The Puritans were zealous not only to learn the Bible but to live the Bible. Some people think that such zealous attention to the Bible is a bit extreme. A common criticism that has been hurled at the Puritans is the charge of legalism. But their desire to honor the Scriptures in all of life was not driven by any attempt to earn the favor of God or to merit righteousness. They abhorred such a thought and denounced it powerfully in their polemics against all strands of Pelagianism and semi-Pelagianism. Their motivation was not fear of condemnation but gratitude for salvation. They based their experiential application of the imperatives of Scripture on the indicatives of gospel grace.
A good example of this is Romans 12:1: “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service.” Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758) exemplifies the Puritan understanding of this text when he says that the exhortation is addressed to those who are “the subjects of God’s redeeming mercies.”1Jonathan Edwards, Religious Affections, in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, ed. John E. Smith and Harry S. Stout, revised edition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), 2:343. As Edwards points out, the indicative was a reality in them by grace; grounding his exhortation on that, the inspired apostle implores believers to a sanctified life. This is not legalism; it is biblical, gospel-grounded piety. Scripture calls for total consecration as it shapes the whole of life (see 1 Thess. 5:23). In an experiential sermon on Romans 12:1, Edwards asks, “What is offering or giving ourselves up to God?” Listen to what he says (my amplifying comments are interspersed in brackets to show the relevance to the subject before us):
A willing embracing [of] all God’s commands [every precept of His Word], and a devoting ourselves up to God as servants, and receiving him as sovereign, God and King over our souls and bodies, over all our powers and all our actions. ’Tis a giving our understandings to him to be enlightened [by His Word and Spirit], and to be exercised in thinking upon him [especially in meditating on the Word]. ’Tis a giving our wills to him, to be guided and exercised in choosing of him above all things [as our wills are informed by His Word]. ’Tis a giving our affections to him to be governed and exercised in loving him, and what he loves, and hating what he hates [as specified in His Word]. ’Tis a giving all our executive powers to him to be employed wholly in his service [as His will is revealed in His Word].2Jonathan Edwards, “Dedication to God,” in Jonathan Edwards Sermons, ed. Wilson H. Kimnach (New Haven: Jonathan Edwards Center at Yale University, 1722–1723), Romans 12:1.
Though my bracketed comments are not in the original, Edwards would have agreed that they are implied. In his Reformed understanding of the Christian life, such a Word-driven consecration was a given.
God reigns in grace, and He extends that reign to us through Scripture as the Scripture authoritatively shapes every aspect of our lives. Edwards teaches that it should shape our souls and bodies, our powers and actions, our understandings and wills, our affections and all that we are as God’s image-bearers. The Word of God must be brought to bear on how we think, how we feel, how we act, how we plan, how we live, and how we love.
This is not extremism; it is our “reasonable service” to our matchless Savior and King! In the words of John Flavel (1628–1691), “If Jesus Christ did wholly set himself apart for believers, how reasonable is it that believers should consecrate and set themselves apart wholly for Christ?”3John Flavel, The Fountain of Life: A Display of Christ in His Essential and Mediatorial Glory, in The Whole Works of the Reverend John Flavel (London; Edinburgh; Dublin: W. Baynes and Son; Waugh and Innes; M. Keene, 1820), 1:101. Such consecration is driven by the Word. After all, the Lord did pray, “Sanctify them through thy truth; thy word is truth” (John 17:17).
Thriving in Grace: Twelve Ways the Puritans Fuel Spiritual Growth
By Joel R. Beeke and Brian G. Hedges