saac Ambrose (1604–1664) was a moderate English Puritan minister living in Lancashire, England. Unfortunately little has been written on Ambrose; he has much to teach the church.1
Educated at Brasenose College, Oxford, as a young man he served as one of the king’s preachers—a select group of four itinerants originally charged with preaching the Reformation doctrines of grace in Lancashire. After briefly serving two smaller congregations, around 1640, Ambrose became the pastor of St. Johns Church, Preston. In 1657 he moved to a more obscure location farther north in Garstang. Ambrose specifically states his need for a less stressful parish due to the challenges of Roman Catholicism as well as the superstition prevalent in the region.
Supporting the effort to develop Presbyterianism in this region of northwest England, he served as one of the moderators of the annual meetings. Through various committees he also sought to provide relief to those suffering financial hardship resulting from the local battles of the English Civil War. As a nonconforming minister of the Church of England, Ambrose was eventually ejected from his pulpit by the Act of Uniformity of 1662.
Ambrose was a well-respected devotional author, best known both then and now for his massive work, Looking unto Jesus. He also wrote a significant work on sanctification titled Media: The Middle Things, In Reference to the First and Last Things: or, The Means, Duties, Ordinances, both Secret, Private and Public, for Continuance and Increase of a Godly Life, (Once Begun,) Till We Come to Heaven.2 Media, first published in 1650, was enlarged and revised in 1652, followed by a third expanded edition in 1657.
Understanding the Nature and Purpose of Spiritual Duties
The Puritans typically approached spiritual disciplines by dividing them into three categories: secret, private, and public.3 Secret duties refers to the individual’s personal spiritual practices and reflect Jesus’ command to withdraw to a place of privacy to practice one’s piety (Matt. 6:6). A private context refers to a small group, such as family or friends gathered in one’s house. The word public describes the larger gatherings in church buildings for worship or other spiritual exercises. While Ambrose himself actively cultivated all three categories, we here focus on his exhortation regarding the secret discipline of meditation on Scripture.
According to Ambrose spiritual duties are any practices that awaken, strengthen, or deepen a person’s relationship with the triune God. Ambrose provides a compelling metaphor of spiritual disciplines when he asserts that:
...the saints look upon duties (the Word, Sacraments, Prayers, etc.) as bridges to give them a passage to God, as boats to carry them into the bosom of Christ, as means to bring them into more intimate communion with their heavenly Father, and therefore are they so much taken with them.4
Spiritual disciplines have the ability to create a reciprocal relationship that is marked by a growing intimacy based upon both gratitude and love for God.
Ambrose cautions his readers that there is nothing unique about these practices, and great care must be exercised so as not to use them to bargain with God. He also reminds us that spiritual practices cannot save a person. Yet Ambrose stresses that spiritual duties can be a source of delight and joy, bringing us into God’s presence. Further, practicing them brings believers a portion of heaven, as if “their hearts [were] sweetly refreshed.”5 In other words, spiritual practices can both confirm the reality of God’s presence and provide a foretaste of heaven’s joy because we have been joined with Christ.