Beeke’s Book of the Month for October 2023 is Meet the Puritans by Dr. Joel Beeke and Randall J. Peterson. Enjoy this brief excerpt from the preface of the book that sheds light on how the writings of the Puritans can build you up in the faith. (Note: All of the references in this article are properly footnoted in the full text of Meet the Puritans.)
This guide provides a brief biography of each Puritan author whose works have been reprinted since 1956 and a short review of those books. We hope this will help purchasers of Puritan books, interest other readers in the Puritans, and guide those already immersed in Puritan literature to further depths of study.
Why produce a guide to the literature left to us by the English Puritans and their counterparts in Scotland and the Netherlands?
How to Profit from Reading the Puritans
With the Spirit’s blessing, Puritan writings can enrich your life as a Christian in many ways as they open the Scriptures and apply them practically, probing your conscience, indicting your sins, leading you to repentance, shaping your faith, guiding your conduct, comforting you in Christ and conforming you to Him, and bringing you into full assurance of salvation and a lifestyle of gratitude to the triune God for His great salvation. Here are six characteristics that permeate Puritan literature and account for its continuing relevance and power:
1. They shape life by Scripture. The Puritans loved, lived, and breathed Scripture, relishing the power of the Spirit that accompanied the Word. They regarded the sixty-six books of Scripture as the library of the Holy Spirit graciously bequeathed to Christians. They viewed Scripture as God speaking to them as their Father, giving them the truth they could trust for all eternity. They saw it as Spirit-empowered to renew their minds and transform their lives.
The Puritans searched, heard, and sang the Word with delight and encouraged others to do the same. Puritan Richard Greenham suggested eight ways to read Scripture: with diligence, wisdom, preparation, meditation, conference, faith, practice, and prayer. Thomas Watson provided numerous guidelines on how to listen to the Word: come to the Word with a holy appetite and a teachable heart. Sit under the Word attentively, receive it with meekness, and mingle it with faith. Then retain the Word, pray over it, practice it, and speak to others about it.
The Puritans called believers to be Word-centered in faith and practice. Richard Baxter’s Christian Directory showed how the Puritans regarded the Bible as a trustworthy guide for all of life. Every case of conscience was subjected to Scripture’s directives. Henry Smith said, “We should set the Word of God always before us like a rule, and believe nothing but that which it teacheth, love nothing but that which it prescribeth, hate nothing but that which it forbiddeth, do nothing but that which it commandeth.”
If you read the Puritans regularly, their focus on the Scriptures becomes contagious. Though their commentaries on Scripture are not the last word in exegesis, the Puritans show how to yield wholehearted allegiance to the Bible’s message. Like them, you will become a believer of the living Book, concurring with John Flavel, who said, “The Scriptures teach us the best way of living, the noblest way of suffering, and the most comfortable way of dying.”
2. They marry doctrine and practice. The Puritans did this by addressing the mind, confronting the conscience, and wooing the heart.
- Addressing the mind. The Puritans refused to set mind and heart against each other but taught that knowledge was the soil in which the Spirit planted the seed of regeneration. They viewed the mind as the palace of faith. “In conversion, reason is elevated,” John Preston wrote. Cotton Mather said, “Ignorance is the mother not of devotion but of heresy.”The Puritans understood that a mindless Christianity fosters a spineless Christianity. An anti-intellectual gospel quickly becomes an empty, formless gospel that doesn’t get beyond “felt needs.” That’s what is happening in many churches today. Tragically, few understand that if there is little difference between what Christians and unbelievers believe with their minds, there will soon be little difference in how they live. Puritan literature is a great solution to this problem.
- Confronting the conscience. The Puritans were masters at naming specific sins, then asking questions to press home conviction of those sins. As one Puritan wrote, “We must go with the stick of divine truth and beat every bush behind which a sinner hides, until like Adam who hid, he stands before God in his nakedness.”Devotional reading should be confrontational as well as comforting. We experience little growth if our consciences are not pricked daily and directed to Christ. Since we are prone to run for the bushes, we need daily help to be brought before the living God “naked and opened unto the eyes of him with whom we have to do” (Heb. 4:13). In this, no writers can help us as much as the Puritans.
- Engaging the heart. It is unusual today to find books that feed the mind with solid biblical substance and move the heart with affectionate warmth, but the Puritans do both. They reason with the mind, confront the conscience, and appeal to the heart. They write out of love for God’s Word, love for the glory of God, and love for the souls of readers. They set forth Christ in His loveliness, moving us to yearn to know Him better and live wholly for Him.
3. They focus on Christ. According to Thomas Adams, “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.” Likewise, Isaac Ambrose wrote, “Think of Christ as the very substance, marrow, soul, and scope of the whole Scriptures.”
The Puritans loved Christ and wrote much about His beauty. Samuel Rutherford wrote: “Put the beauty of ten thousand thousand worlds of paradises, like the Garden of Eden in one; put all trees, all flowers, all smells, all colors, all tastes, all joys, all loveliness, all sweetness in one. O what a fair and excellent thing would that be? And yet it would be less to that fair and dearest well- beloved Christ than one drop of rain to the whole seas, rivers, lakes, and fountains of ten thousand earths.” Thomas Goodwin echoed this thought, saying, “Heaven would be hell to me without Christ.”
Would you know Christ better and love Him more fully? Immerse yourself in Puritan literature, asking the Spirit to sanctify it to you in a Christ-centered way.
4. They show how to handle trials. We learn from the Puritans that we need affliction to humble us (Deut. 8:2), to teach us what sin is (Zeph. 1:12), and to bring us to God (Hos. 5:15). As Robert Leighton wrote, “Affliction is the diamond dust that heaven polishes its jewels with.” The Puritans show us how God’s rod of affliction is His means to write Christ’s image more fully upon us, so that we may be partakers of His righteousness and holiness (Heb. 12:10–11).
If you are presently undergoing trials, read William Bridge’s A Lifting Up for the Downcast, Thomas Brooks’s A Mute Christian Under the Rod, and Richard Sibbes’s A Bruised Reed. They will show you how every trial can bring you to Christ, to walk by faith and to be weaned from this world. As Thomas Watson wrote, “God would have the world hang as a loose tooth which, being easily twitched away, doth not much trouble us.” Also, read The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment by Jeremiah Burroughs. It will teach you how to learn contentment through trial. Then, the next time you are buffeted by others, Satan, or your own conscience, you will carry those trials to Christ and ask Him, by His Spirit, to sanctify them so that you may model spiritual contentment for others.
5. They show how to live in two worlds. Richard Baxter’s The Saint’s Everlasting Rest shows the power that the hope of heaven has to direct, control, and energize our life here on earth. Despite its length (800-plus pages), this classic became household reading in Puritan homes. It was surpassed only by John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, which is an allegorical outworking of this same truth. Bunyan’s pilgrim is heading for the Celestial City, which he never has out of his mind except when he is betrayed by some form of spiritual malaise.
The Puritans believed that we should have heaven “in our eye” throughout our earthly pilgrimage. They took seriously the two-worldly, now/not-yet dynamic of the New Testament, stressing that keeping the “hope of glory” before our minds should guide and shape our lives here on earth. Living in the light of eternity necessitated radical self-denial. The Puritans taught us to live, knowing that the joy of heaven makes amends for any losses and crosses that we must endure on earth if we follow Christ. They taught us that preparing to die is the first step in learning to live.
6. They show us true spirituality. The Puritans promoted the authority of Scripture, biblical evangelism, church reform, the spirituality of the law, spiritual warfare against indwelling sin, the filial fear of God, the art of meditation, the dreadfulness of hell and the glories of heaven. So read the Puritans devotionally, and then pray to emulate their spirituality. Ask questions like these: Are we, like the Puritans, thirsting to glorify the triune God? Are we motivated by biblical truth and biblical fire? Do we share the Puritan view of the vital necessity of conversion and of being clothed with the righteousness of Christ? Do we follow them, as they followed Christ?