I’m often asked questions about the Puritans and Puritanism. While the definitions are a bit elusive, I wanted to give you an article I wrote a few years ago for Churchman, helping navigate the waters of various definitions that have been offered. Here you go:
The gospel-centered movement may be new, but gospel-centeredness itself isn’t a novelty. Love for the gospel lies at the center of the rich heritage of evangelicalism, reaching back hundreds of years.
I’m (very) slowly plodding through The Works of John Owen, the most important theologian in my Christian life. Tucked away in Owen’s 250 pages on The Nature and Causes of Apostasy from the Gospel (in Volume 7 of Owen’s works) is a short, but insightful, delineation of what Owen calls the “proper end and design” of evangelical truths.
The context is Owen’s treatment of the first (of six) causes of apostasy from the gospel, namely “that rooted enmity which is in the minds of men unto spiritual things, abiding uncured under the profession of the gospel” (p. 82). Owen demonstrates that when the gospel doesn’t fully penetrate a person’s heart, so as to bring about the intended transformation of the heart in particular ways, then the hostility of the unregenerate nature eventually rises up against the truth, even if there has been an outward profession of faith.
But in arguing for this point, Owen takes some time to articulate just what the intended effects of the gospel are – the “proper end and design” of evangelical truths. There are three of them, which I will state in my own words, followed by some excerpts from Owen.
1. Rest and Satisfaction in Christ
The first goal of the gospel is to “take off the soul of man from rest and satisfaction in itself” and to “seek after righteousness, life, peace, and blessedness, by Jesus Christ” (p. 83). The natural inclination of fallen human beings is to look inward, to ourselves and what we can accomplish, to find the solution to our various problems. The problems may be moral, psychological, or spiritual, but the core conviction of our untransformed hearts is to think, “I can do it. I can handle this.” So, we try to live better lives, to be better people, and to find within ourselves the resources we need for goodness and happiness (or in Owen’s words, “righteousness, life, peace, and blessedness”).
But the gospel “presseth to take men off wholly from their old foundations” (p. 84). It shows us our insufficiency and redirects our trust to Christ and his sufficiency alone. The gospel shows us that “present peace” and “future blessedness” are found not in ourselves, or anything we can do, but only in Jesus.
2. Renovation of the Soul
The second goal of the gospel is one I’ve written about more extensively: the “the renovation of our minds, wills, and affections, into the image or likeness of God” (p. 83). We are predestined to be conformed to the image of Christ, says Paul (Rom. 8:29), and the primary means God uses to effect this transformation is the gospel, applied to our hearts by the Spirit (2 Cor. 3:18).
But how does this actually happen in practice? Owen answers: “by presenting spiritual things unto us in that light and evidence, with that power and efficacy, as to transform us into their likeness” (p. 83). In other words, transformation happens when the truth of the gospel comes into our hearts with both clarity and efficacy, logic and fire, conviction and passion, Word and Spirit, light and heat.
3. A Heart for Worship
Finally, Owen says that evangelical truth “engageth the whole soul, in all its powers and faculties, through the whole course of its activity…to live unto God in all holy obedience” (p. 83-84). Worshiping God is the only rational response to the lavish mercies of God (Rom. 12:1). But when the gospel does it’s work in our hearts, worship is seen not simply as our duty to God (although it is), but as the natural reflex of our hearts in response to God’s revelation of his grace and mercy through the cross and resurrection of Christ and the gift of his Spirit.
Questions for Application
To return to Owen’s main point, let me end with some personal questions.
- Has the gospel produced these effects in your heart?
- Is your trust firmly fixed on Christ and his cross, or are you still looking inward for moral improvement and existential satisfaction?
- Are you being more and more transformed into the image of Christ?
- Do you look more like Jesus than you did a year ago?
- Do you delight to worship God?
- Do the lavish mercies of God beckon your heart to praise and enjoy him?
If not, maybe the gospel hasn’t penetrated deeply enough. Maybe there is still an “uncured enmity” or hostility to God and the gospel deep inside your soul. Be watchful. When this is the case, Owen warns, “spiritual truths are first neglected, then despised, and at last, on easy terms, parted withal” (p. 84). Religious people sometimes profess to believe without really believing. When they do, they first “stifle truth as to its operation” and eventually “reject it as to its profession” (p. 85). This is the natural course of apostasy from the gospel.
The only solution is to embrace the gospel more deeply, with an earnest desire for the Spirit to apply evangelical truths more deeply and powerfully to our hearts.
This post first appeared at Brian’s blog and is posted here with his permission.
The Puritans were the 16th century English Protestants and their successors in 16th-17th century New England, whose concern for church reform and spiritual renewal earned them the originally derogatory epithet, “puritan.” Unfortunately, when most people hear the word “puritan” they remember Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter and associate the term with legalism, self-righteousness, hypocrisy, and witch-hunts. And, of course, the Puritans weren’t perfect.
Yet, despite their imperfections, there is much we can learn from them today. J. I. Packer once compared the Puritans to the gigantic Redwood trees of California, 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, I have found much help for my heart and stimulation for my soul. Here are several reasons why I would suggest that pastors give renewed attention to the writings of the Puritans.
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.” In the divinely inspired words of the psalmist: “You thought I was one like yourself” (Ps. 50:21). But the Puritans lift our gaze upward to see God in his soul-satisfying transcendence. I’ll never forget the awe of God upon my soul after spending significant time reading in 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. Christ meant everything to them. 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 savour to him, a savour of rest. God is abundantly compensated, he desires no more; Christ’s righteousness is of infinite worthiness and merit.”
3. They convict our consciences with the subtlety and sinfulness of sin.
There are not a lot of titles in Christian bookstores 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 reveals (Ralph Venning’s The Sinfulness of Sin, Jeremiah Burroughs’ The Evil of Evils, Thomas Watson’s The Mischief of Sin.) Perhaps the books which have helped me most have been John Owen’s classic works on the mortification and temptation of sin. Someone once said that before reading Owen, one should prepare to come under the knife. To read Owen is to allow a doctor of the soul to do surgery on your heart. 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 read anywhere.
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 the transforming power and glory of grace in dimensions that are often foreign to our own experience. Many contemporary books on 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 who said, “There is no death of sin without the death of Christ . . . Set faith at work on Christ for the killing of thy sin . . . by faith fill thy soul with a due consideration of that provision which is laid up in Jesus Christ for this end and purpose, that all thy lusts, this very lust wherewith thou art entangled, may be mortified.” Owen does not fail to point the sin-fighting believer to Christ. On the contrary, he shows us that the only effective means of overcoming sin is by dependence 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. They were physicians of the soul and exceptionally good counselors. My wife, who has occasionally read Puritans at my recommendation, has commented that the Puritans understand people and how they think.
One of the most practical of all the Puritan’s writings is Richard Baxter’s A Christian Directory. Tim Keller has called it “the greatest manual on biblical counseling ever produced.” This 900 page tome of fine print is divided into four sections: I. Christian Ethics, II. Christian Economics, III. Christian Ecclesiastics, and IV. Christian Politics. In layman’s terms, these four sections deal with the Christian’s personal spiritual life, home life, church life, and life in world.
Here are some examples of the kind of practical matters Baxter addresses and the pastoral advice he gives. Under “Christian Ethics,” are found 20 directions “to weak Christians for their establishment and growth;” 5 directions for “redeeming as well as improving time” (including #4: “thieves or time wasters to be watched against,” of which Baxter lists 12); 10 “directions for the government of the passions”; 10 pages on “directions against gluttony,” in which Baxter defines gluttony, lists 10 causes of gluttony, 20 reasons why it is such a great sin, and gives 14 practical “directions” against it; 16 directions against lust; 13 directions against excess of sleep, and so on! In section two, on “Christian Economics” are given similar directions for husbands, wives, parents, and children, in their specific duties towards one another. I surveyed a list of 10 directions for helping husbands and wives “live in quietness and peace, and avoid all occasions of wrath and discord” with one another, 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. They knew the pain of affliction, yet they trusted the good providence of God 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.” 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 pastors and believers 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 lifeless and cold in their love for Christ is because they live with heaven out of sight and mind. Baxter wrote, “If thou wouldst have light and heat, why art thou not more in the sunshine? For want of this recourse to heaven, thy soul is as a lamp not lighted, and thy duties as a sacrifice without fire. Fetch one coal daily from this altar, and see if thy offering will not burn. Light thy 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 thy 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 the glory of heaven is as attractive as his description of hell is repulsive. In his Miscellanies, Edwards wrote this of the glorified saints in heaven: “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 a life of disembodied bliss of harp-plucking in a cloud-filled, ethereal environment, but rather the experience of ever-expanding knowledge of God and ever-increasing joy in God.
The Puritans saw God, loved Christ, feared sin, were transformed by grace, were practical in counsel, endured suffering, and lived for eternity. When I read them, I almost always find the palate of my soul cleansed and my ability to “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8) enhanced. Dear brothers and sisters, read the Puritans! Your heart will be helped.
This article first appeared at Brian’s blog and is posted here with his permission.
 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 John Owen on the Christian Life (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1990) 191-218 and Sinclair B. Ferguson, (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, 1986 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.
One of the more encouraging recent trends has been the increase in books looking at a variety of councils and creeds. While most of these recent books look at the Reformed confessions and that is important, those aren’t the only confessions that are important for Christians to understand. In his new book Know The Creeds And Councils Justin Holcomb seeks to provide an accessible and relevant overview of Christianity’s most significant statements of faith.
Every generation requires Christians and the Church to interpret and restate its bedrock beliefs, answering objections and concerns of the day. In this book, Dr. Holcomb walks readers through centuries of creeds, councils, catechisms, and confessions with a focus on dates and places with an emphasis on the living tradition of Christian belief and why it matters for our lives today. The book opens with looking at the Apostles’ Creed then the Council of Nicaea and the Nicene Creeds, the Councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon. In chapter five the author explores the Athanasian Creed and in chapters six through eight the councils of Constantinople, Carthage, orange and Trent. Chapter nine examines the Heidelberg catechism, chapter nine the thirty-nine articles of religion and chapter eleven the Westminster Confession of Faith. Chapter twelve looks at the second Vatican council. The book concludes with a look at modern confessions such as the Lausanne Covenant and the Chicago statement of faith.
The strengths of Know the Creeds and Councils are its accessible and its relevance. Many Christians today think that the latest and greatest book is the most important thing ever written. While that view is prevalent in the Church today it is not completely true. Christians have been seeking to engage in theology since the early second century up to the present day. This means that Christians have a rich tradition of sound theology that has sought to engage the Word of God in thoughtful and God-honoring ways. The creeds, confessions and Councils that Dr. Holcomb looks at in this book are important for Christians to understand. The one weakness which Dr. Holcomb concedes in his book is that his book doesn’t explore everything about the creeds and councils. To alleviate this concern, he provides his recommendations for further study.
Know The Creeds and Councils is a very good book that will serve as a primer for those who don’t know much about the creeds. This book would also be used well in the classroom or for small groups and Sunday school classes wanting to go deeper into the Christian faith. I highly recommend Know the Creeds and Councils, it is a book that will help Christians at every stage of their Christian life to understand that the Christian life is not about the latest and greatest fad, but grounded in the old and rich heritage of the past that informs our present understanding of God’s Word and theology.
Title: Know the Creeds and Councils
Author: Justin Holcomb
Publisher: Zondervan (2014)
I received this book for free from Zondervan for this review. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”
Book Review – Church History Volume Two: From Pre-Reformation to the Present Day The Rise and Growth of the Church in Its Cultural, Intellectual, and Political Context
Church history is likely one of the most neglected topics in evangelical theology today. With the resurgence in conversation on the Gospel and other related topics what is missing in this is a resurgence of interest in church history. While the Puritans and Reformers in general have become popular among many evangelicals what would be neat to see in my opinion is a resurgence in the broader corpus of church history. Understanding church history is important for several reasons the main one being that understanding this topic leads to insight about what the Church has taught, how the Church has taught it and moreover how the Church has defended the Truth of biblical Christianity. The best church history books take all three of the factors I mentioned while remaining true to the story of church history. Such a volume has come out with Church History Volume Two From Pre-Reformation to the Present Day The Rise and Growth of the Church in Its Cultural, Intellectual, and Political Context by Drs. John D. Woodbridge and Frank A. James III.
As the title of the book suggest this book covers from Pre-Reformation (1300 AD) to the Present Day. Along the way the authors cover everything from Martin Luther, John Calvin, Charles Spurgeon, John Owen to the challenges of Islam and the new centers of global Christianity. This is not your typical academic church history book. This work is engaging and fascinating. As I read this volume, and volume one what impressed me is that the authors contribute great insight into church history while showing why church history matters to the health and growth of the Christian church.
The two chapters that I got the most out of were chapters twenty one and twenty two. The better of the two chapters was on Islam where the authors talk about the Christianity and Islam: The Challenge of the Future. Here the authors discuss whether Islam and Christianity can coexist if it is possible or if they will go to war with one another. This is important conversation that I think needs more coverage by those who know a great deal about the relationship between Christianity and Islam. In this chapter the authors talk about the conflicts Christianity has had with Islam and even within the Islamic community. The authors rightly note, “The ultimate value of history lies not in its predictive ability or even its capacity for elucidation but in its aptitude to teach humility. Church history, in particular, is an opportunity for self-reflection and, indeed, for self-correction. If the story of the Christian church can bestow on us a measure of this humility, then we will enter the uncertain future with a sure compass” (839).
Volume One and Volume Two of Church History published by Zondervan is an excellent and thought provoking study on the Pre-Reformation to the present day. This well-written and helpful volume will help lay people understand the story of Church history from the Pre-Reformation to the modern day. More serious students of church history will find help in this book by understanding trends and developments of church history. Regardless of where one is in their understanding of church history, this volume is a phenomenal achievement along with the first volume. The two volumes in the Church History series are church history as its best accessible to the lay person, engaging for the Bible college/seminary student and containing enough information that even the most serious church history student/scholar could benefit from the work in this volume. I highly recommend this volume and the first volume in the series and pray both volumes might lead to a revival of interest in studies on church history.
Authors: John D. Woodbridge and Frank a. James II
Publisher: Zondervan (2013)
I received this for free from Zondervan book review program for this review. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”
Join Dr. Brian Cosby as he introduces John Flavel (c.1630-1691) – his life, ministry, and influence.