Pillar Journal

What the Puritans Would Say to Modern Pastors

One of the great motives driving the Puritans was the need to raise up ministers who imitate Christ. Written by Joel Beeke

…One of the great motives driving the Puritans was the need to raise up ministers who imitate Christ. Luke 6:40 says, “The disciple is not above his master: but every one that is perfect [fully trained] shall be as his master.” I would lay before you seven points in which the Puritans called pastors to take up their crosses and follow Jesus Christ. Some of what I am about to tell is adapted from the book I published with Mark Jones entitled, A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life.1Joel R. Beeke and Mark Jones, A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2012).

1. Invest Precious Time in Prayer

Professionalism makes prayer into a formality, a ceremonial way to open and close meetings. Longer prayers can serve to broadcast to other people how intelligent and spiritual we are. But for Christ, prayer was a tearful cry to God for deliverance for Himself and us (Heb. 5:7). The Bible says that in Gethsemane Christ “fell on the ground, and prayed,” calling out with the language of a child, “Abba, Father!” (Mark 14:35–36).

The Puritans saturated all their pastoral ministry in prayer. They were great preachers only because they were also great petitioners who wrestled with God for His blessing. They understood the urgency of Paul’s request, “Finally, brethren, pray for us, that the word of the Lord may have free course, and be glorified, even as it is with you: and that we may be delivered from unreasonable and wicked men: for all men have not faith” (2 Thess. 3:1–2).

Richard Baxter said, “Prayer must carry on our work as well as preaching; he preacheth not heartily to his people, that prayeth not earnestly for them. If we prevail not with God to give them faith and repentance, we are unlikely to prevail with them to believe and repent.”2Richard Baxter, The Reformed Pastor, in The Practical Works of the Rev. Richard Baxter, ed. William Orme (London: James Duncan, 1830), 14:125. And Robert Traill wrote, “Some ministers of meaner [lesser] gifts and parts are more successful than some that are far above them in abilities; not because they preach better, so much as because they pray more. Many good sermons are lost for lack of much prayer in study.”3Robert Traill, “By What Means may Ministers Best Win Souls?” in The Works of Robert Traill (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1975), 1:246.

The well-known story of Puritan-minded nineteenth-century Scottish minister Robert Murray M‘Cheyne illustrates best what Traill means. An old sexton in M‘Cheyne’s church noticed the awe on the face of a visitor and invited him into his study. “Tell me,” said the visitor, “having sat under this godly man’s ministry, what is the secret of his success?”

The sexton told the visitor to sit at M‘Cheyne’s desk. Then he asked the man to put his hands on the desk. Then he said to put his face in his hands and weep. Next the two men walked into the church sanctuary and ascended to the pulpit. “Lean over the pulpit,” the sexton said, “stretch out your hands, and weep. Now you know the secret of M‘Cheyne’s ministry.”

The church today desperately needs such preachers whose private prayers season their pulpit messages. The Puritan pastors jealously guarded their personal devotional time. They set their priorities on spiritual, eternal realities. They knew that if they ceased to watch and pray they would be courting spiritual disaster.

2. Depend Radically on the Holy Spirit

Professionalism manages resources in order to manipulate apparent spiritual results. It fishes for men, and then “offers a sacrifice to its net” (Hab. 1:14–16), that is, claims success for its programs or skills. Jesus Christ came preaching in the power of the Holy Spirit, and His spiritual authority amazed people used to skillful but non-supernatural ministry (Luke 4:14; Mark 1:22). Now Christ calls us to be fishers of men (Mark 1:17), but says that we cannot do it without being endued with power from on high” (Luke 24:49).

The Puritans showed a profound dependence upon the Holy Spirit in everything they said and did. They felt keenly their inability to bring anyone to Christ. Baxter wrote, “Conversion is another kind of work than most are aware of. It is not a small matter…to have the very drift and bent of his life change so that a man renounces that which he took for his happiness, and places his happiness where he never did before.”4Baxter, A Call to the Unconverted, in Works, 7:370.

The Puritans were convinced that both preacher and listener are totally dependent on the work of the Spirit to effect regeneration and conversion when, how, and in whom He will. The Spirit brings God’s presence into human hearts. He persuades sinners to seek salvation, renews corrupt wills, and makes scriptural truths take root in stony hearts. Thomas Watson wrote, “Ministers knock at the door of men’s hearts, the Spirit comes with a key and opens the door.”5Thomas Watson, A Body of Divinity (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1965), 221.

They also felt their complete dependence on the Spirit in order to build up the saints in holiness. They knew that apart from Christ Christians can bear no spiritual fruit (John 15:5). John Owen said, “The Lord Christ…sends his Holy Spirit into our hearts, which is the efficient cause of all holiness and sanctification—quickening, enlightening, purifying the souls of his saints.”6John Owen, Communion with God, in The Works of John Owen (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1965–1968), 2:199.

The church needs men who know God’s sovereignty not just in theoretical pronouncements from the pulpit but in the private prostration of their souls before the throne of grace. Despite our affirmations of God’s sovereignty, we are quick to puff ourselves up when we see success, and easily deflated and downcast when we harvest little. The Puritans would remind us that men’s hearts will receive God’s Word only when Christ writes it in them with the ink of the Spirit of the living God (2 Cor. 3:3).

3. Embrace the Thorns of Affliction

Professionalism views weakness and pain with contempt and fear. To the victor belong the spoils; to losers belongs the agony of defeat. However Jesus Christ willingly received a crown of thorns upon His head, pressed into His bloody brow by mocking soldiers (Matt. 27:29–30). How will we respond when a thorn pierces our flesh and God leaves it there despite all our prayers for its removal (2 Cor. 12:7–9)?

The Puritans teach us to groan in God’s presence. Do not pretend that ministry doesn’t hurt. Perhaps you have seen your plans come to nothing. You have poured your life into people only to suffer unfair criticism and rejection. Perhaps you feel like a child who built sandcastles by the sea, only to watch your labors on behalf of the church be swallowed up by the inevitable rising tides of human sin, whether your own or someone else’s.

George Hutcheson said that to be “mournful under affliction…is very consistent with a patient and meek frame of spirit under trouble.”7George Hutcheson, An Exposition of the Book of Job (London: for Ralph Smith, 1669), 14. If we try not to feel the pain, we may harden our hearts, and fail to profit from affliction. Hutcheson said the best way to manage grief is to “run to God with all that grieves us,” with much humility and self-abasement.8Hutcheson, Job, 14–15.

Let us sweeten our groaning, however, with abundant praises to God. There is a difference between moaning and murmuring. Thomas Manton said, “Murmuring is an anti-providence, a renouncing of God’s sovereignty.”9Thomas Manton, A Treatise of Self-Denial, in The Complete Works of Thomas Manton (London: James Nisbet, 1873), 15:249. How horrible it is when men whose mouths preach the gospel of God then complain with the same mouths about what God has done, or apparently failed to do! Watson wrote, “Our murmuring is the devil’s music.”10Thomas Watson, The Art of Divine Contentment, ed. Don Kistler (Morgan, Pa.: Soli Deo Gloria, 2001), 65. Satan likes nothing better than to get men to curse God, even if they do it under their breath. Let us learn rather to say, “The Lord gave, and the LORD hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord ” (Job 1:21).

Praising God in pain requires us to submit our limited minds to God’s incomprehensible ways. Why do we think we can judge God? Owen was one of the greatest Christian thinkers of all time. But he wrote, “All our notions of God are but childish in respect of his infinite perfections.”11Owen, Of the Mortification of Sin in Believers, in Works, 6:65. As children of God, we must not criticize our Father but trust His will and His timing. John Flavel said God’s timing is always “precise, certain, and punctual,” but “the Lord doth not compute and reckon his seasons of working by our arithmetic.”12John Flavel, The Mystery of Providence, in The Works of John Flavel (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1968), 5:472.

4. Cultivate Personal Holiness

Professionalism is resumé-driven. It glories in credentials, measurable results, upward career moves, and financial rewards. Each church is a stepping stone to a yet more prominent ministry. Christ’s meat was to do the will of His Father (John 4:34). His career moves were all downward: “he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross” (Phil. 2:6). Now He calls us to work out our salvation with fear and trembling (Phil. 2:12), and to “cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God” (2 Cor. 7:1).

The Puritans taught that the core duty of our calling is to walk with Christ by faith on the pathway of holiness. Flavel wrote, “The soul is the life of the body, faith is the life of the soul, and Christ is the life of faith.”13Flavel, The Method of Grace, in Works, 2:104. Hebrews 12:1–2 commands us to cast off sin and to run the race set before us, “looking unto Jesus.” Isaac Ambrose said that this looking to Christ is not a bare, intellectual knowledge but an inward and experiential “looking unto Jesus, such as stirs up affections in the heart, and the effects thereof in our life…knowing, considering, desiring, hoping, believing, loving, joying, calling on Jesus, and conforming to Jesus.”14Isaac Ambrose, Looking unto Jesus (Harrisonburg, Va.: Sprinkle Publications, 1986), 28.

If we desire Christ to walk with us in our public ministry, then we must walk with Christ in our private lives. Traill said to ministers, “Take heed unto thyself, that thou be a lively thriving Christian. See that all thy religion run not in the channel of thy employment.”15Traill, “By What Means May Ministers Best Win Souls?” 1:241. These words capture the essence of unholy and unhealthy professionalism. As David resolved in Psalm 101:2, so we too must say, “I will walk within my house with a perfect heart.” This is not sinless perfection, but sincere godliness, as opposed to hypocritical religion, where all is done to be seen of men. John Trapp wrote, “Follow hypocrites home to their houses, and there you shall see what they are.”16John Trapp, A Commentary on the Old and New Testaments (London: Richard D. Dickinson, 1868), 2:624. Matthew Henry said, “It is not enough to put on our religion when we go abroad and appear before men; but we must govern ourselves by it in our families. Those that are in public stations are not thereby excused from care in governing their families; nay, rather, they are more concerned to set a good example of ruling their own houses well (1 Tim. 3:4).”17Matthew Henry’s Commentary (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1991), 3:503 [Ps. 101].

In Psalm 101:3 David wrote, “I will set no wicked thing before mine eyes: I hate the work of them that turn aside; it shall not cleave to me.” Trapp paraphrased David, “I will not gaze upon forbidden objects, nor venture upon a temptation to or an occasion of sin.”18Trapp, Commentary, 2:624. So we are called to do battle for the purity of our minds. Matthew Poole wrote, “If any ungodly or unjust thing shall be suggested to me…I will cast it out of my mind and thoughts with abhorrency.”19Matthew Poole, A Commentary on the Whole Bible (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, n.d.), 2:154.

5. Digest the Bible One Verse at a Time

Professionalism takes every thought captive to the wisdom of the world. It follows with baited breath the latest trend, newest book, and most popular cultural events for these, it thinks, hold the secret code to unlock the minds of men. By contrast, Christ was a man of the Book. He is the preeminent Psalm 1 man who rejects “the counsel of the ungodly,” but “his delight is in the law of the Lord; and in his law doth he meditate day and night” (Ps. 1:2). Whether fasting in the wilderness of temptation or teaching in the temple, the mind, heart, and mouth of Jesus was filled with Scripture.

The Puritans taught that we too must meditate on the Word (Josh. 1:8). What is meditation? Thomas Hooker said, “Meditation is a serious intention of the mind whereby we come to search out the truth, and settle it effectually upon the heart.”20Thomas Hooker, The Application of Redemption by the Effectual Work of the Word, and Spirit of Christ, for the Bringing Home of Lost Sinners to God. The Ninth and Tenth Books (London: Peter Cole, 1657), 210. In meditation your mind hovers over a truth like a bee over a flower to draw out all its sweetness.

The Puritans abounded in practical directions on how to meditate on the Word. First, pray for the Holy Spirit to help you. You might use the words of Psalm 119:18, “Open thou mine eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of thy law.” Second, read a portion of the Scriptures. Don’t read so much that you have no time to meditate. Third, focus on one verse or doctrine, something clear and applicable to your life. Repeat the verse or doctrine to yourself several times to memorize it. Fourth, analyze it in your mind by its various names, properties, causes, and effects, together with illustrations, comparisons, and opposites. Be careful not to speculate over matters left unspoken. Fifth, preach the truth to your own soul to stir up your faith, love, desire, hope, courage, grief, gratitude, and joy in the presence of God. Examine your life and make detailed application. Sixth, resolve with prayer to grow in grace. Seventh, praise the Lord with thanksgiving. So to meditate is to pray, read, focus, analyze, preach to yourself, resolve with prayer, and praise God in a manner which revolves around a single truth of Scripture.

Meditation will feed your soul. Thomas Manton wrote, “Faith is lean and ready to starve unless it be fed with continual meditation on the promises.”21Manton, “Sermons on Genesis 24:63,” in Works, 17:270. Beware of a professional approach to the Bible. Traill warned, “When we read the word, we read it as ministers, to know what we should teach, rather than what we should learn as Christians. Unless there be great heed taken, it will be found, that our ministry, and labour therein, may eat out the life of our Christianity.”22Traill, “By What Means May Ministers Best Win Souls?” 1:242.

6. Feel the Momentous Dignity of Ministry

Professionalism is essentially materialistic and focused on this world. Therefore if it values pastoral ministry at all, it does so by reducing it to an earthly pursuit requiring only skill, organization, and technique. The goal, frankly, is customer satisfaction! But Christ refused to submit His mission to an earthly agenda (Luke 12:14; John 6:15). Why should He? Christ knew that He was sent by the Father to do an eternally significant work, and He set Himself apart to do it. He says to His ministers, “As my Father hath sent me, even so send I you” (John 20:21).

The Puritans stood in awe that a mere man could be the ambassador of the almighty, triune God (2 Cor. 5:20). William Gurnall said, “The Word of God is too sacred a thing, and preaching too solemn a work, to be toyed and played with.”23William Gurnall, The Christian in Complete Armour (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1964), 2:286. They also felt the amazing privilege of being called to serve Christ as an under-shepherd. Richard Sibbes said, “This is a gift of all gifts, the ordinance of preaching. God esteems it so, Christ esteems it so, and so should we esteem it.”24Richard Sibbes, The Fountain Opened, in Works of Richard Sibbes (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1978), 5:509. Thomas Goodwin wrote, “The work of the ministry is the best work in the world; God had but one Son in the world and He made Him a minister.”25Thomas Goodwin, An Exposition of the First Chapter of the Epistle to the Ephesians, in The Works of Thomas Goodwin (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2006), 1:563.

Our secular society has dramatically downgraded the value of pastoral ministry because secularism demeans the spiritual and the eternal. The Puritans, however, saw our calling as the glorious responsibility to prepare people to stand before God on Judgment Day and to receive an everlasting kingdom. “There is not a sermon which is heard, but it sets us nearer heaven or hell,” wrote John Preston.26John Preston, Riches of Mercy to Men in Misery (London: by J. T., 1658), 288. Therefore pastors should take up their work with joy, dignity, sobriety, and hope. This is a work worthy of our life’s labors. Flavel caught the ethos of Puritan ministry when he wrote:

How many truths we have to study! How many wiles of Satan and mysteries of corruption, to detect! How many cases of conscience to resolve! Yea, we must fight in defense of the truths we preach, as well as study them to paleness, and preach them unto faithfulness: but well-spent: head, heart, lungs and all; welcome pained breasts, aching backs, and trembling legs; if we can all but approve ourselves Christ’s faithful servants, and hear that joyful voice from his mouth, ‘Well done, good and faithful servants’!27Flavel, The Character of a True Evangelical Pastor, in Works, 6:569.

7. Love the Triune God and His People

Professionalism is focused on the bottom line. It views God’s people and God Himself according to how useful they are to fulfill its agenda. But while viewing God as useful, it fails to see Him as beautiful. Christ rejoiced in worshiping the Father (Luke 10:21). He lived in constant intimacy with God (John 1:18). Zeal for God’s house consumed Him (John 2:17). And Christ’s compassion fills Him with warm feeling when He sees people in their brokenness and misery (Luke 7:13; John 11:35; Heb. 4:15).

The Puritans practiced Christ-like ministry with a heart full of affection. They stirred themselves up to zeal. Oliver Bowles said zeal “is a holy ardor kindled by the Holy Spirit of God in the affections, improving a man to the utmost for God’s glory, and the church’s good.”28Oliver Bowles, Zeal for God’s House Quickened (London: Richard Bishop for Samuel Gellibrand, 1643), 5. Yet their zeal was not proud and harsh, but sweet and gentle. Jonathan Edwards wrote,

As some are mistaken concerning the nature of true boldness for Christ, so they are concerning Christian zeal. ’Tis indeed a flame, but a sweet one; or rather it is the heat and fervor of a sweet flame. For the flame of which it is the heat, is no other than that of divine love, or Christian charity; which is the sweetest and most benevolent thing that is, or can be, in the heart of man or angel.29The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Volume 2, Religious Affections, ed. John E. Smith (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1959), 2:352.

Zeal is indeed the heat of a flame, but the flame is the fire of love. Therefore we should avoid the destructive wild-fire of pride, selfishness, and divisive partisanship on the one hand, and on the other hand avoid coldness, lethargy, laziness, and deadness. Let us burn with love!

William Ames said that love for our neighbors means that we desire their good “with sincere and hearty affection” and “endeavor to procure it.”30William Ames, Conscience with the Power and Cases Thereof (1639; facsimile repr., Norwood, N.J.: Walter J. Johnson, 1975), 5.7.4 [Rr recto]. He also wrote that ministers “ought so to behave themselves towards the congregation as servants, and not lords.” Though they “do all things with authority” as “Christ’s delegates,” still “they are the servants of all men.”31Ames, Conscience with the Power and Cases Thereof, 5.24.1 [Xx2v].

Since I speak at a number of conferences, I have the opportunity to talk with a lot of Christians, both pastors and church members. Many times someone will start telling me about his pastor, that he is a good teacher, preacher, and leader, and yet there is something missing. He does not feel a personal connection with his pastor, a sense that his pastor truly loves him. Brothers, as a pastor myself, I understand both the demands of ministry and the unrealistic expectations of many church members. But I also know how easy it is to begin to view people merely as tools we use to attain our ministerial goals—goals often sadly driven by human pride and selfish ambition.

Our Lord taught us that love for God as our supreme end and love for our neighbor as ourselves are the most important ingredients in all our duties. So it is too with ministry. Owen said that “zeal for the glory of God and compassion for the souls of men” are “the life and soul of preaching.”32Owen, The True Nature of a Gospel Church, in Works, 16:77. That means that preaching without love is lifeless and soulless.

And it is not just preaching. Owen wrote that a pastor’s responsibilities include being “ready, willing, and able, to comfort, relieve, and refresh, those that are tempted, tossed, wearied with fears and grounds of disconsolation, in times of trial and desertion.” Pastors must resemble Christ as the great High Priest.33Owen, The True Nature of a Gospel Church, 16:85. Our duties also include “a compassionate suffering with all the members of the church in all their trials and troubles, whether internal or external”; Owen remarked that nothing in pastors “renders them more like unto Jesus Christ” than this.34Owen, The True Nature of a Gospel Church, 16:87.

How beautiful is a pastor with a heart of warm love for God and genuine tenderness toward people. His heart truly streams out towards others with living water from the Lord, sometimes in tears and sometimes in shouts of joy.

Don’t treat people as tools or obstacles for your professional advancement. Love them!


The Puritans didn’t just talk about pastoral ministry; they did it. In 1665 the plague or “black death” swept through London. At its peak, over seven thousand people were dying every week. So many people died that they carried the bodies off in carts and buried them in mass graves. Historians estimate that the plague killed between 75,000 and 100,000 people in London in those times.

The “professional” pastors fled the city, fearing for their lives. But the Puritan ministers stayed in the city to care for the sick and bereaved and to bring them the gospel. They risked their lives and followed the Good Shepherd, who laid down His life for the sheep. They were men like Thomas Vincent. Vincent had been expelled by the government from his church ministry in London in 1662 by the Act of Uniformity. But he stayed in the city as a school teacher. When the plague came, Vincent chose to remain. He believed that those dying from the plague needed true spiritual comfort, and he could think of no greater opportunity for ministry.

Fearlessly he visited the homes of the infected. Though he had no official pastorate, he preached every Lord’s Day. It is said that he never preached a sermon during this period without someone being affected powerfully by the Word. The danger was real; seven persons died in the very house where Vincent was staying. But God preserved Vincent and continued to uphold him as he suffered through another thirteen years of official persecution before he died.35“Life of the Author,” in Thomas Vincent, The True Christian’s Love of the Unseen Christ, ed. Don Kistler (Morgan, Pa.: Soli Deo Gloria, 1993), viii–ix.

Someone has said, “Those of us who minister for Christ should strive to minister like Christ.”36Warren W. Wiersbe, On Being a Servant of God, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007), 58. It is easy for us to fall into the trap of ministerial professionalism. It comes naturally. If we would follow Christ, then we must strive and labor against our greatest opponent: ourselves. If, however, Christ is in us, then we have the Spirit’s grace to deny ourselves and press forward.

Let us begin, brothers, by humbling ourselves in the presence of the Good Shepherd, lamenting our worldly professionalism, and calling upon God to give us more of graces of His Holy Spirit. Let us begin with prayer and dependence on God.

Preston wrote, “The love of God is peculiarly the work of the Holy Ghost…. Therefore the way to get it is earnestly to pray…. We are no more able to love the Lord than cold water is able to heat itself…so the Holy Ghost must breed that fire of love in us, it must be kindled from heaven, or else we shall never have it.”37John Preston, The Breastplate of Faith and Love, 2 vols. in one (1634; facsimile repr., Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1979), 2:50.


Puritan Reformed Journal – JANUARY 2014
Volume 6 • Number 1
By Joel Beeke