En Gedi: Finding rest in the wilderness!

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Archive for the ‘J I Packer’ Category

Puritan Evangelism-Did They Really?

Posted by Scott on November 9, 2007

Puritan Evangelism
How the Puritans evangelized in contrast to the modern age we now live in. How did they accomplish their evangelistic efforts to win souls?

by Dr. J. I. Packer
           M.A., Lecturer at Tyndale Hall, Bristol              

In the report of the Archbishop’s Committee on Evangelism, published in 1945 under the title: Towards the Conversion of England, the work of evangelism is conveniently defined as follows: “so to present Christ Jesus in the power of the Holy Spirit, that men shall come to put their trust in God through Him, to accept Him as their Savior, and serve Him as their King in fellowship of His Church.”             Did the Puritans tackle the task of evangelism at all? At first sight, it might seem not.  They agreed with Calvin in regarding the “evangelists” mentioned in the New Testament as all order of assistants to the apostles, now extinct; and as for “missions,” “crusades” and “campaigns,” they knew neither the name nor the thing.  But we must not be misled into supposing that evangelism was not one of their chief concerns.  It was.  Many of them were outstandingly successful as preachers to the unconverted.  Richard Baxter, the apostle of Kidderminster, is perhaps the only one of these that is widely remembered today; but in contemporary records it is common to read statements like this, of Hugh Clark: “he begat many Sons and Daughters unto God;” or this, of John Cotton, “the presence of the Lord…crowning his labors with the Conversion of many Souls” (S.  Clarke, Lives of 52…Divines, pp.131, 222, etc.)  Moreover, it was the Puritans who invented evangelistic literature.  One has only to think of Baxter’s classic Call to the Unconverted, and Alleine’s Alarm to the Unconverted, which were pioneer works in this class of writing.  And the elaborate practical “handling” of the subject of conversion in Puritan books was regarded by the rest of the seventeenth-century Protestant world as something of unique value.   “It hath been one of the glories of the Protestant religion that it revived the doctrine of Saving Conversion, and of the New Creature brought forth thereby…But in a more eminent manner, God hath cast the honor hereof upon the Ministers and Preachers of this Nation, who are renowned abroad for their more accurate search into and discoveries hereof.”  (T.  Goodwin and P. Nye, Preface to T.  Hooker, The Application of Redemption, 1656).             The truth is that two distinct conceptions and types of evangelism have been developed in Protestant Christendom during the course of its history.  We may call them the “Puritan” type and the “modern” type.  Today we are so accustomed to evangelism of the modern type that we scarcely recognize the other is evangelism at all. In order that we may fully grasp the character of the Puritan type of evangelism, I shall here set it in contrast with the modern type, which has so largely superseded it at the present time.             Let us begin, therefore, by characterizing evangelism of the modern type.  It seems to presuppose a conception of the life of the local church as an alternating cycle of converting and edifying.  Evangelism almost takes on the character of a periodical recruiting campaign.  It is all extraordinary and occasional activity, additional and auxiliary to the regular functioning of the local congregation.  Special gatherings of a special sort are arranged, and special preachers are commonly secured to conduct them.  Often they are called “meetings” rather than “services;” in any case, they are thought of as something distinct in some way from the regular public worship of God.  In the meetings, everything is directly aimed at securing from the unconverted all immediate, conscious, decisive act of faith in Christ.  At the close of the meeting, those who have responded or wish to do so are asked to come to the front, or raise a hand, or something similar, as an act of public testimony to their new resolutions.  This, it is claimed, is good for those who do it, since it helps to make their “decision” definite, and it has the further advantage of making them declare themselves, so that they may be contacted individually by “personal workers.”  Such persons may then be advised and drafted forthwith into local churches as converts.             This type of evangelism was invented by Charles G. Finney in the 1820’s.  He introduced the “protracted meeting,” or, as we should call it, the intensive evangelistic campaign, and the “anxious seat,” a front pew left vacant where at the end of the meeting “the anxious may come and be addressed particularly…and sometimes be conversed with individually.”  At the end of his sermon, he would say, “There is the anxious seat; come out, and avow determination to be on the Lord’s side.”  (See Revivals of Religion, especially chapter xiv).  These were Finney’s much opposed “new measures.”             Now, Finney was a clear-headed and self-confessed Pelagian in his doctrine of man; and this is the reason why his “new measures” were evolved.  Finney denied that fallen man is totally unable to repent, believe or do anything spiritually good without grace, and affirmed instead that all men have plenary ability to turn to God at any time.  Man is a rebel, but is perfectly free at any time to lay down his arms in surrender.  Accordingly, the whole work of the Spirit of God in conversion is to present vividly to man’s mind reasons for making this surrender – that is to say, the Spirit’s work is confined to moral persuasion.  Man is always free to reject this persuasion: “Sinners can go to hell in spite of God.”  But the stronger the persuasion is, the more likely it is to succeed in the breaking down of man’s resistance.  Every means, therefore, of increasing the force and vividness with which truth impinged on the mind – the most frenzied excitement, the most narrowing emotionalism, the most nerve-racking commotion in evangelistic meetings – was a right and proper means of evangelism.  Finney gave expression to this principle in the first of his lectures on Revivals of Religion.  “To expect to promote religion without excitements is unphilosophical and absurd…until there is sufficient religious principle in the world to put down irreligious excitements, it is in vain to try to promote religion, except by counteracting excitements…There must be excitement sufficient to wake up the dormant moral powers…”  And, since every man, if he will only rouse up his “dormant moral powers,” can at any time yield to God and become a Christian, it is the evangelist’s work and duty always to preach for immediate decision, to tell men that it is their duty to come to Christ that instant, and to use all means – such as the rousing appeal and the “anxious seat” – for persuading them to do so.  “I tried to shut them up,” he says of a typical mission sermon, “to present faith and repentance, as the thing which God required of them: present and instant acceptance of His will, present and instant acceptance of Christ” (Autobiography, p. 64).  It is hardly too much to say that Finney regarded evangelistic preaching as a battle of wills between himself and his hearers, in which it was his responsibility to bring them to breaking point.             Now, if Finney’s doctrine of the natural state of sinful man is right, then his evangelistic methods must be judged right also, for, as he often insisted, the “new measures” were means well adapted to what he held to be the end in view.  “It is in such practices that a Pelagian system naturally expresses itself if it seeks to become aggressively evangelistic” (B. B. Warfield).  But if his view of man is wrong, then his methods, as we shall see, must be judged disastrous.  And this is an issue of the first importance at the present time; for it is Finney’s methods, modified and adapted, which characterize most evangelism today.   We do not suggest that all who use them are Pelagians.  But we do raise the question, whether the use of such methods is consistent with any other doctrine than Finney’s, and we shall try to show that, if Finney’s doctrine is rejected, then such methods must be judged inappropriate and, indeed, detrimental to the real work of evangelism.  It may be said that results justify their use; but the truth is that the majority of Finney’s “converts” backslid and fell away, and so, it seems, have the majority of those since Finney’s day whose “decision” has been secured by the use of such methods.  Most modern evangelists seem to have given up expecting more than a small percentage of their “converts” to survive.  It is not at all obvious that results justify such methods.  We shall suggest later that they have a natural tendency to produce such a crop of false converts as has in fact resulted from their use.             The Puritan type of evangelism, on the other hand, was the consistent expression in practice of the Puritans’ conviction that the conversion of a sinner is a gracious sovereign work of Divine power.  We shall spend a little time elaborating this.             The Puritans did not use “conversion” and “regeneration” as technical terms, and so there are slight variations in usage.  Perhaps the majority treated the words as synonyms, each denoting the whole process whereby God brings the sinner to his first act of faith.  Their technical term for the process was effectual calling; calling being the Scriptural word used to describe the process in Rom. 8:30, 2 Th.  2:14, 2 Tim. 1:9, etc., and the adjective effectual being added to distinguish it from the ineffectual, external calling mentioned in Mt. 20:16, 22:14.  Westminster Confession, X. i., puts “calling,” into its theological perspective by an interpretative paraphrase of Rom. 8:30: “All those whom God hath predestinated unto life, and those only, he is pleased, in his appointed and accepted time, effectually to call, by his Word and Spirit, out of that state of sin and death in which they are by nature, to grace and salvation by Jesus Christ.” The Westminster Shorter Catechism analyses the concept of “calling” in its answer to Q. 31: “Effectual calling is the work of God’s Spirit whereby, convincing us of our sin and misery, enlightening our minds in the knowledge of Christ, and renewing our wills, he doth persuade and enable us to embrace Jesus Christ, freely offered to us in the gospel.”             Concerning this effectual calling, three things must be said if we are to grasp the Puritan view:                (i) It is a work of Divine grace; it is not something a man can do for himself or for another.  It is the first stage in the application of redemption to those for whom it was won; it is the time when, on the grounds of his eternal, federal, representative union with Christ, the elect sinner is brought by the Holy Ghost into a real, vital, personal union with his Covenant Head and Redeemer.  It is thus a gift of free Divine grace.                (ii) It is a work of Divine power. It is effected by the Holy Ghost, who acts both mediately, by the Word, in the mind, giving understanding and conviction, and at the same time immediately, with the Word, in the hidden depths of the heart, implanting new life and power, effectively dethroning sin, and making the sinner both able and willing to respond to the gospel invitation.  The Spirit’s work is thus both moral, by persuasion (which all Arminians and Pelagians would allow), and also physical, by power (which they would not).

            Owen said, “There is not only a moral, but a physical immediate operation of the Spirit…upon the minds or souls of men in their regeneration…The work of grace in conversion is constantly expressed by words denoting a real internal efficacy; such as creating, quickening, forming, giving a new heart…Wherever this work is spoken of with respect unto an active efficacy, it is ascribed to God.  He creates us anew, he quickens us, he begets us of His own will; but when it is spoken of with respect to us, there it is passively expressed; we are created in Christ Jesus, we are new creatures, we are born again, and the like; which one observation is sufficient to avert the whole hypothesis of Arminian grace.” (Works, ed.  Russell 1,1, II. 369).  “Ministers knock at the door of men’s hearts (persuasion), the Spirit comes with a key and opens the door” (T. Watson, Body of Div., 1869, p. 154).  The Spirit’s regenerating action, Owen goes on, is “infallible, victorious, irresistable, or always efficacious” (loc cit.); it “removeth all obstacles, overcomes all oppositions, and infallibly produceth the effect intended.” Grace is irresistible, not because it drags man to Christ against his will, but because it changes men’s hearts so that they come most freely, being made willing by His grace.” (West.  Conf.  X. i). The Puritans loved to dwell on the Scriptural thought of the Divine power put forth in effectual calling, which Goodwin regularly described as the one “standing miracle” in the Church.  They agreed that in the normal course of events conversion was not commonly a spectacular affair; but Goodwin notes that sometimes it is, and affirms that thereby God shows us how great an exercise of power every man’s effectual calling involves. “In the calling of some there shoots up very suddenly an election-conversion (I use to call it so).  You shall, as it were, see election take hold of a man, pull him out with a mighty power, stamp upon him, the divine nature, stub up corrupt nature by the roots, root up self-love, put in a principle of love to God, and launch him forth a new creature the first day … He did so with Paul, and it is not without example in others after him.” (Works, ed.. Miller IX. 279). Such dramatic conversions, says Goodwin, are “visible tokens of election by such a work of calling, as all the powers in heaven and earth could not have wrought upon a man’s soul so, nor changed a man so on a sudden, but only that divine power that created the world (and) raised Christ from the dead.”     

            The reason why the Puritans thus magnified the quickening power of God is plain from the passages quoted:it was because they took so seriously the Bible teaching that man is dead in sin, radically depraved, sin’s helpless bondslave.  There is, they held, such a strength in sin that only omnipotence can break its bond; and only the Author of Life can raise the dead.  Where Finney assumed plenary ability, the Puritans taught total inability in fallen man.             (iii)   Effectual calling is and must be a work of Divine sovereignty. Only God can effect it, and He does so at His own pleasure.  “It is not of him that willith, nor of him that runneth, but of God that showeth mercy” (Rom. 9:16).  Owen expounds  this in a sermon on Acts 16:9, “A vision of unchangeable, free mercy in sending the means of grace to undeserving sinners” (XV, I ff.). He first states the following principle: “All events and effects, especially concerning the propagation of the gospel, and the Church of Christ, are in their greatest variety regulated by the eternal purpose and counsel of God,” He then illustrates it.  Some are sent the gospel, some not.  “In this chapter…the gospel is forbidden to be preached in Asia or Bithynia; which restraint, the Lord by His  providence as yet continueth to many parts of the world;” while “to some nations the gospel is sent…as in my text, Macedonia; and England…”  Now, asks Owen, why this discrimination?  Why do some hear and others not? And when the gospel is heard, why do we see “various effects, some continuing in impenitency, others in sincerity closing with Jesus Christ?…In effectual working of grace…whence do you think it takes its rule and determination . . . that it should be directed to John, not Judas; Simon Peter, not Simon Magus? Why only from this discriminating counsel of God from eternity…Acts 13:48…The purpose of God’s election, is the rule of dispensing saving grace.”             Jonathan Edwards, a great Puritan evangelist, often makes the same point.  In a typical passage from a sermon on Rom. 9:18, he lists the following ways in which God’s sovereignty (defined as “His absolute right of disposing of all creatures according to His own pleasure”) appears in the dispensations of grace:” (1) In calling one nation or people, and giving them the means of grace, and leaving others without them. (2) In the advantages He bestows upon particular persons” (e.g. a Christian home, a powerful ministry, direct spiritual influences, etc.); (4) In bestowing salvation on some who have had few advantages” (e.g. children of ungodly parents, while the children of the godly are not always saved); “(5) In calling some to salvation, who have been heinously wicked, and leaving others, who have been very moral and religious persons… (6) In saving some of those who seek salvation and not others (i.e., bringing some convicted sinners to saving faith while others never attain to sincerity) (Works, 1838, II, 849 f.).”  This display of sovereignty by God, Edwards maintained, is glorious: “it is part of the glory of God’s mercy that it is sovereign mercy.”             It is probably true that no preacher in the Puritan tradition ever laid such sustained stress on the sovereignty of God as Edwards.  It may come as a surprise to modern readers to discover that such preaching as his was evangelistically very fruitful; but such was the case.  Revival swept through his church under his ministry, and in the revival (to quote his own testimony) “I think I have found that no discourses have been more remarkably blessed, than those in which the doctrine of God’s absolute sovereignty, with regard to the salvation of sinners, and his just liberty, with regard to answering prayer, and succeeding the pains, of natural men, continuing such, have been insisted on” (I. 353).  There is much food for thought here.

            God’s sovereignty appears also in the time of conversion.  Scripture and experience show that “the great God for holy and glorious ends, but more especially…to make appear His love and kindness, His mercy and  grace, hath ordained it so” that many of His elect people “should for some time remain in a condition of sin and wrath, and then He renews them to Himself” (Goodwin, VI, 85).  It is never man, but always God, who determines when an elect sinner shall believe.  In the manner of conversion too, God is sovereign.  The Puritans taught that, as a general rule, conviction of sin, induced by, the preaching of the Law, must precede faith, since no man will or can come to Christ to be saved from sin till he knows what sins he needs saving from. It is a distinctive feature of the Puritan doctrine of conversion that this point, the need for “preparation”  for faith, is so stressed.  Man’s first step toward conversion must be some knowledge, of God, of himself, of his duty and of his sin.  The  second step is conviction, both of sinfulness and of particular sins; and the wise minister, dealing with enquirers at this stage, will try to deepen conviction and make it specific, since true and sound conviction of sin is always to a greater or less degree particularised.  This leads to contrition (sorrow for and hatred of sin), which begins to burn the love of sinning out of the heart and leads to real, though as yet ineffective, attempts to break off the practice of sin in the life.  Meanwhile, the wise minister, seeing that the fallow ground is now ploughed up, urges the sinner to turn to Christ.  This is the right advice to give to a man who has shown that with all his heart he desires to be saved from sin; for when a man wants to be saved from sin, then it is possible for him genuinely and sincerely to receive the One who presents Himself to man as the Saviour from sin. But it is not possible otherwise; and therefore the Puritans over and over again beg ministers not to short-circuit the essential preparatory process.  They must not give false encouragement to those in whom the Law has not yet done its work.  It is the worst advice possible to tell a man to stop worrying about his sins and trust Christ at once if he does not yet know his sins and does not yet desire to leave them.  That is the way to encourage false peace and false hopes, and to produce “gospel- hypocrites.” Throughout the whole process of preparation, from the first awakening of concern to the ultimate dawning of faith, however, the sovereignty of God must be recognised.  God converts no adult without preparing him; but “God breaketh not all men’s hearts alike” (Baxter).  Some conversions, as Goodwin said, are sudden; the preparation is done in a moment.  Some are long-drawn-out affairs; years may pass before the seeker finds Christ and peace, as in Bunyan’s case.  Sometimes great sinners experience “great meltings” (Giles Firmin) at the outset of the work of grace, while upright persons spend long periods in agonies of guilt and terror.  No rule can be given as to how long, or how intensely, God will flay each sinner with the lash of conviction. Thus the work of effectual calling proceeds as fast, or as slow, as God wills; and the minister’s  part is that of the midwife, whose task it is to see what is happening and give appropriate help at each stage, but who cannot foretell, let alone fix, how rapid the process of birth will be.             

            From these principles the Puritans deduced their characteristic conception of the practice of evangelism.  Since God enlightens, convicts, humbles and converts through the the Word, the task of His messengers is to communicate that word, preaching and applying law and gospel.  Preachers are to declare God’s mind as set forth in the texts they expound, to show the way of salvation, to exhort the unconverted to learn the law, to meditate on the Word, to humble themselves, to pray that God will show them their sins, and enable them to come to Christ.   They are to hold Christ forth as a perfect Saviour from sin to all who Heartily desire to be saved from sin, and to invite such (the weary and burdened souls whom Christ Himself invites, Mt. 11:28) to come to the Saviour who waits to receive them.  But they are not to do as Finney did, and demand immediate repentance and faith of all and sundry.  They are sent to tell all men that they must repent and believe to be saved, but it is  no part of the word and message of God if they go further and tell all the unconverted that they ought to “decide for for Christ” (to use a common modern phrase) on the spot.  God never sent any preacher to tell a congregation that they were under obligation  to receive Christ at the close of the meeting.  For in fact only those prepared by the Spirit can believe; and it is only such whom God summons to believe.  There is a common confusion here.   The gospel of God requires an immediate response from all; but it does not require the same response from all. The immediate duty of the unprepared sinner is not to try and believe on Christ, which he is not able to do, but to read, enquire, pray, use the means of grace and learn what he needs to be saved from.  It is not in his power to accept Christ at any moment, as Finney supposed; and it is God’s prerogative, not the evangelist’s, to fix the time when men shall first savingly believe.  For the latter to try and do so, by appealing to sinners to begin believing here and now, is for man to take to himself the sovereign right of the Holy Ghost.  It is an act of presumption, however creditable the evangelist’s motive’s may be.  Hereby he goes beyond his commission as God’s messenger; and hereby he risks doing incalculable damage to the souls of men.  If he tells men they are under obligation to receive Christ on the spot, and demands in God’s name that they decide at once, some who are spiritually unprepared will try to do so; they will will come forward and accept directions and “go through the motions” and go away thinking they have received Christ, when all the time they have not done so because they were not yet able to do so.  So a crop of false conversions will result from making such appeals, in the nature of the case.  Bullying for “decisions” thus in fact impedes and thwarts the work of the Holy Spirit in the heart. Man takes it on himself to try to bring that work to a  precipitate conclusion, to pick the fruit before it is ripe; and the result is “false conversions,” hypocrisy and hardening.  “For the appeal for immediate decision presupposes that men are free to “decide for Christ” at any time; and this presupposition is the disastrous issue of a false, un-Scriptural view of sin.   

            What, then, were the principles that should govern evangelistic preaching?  In the first place, the Puritans would insist, it must be clearly understood that evangelistic preaching is not a special kind of preaching, with its own distinctive technique.  It is a part of the ordinary public ministry of God’s Word.  This means,  first, that the rules which govern it are the same rules which must govern all public preaching of God’s Word; and, second, that the person whose task it primarily is is the local pastor.  It is his duty in the course of his public and private ministry of the Word, “diligently to labour for the conversion of souls to God” (Owen).  What God requires of him is that he should be faithful to the content of the gospel, and diligent in imparting it.  He is to seek by all means to make his sermon clear, memorable and relevant to the lives of his hearers; he is to pray earnestly for God’s blessing on his preaching, that it may be “in the demonstration of the Spirit and of power”; but it is no part of his business to study to “dress up” the gospel and make it “appeal” to the natural man.  The preachers calling is very different from that of the commercial traveller, and the “quick sale” technique has no place in the Christian pulpit.  The preacher is  not sent of God to make a quick sale, but to deliver a message.  When he has done that, his work in the pulpit is over.  It is not his business to try and extort “decisions.” It is God’s own sovereign prerogative to make His Word effective, and the preachers’s behaviour must be governed by his recognition of, and subjection to, Divine sovereignty in this matter.             Does not the abjuring of appeals, and the other devices of high-pressure salesmanship which have intruded into the modern type of evangelism, make the preaching of the gospel a somewhat forlorn undertaking? Not at all, said the Puritan; those who argue so have reckoned without the sovereignty of God.   The  Puritan pastor had the same quiet confidence in the success of his evangelistic preaching as he had in the success of all his preaching.  He was in no feverish panic about it.  He knew that God’s Word does not return void; that God has His elect everywhere, and that through the preaching of His Word they will in due course be called out-not because of the preachers’s gifts and ingenuity, but by reason of God’s sovereign operation.  He knew that God always has a remnant faithful to Himself, however bad the times-which means that in every age some men will come to faith through the preaching of the Word.  This was the faith that sustained such Puritan pioneers as Richard Greenham, who after twenty years of faithful ministry, ploughing up the fallow ground in a Cambridgeshire country parish, could not point to any converts bar a single family.  This was the faith that God honored in Richard Baxter’s Kidderminster ministry, during which, over a period of seventeen years, by the use of no other means but sermons twice a week and catechetical  instruction from house to house, well over six hundred converts were gathered in; of whom Baxter wrote, six years after his ejection, that, despite constant exposure to ridicule and obloquy for their “Puritanism,” not one that I know of has fallen off from his sincerity.   Soli Deo gloria!

                        The issue with which we are confronted by our study of Puritan evangelism is clear.  Which way are we to take in our endeavours to spread the gospel to-day? Forward along the road of modern evangelism, the intensive big-scale, short-term “campaign,” with its sustained wheedling for decisions and its streamlined machinery for handling shoals of “converts?”  Or back to the old paths of  Puritan evangelism, the quieter, broader-based, long-term strategy based on the local church, according to which man seeks simply to be faithful in delivering God’s message and leaves it to the sovereign Spirit to draw men to faith through that message in His own way and at His own speed?  Which is loyal to God’s Word?  Which is consistant with the Bible doctrine of sin, and of conversion?  Which glorifies God?  These are questions which demand the most urgent consideration at the present time.

by J I Packer

-Scott Bailey 2007

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A Quest For Godliness by J I Packer!

Posted by Scott on November 9, 2007

“Why We Need the Puritans:  A Quest For Godliness” 

 

Later, the word gained the further, political connotation of being against the Stuart monarchy and for some sort of republicanism; its primary reference, however, was still to what was seen as an odd, furious, and ugly form of Protestant religion. In England, anti-Puritan feeling was let loose at the time of the Restoration and has flowed freely ever since. In North America it built up slowly after the days of Jonathan Edwards to reach its zenith a hundred years ago in post-Puritan New England.
For the past half-century, however, scholars have been meticulously wiping away the mud, and as Michelangelo’s frescoes in the Sistine Chapel have unfamiliar colours today now that restorers have removed the dark varnish, so the conventional image of the Puritans has been radically revamped, at least for those in the know. (Knowledge, alas, travels slowly in some quarters.) Taught by Perry Miller, William Haller, Marshall Knappen, Percy Scholes, Edmund Morgan, and a host of more recent researchers, informed folk now acknowledge that the typical Puritans were not wild men, fierce and freaky, religious fanatics and social extremists, but sober, conscientious, and cultured citizens: persons of principle, devoted, determined, and disciplined, excelling in the domestic virtues, and with no obvious shortcomings save a tendency to run to works when saying anything important, whether to God or to man.
At last the record has been put straight. But even so, the suggestion that we ‘need’ the Puritans – we late twentieth-century Westerners, with all our sophistication and mastery of technique in both secular and sacred fields – may prompt some lifting of eyebrows. The belief that the Puritans, even if they were in fact responsible citizens, were comic and pathetic in equal degree, being naive and superstitious, primitive and gullible, superserious, overscrupulous, majoring in minors, and unable or unwilling to relax, dies hard. What could these zealots give us that we need, it is asked. The answer, in one word, is maturity. Maturity is a compound of wisdom, goodwill, resilience, and creativity. The Puritans exemplified maturity; we don’t. We are spiritual dwarfs. A much-traveled leader, a native American (be it said), has declared that he finds North American Protestantism, man-centered, manipulative, success-oriented, self-indulgent and sentimental, as it blatantly is, to be 3,000 miles wide and half an inch deep.
The Puritans, by contrast, as a body were giants. They were great souls serving a great God. In them clear-headed passion and warm-hearted compassion combined. Visionary and practical, idealistic and realistic too, goal-oriented and methodical, they were great believers, great hopers, great doers, and great sufferers. But their sufferings, both sides of the ocean (in old England from the authorities and in New England from the elements), seasoned and ripened them till they gained a stature that was nothing short of heroic. Ease and luxury, such as our affluence brings us today, do not make for maturity; hardship and struggle however do, and the Puritans’ battles against the spiritual and climatic wildernesses in which God set them produced a virility of character, undaunted and unsinkable, rising above discouragement and fears, for which the true precedents and models are men like Moses, and Nehemiah, and Peter after Pentecost, and the apostle Paul. Spiritual warfare made the Puritans what they were. They accepted conflict as their calling, seeing themselves as their Lord’s soldier-pilgrims, just as in Bunyan’s allegory, and not expecting to be able to advance a single step without opposition of one sort or another.
Wrote John Geree, in his tract ‘The Character of an Old English Puritane or Noncomformist (1646)’: ‘His whole life he accounted a warfare, wherein Christ was his captain, his arms, praiers and tears. The Crosse his Banner and his word [motto] Vincit qui patitur [he who suffers conquers].‘ The Puritans lost, more or less, every public battle that they fought. Those who stayed in England did not change the Church of England as they hoped to do, nor did they revive more than a minority of its adherents, and eventually they were driven out of Anglicanism by calculated pressure on their consciences. Those who crossed the Atlantic failed to establish new Jerusalem in New England; for the first fifty years their little colonies barely survived. They hung on by the skin of their teeth. But the moral and spiritual victories that the Puritans won by keeping sweet, peaceful, patient, obedient, and hopeful under sustained and seemingly intolerable pressures and frustrations give them a place of high honor in the believers’ hall of fame, where Hebrews 11 is the first gallery.
It was out of this constant furnace-experience that their maturity was wrought and their wisdom concerning discipleship was refined. George Whitefield, the evangelist, wrote of them as follows: ” Ministers never write or preach so well as when under the cross; the Spirit of Christ and of glory then rests upon them. was this, no doubt, that made the Puritans… such burning lights and shining lights. When cast out by the black Bartholomew-act [the 1662 Act of Uniformity] and driven from their respective charges to preach in barns and fields, in the highways and hedges, they in an especial manner wrote and preached as men having authority. Though dead, by their writings they yet speak; a peculiar unction attends them to this very hour….” Those words come from a preface to a reprint of Bunyan’s works that appeared in 1767; but the unction continues, the authority is still felt, and the mature wisdom still remains breathtaking, as all modern Puritan-readers soon discover for themselves. Through the legacy of this literature the Puritans can help us today towards the maturity that they knew, and that we need
In what ways can they do this? Let me suggest some specifics. First, there are lessons for us in the integration of their daily lives. As their Christianity was all-embracing, so their living was all of a piece. Nowadays we would call their lifestyle holistic: all awareness, activity, and enjoyment, all ‘use of the creatures’ and development of personal powers and creativity, was integrated in the single purpose of honoring God by appreciating all his gifts and making everything ‘holiness to the Lord’. There was for them no disjunction between sacred and secular; all creation, so far as they were concerned, was sacred, and all activities, of whatever kind, must be sanctified, that is, done to the glory of God. So, in their heavenly-minded ardour, the Puritans became men and women of order, matter-of-fact and down-to-earth, prayerful, purposeful, practical. Seeing life whole, they integrated contemplation with action, worship with work, labour with rest, love of God with love of neighb our and of self, personal with social rest, love of God with love of neighbour and of self, personal with social identity, and the wide spectrum of relational responsibilities with each other, in a thoroughly conscientious and thought-out way.
In this thoroughness they were extreme, that is to say far more thorough than we are, but in their blending of the whole wide range of Christian duties set forth in Scripture they were eminently balanced. They lived by ‘method’ (we would say, by a rule of life), planning and proportioning their time with care, not so much to keep bad things out as to make sure that they got all good and important things in – necessary wisdom, then as now, for busy people! We today, who tend to live unplanned lives at random in a series of non-communicating compartments and who hence feel swamped and distracted most of the time, could learn much from the Puritans at this point.
Second, there are lessons for us in the quality of their spiritual experience. In the Puritans’ communion with God, as Jesus Christ was central, so Holy Scripture was supreme. By Scripture, as God’s word of instruction about divine-human relationships, they sought to live, and here, too, they were conscientiously methodical. Knowing themselves to be creatures of thought, affection, and will, and knowing that God’s way to the human heart (the will) is via the human head (the mind), the Puritans practised meditation, discursive and systematic, on the whole range of biblical truth as they saw it applying to themselves. Puritan meditation on Scripture was modeled on the Puritan sermon; in meditation the Puritan would seek to search and challenge his heart, stir his affections to hate sin and love righteousness, and encourage himself with God’s promises, just as Puritan preachers would do from the pulpit.
This rational, resolute, passionate piety was conscientious without becoming obsessive, law-oriented without lapsing into legalism, and expressive of Christian liberty without any shameful lurches into license. The Puritans knew that Scripture is the unalterable rule of holiness, and never allowed themselves to forget it. Knowing also the dishonesty and deceitfulness of fallen human hearts, they cultivated humility and self-suspicion as abiding attitudes, and examined themselves regularly for spiritual blind spots and lurking inward evils. They may not be called morbid or introspective on this account, however; on the contrary, they found the discipline of self-examination by Scripture (not the same thing as introspection, let us note), followed by the discipline of confessing and forsaking sin and renewing one’s gratitude to Christ for his pardoning mercy, to be a source of great inner peace and joy.
We today, who know to our cost that we have unclear minds, uncontrolled affections, and unstable wills when it comes to serving God, and who again and again find ourselv es being imposed on by irrational, emotional romanticism disguised as super-spirituality, could profit much from the Puritans’ example at this point too.
Third, there are lessons for us in their passion for effective action. Though the Puritans, like the rest of the human race, had their dreams of what could and should be, they were decidedly not the kind of people that we could call ‘dreamy’! They had no time for the idleness of the lazy or passive person who leaves it to others to change the world! They were men of action in he pure Reformed mould – crusading activists without a jot of self-reliance; workers for God who depended utterly on God to work in and through them, and who always gave God the praise for anything they did that in retrospect seemed to them to have been right; gifted men who prayed earnestly that God would enable them to use their powers, not for self-display, but for his praise.
None of them wanted to be revolutionaries in church or state, though some of them reluctantly became such; all of them, however, longed to be effective change agents for God wherever shifts from sin to sanctity were called for. So Cromwell and his army made long, strong prayers before each battle, and preachers made long, strong prayers privately before ever venturing into the pulpit, and laymen made long, strong prayers before tackling any matter of importance (marriage, business deals, major purchases, or whatever). Today, however, Christians in the West are found to be on the whole passionless, passive, and, one fears, prayerless; cultivating an ethos which encloses personal piety in a pietistic cocoon, they leave public affairs to go their own way and neither expect nor for the most part seek influence beyond their own Christian circle.
Where the Puritans prayed and laboured for a holy England and New England, sensing that where privilege is neglected and unfaithfulness reigns national judgement threatens, modern Christians gladly settle for conventional social respectability and, having done so, look no further. Surely it is obvious that at this point also the Puritans have a great deal to teach us. Fourth, there are lessons for us in their program for family stability. It is hardly too much to say that the Puritans created the Christian family in the English-speaking world. The Puritan ethic of marriage was to look not for a partner whom you do love passionately at this moment, but rather for one whom you can love steadily as your best friend for life, and then to proceed with God’s help to do just that. The Puritan ethic of nurture was to train up children in the way they should go, to care for their bodies and souls together, and to educate them for sober, godly, socially useful adult living. The Puritan ethic of home life was based on maintaining order, courtesy, and family worship. Goodwill, patience, consistency, and an encouraging attitude were seen as the essential domestic virtues. In an age of routine discomforts, rudimentary medicine without pain-killers, frequent bereavements (most families lost at least as many children as they reared), an average life expectancy of just under thirty years, and economic hardship for almost all save merchant princes and landed gentry, family life was a school for character in every sense, and the fortitude with which Puritans resisted the all-too-familiar temptation to relieve pressure from the world by brutality at home, and laboured to honor God in their families despite all, merits supreme praise.
At home the Puritans showed themselves (to use my overworked term) mature, accepting hardships and disappointments realistically as from God and refusing to be daunted or soured by any of them. Also, it was at home in the first instance that the Puritan layman practised evangelism and ministry. ‘His family he endeavoured to make a Church,’ wrote Geree, ‘...labouring that those that were born in it, might be born again to God.‘ In an era in which family life has become brittle even among Christians, with chicken-hearted spouses taking the easy course of separation rather than working at their relationship, and narcissistic parents spoiling their children materially while neglecting them spiritually, there is once more much to be learned from the Puritans’ very different ways.
Fifth, there are lessons to be learned from their sense of human worth. Through believing in a great God (the God of Scripture, undiminished and undomesticated), they gained a vivid awareness of the greatness of moral issues, of eternity, and of the human soul. Hamlet’s ‘What a piece of work is man!’ is a very Puritan sentiment; the wonder of human individuality was something that they felt keenly. Though, under the influence of their medieval heritage, which told them that error has no rights, they did not in every case manage to respect those who differed publicly from them, their appreciation of man’s dignity as the creature made to be God’s friend was strong, and so in particular was their sense of the beauty and nobility of human holiness.
In the collectivised urban anthill where most of us live nowadays the sense of each individual’s eternal significance is much eroded, and the Puritan spirit is at this point a corrective from which we can profit greatly.
Sixth, there are lessons to be learned from the Puritans’ ideal of church renewal. To be sure, ‘renewal’ was not a word that they used; they spoke only of ‘reformation’ and ‘reform’, which words suggest to our twentieth-century minds a concern that is limited to the externals of the church’s orthodoxy, order, worship forms and disciplinary code. But when the Puritans preached, published, and prayed for ‘reformation’ they had in mind, not indeed less than this, but far more. On the title page of the original edition of Richard Baxter’s ‘The Reformed Pastor’, the word ‘reformed’ was printed in much larger type than any other, and one does not have to read far before discovering that for Baxter a ‘reformed’ pastor was not one who campaigned for Calvinism but one whose ministry to his people as preacher, teacher, catechist and role-model showed him to be, as we would say, ‘revived’ or ‘renewed’. The essence of this kind of ‘reformation’ was enrichment of understanding of God’s truth, arousal of affections God-ward, increase of ardour in one’s devotions, and more love, joy, and firmness of Christian purpose in one’s calling and personal life.
In line with this, the ideal for the church was that through ‘reformed’ clergy all the members of each congregation should be ‘reformed’ – brought, that is, by God’s grace without disorder into a state of what we would call revival, so as to be truly and thoroughly converted, theologically orthodox and sound, spiritually alert and expectant, in character terms wise and steady, ethically enterprising and obedient, and humbly but joyously sure of their salvation. This was the goal at which Puritan pastoral ministry aimed throughout, both in English parishes and in the ‘gathered’ churches of congregational type that multiplied in the mid-seventeenth century. The Puritans’ concern for spiritual awakening in communities is to some extent hidden from us by their institutionalism; recalling the upheavals of English Methodism and the Great Awakening, we think of revival ardour as always putting a strain on established order, whereas the Puritans envisaged ‘reform’ at congregational level coming in disciplined style through faithful preaching, catechising, and spiritual service on the pastor’s part.
Clericalism, with its damming up of lay initiative, was doubtless a Puritan limitation, and one which boomeranged when lay zeal finally boiled over in Cromwell’s army, in Quakerism, and in the vast sectarian underworld of Commonwealth times; but the other side of that coin was the nobility of the pastor’s profile that the Puritans evolved – gospel preacher and Bible teacher, shepherd and physician of souls, catechist and counselor, trainer and disciplinarian, all in one. From the Puritans’ ideals and goals for church life, which were unquestionably and abidingly right, and from their standards for clergy, which were challengingly and searchingly high, there is yet again a great deal that modern Christians can and should take to heart. These are just a few of the most obvious areas in which the Puritans can help us in these days.
The foregoing celebration of Puritan greatness may leave some readers skeptical. It is, however, as was hinted earlier, wholly in line with the major reassessment of Puritanism that has taken place in historical scholarship. Fifty years ago the academic study of Puritanism went over a watershed with the discovery that there was such a thing as Puritan culture, and a rich culture at that, over and above Puritan reactions against certain facets of medieval and Renaissance culture. The common assumption of earlier days, that Puritans both sides of the Atlantic were characteristically morbid, obsessive, uncouth and unintelligent, was left behind. Satirical aloofness towards Puritan thought-life gave way to sympathetic attentiveness, and the exploring of Puritan beliefs and ideals became an academic cottage industry of impressive vigour, as it still is. North America led the way with four books published over two years which between them ensured that Puritan studies could never be the same again. These were: William Haller, ‘The Rise of Puritanism’ (Columbia University Press: New York, 1938); A.S.P. Woodhouse, ‘Puritanism and Liberty’ (Macmillan: London, 1938; Woodhouse taught at Toronto); M.M. Knappen, ‘Tudor Puritanism’ (Chicago University Press: Chicago, 1939); and Perry Miller, ‘The New England Mind Vol I; The Seventeenth Century’ (Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MA, 1939).
Many books from the thirties and later have confirmed the view of Puritanism which these four volumes yielded, and the overall picture that has emerged is as follows.
Puritanism was at heart a spiritual movement, passionately concerned with God and godliness. It began in England with William Tyndale the Bible translator, Luther’s contemporary, a generation before the word ‘Puritan’ was coined, and it continued till the latter years of the seventeenth century, some decades after ‘Puritan’ had fallen out of use. Into its making went Tyndale’s reforming biblicism; John Bradford’s piety of the heart and conscience; John Knox’s zeal for God’s honor in national churches; the passion for evangelical pastoral competence that is seen in John Hooper, Edward Dering and Richard Greenham; the view of Holy Scripture as the ‘regulative principle’ of church worship and order that fired Thomas Cartwright; the anti-Roman, anti-Arminian, anti-Socinian, anti-Antinomian Calvinism that John Owen and the Westminster standards set forth; the comprehensive ethical interest that reached its apogee in Richard Baxter’s monumental ‘Christian Directory’; and the purpose of popularising and making practical the teaching of the Bible that gripped Perkins and Bunyan, with many more.
Puritanism was essentially a movement for church reform, pastoral renewal and evangelism, and spiritual revival; and in addition – indeed, as a direct expression of its zeal for God’s honor – it was a world-view, a total Christian philosophy, in intellectual terms a Protestantised and updated medievalism, and in terms of spirituality a reformed monasticism outside the cloister and away from monkish vows. The Puritan goal was to complete what England’s Reformation began: to finish reshaping Anglican worship, to introduce effective church discipline into Anglican parishes, to establish righteousness in the political, domestic, and socio-economic fields, and to convert all Englishmen to a vigorous evangelical faith. Through the preaching and teaching of the gospel, and the sanctifying of all arts, sciences, and skills, England was to become a land of saints, a model and paragon of corporate godliness, and as such a means of blessing to the world. Such was the Puritan dream as it developed under Elizabeth, James, and Charles, and blossomed in the Interregnum, before it withered in the dark tunnel of persecution between 1660 (Restoration) and 1689 (Toleration). This dream bred the giants with whom this book is concerned.
The present chapter is, I confess, advocacy, barefaced and unashamed. I am seeking to make good the claim that the Puritans can teach us lessons that we badly need to learn. Let me pursue my line of argument a little further. I must by now be apparent that the great Puritan pastor-theologians – Owen, Baxter, Goodwin, Howe, Perkins, Sibbes, Brooks, Watson, Gurnall, Flavel, Bunyan, Manton, and others like them – were men of outstanding intellectual power, as well as spiritual insight. In them mental habits fostered by sober scholarship were linked with a flaming zeal for God and a minute acquaintance with the human heart. All their work displays this unique fusion of gifts and graces. In thought and outlook they were radically God-centered. Their appreciation of God’s sovereign majesty was profound, and their reverence in handling his written word was deep and constant. They were patient, thorough, and methodical in searching the Scriptures, and their grasp of the various threads and linkages in the web of revealed truth was firm and clear. They understood most richly the ways of God with men, the glory of Christ the Mediator, and the work of the Spirit in the believer and the church.
And their knowledge was no mere theoretical orthodoxy. They sought to ‘reduce to practice’ (their own phrase) all that God taught them. They yoked their consciences to his word, disciplining themselves to bring all activities under the scrutiny of Scripture, and to demand a theological, as distinct from a merely pragmatic, justification for everything that they did. They applied their understanding of the mind of God to every branch of life, seeing the church, the family, the state, the arts and sciences, the world of commerce and industry, no less than the devotions of the individual, as so many spheres in which God must be served and honored. They saw life whole, for they saw its Creator as Lord of each department of it, and their purpose was that ‘holiness to the Lord’ might be written over it in its entirety. Nor as this all. Knowing God, the Puritans also knew man. They saw him as in origin a noble being, made in God’s image to rule God’s earth, but now tragically brutified and brutalised by sin. They viewed sin in he triple light of God’s law, Lordship, and holiness, and so saw it as transgression and guilt, as rebellion and usurpation, and as uncleanness, corruption, and inability for good. Seeing this, and knowing the ways whereby the Spirit brings sinners to faith and new life in Christ, and leads saints, on the one hand to grow into their Savior’s image, and, on the other, to learn their total dependence on grace, the great Puritans became superb pastors.
The depth and unction of the ‘practical and experimental’ expositions in the pulpit was no more outstanding than was their skill in the study of applying spiritual physic to sick souls. From Scripture they mapped the often bewildering terrain of the life of faith and fellowship with God with great thoroughness (see ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’ for a pictorial gazetteer), and their acuteness and wisdom in diagnosing spiritual malaise and setting out the appropriate biblical remedies was outstanding. They remain the classic pastors of Protestantism, just as men like Whitefield and Spurgeon stand as its classic evangelists. Now it is here, on the pastoral front, that today’s evangelical Christians most need help. Our numbers, it seems, have increased in recent years, and a new interest in the old paths of evangelical theology has grown. For this we should thank God. But not all evangelical zeal is according to knowledge, nor do the virtues and values of the biblical Christian life always come together as they should, and three groups in particular in today’s evangelical world seem very obviously to need help of a kind that Puritans, as we meet them in their writings, are uniquely qualified to give.
These I call restless experientialists, entrenched intellectualists, and disaffected deviationists. They are not, of course, organised bodies of opinion, but individual persons with characteristic mentalities that one meets over and over again. Take them, now, in order.
Those whom I call restless experientialsts are a familiar breed, so much so that observers are sometimes tempted to define evangelicalism in terms of them. Their outlook is one of casual haphazardness and fretful impatience, of grasping after novelties, entertainments, and ‘highs’, and of valuing strong feelings above deep thoughts. They have little taste for solid study, humble self-examination, disciplined meditation, and unspectacular hard work in their callings and their prayers. They conceive the Christian life as one of exciting extraordinary experiences rather than of resolute rational righteousness. They well continually on the themes of joy, peace, happiness, satisfaction and rest of souls with no balancing reference to the divine discontent of Romans 7, the fight of faith of Psalm 73, or the ‘lows’ of Psalms 42, 88, and 102. Through their influence the spontaneous jollity of the simple extrovert comes to be equated with healthy Christian living, while saints of less sanguine and more complex temperament get driven almost to distraction because they cannot bubble over in the prescribed manner. In her restlessness these exuberant ones become uncritically credulous, reasoning that the more odd and striking an experience the more divine, supernatural, and spiritual it must be, and they scarcely give the scriptural virtue of steadiness a thought. It is no counter to these defects to appeal to the specialised counselling techniques that extrovert evangelicals have developed for pastoral purposes in recent years; for spiritual life is fostered, and spiritual maturity engendered, no by techniques but by truth, and if our techniques have been formed in terms of a defective notion of the truth to be conveyed and the goal to be aimed at they cannot make us better pastors or better believers than we were before. The reason why the restless experientialists are lopsided is that they have fallen victim to a form of worldliness, a man-centered, anti-rational individualism, which turns Christian life into a thrill-seeking ego-trip. Such saints need the sort of maturing ministry in which the Puritan tradition has specialised. What Puritan emphases can establish and settle restless experientialists? These, to start with.
First, the stress on God-centeredness as a divine requirement that is central to the discipline of self-denial.
Second, the insistence on the primacy of the mind, and on the impossibility of obeying biblical truth that one has not yet understood.
Third, the demand for humility, patience, and steadiness at all times, and for an acknowledgement that Holy Spirit’s main ministry is not to give thrills but to create in us Christlike character.
Fourth, the recognition that feelings go up and down, and that God frequently tries us by leading us through wastes of emotional flatness.
Fifth, the singling out of worship as life’s primary activity.
Sixth, the stress on our need of regular self-examination by Scripture, in terms set by Psalm 139:23-24.
Seventh, the realisation that sanctified suffering bulks large in God’s plan for his children’s growth in grace. No Christian tradition of teaching admin isters this purging and strengthening medicine with more masterful authority than does that of the Puritans, whose own dispensing of it nurtured a marvellously strong and resilient type of Christian for a century and more, as we have seen.
Think now of entrenched intellectualists in the evangelical world: a second familiar breed, though not so common as the previous type. Some of them seem to be victims of an insecure temperament and inferiority feelings, others to be reacting out of pride or pain against the zaniness of experientialism as they have perceived it, but whatever the source of their syndrome the behaviour-pattern in which they express it is distinctive and characteristic. Constantly they present themselves as rigid, argumentative, critical Christians, champions of God’s truth for whom orthodoxy is all. Upholding and defending their own view of that truth, whether Calvinist or Arminian, dispensational or Pentecostal, national church reformist or Free Church separatist, or whatever it might be, is their leading interest, and they invest themselves unstintingly in this task. There is little warmth about them; relationally they are remote; experiences do not mean much to them; winning the battle for mental corr ectness is their one great purpose.
They see, truly enough, that in our anti-rational, feeling-oriented, instant-gratification culture conceptual knowledge of divine things is undervalued, and they seek with passion to right the balance at this point. They understand the priority of the intellect well; the trouble is that intellectualism, expressing itself in endless campaigns for their own brand of right thinking, is almost if not quite all that they can offer, for it is almost if not quite all that they have. They too, so I urge, need exposure to the Puritan heritage for their maturing. That last statement might sound paradoxical, since it will not have escaped the reader that the above profile corresponds to what many still suppose the typical Puritan to have been. But when we ask what emphases Puritan tradition contains to counter arid intellectualism, a whole series of points springs to view.
First, true religion claims the affections as well as the intellect; it is essentially, in Richard Baxter’s phrase, ‘heart-work’
Second, theological truth is for practice. William Perkins defined theology as the science of living blessedly for ever; William Ames called it the science of living to God.
Third, conceptual knowledge kills if one does not move on from knowing notions to knowing the realities to which they refer – in this case, from knowing about God to a relational acquaintance with God himself.
Fourth, faith and repentance, issuing in a life of love and holiness, that is, of gratitude expressed in goodwill and good works, are explicitly called for in the gospel.
Fifth, the Spirit is given to lead us into close companionship with others in Christ.
Sixth, the discipline of discursive meditation is meant to keep us ardent and adoring in our love affair with God.
Seventh, it is ungodly and scandalous to become a firebrand and cause division in the church, and it is ordinarily nothing more reputable than spiritual pride in its intellectual form that leads men to create parties and splits. The great Puritans were as humble-minded and warm-hearted they were clear-headed, as fully oriented to people as they were to Scripture, and as passionate for peace as they were for truth. They would certainly have diagnosed today’s fixated Christian intellectualists as spiritually stunted, not in their zeal for the form of sound words but in their lack of zeal for anything else; and the thrust of Puritan teaching about God’s truth in man’s life is still potent to ripen such souls into whole and mature human beings.
I turn finally to those whom I call disaffected deviationists, the casualties and dropouts of the modern evangelical movement, many of whom have now turned against it to denounce it as a neurotic perversion of Christianity. Here, too, is a breed that we know all too well. It is distressing to think of these folk, both because their experience to date discredits our evangelicalism so deeply and also because there are so many of them. Who are they? They are people who once saw themselves as evangelicals, either from being evangelically nurtured or from coming to profess conversion with the evangelical sphere of influence, but who have become disillusioned about the evangelical point of view and have turned their back on it, feeling that it let them down. Some leave it for intellectual reasons, judging that what was taught them was so simplistic as to stifle their minds and so unrealistic and out of touch with facts as to be really if unintentionally dishonest. Others leave because they were led to expect that as Christians they would enjoy health, wealth, trouble-free circumstances, immunity from relational hurts, betrayals, and failures, and from making mistakes and bad decisions; in short, a flowery bed of ease on which they would be carried happily to heaven – and these great expectations were in due course refuted by events.
Hurt and angry, feeling themselves victims of a confidence trick, they now accuse the evangelicalism they knew of having failed and fooled them, and resentfully give it up; it is a mercy if they do not therewith similarly accuse and abandon God himself. Modern evangelicalism has much to answer for in the number of casualties of this sort that it has caused in recent years by its naivet of mind and unrealism of expectation. But here again the soberer, profounder, wiser evangelicalism of the Puritan giants can fulfill a corrective and therapeutic function in our midst, if only we will listen to its message. What have the Puritans to say to us that might serve to heal the disaffected casualties of modern evangelical goofiness? Anyone who reads the writings of the Puritan authors will find in them much that helps in this way. Puritan authors regularly tell us,
first, of the ‘mystery’ of God: that our God is too small, that the real God cannot b put without remainder into a man-made conceptual box so as to be fully understood; and that he was, is, and always will be bewilderingly inscrutable in his dealing with those who trust and love him, so that ‘losses and crosses’, that is, bafflement and disappointment in relation to particular hopes one has entertained, must be accepted as a recurring element in one’s life of fellowship with him. Then they tell us,
second, of the ‘love’ of God: that it is a love that redeems, converts, sanctifies, and ultimately glorifies sinners, and that Calvary was the one place in human history where it was fully and unambiguously revealed, and that in relation to our own situation we may know for certain that nothing can separate us from that love (Rom.8:38f), although no situation in this world will ever be free from flies in the ointment and thorns in the bed. Developing the theme of divine love the Puritans tell us,
third, of the ’salvation’ of God: that the Christ who put away our sins and brought us God’s pardon is leading us through this world to a glory for which we are even now being prepared by the instilling of desire for it and capacity to enjoy it, and that holiness here, in the form of consecrated service and loving obedience through thick and thin, is the high road to happiness hereafter. Following this they tell us,
fourth, about ’spiritual conflict,’ the many ways in which the world, the flesh and the devil seek to lay us low;
fifth, about the ‘protection’ of God, whereby he overrules and sanctifies the conflict, often allowing one evil to touch our lives in order thereby to shield us from greater evils; and, sixth, about the ‘glory’ of God, which it becomes our privilege to further by our celebrating of his grace, by our proving of his power under perplexity and pressure, by totally resigning ourselves to his good pleasure, and by making him our joy and delight at all times. By ministering to us these precious biblical truths the Puritans give us the resources we need to cope with ‘the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’, and offer the casualties an insight into what has happened to them that can raise them above self-pitying resentment and reaction and restore their spiritual health completely.
Puritan sermons show that problems about providence are in now way new; the seventeenth century had its own share of spiritual casualties, saints who had thought simplistically and hoped unrealistically and were now disappointed, disaffected, despondent and despairing, and the Puritans’ ministry to us at this point is simply the spin-off of what they were constantly saying to raise up and encourage wounded spirits among their own people I think the answer to the question, why do we need the Puritans, is now pretty clear, and I conclude my argument at this point. I, who owe more to the Puritans than to any other theologians I have ever read, and who know that I need them still, have been trying to persuade you that perhaps you need them too. To succeed in this would, I confess, make me overjoyed, and that chiefly for your sake, and the Lord’s. But there, too, is something that I must leave in God’s hands. Meantime, let us continue to explore the Puritan heritage together. There is more gold to be mined here than I have mentioned yet.

by J I Packer

-Scott Bailey 2007

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