Theology On Fire
An English Puritan preacher once exhorted his people about their neglect of the Bible. One hearer reported how the preacher “personates God to the people, telling them, ‘Well, I have trusted you so long with my Bible; you have slighted it, it lies … covered with dust and cobwebs; you care not to listen to it. Do you use my Bible so? Well, you shall have my Bible no longer.’
“And he takes up the Bible from his cushion, and seemed as if he were going away with it and carrying it from them; but immediately turns again and personates the people to God, falls down on his knees, cries and pleads most earnestly, ‘Lord, whatever thou dost to us, take not thy Bible from us; kill our children, burn our houses, destroy our goods; only spare us thy Bible, only take not away thy Bible.’
“And then he personates God again to the people: ‘Say you so? Well, I will try you a while longer; and here is my Bible for you. I will see how you will use it, whether you will love it more … observe it more … practice it more, and live more according to it.’ ”
In response, the people broke down and were “deluged with their own tears.”
This anecdote takes us to the very heart of Puritanism—a passionate movement, and above all else, a Bible movement.
Guide to Holiness
America’s Puritans were English Puritans who had moved to “New England” in hope of achieving the corporate holiness in church and community that seemed unattainable in old England. For half a century, English Puritanism had sought further purging of England’s national church, plus spiritual renewal for all Englishmen. The Puritans desired that every person, activity, and relationship might become “holiness to the Lord.”
In this quest the Bible was both charter and chart.
Puritans, in their Christ-centered reading of Scripture, stressed the unity of the two testaments. They placed special significance on the Old Testament as giving God’s blueprint (apart from changes of detail) for a godly church-state. Christians were to order every part of their lives according to biblical principles.
The Bible was the Creator’s personal instruction to every reader, the recorded speech of the Holy Spirit. So all preaching had to be expository, with teaching and application. All sermons were to be memorized, with note-taking if necessary; “repeated” (gone over) at home; and meditated on thereafter.
Also, Christians should brood on Scripture constantly, applying all it says about relations between God and man. “I never yet observed any part of a Scripture … ” wrote John Cotton, that could not “be applied both with power and profit and delight to an honest heart.”
Most Puritans saw the sufficiency of Scripture as applying to church order. Typically, the New England clergyman had gotten into trouble in old England for requiring that all ceremonies in public worship have scriptural sanction, and for refusing to conform to some Prayer Book ceremonies because they lacked it. The New England congregations were thought of as Anglican at first, but this “regulative principle”—limiting church order to what Scripture directly sanctioned—changed things. The Prayer Book was not imposed, there were no bishops, and congregational church government became the pattern.
Good and Severe God
Puritans saw God scripturally as “the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished … ” (Ex. 34:6–7). Puritans found this combination of goodness and severity, love and holiness, judgment and mercy, both awesome and adorable.
Thomas Hooker compared the believer’s relationship to God to “a childe that travels to a Faire with his father.” Even in a crowd, Hooker explained, “the child’s eye is alwayes upon his father: … the childe is carefull to keepe his father within sight and view, and then if hee bee weake and weary, his father can take him by the hand, and lead him, or take him into his armes and carry him; or if there be any thing hee wants, or would have, his father can buy it for him, bestow it upon him.
“But if the childe bee carelesse and gazeth about this thing and that thing, and never lookes after his father, hee is gone one way, and his father another, he cannot tell where to finde him: whose fault is it now? it is not because his father would not be within his sight, or because hee could not keepe within the view of him, but because hee out of carelessnesse lost the sight of his father.”
Given this view of divine fatherhood, honoring, serving, loving, glorifying, and enjoying God was to the Puritans the noblest and most joyous life possible. Cotton Mather wrote in his diary of his deep desire “to love that which God loves, and hate that which God hates; to bee holy as God is holy, and like Him, a great Forgiver; and bee His Child, as much as may bee like the just at the Resurrection from the Dead. This will I seek, as the noblest Crown, that ever I can wear.”
The focus of Puritan preaching was the regeneration and conversion of people.
Salvation began with regeneration—the supernatural re-creating of a person’s motivational core. Out of this came conversion—a turning from sin to trust the promise of justification through the Cross, and to bow to the living Christ as Lord.
Regeneration-conversion was a single sequential process, a work of grace the Holy Spirit wrought through the message of law and gospel; it was named “effectual calling.”
Without it, sincere commitment to God was impossible, because the unrenewed heart was ruled by the anti-God syndrome called sin. Thomas Hooker explained, “There was never any saved that was not a rebel first; nor any received to mercy, that first opposed not the mercies of God, and his grace in Christ.”
The means of this grace were the Word (preached and heard, read and meditated on) plus prayer. When sought by these means, God would be found, though he remains sovereign over the when and how of the finding process. Regeneration-conversion brings believers into a covenant relationship: God becomes theirs forever, guaranteeing to keep them in faith and obedience here and to glorify them hereafter.
American Puritan teaching on salvation has been misconceived in three ways at least.
1. Covenant is not a contract. The Puritans are said to have thought of God’s covenant of grace as a contract; sinners must fulfill its conditions by making a commitment that precedes regeneration and is not entirely God’s work in them.
Not so! The Puritans saw the covenant as unilaterally established by God. He alone induces conversion as he works in the heart to give the faith and repentance he requires.
In Thomas Hooker’s apt words, “This is all the Lord requires of us, namely, to see our sins, to be weary of them, to be content that the Lord Jesus shall reveal to us what is amiss, and seal a pardon for it, and take it away; and further give us his grace to take down the old building, and to set up a new one in us after his image.”
2. Preparation is not legalism. Puritan teaching on preparation for conversion has been misrepresented as a legalistic requirement; the sinner must undergo so much self-abasement and bewailing of sins before being permitted to believe on the Lord Jesus.
Puritans did make much of the preparatory “law-work” of conviction, compunction, and humiliation for sin. But that was simply because through this work God frees us from our natural love of sinning to embrace Christ. For Puritans, preparation deals not with the terms of the gospel, but with the method of grace in the human heart.
3. Changed life reveals a true conversion. Puritans saw that an unconverted “gospel hypocrite” might go far in his religiosity and be nearly indistinguishable from someone regenerate. Some have urged that this made it impossible for anyone to be assured of salvation, for whose heart and life are thoroughly changed?
But the Puritans insisted that desiring to please, glorify, and enjoy God above everything else—and being willing to endure any loss or pain to this end—argues a regenerate heart. Their definition is clear, and the formalist’s failure to match up to it is clear too. Increase Mather pointed out that “When a man’s heart within him is turned and set against sin, then he has truly experienced that conversion which the Word of God requireth.”
In sum, for the Puritans, the Christian life was a hungry living out of God’s grace-gift of salvation. As Thomas Shepard put it, “True grace, as it comforts, so it never fills, but puts an edge on the appetite; more of that grace, Lord!”
Faithfulness in All Things
To practice faithfulness to God as an individual, a citizen, a worker, a family member, and a unit in the local church—this was Puritan religion in its essence.
The Puritans believed that unfaithfulness to God would bring judgment. Old England, having proved unfaithful to its calling, was now facing the barrenness and disruption of divine judgment. New England, please God, would do better.
The divinely established solidarity of the community was such that if judgment fell, all would be engulfed together. So neighbor-love and natural self-love, as well as love of God, should lead all to watch over each other so as to encourage and help each other toward godliness at all times.
The Puritans valued and intensely strove to live:
• a personal life of disciplined law-keeping and self-scrutiny, humble faith and hope, patience, penitence and prayer;
• a public life of doing good and practicing philanthropy wherever possible, while honoring God in one’s family;
• a church life of worship and learning from a faithful preacher.
The Puritans held that these actions, done faithfully, would please God. And when all is said and done, if we are to judge by biblical standards, it is really impossible to doubt that they were right.
Dr. J. I. Packer is Professor of Systematic and Historical Theology at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia, and author of numerous books, including A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life (Crossway, 1990).
Copyright © 1994 by the author or Christianity Today/Christian History magazine.
Click here for reprint information on Christian History.