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Profiting from the Puritans for Devotional Reading

Category Articles
Date November 5, 2003

Dr Joel Beeke, Grand Rapids.

Puritan literature has been a major resource for my devotional reading for thirty-five years. I believe there is no group of writers in church history that can feed our minds and souls with spiritual truth as effectively as do the Puritans. With the Spirit’s blessing, here’s how Puritan writings can enrich your devotional reading:

Shape Your Life by Scripture

Let the Puritans show you how to shape your entire life by scripture. They 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 that was graciously bequeathed to them. Scripture was God speaking to them as their Father; the Word was truth they could trust in 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 sounded a call to become 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 Bible-centeredness becomes contagious. They show you 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.” Puritan books are rich with scriptural support and references. When you read these books for devotions, look up their references and meditate on them.

Marry Doctrine and Practice

The Puritans show us how to marry doctrine and practice in our lives by addressing the mind, confronting the conscience, and wooing the heart.

•Puritan literature addresses the mind. The Puritans loved and worshiped God with their minds. They 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 teach us to think in order to be holy. They understood that a mindless Christianity fosters a spineless Christianity. An anti-intellectual gospel will spawn an irrelevant gospel that doesn’t get beyond “felt needs.” That’s what is happening in our churches today. We have lost our intellect, and for the most part we don’t see the necessity of recovering it. We do not understand that if there is little difference between the Christian and unbelievers in what we believe, there will soon be little difference in how we live.

•Puritan literature confronts the conscience. The Puritans were masters at naming specific sins, then asking questions to press home the guilt 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 instead to run away, we need help in our daily devotions to be brought before the living God, “naked and opened unto the eyes of Him with whom we have to do” (Heb. 4:~3).

•Puritan literature woos the heart. It is unusual today to find books that both feed the mind with solid biblical substance and move the heart with affectionate warmth, but the Puritans do this. 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 the reader to yearn to know Him better and live wholly for Him.

Focus on Christ

Puritan literature magnifies 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. Listen to Samuel Rutherford: “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 foundations of ten thousand earths.” Thomas Goodwin summed that up, writing, “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.

Handle Trial Christianly

The Puritans show us how to handle trials. We learn from their books 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). ‘Affliction is the diamond dust that heaven polishes its jewels with,” wrote Robert Leighton. They teach us to view God’s rod of affliction as 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 profound trials, learn from the Puritans not to overestimate those trials. Read William Bridge’s A Lifting Up for the Downcast (Banner of Truth), Thomas Brooks’ A Mute Christian Under the Rod, and Richard Sibbes’s A Bruised Reed (Banner of Truth). 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.”

Or read The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment (Banner of Truth) by Jeremiah Burroughs. He’ll teach you how to learn contentment through trial. Then, the next time you’re buffeted by others, Satan, or your own conscience, you will not waste time complaining. Instead, you’ll carry those trials to Christ and ask Him, by His Spirit, to sanctify them so that you model spiritual contentment for others.

Live in Two Worlds

The Puritans show us how to live from a two-worlds point of view. Richard Baxter’s The Saint’s Everlasting Rest demonstrates the power that the hope of heaven should have 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 exceeded only by John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress (Banner of Truth), which, by the way, is an allegorical proof of my point. 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 ought to have heaven ”in our eye” throughout our earthly pilgrimage. They took seriously the two-worlds, now/not-yet dynamics of the New Testament, stressing that keeping the “hope of glory” before our minds helps guide our lives here on earth. Living in the light of eternity for the Puritans often necessitated radical self-denial. They taught us to live knowing that the joy of heaven will make amends for any losses and crosses, strains and pains that we must endure on earth if we are to follow Christ. They teach us that preparation for death is the first step in learning to live. This earth is God’s dressing-room and gymnasium that prepares us for heaven.

Emulate Puritan Spirituality

There’s so much to learn from the Puritans – how they promote 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 – but space prohibits us. In a word, let’s read the Puritans devotionally, then pray to emulate their spirituality. Let’s ask ourselves 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?

Reading the Puritans isn’t enough. We also need the inward disposition of the Puritans authentic, biblical, intelligent piety that shows in our hearts, lives, and churches.

Let me challenge you. Will you live like the Puritans? Will you go beyond reading their writings, discussing their ideas, recalling their achievements, and berating their failures? Will you practice the degree of obedience to God’s Word for which they strove? Will you serve God as they served Him? Will you live with one eye on eternity as they did? “Thus saith the LORD, Stand ye in the ways, and see, and ask for the old paths, where is the good way, and walk therein, and ye shall find rest for your souls” (Jer. 6:16).

Joel Beeke is president and professor of systematic theology and homiletics at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary. He will be speaking on the topics of Puritans and the Priority of Preaching and Puritan Preaching: A Paradigm? at this year’s US Ministers’ Conference (May 30 – June 01). The Banner of Sovereign Grace Truth July/August 2003 with permission.

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