Those who have followed these conferences over the years will be aware that in this paper I am returning to a subject on which I have spoken before.
In 1955, I gave a paper entitled “Puritan Evangelism.” It was meant as a contribution to the current debate on evangelistic methods. In it, I showed how the Puritan approach to the task of winning souls was controlled by the knowledge that fallen men cannot turn to God by their own strength, nor is it in the power of evangelists to make them do so. The Puritan position was that only God, by His Spirit, through His word, can bring sinners to faith, and that He does this, not to our order, but according to His own free purpose. Our evangelistic practice, the Puritans would say, must be in accord with this truth. Modes of action which imply another doctrine cannot be approved.
The Puritan position seems indubitably biblical, and, as I partly showed in the paper, its implications are of great importance for the reforming of inherited evangelistic traditions today. It implies, to start with, that all devices for exerting psychological pressure in order to precipitate “decisions” must be eschewed, as being in truth presumptuous attempts to intrude into the province of the Holy Ghost. It means, further, that to abjure such devices is no loss, since their use can contribute nothing whatever to the effectiveness of evangelistic preaching. Indeed, it will in the long run detract from it; for while psychological pressures, skilfully handled, may produce the outward form of “decision,” they cannot bring about regeneration and a change of heart, and when the “decisions” wear off those who registered them will be found “gospel-hardened” and antagonistic. Such forcing tactics can only do damage, perhaps incalculable damage, to men’s souls. It follows, therefore, that high-speed evangelism is not a valid option. Evangelism must rather be conceived as a long-term enterprise of patient teaching and instruction, in which God’s servants seek simply to be faithful in delivering the gospel message and applying it to human lives, and leave it to God’s Spirit to draw men to faith through this message in His own way and at His own speed.
But this raises a further question: What is the message; how much is involved in declaring the gospel?
This question is rarely raised in evangelical circles; we assume—too readily—that we all know the answer. But it needs raising; two factors in our situation compel us to face it.
The first is a minimizing approach to the task of teaching Christian truth. This has infected Protestant clergy very widely. The modern minister does not usually ask, How much ought I to teach? but rather, How little need I teach? What is the minimum of doctrine that will do? One reason for this, no doubt, is the reluctance of those in the pews to learn. But this is no new thing. Baxter met it three centuries ago in his working-class congregation at Kidderminster, and gave it short shrift. “Were you but as willing to get the knowledge of God and heavenly things as you are to know how to work in your trade, you would have set yourself to it before this day, and you would have spared no cost or pains till you had got it. But you account seven years little enough to learn your trade, and will not bestow one day in seven in diligent learning the matters of your salvation.”1 Baxter did not humour this ungodly unwillingness; but the modern minister often does, and when he finds that some aspect of biblical truth arouses no immediate interest or approval in his congregation his instinct is to jettison it. And the tendency today is to encourage him to do so. Thus, for instance, some will assure us that it is a waste of time preaching to modern hearers about the law and sin, for (it is said) such things mean nothing to them. Instead (it is suggested) we should appeal to the needs which they feel already, and present Christ to them simply as One who gives peace, power, and purpose to the neurotic and frustrated—a super-psychiatrist, in fact.
Now, this suggestion excellently illustrates the danger of the minimizing approach. If we do not preach about sin and God’s judgment on it, we cannot present Christ as a Saviour from sin and the wrath of God. And if we are silent about these things, and preach a Christ who saves only from self and the sorrows of this world, we are not preaching the Christ of the Bible. We are, in effect, bearing false witness and preaching a false Christ. Our message is “another gospel, which is not another.” Such preaching may soothe some, but it will help nobody; for a Christ who is not seen and sought as a Saviour from sin will not be found to save from self or from anything else. An imaginary Christ will not bring a real salvation. The minimizing approach leads us to deal in half-truths about salvation; and a half-truth presented as the whole truth is a complete untruth. Thus the minimizing approach threatens to falsify the gospel by emptying it of doctrinal elements that are essential to it. In face of this prevalent habit of mind, it is vital that we raise the question: How much does preaching the gospel involve?
The second factor in our situation is a widespread uncertainty about the evangelistic implications of the Reformed faith. Many today see the scripturalness of the doctrine of grace set out in the so-called “five points of Calvinism,” but do not see how on this basis one can preach evangelistically. If the doctrines of total inability, unconditional election, and effectual calling are true—if, that is, sinners cannot of themselves turn to God, and faith and repentance are graces given only to the elect—what sense does it make to command all men indiscriminately to repent and believe? If the doctrine of particular redemption is true—if, that is, Christ died to win salvation, not for all men inclusively (and for many ineffectively), but for the elect only—we can never tell an unconverted man that Christ died for him; on what grounds, therefore, can we exhort him to trust the Saviour? Are we indeed entitled to make a “free offer” of Christ to sinners at all? Some, perplexed by these questions, feel themselves shut up to a choice between either preaching the gospel like Arminians—addressing the unconverted, that is, as if it were in their own power to receive Christ, and God were simply waiting for them to do so—or else not preaching evangelistically at all. It would be tragic if the current return to Reformed theology, instead of invigorating evangelism, as it should, had the effect of strangling it; but it seems clear that many today have ceased to preach evangelistically because they do not see how an evangelistic application of this theology can be made. Thus, as the minimizing approach leads some to empty the gospel of its doctrinal content, so this perplexity causes others to empty it of its practical application. And either mode of evisceration nullifies the gospel as effectively as the other.
In this situation, we return to the Puritans for further guidance. How much, we ask them, needs saying, by way of both information and application, if the gospel is to be truly proclaimed? What are the essential ingredients in evangelistic preaching?
Only one aspect of this subject—the need to preach the law when proclaiming Christ—received formal discussion in the Puritan period; but there is ample evidence to show how they would answer our question.
A word about this evidence. It consists of printed sermons. The Puritans did not regard evangelistic sermons as a special class of sermons, having their own peculiar style and conventions; the Puritan position was, rather, that, since all Scripture bears witness to Christ, and all sermons should aim to expound and apply what is in the Bible, all proper sermons would of necessity declare Christ and so be to some extent evangelistic. The Lord Jesus Christ, said Robert Bolton, is “offered most freely, and without exception of any person, every Sabbath, every Sermon, either in plaine, and direct termes, or implyedly, at the least.”2 The only difference was that some sermons aimed more narrowly and exclusively at converting sinners than did others. Such were those published in Richard Baxter’s A Call to the Unconverted, A Treatise on Conversion, and Directions and Persuasions to a Sound Conversion, and in Joseph Alleine’s, An Alarme to the Unconverted. But there are five further classes of Puritan sermons and expositions which are equally relevant, being just as directly, if less exclusively, evangelistic in intent.
i. Treatises on sin: e.g., Edward Reynolds, The Sinfulnesse of Sin; Thomas Goodwin, Aggravation of Sin and An Unregenerate Man’s Guiltiness before God; Jeremiah Burroughs, The Evil of Evils, or the Exceeding Sinfulness of Sin. (“Wherein is shewed,” continues the title page, “1. There is more Evil in the least Sin, than there is in the greatest Affliction. 2. Sin is most opposite to God. 3. Sin is most opposite to Man’s Good. 4. Sin is opposite to all Good in general. 5. Sin is the Poyson, or Evil of all other Evils. 6. Sin hath a kind of Infiniteness in it. 7. Sin makes a man conformable to the Devil. All these several Heads are branched out into very many Particulars.” The work is 537 pages long.)
ii. Treatises on the office and work of Christ: e.g., Thomas Goodwin, Christ set Forth; Of Christ the Mediator; The Heart of Christ in Heaven towards Sinners on Earth; The Knowledge of God the Father and His Son Jesus Christ; Bunyan, The Work of Christ as an Advocate; Christ a Complete Saviour; Philip Henry, Christ is All; John Owen, The Glory of Christ.
iii. Treatises on faith and conversion: e.g., Ezekiel Culverwell and John Ball each wrote A Treatise of Faith; John Rogers, The Doctrine of Faith: William Whately, The New Birth; Thomas Hooker, The Application of Redemption (and many more works on the same subject); Thomas Shepard, The Sound Believer; Giles Firmin, The Real Christian; John Flavel, The Method of Grace.
iv. Treatises on the covenant of grace, exploring the riches of the relationship with God into which Christ brings believers: e.g., John Preston, The New Covenant; Richard Alleine, Heaven Opened; E. F(isher), The Marrow of Modern Divinity.
v. Treatises on hypocrisy and nominal Christianity: e.g., Daniel Dyke, The Mystery of Selfe-Deceiving; Shepard, The Parable of the Ten Virgins; Matthew Meade, The Almost Christian; or, the False-Professor Tried and Cast.
Nearly all these works began life as courses of sermons. They bear the marks that distinguish Puritan sermons; they are textual and expository, practical and applicatory, analytical and thorough. They are uniformly doctrinal—that is to say, their real subject is always God and His ways, even when the formal object of consideration is man. And together they show clearly what the Puritans took to be involved in preaching the gospel.
Note, first, the comprehensiveness of the gospel as the Puritans understood it. Observe how much they took the word “gospel” to cover. It denoted to them the whole doctrine of the covenant of grace. Sometimes they included as part of it the preparatory message of sin and judgment as well. Thus, to preach the gospel meant to them nothing less than declaring the entire economy of redemption, the saving work of all three members of the Trinity. This appears from the following words of Thomas Manton: “The sum of the gospel is this, that all who, by true repentance and faith, do forsake the flesh, the world, and the devil, and give themselves up to God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, as their creator, redeemer, and sanctifier, shall find God as a father, taking them for his reconciled children, and for Christ’s sake pardoning their sin, and by his Spirit giving them his grace; and, if they persevere in this course, will finally glorify them, and bestow upon them everlasting happiness; but will condemn the unbelievers, impenitent, and ungodly to everlasting punishment. That this is the sum of the gospel appeareth by Mark 15:15–16: ‘Go, preach the gospel to every creature. He that believeth, and is baptized, shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned’;—where you have all the Christian religion laid before you in one short view and prospect.”3
“The sum of the gospel”—“all the Christian religion . . . in one short view and prospect.” We are doing something less than preaching the gospel, the Puritans would tell us, if our preaching contains less than this.
Their view of the comprehensiveness of the gospel comes out in many different connections. We give three further examples. Here, first, is Goodwin, telling us how much is involved in relating the gospel story.
“As there are three persons . . . who have a joint hand in that work of salvation, the subject of the gospel, so the whole story of the gospel hath three parts also, in every of which some one of them bears an especial part.
“The first part God the Father had the chiefest hand in, who drew the platform of this great work, contrived it, made the motion first to his Son . . .
“The second, God the Son, when he came down and took flesh and . . . transacted the redemption of the world according to that draft.
“As after him, when he was off the stage, came the Spirit, to apply what he had done, and all the benefits of it, whose work makes up the third part.”4 And all three parts must receive mention if the gospel story is to be told properly.
Here, again, is John Owen, showing us how much is involved in declaring the promises of the gospel.
“Gospel promises then are: 1. The free and gracious dispensations; and, 2. discoveries of God’s good-will and love; to, 3. sinners; 4. through Christ; 5. in a covenant of grace; 6. wherein, upon his truth and faithfulness, he engageth himself to be their God, to give His Son unto them, and for them, and his Holy Spirit to abide with them, with all things that are either required in them, or are necessary for them, to make them accepted before him, and to bring them to an enjoyment of him.”5 And proclaiming the gospel in its character as God’s word of promise involves elucidating all this.
Here, finally, is Richard Baxter, giving his first three “directions . . . to a sound conversion”—directions designed to lay the foundation for an intelligent and responsible commitment to Christ.
First, “labour after a right understanding of the true nature of Christianity, and the meaning of the gospel”; begin by clarifying your mind about the Christian message as a whole. Second, study the Scriptures for this purpose. Third, “be much in the serious consideration of the truths which you understand”—that you were made to serve God; that you have fallen short of this end; that you are now in a wretched state, for “you have made God your enemy”; how happy the converted are; how adequate Christ’s redemption is; how disastrous it will be to reject redemption; and—before any of the rest—“the nature of that God with whom ye have to do.” “If he be good, and infinitely good, there is all the reason in the world that you should love him; and there is no show of reason that you should love the world or sin before him. If he be faithful and true, his threatenings must be feared, and his promises must not be distrusted; and there is no reason that you should make any question of his word. If he be holy . . . then he must be an enemy to sin, and to all that are unholy, because they are contrary to his nature. Consider that he is almighty, and there is no resisting him . . . in the twink of an eye can he snatch thy guilty soul from thy body, and cast it where sin is better known. A word of his mouth can set all the world against thee, and set thine own conscience against thee too . . . and if he be thine enemy, it is no matter who is thy friend; for all the world cannot save thee, if he do but condemn thee . . . He was from eternity, and thou art but as it were of yesterday: thy being is from him; thy life is always in his hands, thou canst not live an hour without him, thou canst not fetch a breath without him, nor think a thought, nor speak a word, nor stir a foot or a hand without him . . . no love can be great enough, and no praises can be high enough, and no service can be holy and good enough for such a God . . . this is not a God to be neglected, or dallied with; nor a God to be resisted, nor provoked by the wilful breaking of his laws . . . O therefore dwell on the meditations of the almighty!”6 This knowledge of God, Baxter insists, is fundamental to a sound conversion. Evidently, therefore, it too must find its place in the preaching of the gospel.
The importance of all this is that it challenges our modern idea that preaching “gospel sermons” means just harping on a few great truths—guilt, and atonement, and forgiveness—set virtually in a theological vacuum. The Puritan view was that preaching “gospel sermons” meant teaching the whole Christian system—the character of God, the Trinity, the plan of salvation, the entire work of grace. To preach Christ, they held, involved preaching all this. Preach less, they would tell us, and what you do preach will not be properly grasped. What the good news of a restored relationship with God through Christ means for religion cannot be understood further than it is seen in this comprehensive context. Gospel preaching centres always upon the theme of man’s relationship to God, but around that centre it must range throughout the whole sphere of revealed truth, viewing the centre from every angle of vision that the Bible provides. In this way, they would say, preaching the gospel involves preaching the whole counsel of God. Nor should the preaching of the gospel be thought of as something confined to set evangelistic occasions, as if at other times we should preach something else. If one preaches the Bible biblically, one cannot help preaching the gospel all the time, and every sermon will be, as Bolton said, at least by implication evangelistic.
And we must not be afraid to start with the basic facts about God the Creator. Revealed truth has a structure, and this is its foundation. When Paul preached to the pagan Athenians, he laid this foundation before going further. He had to, or else the point of his witness to our Lord would not have been grasped. For knowledge of sin and salvation presupposes some knowledge of the Creator; nobody can see what sin is till he has learned what God is. That is why Baxter directed the seeking soul to fix his mind first and foremost on the nature and majesty of God. In pagan England today, we need to lay the same foundation as Paul laid at Athens. We complain that our “gospel preaching” (in the modern sense) does not register with those who hear it. May not this be in the first instance because they know nothing about the God with whom they have to do? Have we taken pains to teach them who God is? The irony of our situation is that if we spend time preaching to modern pagans about the character of God we shall be told that we are not preaching the gospel. But the Puritans would not tell us that; nor would Paul.
Note, second, the emphases of the gospel as the Puritans preached it. We note a few of the major points.
i. They diagnosed the plight of man as one, not merely of guilt for sins, but also of pollution in sin and bondage to sin. And by bondage to sin they meant, not bondage to sins—particular weaknesses of character and bad habits—but the state of being wholly dominated by an inbred attitude of enmity to God. They sought to expose the sinfulness that underlies sins, and convince men of their own utter corruption and inability to improve themselves in God’s sight. This, they held, was a vital part of the work of a gospel preacher; for the index of the soundness of a man’s faith in Christ is the genuineness of the self-despair from which it springs.
ii. They analysed the issue of sin in terms of God’s hostility in the present, as well as His condemnation in the future. Their constant aim was to make men feel that to be in a wrong relationship with God was intolerable here and now; hence, contrary to common belief, they made even more of the first thought than they did of the second.
iii. They stressed that the goal of grace is the glory and praise of God, and our salvation is a means to this end. God, they said, has chosen to redeem us, not for our sakes, but for His own name’s sake.
iv. They stressed the sufficiency of Christ. They did not teach men to trust a theory of the atonement, but a living Redeemer, the perfect adequacy of whose saving work they never tired of extolling.
v. They stressed the condescension of Christ. He was never to them less than the Divine Son, and they measured His mercy by His majesty. They magnified the love of the cross by dwelling on the greatness of the glory which He left for it. They dwelt on the patience and forbearance expressed in His invitations to sinners as further revealing His kindness. And when they applied Revelation 3:20 evangelistically (as on occasion they did), they took the words “Behold, I stand at the door and knock” as disclosing, not the impotence of His grace apart from man’s cooperation (the too-prevalent modern interpretation), but rather the grace of His omnipotence in freely offering Himself to needy souls.
These were the emphases which characterized the Puritan preaching of the gospel, and indeed all preaching of it by evangelicals from Puritan times onward till some eighty years ago.
Note, third, the demands of the gospel as the Puritans presented them.
The gospel, they said, summons sinners to faith in Christ. Faith means assent to the good news as divine truth and consent to receive Jesus Christ as a Divine Saviour. Faith is not a meritorious work, but the stretching out of an empty hand to lay hold of a Saviour and with Him a salvation. “What doth the Lord offer in the gospel?” asks Thomas Shepard. “Is it not first Christ, and then all the benefits of Christ?”7 The Lord Jesus Christ must be received in His whole mediatorial office, as Saviour and Lord, as Prophet, Priest, and King; for “never did any man take Jesus Christ savingly, who took him not for a Husband and a Lord, to serve, love and obey him for ever after, as well as a Saviour to disburden him of his sinnes; as a King to govern him by his Word and Spirit, as well as a Priest to wash him in his Blood.”8 To accept Jesus Christ as Saviour and Priest is evangelical faith; to enthrone Him as Lord and King is evangelical repentance.
The persons invited and commanded to believe are sinners, as such. The Saviour is freely offered in the gospel to all who need Him. The question of the extent of the atonement does not therefore arise in evangelism, for what the gospel commands the unconverted man to believe is not that Christ died with the specific intention of securing his individual salvation, but that here and now the Christ who died for sinners offers Himself to this individual sinner, saying to him personally, “Come unto me . . . and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11: 28). The whole warrant of faith—the ground, that is, on which believing becomes permissible and obligatory—is found in this invitation and command of the Father and the Son.
The above assertion, however, has been disputed. C. H. Spurgeon, in a sermon on 1 John 3:23, entitled “The Warrant of Faith,” which he preached in 1863, affirmed that some of the Puritans, like the opponents of the Marrowmen in eighteenth-century Scotland and the hypercalvinistic Baptists of Spurgeon’s own day, taught that the ground on which believing became permissible was a preliminary work of grace, convicting of sin.
“Some preachers in the Puritanic times,” Spurgeon declared, “erred much in this matter . . . Alleine and Baxter . . . Rogers of Dedham, Shepherd (Shepard), the author of The Sound Believer, and especially the American, Thomas Hooker, who has written a book upon qualifications for coming to Christ. These excellent men had a fear of preaching the gospel to any except those whom they styled as ‘sensible sinners’ . . . They preached repentance and hatred of sin as the warrant of a sinner’s trusting to Christ. According to them, a sinner might reason thus—‘I possess such-and-such a degree of sensibility on account of sin, therefore I have a right to trust in Christ.’ Now, I venture to affirm that such reasoning is seasoned with fatal error . . . ”9
Spurgeon’s theological judgment is surely sound; but equally surely he has put the wrong people in the dock. One wonders whether he had read the authors to whom he refers (after all, he was only twenty-nine at the time); certainly, he misrepresents their teaching. To state the facts correctly, we must distinguish two questions: that of the warrant of faith, and that of the way to faith.
All the Puritans agreed that the way by which God brings sinners to faith is through a “preparatory work,” longer or shorter, of contrition and humbling for sin. This is not repentance (actual turning from sin, which follows faith), but the soil out of which, upon their believing, repentance will spring. The reason why they held this preparatory work to be necessary has nothing to do with the question of the warrant of faith; it is simply because fallen man is naturally in love with sin, and it is a psychological impossibility for him to close whole-heartedly with Christ as a Saviour from sin until he has come to hate sin and long to be delivered from it.
Now, three of the authors whom Spurgeon names—John Rogers (in The Doctrine of Faith, 1627), Thomas Hooker (in The Soul’s Preparation For Christ, 1632, and other books), and Thomas Shepard (in The Sound Believer, 1645)—delineated the stages of this preparatory work in great detail; and their writings on the subject may justly be criticized on three counts.
a. They gave the impression (despite parenthetical disclaimers) that God’s work of humbling men for sin invariably followed the same course, in every detail of the process, and if you had not experienced it all you must be a stranger to true grace. In his teens, Richard Baxter went through much fear and distress, because, examine himself as he might, “I could not distinctly trace the Workings of the Spirit upon my heart in that method which . . . Mr. Hooker, Mr. Rogers, and other Divines describe.” Later, however, he realized “that God breaketh not all Men’s hearts alike,” and escaped from the pietistic strait-jacket which these giants of experimental religion had forged.10
b. Hooker and Shepard went beyond Scripture in teaching that the sign of true humiliation for sin was that the sinner, acknowledging his guilt, should be content to be damned for the glory of God. Baxter and, later, Giles Firmin (in The Real Chris-tian, 1670) took them to task for this, arguing that it was not required by God nor psychologically possible for any man ever to be content to be damned.
c. By concentrating attention on this preliminary work of grace, and harping on the need for it to be done thoroughly, these writers effectively discouraged seeking souls from going straight to Christ in their despair. “If you that are now converted had lived in our younger days,” wrote Goodwin in later life, “you would have seen that we were held long under John Baptist’s water, of being humbled for sin.”11 This naturally led to much morbidity.
But on the question of the warrant of faith, these authors are not open to criticism; when they speak of it, their doctrine is exactly Spurgeon’s, that the warrant of faith is the command and promise of God to sinners, and that faith is required of everyone who hears the gospel. Firmin spoke for the entire Puritan school when he laid it down that “it is the duty of all the sons and daughters of Adam, who hear the gospel preached, and Christ offered to them, to believe in, or receive, Christ, whether they be prepared or not prepared,” and quoted 1 John 3:23 and John 6:29 as proof.12 John Rogers, discussing the warrant of faith, quotes the same two texts in support of the statement that “faith is one of the commandments of the gospel.”13 Shepard speaks of the “commandment to receive Christ” in 1 John 3:23 which “binds conscience to believe, as you will answer for the contempt of this rich grace at the great day of account,”14 If any hearer of the gospel does not believe, it is not for want of being divinely directed and laid under obligation to do so. The truth is that to all the Puritans it was one of the wonders of free grace that the Lord Jesus Christ invites sinners, just as they are, in all their filthy rags, to receive Him and find life, and they never waxed more impassioned and powerful than when dilating on what John Owen, in his stately way, calls “the infinite condescension, grace and love of Christ, in His invitations of sinners to come unto him, that they may be saved.”15
Thus the Puritans preached the gospel of free and sovereign grace. Like Baxter, they were motivated by “a thirsty desire of Men’s Conversion and Salvation.”16 But two other motives weighed with them also, both greater even than this; the double desire to glorify God, and to magnify Christ. The latter point is, perhaps, the one that at present we most need to apply to ourselves. All of us who preach the gospel, I suppose, desire men’s conversion. Many, no doubt, are concerned also to glorify God by a faithful declaration of His truth. But how many, when preaching the gospel, are consumed by the longing to magnify Christ—to extol the richness, and freedom, and glory of His grace, and the perfection of His saving work? The cheap and perfunctory way in which the person of the Saviour is sometimes dealt with in modern evangelistic preaching forces this question upon us. Puritan gospel preaching was concerned above all things to honour Christ: to show His glory to needy men and women. It is much to be wished that we who preach the gospel in these days might recover the same overmastering concern to exalt this mighty Saviour.
(l) Works (1838 ed.), 2:482.
(2) Instructions for a Right Comforting Afflicted Consciences (3rd ed., 1640), p. 185.
(3) Works (1870 ed.) 2:102.
(4) Works (1862 ed.). 3:483.
(5) Works (ed. Goold), 11:227.
(7) The Sound Believer (1849 ed.), p. 217.
(8) Bolton, op. cit., p. 186.
(9) Sermons by Rev. C. H. Spurgeon, ed. Nicoll, p. 112.
(10) Reliquiae Baxterianae, 1:7.
(12) The Real Christian, p. 2.
(13) The Doctrine of Faith, p .502.
(14) op. cit., p. 238
(16) Rel. Bax. 1:12.
Excerpt – J.I. Packer, Puritan Papers – Vol. 1, 1956-1959;
P & R Publishers