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A Classic Study by John Flavel (1628-1691)

[Here, we continue our reprint of excerpts from John Flavel's book Navigation Spiritualized. John Flavel was a 17th Century minister in the seaside town of Dartmouth, England. A good many of his parishioners made their living on the sea, and so Mr. Flavel wrote Navigation Spiritualized, a book which draws parallels between things of the sea and spiritual things.]--Ed.

God's Word as a Compass in Life

To sea without a compass none dare go:

Our course without the Word is even so.


Of how great use and necessity is the compass to seamen! Though they can coast a little way by the shore, yet they dare not venture far into the ocean without it: it is their guide, and directs and shapes their course for them. And if by the violence of wind and weather, they are driven beside their due course, yet by the help of this they are reduced and brought to rights again. It is wonderful to consider how, by the help of this guide, they can run in a direct line many hundred leagues, and at last, fall right with the smallest island, which is in the ocean comparatively, but as the head of a small pin upon a table.


What the compass and all other mathematical instruments are to the navigator, that and much more is the Word of God to us in our course to heaven. This is our compass to steer our course by, and it is truly touched: he that orders his conversation by it shall safely arrive in heaven at last. "As many as walk according to this rule, peace be on them and mercy" (Gal. 4:16).

This Word is as necessary to us in our way to glory, as a lamp or lantern is in a dark night (see Ps. 119:105), that is a light shining in a dark place, till the day, dawn, and the day-star arise in our hearts (see II Pet. 1:19). If any that profess to know it and own it as a rule, miss heaven at last, let them not blame the Word for misguiding them, but their own negligent and deceitful hearts, that shuffle in and out, and shape not their course and conversation according to its prescriptions.

What blame can you lay upon the compass, if you steer not exactly by it? How many are there that, neglecting this rule, will coast in to heaven by their own reason? No wonder such fall short and perish in the way. This is a faithful guide, and brings all that follow it to a blessed end: "Thou shalt guide me with thy counsel, and afterwards receive me to glory" (Ps. 73:24). The whole hundred and nineteenth psalm is spent in commendation of its transcendent excellency and usefulness. Luther professed that he prized it so highly, that he would not take the whole world in exchange for one leaf of it. Lay but this rule before you, and walk accurately by it, and you cannot be out of your way to heaven: "I have chosen the way of truth, (or the true way); thy judgment have I laid before me" (Ps. 119:30). Some indeed have opened their detracting blasphemous mouths against it; as Julian, that vile apostate, who feared not to say, there was as good matter in Phocillides as in Solomon, in Pindarus's odes, as in David's psalms.

[There are many who] generally slight it, making it a lame, imperfect rule; yea, making their own traditions the touchstone of doctrines, and foundation of faith. Montanus tells us that, although the apostle would have sermons and service celebrated in a known tongue, yet the church, for very good cause, hath otherwise ordered it. Gilford called it the mother of heresies. Bonner's chaplain judged it worthy to be burnt as a strange doctrine. They set up their inventions above it, and frequently come in with a non obstante against Christ's institutions. And thus do they make it void, or, as it says in Matt. 15:6, unlord it, and take away its authority as a rule. But those that have thus slighted it, and followed the by-paths unto which their corrupt hearts have led them, they take not hold of the paths of life, and are now in the depths of hell. All other lights to which men pretend, in the neglect of this, are but false fires that will lead men into the pits and bogs of destruction at last.


And is Thy Word a compass, to direct my course to glory? O where am I then like to arrive at last, that my course have neglected it, and steered according to the counsel of my own heart! Lord, I have not made Thy Word the man of my council, but consulted with flesh and blood; I have not enquired at this oracle, nor studied it, and made it the guide of my way, but walked after the sight of my eyes, and the lust of my heart. Whither, Lord! can I come at last, but to hell, after this way of reckoning? Some have slighted Thy Word professedly, and I have slighted it practically. I have a poor soul embarked for eternity; it is now floating on a dangerous ocean, rocks and sands on every side, and I go a-drift before every wind of temptation, and know not where I am. Ah, Lord! Convince me of the danger of this condition. O convince me of my ignorance in Thy Word, and the fatal consequence and issue thereof. Lord, let me now resolve to study, prize, and obey it; hide it in my heart, that I may not sin against it. Open my understanding, that I may understand the Scriptures; open my heart to entertain it in love. O Thou that hast been so gracious to give a perfect rule, give me also a perfect heart to walk by that rule to glory!

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