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Keeping the Heart

by
John Flavel
(1630-1691)

Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria, 1998.

This book has been called by some one of the greatest Christian books of all time. It is another of the excellent reprints of Puritan books from Soli Deo Gloria. The book, which was originally entitled “A Saint Indeed”, is based on Proverbs 4:23, which exhorts us to “keep our heart, for out of it are the issues of life”. And Flavel carefully and exhaustively unfolds all that is involved in “keeping” the heart, and how that should be the “great business” of every Christian. Keeping the heart, Flavel would have us to understand, involves the “diligent and constant use and improvement of all holy means and duties to preserve the soul from sin and maintain its sweet and free communion with God” (page 2). At the beginning, Flavel sets forth the doctrine: “The keeping and right managing of the heart in every condition is the great business of a Christian’s life” (page 3). He lists six acts to help keep the heart carefully: 1) “frequent observation” of the state of the heart (self-examination, self-conferences, etc.), 2) “ deep humiliation for heart-evils and disorders” (page 7), 3) “earnest supplications and instant prayer for heart-purifying and rectifying grace” (page 7), 4) “imposing strong engagements and bonds upon ourselves to walk more earnestly with God and avoid the occasions whereby the heart may be induced to sin” (page 8) (including for example vows, or Job’s “covenant with mine eyes”), 5) “a constant holy jealousy over our own hearts” (page 8), and 6) the “realizing of God’s presence with us and setting the Lord always before us” (page 8).

He cautions that heart-work is not easy work: “Heart-work is hard work, indeed. To shuffle over religious duties with a loose and heedless spirit will cost no great pains. But to set yourself before the Lord, and tie up your loose and vain thoughts to a constant and serious attendance upon Him, will cost you something” (page 9). Not only is it hard work, but it is also a constant work, as it is “never done till life is done” (page 10). Nevertheless, it is an essential work, for without it, Flavel says “we are but formalists in religion; all our professions, gifts, and duties signify nothing” (page 10). Then he sets out six reasons why Christians should make this the great business of their lives: 1) the glory of God, 2) the sincerity of our profession, 3) the beauty of our conversation (conduct of life), 4) the improvement of our graces, 5) the comfort of our souls, and 6) the stability of our souls in the hour of temptation (pages 11-22). Among other applications of the doctrine, he discusses 12 special “seasons” in the Christian’s life, which call for special diligence in keeping our hearts. The book is full of wonderful applications, expositions, and exhortations. And yet, it is not a long book, as his actual writing only covers 130 pages. The remainder of the book consists of a 19-page outline, and a 33-page study guide, both by Maureen Bradley, which greatly add to the book’s usefulness. I’ll close this review with the quote of an exhortation from Flavel:

Oh study your hearts, watch your hearts, keep your hearts! Away with fruitless controversies and all idle questions; away with empty names and vain shows; away with unprofitable discourse and bold censures of others. Turn in upon yourselves, get into your closets, and now resolve to dwell there. You have been strangers to this work too long; you have kept others’ vineyards too long; you have trifled about the borders of religion too long; this world has detained you from your great work too long. Will you now resolve to look better at your hearts? Will you hate and come out of the crowds of business and clamors of the world and retire yourselves more than you have done? Oh, that this day you would resolve upon it…All that I beg for is that you would step aside a little more often to talk with God and your own heart…(and) demand this of your own heart, at least every evening, ‘Oh, my heart, where have you been today? Where have you made a road today’” (pages 118-119).

This is a book to be read or consulted frequently.

Related Topics: Spiritual Life