Pillar Journal

A Succint Puritan View of the Christian’s Mission in Society

The Puritans were not naïve about the family, the church, and society, but knew well that apart from the saving grace found in Jesus Christ alone (solus Christus), none of their holy ambitions would bear fruit.

The Puritans sought to bring every area of life consciously under Christ’s lordship and the direction of God’s Word. They believed that all of life is under God’s fatherly providence and that his infinite goodness is the source of every good thing we enjoy. They also believed that we constantly live in God’s presence, and, therefore, should constantly live in the fear of God. Knowing that all human history was headed for judgment day, they pursued their mission in society through the evangelization of unbelievers, the sanctification of vocations and economics, and the reformation of politics and civil government.1Portions of this article are adapted from Joel R. Beeke, Puritan Evangelism (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2007); Joel R. Beeke and Mark Jones, A Puritan Theology (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2012), 699–705; Joel R. Beeke and Paul M. Smalley, “The Worldview of the Puritans,” in The Beauty and the Glory of the Christian Worldview, ed. Joel R. Beeke (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2017), 25–54.

The Evangelization of Unbelievers in Society

Feeling the weight of their responsibility to bring the gospel to all people, the Puritans launched a three-pronged strategy for evangelizing their nation.

1. Evangelizing through preaching. Richard Sibbes said, “Preaching is the chariot that carries Christ up and down the world.”2Richard Sibbes, The Fountain Opened, in Works of Richard Sibbes, ed. Alexander B. Grosart, 7 vols. (repr., Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2001), 5:508. However, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, many churches in England lacked solid biblical and experiential preaching of Christ. Therefore, the Puritans sought to raise up faithful preachers and obtain placements for them throughout the land. “The faithfull Minister, like unto Christ, [is] one that preacheth nothing but the word of God,” said Edward Dering.3Edward Dering, XXVII Lectures, or Readings, upon Part of the Epistle to the Hebrues, on Heb. 3:2, in M. Derings Workes (Amsterdam: Theatrum Orbis Terrarum; New York: Da Capo, 1972), sig. M6v. Schools were started to train and send out more preachers, such as Emmanuel College at Cambridge or, in Puritan New England, Harvard College.

The Puritans also began many lectureships throughout the land, where the “lecture” was not an academic class but a sermon. Lectures were given at times other than normal church services, and either supplemented the regular preaching or offered an alternative where the local pastor was not sympathetic to the biblical, Puritan cause.4See Paul S. Seaver, The Puritan Lectureships: The Politics of Religious Dissent, 1560–1662 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1970). Through these means the Word of God penetrated areas of England previously covered with spiritual darkness.

2. Evangelizing through catechizing. The Puritans believed that pulpit messages should be reinforced by personalized ministry through teaching people a catechism. The question-and-answer format of catechisms grounded children and adults in the basic truths of Christianity, laying a foundation for them to understand the preaching of the gospel. Puritan pastors such as Joseph Alleine and Richard Baxter regularly visited the people in their community to instruct them in the catechism and encourage them to learn it with their families.5See Richard Baxter, Gildas Salvianus: The Reformed Pastor: Shewing the Nature of the Pastoral Work (New York: Robert Carter, 1860). Personal catechism also allowed the minister to speak directly to individuals about their souls, a powerful means of stirring men to thought, conviction, and, by grace, conversion.

3. Evangelizing through writing. The publishing of books teaching sound doctrine was a further means of bringing the Word of God to their society. In a sense, writing books was an extension of the ministry of preaching, for the vast majority of Puritan books were preached as sermons before they were printed on paper.6See A. F. Herr, The Elizabethan Sermon (New York: Octagon Books, 1969), 27, 67. Books, both small and large, reached segments of the population where the preacher could not go. Many English Puritan volumes were also translated into other languages, such as Dutch, influencing other nations with the gospel as well.

The Puritans, operating in their own culture and time, sought every legitimate opportunity to spread the gospel throughout society, trusting that the gospel is God’s power for salvation to everyone whom He draws to His Son, Jesus Christ.

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Volume 15, Number 2 • July 2023
Joel Beeke and Paul Smalley