Pillar Journal

How to Profit from Reading the Puritans


Here are nine ways you can grow spiritually by reading Puritan literature today:

1. Puritan writings help shape life by Scripture. The Puritans loved, lived, and breathed Holy Scripture. They also relished the power of the Spirit that accompanied the Word. Rarely can you open a Puritan book and not find its pages filled with Scripture references; their books are all Word centered. More than 90 percent of their writings are repackaged sermons rich with scriptural exposition. The Puritan writers truly believed in the sufficiency of Scripture for life and godliness.

If you read the Puritans regularly, their Bible-centeredness will become contagious. These writings will teach you to yield wholehearted allegiance to the Bible’s message. Like the Puritans, you will become a believer of the Living Book, echoing the truth of John Flavel (1628–1691), who said, “The Scriptures teach us the best way of living, the noblest way of suffering, and the most comfortable way of dying.” [Cited in John Blanchard, The Complete Gathered Gold (Darlington, U.K.: Evangelical Press, 2006), 49.]

2. Puritan writings show how to integrate biblical doctrine into daily life. Cornelis Pronk wrote, “The Puritan’s concern…was primarily ethical or moral rather than abstractly doctrinal.” [Cornelis Pronk, “Puritan Christianity,” The Messenger (March 1997): 5.] The Puritan writings express this emphasis in three ways:

First, they address your mind. In keeping with the Reformed tradition, the Puritans refused to set mind and heart against each other, but viewed the mind as the palace of faith. William Greenhill (1591– 1671) stated, “Ignorance is the mother of all errors.” [William Greenhill, Exposition on the Prophet of Ezekiel (London: Samuel Holdsworth, 1839), 110.] The Puritans understood that a mindless Christianity fosters a spineless Christianity. An anti-intellectual gospel quickly becomes an empty, formless gospel that never gets beyond catering to felt needs. Puritan literature is a great help for understanding the vital connection between what we believe and how that affects the way we live.

Second, Puritan writings confront your conscience. Today many preachers are masterful at avoiding convicting people of sin, whereas the Puritans were masters at convicting us about the heinous nature of our sin against an infinite God. This is amply displayed in Ralph Venning’s (c. 1622–1674) The Sinfulness of Sin. For example, Venning wrote: “Sin is the dare of God’s justice, the rape of his mercy, the jeer of his patience, the slight of his power, the contempt of his love.” [Ralph Venning, The Sinfulness of Sin (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2001), 32. Venning is citing Bunyan.]

The Puritans excelled at exposing specific sins, then asked 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 grow little if our consciences are not pricked daily and directed to Christ. Since we are prone to run for the bushes when we feel threatened, we need daily help to come before the living God, “naked and opened unto the eyes of him with whom we have to do” (Heb. 4:13). In this, the Puritans excelled. Owen wrote: “Christ by his death destroying the works of the devil, procuring the Spirit for us, hath so killed sin, as to its reign in believers, that it shall not obtain its end and dominion…. Look on him under the weight of your sins, praying, bleeding, dying; bring him in that condition into thy heart of faith.” [John Owen, The Works of John Owen (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2000), 6:85.]

Third, Puritan writers engage your heart. They feed the mind with solid biblical substance and they move the heart with affectionate warmth. They wrote out of love for God’s Word, love for the glory of God, and love for the souls of readers. They did this because their hearts were touched by God and they, in turn, longed for others to feel and experience salvation. As John Bunyan (1628–1688) exclaimed, “O that they who have heard me speak this day did but see as I do what sin, death, hell, and the curse of God is; and also what the grace, and love, and mercy of God is, through Jesus Christ.” [John Bunyan, The Works of John Bunyan (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1991), 1:42.]

3. Puritan writings show how to exalt Christ and see His beauty. The Puritan Thomas Adams (1583–1652) wrote: “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.” [Thomas Adams, The Works of Thomas Adams (Edinburgh: James Nichol, 1862), 3:224.]

The Puritans loved Christ and relished His beauty. The best example of this is probably Samuel Rutherford’s (1600–1661) Letters, which sing the sweetest canticles of the Savior. To an elder, Rutherford wrote, “Christ, Christ, nothing but Christ, can cool our love’s burning languor. O thirsty love! Wilt thou set Christ, the well of life, to thy head, and drink thy fill? Drink, and spare not; drink love, and be drunken with Christ!” [Samuel Rutherford, The Letters of Samuel Rutherford (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2006), 173.] To another friend, he wrote, “I have a lover Christ, and yet I want love for Him! I have a lovely and desirable Lord, who is love-worthy, and who beggeth my love and heart, and I have nothing to give Him! Dear brother, come further in on Christ, and see a new wonder, and heaven and earth’s wonder of love, sweetness, majesty, and excellency in Him.” [Ibid., 426.] If you would know Christ better and love Him more fully, immerse yourself in Puritan literature.

4. Puritan writings highlight the Trinitarian character. The Puritans were driven by a deep sense of the infinite glory of a Triune God. Edmund Calamy (1600–1666) noted this doctrine should “be allowed to be of as great importance in itself and its consequences, as any of our most distinguishing Christian principles.” [Edmund Calamy, Sermons Concerning the Doctrine of the Trinity (London, 1722), 6.] When the Puritans said in the Shorter Catechism that man’s chief end was to glorify God, they meant the triune God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. They took Calvin’s glorious understanding of the unity of the Trinity in the Godhead, and showed how that worked out in electing, redeeming, and sanctifying love and grace in the lives of believers.

Owen wrote an entire book on the Christian believer’s distinct communion with each Person in the Godhead—with God as Father, Jesus as Savior, and the Holy Spirit as Comforter. Samuel Rutherford echoed the conviction of many Puritans when he said that he did not know which divine person he loved the most, but he knew that he needed each of them and loved them all. The Puritans teach us how to remain God-centered while being vitally concerned about Christian experience so that we don’t fall into the trap of glorifying experience for its own sake.

5. Puritan writings show how to handle trials. Puritanism grew out of a great struggle between the truth of God’s Word and its enemies. Reformed Christianity was under attack in England at the time of the Puritans, even more than Reformed Christianity is under attack today. The Puritans were good soldiers in the conflict; they endured great hardships and suffered much. Their lives and writings arm us for battle and encourage us in suffering. The Puritans teach us how affliction is necessary to humble us (Deut. 8:2), to teach us what sin is (Zeph. 1:12), and to bring us back to God (Hos. 5:15).

Much of the comfort the Puritans offer grows out of the very nature of God. Henry Scougal (1650–1678) said of afflicted believers that it comforts them “to remember that an unerring providence doth overrule all their seeming disorders, and makes them all serve to great and glorious designs.” [Henry Scougal, The Works of Henry Scougal (New York: Robert Carter, 1846), 169.] And Thomas Watson (c. 1620–1686) declared, “Afflictions work for good, as they conform us to Christ. God’s rod is a pencil to draw Christ’s image more lively upon us.” Thomas Watson, All Things for Good (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2001), 28.]

6. Puritan writings describe true spirituality. The Puritans stressed the spirituality of the law, the spiritual warfare against indwelling sin, the childlike fear of God, the wonder of grace, the art of meditation, the dreadfulness of hell, and the glories of heaven. If you want to live deeply as a Christian, read Oliver Heywood’s Heart Treasure. Read the Puritans devotionally, then pray to be like them. Ask questions such as: Am I, like the Puritans, thirsting to glorify the triune God? Am I motivated by biblical truth and biblical fire? Do I share their view of the vital necessity of conversion and of being clothed with the righteousness of Christ? Do I follow the Puritans as they followed Christ? Does my life savor of true spirituality?

7. Puritan writings show how to live by holistic faith. The Puritans applied every subject they discussed to practical “uses,” which propel a believer into passionate, effective action for Christ’s kingdom. In their daily lives they integrated Christian truth with covenant vision; they knew no dichotomy between the sacred and the secular. Their writings can help you live in a way that centers on God. They will help you appreciate God’s gifts and declare everything “holiness to the Lord.”

The Puritans excelled as covenant theologians. They lived that theology, covenanting themselves, their families, their churches, and their nations to God. Yet they did not fall into the error of “hyper-covenantalism,” in which the covenant of grace became a substitute for personal conversion. They promoted a comprehensive worldview that brought the whole gospel to bear on all of life, striving to bring every action in conformity with Christ, so that believers would mature and grow in faith. The Puritans wrote on practical subjects, such as how to pray, how to develop genuine piety, how to conduct family worship, and how to raise children for Christ. In short, as J. I. Packer noted, they taught how to develop a “rational, resolute, passionate piety [that is] conscientious without becoming obsessive, law-oriented without lapsing into legalism, and expressive of Christian liberty without any shameful lurches into license.” [J.I. Packer, A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 1990), 24.]

8. Puritan writings teach the primacy of preaching. William Perkins (1558– 1602) explained why preaching is so critical: “Through preaching those who hear are called into the state of grace, and preserved in it.” [William Perkins, The Art of Prophesying (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2002), 7.] To the Puritans, preaching was the high point of public worship. “It is no small matter to stand up in the face of a congregation, and deliver a message of salvation or damnation, as from the living God, in the name of our Redeemer,” wrote Richard Baxter (1615–1691). [Richard Baxter, The Practical Works of Richard Baxter (Morgan, Pa.: Soli Deo Gloria, 2001), 4:383.]

The Puritans taught that preaching must be expository and didactic, evangelistic and convicting, experiential and applicatory, powerful and plain in its presentation, ever respecting the sovereignty of the Holy Spirit. For the Puritans, what transpired on Sabbath mornings and evenings was not merely a pep talk but was an encounter with God by the Spirit through the Word.

9. Puritan writings show how to live in two worlds. The Puritans said we should have heaven in our eye throughout our earthly pilgrimage. They took seriously the New Testament passages that say we must keep the hope of glory before our minds to guide and shape our lives here on earth. They viewed this life as “the gymnasium and dressing room where we are prepared for heaven,” teaching us that preparation for death is the first step in learning to truly live. [Packer, A Quest for Godliness, 13.]

These nine points are reason enough to demonstrate the benefit of reading the Puritans. We live in dark days where it seems the visible church in many areas around the globe, and particularly in the West, is floundering. Waning interest in doctrinal fidelity and a disinterest in holiness prevails in many Christians. The church’s ministry has been marginalized or ignored. The Puritans were in many ways ahead of their times. Their books address the problems of our day with a scriptural clarity and zeal that the church desperately needs.

Puritan Reformed Journal
JULY 2011 Volume 3 • Number 2
By Joel Beeke