Isaac Ambrose was born in 1604, the son of Richard Ambrose, vicar of Ormskirk, Lancashire. Entering Brasenose College, Oxford, in 1621, he graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1624, and was ordained to the ministry. He became vicar of the parish church in Castleton, Derbyshire, in 1627, then served at Clapham, Yorkshire, from 1629 to 1631. The following year he received a Master of Arts degree from Cambridge.
Through the influence of William Russell, Earl of Bedford, Ambrose was appointed one of the king's four itinerant preachers for Lancashire, and took up residence in Garstang, a Lancashire town between Preston and Lancaster. The king's preachers were commissioned to preach the Reformation doctrines in an area that was strongly entrenched in Roman Catholicism. Shortly thereafter, he was married.
About 1640, Lady Margaret Hoghton selected him as vicar of Preston in Amounderness. As long as Ambrose lived in Preston, he enjoyed the warm friendship of the Hoghton family. It was to their ancestral woods and tower near Blackburn, east of Preston, or Weddicre Woods near Garstang, that Ambrose retired each May to be alone, searching the Scriptures, praying, and meditating upon God. His sermon, "Redeeming the Time," preached to the large congregation assembled for Lady Hoghton's funeral, was long remembered in Lancashire.
At the time of the Reformation, many in Preston, especially the local gentry, had clung to the Roman Catholic faith. When the first civil war began, Preston remained loyal to the king and became the headquarters for the Royalists in Lancashire. Nonetheless, Ambrose declared himself a Puritan and a Presbyterian when he subscribed to the Solemn League and Covenant of 1643, and he was one of the ministers who served on the committee of Parliament appointed to oversee the ejection of "scandalous and ignorant ministers and schoolmasters" during the Commonwealth.
Preston became a battleground between the opposing forces of king and Parliament. Ambrose was arrested twice (1642 and 1643) for his Presbyterian beliefs, but he was quickly released on both occasions because of his friendship with the Hoghtons and other neighboring gentlemen and his own reputation for godliness. When Bolton was taken by the Royalists in 1644, Ambrose took refuge in Leeds. Cromwell defeated the Royalist troops at the battle fought in Preston in 1648. This victory concluded the second civil war.
Presbyterianism in Lancashire was served well by Ambrose in the 1640s and early 1650s, though not without strife. On several occasions he served as moderator of the Lancashire classis, and, in 1648, was a signatory of the harmonious consent of the Lancashire Presbyterian clergy, which expressed solidarity with the Westminster Assembly and opposed calls for toleration. In 1649, the local committee for the relief of plundered ministers ordered him to be briefly imprisoned in London. When Ambrose returned to minister in Preston, he faced ongoing persecution. Finally, in 1654, he gave up his post there, perhaps due in part to illness (Oxford DNB, 1:921).
Ambrose moved north to become minister of Garstang, where he was ejected from his living in 1662 because of non-conformity. He lived in retirement among his friends at Preston, dying suddenly of apoplexy on January 23, 1664. It was said of him: "He was holy in life, happy in his death, honored of God, and held in high estimation by all good men."
Ambrose was a Christ-centered and warmly experiential author. He spoke of himself as a son of Boanerges and Barnabas, though his writings and ministry appear to have reflected more of the latter than the former. His writings are remarkably free of polemics. "As a religious writer Ambrose has a vividness and freshness of imagination possessed by scarcely any of the Puritan nonconformists. Many who have no love for Puritan doctrine, nor sympathy with Puritan experience, have appreciated the pathos and beauty of his writings, and his Looking unto Jesus long held its own in popular appreciation with the writings of John Bunyan" (Encyclopedia Britannica, 11th ed., 1:800). A collection of his works appeared in 1674 and was reprinted at least seven times over the next two centuries.
Several of Ambrose's significant books have not been reprinted for more than a century. These include the first works from his pen, Prima and Ultima, written in 1640. Prima presents the message of regeneration and Ultima deals with the last things, including life, death, judgment, hell, a correct understanding of purgatory, and heaven. These works were followed by Media, written in 1650. This lengthier treatise on sanctification examines the spiritual duties that the believer should engage in to grow in grace and deeper union with Christ. Ambrose was a strong proponent of keeping a diary to record daily experiences with God. Unfortunately, his diary has been lost, though he did include two lengthy samples in Media. These reveal his deep passion for seeking and experiencing the "joy unspeakable and full of glory" of Jesus Christ, our divine bridegroom.
Ambrose's Communion with Angels was first published with his Works in 1674. This work traces the ways in which God's divine messengers assist the believer at the various periods of life from birth to the judgment. According to Ambrose, angels defend and keep us safe from the temptations of the devil and act as God's servants and instruments of providence. Angels may work in our dreams and therefore we must be careful to discern the origin of our dreams to see if they are of God. While still strongly experimental in nature, this is Ambrose's most speculative work.
The Christian Warrior: Wrestling with Sin, Satan, the World, and the Flesh (SDG; 150 pages; 1997). In this work on spiritual warfare, originally written in 1661 but apparently first published with the Works in 1674, Ambrose presents three key truths: (1) all God's people must be warriors, (2) we have powerful and malicious enemies to contend with, and (3) we must wrestle and strive against these enemies.
Basing his work on Ephesians 6:12, Ambrose explains how a Christian must wage spiritual battle against sin, the world, the flesh, and Satan. He shows how Satan attacks us at different times and under different conditions in life, and how we can prepare to withstand his assaults. His ten ways to cope with sinful anger are extremely helpful (pp. 110-116).
Ambrose's directives are insightful, probing, and succinct. For instance, Ambrose advises, 'Be not satisfied with sudden pangs of affection, but labor to preserve those impressions which the Spirit has made on your soul' (pp. 64-65).
Looking Unto Jesus (SPR; 694 pages; 1986). After a serious illness in the early 1650s, Ambrose wrote a devotional on what the Lord had done for his soul, titled Looking unto Jesus, or the Soul's Eyeing of Jesus as Carrying on the Great Work of Man's Salvation (1658). The book, which stresses experiential identification with Jesus in thought and behavior, soon became a classic of Christ-centered divinity. Its readers feel they are standing on holy ground.
Ambrose describes numerous aspects of Christ's ministry. For example, he presents Jesus' ministry from eternity and during His life from a nine-point perspective: knowing Jesus, considering Jesus, desiring Jesus, hoping in Jesus, believing in Jesus, loving Jesus, rejoicing in Jesus, calling on Jesus, and conforming to Jesus in a particular aspect of His ministry. Regarding conformity to Christ in His resurrection, Ambrose writes, 'Look much at Christ raised, Christ glorified. [Let us] see our own personal vivification linked inseparably unto, and bottomed immovably upon the resurrection of Christ. When we can by faith get a sight of this, how courageously and successfully the soul will grapple in the controversies of the Lord against the devil, and our own deceitful hearts'¦. O that I could set my faith more frequently on Christ's resurrection, so that at last I could see it by the light of God to be a destinated principle of my vivification in particular!' (pp. 490-91).
This book has been reprinted many times, influencing many Christians over the centuries to pursue a closer walk with God. It equals Samuel Rutherford's Letters in its Christcenteredness.