Why You Should Read the Puritans
by Joel Beeke (condensed)
Interest in Puritan books has seldom been more intense. In the last fifty years, 150 Puritan authors and nearly 700 Puritan titles have been brought back into print.
Doctrinally, Puritanism was a kind of vigorous Calvinism;
experientially, it was warm and contagious;
evangelistically, it was aggressive, yet tender;
ecclesiastically, it was theocentric and worshipful;
politically, it aimed to be scriptural, balanced, and bound by conscience before God in the relationships of king, Parliament, and subjects;
culturally, it had lasting impact throughout succeeding generations and centuries until today (Durston and Eales, eds., The Culture of English Puritanism, 1560-1700).
How to Profit from Reading the Puritans
Let me offer you several reasons why it will help you spiritually to read Puritan literature still today:
1. Puritan writings help shape life by Scripture. The Puritans loved, lived, and breathed Holy Scripture. They relished the power of the Spirit that accompanied the Word. Their books are all Word-centered; more than 90 percent of their writings are repackaged sermons that are rich with scriptural exposition. The Puritan writers truly believed in the sufficiency of Scripture for life and godliness.
If you read the Puritans regularly, their Bible-centeredness will become contagious. These writings will show you how to yield wholehearted allegiance to the Bibleís message. Like the Puritans, you will become a believer of the living Book, echoing the truth of John Flavel, who said, "The Scriptures teach us the best way of living, the noblest way of suffering, and the most comfortable way of dying."
Do you want to read books that put you into the Scriptures and keep you there, shaping your life by sola Scriptura? Read the Puritans. As you read, enhance your understanding by looking up and studying all the referenced Scriptures.
2. Puritan writings show how to integrate biblical doctrine into daily life. The Puritan writings do this in three ways:
FIRST, they address your mind. In keeping with the Reformed tradition, the Puritans refused to set mind and heart against each other, but viewed the mind as the palace of faith.
The Puritans understood that a mindless Christianity fosters a spineless Christianity. An anti-intellectual gospel quickly becomes an empty, formless gospel that never gets beyond "felt needs," which is something that is happening in many churches today. Puritan literature is a great help for understanding the vital connection between what we believe with our minds and how that affects the way we live.
SECOND, Puritan writings confront your conscience. The Puritans are masters at convicting us about the heinous nature of our sin against an infinite God. They excel at exposing specific sins, then asking questions to press home conviction of those sins. As one Puritan wrote, "We must go with the stick of divine truth and beat every bush behind which a sinner hides, until like Adam who hid, he stands before God in his nakedness."
Devotional reading should be confrontational as well as comforting. We grow little if our consciences are not pricked daily and directed to Christ. Since we are prone to run for the bushes when we feel threatened, we need daily help to be brought before the living God "naked and opened unto the eyes of with whom we have to do" (Hebrews 4:12). In this, the Puritans excel.
THIRD, the Puritan writers engage your heart. They excel in feeding the mind with solid biblical substance and they move the heart with affectionate warmth. They write out of love for Godís Word, love for the glory of God, and love for the soul of readers.
3. Puritan writings show how to exalt Christ and see His beauty. The Puritan Thomas Adams wrote: "Christ is the sum of the whole Bible, prophesied, typified, prefigured, exhibited, demonstrated, to be found in every leaf, almost in every line, the Scriptures being but as it were the swaddling bands of the child Jesus." Likewise, the Puritan Isaac Ambrose wrote, "Think of Christ as the very substance, marrow, soul, and scope of the whole Scriptures."
The Puritans loved Christ and exalted in His beauty. Samuel Rutherford wrote: "Put the beauty of ten thousand worlds of paradises, like the Garden of Eden in one; put all trees, all flowers, all smells, all colors, all tastes, all joys, all loveliness, all sweetness in one. O what a fair and excellent thing would that be? And yet it would be less to that fair and dearest well-beloved Christ than one drop of rain to the whole seas, rivers, lakes, and foundations of ten thousand earths."
If you would know Christ better and love Him more fully, immerse yourself in Puritan literature.
4. Puritan writings show you how to handle trials. Puritanism grew out of a great struggle between the truth of Godís Word and its enemies. Reformed Christianity was under attack in Great Britain, much like Reformed Christianity is under attack today. The Puritans were good soldiers in the conflict, enduring great hardships and suffering much. Their lives and their writings stand ready to arm us for our battles, and to encourage us in our suffering. The Puritans teach us how we need affliction to humble us (Deuteronomy 8:2), to teach us what sin is (Zephaniah 1:12), and how that brings us to God (Hosea 5:15). As Robert Leighton wrote, "Affliction is the diamond dust that Heaven polishes its jewels with." The Puritans show us how Godís rod of affliction is His means to write Christís image more fully upon us, so that we may be partakers of His righteousness and holiness (Hebrews 12:10Ė11).
5. Puritan writings explain true spirituality. The Puritans stress the spirituality of the law, spiritual warfare against indwelling sin, the childlike fear of God, the wonder of grace, the art of meditation, the dreadfulness of Hell, and the glories of Heaven. Read the Puritans devotionally, and then pray to be like them. Ask questions such as: Am I, like the Puritans, thirsting to glorify the Triune God? Am I motivated by biblical truth and biblical fire? Do I share their view of the vital necessity of conversion and of being clothed with the righteousness of Christ? Do I follow them as far as they followed Christ?
6. Puritan writings show how to live by wholistic faith. The Puritans apply every subject they write about to practical "uses"óas they term it. These "uses" will propel you into passionate, effective action for Christís kingdom. Their own daily lives integrated Christian truth with covenant vision; they knew no dichotomy between the sacred and the secular. Their writings can assist you immeasurably in living a life that centers on God in every area, appreciating His gifts, and declaring everything "holiness to the Lord."
The Puritans promoted a comprehensive worldview, a total Christian philosophy, a holistic approach of bringing the whole gospel to bear on all of life, striving to bring every action in conformity with Christ, so that believers would mature and grow in faith. The Puritans wrote on practical subjects such as how to pray, how to develop genuine piety, how to conduct family worship, and how to raise children for Christ. In short, they taught how to develop a "rational, resolute, passionate piety [that is] conscientious without becoming obsessive, law-oriented without lapsing into legalism, and expressive of Christian liberty without any shameful lurches into license" (ibid., xii).
7. Puritan writings teach the importance and primacy of preaching. To the Puritans, preaching was the high point of public worship. Preaching must be expository and didactic, they said; evangelistic and convicting, experiential and applicatory, powerful and "plain" in its presentation, ever respecting the sovereignty of the Holy Spirit.
8. Puritan writings show how to live in two worlds. The Puritans said we should have Heaven "in our eye" throughout our earthly pilgrimage. They took seriously the New Testament passages that say we must keep the "hope of glory" before our minds to guide and shape our lives here on earth. They viewed this life as "the gymnasium and dressing room where we are prepared for Heaven," teaching us that preparation for death is the first step in learning to truly live (Packer, Quest, 13).
Whitefield was right: the Puritans, though long dead, still speak through their writings. Their books still praise them in the gates. Reading the Puritans will place you and keep you on the right path theologically, experientially, and practically. As Packer writes, "The Puritans were strongest just where Protestants today are weakest, and their writings can give us more real help than those of any other body of Christian teachers, past or present, since the days of the apostles" (quoted in Hulse, Reformation & Revival, 44). I wholeheartedly agree. I have been reading Christian literature for more than forty years and can freely say that I know of no group of writers in church history that can so benefit your mind and soul as the Puritans. God used their books to convert me as a teenager, and He has been using their books ever since to help me grow in understanding John the Baptistís summary of Christian sanctification: "Christ must increase and I must decrease."