A scene from The Canterbury Psalter (12th century)

Precept, Prayer, Promise

God commands us to do a good thing. We hear the precept, but what if we despair of our ability to carry it out? What can we do? We can ask God for divine assistance, or even ask him to do the commanded thing for us (or through us, or to us, or within us). In response, he promises to do so. Looking back on this three-step sequence, we might even find ourselves confessing that God intended to make the promise anyway, and so he gave the command in order to prompt us to ask for the gracious help.

Precept-Prayer-Promise. It might seem convoluted, especially when drawn out to three beats. Augustine noticed the sequence and prayed to God in his Confessions, “Give what you command, and command what you will.” That sounds like only two beats (give=promise, command=precept), but of course we’re hearing those two beats in the midst of a prayer, which is the middle beat. This sentence in Augustine’s Confessions is famous for irritating Pelagius, to whom it seemed like an overemphasis on God’s initiative at the expense of undervaluing human responsibility in sanctification. But Augustine really meant it: there is a through-line that runs from God’s demands to God’s provision, and it runs right through human neediness–conscious neediness, the kind that calls out for help.

Around 1787, a British preacher named Matthew Wilks (1746-1829) published a small tract about this triadic sequence, Precept, Prayer, Promise. The tract apparently consisted mainly of 110 passages of Scripture, arranged in clusters of three, displaying the sequence. Here’s how Wilks describes the sequence:

The precepts were given us to remind us of the absolute necessity of having the whole wrought for and in us by the infinite grace and power of GOD; and consequently to excite in us the most ardent desires after, and earnest solicitations for, such inestimable blessings. In the Scriptures you first see GOD commanding; secondly, the creature, conscious of his own inability, returning the commands to heaven changed into prayers; and thirdly, the LORD mercifully sending down both precepts and prayers, converted into gracious promises.

Here are six of the triads, as cited by James Ford’s devotional commentary on Mark:

The brackets are enticingly triadic, but the abbreviated references make up a rather unattractive display for any but the most devoted Bible moth.

So try this version. A triad on the new heart:

A triad on purging the leaven or dross from the soul:

A triad on being saved:

A triad on washing. God commands us to wash; we ask God to wash us; God promises to do so:

And so on. I think it’s obvious that the passages are not organically related in quite the way Wilks suggests. They certainly don’t occur in the Bible in the sequence precept-prayer-promise, and they’re gathered in from the full canon. Wilks picks a theme or image (washing, purging, saving, etc.) and then draws together instances of that theme being spoken in all three modes: as what God commands us to do, as us asking God to do it, and as God promising to do so. So the all-important sequencing is precisely the enrichment Wilks is adding by arranging his selected Scriptures. But knowing this doesn’t diminish the power of the schema. Instead, it succeeds in vividly illustrating the schema, dozens of times, ringing the changes on a wide range of biblical imagery.

Here’s a 3-page PDF of the fullest version I’ve ben able to find, a listing of 36 triads. The PDF (and the clips above) are taken from Thomas Williams’ 1825 Cottage Bible & Family Expositor. Williams called them Scripture Triplets; he credits them to Wilks and introduces them with a little of his own commentary, worth reading. Williams makes the helpful observation that what we’re really hearing in these triplets is the not so much the “do this / I can’t / okay I’ll do it for you” storyline as it is the simultaneous presence of the authority of God to command, the inability of creatures to obey, and the kindness of God in granting the blessing.

I haven’t been able to locate a copy of Wilks’ own booklet, which seems to have gone by the title Scripture Harmony. Here’s an ad for it in the back of an 1818 book by Erskine:

I’m not sure how to reconcile the ad’s promise of “one hundred and ten texts” with the fact that Williams prints 36 triads (=108 verses). But someday I’d love to see the original Wilks tract or pamphlet or whatever it was.

Charles Spurgeon makes some interesting remarks on Wilks as an “eccentric preacher” here. Some of his sermon outlines can be found in a “remains” volume edited by Sharp here. And interestingly, Wilks’ harmonies (and some other ‘Bible parallels’ info) can be found copied out by hand into the end papers of an apparently unrelated book here.

About This Blog

Fred Sanders is a theologian who tried to specialize in the doctrine of the Trinity, but found that everything in Christian life and thought is connected to the triune God.

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