David Dickson was one of God’s greatest gifts to the Scottish Church. Born about 1583, he became minister of Irvine, in Ayrshire, in 1618. God very much blessed his ministry there, though Dickson modestly stated that the vintage of Irvine was not equal to the gleanings of Ayr in John Welsh’s time.1 In Dickson’s time, Monday was market day in Irvine and large numbers came to the town, not only to buy and sell produce, but also to listen to Dickson’s weekday sermon. Indeed the Irvine church was fuller on Mondays than on Sabbaths. One particular result was the gospel’s powerful influence on many people living in the valley running inland from Irvine towards Stewarton, resulting in what became known disparagingly as the Stewarton sickness – when many became concerned about their souls, forsook their sins and began to follow Christ.
The unsettled state of the Church in Scotland, under the rule of bishops, resulted in Dickson being banished to Turriff, in Aberdeenshire, in 1622. He meekly told the bishops who sentenced him: ‘The will of the Lord be done; though ye cast me off, the Lord will take me up. Send me whither ye will, I hope my Master will go with me.’2 His Master gave Dickson opportunities to preach in Turriff, and the following year he was able to return to Irvine. The years from 1641 were spent teaching students for the ministry, first in Glasgow and later in Edinburgh. His excellent lectures on The Westminster Confession of Faith, to his students in the latter city, were published as Truth’s Victory over Error; he wrote highly-regarded commentaries on, among other parts of Scripture, the Psalms and Matthew; and he was the co-author, with James Durham, of The Sum of Saving Knowledge.3
All such useful lives come to an end, and Dickson passed to his eternal reward in 1663. But before he left this world he was removed from his post in Edinburgh University, following the return to power of the Stuart kings. Dickson was one of the many ministers who could not conscientiously submit to the authority of bishops. On his deathbed, Dickson was visited by John Livingstone, himself a victim of the new, persecuting regime in Scotland. Dickson told him: ‘I have taken all my good deeds, and all my bad deeds, and have cast them together in a heap before the Lord, and have fled from both to Jesus Christ, and in Him I have sweet peace’.4
Dickson was conscious of bad deeds – of his sins, sins against God’s law. Even on the verge of eternal perfection, he was still conscious of sin. There were actual transgressions of the law, and for these he needed forgiveness; so he knew that he must continue to go to Christ to have the guilt of all these sins washed away. He was clearly conscious of having received forgiveness in the past; yet, still imperfect, he must go again and again to be washed in the blood that cleanses from all sin. Nothing else could do anything for him; he had learned that many years before, and he was still learning it. There was never a moment but he needed to look to the One who had died for sinners – sinners like him – and had risen again. He needed to look to the One who had gone to the right hand of the Father, where He was making continual intercession for those, like himself, who had come to God through Christ, and therefore he could be saved to the uttermost (see Heb 7:25).
Dickson was indeed among the blessed ones who trusted in Christ and received forgiveness for all their sins. And he knew that it was also said in Scripture: ‘Blessed is the man unto whom the Lord imputeth not iniquity’ (Ps 32:2). Such people do not have the guilt of their sin laid to their account before God; it was laid instead to the account of Christ when He came into the world; Christ endured the punishment for that guilt until divine justice was completely satisfied. Dickson, and every other believer, have gone on looking to Christ; their sins are not imputed to them; all their transgressions are forgiven. What blessedness! How encouraged sinners should be to lay all their sins before God, coming to Him through Christ, the One who will never cast out any sinner who comes to Him by faith. There is no hope anywhere else, even for a godly man not far from glory.
But Dickson was conscious, not only of his actual sins, but also of coming short of the perfect obedience that God’s law requires – we are obliged to love Him with all our heart in everything we do and say and think. So even the good deeds of God’s children are imperfect. That was why Dickson knew that he had to bring his good deeds, as well as his bad deeds, before the Lord and flee from them to Christ. Not even his best deeds could form a foundation for acceptance with God.
Yes, he had sought to preach to God’s glory and for the good of souls; he lectured to his students in the hope that what he taught them would help them to glorify God in their ministry; he had sought to be faithful to God in all the entangling difficulties resulting from the imposition of prelacy, in his earlier years and again in the very last years of his life; he had no doubt sought to be faithful to God in the little things of life which, to many others, might seem to be too trivial to concern themselves with. He might honestly have said all that, but he would have followed the principle, ‘Let another man praise thee, and not thine own mouth’ (Prov 27:2). Even so he would have been much more conscious of his shortcomings than of his achievements.
As nothing, however good in itself, could be the basis for his entering into heaven at last, he must flee from everything to Jesus Christ, who was still calling him: ‘Come unto Me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest’ (Mt 11:28). His bad deeds, and his good but imperfect deeds, were indeed a heavy load for Dickson. All he could do was, by grace, to come to Christ with them all, believing that He was able and willing to forgive him completely and give him peace of conscience. Which is what happened, and Dickson experienced ‘sweet peace’ in Christ. He was ready to die, and he knew he was ready.
Not only was he forgiven, but the work of sanctification was proceeding in his soul. The One to whom he had fled was the Great Physician, who, when he takes on a case, guarantees that, though His work of healing is gradual, it will most certainly be completed in the end. So Dickson, still feeling his imperfection, could trust in such promises as: ‘He which hath begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ’ (Phil 1:6). He trusted, and he had ‘sweet peace’.
Other believers may not have such strong faith as Dickson, yet the promises are as sure to them as to the strongest of God’s children. The work of salvation begun in their hearts and lives will go on, under the control of the Great Physician, until their souls are made perfect, as they are brought to eternal glory. They may speak of their sin, their corrupt heart, their spiritual poverty, their weakness and much more. But Christ is able and willing to forgive all their sin; by the Holy Spirit He will remove their remaining corruption and make them perfectly holy; He is infinitely rich and He will make them unbelievably rich in spiritual things; He is infinitely strong and He will give them sufficient strength for every difficulty, including their passing through death. They are to go on trusting in Him, for He will supply all their needs out of the glorious riches that He has purchased for sinners.
Taken with permission from the May edition of the Free Presbyterian Magazine 2016
- Welsh (died 1622) was the noted, prayerful minister of Ayr, but later exiled to France
- John Howie, The Scots Worthies, Banner of Truth reprint, 1995, p 290
- Truth’s Victory over Error has been republished by the Banner of Truth; the commentaries are out of print; The Sum of Saving Knowledge is bound up with The Westminster Confession, available from Free Presbyterian Publications. R M M‘Cheyne wrote in his diary: ‘Read in The Sum of Saving Knowledge, the work which I think first of all wrought a saving change in me. How gladly would I renew the reading of it, if that change might be carried on to perfection!’ (Andrew Bonar, Memoir and Remains of R M M‘Cheyne, Banner of Truth reprint, 1966, pp 12,13.
- Howie, The Scots Worthies, p 295.