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The Puritans: Can They Teach Us Anything Today? (1)

Category Articles
Date December 20, 2005
[A lecture given at the Dedication of the Puritan Resource Center Grand Rapids on October 20, 2005]

Because Dr Joel Beeke, the President of the Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary is a long-standing friend, propriety and the privilege of years of friendship demanded that I should come and begin to answer this question: “The Puritans: Can They Teach Us Anything Today?”

I suppose the answer to that question depends in some respect on who the “us” refers to. No doubt there are many different people who can learn very different things from the Puritans. If we were, as I take it we are not, a group of educationalists, we would be able to learn a remarkable amount from Puritan education, much of which we badly need to restore to our own educational systems. If we were sociologists or politicians, there is much that we could learn from the social and political vision of the Puritans. If we were historians or theologians, there is much that we could learn about history and theology from the Puritans.

Perhaps one or two among us are educationalists, sociologists, even politicians, historians, or theologians. But most of us here this evening are fundamentally, first and foremost, Christian believers. It is as Christian believers that we want to try to learn whatever we can from those we know as the Puritans.

I want this evening to think about four areas in which the Puritans have something to teach us. It is not my intention to expound the whole of the Puritan vision or deal with every point of theology; rather, I wish to suggest to you that there are a number of general but vital lessons that we can learn today from the struggles, the agonies, the successes, and yes, even the failures of these great Christians who went before us. But before we begin let us ask this question;

Who were these Puritans?

A great Scottish individual with very mixed religious convictions, Thomas Carlyle, once said that the real father of the Puritan movement in England was actually the Scotsman, John Knox. And in many ways there is truth in that statement. John Knox had this burning vision to reform the Church of Jesus Christ so that it no longer had a face that looked as though it had come from Scotland, or from England, or even from Geneva, which he himself said was the most perfect school of Christ since the days of the apostles; but a church that was reformed according to the Scriptures, and understood that it had a place and a time and a location in history. Yet it looked not simply to the status quo or to tradition, but to the Scriptures to discover what the gospel was, what the Christian life was, what the Church was, and what the need of the world was. At great personal cost, Knox sought to reform the church in England, and then later the church in Scotland, in order that the church might be conformed to the New Testament pattern.

In England particularly, where the Reformation had been dominated not by Calvinism and Presbyterianism so much as by Episcopalianism and the government of the church by archbishops and bishops, the Puritan movement took hold: men rising up here and there with a great burden to see what had begun by God’s grace in the later period of Henry VIII, then in the reign of Edward, and then in some measure by individuals in the reign of Elizabeth I in the second half of the sixteenth century. They wanted to see what had come from God make advances, and not be stymied by reaching a level of reformation that contented the Episcopal government but not those who sought a radical, biblical reformation. So towards the end of the sixteenth century, we find individuals arising who, by their very lifestyle and by the summons they gave to the church as a whole to become more like an apostolic church, were described in somewhat demeaning terms as either precisionists or Puritans. Puritans were individuals who wanted to see the church purified according to the teaching of Scripture, and also wanted to see their lives, in great detail, purified by the Word of God. In a way, they took as their motto text the prayer of the Lord Jesus in John 17: “Sanctify [or purify] them through thy truth: thy word is truth.”

From the late sixteenth century into the middle and latter seventeenth century, a whole wave of individuals were swept into this extraordinary movement-this experiment and gospel transformation that we now look back on these hundreds of years later and speak about as our Puritan forefathers. In many ways their desires were disappointed. In some ways they may have expected too much. Certainly by the close of the seventeenth century, the Puritan movement had run out of energy. For about one hundred years, this swell of piety grew, and then waned once again. And yet, for all the relative failure of their vision, we’re able to look back on them and say, “There are certain principles here, certain emphases here, certain burdens that the church of Jesus Christ in the early twenty-first century needs to recapture all over again.” At root, and at its best, the Puritan movement was a twin-pronged burden to see the reformation of the church according to the teaching of the Scriptures, and the revival and renewing of the church by the power of the Holy Spirit. I want to suggest to you four particular things that seem to me, as I read and study the Puritans, to be things we need to learn.

1] A Sense of Spiritual Brotherhood

The first of them is this: the Puritan movement of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, particularly but not exclusively of England, underlines for us the significance of spiritual brotherhood in the movements of the Holy Spirit.

In some ways, generally speaking, the early Puritan movement hoped that the church might be reformed and revived through the normal channels of church government. In a rather wonderful way, some of those men who had been touched by God found themselves proceeding through the hierarchy of the Church of England. And yet it has probably always been true that the church of Jesus Christ has never been reformed and revived simply through ordinary channels. Given the fact that the monarch was the governor as well as the protector of the Church of England, the efforts of these early Puritans to revive and reform the church through the normal channels faced obstacles, not least the obstacle of the power of the monarchy.

But these were men with passion. When some of these Puritans saw that they could press their Episcopalian leaders no further, it had at least this salutary effect upon them: they needed to wait upon God and to seek the blessing of God – not so much by the structures of church government, but more directly, by the power of the gospel, the power of prayer, and the help of the Holy Spirit. And just at that period something rather striking began to happen. Individuals gained burdens, a little like the burden of the apostle Paul who, whether very deliberately or simply by a sense of spiritual intelligence, always seemed to go to places where the gospel might invade, take hold, and spread to other places and institutions.

In the sixteenth century, some of these Puritans began to realize that the place to start was in one or both of the two great universities in England, and to capture the institutions of learning by and for the gospel-and if that couldn’t be done, then at the very least, capture young men’s hearts and train and tutor them in the gospel.

So, particularly in the days of Elizabeth and her successor, James I, we find a number of these men called into ministry, particularly in the university city of Cambridge. The most significant figure there was, of course, the great William Perkins with his long ministry in Cambridge. There, under the ongoing, regular teaching of the Word of God, young men were converted and called into the ministry. They understood, in a sense, that this was actually the biblical pattern-that the church would not be revived by acts of Parliament, but by schools of the prophets, whether they be in the time of Elijah and Elisha, or whether through the disciple band of our Lord Jesus, or the apostolic band with which we are familiar from the letters of the apostle Paul. One might think here of the famous Cappadocian fathers, a brotherhood concerned to defend the glory of Jesus Christ; or of Augustine and his little group around him, concerned to defend and expound the sovereignty of God’s grace; or of Calvin, Farel, Beza, and others in Geneva-not simply associates together in the government of the church with a formal relationship to one another, but brothers who listened to one another preach, who prayed with one another, who shared one another’s burdens and called upon God to come down and bring sovereign blessings to His church.

It is very interesting as you survey the early period of the Puritan movement that it is almost possible to create a spiritual “family tree” of some of the most notable Puritans of the seventeenth century. One only needs to know a little about their lives to discover how deeply they are interconnected; through one, another would be converted, and by reading his book, another would be converted. The familiar names of the Puritans, like William Gouge, or the Culverwells, or the famous master, John Dodd, or Thomas Hooker, Cotton Mather, Richard Sibbes, John Preston, John Cotton, William Perkins, Thomas Goodwin, William Ames, Paul Baynes, John Owen, or Richard Baxter-as you read their biographies you realize that there is a spiritual progeny here, a spiritual family tree. God was binding them together with a common vision and a common burden, a common prayer life, and therefore a common goal in the ministry of the Word of God.

We badly need that today, don’t we? We need a spiritual brotherhood of brothers in the ministry, spread throughout the nation and the world. Yes, one the spiritual father of another, and another the spiritual brother of another-no hierarchy, no formal supremacy, not seeking to establish their own kingdoms in this world, but bound together by the gospel to establish the kingdom of Jesus Christ in a world that is in such desperate need. I dare say that God ordinarily does great things when ordinary ministers of the gospel are bound together as blood brothers, to live and die together. Then God has in His hands the kind of vessels He is pleased to use as vessels of honor for his glory.

That is something we can learn, especially since we are here with a particular concern for a theological seminary. Beside the excellent teaching and the care that the men who come to the seminary receive from the church, if they are bound together with a common bond of gospel grace to live and die together, then perhaps we may see something on the horizon the size of a man’s hand that will bring to us the showers of God’s blessings. And that leads us to the second thing we can learn from the Puritans, because it is intimately connected with it.

2] Recovering the Pulpit

The Puritan movement teaches us the vital significance of the recovery of the pulpit for the recovery of the church. I said that the Puritans had the vision of capturing the university towns for the gospel because they wanted to capture the pulpits of the land for the gospel. A sociologist today might say what they were doing was seeking to capture the media, and that what we learn from the Puritans is that the true Christian church needs to learn to capture the media. Doubtless that would be true, but it would not quite be the point that the Puritans were making. They did, to a certain extent, capture elements of the seventeenth-century media, but they wanted to capture the pulpits not because they were instruments of the media, but because they were the places where the Word of God could be preached with power. They were dominantly concerned with this.

I suppose one could understand a Christian in the twenty-first century saying, “Well, of course, people came to church; preaching was the great thing in those days.” But that is not true. People often did not come to church. Preaching was impoverished, if it even existed. What was needed was preaching that would break through the common expectations of men and women that preachers say nothing vital to life, in order that the gospel might penetrate into the little societies of rural England as well as the great cities like London, and bring men and women, boys and girls, to the knees of Jesus Christ the Redeemer, seeking salvation.

One of the phrases used with some regularity in the first half of the seventeenth century, when people who knew something spoke about the ministry, was, “What we really need is a godly, resident, educated ministry.” By that they meant a ministry, not that was simply educated in worldly knowledge, but a ministry that was educated so that ministers were actually experts in teaching the gospel.

In my home country of Scotland I dare to say that the Christian ministry is perhaps the most despised profession that exists. Even schoolteachers rate higher than ministers. It is easy to lament, “Oh, for the old days!” But the sad truth of the matter is that if ministers are not experts in teaching the gospel, there is a sense in which we deserve every despite that comes to us, because that is our calling and our profession. The ministry had become a despised profession in the seventeenth century. The pulpits needed to be recaptured by men who understood the gospel line by line and were clearly, powerfully, and spiritually able to articulate that to the people who listened.

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