Tag Archives: Puritans

The Puritans: Can They Teach Us Anything Today? Part 2

Here is part 2 on the Puritans by Sinclair B. Ferguson

2] Recovering the Pulpit (continued)

As you read the Puritan sermons you understand that this was their great characteristic: they spoke the truth of the Word of God in the power of the Holy Spirit in a way that demanded a hearing, in a way that shaped the thinking and living of those who placed their lives under the ministry of the Word. But they not only needed to be educated, they needed to be godly, and for this reason: many of them understood that the Word of God really, lastingly, does good in the hearts of others only when it is first really and lastingly doing good, or doing something godly, in the hearts of those who listen.

John Owen speaks on one occasion about his experience that those sermons go from him with most power that came with most power to him. Generally speaking, individuals who have any sense of discernment can tell the difference between a message that struck the hearer, and a message that was given by the speaker only because he thinks that through it he can influence others. That is one reason why an amazing thing about the Puritans was the number of times they read their Bibles. It is one of the reasons why, when you read them, you almost feel as though they had gone through the Bible text by text, and turned those texts around like diamonds to the light and meditated on them. They knew them through and through. Therefore, as they used to say, they were like pharmacists who knew the resources that were in the Word of God to deal with all the spiritual maladies of mankind.

And then they were concerned that these godly educated ministers should be resident. That was partly because often in the Episcopalian system ministers were not resident. They picked up the stipend and lived somewhere else. They had several benefices, and they would have somebody else in their place-sometimes it didn’t matter to them whether it was a spiritual man or not. The Puritans understood that a minister of the gospel should be among the people to whom he ministers so that he himself can learn how to apply the Word of God to the specific needs of the people, and so that he might work at home to be among them as an evangelist.

The great example of this among the Puritans, although he was by no means unique, was Richard Baxter who tells us in his great work, The Reformed Pastor, that after he had been in Kidderminster some time, he was visiting a man who had been listening to his preaching for years and still couldn’t tell him whether Christ was man, or God, or both. Baxter went out of his way to hire two assistants, and among the three of them they went around the congregation, into the fields and around the parish, to catechize the people, not as a threat to them or as a rod to beat their backs, but as a way of explaining gospel grace to people who little understood it, and drawing them in on a personal basis. And the town caught spiritual fire! I think you know that at the end of the day, it was not because they were using catechisms, marvelous instruments though they were, but because they were prepared to, face to face, on a personal level, bring the gospel home to see where the family was spiritually. It was not just a perfunctory visit, but an outgoing of Christlike concern for their spiritual welfare.

That is an important principle that often distinguishes the Puritan ministry from evangelical churches today. Sometimes if you ask people, “What is it that makes this church a biblical church?” they will tell you. “The Bible is preached in our pulpit.” The Puritans would never have been satisfied with that answer. For them, the Bible had to get out of the pulpit and among the people, into their homes and into their hearts. This was why they wanted to recover the Word of God in the pulpit of the land; not so that it would stay there, but to give the Word of God a platform to go into the hearts and lives of the people.

There is a crying need for that, too; for clear, discriminating, fundamental, simple and yet profound, heart-searching, heart-warming, mind-illuminating preaching of the Word of God. We do not need more famous preachers. What we need is more godly, educated, resident preachers.

That brings me to a third thing, which moves us on to a different level of the discussion altogether. They developed an understanding of the gospel that was deeply trinitarian.

3] Trinitarian Character of Theology

This is a principle that lies behind so much of their work, although relatively little recognized as such today. What drove the Puritans was their deep sense of the infinite glory of a Triune God. When they answered the first question of the Shorter Catechism, “What is man’s chief end? To glorify God,” by that word “God” they meant the Triune One, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Driving their defense of the gospel against Socinians or Unitarians was their passionate commitment to God the Trinity. Indeed, driving their criticism of Arminianism in the seventeenth century was not that they thought Arminians are nasty and need to be attacked, but that God is gloriously Triune, and in everything He does, the Father, Son and Spirit are utterly consistent with one another. The electing grace of God, the dying love of Jesus Christ and the applicatory sovereign pursuit of the Holy Spirit are not done in any sense whatsoever individualistically, but within the common eternal bond of the Trinity. They took some of the glories of Calvin’s understanding of the unity of the Trinity in the Godhead and saw how that worked out in the unity of the work of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in the pursuit of salvation and in the life of the believer.

It is so important for us to recognize this, partly because the Puritans were deeply experiential. They were deeply concerned about personal spiritual experience. Sometimes the literature they produced on personal spiritual experience has been highlighted in the recovery of Puritan literature, without enough recognition that the depth of that personal experience was rooted in the depth of the secret glories of the Triune God. That is why sometimes when people say to me, “Which work of John Owen should I read?,” I say to read Owen on the mortification of sin; it will do you a lot of good, even though it will give you a lot of pain. But don’t isolate that from what he says about the work of the blessed Trinity. Don’t isolate what he says in Volume 6 from what he expounds in Volume 2 about the way in which the Christian believer’s communion is a communion with God the Father, with Jesus the Savior, and with the Holy Spirit the Comforter.

When we are concerned about spiritual experience, there is always a danger that that spiritual experience becomes a thing on its own, loose from its anchor and moorings in the glory of God Himself Then we are more interested in our personal godliness than in God. That is why personal godliness becomes such a frustration to us, because we have lost sight of the One who gives godliness.

While the Puritans were deeply concerned about personal experience, they were deeply concerned about personal experience that flowed from the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God the Father, and from the fellowship or communion with the Holy Spirit. They were God-centered, not experience-centered. Their vision was always upwards to the glory of God. They refused to let people dwell in their despair and were so concerned about assurance because they understood that lack of assurance, at the end of the day, flows from an inability to understand who God is.

The idea surfacing in our Reformed circles that lack of assurance is almost a sign of grace would have been incomprehensible to them. It would have been as incomprehensible to John Owen as if a father said, “I never want any of my children to know that they are my children.” Owen understood, as the Westminster Confession of Faith says, that there are individuals adopted into God’s family who may have to labor long and struggle hard before they are able to say, “Abba, father.” Yes, the Puritans understood this, but primarily they understood that if I as a father want my children, whom I love, to be secure in my love and to know that they are my children and I will do anything for them, how much more the heavenly Father, who has already done everything for us in giving His Son?

You see how the Trinitarian emphasis comes in? If I really believe that the Son is the Father’s gift of grace and salvation to me, how can my heart ever rest content with a distorted view of the Father which thinks that it pleases Him that I should go life long lacking His assurance, lacking a sense of His love? Yes, I may bring all kinds of baggage into my relationship with God and it needs to be broken down, and my psyche needs to be put together again. They understood all this. They were spiritual masters, spiritual psychologists, and more! But they were so because they had seen something of the glory of God, and they longed to see men and women under the influence of that glorious God’s Word brought into the riches of the inheritance of the kingdom of the heavenly Father.

4] Significance of the Church in the Purposes of Christ

Fourthly, the Puritans recognized with great clarity the significance of the church in the purposes of Christ. They understood that when Jesus said, “I will build my church,” He was really spreading His life vision out before His apostles. That it was Jesus who built the church was important for them in their polemics against Rome. But deeper than that, they recognized why it was a church that Jesus was building. This is a great balance for us. So much Puritan literature is available to us that, in our deeply individualistic society, which touches all of us, we tend to read what the Puritans say as though they were speaking to us as isolated individuals. But the Puritans themselves understood that their teaching and their ministry was not simply dealing with isolated individuals, but building the community of God’s people.

This comes out in their tremendous stress on the covenant. You know that the Puritans were covenant theologians. But they didn’t just see the covenant as the reason why we baptize infants. They saw the covenant as something much larger and more vital than that. It was not simply the foundation for the church of Jesus Christ, but it was the bond that the members of the church of Jesus Christ had pledged to one another. That is a most interesting and striking insight. Of course, they weren’t always successful in working this through, but many of their churches developed a particular church covenant. They knew of the covenant of God’s grace. They knew that their children were baptized on the basis of that covenant. They made individual covenants and wrote them out as practical helps to sanctification. But they also took church covenants. They bound themselves together in church unity and fellowship and pledged themselves to one another.

Now they were not always successful. Towards the end of his life, John Owen commented one Sunday on the needs of the times and the difficulties the church was facing, and he summoned the congregation to renew the church covenant. He was not able to preach the next Lord’s Day, but two weeks afterwards, as he began his sermon, he commented on the fact that apparently not everyone in the congregation had agreed with him. Now that was bad enough; it would take a bit of courage to disagree with the great John Owen, you might think. But he said, “It is worse than that; there are some of you who didn’t even know there was a church covenant.” So we must not think that everything in a Puritan church was rosy red and in apple pie order. But they did see that the church of Jesus Christ is not simply a train in which the preacher is driving the church, and everybody is behind the preacher heading in the same direction. They saw that the church of Jesus Christ is a community where members look into the eyes of fellow members and say, “I commit myself to you, as I commit myself to the Lord Jesus Christ.”

They knew there were all kinds of evidences of this in the church of the New Testament. Don’t be ashamed of the testimony to our Lord, says the apostle Paul. And don’t be ashamed of me either, bound to Christ, bound to one another in the covenant of His grace. And that meant for them, interestingly, that the picture that they had of the church was not like the Roman Catholic picture-which is derived from Scripture, but diverted from Scripture-but rather, because it was first and foremost the church of God, the heavenly Father through Jesus Christ His only Son, the basic metaphor for the church was actually the family. If the great revelation of the Lord Jesus was that we could now call Him Father, that meant that we were brothers, and therefore we were family of visible saints that stood out from every other kind of family.

In a sociological period when human life was on the verge of anxiety and at times disintegration, this was a tremendously important insight – as it is today, friends, we may well lament the breakdown of family and marriage, and everything that goes with it. But don’t you see what this also means? Of all times, this is a season in which the church family can appear in its true light and true colors in a way that nobody would confuse. There are bonds here, relationships here, life and death commitments here, of devotion to one another because of devotion to Jesus Christ that make people realize that there is nothing natural about the foundation of the church. This is entirely a supernatural work of God.

This is what we need today. We do need to understand that perhaps fifty years ago, one individual’s conversion could be seen in society because that community had a Book in its hand that this conversion made sense of. That is no longer the case. It is far more likely today, if someone is converted, that we will hear in our supposedly post-modern world, “I am glad you are finding happiness there; I find my happiness somewhere else.” The Puritans understood that unless the church was really the church, as in Acts, then it would never make a lasting, evangelistic impression on the world.

We live in a deeply individualistic society in the Christian world. Many of us have been burdened by people telling us that we need to be personal witnesses. We do; but far more important than that is the vision the Puritans had, that our congregation as a whole is to shine for Jesus Christ as a city set on a hill, as a light that can never be hidden. When that is the fruit of the faithful preaching of the Word of God, then men and women look to this new Mount Zion and wish they could climb the hill that would bring them there.

There is a whole world in Puritan literature of interpretation of Scripture, exposition of its truth, application of it to every conceivable part of our lives. The chief thing is this: what is our chief end? Our chief end is to know the Triune God in such a way that we both glorify Him, and enjoy Him forever. And our prayer is that this Puritan Resource Center will be a means of advancing that.

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The Puritans: Can They Teach Us Anything Today?

Less than a week ago, many Americans across the United States celebrated one of our greatest national holidays Thanksgiving. So I thought it would be appropriate to blog about the individuals who are historically associated with this particular day. I’m talking about the Pilgrims, specifically the Puritans. Oh, you mean those religious prudes who hate to have any sort of fun and loathe those who engage in any sort of recreational activity? Unfortunately this is the stereotype given to the Puritans by many in our society today, even amongst Protestants. Admittedly, some of the accusations against the Puritans are justifiable but is it a fair assessment to label these people as boring killjoys? As I already mentioned, many protestants have adopted this view of the Puritans, and out of sheer ignorance fail to realize the tremendous influence the Puritans have in our Christian heritage. So can the Puritans teach us anything today, inspite of the stereotypical caricatures that are propagated by many of us living in this liberal, postmodern, Westerner mentality 21st century? Here is an article written by Sinclair B. Ferguson taken from the Banner of Truth website that can shine some light on the subject. It’s a bit lengthy, but I hope you take the time to read it.

Who were these Puritans?

A great Scottish individual with very mixed religious convictions, Thomas Carlyle, once said that the real father of the Puritan movement in England was actually the Scotsman, John Knox. And in many ways there is truth in that statement. John Knox had this burning vision to reform the Church of Jesus Christ so that it no longer had a face that looked as though it had come from Scotland, or from England, or even from Geneva, which he himself said was the most perfect school of Christ since the days of the apostles; but a church that was reformed according to the Scriptures, and understood that it had a place and a time and a location in history. Yet it looked not simply to the status quo or to tradition, but to the Scriptures to discover what the gospel was, what the Christian life was, what the Church was, and what the need of the world was. At great personal cost, Knox sought to reform the church in England, and then later the church in Scotland, in order that the church might be conformed to the New Testament pattern.

In England particularly, where the Reformation had been dominated not by Calvinism and Presbyterianism so much as by Episcopalianism and the government of the church by archbishops and bishops, the Puritan movement took hold: men rising up here and there with a great burden to see what had begun by God’s grace in the later period of Henry VIII, then in the reign of Edward, and then in some measure by individuals in the reign of Elizabeth I in the second half of the sixteenth century. They wanted to see what had come from God make advances, and not be stymied by reaching a level of reformation that contented the Episcopal government but not those who sought a radical, biblical reformation. So towards the end of the sixteenth century, we find individuals arising who, by their very lifestyle and by the summons they gave to the church as a whole to become more like an apostolic church, were described in somewhat demeaning terms as either precisionists or Puritans. Puritans were individuals who wanted to see the church purified according to the teaching of Scripture, and also wanted to see their lives, in great detail, purified by the Word of God. In a way, they took as their motto text the prayer of the Lord Jesus in John 17: “Sanctify [or purify] them through thy truth: thy word is truth.”

From the late sixteenth century into the middle and latter seventeenth century, a whole wave of individuals were swept into this extraordinary movement-this experiment and gospel transformation that we now look back on these hundreds of years later and speak about as our Puritan forefathers. In many ways their desires were disappointed. In some ways they may have expected too much. Certainly by the close of the seventeenth century, the Puritan movement had run out of energy. For about one hundred years, this swell of piety grew, and then waned once again. And yet, for all the relative failure of their vision, we’re able to look back on them and say, “There are certain principles here, certain emphases here, certain burdens that the church of Jesus Christ in the early twenty-first century needs to recapture all over again.” At root, and at its best, the Puritan movement was a twin-pronged burden to see the reformation of the church according to the teaching of the Scriptures, and the revival and renewing of the church by the power of the Holy Spirit. I want to suggest to you four particular things that seem to me, as I read and study the Puritans, to be things we need to learn.

1] A Sense of Spiritual Brotherhood

The first of them is this: the Puritan movement of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, particularly but not exclusively of England, underlines for us the significance of spiritual brotherhood in the movements of the Holy Spirit.

In some ways, generally speaking, the early Puritan movement hoped that the church might be reformed and revived through the normal channels of church government. In a rather wonderful way, some of those men who had been touched by God found themselves proceeding through the hierarchy of the Church of England. And yet it has probably always been true that the church of Jesus Christ has never been reformed and revived simply through ordinary channels. Given the fact that the monarch was the governor as well as the protector of the Church of England, the efforts of these early Puritans to revive and reform the church through the normal channels faced obstacles, not least the obstacle of the power of the monarchy.

But these were men with passion. When some of these Puritans saw that they could press their Episcopalian leaders no further, it had at least this salutary effect upon them: they needed to wait upon God and to seek the blessing of God – not so much by the structures of church government, but more directly, by the power of the gospel, the power of prayer, and the help of the Holy Spirit. And just at that period something rather striking began to happen. Individuals gained burdens, a little like the burden of the apostle Paul who, whether very deliberately or simply by a sense of spiritual intelligence, always seemed to go to places where the gospel might invade, take hold, and spread to other places and institutions.

In the sixteenth century, some of these Puritans began to realize that the place to start was in one or both of the two great universities in England, and to capture the institutions of learning by and for the gospel-and if that couldn’t be done, then at the very least, capture young men’s hearts and train and tutor them in the gospel.

So, particularly in the days of Elizabeth and her successor, James I, we find a number of these men called into ministry, particularly in the university city of Cambridge. The most significant figure there was, of course, the great William Perkins with his long ministry in Cambridge. There, under the ongoing, regular teaching of the Word of God, young men were converted and called into the ministry. They understood, in a sense, that this was actually the biblical pattern-that the church would not be revived by acts of Parliament, but by schools of the prophets, whether they be in the time of Elijah and Elisha, or whether through the disciple band of our Lord Jesus, or the apostolic band with which we are familiar from the letters of the apostle Paul. One might think here of the famous Cappadocian fathers, a brotherhood concerned to defend the glory of Jesus Christ; or of Augustine and his little group around him, concerned to defend and expound the sovereignty of God’s grace; or of Calvin, Farel, Beza, and others in Geneva-not simply associates together in the government of the church with a formal relationship to one another, but brothers who listened to one another preach, who prayed with one another, who shared one another’s burdens and called upon God to come down and bring sovereign blessings to His church.

It is very interesting as you survey the early period of the Puritan movement that it is almost possible to create a spiritual “family tree” of some of the most notable Puritans of the seventeenth century. One only needs to know a little about their lives to discover how deeply they are interconnected; through one, another would be converted, and by reading his book, another would be converted. The familiar names of the Puritans, like William Gouge, or the Culverwells, or the famous master, John Dodd, or Thomas Hooker, Cotton Mather, Richard Sibbes, John Preston, John Cotton, William Perkins, Thomas Goodwin, William Ames, Paul Baynes, John Owen, or Richard Baxter-as you read their biographies you realize that there is a spiritual progeny here, a spiritual family tree. God was binding them together with a common vision and a common burden, a common prayer life, and therefore a common goal in the ministry of the Word of God.

We badly need that today, don’t we? We need a spiritual brotherhood of brothers in the ministry, spread throughout the nation and the world. Yes, one the spiritual father of another, and another the spiritual brother of another-no hierarchy, no formal supremacy, not seeking to establish their own kingdoms in this world, but bound together by the gospel to establish the kingdom of Jesus Christ in a world that is in such desperate need. I dare say that God ordinarily does great things when ordinary ministers of the gospel are bound together as blood brothers, to live and die together. Then God has in His hands the kind of vessels He is pleased to use as vessels of honor for his glory.

That is something we can learn, especially since we are here with a particular concern for a theological seminary. Beside the excellent teaching and the care that the men who come to the seminary receive from the church, if they are bound together with a common bond of gospel grace to live and die together, then perhaps we may see something on the horizon the size of a man’s hand that will bring to us the showers of God’s blessings. And that leads us to the second thing we can learn from the Puritans, because it is intimately connected with it.

2] Recovering the Pulpit

The Puritan movement teaches us the vital significance of the recovery of the pulpit for the recovery of the church. I said that the Puritans had the vision of capturing the university towns for the gospel because they wanted to capture the pulpits of the land for the gospel. A sociologist today might say what they were doing was seeking to capture the media, and that what we learn from the Puritans is that the true Christian church needs to learn to capture the media. Doubtless that would be true, but it would not quite be the point that the Puritans were making. They did, to a certain extent, capture elements of the seventeenth-century media, but they wanted to capture the pulpits not because they were instruments of the media, but because they were the places where the Word of God could be preached with power. They were dominantly concerned with this.

I suppose one could understand a Christian in the twenty-first century saying, “Well, of course, people came to church; preaching was the great thing in those days.” But that is not true. People often did not come to church. Preaching was impoverished, if it even existed. What was needed was preaching that would break through the common expectations of men and women that preachers say nothing vital to life, in order that the gospel might penetrate into the little societies of rural England as well as the great cities like London, and bring men and women, boys and girls, to the knees of Jesus Christ the Redeemer, seeking salvation.

One of the phrases used with some regularity in the first half of the seventeenth century, when people who knew something spoke about the ministry, was, “What we really need is a godly, resident, educated ministry.” By that they meant a ministry, not that was simply educated in worldly knowledge, but a ministry that was educated so that ministers were actually experts in teaching the gospel.

In my home country of Scotland I dare to say that the Christian ministry is perhaps the most despised profession that exists. Even schoolteachers rate higher than ministers. It is easy to lament, “Oh, for the old days!” But the sad truth of the matter is that if ministers are not experts in teaching the gospel, there is a sense in which we deserve every despite that comes to us, because that is our calling and our profession. The ministry had become a despised profession in the seventeenth century. The pulpits needed to be recaptured by men who understood the gospel line by line and were clearly, powerfully, and spiritually able to articulate that to the people who listened.

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