Why Read the Puritans?
The Puritans were the 16th century English Protestants and their successors in 16th-17th century New England, whose concern for church reform and spiritual renewal earned them the originally derogatory epithet, “puritan.” Unfortunately, when most people hear the word “puritan” they remember Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter and associate the term with legalism, self-righteousness, hypocrisy, and witch-hunts. And, of course, the Puritans weren’t perfect.
Yet, despite their imperfections, there is much we can learn from them today. J. I. Packer once compared the Puritans to the gigantic Redwood trees of California, saying: "As Redwoods attract the eye, because they overtop other trees, so the mature holiness and seasoned fortitude of the great Puritans shine before us as a kind of beacon light, overtopping the stature of the majority of Christians in most eras, and certainly so in this age . . . when Western Christians sometimes feel and often look like ants in an anthill . . ."
In my own sampling of Puritan writings, I have found much help for my heart and stimulation for my soul. Here are several reasons why I would suggest that pastors give renewed attention to the writings of the Puritans.
1. They lift our gaze to the greatness and gladness of God.
We are innately man-centered in our thinking about God. As someone once said, “God made man in his own image, and man returned the compliment.” In the divinely inspired words of the psalmist: “You thought I was one like yourself” (Ps. 50:21). But the Puritans lift our gaze upward to see God in his soul-satisfying transcendence. I’ll never forget the awe of God upon my soul after spending significant time reading in Stephen Charnock’s The Existence and Attributes of God, or the depth of joy in God that I discovered in the writings of Thomas Brooks and Jonathan Edwards.
For example, Edwards wrote: "The enjoyment of [God] is the only happiness with which our souls can be satisfied. To go to heaven, to fully enjoy God, is infinitely better than the most pleasant accommodations here. Fathers and mothers, husbands, wives, or children, or the company of earthly friends, are but shadows; but the enjoyment of God is the substance. These are but scattered beams, but God is the sun. These are but streams. But God is the fountain. These are but drops; but God is the ocean."
2. They open our eyes to the beauty and loveliness of Christ.
The Puritans were as Christ-centered as they were God-centered. They loved Christ passionately and sought his glory tirelessly. Christ meant everything to them. Thomas Goodwin said, “If I were to go to heaven, and find that Christ was not there, I would leave immediately; for heaven without Christ would be hell to me.”
The Puritans saw Christ on virtually every page of Scripture. 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.” We might occasionally question the accuracy of Puritan exegesis, but surely we can find no fault with their passion for Christ-centeredness.
They especially gloried in the sufficiency of Christ’s atoning work. Jonathan Edwards, in a sermon on Isaiah 32:2, said: "Christ by His obedience, by that obedience which he undertook for our sakes, has honored God abundantly more than the sins of any of us have dishonored him, how many soever, how great soever. . . God hates our sins, but not more than he delights in Christ's obedience which he performed on our account. This is a sweet savour to him, a savour of rest. God is abundantly compensated, he desires no more; Christ's righteousness is of infinite worthiness and merit."
3. They convict our consciences with the subtlety and sinfulness of sin.
There are not a lot of titles in Christian bookstores today that include the word “sin.” But the Puritans were serious about sin and wrote about it often, as just a few of their titles reveals (Ralph Venning’s The Sinfulness of Sin, Jeremiah Burroughs’ The Evil of Evils, Thomas Watson’s The Mischief of Sin.) Perhaps the books which have helped me most have been John Owen’s classic works on the mortification and temptation of sin. Someone once said that before reading Owen, one should prepare to come under the knife. To read Owen is to allow a doctor of the soul to do surgery on your heart. Owen said, “Be killing sin or it will be killing you.” His counsel on how to kill sin and avoid temptation is the best I’ve read anywhere.
4. They ravish and relish the soul with the power and glory of grace.
Sometimes Puritans get a bad rap for being legalistic. And perhaps the accusation would occasionally stick – there was, after all, imperfect theology in the 16th century, too! But the Puritans understood the transforming power and glory of grace in dimensions that are often foreign to our own experience. Many contemporary books on dealing with sin simply give us lists to live by – things to do and not do. Even a focus on the spiritual disciplines can sometimes be bereft of any real dependence on grace. Contrast that with Owen who said, “There is no death of sin without the death of Christ . . . Set faith at work on Christ for the killing of thy sin . . . by faith fill thy soul with a due consideration of that provision which is laid up in Jesus Christ for this end and purpose, that all thy lusts, this very lust wherewith thou art entangled, may be mortified.” Owen does not fail to point the sin-fighting believer to Christ. On the contrary, he shows us that the only effective means of overcoming sin is by dependence on Christ and his cross.
5. They plumb the depths of the soul with profound biblical, practical and psychological insight.
The Puritans were not just theologians; they were pastors. They were physicians of the soul and exceptionally good counselors. My wife, who has occasionally read Puritans at my recommendation, has commented that the Puritans understand people and how they think.
One of the most practical of all the Puritan’s writings is Richard Baxter’s A Christian Directory. Tim Keller has called it “the greatest manual on biblical counseling ever produced.” This 900 page tome of fine print is divided into four sections: I. Christian Ethics, II. Christian Economics, III. Christian Ecclesiastics, and IV. Christian Politics. In layman’s terms, these four sections deal with the Christian’s personal spiritual life, home life, church life, and life in world.
Here are some examples of the kind of practical matters Baxter addresses and the pastoral advice he gives. Under “Christian Ethics,” are found 20 directions “to weak Christians for their establishment and growth;” 5 directions for “redeeming as well as improving time” (including #4: “thieves or time wasters to be watched against,” of which Baxter lists 12); 10 “directions for the government of the passions”; 10 pages on “directions against gluttony,” in which Baxter defines gluttony, lists 10 causes of gluttony, 20 reasons why it is such a great sin, and gives 14 practical “directions” against it; 16 directions against lust; 13 directions against excess of sleep, and so on! In section two, on “Christian Economics” are given similar directions for husbands, wives, parents, and children, in their specific duties towards one another. I surveyed a list of 10 directions for helping husbands and wives “live in quietness and peace, and avoid all occasions of wrath and discord” with one another, and have never seen anything more practical in a contemporary book on marriage.
6. They sustain and strengthen the soul through suffering with the sovereignty of God.
Because the Puritans were descendants of the English martyrs and were persecuted themselves (thousands of Puritan pastors were ejected from their pulpits in 1662), they were well acquainted with suffering. They knew the pain of affliction, yet they trusted the good providence of God in and over suffering. For the Puritans, suffering was purposeful.
Thomas Watson said, “God’s rod is a pencil to draw Christ’s image more lively on us.” John Flavel wrote, “Let a Christian . . . be but two or three years without an affliction, and he is almost good for nothing.” In another volume, Flavel said, “Oh what owe I to the file, and to the hammer, and to the furnace of my Lord Jesus! who has now let me see how good the wheat of Christ is, that goes through his mill, and his oven, to be made bread for his own table. Grace tried is better than grace, and more than grace. It is glory in its infancy.” Few books could be more helpful for pastors and believers than John Flavel’s The Mystery of Providence, Thomas Watson’s All Things for Good, Thomas Brooks’ A Mute Christian Under the Rod, or Thomas Boston’s The Crook in the Lot.
7. They set our sights and focus our affections on eternal realities.
The Puritans lived with heaven and hell in view, and the aroma of the world to come pervades their writings. Richard Baxter, in The Saints Everlasting Rest, shows that the reason so many Christians are lifeless and cold in their love for Christ is because they live with heaven out of sight and mind. Baxter wrote, "If thou wouldst have light and heat, why art thou not more in the sunshine? For want of this recourse to heaven, thy soul is as a lamp not lighted, and thy duties as a sacrifice without fire. Fetch one coal daily from this altar, and see if thy offering will not burn. Light thy lamp at this flame, and feed it daily with oil from hence, and see if it will not gloriously shine. Keep close to this reviving fire, and see if thy affections will not be warm."
Most of us are familiar with Jonathan Edwards’ frightening descriptions of hell from “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” But his vision of the glory of heaven is as attractive as his description of hell is repulsive. In his Miscellanies, Edwards wrote this of the glorified saints in heaven: “their knowledge will increase to eternity; and if their knowledge, their holiness; for as they increase in the knowledge of God, and of the works of God, the more they will see of his excellency, and the more they see of his excellency . . . the more will they love him, and the more they love God, the more delight and happiness will they have in him.” The Puritans remind us that heaven is not a life of disembodied bliss of harp-plucking in a cloud-filled, ethereal environment, but rather the experience of ever-expanding knowledge of God and ever-increasing joy in God.
The Puritans saw God, loved Christ, feared sin, were transformed by grace, were practical in counsel, endured suffering, and lived for eternity. When I read them, I almost always find the palate of my soul cleansed and my ability to “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8) enhanced. Dear brothers and sisters, read the Puritans! Your heart will be helped.
 J. I. Packer, A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1990) 11-12.
 The Works of Jonathan Edwards (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1974 reprint) 2:244
 Quoted in Don Kistler, Why Read the Puritans Today? (Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 1999) 3.
 Quoted in Joel R. Beeke & Randall J. Pederson, Meet the Puritans: With a Guide to Modern Reprints (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2006) xxi-xxii.
 Edwards, 2:930.
 John Owen, Of the Mortification of Sin in Believers, in The Works of John Owen (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1995 reprint) Volume 6, page 9. For a contemporary synthesis of Owen’s thought, see “The Spirituality of John Owen” in J. I. Packer, A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life John Owen on the Christian Life (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1990) 191-218 and Sinclair B. Ferguson, (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1995). More digestible is Kris Lundgaard’s The Enemy Within: Straight Talk about the Power and Defeat of Sin (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1998).
 Owen, 6:33, 79.
 Richard Baxter, The Practical Works of Richard Baxter, Volume 1: A Christian Directory (Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 1997 reprint) blurb on dust-jacket.
 Thomas Watson, All Things for Good (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1986 reprint) 28.
 John Flavel, The Mystery of Providence (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1963 reprint) 202.
 John Flavel, The Fountain of Life (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1977 reprint) 322-323.
 Richard Baxter, The Saints Everlasting Rest (Welwyn, UK: Evangelical Press 1978 reprint) 288.
 Miscellanies, #105 in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, Vol. 13, ed. Thomas Shafer (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994) 275.