Pillar Journal

Some of My Favorite Puritans

My favorite Puritan-minded theologian from the English tradition is Anthony Burgess; from the Dutch tradition, Wilhelmus á Brakel; and from the Scottish tradition, Samuel Rutherford. Let me explain why.

My favorite Puritan-minded theologian from the English tradition is Anthony Burgess; from the Dutch tradition, Wilhelmus á Brakel; and from the Scottish tradition, Samuel Rutherford. Let me explain why.

Anthony Burgess (d. 1664)
In my opinion, Anthony Burgess, vicar of Sutton Coldfield, Warwickshire from 1635 to 1662, is the most underrated Puritan of all time. I once asked Iain Murray why Burgess was not included in the nineteenth- century sets of the works of the best Puritans. He responded that Burgess was the greatest glaring omission from those reprints.

In fifteen years (1646–1661), Burgess wrote at least a dozen books based largely on his sermons and lectures. His writings reveal a scholarly acquaintance with Aristotle, Seneca, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, and Calvin. He made judicious use of Greek and Latin quotations while reasoning in the plain style of Puritan preaching. Burgess was a cultured scholar and experimental preacher who produced astute, warm, devotional writings.

Burgess wrote about the mysteries of God and was also an experimental writer. He masterfully separated the precious from the vile in The Godly Man’s Choice, based on thirteen sermons on Psalm 4:6–8. His detailed exegesis in his 145-sermon work on John 17, his 300- page commentary on 1 Corinthians 3, and his 700-page commentary on 2 Corinthians 1 are heart-warming. They fulfilled Burgess’s goal to “endeavour the true and sound Exposition…so as to reduce all Doctrinals and controversials to practicals and experimentals, which is the life and soul of all.”1Anthony Burgess, Second Corinthians 1, intro.

Several of Burgess’s major works are polemical. His first major treatise, Vindiciae Legis (1646), based on twenty-nine lectures given at Lawrence-Jewry, vindicated the Puritan view of the moral law and the covenants of works and grace in opposition to Roman Catholics, Arminians, Socinians, and Antinomians. Two years later, Burgess wrote against the same opponents, plus Baxter, in his first volume on justification. He refuted Baxter’s work for its Arminian tendencies in arguing for a process of justification that involves the cooperation of divine grace with human works. His second volume on justification, which appeared six years later (1654), discusses the natural righteousness of God and the imputed righteousness of Christ. Those two volumes contain seventy-five sermons. His 555-page Doctrine of Original Sin (1659) drew Anabaptists into the fray.

Burgess’s best and largest work, Spiritual Refining: The Anatomy of True and False Conversion (1652–54)—two volumes of 1,100 pages—has been called an “unequaled anatomy of experimental religion.” The first volume, subtitled A Treatise of Grace and Assurance, contains 120 sermons; the second, subtitled A Treatise of Sin, with its Causes, Differences, Mitigations and Aggravations, contains 42 sermons.2International Outreach has done a two two-volume editions of Burgess’s Spiritual Refining (Ames, Ia.: International Outreach, 1986–96). Only one hundred copies were printed of the first edition, a facsimile, which contains the complete unabridged text of 1658. The second edition of Spiritual Refining, an abridged edition, is worth the investment for those who have difficulty reading facsimile print, though many sections are not included.

In the first section of the first volume, Burgess refutes the antinomian error that internal marks of grace in a believer are no evidence
of his justification. In my opinion, the first sixty pages of the facsimile edition include the best short treatment on assurance in all Puritan literature. Here is one choice quotation in which Burgess shows the need to give priority to Christ and His promises rather than to the marks of grace in ascertaining one’s assurance:

We must take heed that we do not so gaze upon ourselves to find graces in our own hearts as thereby we forget those Acts of Faith, whereby we close with Christ immediately, and rely upon him only for our Justification…. The fear of this hath made some cry down totally the use of signs, to evidence our Justification. And the truth is, it cannot be denied but many of the children of God, while they are studying and examining, whether grace be in their souls, that upon the discovery thereof, they may have comfortable persuasions of their Justification, are very much neglective of those choice and principal Acts of Faith, whereby we have an acquiescency or recumbency upon Christ for our Acceptation with God. This is as if old Jacob should so rejoice in the Chariot Joseph sent, whereby he knew that he was alive, that he should not desire to see Joseph himself. Thus while thou art so full of joy, to perceive grace in thee, thou forgettest to joy in Christ himself, who is more excellent than all thy graces.3Anthony Burgess, Spiritual Refining, 1:41.

Sections two and three describe numerous signs of grace. The remaining nine sections of this volume discuss grace in terms of regeneration, the new creature, God’s workmanship, grace in the heart, washing or sanctifying grace, conversion, softening the stony heart, God’s Spirit within us, and vocation or calling. Throughout, Burgess distinguishes saving grace from its counterfeits.

In the second volume of Spiritual Refining, Burgess focuses on sin. He addresses the deceitfulness of the human heart, presumptuous and reigning sins, hypocrisy and formality in religion, a misguided conscience, and secret sins that often go unrecognized. Positively, he explains the tenderness of a gracious heart, showing “that a strict scrutiny into a man’s heart and ways, with a holy fear of sinning, doth consist with a Gospel-life of faith and joy in the Holy Ghost.” His goal, as stated on the title page, is to “unmask counterfeit Christians, terrify the ungodly, comfort and direct the doubting saint, humble man, [and] exalt the grace of God.”

I discovered Burgess’s Spiritual Refining a few days before completing my doctoral dissertation on assurance of faith in the mid-1980s. When I read the first sixty pages of this masterpiece, I was overwhelmed at Burgess’s scriptural clarity, insightful exegesis, balance, thoroughness, and depth. I spent two days incorporating some of Burgess’s key thoughts into my dissertation. Later, when called on to speak on Burgess’s life and his views on assurance for the Westminster Conference (1997), I acquired a nearly complete collection of his writings and immersed myself in them. That fall, Burgess surpassed Goodwin as my favorite Puritan author, and has remained so ever since. One of my goals is to bring several of Burgess’s works back into print—or better yet, do a complete edition of his works.

Recommended reading: Burgess’s Spiritual Refining.

Wilhelmus á Brakel (1635–1711)

Wilhelmus á Brakel was a prominent preacher and writer of the Nadere Reformatie (Dutch Further Reformation). This movement of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries paralleled English Puritanism.4For summaries of the Nadere Reformatie in English, see Joel R. Beeke, Assurance of Faith: Calvin, English Puritanism, and the Dutch Second Reformation (New York: Peter Lang, 1991), 383–413; Fred A. van Lieburg, “From Pure Church to Pious Culture: The Further Reformation in the Seventeenth-Century Dutch Republic,” in Later Calvinism: International Perspectives, ed. W. Fred Graham (Kirksville, Mo.: Sixteenth Century Journal Publishers, 1994), 409–30. Like English Puritanism, the Nadere Reformatie stressed the necessity of vital Christian piety, was true to the teachings of Scripture and the Reformed confessions, and consistently highlighted how faith and godliness work in all aspects of daily life. Consequently, I feel justified in including Dutch “puritans” in a selection of favorite authors.

I was once asked what book I would take with me if I were stranded on a desert island. My choice was Wilhelmus à Brakel’s The Christian’s Reasonable Service.5Wilhelmus à Brakel, The Christian’s Reasonable Service, 4 vols., trans. Bartel Elshout, ed. Joel R. Beeke (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2001). In my opinion, this is the most valuable set of books available in English today because of the rich doctrinal, experiential, practical, pastoral, and ethical content this classic conveys. For centuries this set of books was as popular in the Netherlands as John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress was in English-speaking countries. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, most Dutch farmers of Reformed persuasion would read a few pages of “Father Brakel,” as he was fondly called, every evening during family worship. When they completed the entire work, they would start over!

This massive work is arranged in three parts. The first volume and most of the second consist of a traditional Reformed systematic theology that is packed with clear thinking, thorough presentation, and helpful application. The concluding applications at the end of each chapter applying the particular doctrines are the highlight of this section. I believe à Brakel’s practical casuistry in these applications supersedes any other systematic theologian in his day and ever since. They represent Reformed, Puritan, experiential theology at its best.

The second part expounds Christian ethics and Christian living. This largest section of à Brakel’s work is packed with salient applications on topics pertinent to living as a Christian in this world. In addition to a masterful treatment of the ten commandments (chaps. 45–55) and the Lord’s Prayer (chaps. 68–74), this part addresses topics such as living by faith out of God’s promises (chap. 42); how to exercise love toward God and His Son (chaps. 56–57); how to fear, obey, and hope in God (chaps. 59–61); how to profess Christ and His truth (chap. 63); and how to exercise spiritual graces, such as courage, contentment, self-denial, patience, uprightness, watchfulness, neighborly love, humility, meekness, peace, diligence, compassion, and prudence (chaps. 62, 64–67, 76, 82–88). Other topics include fasting (chap. 75), solitude (chap. 77), spiritual meditation (chap. 78), singing (chap. 79), vows (chap. 80), spiritual experience (chap. 81), spiritual growth (chap. 89), backsliding (chap. 90), spiritual desertion (chap. 91), temptations (chaps. 92–95), indwelling corruption (chap. 96), and spiritual darkness and deadness (chaps. 97–98).

The third part (4:373–538) includes a history of God’s redemptive, covenantal work in the world. It is reminiscent of Jonathan Edwards’s History of Redemption, though not as detailed as Edwards; à Brakel’s work confines itself more to Scripture and has a greater covenantal emphasis. It concludes with a detailed study of the future conversion of the Jews (4:511–38).

The Christian’s Reasonable Service is the heartbeat of the Dutch Further Reformation. Here systematic theology and vital, experiential Christianity are scripturally and practically woven within a covenantal framework. The entire work bears the mark of a pastortheologian richly taught by the Spirit. Nearly every subject treasured by Christians is treated in a helpful way, always aiming for the promotion of godliness.

In my opinion, this pastoral set of books is an essential tool for every pastor and is also valuable for lay people. The book has been freshly translated into contemporary English. Buy and read this great classic.

Recommended reading: Brakel’s The Christian’s Reasonable Service.

Samuel Rutherford (1600–1661)

While divided by history, nationality, and race, and to some extent, language, England’s Puritans and Scotland’s Presbyterians were united by close spiritual bonds of doctrine, worship, and church order. For this reason, I include a Scotsman on my short list of favorite Puritans.

Actually, three Scottish divines have influenced me greatly: Thomas Boston (1676–1732) led me to the depths of my original sin and the beauty and symmetry of covenant theology;6Thomas Boston, The Complete Works of the Late Rev. Thomas Boston, Ettrick, 12 vols., ed. Samuel M‘Millan (repr., Wheaton, Ill.: Richard Owen Roberts, 1980). Thomas Halyburton (1674–1712) taught me the power of bringing every personal experience to the touchstone of Scripture;7Thomas Halyburton, The Works of Thomas Halyburton, 4 vols. (Aberdeen: James Begg Society, 2000–2005). and Samuel Rutherford taught me much about loving Christ and being submissive in affliction. For twenty years, I kept a copy of Rutherford’s Letters (unabridged) on my nightstand, and turned to it countless times when I felt discouraged, challenged, or afflicted. On many occasions, I read until I found my bearings once more in Prince Immanuel. No writer in all of history can so make you fall in love with Christ and embrace your afflictions as Samuel Rutherford can. I agree with Charles Spurgeon who said, “When we are dead and gone let the world know that Spurgeon held Rutherford’s Letters to be the nearest thing to inspiration which can be found in all the writings of mere man.”8Charles Spurgeon, The Sword and the Trowel, 189. /wiki/Samuel_Rutherford (accessed August 31, 2010). I thank God for this great man of God.

Though Boston and Halyburton rate a close second, my favorite Scottish divine is Rutherford, who first pastored in Anwoth, then was exiled to Aberdeen, and later became professor at St. Andrews. Rutherford’s heart was a vast treasure chest filled with unspeakable love for God. Rutherford wrote as one whose heart transcended this world and lighted upon eternal shores. In the midst of trial and affliction, he wrote, “Christ hath so handsomely fitted for my shoulders, this rough tree of the cross, as that it hurteth me no ways.”9Samuel Rutherford, The Letters of Samuel Rutherford (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1984), 144. Even on his deathbed, Rutherford focused on Christ. To those gathered around him, he said, “This night will close the door, and fasten my anchor within the veil…. Glory, glory dwelleth in Immanuel’s land!”10Rutherford, The Letters of Samuel Rutherford, 21–22. In life and in death, he found his Savior “altogether lovely” (Song 4:16). “No pen, no words, no image can express to you the loveliness of my only, only Lord Jesus,” he wrote.11Samuel Rutherford, The Loveliness of Christ (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2007), 88. This is what makes him so devotional, so beneficial, so engaging to read.

Most of Rutherford’s letters (220 of 365) were written while he was in exile. The letters beautifully harmonize Reformed doctrine and the spiritual experiences of a believer. They basically cover six topics: (1) Rutherford’s love and desire for Christ, (2) his deep sense of the heinousness of sin, (3) his devotion for the cause of Christ, (4) his profound sympathy for burdened and troubled souls, (5) his profound love for his flock, and (6) his ardent longings for heaven.12Adapted from Beeke and Pederson, Meet the Puritans, 729–30.

Although he did not write his letters for publication, the compilation of them is Rutherford’s most popular work. It has been reprinted more than eighty times in English, fifteen times in Dutch, and several times in German and French and Gaelic.

Several of Rutherford’s diversified writings have also been republished. His Communion Sermons (1870s), a compilation of fourteen sacramental sermons, was recently published by Westminster Publishing House. The Covenant of Life Opened (1655), an exegetical defense of covenant theology, was edited and republished by Puritan Publications. In this, Rutherford reveals himself as an apt apologist and polemicist in defending the bi-covenantal structure of Scripture. His work Lex Rex has become a standard in law curriculum; nearly every member of the Westminster Assembly owned a copy. This book helped instigate the Covenanters’ resistance to King Charles I and was later used to justify the French and American revolutions. History has generally regarded this work as one of the greatest contributions to political science.

In addition, Soli Deo Gloria has republished Quaint Sermons of Samuel Rutherford (1885), composed from compiled shorthand notes taken by a listener. The warmth of Rutherford’s preaching is particularly evident in “The Spouse’s Longing for Christ.” Like many divines in his day, Rutherford drafted his own catechism, Rutherford’s Catechism: or, The Sum of Christian Religion (1886), recently reprinted by Blue Banner Publications. This was most likely written during the Westminster Assembly and is filled with many quaint sayings. The Trial and Triumph of Faith (1645) contains twenty-seven sermons on Christ’s saving work in the Canaanite woman (Matt. 15:21–28). In nearly every sermon, Rutherford shows the overflowing grace of Christ to Gentiles. He explores the nature of genuine prayer and addresses practical aspects of the trial of faith. Most recently, Banner of Truth published The Loveliness of Christ (2007), a little book that contains Christ-centered quotes from Rutherford.

Rutherford’s Letters, however, remain the author’s masterpiece. They are filled with pastoral advice, comfort, rebuke, and encouragement.

Recommended reading: Rutherford’s Letters.