by Brian G. Hedges
The Puritans were the 16th century English Protestants and their successors in 16th and 17th century New England, and it was their concern for church reform and spiritual renewal that earned them the originally derogatory epithet puritan. Unfortunately, most people associate the term with legalism, self-righteousness, hypocrisy, and witch hunts, thanks to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter.
Of course, the Puritans weren’t perfect; yet despite their imperfections, there is much we can learn from them. J. I. Packer once compared the Puritans to California’s gigantic Redwood trees, saying:
As Redwoods attract the eye, because they overtop other trees, so the mature holiness and seasoned fortitude of the great Puritans shine before us as a kind of beacon light, overtopping the stature of the majority of Christians in most eras, and certainly so in this age … when Western Christians sometimes feel and often look like ants in an anthill.
In my own sampling of Puritan writings, my heart has been greatly helped and my soul stimulated. Following are several reasons I believe pastors should give renewed attention to the Puritans’ writings.
1. They lift our gaze to the greatness and gladness of GOD.
We are innately man-centered in our thinking about God. As someone once said, “God made man in his own image, and man returned the compliment.”
The Puritans, unlike many others, lift our gaze to see God’s soul-satisfying transcendence. I’ll never forget my awe of God after spending significant time reading Stephen Charnock’s The Existence and Attributes of God, or the depth of joy in God that I discovered in the writings of Thomas Brooks and Jonathan Edwards. For example, Edwards wrote:
The enjoyment of [God] is the only happiness with which our souls can be satisfied. To go to heaven, to fully enjoy God, is infinitely better than the most pleasant accommodations here. Fathers and mothers, husbands, wives, or children, or the company of earthly friends, are but shadows; but the enjoyment of God is the substance. These are but scattered beams, but God is the sun. These are but streams. But God is the fountain. These are but drops; but God is the ocean.
2. They open our eyes to the beauty and loveliness of CHRIST.
The Puritans were as Christ-centered as they were God-centered. They loved Christ passionately and sought His glory tirelessly. Thomas Goodwin said, “If I were to go to heaven, and find that Christ was not there, I would leave immediately; for heaven without Christ would be hell to me.”
The Puritans saw Christ on virtually every page of Scripture. Thomas Adams wrote: “Christ is the sum of the whole Bible, prophesied, typified, prefigured, exhibited, demonstrated, to be found in every leaf, almost in every line, the Scriptures being but as it were the swaddling bands of the child Jesus.” We might occasionally question the accuracy of Puritan exegesis, but surely we can find no fault with their passion for Christ-centeredness.
They especially gloried in the sufficiency of Christ’s atoning work. Jonathan Edwards, in a sermon on Isaiah 32:2, said:
Christ by his obedience, by that obedience which he undertook for our sakes, has honored God abundantly more than the sins of any of us have dishonored him, how many soever, how great soever…. God hates our sins, but not more than he delights in Christ’s obedience which he performed on our account. This is a sweet savor to him, a savor of rest. God is abundantly compensated, he desires no more; Christ’s righteousness is of infinite worthiness and merit.
3. They prick our consciences with the subtlety and sinfulness of SIN.
There are not many Christian book titles today that include the word sin, but the Puritans were serious about sin and wrote about it often, as just a few of their titles reveal (Ralph Venning’s The Sinfulness of Sin, Jeremiah Burroughs’ The Evil of Evils, Thomas Watson’s The Mischief of Sin).
Perhaps the most helpful books to me have been John Owen’s classics on the mortification and temptation of sin. To read Owen is to allow a doctor of the soul to do surgery. Owen said, “Be killing sin or it will be killing you.” His counsel on how to kill sin and avoid temptation is the best I’ve ever read.
4. They ravish and relish the soul with the power and glory of GRACE.
Sometimes Puritans get a bad rap for being legalistic, and perhaps the accusation would occasionally stick—there was, after all, imperfect theology in the 16th century, too! But the Puritans understood grace’s transforming power and glory in dimensions often foreign to us.
Many contemporary books dealing with sin simply give us lists to live by—things to do and not do. Even a focus on the spiritual disciplines can sometimes be bereft of any real dependence on grace. Contrast that with Owen’s words,
There is no death of sin without the death of Christ…. Set faith at work on Christ–for the killing of your sin…. By faith fill your soul with a due consideration of that provision which is laid up in Jesus Christ for this end and purpose, that all your lusts, this very lust wherewith you are entangled, may be mortified.
Owen does not fail to point the sin-fighting believer to Christ. He clearly shows us that we can only overcome sin by depending on Christ and His cross.
5. They plumb the depths of the soul with profound biblical, PRACTICAL and psychological insight.
The Puritans were not just theologians; they were pastors, physicians of the soul, and exceptionally good counselors. My wife, who has occasionally read Puritan writing, has commented that the Puritans understood people and how they think.
One of the most practical Puritan writings is Richard Baxter’s A Christian Directory, called by Tim Keller “the greatest manual on biblical counseling ever produced.” This 900-page tome is divided into four sections: Christian Ethics, Christian Economics, Christian Ecclesiastics, and Christian Politics. In layman’s terms, these deal with the Christian’s personal/spiritual life, home life, church life, and social life.
Here are some of the practical matters Baxter addresses and the pastoral advice he gives.
Under Christian Ethics:
- 20 directions “to weak Christians for their establishment and growth”
- 5 directions for “redeeming as well as improving time” (including “thieves or time wasters to be watched against,” of which Baxter lists 12)
- 10 “directions for the government of the passions”
Under Christian Economics are similar directions for husbands, wives, parents, and children in their specific duties toward one another. I surveyed 10 directions for helping husbands and wives “live in quietness and peace, and avoid all occasions of wrath and discord,” and have never seen anything more practical in a contemporary book on marriage.
6. They sustain and strengthen the soul through suffering with the SOVEREIGNTY of God.
Because the Puritans were descendants of the English martyrs and were persecuted themselves (thousands of Puritan pastors were ejected from their pulpits in 1662), they were well acquainted with suffering; yet they trusted God’s good providence in and over suffering. For the Puritans, suffering was purposeful.
Thomas Watson said, “God’s rod is a pencil to draw Christ’s image more lively on us,” while John Flavel wrote, “Let a Christian … be but two or three years without an affliction, and he is almost good for nothing.”
In another volume, Flavel said, “Oh, what owe I to the file, and to the hammer, and to the furnace of my Lord Jesus! who has now let me see how good the wheat of Christ is, that goes through his mill, and his oven, to be made bread for his own table. Grace tried is better than grace, and more than grace. It is glory in its infancy.”
Few books could be more helpful for all Christians than John Flavel’s The Mystery of Providence, Thomas Watson’s All Things for Good, Thomas Brooks’ A Mute Christian Under the Rod, or Thomas Boston’s The Crook in the Lot.
7. They set our sights and focus our affections on ETERNAL REALITIES.
The Puritans lived with heaven and hell in view, and the aroma of the world to come pervades their writings. Richard Baxter, in The Saints’ Everlasting Rest, shows that the reason so many Christians are cold in their love for Christ is that they live with heaven out of sight and mind. Baxter wrote,
If you would have light and heat, why are you not more in the sunshine? For lack of this recourse to heaven, your soul is as a lamp not lighted, and your duties as a sacrifice without fire. Fetch one coal daily from this altar, and see if your offering will not burn. Light your lamp at this flame, and feed it daily with oil from hence, and see if it will not gloriously shine. Keep close to this reviving fire, and see if your affections will not be warm.
Most of us are familiar with Jonathan Edwards’ frightening descriptions of hell from “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” but his vision of heaven’s glory is as attractive as his description of hell is repulsive. In his Miscellanies, Edwards wrote of glorified saints,
Their knowledge will increase to eternity; and if their knowledge, their holiness; for as they increase in the knowledge of God, and of the works of God, the more they will see of his excellency, and the more they see of his excellency … the more will they love him, and the more they love God, the more delight and happiness will they have in him.
The Puritans remind us that heaven is not living in disembodied bliss and plucking harps in a cloud-filled, ethereal environment, but rather an ever-expanding knowledge of God and an ever-increasing joy in God.
The Puritans saw God, loved Christ, and feared sin; they were transformed by grace, practical in counsel, enduring in suffering, and living for eternity. When I read them, I almost always find my soul’s palate cleansed and my ability enhanced to “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8). Brothers, read the Puritans! Your heart will be helped and your soul stimulated.
 J. I. Packer, A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1990) 11-12.
 The Works of Jonathan Edwards (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1974 reprint) 2:244
 Quoted in Don Kistler, Why Read the Puritans Today? (Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 1999) 3.
 Quoted in Joel R. Beeke & Randall J. Pederson, Meet the Puritans: With a Guide to Modern Reprints (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2006) xxi-xxii.
 Edwards, 2:930.
 John Owen, Of the Mortification of Sin in Believers, in The Works of John Owen (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1995 reprint) Volume 6, page 9. For a contemporary synthesis of Owen’s thought, see “The Spirituality of John Owen” in J. I. Packer, A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1990) 191-218 and Sinclair B. Ferguson, John Owen on the Christian Life (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1995). More digestible is Kris Lundgaard’s The Enemy Within: Straight Talk about the Power and Defeat of Sin (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1998).
 Owen, 6:33, 79.
 Richard Baxter, The Practical Works of Richard Baxter, Volume 1: A Christian Directory (Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 1997 reprint) blurb on dust-jacket.
 Thomas Watson, All Things for Good (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, reprint) 28.
 John Flavel, The Mystery of Providence (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1963 reprint) 202.
 John Flavel, The Fountain of Life (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1977 reprint) 322-323.
 Richard Baxter, The Saints Everlasting Rest (Welwyn, UK: Evangelical Press 1978 reprint) 288.
 Miscellanies, #105 in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Vol. 13, ed. Thomas Shafer (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994) 275.
“The simple fact is this: you can only know something truly if there is a source of all-knowledge (omniscience) that does know everything. Atheist will claim they have ‘true’ knowledge, but they examples they give are purely mechanical and pragmatic ones. This works, therefore I ‘know’ it truly. In reality, all they know is that it ‘works’ at the pragmatic level, hardly a basis for any theory of epistemology.
And the atheists wonder why Christians keep saying, atheism is irrational.”
“For I delight in the law of God after the inward man; but I see another law in my members warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death? I thank God, through Jesus Christ our Lord. So then with the mind I myself serve the law of God, but with the flesh the law of sin.” Romans 7:22-25
A believer is to be known not only by his peace and joy, but by his warfare and distress. His peace is peculiar: it flows from Christ; it is heavenly, it is holy peace. His warfare is as peculiar: it is deep-seated, agonizing, and ceases not till death. If the Lord will, many of us have the prospect of sitting down next Sabbath at the Lord’s table. The great question to be answered before sitting down there is, Have I fled to Christ or no?
’Tis a point I long to know,
Oft it causes anxious thought,
Do I love the Lord or no?
Am I his, or am I not?
To help settle this question for you, I have chosen the subject of the Christian’s warfare, that you may know thereby whether you are a soldier of Christ-whether you are really fighting the good fight of faith.
Read today’s post here:
“It seems that many in Evangelicalism have adopted the “me-and-my Bible” approach to the study of the Word of God. The general idea seems to be that, if I spend time reading my Bible, the Spirit of God will help me to interpret it correctly. I am not in need of the help of human teachers. Consequently, the preaching of the Word of God is held in little regard (a mere formality) and the great commentary books are largely neglected.
Ironically, this is not a Biblical approach to the study of the Scriptures. God has superabounded to His people in blessing them with the Word and the Spirit, blessings surpassing sublimity. But God has also blessed His people with faithful preachers and teachers, and that in all ages.”
“So “flood geology” is wrong to assume there was no animal death in the pre-Fall world. In reality, this assumption derives from the role Seventh Day Adventism has played in “flood geology”. Seventh Day Adventism denies animal death in the New Heavens and New Earth and pre-Fall world, and advocates vegetarianism. Seventh Day Adventist geologist George McCready Price’s writings served as the foundation for Whitcomb and Morris’ “flood geology”. They assume there could have been no animal death in the pre-Fall world, and assume that most of the fossil record must relate to the Noahic Flood. These assumptions are at the very least questionable.”
Read more: http://www.puritans.net/yec/death.htm
“When one who is called a brother has been unambiguously confronted with sin that undermines a credible profession of faith and there is no repentance to be found in him, he is to be avoided until such time he repents. If the person is attending a church that does not have the pastoral fortitude to confront and censure their rebellious members, the instruction to Christians still abides. Individual Christians are to confront in all longsuffering and if necessary avoid such people (whether the church does its job or not).
We are to place mockers of the gospel and those living without constraint in a different category all together. We are to throw them the life line of the gospel then move on if the fish aren’t biting.”
“How does supernatural interventionism affect various possible interpretations of the natural data? I think it has been underestimated just how significantly admission of supernatural interventionism should affect our interpretation of the natural data. One implication of supernatural interventionism is that humans cannot know from observation of natural data alone when or by what processes the world came into being….And since we cannot know from the natural data alone by what processes it came into being, we also cannot know what was its condition when it came into being. Was it created in seed form that the Creator over time made grow and flower, or did the Creator create it fully functioning and mature ex nihilo in an instant, or something in between? Looking at the natural data only, we simply could not tell, provided we are sure in our fundamental presupposition that supernatural interventionism is a self-evident truth…
…“Creation science” in its most common expressions tends to believe much more can be ascertained from the natural data alone than Biblical supernatural interventionism admits is possible. Generally speaking, creation scientists purport to tell us that they can conclude from study of the geologic and other data how what we observe resulted from the Noahic Flood. They often also purport to be able to tell from the natural data the timing of creation, etc. In contrast, Biblical supernatural interventionism does not admit that such is possible. There is a philosophical divide, albeit far less than with the evolutionist.”
What the Solemn League and Covenant means for today
By August 1642 the civil war in in England between the parliamentary forces and the troops of Charles I was under way. The ‘Long Parliament’ had abolished episcopal government in the Church of England. By ‘episcopal government’ we mean church government by a hierarchy including diocesan bishops over a number of congregations and ministers. This had been swept away, though without any real replacement. Parliament therefore called a gathering of ministers and selected members of the houses of Parliament to settle the government of the Church of England and revise the 39 Articles. Parliament summoned presbyterians, independents and episcopalians to this gathering, which became known as the Westminster Assembly. However, because the king forbade the meeting of Westminster Assembly, many of the episcopalians and high churchmen did not attend.
Meanwhile, the parliamentary forces had suffered serious reverses and looked for assistance from Scotland. The process of reformation had gone much further in Scotland than in England – Scotland had already entered into the National Covenant in 1638. In looking for Scottish help, the English parliament wanted a league but the Scots wanted more than this. The Scottish minister Robert Bailie wrote, ‘The English were for a civil league, we for a religious covenant’. The Scots had little to gain politically from an agreement, but they hoped to use their position to help forward the reformation of the English church. As a result, the Solemn League and Covenant was drawn up by Alexander Henderson (who was, along with Bailie and others, one of the Scottish representatives at Westminster Assembly). In 1643 the Solemn League and Covenant was signed and sworn with lifted up hands by the Houses of Parliament and the Westminster Assembly after preaching by Henderson and Philip Nye. After this, the Solemn League and Covenant was signed by the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland and the Scottish Parliament and later still it was subscribed by Charles II who was king of England, Scotland and Ireland.
Read today’s post here: