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The Puritans: Can They Teach Us Anything Today? (2)

Category Articles
Date December 20, 2005

[The second half of a lecture given at the Dedication of the Puritan Resource Center, Grand Rapids on October 20, 2005]

2] Recovering the Pulpit (continued)

As you read the Puritan sermons you understand that this was their great characteristic: they spoke the truth of the Word of God in the power of the Holy Spirit in a way that demanded a hearing, in a way that shaped the thinking and living of those who placed their lives under the ministry of the Word. But they not only needed to be educated, they needed to be godly, and for this reason: many of them understood that the Word of God really, lastingly, does good in the hearts of others only when it is first really and lastingly doing good, or doing something godly, in the hearts of those who listen.

John Owen speaks on one occasion about his experience that those sermons go from him with most power that came with most power to him. Generally speaking, individuals who have any sense of discernment can tell the difference between a message that struck the hearer, and a message that was given by the speaker only because he thinks that through it he can influence others. That is one reason why an amazing thing about the Puritans was the number of times they read their Bibles. It is one of the reasons why, when you read them, you almost feel as though they had gone through the Bible text by text, and turned those texts around like diamonds to the light and meditated on them. They knew them through and through. Therefore, as they used to say, they were like pharmacists who knew the resources that were in the Word of God to deal with all the spiritual maladies of mankind.

And then they were concerned that these godly educated ministers should be resident. That was partly because often in the Episcopalian system ministers were not resident. They picked up the stipend and lived somewhere else. They had several benefices, and they would have somebody else in their place-sometimes it didn’t matter to them whether it was a spiritual man or not. The Puritans understood that a minister of the gospel should be among the people to whom he ministers so that he himself can learn how to apply the Word of God to the specific needs of the people, and so that he might work at home to be among them as an evangelist.

The great example of this among the Puritans, although he was by no means unique, was Richard Baxter who tells us in his great work, The Reformed Pastor, that after he had been in Kidderminster some time, he was visiting a man who had been listening to his preaching for years and still couldn’t tell him whether Christ was man, or God, or both. Baxter went out of his way to hire two assistants, and among the three of them they went around the congregation, into the fields and around the parish, to catechize the people, not as a threat to them or as a rod to beat their backs, but as a way of explaining gospel grace to people who little understood it, and drawing them in on a personal basis. And the town caught spiritual fire! I think you know that at the end of the day, it was not because they were using catechisms, marvelous instruments though they were, but because they were prepared to, face to face, on a personal level, bring the gospel home to see where the family was spiritually. It was not just a perfunctory visit, but an outgoing of Christlike concern for their spiritual welfare.

That is an important principle that often distinguishes the Puritan ministry from evangelical churches today. Sometimes if you ask people, “What is it that makes this church a biblical church?” they will tell you. “The Bible is preached in our pulpit.” The Puritans would never have been satisfied with that answer. For them, the Bible had to get out of the pulpit and among the people, into their homes and into their hearts. This was why they wanted to recover the Word of God in the pulpit of the land; not so that it would stay there, but to give the Word of God a platform to go into the hearts and lives of the people.

There is a crying need for that, too; for clear, discriminating, fundamental, simple and yet profound, heart-searching, heart-warming, mind-illuminating preaching of the Word of God. We do not need more famous preachers. What we need is more godly, educated, resident preachers.

That brings me to a third thing, which moves us on to a different level of the discussion altogether. They developed an understanding of the gospel that was deeply trinitarian.

3] Trinitarian Character of Theology

This is a principle that lies behind so much of their work, although relatively little recognized as such today. What drove the Puritans was their deep sense of the infinite glory of a Triune God. When they answered the first question of the Shorter Catechism, “What is man’s chief end? To glorify God,” by that word “God” they meant the Triune One, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Driving their defense of the gospel against Socinians or Unitarians was their passionate commitment to God the Trinity. Indeed, driving their criticism of Arminianism in the seventeenth century was not that they thought Arminians are nasty and need to be attacked, but that God is gloriously Triune, and in everything He does, the Father, Son and Spirit are utterly consistent with one another. The electing grace of God, the dying love of Jesus Christ and the applicatory sovereign pursuit of the Holy Spirit are not done in any sense whatsoever individualistically, but within the common eternal bond of the Trinity. They took some of the glories of Calvin’s understanding of the unity of the Trinity in the Godhead and saw how that worked out in the unity of the work of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in the pursuit of salvation and in the life of the believer.

It is so important for us to recognize this, partly because the Puritans were deeply experiential. They were deeply concerned about personal spiritual experience. Sometimes the literature they produced on personal spiritual experience has been highlighted in the recovery of Puritan literature, without enough recognition that the depth of that personal experience was rooted in the depth of the secret glories of the Triune God. That is why sometimes when people say to me, “Which work of John Owen should I read?,” I say to read Owen on the mortification of sin; it will do you a lot of good, even though it will give you a lot of pain. But don’t isolate that from what he says about the work of the blessed Trinity. Don’t isolate what he says in Volume 6 from what he expounds in Volume 2 about the way in which the Christian believer’s communion is a communion with God the Father, with Jesus the Savior, and with the Holy Spirit the Comforter.

When we are concerned about spiritual experience, there is always a danger that that spiritual experience becomes a thing on its own, loose from its anchor and moorings in the glory of God Himself Then we are more interested in our personal godliness than in God. That is why personal godliness becomes such a frustration to us, because we have lost sight of the One who gives godliness.

While the Puritans were deeply concerned about personal experience, they were deeply concerned about personal experience that flowed from the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God the Father, and from the fellowship or communion with the Holy Spirit. They were God-centered, not experience-centered. Their vision was always upwards to the glory of God. They refused to let people dwell in their despair and were so concerned about assurance because they understood that lack of assurance, at the end of the day, flows from an inability to understand who God is.

The idea surfacing in our Reformed circles that lack of assurance is almost a sign of grace would have been incomprehensible to them. It would have been as incomprehensible to John Owen as if a father said, “I never want any of my children to know that they are my children.” Owen understood, as the Westminster Confession of Faith says, that there are individuals adopted into God’s family who may have to labor long and struggle hard before they are able to say, “Abba, father.” Yes, the Puritans understood this, but primarily they understood that if I as a father want my children, whom I love, to be secure in my love and to know that they are my children and I will do anything for them, how much more the heavenly Father, who has already done everything for us in giving His Son?

You see how the Trinitarian emphasis comes in? If I really believe that the Son is the Father’s gift of grace and salvation to me, how can my heart ever rest content with a distorted view of the Father which thinks that it pleases Him that I should go life long lacking His assurance, lacking a sense of His love? Yes, I may bring all kinds of baggage into my relationship with God and it needs to be broken down, and my psyche needs to be put together again. They understood all this. They were spiritual masters, spiritual psychologists, and more! But they were so because they had seen something of the glory of God, and they longed to see men and women under the influence of that glorious God’s Word brought into the riches of the inheritance of the kingdom of the heavenly Father.

4] Significance of the Church in the Purposes of Christ

Fourthly, the Puritans recognized with great clarity the significance of the church in the purposes of Christ. They understood that when Jesus said, “I will build my church,” He was really spreading His life vision out before His apostles. That it was Jesus who built the church was important for them in their polemics against Rome. But deeper than that, they recognized why it was a church that Jesus was building. This is a great balance for us. So much Puritan literature is available to us that, in our deeply individualistic society, which touches all of us, we tend to read what the Puritans say as though they were speaking to us as isolated individuals. But the Puritans themselves understood that their teaching and their ministry was not simply dealing with isolated individuals, but building the community of God’s people.

This comes out in their tremendous stress on the covenant. You know that the Puritans were covenant theologians. But they didn’t just see the covenant as the reason why we baptize infants. They saw the covenant as something much larger and more vital than that. It was not simply the foundation for the church of Jesus Christ, but it was the bond that the members of the church of Jesus Christ had pledged to one another. That is a most interesting and striking insight. Of course, they weren’t always successful in working this through, but many of their churches developed a particular church covenant. They knew of the covenant of God’s grace. They knew that their children were baptized on the basis of that covenant. They made individual covenants and wrote them out as practical helps to sanctification. But they also took church covenants. They bound themselves together in church unity and fellowship and pledged themselves to one another.

Now they were not always successful. Towards the end of his life, John Owen commented one Sunday on the needs of the times and the difficulties the church was facing, and he summoned the congregation to renew the church covenant. He was not able to preach the next Lord’s Day, but two weeks afterwards, as he began his sermon, he commented on the fact that apparently not everyone in the congregation had agreed with him. Now that was bad enough; it would take a bit of courage to disagree with the great John Owen, you might think. But he said, “It is worse than that; there are some of you who didn’t even know there was a church covenant.” So we must not think that everything in a Puritan church was rosy red and in apple pie order. But they did see that the church of Jesus Christ is not simply a train in which the preacher is driving the church, and everybody is behind the preacher heading in the same direction. They saw that the church of Jesus Christ is a community where members look into the eyes of fellow members and say, “I commit myself to you, as I commit myself to the Lord Jesus Christ.”

They knew there were all kinds of evidences of this in the church of the New Testament. Don’t be ashamed of the testimony to our Lord, says the apostle Paul. And don’t be ashamed of me either, bound to Christ, bound to one another in the covenant of His grace. And that meant for them, interestingly, that the picture that they had of the church was not like the Roman Catholic picture-which is derived from Scripture, but diverted from Scripture-but rather, because it was first and foremost the church of God, the heavenly Father through Jesus Christ His only Son, the basic metaphor for the church was actually the family. If the great revelation of the Lord Jesus was that we could now call Him Father, that meant that we were brothers, and therefore we were family of visible saints that stood out from every other kind of family.

In a sociological period when human life was on the verge of anxiety and at times disintegration, this was a tremendously important insight – as it is today, friends, we may well lament the breakdown of family and marriage, and everything that goes with it. But don’t you see what this also means? Of all times, this is a season in which the church family can appear in its true light and true colors in a way that nobody would confuse. There are bonds here, relationships here, life and death commitments here, of devotion to one another because of devotion to Jesus Christ that make people realize that there is nothing natural about the foundation of the church. This is entirely a supernatural work of God.

This is what we need today. We do need to understand that perhaps fifty years ago, one individual’s conversion could be seen in society because that community had a Book in its hand that this conversion made sense of. That is no longer the case. It is far more likely today, if someone is converted, that we will hear in our supposedly post-modern world, “I am glad you are finding happiness there; I find my happiness somewhere else.” The Puritans understood that unless the church was really the church, as in Acts, then it would never make a lasting, evangelistic impression on the world.

We live in a deeply individualistic society in the Christian world. Many of us have been burdened by people telling us that we need to be personal witnesses. We do; but far more important than that is the vision the Puritans had, that our congregation as a whole is to shine for Jesus Christ as a city set on a hill, as a light that can never be hidden. When that is the fruit of the faithful preaching of the Word of God, then men and women look to this new Mount Zion and wish they could climb the hill that would bring them there.

There is a whole world in Puritan literature of interpretation of Scripture, exposition of its truth, application of it to every conceivable part of our lives. The chief thing is this: what is our chief end? Our chief end is to know the Triune God in such a way that we both glorify Him, and enjoy Him forever. And our prayer is that this Puritan Resource Center will be a means of advancing that.

With permission taken from the Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary Update, Vol.2 No 4

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