In 1661, Elizabeth Heywood, a godly wife and mother from Lancashire, lay dying, aged just twenty-seven.1 Her last prayers were for the Church of God, for the Jews to be converted, and for the gospel to reach to all nations.2 Her vision extended far beyond her own situation, her own family and church and nation. She wanted God to be glorified in all the earth, and by all people, and she was confident that he would bring this to pass.
A now-classic book by Iain Murray entitled The Puritan Hope describes how this confidence inspired God’s people to persevere through times of fierce persecution, and how it energised the pioneers of the modern mission movement. The Puritan Hope was first published in 1971, nearly fifty years ago. I have read this book many times, most recently during lock-down. It is a powerful tonic for times of discouragement, a reminder that while many forces may engage against gospel truth, there is One seated in the heavens who scoffs at their futile schemes (Psalm 2:4).
THE BIBLICAL HOPE
This book offers a beautifully balanced depiction of the ‘prophetic perspective’. As the prophets looked forward, the future could be compared to a mighty range of mountains. The successive mountain peaks of Christ’s first coming, the gospel age, and the second coming could appear to fold into one. The Old Testament promises, then, often have multiple levels of fulfilment. This book is full of encouragement from both Scripture and church history not to diminish the extent to which promises of gospel blessing can be applied to the current gospel age, while also joyfully looking forward to our ‘best’ hope — that is the coming of the Lord in glory, the final judgement when all enemies will be cast down, and the ushering in of the new heavens and the new earth.3 We long for that time, but in the meantime we pray and we work for his glory on this earth.
But is it really biblical to expect to see great gospel blessing before the coming of the Lord? Iain Murray was converted in 1949. He recalls listening to his father praying fervently for the triumph of the gospel in all the earth, and mentally dismissing those prayers as ‘unbiblical’.4 Why? The prevailing liberalism in mainstream churches meant that many evangelicals had reacted by associating optimism with liberalism. Pessimism about the prospects for God’s people in this present age and a strong focus on the imminence of the return of Christ, fostered a mindset where engagement with society or planning for future generations were regarded as dangerous distractions from the urgency of soul-winning. Many believers today have inherited something of that pessimism, especially as we see so many challenges to biblical truth. But we can be encouraged by reminding ourselves of how many believers in the past, in equally challenging situations to ours, have rested their hope on the promises of Scripture and the Kingship of Christ.
THE BASIS FOR HOPE: THE MEDIATORIAL REIGN OF CHRIST
The Father has appointed Christ as King, to ‘rule from sea to sea, and from the rivers even to the ends of the earth’ (Ps. 72:7-8). He is so to rule as to smite the whole earth with its iron and brazen strength, with its gold and silver brilliance, shattering it with the rod of his mouth as an earthen vessel, just as the prophets have prophesied concerning the magnificence of his reign (Dan. 2:33-54; Isa. 11:4; Psalm 2:9).5
The present reality of the mediatorial reign of the risen Christ (Psalms 2, 110) is to inspire believers to maintain confidence in dark days of persecution. As we pray ‘Hallowed be Thy Name, Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as in heaven’, Calvin believed we can expect the kingdom of God to be advanced on earth.
. . . whatever resistance we see today offered by almost all the world to the progress of the truth, we must not doubt that our Lord will come at last to break through all the undertakings of men and make a passage for his word. Let us hope boldly, then, more than we can understand; he will still surpass our opinion and our hope.6
This confidence was picked up by many of the Puritans. Murray writes:
The success of the gospel for which they yearned was bound up with their trust in Christ. They never gave way to the feeling that because the condition of the world was so deplorable the Second Coming of Christ was the only hope for mankind; in their mind, to have done so would have been to fall into unbelief in regard to the promised results of his first coming. If what was predicted seemed impossible, the remedy was to contemplate more closely the authority and glory which now belongs to the Head of the Church.7
Some Reformers such as Martin Bucer (1491-1551), Peter Martyr (1499-1562) and Theodore Beza (1519-1605) had understood Scripture, especially Romans 11, as pointing to a future significant turning of Jewish people to Christ (on the same basis as salvation for Gentiles, not every Jew would be saved, and that hope was not necessarily connected to the land of Israel).8 Believers over the centuries have come to various convictions on the question of a future conversion of the Jewish people, some anticipating one great future incoming of the Jews, others trusting that God will call Jews alongside Gentiles in the gospel age. Despite differences of detail in interpretation, a common theme among many Puritan ministers was their expectation that their congregations should pray for the conversion of all the nations, including the Jews. The means by which widespread gospel blessing would take place would be by powerful outpourings of the Holy Spirit, and God’s people were to pray for such revivals. William Gurnall (1616-1679) exhorted his congregation in Lavenham:
Let thy prayers walk over the vast ocean . . . Drake is famous for compassing the earth with his ship in a few years: Thou mayst by thy prayers every day, and make a more gainful voyage of it than he did.9
For the Puritans, prayers were ‘laid up’ with God, to be answered in his time. God’s people prayed for centuries for the coming of the Messiah. Their prayers were answered in due time.
We have not been praying the half of that time for the conversion of the Jews and the fullness of the Gentiles.10
Thomas Goodwin encouraged his readers to pray with faith and an eye on the future:
There is a common treasure of the church, not of their merits but of their prayers. . . that may be one reason why God will do such great things towards the end of the world, even because there has been so great a stock of prayers going for so many ages, which is now to be returned.11
Had the Puritans adopted a short-term view:
. . .the problems of the Church in their day might justifiably have seemed hopeless, but they faced them with an unflinching sense of duty towards posterity. Succeeding centuries would reap the advantage of an uncompromised witness to the Word of God. Their work could not be in vain for the testimony of Christ’s Church was yet to encircle the earth.12
THE HOPE MOTIVATED WORLD-WIDE MISSION
‘Transmission of this belief to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries became one of the most powerful influences in the spiritual history of Britain and America.’13 Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) anticipated a time when Africa and Asia would raise up many gifted Christian theologians and authors. His biography of the pioneer missionary David Brainerd (1718-1747) would have a powerful impact on generations of believers who prayed for and worked for missionary advance. Those converted in the revivals of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries often demonstrated an insatiable appetite for bible study and godly reading. They found that appetite satisfied in reading the Puritans. The ‘Puritan Hope’ was absorbed into their hearts and into their prayers. This, in turn, inspired great mission advances.
In 1793, William Carey left England for India. His desire to take the gospel to India seemed utterly foolhardy. But he was confident: ‘I have God, and His Word is true. . . God’s cause will triumph.’14
In 1812, Henry Martyn died in Asia Minor aged just thirty-one. By then he had accomplished significant work as a pioneer Bible translator in both India and Persia (now Iran). When a Muslim leader asked him why Christianity was so weak in the world, Martin responded confidently that God’s purposes had not yet been fulfilled. The helpers in his translation work, he said were making provision for future Persian saints. He believed that prayers would be answered and the work honoured in God’s time.15 Fast forward two hundred years. Today we hear of widespread and remarkable gospel blessing in Iran, amid the fiercest of opposition.
In 1806, a young teenager called Ann Hasseltine (1789-1826) was converted during a revival in the peaceful New England town of Bradford. Ann’s priorities were transformed. Previously absorbed with parties, she now focused on using her life for God’s glory. She spent her evenings studying Scripture, and reading works by Puritans such as John Flavel. Her prayers, as recorded in her private journal, reflected the ‘Puritan Hope’. She longed for every rational being in every country on earth to praise God, for that is his due.16 In 1812 she and her husband Adoniram (1788-1850) left America to take the gospel to Asia, where Ann would die at the early age of 37. The privations and discouragements they endured were extreme. When asked how he could persevere amid so much hardship, Adoniram Judson replied that future prospects for the gospel are ‘As bright as the promises of God’.17 As he was engaged in the work of the Lord, one thing seemed to him as easy as another, for ‘Nothing is difficult to omnipotence.’18 And near the end of his life he explained the basis of his perseverance:
The world is yet in its infancy; the gracious designs of God are yet hardly developed. Glorious things are spoken of Zion, the city of our God. She is yet to triumph, and become the joy and glory of the whole earth. Blessed be God that we live in these latter times – the latter times of the reign of darkness and imposture. Great is our privilege, precious our opportunity, to cooperate with the Saviour in the blessed work of enlarging and establishing his kingdom throughout the world. Most precious the opportunity of becoming wise, of turning many to righteousness, and of shining, at last, as the brightness of the firmament, and as the stars, for ever and ever.
Let us not, then, regret the loss of those who have gone before us, and are waiting to welcome us home, nor shrink from the summons that must call us thither. Let us only resolve to follow them who, through faith and patience, inherit the promises. Let us so employ the remnant of life, and so pass away, that our successors will say, as we of our predecessors, ‘Blessed are the dead that die in the Lord. They rest from their labours, and their works do follow them.’19
HOPE IN DARK TIMES
The great nineteenth-century preacher, Charles Haddon Spurgeon (1834-1892), has been described as ‘the last of the Puritans’.20 In 1865, when addressing a meeting of the Baptist Mission to Ireland, he preached on the taking of Jericho. He commented that many get disheartened and wonder why God allows unbelief to prevail for so long, in so much of the world. He encouraged his congregation with these words:
When I have read some masterly tragic poem, and verse after verse has dwelt upon the horrible portion of the tale, did I wish it shortened? Would I have had the author leave out one of those dark verses? Not I. It is true when the poem ended with a shout of victory, and with the tramp of martial men through the city, when they returned in triumph, our heart leaped; we rejoiced when we came to that last stanza, but we wished not the poem shortened; we never wanted to have any of those verses blotted out. God is writing a great poem of human history, the subject is the victory of truth, the destruction of Anti-Christ. Let the history be long. Who wants it shortened? Who wants a brief story on so exceedingly interesting a subject as this, from so great an author? Nay, let it drag on what some may call its weary length, we are sure that when we come to read it, as God will write it, we shall wish the story longer. We will not complain of its extent, for the result is we shall see more of God, and learn more of his mind.21
We can be tempted to ask the same today. Why does evil seem to triumph?
Come the end, we won’t want God’s story shortened. He will be exalted in the earth (Psalm 46:6). Truth will prevail. We need to keep praying, keep working, and keep telling the truth. The Puritan Hope is a wonderful reminder that God has an inexorable plan to glorify his Son among all nations, and his purpose cannot be thwarted.
- ‘Elizabeth Heywood: Christian Wife and Mother’, , http://www.wicketgate.co.uk/issue56/e56_2.html (accessed 6 July, 2020).
- Murray, I. H., The Puritan Hope (London; Banner of Truth Trust, 1971), p. 99.
- Along the way, the author skilfully deals with man of the questions often raised about matters of eschatology, such as ‘how can we both anticipate the Coming of our Lord and hold our confidence in the world-wide spread of the Gospel?’ He deals with the various ‘schools’ of thinking in a gracious way, focussing on what is clear in Scripture rather than what is speculative.
- The Puritan Hope, p.xv, and chapter 9, ‘The Eclipse of the Hope’.
- Calvin, J., and McNeill, J. T. (ed.), Institutes of the Christian Religion, Volume 1(Westminster, 1960), p. 12.
- The Puritan Hope, p. xii.
- The Puritan Hope, p. 90.
- The Puritan Hope, p. 41; cf the 1560 Geneva Bible note on Romans 11:15-16.
- The Puritan Hope, p.100
- The Puritan Hope, p. 102.
- The Puritan Hope, p. 103.
- The Puritan Hope, p. 97.
- The Puritan Hope, p. 52.
- The Puritan Hope, p. 140.
- The Puritan Hope, p.154.
- James, S., Ann Judson: A missionary Life for Burma, (Evangelical Press, 1998/2015), pp. 27-33.
- Wayland, F., Memoir of Adoniram Judson, Volume 2, 1853, (Audubon Press Reprint, 2006), p. 381.
- Wayland, F., Memoir of Adoniram Judson, Volume 1, 1853, (Audubon Press Reprint, 2006), p. 207.
- Quoted in Ann Judson: A Missionary Life for Burma, pp. 274-275.
- Spurgeon’s views on prophecy are discussed in Appendix 2 of The Puritan Hope, pp. 256-265.
- Spurgeon, C. H., ‘Jericho Captured’, Sermon 629, preached at the Metropolitan Tabernacle, Newington, 1865