How the Puritans Can Help Us with the Christian Life Today
Sep 27, 2016 | Justin Taylor; BETWEEN TWO WORLDS
A couple of items recently came across my electronic desk.
First, Andrew Wilson asked on Twitter, “What are the best Puritan books to read for pastoral help with spiritual & emotional problems?”
Second, Westminster Bookstore announced a special on a new line of books on Puritans Made Accessible.
It struck me that both the question and the offer must seem strange to those who only know of Puritanism through their common caricature, which was concisely captured and widely perpetuated by H. L. Mencken, who said that Puritanism is “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”
Elsewhere Mencken criticized:
the Puritan’s utter lack of aesthetic sense,
his distrust of all romantic emotion,
his unmatchable intolerance of opposition,
his unbreakable belief in his own bleak and narrow views,
his savage cruelty of attack,
his lust for relentless and barbarous persecution.
Why would anyone look to such people for helping in godly living or dealing with pastoral problems?
Before offering some suggestions, let’s first we know whom we are talking about.
When Did the Puritans Flourish?
The Puritan period can be identified in different ways based upon different historical definitions, but a commonly identified timeframe for Puritanism would be for the hundred years of so from 1560 to 1659, flourishing in the mid-17th century (1640s–1650s).
What Were the Puritans Reacting Against?
The Elizabethan English church of the mid-16th century held to a combination of theology that was Calvinistic, ecclesiology that was Erastian (state primacy over the affairs of the church), and liturgy that was medieval.
The so-called “Puritans” (originally a term deriding their desire for “purity”) of England and New England sought to return the church to its Reformational roots and to further reform it to its pure and biblical foundations.
What Did the Puritans Emphasize?
The Purtians modeled their church reforms after that which had occurred in Switzerland (especially Geneva and Zurich). The result was a renewal and revival movement that stressed at least the following nine distinctives in conjunction:
Communion with the triune God, for his glory alone, is the goal of the Christian life.
Sovereign grace is necessary for salvation, given our fallen human nature (generally understood in Augustinian terms).
The entire Christian life requires dependence on the Holy Spirit.
Scripture is the necessary, authoritative, and sufficient guide for faith and practice.
Preaching the Bible should be elevated as the central means of grace.
Genuine assurance of salvation can be obtained through a sober-minded and detailed assessment of one’s spiritual condition.
The sacramental practices and remnants of Roman Catholic spirituality (including kneeling at the elements or wearing special gowns for preaching) are to be disdained as unbiblical and counterproductive to living the Christian life.
Observing the Sabbath as a holy day should be highly valued as the most significant moral command (with strict rules prohibiting even recreation on the Lord’s Day).
The exact ecclesiastic blueprint of Scripture can and should be determined and implemented, devoid of unbiblical traditions and commands that could distort or distract from the reform of truly God-honoring worship.
J. I. Packer explains that in seeking to complete what England’s Reformation begin, the Puritans’ goal was…
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.
What Are Some Reasons Pastors Have Found the Puritans Helpful for Counseling?
Tim Keller’s classic article “Puritan Resources for Biblical Counseling” offers six reasons that Puritan works are a rich resource for biblical counselors. The Puritans, Keller explains:
were committed to the functional authority of the Scripture. For them it was the comprehensive manual for dealing with all problems of the heart.
developed a sophisticated and sensitive system of diagnosis for personal problems, distinguishing a variety of physical, spiritual, temperamental, and demonic causes.
developed a remarkable balance in their treatment because they were not invested in any one “personality theory” other than biblical teaching about the heart.
were realistic about difficulties of the Christian life, especially conflicts with remaining, indwelling sin.
looked not just at behavior but at underlying root motives and desires. Man is a worshiper; all problems grow out of “sinful imagination” or idol manufacturing.
considered the essential spiritual remedy to be belief in the gospel, used in both repentance and the development of proper self-understanding.
What Are Some Puritan Books That Speak to Specific Pastoral Problems?
In his book Helpful Truth in Past Places: The Puritan Practice of Biblical Counseling (you can read online the introduction, “New Is Not Necessarily Better”), Mark Deckard takes six questions that people struggle with, and uses a classic Puritan work to help us answer it:
Why is this happening to me? (John Flavel, The Mystery of Providence)
Why am I so anxious and dissatisfied? (Jeremiah Burroughs, The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment)
What does sin have to do with my problem? (John Owen, On the Mortification of Sin in Believers)
Why doesn’t anyone understand my problems? (John Bunyan, Pilgrim’s Progress)
Don’t I need just to stop feeling? (Jonathan Edwards, The Religious Affections)
How can I find joy again? (William Bridge, A Lifting Up for the Downcast)
Is There a Specific Example of How a Particular Puritan Addressed a Particular Issue?
The Puritan that I have read most is John Owen.
Recently, some writers have suggested that Owen is particularly helpful when it comes to thinking about sexual temptation and sin in particular. For example, Rosaria Butterfield writes:
John Owen’s wisdom is the missing link in our culture’s confusion about sexual sin. . . . I consistently use this book in women’s studies and one-on-one discipling and counseling, especially with women who struggle with unwanted lesbian desires and pornography. Understanding that indwelling sin manipulates believers and how to deal with this is, sadly, the best kept secret in contemporary evangelical discourse on sin. Understanding sin rightly allows believers to glorify God with rugged love, as Owen shows us that repentance of sin is itself the threshold to our merciful God. Every believer should read this book.
Below is Carl Trueman’s foreword to Matthew Barrett and Michael Haykin’s new book, Owen on the Christian Life: Living for the Glory of God in Christ:
In our era much practical thinking is driven by emotions. Emotions are enemies of fine distinctions. And yet the ethical and practical issues facing the church today demand precisely such fine distinctions if we are to do our task as pastors and church members: comfort the brokenhearted and rebuke those at ease in their sin. And John Owen was of an era when fine distinctions were part of the very fabric of practical theology.
Like one of his great theological heroes, Augustine, Owen was an acute psychologist of the Christian life.
Further, as part of the great post-Reformation elaboration and codification of Reformed orthodoxy, he was adept at careful distinctions and precise argument.
Finally, as a pastor and preacher, he constantly brought these two things together in practical ways in his congregation. We might add that the pastoral problems in the seventeenth century—greed, sex, anxiety, marital strife, petty personal vendettas—have a remarkably familiar and contemporary feel.
Owen thus wrestled with what he as pastor and his congregants could expect from the Christian life. Is such a life to be marked merely by an increasing appreciation for justification in Christ? Or is it also to involve the steady slaying of sin within our bodily members? Certainly it is hard to read the New Testament and see Paul’s imperatives as simply pointing to legal impossibilities in order to drive us to despair. If they were simply that, why does he typically place them at the end of his letters, after talking about the work that is done in Christ?
Further, Owen wrestled with the nature of sin and temptation. Is it sinful to be tempted? Well, that cannot be true in the simplest and most straightforward way because the New Testament teaches that Christ was sinless while tempted in every way as we are. This is where fine distinctions become helpful. Owen distinguishes between external temptations and internal. Thus one might pass a suggestive poster outside a shop that tempts one to have a lustful thought and yet resist that temptation and not sin. Or one may be sitting at home daydreaming and start to have inappropriate thoughts about a neighbor’s wife. The one represents an external temptation; the other, internal.
That difference is crucial and surely plays into current discussions of same-sex attraction. Some say that the tendency itself is not wrong because temptation itself is not wrong. Owen would reply that it depends on how one is using the term temptation. Thus, Owen has much to say to perhaps the most pressing pastoral issue of our day.
Yet our culture is against Owen. That is not so much a theological statement as a comment on our intellectual life. Owen is hard to read. He wrote in long sentences and sometimes arcane and technical vocabulary. I suspect his theology is not so much rejected by the church today as simply not read. The effort is too great, whatever the actual reward might be.
What Are Some Good Entries into Puritan Theology for the Christian Life?
You can read much of Packer’s Puritan library online for free.
The Puritan paperbacks, published by Banner of Truth, are probably the easiest way to get into the Puritans. These aren’t the versions you’d want to use for academic study, but they are inexpensive and have proven helpful to many.
As mentioned above, Reformation Heritage Books has just come out with their own new series, Puritan Treasures for Today.
Mark Jones, co-author with Joel Beeke of the massive A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life, especially recommends from this series John Flavel’s Triumphing Over Sinful Fear. He writes:
I don’t normally like it when people say a book is a must-read, unless they’re speaking of the Bible. But I can say that Flavel’s book on overcoming sinful fear has been one of the most important books for my own soul and my own struggles with anxiety. The book was first suggested to me by a top Puritan scholar years ago and we still regularly mention this book in our conversations with each other.
Finally, we should not neglect the classic of Pilgrim’s Progress by Bunyan. J. I. Packer offers many of us a gentle rebuke:
For two centuries Pilgrim’s Progress was the best-read book, after the Bible, in all Christendom, but sadly it is not so today.
When I ask my classes of young and youngish evangelicals, as I often do, who has read Pilgrim’s Progress, not a quarter of the hands go up.
Yet our rapport with fantasy writing, plus our lack of grip on the searching, humbling, edifying truths about spiritual life that the Puritans understood so well, surely mean that the time is ripe for us to dust off Pilgrim’s Progress and start reading it again.
Certainly, it would be great gain for modern Christians if Bunyan’s masterpiece came back into its own in our day.
Have you yourself, I wonder, read it yet?
If our culture presents the Puritans as graceless legalists, those who have been helped by the Puritans can sometimes give the impression they were sinless saints. In reality, they had feet of clay. They didn’t get everything right, and they had their own imbalances. But I think the testimonies above are sufficient testimony that they deserve even greater consideration for everyday Christian living than most of us have given them.