feet.” Even the storms and clouds in the sky are moved by the power of our Lord for things we can’t yet understand.
Romans 8:28, “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.”
Behind whatever comes along we should bravely press on knowing the greater good behind our challenges.
When we stand in awe of God we become confident of the power and compassion of the hand that holds us in an unyielding grip of love. We are brave because we know that our God can’t fail. When a person lives out of respect for God, he’s cleansed from his guilt by the blood of Christ, clothed in Christ’s own righteousness, enabled to obey by the indwelling Holy Spirit, and blessed by his humble submissive obedience.
Dabney said, “This strength General Jackson eminently possessed. He walked in the fear of God, with a perfect heart, keeping all his commandments and ordinances, blameless. Never has it been my happiness to know one of greater purity of life, or more regular and devout habits of prayer.”
Second; is the principle of God’s complete providence over all things. To support this idea, Dabney used Luke 12:6-7, “Are not five sparrows sold for two copper coins? And not one of them is forgotten before God. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Do not fear therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows.”
God even knows every bird sold in the market place. Who knows the number of hairs on his own head, a number that is often changing, but God knows exactly all the time. How foolish that we think he might not be watching over all that happens to us, or over what could happen. He knows it and controls it.
Dabney commented, “By that almighty and omniscient providence, all events are either produced; or at least permitted, limited, and overruled. There is no creature so great as to resist its power, none so minute as to evade its wisdom. Each particular act among the most multitudinous which confound our attention by their number, or the most fortuitous, which entirely baffle our inquiry into their cause, is regulated by this intelligent purpose of God.”
Then he uses dramatic imagery from the battle field, a place he knew well. He said, “Even when the thousand missiles of death, invisible to mortal sight, and sent forth aimless by those who launched them, shoot in inexplicable confusion over the battle-field, His eye gives each one an aim and a purpose according to the plan of his wisdom. Thus teacheth our Saviour.”
We’re able to be brave when we remember that everything’s under God’s wise and loving control. Nothing happens that isn’t part of that larger plan for the glory of God and the good of his children.
Third: The true fear of God ensures the safety of the immortal soul. When we honor God for all that he is, and are redeemed by him, we have confidence in his promises. The promise ensures us as redeemed believers of eternal safety in the presence of God. Therefore we are brave because we know that though an enemy may harm our bodies, no one can harm our soul which will last forever.
Dabney’s comment about this concept was, “United to Christ by faith, adopted into the unchanging favour of God, and heir of an inheritance in the skies which is as secure as the throne of God, the believing soul, is lifted above the reach of bodily dangers. But the soul is the true man, the true self, the part which alone feels or knows, desires or fears, sorrows or rejoices, and which lives forever. It is its fate which is irrevocable. If it be lost, all is lost; and finally lost; if it be secure, all other losses are secondary, yea, in comparison trivial. To the child of God, the rage of enemies, mortal weapons, and pestilence are impotent.”
The promises of God lift us above the fears and insecurities of this world.
God’s promises enable us to be brave for all the right reasons. They produce a courage that comes from within. Hebrews 6:17-19, “Thus God, determining to show more abundantly to the heirs of promise the immutability of His counsel, confirmed it by an oath, that by two immutable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we might have strong consolation, who have fled for refuge to lay hold of the hope set before us. This hope we have as an anchor of the soul, both sure and steadfast, and which enters the Presence behind the veil”
God defines truth. To lie would be to go against himself. His promises and truth are our anchor. I remember once long ago rowing out from shore on Honeoye Lake when I lived in New York State. I’d drop my anchor and read my comic books. One time a strong wind came up and my cement anchor wasn’t holding. I was being blown toward an island. Around the island there were dangerous stumps sticking up out of the water. When I yelled out for help someone on shore heard me and rescued me with his motor boat. But God is an anchor that never fails. He holds tightly to all that happens. When our wrong anchor fails and we call for help, our Savior is there to secure us with his promises.
Dabney wrote, “If the plague come nigh, And sweep the wicked down to hell, T’will raise the saints on high.”
Then Dabney says of Jackson, “As his end drew near, he was told that he had but two hours to live. He calmly replied, ‘it will then be infinite gain to be translated to heaven, and be with Jesus.’ ”
Bravery can show up in the most unexpected ways, and in lives where we are surprised to find it. For the Christian, bravery comes from the power of God at work in otherwise cowardly hearts. That power grows in us through these truths laid out in his word.
(Bible quotations are from the English Standard Version unless otherwise noted.)
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