It’s not for nothing that in his Institutes John Calvin cited Bernard of Clairvaux (d. 1153) more than a few times. The doctrines of grace were not absent in the Medieval era! One very bright spot of Bernard’s writings is “Sermon 84” on the Song of Songs. This sermon is on Songs 3:1: “On my bed night after night I sought him whom my soul loves” (NASB). In it Bernard talks about seeking and finding the Lord. He starts like this:
“It is a great good to seek God; I think nothing comes before it among the good things the soul may enjoy. It is the first of its gifts and its ultimate goal.”
Bernard then explains that the soul seeking God finds unending joy in abundance. It’s not like joy and desire are gone once a person finds God. But there’s more to it.
“Now see why I have said this as a preliminary. It is so that every soul among you which is seeking God will know that He has gone before and sought you before you sought Him. Otherwise you may turn a great good into a great evil for yourself. For from great goods can arise evils no less great, when we treat as our own the good things God gives and act as though they were not gifts, not giving God the glory (Lk 17:18).”
In other words, Bernard says it is important to realize that God seeks us before we seek him. If we don’t understand this, we’ll rob God of his glory:
“If someone says, “Perish the thought, I know that it is by the grace of God that I am as I am” (1 Cor 15:10), yet is eager to take even the smallest credit for the grace he has received, surely he is a robber and a thief (Jn 10:1)? Let such a man hear this, “Out of your own mouth I judge you, wicked servant” (Lk 19:22). What is more wicked than for a slave to usurp his master’s glory?”
Instead, Bernard wrote, ‘The soul seeks the Word, but she has first been sought by the Word.” And where does the soul get the will to seek? “From the visitation of the Word, who has already sought her.”
“That seeking has not been in vain, because it has made the will active, without which there can be no return [to God]. …’Seek your servant’ [the Psalmist] says [Ps. 119:176], so that he who has been given the will may also give the power to act…”
Here’s the heart of it – which sounds like Augustine (“I would not have sought You unless You had first sought me”).
“I have sought,” she says, “him whom my soul loves” (Sg 3:1). This is what the kindness of Him who goes before you urges you to do, He who both sought you first and loved you first (1 Jn 4:10). You would not be seeking Him or loving Him unless you had first been sought and loved. You have been forestalled not only in one blessing (Gn 27:28) but in two, in love and in seeking. The love is the cause of the seeking, and the seeking is the fruit of the love; and it is its guarantee. You are loved, so that you may not think that you are sought so as to be punished; you are sought, so that you may not complain that you are loved in vain. Both these sweet gifts of love make you bold and drive diffidence away, and they persuade you to return and move you to loving response. Hence comes the zeal, the ardor to seek him whom your soul loves, for you cannot seek unless you are sought and now that you are sought you cannot fail to seek.”
I know it’s a rich paragraph; you may have to read it again! Basically, Bernard is highlighting the divine initiative and priority of the sovereign grace of God. He loved and chose us before we loved and chose him. And no one can come to Christ unless God sovereignly draws him (John 6:44). But, as Bernard said (echoing Scripture’s teaching), “now that you are sought, you cannot fail to seek!”
The above quotes are found in Bernard of Clairvaux, Bernard of Clairvaux: Selected Works, ed. John Farina, trans. G. R. Evans, The Classics of Western Spirituality (New York; Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1987).
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)