Why We Still Need the Puritans

Why We Still Need the Puritans

One of the greatest spiritual biographies appears in the book of Hebrews. What has come to be known as the “Hall of Faith,” Hebrews 11 showcases several key Old Testament believers as examples of faithfulness to God. Later, in chapter 13, the reader is exhorted to “remember those who led you, who spoke the word of God to you; and considering the result of their conduct, imitate their faith” (v. 7). In short, we are to imitate the faith of the faithful. Down through church history, we have received the testimonies of godly men and women who have served as spiritual models for us. The Puritans are such a people.

According to J.I. Packer, the Puritans were English Protestants who lived from about 1560 to 1660. In summary, he writes, “Puritanism was essentially a movement for church reform, pastoral renewal and evangelism, and spiritual revival; and in addition—indeed, as a direct expression of its zeal for God’s honour—it was a world-view, a total Christian philosophy.”[1] Unfortunately, history has not been too kind to them, often citing their worst sins as being indicative of the whole. But in recent years, we’ve seen a resurgence of interest in Puritanism, and many have recovered, as treasure fetched out of the rubbish, the writings of these beloved saints.  

Love for God
The Puritans were children of the Reformation, and labored to live their lives soli Deo gloria—for the glory of God alone. Their fervent love for God permeated everything they did, and their infatuation with Jesus Christ soaked their written pages. From John Owen’s masterful work, The Glory of Christ to Stephen Charnock’s magnum opus, The Existence and Attributes of God, Puritan writing lifted high the name of the Lord. Whereas many seventeenth-century philosophers like Descartes, Hobbes, Locke, and Spinoza, were worshiping reason and rationalism, the Puritans boldly declared, “to us Christ is the chiefest of them all, none greater [than] the gift of Christ.”[2]

They valued communion with God—fellowship with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; sitting amidst the Persons of the Triune God. They pondered deeply of God, seeking “to search and challenge [their] heart, stir [their] affections to hate sin and love righteousness, and encourage [themselves] with God’s promises.”[3] They both loved and feared the Lord with seriousness and joy.

Devotion to Scripture
In conjunction with their deep love for God, the Puritans understood that God could not be fully known apart from His Word. And so, they highly esteemed the Word of God—both the reading and hearing of it. As students, they were committed to assiduous meditation, often writing down in long form their thoughts about God. However, more than even the reading of the Word, they loved preaching.

The general sense was that the preaching of Scripture superseded even the reading of it, for “faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ” (Rom. 10:17). Therefore, their appetite for robust preaching was insatiable. In opposition to the erudite sermonizing of many Anglican ministers, the Puritans valued “the plain style”—the preacher simply reading a text, explaining its meaning, and then applying it to the hearer. But this was no light affair. So serious the task, William Perkins notes, “Preaching the Word is prophesying in the name and on behalf of Christ.”[4] They believed that in the preaching of the Word, the Lord was feeding their souls, which enabled to grow in godliness.

Pursuit of Holiness
Perhaps the one thing the Puritans are both loved and despised for is their devotion to piety. To this day, culture uses the term “Puritanical” in a pejorative sense. But the Christian believer is commanded by Scripture to seek holiness and Christlikeness (see Matt. 5:48; 1 Thes. 4:3; 1 Pet. 1:13-16; Heb. 12:14; etc.). The first priority for the devout Puritans was the mortification of their sin. John Owen writes, “The choicest believers, who are assuredly freed from the condemning power of sin, ought yet to make it their business all their days to mortify the indwelling power of sin.”[5] By struggling and striving against their indwelling sins, they believed, “the more bitterness we taste in sin, the more sweetness we shall taste in Christ.”[6]

But the Puritan life was not a joyless life. As they were putting off the misdeeds of the body, they were also characterized by a zeal for godliness and a love for life. Families sang together, children played games outdoors, husbands wrote love letters to their wives, communities enjoyed fellowship and meals together; they put on full display the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23). In obedience to the Scriptures, they took both joy and mortification seriously.

Priority of Education
Because of their serious devotion to Scripture, the Puritans were subsequently interested in learning of all kinds. They believed that the Christian believer should be astute, as they were living in a world created by the God of all wisdom. To feed this hunger for learning, the Puritans established schools. In fact, Leland Ryken notes, “Founding schools became a hallmark of American Puritanism.”[7] Only six years after their arrival in Massachusetts Bay, the Puritans had founded Harvard College. Other schools would follow.

The Christian minister needed to be a jack-of-all-trades. In addition to their biblical and theological studies, it was understood that those entering into the ministry were to be equipped with understanding in languages (Hebrew, Greek, Latin, etc.), science, poetry, philosophy, mathematics, history, and logic.[8] Contrasting the modern belief that Christianity is a seedbed of anti-intellectualism, the Puritans were titans in the academic realm.

All of Life
One of the biggest distinctives of Puritanism was that it encompassed all of life. J.I. Packer notes, “There was for them no disjunction between sacred and secular; all creation, so far as they were concerned, was sacred, and all activities, of whatever kind, must be sanctified, that is, done to the glory of God.”[9] They gladly submitted their families, relationships, jobs, and hobbies to the obedience of faith, striving to do all things with integrity and excellence. There were no elements of life that were out of bounds. All of life could be redeemed for God’s glory.

For many, their credo was as such:

“May I live high above a love of things temporal, sanctified, cleansed, unblemished, hallowed by grace, thy love my fullness, thy glory my joy, thy precepts my pathway, thy cross my resting place.”[10]

We Need Puritans
Twenty-first century Christians have hit a crisis point. In the quest to find something “new,” we often jettison what is tried-and-true. While not flawless, the Puritans modeled for us many desirable elements of the Christian life, such as a deep love for God, a devotion to the Scriptures, a pursuit of holiness, a prioritization of education, and a commitment to submit all of life to the Lord. May this particular cloud of witnesses help us lift our gaze to the bright and shining Son of God!

This article first appeared in Field magazine (vol. 2, 2017).

 


[1] J.I. Packer, A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life. (Wheaton: Crossway, 1990), 28.

[2] John Cotton, Christ the Fountain of Life. (London, 1651), 41.

[3] Packer, A Quest for Godliness, 24.

[4] William Perkins, The Art of Prophesying. (1606; reprint, Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1996), 7.

[5] John Owen, Of the Mortification of Sin in Believers in eds. Kelly M. Kapic and Justin Taylor, Overcoming Sin & Temptation. (Wheaton: Crossway, 2006), 47.

[6] Thomas Watson, The Doctrine of Repentance. (1668; reprint, Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1987), 27.

[7] Leland Ryken, Worldly Saints: The Puritans As They Really Were. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1986), 158.

[8] Cotton Mather, Directions for a Candidate of the Ministry. Boston: Thomas Hancock, 1726.

[9] Packer, A Quest for Godliness, 23-24.

[10] Bennett, Arthur, ed. The Valley of Vision: A Collection of Puritan Prayers and Devotions. (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1975), 307.

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