For many years before entering vocational ministry, I worked as a journalist in the dog-eat-dog world of secular media. While working as a reporter for a metropolitan daily newspaper in Georgia, one of my more progressive colleagues teased me good-naturedly about being a “conservative boy” from a small town in the sticks of North Georgia. She said, “You know what you are? You’re a Puritan!” At the time, I didn’t really know what to make of this remark. Today, I would see it as a high compliment.
In the minds of many, Puritanism equals scrupulous rules-keeping, dour Christianity, or, as the inimitable American journalist H. L. Mencken famously quipped, “Puritanism is the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”
Over the past few decades, thanks in large part to the publishing efforts of Banner of Truth and the advocacy of Martyn-Lloyd Jones, the English and American Puritans have made a strong comeback among Reformed evangelicals. During my years in seminary, I fell in love with the Puritans. Now, I delight in teaching about the Puritans, and during my time as pastor, men like John Bunyan, Thomas Watson, and John Owen were among my shepherds through their deeply devotional theological writing. Though dead, they certainly still speak. And we need to hear them.
Granted, they could be maddenly eccentric and sometimes ran to extremes. The Puritans never met a rule the didn’t seem to relish. They had a decidedly underdeveloped view of recreation and leisure. Their writing tended toward wordiness, often stating and then restating the same point several times. And their moralizing of life experiences and spiritual introspection often knew no bounds. For example, Cotton Mather once saw his sinful heart as the cause of a toothache, as he told his diary: “Have I not sinned against my teeth? How? By sinful, graceless, excessive eating, and by sinful speeched? (Quoted in Leland Ryken, Worldly Saints)” They were, after all, sinners saved by grace.
Still, for all their humanness, they represent a high point of (to borrow a favorite phrase from John Piper) Christ-centered, Scripture-saturated, God-entranced living.
In our snap-judgment, 140-character age, we need the Puritans perhaps more than ever. Here are eight reasons why.
1. Because they were mature in ways we are not.
J. I. Packer hits the mark:
Maturity is a compound of wisdom, goodwill, resilience, and creativity. The Puritans exemplified maturity; we don’t. We are spiritual dwarfs. A much-travelled leader, a native American (be it said), has declared that he finds North American Protestantism, man-centered, manipulative, success-oriented, self-indulgent and sentimental, as it blatantly is, to be 3,000 miles wide and half and inch deep. The Puritans, by contrast, as a body were giants. They were great souls serving a great God.
Would anyone deny the truthfulness of his assessment in much of modern evangelicalism today?
2. Because they understood the deep sinfulness of the human heart.
John Owen (1616-1683) called the human heart a hornet’s nest of evil. He wrote The Mortification of Sin, the most famous treatment of sin among the Puritans. Because they understood the depravity of the human heart, the Puritans realized that only a unilateral work of sovereign grace can rescue fallen man. Thus, their keen understanding of the deadness of the human heart led them to plant their feet firmly upon a theology of grace as the sole catalyst that will draw dead hearts out of the grave.