Article of the Month
by Don Kistler
Soli Deo Gloria just reached a milestone for us: we sold our 200,000th volume in January. And I dare say few would have thought that you could make it in publishing selling 300 year old religious books by the Puritans! There are several reasons, I believe, for the resurgence in interest in the Puritans and their writings. One is that people are getting tired of religion offering things it can't deliver. All kinds of promises are being made, but people come out of self-interest and when these things don't come true, they are disappointed. I think they are also tired of shallow, superficial religion.
Most people don't worship God because the God most people hear about really isn't worth worshipping. He is not the "high and lofty one," He is not the "Lord God Omnipotent Who Reigneth Forever and Ever." He is just "my friend," and familiarity surely breeds contempt!
The Puritans, people are finding men who were passionately obsessed with the knowledge of God. I have listed several thing that I think are reasons why we should read the Puritans today, and every one of those reason is directly derived from the Puritans view of God and Scripture.
1. They will elevate your concept of God to a degree you probably never thought possible, and show you a God who is truly worthy of your worship and adoration. Jeremiah Burroughs, in his classic book Gospel Worship, said "The reason why we worship God in a slight way is because we do not see God in His glory." The modern man hears about a God who isn't worth worshipping; why should he worship a God who wants to do good, but can't pull it off because man just won't co-operate, and then who is sovereign? MAN IS!
Let me throw something else in here. You begin reading the Puritans and you will find yourself, in a spiritual sense, somewhat lonely. You will begin to be excited about what you are reading and what you are feeling in your heart, and then you will notice that there aren't a lot of other people who know what you are talking about, and that can be lonely! When you begin having Isaiah's vision of God from Isaiah 6, and you realize that the reality of God is infinitely beyond anything your mind can comprehend, you'll realize that the average man doesn't think much about God at all, much less at the deep level you are thinking.
One of the reasons we think so poorly is because we read so little. Reading helps us to think, and we live in a photographic culture now instead of a typographic culture. Everything is pictures, videos, movies. The work is all done for us, so we don't have to wrestle with concepts. Someone else interprets the matter for us in pictures. In the Puritan day, words were frozen on a page and forced you to deal with the thoughts expressed.
2. Puritans had a "love affair" with Christ, and they wrote much about the beauty of Christ. One of the greatest of the Puritans was Thomas Goodwin, a Congregationalist. Writing about heaven, Goodwin said,
"If I were to go to heaven, and find that Christ was not there, I would leave immediately, for heaven would be hell to me without Christ." Heaven without Christ is no heaven, and if Christ is not there, I have no desire to be there. These people were in love with Christ. James Durham wrote this on Song of Solomon 5:16, in his application of the sermon, "If Christ is altogether lovely, then everything else is altogether loathsome." We don't feel that way about Christ, do we? We want a little of Christ, and a little of a lot of other things. But the true Christian wants Christ and nothing but Christ. Samuel Rutherford wrote this about the beauty of Christ:
That's someone who loves Christ, isn't it?
3. The Puritans will help us understand the sufficiency of Christ. This comes under great attack in our modern church. You may have Christ to save you, but you need psychology to help you get through life. You may have Christ to save you and help you with your spiritual hurts, but you need something else for those deep emotional pains you are feeling.
There is a title by Ralph Robinson, a contemporary of Thomas Watson in London, Christ All and In All. There is another book by that same title by Philip Henry. Robinson wrote over 700 pages on that one verse in Colossians, (3:11). You see, it is our deficiency in understanding the sufficiency of Christ that is the issue. If Christ is all in all, how can we look to anyone or anything else for answers?
In his book, The Saints' Treasury, Jeremiah Burroughs has a sermon on the Colossians verse. Burroughs makes a statement like this, "Surely Christ is an object sufficient for the satisfaction of the Father." None of us would argue with that, would we? Isaiah tells us that God will see the result of the anguish of His soul and be satisfied. So Christ is enough to satisfy the Father. Then Burroughs continues. "Surely, then, Christ is an object sufficient for the satisfaction of any soul!" Do you get the reasoning? Those Christians who spend their entire life whining about their lot in life as if Christ were not enough; what blasphemy to say that Christ is enough to satisfy God, but He isn't enough to satisfy me!!! Long before there was a Freud, a Puritan had solved the problem of modern psycho-babble that has so charmed the church today.
4. The Puritans help us to see the sufficiency of Scripture for life and godliness. That is what Peter said, isn't it? Scripture gives us the knowledge of God which gives us all things pertaining to life and godliness. You've heard the battle cry of humanity today, haven't you? It goes like this: I'm searching for self-esteem, or, "I just want to feel good about myself."
Christians don't need self-esteem, they need Christ-esteem! Isaiah found out who God was and THEN Isaiah knew who Isaiah was. I remember speaking overseas and being asked to talk about myself. I can't imagine anything more boring than to have you know something about me. In Burroughs' Saints Treasury, his first sermon is entitled "The Incomparable Excellency and Holiness of God," and it is based on the O.T. verse, "Who is like unto Thee, O God, among the nations?" It's about a 35 page sermon; and Burroughs goes on about the splendor of God for half the sermon. Then, he brings in the second half of the verse, "and who is like unto thee, O Israel?" What's the point? Since there is no one like your God, there is no one like you! So you don't need to have self-esteem to feel good about yourself, you need to have Christ-esteem; you need to feel good about God!
If man is created in the image and likeness of God, how could anyone ever have a lack of self-esteem. If you are a Christian, Christ traded His life one-on-one for your life. THAT'S TRUE WORTH, MY FRIENDS! The Puritans were true biblical counselors, and they understood that the best counseling takes place in the pulpit when the Word of God is opened and expounded and applied. Over 300 years ago, Isaac Ambrose wrote in his book The Christian Warrior, which has just been released by Soli Deo Gloria, about the danger of getting counsel from men who are not steeped in Scripture:
There is a wealth of godly counsel in the writings of these men. The Puritans understood that spiritual problems needed spiritual solutions. Today's counselors don't think in terms of sin or problems of the soul, even though that is what psychology means: the study of the soul. The problem is that today everyone is a victim of someone else's behavior; but that is not new to today?the blame game started in the Garden of Eden. Eve came from a dysfunctional rib, isn't that how it went? God, who created the soul, and who died to redeem the soul, best knows how to treat the soul; and those men who are most acquainted with God are best able to provide cures for the soul. In fact, the Puritans were called "physicians of the soul." Thomas Watson, in fact, wrote a treatise entitled "Sin is a Soul Disease – Christ is a Soul Physician." You can get that in our book called Sermons of Thomas Watson.
5. The Puritans can teach us is about the heinous nature of sin. Edward Reynolds wrote a book called The Sinfulness of Sin, and Jeremiah Burroughs wrote The Evil of Evils. There is no doctrine on which it is more important to be orthodox than this one, because if you are off on the doctrine of sin, you are going to be off on every other doctrine. This is the thread that will unravel the entire garment.
Thomas Watson wrote a masterpiece in four short sermons entitled The Mischief of Sin, which we have published. Burroughs goes through 67 chapters on this premise: Sin is worse than suffering; but people will do everything they can to avoid suffering, but almost nothing to avoid sin. Sin is worse than suffering, how ever, because sin causes suffering. In fact, Burroughs makes this point. Sin is worse than hell, because sin caused hell. And the thing which causes is greater than the thing it causes.
Obadiah Sedgwick, a prominent London Presbyterian who was a member of the Westminster Assembly, wrote a searching book entitled "The Anatomy of Secret Sins," an entire treatise on David's plea to be delivered from secret sins, those sins hidden deep in the recesses of our hearts that no one but us and God know are there, but are just as wicked and damning as any other sin.
Jonathan Edwards said this about sin: "All sin is of infinite proportion, and it is more or less heinous depending upon the honor of the person offended. Since God is infinitely holy, sin is infinitely evil." That's why there's no such thing as a small sin, because the slightest sin is an act of cosmic treason committed against an infinitely holy God. You don't hear things like that much anymore, can you?
Simply on its sheer literary value, this material is priceless. When Edward wrote his "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," the imagery is unsurpassed. He compares God to an archer with a bow, that bow is pulled tight, the arrow is pointed right at the sinner's heart, the archer's arms are shaking because the bow is pulled so tightly, and Edwards says that the only thing that keeps God from letting that arrow fly and being drowned in the sinner's blood is the mere good pleasure of a God who is infinitely angry with sin every day. One secular writer who was doing a piece on Edwards was asked by a Christian this question. "You know, if Edwards is right, that arrow is pointed at your heart. How do you sleep at night?" The answer was this, "Sometimes I don't! I just hope to God he's wrong."
6. The Puritans will help us with practical living. Richard Baxter's Christian Directory has been called "the greatest manual on biblical counseling ever produced." Before this century, all counseling was done from the pulpit or during a pastoral visit to the home to catechize the family. Pastors were seen as the physicians of the soul. Interestingly enough, the very word "psychology" means the study of the soul. Suke, from which we get "psyche," from which we get psychology, means soul. But now, what used to be the cure of sinful souls has become the cure of sick minds. That has now been taken away from the pastor, who knows the soul best, and given to counselors, most of whom don't even believe in God. They can't cure spiritual ills. Baxter's Dictionary shows the genius of a man who could apply Scripture to all areas of life. Dr. James Packer calls it the greatest Christian book ever written.
Lewis Bayly's Practice of Piety is a model of a Puritan devotional manual. The idea was that of regulating one's entire day and life by Scripture. Dr. John Gerstner says that this book started the Puritan movement.
There was no area of life that the Puritans believed was not to be regulated by Scripture. Even time alone was to be put to godly use. Nathanael Ranew wrote a fine work titled Solitude Improved by Divine Meditation. This is the classic Puritan work on spiritual meditation. Ranew's premise is that even when alone the Christian can "improve" himself by putting his mind to good use, meditating on God and His attributes. If there were to be an eleventh commandment, it would be: "Thou shalt not waste time."
The Puritans wrote many of these kinds of "manuals." John Preston preached five sermons from 1 Thessalonians 5:17 on prayer, titled "The Saints' Daily Exercise," which is included in The Puritans on Prayer.
R.C. Sproul wrote the foreword to Jeremiah Burroughs' book, A Treatise on Earthly-Mindedness. Here is a book on the great sin of thinking like the world thinks rather than thinking God's thoughts after Him.
7. The Puritans will help us with pastoral counsel. The Puritans were very pastoral, in addition to being very theological. I have found more comfort in their writings than I can ever tell you. Let me read you a quote from my favorite, a man named Christopher Love, about whom I wrote a book entitled "A Spectacle Unto God." We have published the first volume of Love's works. This is from his 15 sermons entitled Grace: Look not so much on your sins, but look upon your grace also, though weak.
Or this from his yet-unpublished sermons on God's pardoning penitent sinners:
The Apostle, triumphing in the fifth chapter of Romans, means that there is not so much evil in sin to damn us as there is good in the gift, in Christ, to save us, because your sin is the guilt of the creature, and Christ's satisfaction is the satisfaction of God. Your sin is the sin of a finite creature, and His sufferings are the sufferings of an infinite Mediator. Too often we are tempted in our dealings with our parishioners to see problems as either totally physical or totally spiritual. Seldom is this the case. But the Puritans were willing to take close examination into situations rather than look for simple, and too often simplistic, answers to complex problems.
We often want, as do our people, a quick fix to problems. But
sin gets complicated,
right? And we can't take an approach that says, "Take two
verses and call me
in the morning," or we will destroy our people.
Robert Harris, in his 24
sermons on the Beatitudes, makes these distinctions
in dealing with meekness
as opposed to anger. And you would notice, if you were able to read these sermons,
that it is because the Puritan pastor asked
As you can see, these fine distinctions were not only important, but absolutely necessary in dealing with souls. We would do well to follow their example. And let me help dispel that notion of hard-hearted, stuffy, legalistic, dour old Puritans with this counsel from Christopher Love, in a sermon on Luke 11:28, which has not yet been published, but is in the making at this time. The sermon is on the blessedness of those who hear the word of God and keep it:
Let me give you one more quote from Christopher Love in dealing with a perplexed soul:
8. The Puritans will help us with evangelism that is biblical. Most evangelism today is man-centered, but Puritan evangelism was God-centered. The Puritans had another doctrine which has largely been lost today, and it goes by the name of "seeking," or "preparation for salvation." It was widespread in the English Puritans and the Reformers. It was taught by Jonathan Edwards in his sermon "Pressing Into the Kingdom," and before that by his grandfather Solomon Stoddard. Stoddard wrote A Guide to Christ, which John Gerstner calls the finest manual on Reformed evangelism he knows of. Additionally, you might want to read Thomas Watson's Heaven Taken by Storm.
The doctrine of seeking teaches us that God works through means, and if a man wants to be saved, he ought to avail himself of those means. Let me give you an example. Faith comes by hearing, and men are saved by faith, or more correctly, men are saved by grace through faith. But if I need faith to please God, and I realize that I don't have it in me to believe in God savingly, what should I do?
Here's where "seeking" comes in. If faith comes by hearing, then I ought to hear someone preach an orthodox sermon about Christ. If God is going to save me, His normal means will be through the preaching of the Gospel. God is under no obligation to save me if I hear a sermon, but He is not likely to save me apart from hearing a sermon about God's grace.
The sinner, then, ought to do all in his natural power to soften his heart. He can't earn salvation, but at least he can cooperate with God in this salvation, rather than oppose Him. I'm not making myself pleasing to God by seeking, since I'm doing it out of self-interest, but I am making myself less offensive to God rather than more offensive, and even if God doesn't save me, my punishment in hell will be less. And the Puritans would say, "If you can't go to God with a right heart, then go to God for a right heart." Seek the Lord.
9. Reading the Puritans will help us have right priorities. Second Corinthians 5:9 says, "We have as our ambition . . .to be pleasing to the Lord." One Puritan said it this way, "God's smile is my greatest reward; His frown is my greatest fear." If it is true that we become like the people with whom we spend our time, then it is an investment in eternity to spend your time with the Puritans. Then spend your time with the best! Jeremiah Burroughs' book Gospel Fear is on having the right priority. It is seven sermons on Isaiah 66:2, on what it means to tremble at the Word of God. If God says, "to this man will I look, who . . . trembleth at My Word," then we'd better know what it is to tremble at the Word of God.
10. The Puritans can help us clarify the issue of how a man is made right with God. Another title of Solomon Stoddard's which I would most highly recommend is his masterpiece on imputed righteousness entitled The Safety of Appearing on the Day of Judgment in the Righteousness of Christ. I cannot overemphasize the importance of being sound on this matter of imputed righteousness in this day when so many are not sound on the eternal difference between imputed and infused righteousness. The difference between these two positions is not simply the distance between Rome and Geneva; it is the distance between heaven and hell. I would commend to your reading our book entitled Justification by Faith ALONE for this issue. If you specifically want a Puritan title on the matter, pick up our book The Puritans on Conversion, or, if you think you are ready for the hard stuff, try Matthew Mead's book, which is our best-selling Puritan book, The Almost Christian Discovered. Mead goes through 26 things that a person must do as a Christian, but doing them doesn't prove that he indeed IS a Christian, although NOT doing them would prove he wasn't a Christian! It's not for the faint of heart. This was the 17th century version of The Gospel According to Jesus, 300 years before John MacArthur wrote that fine work.
11. Finally, let's look at the Puritans and the authority of the Word. We know that the Scripture is God speaking to us. The classic verse in Timothy tells us that "All Scripture is given by inspiration of God (literally, God-breathed)" And we know that whatever God says, we must obey. In fact, that was what the Old Testament people of God realized. In Exodus 24:7 they declare, "All that the Lord has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient." There isn't anything God says that we must no do; and if we don't we are not Christians! It's that simple!
The Puritan divines who were members of the Westminster Assembly in 1643 wrote,
We know that when God speaks we must listen. In fact, a great part of the Great Commission is to teach people to submit to the authority of God's Word - "teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you" (Matt. 28:20).
This is what amazed people when Jesus taught. Matthew 7:29 says that when Jesus taught, the people were amazed. What was the basis for the amazement? "He was teaching them as one having authority, and not as their scribes."
That is exactly how preachers are to preach: with authority. It is a command of God that they do that. " These things speak, and exhort, and rebuke with all authority. Let no man despise thee." (Titus 2:15). While we affirm that if God were to say something we would obey it, we forget that the faithful minister is God speaking to us today. It is the Reformation view of the pulpit ministry that when a faithful minister is expounding the Word of God, that is God's voice you are haring, not a man's; and that means it is to be obeyed.
But what do you hear after the sermon? At best you will hear, "That's interesting: I'll have to think about it." But God never gave us His Word for our opinion or for us to think about; He gave us His Word to obey.
The Puritan Thomas Taylor wrote:
Deuteronomy 30:20 equates loving God with obeying his voice; in fact, it says that is how we love God.
Well, that is how the Puritans viewed Scripture. Their high view of God came from their high view of Scripture. and if we want to know God they way they did, we must love His Word the way that they did. And that love will be increased only by diligent, intensive study. And to read the Puritans is the next best thing. In fact, it is like going to school with the finest minds the church has ever had.
Where should you start? I recommend to the beginner the following titles:
Rev. Don Kistler is Associate Pastor of South Hills Reformed Presbyterian Church (PCA). He is also the owner of The Northampton Press, the publishing wing of Don Kistler Ministries, Inc. The above article is a transcription of an address he gave to the pastor's seminar at the 1997 Soli Deo Gloria Conference in Pittsburgh last April, and is reprinted here by his permission.
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