The Puritans: Can They Teach Us Anything Today?
'The Puritans: Can They Teach Us Anything Today?' The answer to that question depends in some respects on who the 'us' refers to. No doubt many different people can learn very different things from the Puritans.
If we were a group of educationalists we would be able to learn a remarkable amount from Puritan education, much of which we badly need to restore to our own educational systems. If we were sociologists or politicians there is much that we could learn from the social and political vision of the Puritans. If we were historians or theologians there is much that we could learn about history and theology from the Puritans. Perhaps one or two among us are, in fact, educationalists, sociologists, even politicians, historians, or theologians.
But most of us are first and foremost Christian believers. It is as Christian believers that we want to try to learn whatever we can from those we know as 'the Puritans'.
I want to focus on four areas in which the Puritans have something to teach us. It is not my intention to expound the whole of the Puritan vision, and certainly not to deal with every point of their theology. Rather, there are a number of general, but vital lessons that we can learn for the church today from the struggles, the agonies, the successes, and, yes, even the failures of these Christians who went before us.
Who Were the Puritans?
In Heroes and Hero Worship, the remarkable Thomas Carlyle traces back not only Scottish Presbyterianism but English Puritanism to their root and father-figure, John Knox.1 In many ways there is truth in this, for Knox had a burning vision to reform the Church of Jesus Christ so that it no longer had a face that was distinctively Scottish, or English, or even Calvinian-Genevan (which he himself said was the most perfect school of Christ since the days of the apostles). Rather he longed to share in the building of a church reformed according to the Scriptures. Of course such a church would understand that it had a specific place and time in history. Yet it would look 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 in Scotland, in order to see it conformed to the New Testament pattern.
In England particularly, where the Reformation had retained an Episcopalian government and character, this Puritan movement took hold. Bands of brothers arose here and there with a burden to continue and perfect the reformation of the church that had begun by God's grace in the sixteenth century. The goal was to complete the task that had begun in the Tudor Period during the reign of Henry VIII, and had continued through the days of Edward, been persecuted by Mary, and man-managed throughout the reign of Elizabeth I. The Puritans wanted to see God's work advance, and not be stymied by the Episcopal hierarchy. There is an inevitability, it seems, to the fact that a bishop's task involves moderating the forces on both his right and left hands. But the Puritans sought a radical, biblical reformation – a purification indeed.
Thus towards the end of the sixteenth century we find individuals arising who, by their very lifestyle and in the summons they gave to the church as a whole to become more like an apostolic church, were described in demeaning terms as either 'Puritans' or 'Precisionists'.2 But in fact they were individuals and groups who wanted to see the church purified according to the teaching of Scripture, and to see the lives of professing Christians in detail purified by the Word of God. In that sense they took as their motto text the prayer of the Lord Jesus in John 17:17: 'Sanctify (or purify) them through thy truth: thy word is truth.'
From the late sixteenth century into the mid- and late-seventeenth century, many individuals were drawn in to share this great passion – this experiment in gospel transformation that we now look back on and speak about as the Puritan Movement. Many of their aspirations and desires were to be 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 the swell of piety had grown, and then it waned once again. But for all the apparent failure of aspects of their vision to come to full fruition, we can 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 carried a double burden: to see the reformation of the church according to the teaching of the Scriptures, and to witness the revival and renewing of the church by the power of the Holy Spirit. I want to select only four of the many things that seem to me, insofar as I have been able to read and study the Puritans, to be worthy of our aspiration for the church today.
1. A Sense of Spiritual Brotherhood
The first of them is this: the Puritan movement of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries underlines for us the significance of spiritual brotherhood in the movements of the Holy Spirit.
Generally speaking, those involved in the early Puritan movement had hoped that the church might be reformed and revived through the normal channels of church government. In the earlier period some of those men who had been touched by God had found themselves advancing through the hierarchy of the Church of England. But 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 faced virtually insurmountable obstacles, not least the obstacle of the power of the monarchy. 'No bishop, no king! I will make them conform or I will harry them out of the land', James VI and I3 had famously said at the Hampton Court Conference.
But these were men of spiritual passion. The realization that they could press their Episcopalian leaders no further had this salutary effect upon them: they learned that they needed to wait upon God and to seek the blessing of God – not so much through the structures of church government, but more directly by the triune power of the preaching of the gospel, prayer, and the help of the Holy Spirit.
Something rather striking began to happen. Individuals gained burdens, sharing the burden of the apostle Paul who, whether in a deliberately planned fashion or 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.
Thus, in the sixteenth century, Puritans began to realize that one strategic place to start was in the two universities of England – Oxford and Cambridge – and there to claim the institutions of learning by and for the gospel. If that could not be done, then at the very least, they could do all in their powers to capture young men's hearts and train and tutor them in the gospel.
So in the days of Elizabeth and her successor, James VI and I, we find a number of these men called into ministry, particularly in Cambridge. The most significant figure there was, of course, the great William Perkins. Under his long ministry, and through his persistent teaching of the Word of God, many young men were converted and called into the ministry.
The Puritans understood that in some sense they were repeating the biblical pattern – that the church would not be revived by acts of Parliament, but by schools of the prophets, whether in the time of Elijah and Elisha, or the disciple band of our Lord Jesus, or the apostolic band many of whose members we meet in the letters of the apostle Paul. One might also think here of the famous Cappadocian Fathers,4 a brotherhood concerned to defend the glory of Jesus Christ; or of Augustine and the little group around him, concerned to defend and expound the sovereignty of God's grace; or of Calvin, Farel, and Beza, in Geneva and elsewhere in the sixteenth century. These men were not simply associates together in the government of the church with a formal relationship to one another, but brothers who listened to each other preach, who prayed with one another, who shared each other's burdens and who called upon God to come down and bring sovereign blessings to his church.
It is very interesting, as one surveys the Puritan movement, to notice how easy it is 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 were interconnected. Through one, another would be converted. By reading his book, yet another would be converted. The familiar names of the Puritans, like William Gouge, or the Culverwells, or the famous John Dodd, or Thomas Hooker, 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 God was binding them together with a common vision and a common burden, a common prayer life, and a common goal in the ministry of the Word of God. They recognized that God was catching them up into something bigger than their own individual ministries.
Do you not think this is one of the things we so badly need today? We need a spiritual brotherhood! We need brothers in the ministry, spread throughout the nation and the world, who esteem one another's ministries, pray for each other, and encourage one another in each local situation. Yes, one the spiritual father of another, and another the spiritual brother of yet another. Fathers and sons, brothers and friends together – no hierarchy, no formal supremacy, gospel servants and kingdom labourers who do not seek to establish their own fiefdoms in this world, but are bound together by the gospel to establish the reign 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 for his honour and glory.
That is something we can learn, especially since we are here with a particular concern for a theological seminary. The excellent teaching and the care that the men who come to the seminary receive from the church is essential. But if they are also bound together with a common bond of gospel grace to live and die together, then perhaps we will see a cloud on the horizon the size of a man's hand, and the showers of God's blessings will follow. Pray that it may be so!
This leads us to the second thing we can learn from the Puritans, because it is intimately connected with it.
2. The Recovery of 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 influence the pulpits of the land for the gospel. A sociologist today might say that what they were doing was seeking to capture the educational system, and that what we learn from the Puritans is that the true Christian church needs to learn to do the same. Doubtless that would seem to be true at the horizontal level. But it would not be the point that the Puritans were making. They did, to a certain extent, and for a season capture some of the colleges of learning. But it was the pulpits they really wanted to capture because they were the places where the Word of God could be preached with power.
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 in fact 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 belief 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. The goal was to bring men and women, boys and girls, to their knees before Jesus Christ the Redeemer, seeking salvation.
One of the phrases used with some regularity in the first half of the seventeenth century, when people saw what was needed, was, 'a godly, resident, educated ministry'. By that they meant a ministry that was educated in gospel knowledge – men who were experts in God's Word and in teaching the gospel.
In the United Kingdom it is probably true that the Christian ministry is among the more despised 'professions'. 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, we deserve all the contempt that comes to us, because we have failed in our calling and our profession.
The ministry had also become a despised profession in the seventeenth century. The pulpits needed to be recaptured by men who understood the gospel line by line and who were clearly, powerfully, and spiritually able to articulate that to the people who listened.
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 for this they not only needed to be educated, they needed to be godly. They understood that the Word of God really, lastingly, does good in the hearts of others when it first really and lastingly does good in the hearts of those who preach.
John Owen spoke about his experience: the sermons that went from him with most power as he preached were those that came with most power to him. Generally speaking, individuals who have any sense of discernment can tell the difference between a message that has impacted the preacher personally and a message that is a bare exposition of the meaning of a passage of Scripture.
It was a common feature among the Puritans that they simply immersed themselves in their Bibles. That is one of the reasons why, when you read them, you 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 themselves 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 contrasted with the Episcopalian system in which a minister might possess a 'living' but never be resident. He received the stipend and lived somewhere else. He might have several 'benefices' and have somebody else doing the work – or not doing it, alas!
The Puritans understood that a minister of the gospel should be among the people to whom he ministers so that he can apply the Word of God to the specific needs of the people, and be among them as an evangelist.
The great example of this among the Puritans (although he was by no means unique), was Richard Baxter. He tells us in his great work, The Reformed Pastor, of a defining moment in his ministry after he had been in Kidderminster some time. He visited a man who had been listening to his preaching for a while but still could not explain – because he did not understand – the person and work of the Lord Jesus. 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.
They were not bludgeoning them. They did not catechize 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. Thus they could point them to Christ in a personal way and on an individual or family basis. And the town caught spiritual fire!
I suspect, you know, that at the end of the day this was not because they were using catechisms as such – marvellous instruments though they were. It was because they were prepared, face to face, on a personal level, to bring the gospel 'home' to the family. It was not just a perfunctory visit, but an outgoing of Christ-like concern for their spiritual welfare.
That is an important principle that 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 pulpits 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 today 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. Our great need is for more godly, educated, resident preachers who care for their flocks and who, by whatever means, accomplish what catechizing did in the Puritan congregations.
This brings me to a third thing, which moves us on to a different level of the discussion altogether. The Puritans developed an understanding of the gospel that was deeply Trinitarian.
3. The Trinitarian Character of Theology
This is a principle that lies behind so much of their work, although it has been relatively little recognized. 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?' by saying '...to glorify God', by 'God' they meant the Triune One, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Driving their defence 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 were dyspeptic and thought Arminians needed to be attacked. Rather it was that they believed 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 engaged in individualistically, but within the common eternal bond of the Trinity. Thus the Puritans took 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 important for us to recognize this theological framework within which they preached and taught. Many of us are familiar with the deeply experiential aspects of their teaching. But the literature they produced on personal spiritual experience – and this is what has been highlighted for many Christians today – has to be set within the context of their robust theology. Otherwise we will fail to recognize, and subsequently fail to share the depth of their personal experience rooted in the depth of glories of the Triune God.
That is why sometimes when people say to me, 'Which work of John Owen should I read?,' I do encourage them 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 I also want to say: Do not isolate that from what he says about the glory of Christ or the mystery of the Trinity and our fellowship with God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Do not make the mistake of abstracting what Owen says in Volume 6 from what he expounds in Volume 2!5
When we are concerned about spiritual experience, there is always a danger that the pursuit of it will become a thing on its own, set loose from its anchor and moorings in the glory of God himself. When that happens we may indeed become more interested in our personal godliness than in God. While the Puritans were deeply concerned about personal experience, they were convinced that it flows from the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, from the love of God the Father, and from fellowship or communion with the Holy Spirit. They were God-centred in this sense, not experience-centred. Their vision was always upwards to the glory of God.
This is why the Puritans refused to let people dwell on their despair, and why they were so concerned about assurance. They understood that lack of assurance, at the end of the day, is integrally related to a distorted view of God as well as an inadequate grasp of the gospel. The idea that surfaced in some later Reformed church traditions that lack of assurance is almost a sign of grace would have been incomprehensible to them. It would have been as if a father had said, 'I never want any of my children to know that they are my children.' John Owen and those like him understood, as the Confession of Faith says, that there are individuals adopted into God's family who may have to labour long and struggle hard before they are able to say, 'Abba, Father.' But they also understood that if I as a father want my children, whom I love, to be secure in my love and to know that I will do anything for them, how much more is this true of the heavenly Father, who has already done everything for us in giving us his Son?
Do 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 could ever give him pleasure that I should go life-long lacking his assurance, without a sense of his love? Yes, I may bring all kinds of baggage into my relationship with God, but the gospel breaks it down, and begins to mend my being.
The Puritans understood all this: many of them combined the roles of preacher, teacher and personal physician. They were spiritual masters, spiritual psychologists and physicians, and much more! But they were all these things because they had seen something of the glory of God, and longed to see men and women brought into the assured riches of the inheritance of the kingdom of the heavenly Father under the influence of his glorious Word.
This leads to our final point:
4. The Significance of the Church in the Purposes of Christ
The Puritans recognized 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 before the apostles. Of course, 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 and important balance for us. So much Puritan literature is available to us that, in our deeply individualistic society, we may even be in danger of reading what the Puritans say as though they were speaking to us as isolated individuals. But they understood that their teaching and their ministry were not simply dealing with lone-sheep Christians, but were building the community of God's people.
This emerges in the context of their tremendous stress on the covenant. They were covenant theologians. But they did not see the covenant simply as part of their polemic for the baptism of infants. They saw it as something much larger and more vital. It was not simply the foundation for the church of Jesus Christ; it was also the bond that the members pledged to one another.
This is a most interesting and striking insight. Of course, they were not always successful in working this through, but many of their churches developed a particular local church covenant. They knew of the covenant of God's grace. They made individual covenants and wrote them out as practical helps to sanctification. But they also made church covenants in which they bound themselves together in church unity and fellowship and pledged themselves to one another.
They were not wholly successful here either! In a sermon preached to his London congregation towards the end of his life, John Owen commented on the needs and difficulties of the times, and summoned them to renew the church covenant. He was not able to preach the next Lord's Day, but two weeks later, as he began his sermon, he commented on the fact that apparently not everyone in the congregation had agreed with him. That was bad enough – it surely took some courage to disagree with the great John Owen! But he added that there were some in the congregation who did not 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 the Puritans did see that the church of Jesus Christ is not simply a train in which all the members sit facing forwards and allow the preacher to serve as the driver who brings the train to its destination. 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.'
The Puritans found all kinds of evidences of this in the church of the New Testament. 'Do not be ashamed of the testimony of our Lord', says the apostle Paul. But then he adds in the same breath, 'and do not be ashamed of me either' – bound to Christ, bound to one another in the covenant of his grace! This distinguished the vision of the Puritans from that of Roman Catholicism. In their view the picture of the church as the body of Christ – which derived from Scripture – had been diverted from Scripture. Rather, because it was first and foremost the church of God the Father purchased in Jesus Christ his only Son, the basic metaphor for the church must actually be the family. If the great revelation of the Lord Jesus was that we could now call God 'Father', then believers were brothers, and therefore a family of visible saints that stood out from every other kind of family.
In a period when human life was on the verge of anxiety and at times disintegration, this was a tremendously important insight – as it is today. We may well lament the breakdown of family and marriage, and everything that goes with it. But should we not also see what this can mean for the church? Of all times this is a season in which the church family can appear in its true light and colours. There are bonds here, relationships here, life and death commitments here, of devotion to one another because of devotion to Jesus Christ. When these are put on display they help people realize that there is nothing natural about the foundation of the church. This is entirely a supernatural work of God. There is nothing on earth that can explain, far less parallel, the church!
This is a great need today. Fifty years ago, one individual's conversion made some sense to those who witnessed it – even if they despised it. The community had some familiarity with the Book that taught how this conversion made sense. That is no longer the case. It is to some extent true today, if someone is converted, that he will hear the supposedly post-modern comment: 'I am glad you are finding happiness there; I find my happiness somewhere else.' The Puritans understood that when the church is really the church (the health of which is described in Acts 2:42-47), then it will make a lasting, evangelistic impression on the world – which might envy it but can never reproduce it.
We live in a deeply individualistic society. That is, sadly, all too often true of the evangelical world. Many have been over-burdened by being told they need to be 'personal witnesses' without being offered the context of a church family that supports them and shares in evangelism with them. The Puritans had a vision of a whole congregation shining for Jesus Christ as a city set on a hill, a light that can never be hidden. When that is the fruit of the faithful preaching of the Word of God, then unbelieving men and women begin to look to this new Mount Zion and wish they could climb the hill that would bring them there.
With these lessons in view, it is, surely, one of the great privileges of being a Christian in our time that a whole world of Puritan literature is available to us – with interpretation of Scripture, exposition of its truth, and application of its wisdom to every conceivable part of our lives. All of it brings us back to the main issue: What is our chief end? And to the Puritan answer: to know the Triune God in such a way that we both glorify him and enjoy him forever.