Peace Like a River: Advice for the Soul in Conflict from William Bridge, Part 1

Jesus most assuredly promised a great peace to his children with the words, “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth, give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid” (John 14:27). However, it is no secret that though Jesus promised peace to his saints, yet Christians are often afflicted by great trials of disquietness, discontentment, and discouragement. Rather than quietness and stillness, the soul feels it is engaged in a most ferocious conflict. While many congregations sing Horatio Spafford’s hymn, It is Well with My Soul, and with loud voices like the tumultuous roar of rushing waters, joyfully shout the words, 

When peace like a river attendeth my way,

when sorrows like sea billows roll;

whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say,

"It is well, it is well with my soul."

Yet, many of those voices singing have no true peace. They do not feel like they have peace within themselves, with others, or with the Lord Himself. What is the Christian to do when, instead of his inward frame of spirit shouting, “It is well with my soul!” he instead dejectedly laments, “I am downcast and disquieted”?

William Bridge, as a good physician of the soul, pinpoints some of the problems that contribute to this lack of peace and despondency in his work of collected sermons, A Lifting Up for the Downcast (preached at Stepney, A.D. 1648). In the first sermon of this work, he examines the lack of peace that is often encountered in the hearts of even the most seasoned of Christians by examining Psalm 42:11. In this Psalm, King David laments his own sad countenance and disposition, brought about by various outward afflictions, and asks the question: “Why art thou cast down, O my soul? and why art thou disquieted within me? hope thou in God: for I shall yet praise him, who is the health of my countenance, and my God.” 

Bridge takes this verse and carefully dissects it, noting a multitude of ways that peace may be lost, reasons why a Christian may lack peace, and various remedies that may, like a healing balm, be applied to the weary saint.

  1. Christians may, for a time, lose their sense of additional peace with God, but will never lose their fundamental peace with God.

As Bridge considers the various losses of peace that a Christian may experience, he is careful to instruct his readers that the Christian who has been justified by the blood of Christ, through faith in Jesus, according to the grace of God, will never lose their fundamental peace with the Lord. That is to say, Christians enjoy a most “Fundamental peace, which does naturally arise and flow from their justification: ‘Being justified by faith, we have peace with God,’ Rom. v. And then there is an additional peace, which arises from the sense of justification.” In other words, the one who has been justified in the sight of God is truly at peace with the Lord. Whereas before God was angry with him because of his sins, and ready to unloose the arrow of just wrath He had aimed against him as a sinner, now, through faith in Jesus, he has been justified and God’s wrath has been exhausted. God has not merely lowered the arrow to only raise it again at a later date; He has both lowered and broken the arrow, never again to raise it against the one who has been justified in Christ. There is genuine forgiveness and eternal reconciliation between the repentant sinner and God. This is the foundational peace that every Christian now enjoys.

But, at various points, the Christian can find themselves like David at the end of Psalm 42, asking, “Where has my peace gone? Why am I disquieted?” Perhaps some sin has been committed and so they feel as though the peace is gone. Or, maybe a season of terrible conflict and afflictions has corrupted their heart and mind in such a way that, for a time, they feel unable to enjoy this peace. But the fundamental truth is this: Feelings carry little weight in the matter; the one who has trusted in Christ is justified, and therefore foundationally at peace with God, whether or not they feel it.

  1. A Christian may confuse peace with feelings of comfort and joy.

Bridge labors the point that a Christian may experience all three emotions at once, or he may have peace without comfort, or comfort without joy. Yet, while these three often do go together, they are not the same. “Labour to know the difference between these,” Bridge urges the reader, for then we will know whether we truly lack peace, or if it be some other thing, like comfort or joy, that we lack.

  1. A Christian may feel discouragement that they are not yet what they ought to be, but find peace in what they are no longer.

When the Apostle Paul reflected on how Jesus had appeared to him and saved him, he then rejoices that, “By the grace of God I am what I am: and his grace which was bestowed upon me was not in vain; but I laboured more abundantly than they all: yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me” (1 Cor. 15:10). True, none of us is yet what we could be in Christ, nor even what we should be in Christ. We still battle sin and spend many moments in contrition and repentance. In these moments, peace may seem more like a foreign mystery than a familiar friend. But, like the Apostle Paul, we can still rejoice, “By the grace of God, I am what I am. I am no longer what I was. I was a sinner. I am now a saint. I was a hater of God. By His grace and love, I am now a lover of God.” Bridge reflected on this very thing when he wrote:

A godly man, a weak christian, when he considers what he would be, and what he would have, he hath no rest nor quiet: but now, come unto the same man, and say thus, You remember what a wicked life once you led; ye were a drunkard, or ye were a wanton: what say ye; would ye be in that condition again? Oh no, saith he then, I would not be in that condition for all the world. Here now the soul hath peace in opposition to what it hath been, though it hath not peace and quiet in opposition to what it would be.

  1. A Christian may actually possess peace but suppress it.

It is sometimes the case that peace is legitimately present in the soul of the Christian, but suppressed, as it were, in the deep recesses of the heart. Peace, after all, does not necessarily need to be expressed outwardly to still be possessed inwardly. As Bridge explained, “Possibly for the present, he may be full of trouble; but when affliction comes, and the hour of death comes, then he hath peace and comfort: why, it was there before, it was at the bottom, only he was not aware of it, he did not know if it.” It will, however, make itself presently known at the time most needed.

  1. The Christian may have peace, but fear that it is not the true peace of God.

It is the work of Satan to steal, kill, and destroy (John 10:10), and thus unsurprising that Christians enjoying peace will often feel that same peace attacked. Indeed, “Is it not a blessed thing to have peace within; to have quiet, peace and rest within? If ye have peace within, though ye want peace without, you will be able to bear all your burdens.” All the more reason, then, that doubts and discouragements may begin to arise.

Here, Bridge explains there is a world of difference between the genuine peace enjoyed by the Christian and the false peace counterfeited in the heart of the wicked. “True saving peace,” wrote Bridge, “is the child of grace, and the mother of grace… True saving peace, is such a peace as is wrought by faith. “Being justified by faith, we have peace,” Rom. xv. “The Lord give you peace in believing,” says the apostle.” Most importantly, Bridge explains that:

True saving peace, will live in the sight of sin. False peace doth not endure the sight of sin; a godly man, the more he doth see his sin, unless he be under temptation, the more peace he hath: a wicked man, the more he doth see his sin, the less peace he hath; and all his peace arises from a not sight of his sin.

True saving peace loves to be examined, is willing to be examined, it loves to be tried.

The point Bridge makes is this: True peace in the heart of the Christian is expressed in an assurance of salvation, despite the acknowledgement of sins committed and though the peace and faith itself be examined by both God and others.

Of course, the danger in examination is that the doubt expressed by others may soon imprint itself upon the saint. But, even here, to secure peace like a river, we must be equipped to fight for peace. This we will learn how to do from Bridge in the next post.

Jacob Tanner is pastor of Christ Keystone Church, a Reformed Baptist church plant in Central Pennsylvania where he lives with his wife and two sons.  He is the author of Union with Christ: The Joy of the Christian’s Assurance in the Doctrines of Grace.


Jacob Tanner