My life has been profoundly shaped and enriched by men who died long ago, but whose ministries live on through their books. As a theologian I have read a lot of books about the teachings of the Bible, but none affect me more than the writings of the Puritans, and its parallel movement in the Netherlands, the Dutch Further Reformation.
As a young man, I found myself nourished by the writings of Thomas Goodwin, whose books about Christ the Mediator and Christ’s compassionate heart in heaven deeply moved me with faith and love for Christ. In my adult years, some of my favorite books have been Wilhelmus à Brakel, The Christian’s Reasonable Service, a combination of Reformed theology and ethics written in a warmly experiential tone; Anthony Burgess, Spiritual Refining, a classic on recognizing God’s saving work in our lives; and The Letters of Samuel Rutherford, letters full of meditations on the beauty of Christ by a man who suffered much for Him.
While there are many ways that the Bible-saturated books of the Puritans have influenced me, I would like to highlight three special lessons I have learned from them about experiential, practical Christian living.
The Priority of Love
The Puritans not only commended love, but called Christians to excel in love with godly zeal. Oliver Bowles said zeal “is a holy ardor kindled by the Holy Spirit of God in the affections, improving a man to the utmost for God’s glory, and the church’s good.” Such zeal is not proud and harsh, as religious zeal can sometimes be, but a sweet and gentle energy to do good. Jonathan Edwards wrote,
As some are mistaken concerning the nature of true boldness for Christ, so they are concerning Christian zeal. ’Tis indeed a flame, but a sweet one; or rather it is the heat and fervor of a sweet flame. For the flame of which it is the heat, is no other than that of divine love, or Christian charity; which is the sweetest and most benevolent thing that is, or can be, in the heart of man or angel.
William Ames said that love for our neighbors means that we desire their good “with sincere and hearty affection” and “endeavor to procure it.” When we speak of being on fire for God, the Puritans remind us that it must be a fire of love. And they realized that no one but God can kindle and fan this fire. John Preston wrote, “The love of God is peculiarly the work of the Holy Ghost…. Therefore the way to get it is earnestly to pray . . . . we are no more able to love the Lord than cold water is able to heat itself . . . so the Holy Ghost must breed that fire of love in us, it must be kindled from heaven, or else we shall never have it.” This leads me to my next point.