Why Read the Puritans?
by Brian G. Hedges
The Puritans were the 16th century English Protestants
and their successors in 16th and 17th century New England, and it was their
concern for church reform and spiritual renewal that earned them the
originally derogatory epithet puritan. Unfortunately, most people associate
the term with legalism, self-righteousness, hypocrisy, and witch hunts,
thanks to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter.
Of course, the Puritans weren’t perfect; yet despite
their imperfections, there is much we can learn from them. J. I. Packer once
compared the Puritans to California’s gigantic Redwood trees, 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, my heart has been
greatly helped and my soul stimulated. Following are several reasons I
believe pastors should give renewed attention to the Puritans’ writings.
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
The Puritans, unlike many others, lift our gaze to see
God’s soul-satisfying transcendence. I’ll never forget my awe of God after
spending significant time reading 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. 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 savor to him, a savor of rest. God
is abundantly compensated, he desires no more; Christ's righteousness is of
infinite worthiness and merit.
3. They prick our consciences with
the subtlety and sinfulness of SIN.
There are not many Christian book titles 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 reveal (Ralph Venning’s The
Sinfulness of Sin, Jeremiah Burroughs’ The Evil of Evils, Thomas Watson’s
The Mischief of Sin).
Perhaps the most helpful books to me have been John
Owen’s classics on the mortification and temptation of sin. To read Owen is
to allow a doctor of the soul to do surgery. 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 ever read.
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
grace’s transforming power and glory in dimensions often foreign to us.
Many contemporary books 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’s words,
There is no death of sin without the death of Christ....
Set faith at work on Christ--for the killing of your sin.... By faith fill
your soul with a due consideration of that provision which is laid up in
Jesus Christ for this end and purpose, that all your lusts, this very lust
wherewith you are entangled, may be mortified.
Owen does not fail to point the sin-fighting believer to
Christ. He clearly shows us that we can only overcome sin by depending 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, physicians of the soul, and exceptionally good counselors. My wife,
who has occasionally read Puritan writing, has commented that the Puritans
understood people and how they think.
One of the most practical Puritan writings is Richard
Baxter’s A Christian Directory, called by Tim Keller "the greatest manual on
biblical counseling ever produced." This 900-page tome is divided into
four sections: Christian Ethics, Christian Economics, Christian
Ecclesiastics, and Christian Politics. In layman’s terms, these deal with
the Christian’s personal/spiritual life, home life, church life, and social
Here are some of the practical matters Baxter addresses
and the pastoral advice he gives.
Under Christian Ethics:
20 directions "to weak Christians for
their establishment and growth"
5 directions for "redeeming as well as
improving time" (including "thieves or time wasters to be watched against,"
of which Baxter lists 12)
10 "directions for the government of
Under Christian Economics are similar directions for
husbands, wives, parents, and children in their specific duties toward one
another. I surveyed 10 directions for helping husbands and wives "live in
quietness and peace, and avoid all occasions of wrath and discord," 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; yet they trusted God’s good providence 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," while 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 all Christians 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 cold
in their love for Christ is that they live with heaven out of sight and
mind. Baxter wrote,
If you would have light and heat, why are you not more in
the sunshine? For lack of this recourse to heaven, your soul is as a lamp
not lighted, and your duties as a sacrifice without fire. Fetch one coal
daily from this altar, and see if your offering will not burn. Light your
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 your
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 heaven’s glory is as attractive as his description
of hell is repulsive. In his Miscellanies, Edwards wrote of glorified
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 living in
disembodied bliss and plucking harps in a cloud-filled, ethereal
environment, but rather an ever-expanding knowledge of God and an
ever-increasing joy in God.
The Puritans saw God, loved Christ, and feared sin; they
were transformed by grace, practical in counsel, enduring in suffering, and
living for eternity. When I read them, I almost always find my soul’s
palate cleansed and my ability enhanced to "taste and see that the Lord is
good" (Psalm 34:8). Brothers, read the Puritans! Your heart will be helped
and your soul stimulated.
 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 (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1990)
191-218 and Sinclair B. Ferguson, John Owen on the Christian Life
(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, 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.