Why do you so often recommend reading the Puritans?
Actually, I recommend many different types of books. In my church's monthly newsletter, I generally recommend and briefly review at least three books each issue--and only rarely will one of these be a Puritan author.
However, I do heartily (and often) recommend that everyday, average Christians read Puritan authors. A few years ago, just as I was finishing my first Seminary degree, I "stumbled" across a Puritan author. For my M.Div, I attended Grand Rapids Theological Seminary and during my time there I ran the school's book store (the pay was horrible, but I got to study while I worked and buy all the books I wanted at the school's cost). Though we rarely ordered from them, we regularly received a copy of The Banner of Truth Trust' book catalogue. On a whim, I ordered a copy of The Reformed Pastor by Richard Baxter (thinking it was a book about being theological Reformed). I thought it might interest some of the more Reformed students in our institution.
When it arrived, however, instead of putting it on the self I decided to skim through it first. This little book "caught" me. By the time I was done reading it was so worn, marked up, underlined, and coffee-stained that I had no choice but to buy it.
From Baxter I moved to Jonathan Edwards, back through Bunyan, Owen, Flavel, Sibbes, Rogers, Bolton, Bridge, Watson, Brooks, Burroughs (and the list goes on). In these Puritan authors I saw a faith unlike my own. They saw something in Christ that I didn't see, and I instantly realized they had possessed a depth of relationship and love for their Savior to which I only gave lip-service.
In today's Christian landscape, we are plagued with superficial faith, skin-deep commitment, shallow knowledge of Scripture, and rather cursory engagement with the mission Christ left for His people. While the Puritans had glaring mistakes of their own (not to mention excesses in some of the rigidity), certainly our modern culture is guilty of excess in how we champion the notion of Christian liberty.
I recommend serious, continued, and daily reading of the Puritan authors for the following reasons:
1. They understood the reality of sin in their personal lives. "Sin" is something that contemporary Evangelical churches do not discuss. The Fundamentalist churches see sin as something that "others" do (like liberals & homosexuals). The Emergent churches won't touch it, and the seeker movement have long moved past this troublesome doctrine. It is either denied outright, ignored, or quickly moved past in order to get on to 'nicer' discussions. Pastors (of all varieties) would rather speak on (and people would rather hear) sermons on our value, worth, and importance. The Puritans agreed, but understood that we can only truly understand our value when we understood the depth & ugliness of our sin, and what our Savior needed to do to remove it from us.
The Puritans also refused to move "past" their sin. The more they grew in Christ, the more real their sin (even their former sin) became to them. Newton, for example, never got over his involvement in the slave trade. On his death bed, he reportedly said that he can only remember that he is a great sinner, and that Christ is a great savior. Luther (whose theology, along with Calvin, eventually produced Puritanism) is reported to have mutter "we are beggars, this is true" as his dying words. By focusing on their sin, they were able to see the true beauty of the Cross.
2. They understood, and were gentle towards, the human condition. The Puritans were masterful doctors of the soul. They were the 17th century version of a Professional Counselor. They understood the intricacies of the human soul, and took great care to study conditions such as depression. They systematically refused to 'write-off' depressed persons as those who just needed to shape up. Indeed, many of these Puritans suffered with depression themselves. During this period, several masterful works were produced--either analyzing the phenomenon or offering sound, practical wisdom in counseling individuals struggling with this depression.
3. They were thoroughly soaked in God's Word. These men lived and breathed scripture. Many of them would study Scripture for hours (8, 10, and even as much as 18 hours) per day. Their works are choke full of Scripture quotations, and subtle allusions to scripture abound in their writings. They truly sought to think God's thoughts after Him, and understood this was only possible with an intimate knowledge of the Bible. They believed in the divine power of Scripture to change lives, shape minds, and convert souls.
4. They were profoundly God-centered. The Puritans understood that life was ultimately about the glory of God. Their happiness, their activities, their joy, their purpose, their goals were all to be found (and fulfilled) in the giving of glory to the great King of Kings. John Owen's classic book (Communion with God) is about a believer's communion (relationship) with God as father, Jesus as Savior, and the Spirit as Comforter. Their lives revolved around the Triune God, and they saw all of life as being radically and completely centered on Him, and Him
5. They had the right priorities in their daily lives. The Puritans understood that the activities of our daily life were designed by God to bring glory and honor to Him. One Puritan author said "God's smile is my greatest reward". Thus, they sought to incorporate every aspect of life into their faith. They recognized that many Christians lived as "practical atheists". That is, individuals who believed in Christ, but lived the majority of their daily lives as if no God existed. While the Puritans did vigorously write against this mode of "Christian" (or rather, "Christ-less") living, they were fare more concerned with living as "full-fledged theists" themselves.
6. They saw the beauty and worth of Christ. 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." In other words, they were radically centered on and devoted to Jesus. Thomas Goodwin wrote, "If I were to go to heaven, find that Christ was not there, I would leave immediately, for heaven would be a hell to me without Christ." The eminent Presbyterian James Durham also wrote, "If Christ is altogether lovely than all else is altogether loathsome." Jesus was something excellent to be savored, something beautify upon which to gaze, something prized to be possessed, and someone wonderful with whom to be friends.
7. They saw the excellency of God even in the midst of trials. They were individuals who suffered great persecution. Most (in the mid-17th century era) lost their pastorates as the government shut them out of their pulpits. The attempt was (1) to stop their ideas, and (2) to starve them to silence. Others were imprisoned, banished, tortured, disfigured, and killed. Yet instead of crying foul, and calling down curses upon the "establishment", these men saw the guiding hand of God. They understood that what 'men had intended for evil, God had intended for good'. Thomas Watson said, "God’s rod is a pencil to draw Christ’s image more lively on us,"while John Flavel wrote that if Christian goes "...two or three years without an affliction, and he is almost good for nothing." In another work, Flavel said "Grace tried [i.e. experiencing times of great difficulty] is better than grace, and more than grace. It is glory in its infancy." As we experience difficulty and trials in our contemporary lives, may we come to think as these men and see the graceful, loving hand of God in the midst of our most difficult moments.
8. They were some of the best thinkers of the age. Yes, the Puritans included all sorts. Men like John Bunyan, and uneducated tinker from the lower class, came to be hailed as one of the great writers and preachers of the era. However, Bunyan was an exception. For the most part, the Puritans were "divines", and antiquated term indicating that they were men who studied Divinity in the university. They fluently spoke Latin, were almost equally good in Greek and Hebrew, and were among the best educated men of the era. Many held top posts in Oxford (and other academic institutions) before being removed. By reading the Puritans, you are reading the best minds of that era.
Questions for Pastor Josh can be submitted via Email. "Ask the Pastor" is a feature in the monthly newsletter of Indian River Baptist Church. This blog republishes those Questions, along with others not selected for print publication.