The Puritan Era
What Can the Puritans Teach Us?
by Dr. C. Matthew McMahon
This short article is directed to laymen who may desire to learn some important lessons from our Puritan forefathers.
What do I consider to be the most important lessons are that today’s layman could learn from the Puritan Divines, I would answer them in the following way:
I have turned over more than a 750,000 pages of the theological books, sermons and treatises of the Puritans, and such an amount of reading will have no small affect. They have shaped my life to a great extent by teaching me the Bible in a sound and cogent manner. I will continue to read them until the Lord sees fit to remove me from this world because I desire to be closer to Christ, and they aid me in my quest for knowing Christ more intimately. I admit, I am a “Puritan-head.” But as a result of reading so much 17th century literature, what have I learned? Is there anything valuable about the Puritans? What can the contemporary layman learn from them?
The first lesson that the layman could learn from the Puritans is their extreme zealousness for the Lord in whatever they did. They worked as unto the Lord in all things. From the plough to the pulpit, they lived unto God. No matter what service they desired to render to the church, the Puritans were zealous in their cause. They were doers rather than onlookers; they had passion for effective action. The typical laymen of the 21st century church needs to take a hearty look at the amount of zeal which he possesses in light of the Puritans. Today’s Evangelicals necessitate a recapturing of the zeal they have lost in the complacency of their personal theological bubbles. They have relinquished the spiritual tasks of the church to the elders and deacons, rather than carrying their own crosses and ministering in Christ’s power as a kingdom of priests. I think it is accurate when people declare the church to be a sleeping giant. Puritan zeal and fervency ought to be recaptured if the church desires to be effective in its mission of discipleship and ministry. The fresh and rekindled love, joy and desire in serving the Lord should be of constant concern. Where can you find a preacher or church that says “zeal for your house has eaten me up?” Where is the “violent one” who takes the Kingdom by force? Where are the importunate widows? With such glorious mysteries in Christ to behold, where is the zeal and fervor to worship? I believe it is safe to say that the church today is lacking in the zeal of its forefathers. We requisite more who will articulate with Luther, “Luther against the world!” And this zealousness ought not be a mindless zealousness, or a zealousness which utilizes unbiblical means because of a desired end. No. The Puritans would never disassociate the zeal they had for Christ and God with the soundness of the truth of the Gospel. They would never remove the non-negotiable traits of the Gospel which allow them to know the God they are zealous for. It is those truths of the Gospel which cause the zealousness and violent dispositions of godly men to take heaven by storm.
Secondly, if there is any word that appropriates the Puritan vision of the church it is “reform.” The contemporary church requisites to relearn the slogan “Ever Reforming”. They are impoverished as a result of neglecting it. Today’s church has abandoned this 17th century idea. “Reform” is among the words uncommon in the church dialects today, whereas, in the Puritan’s mind, it was the ideal. To effect the church towards the ideal of being sanctified to God, there must be a constant move towards reform, not away from it. The gospel must permeate every part of our lives and every facet of our being. The Gospel of Christ should change our thought patterns constantly, and transform our minds every day through sanctification. The Puritans persistently reformed every part of their lives which seemed to be out of focus with the biblical framework. Work ethic, education, Marriage, family, social action, doctrine, and the church were continually being conformed to the pattern which they found to be clearly articulated in the Word of God. Today’s church has captured complacency and self-admiration to the extent that when problems arise they are overlooked, or simply not even seen, because the church has lost its ability to become aware of the warning signals which are beckoning their attention; they have lost the willingness to discern good from evil. Without a willingness to be conformed to the power of Christ and His resurrection truths, the church will always languish in misery, having a form of godliness but denying its power.
Thirdly, if there were ever a place of reform in today’s church it would be in the need for doctrinal stability and understanding. Arminianism, a doctrine which the Puritans fought against vigorously, (by such men as William Ames, John Owen, Christopher Love and Francis Turretin) has destroyed the professing Arminian church in their conception of Christ and the doctrines concerning the Holy Spirit and salvation. Arminianism does not believe in the biblical Jesus as the Christ portrayed in the Bible—He who alone is the Savior, nor the work of the Holy Spirit in regeneration preceding faith, nor of election as the primary cause of a person’s salvation, nor of the absolute decrees and sovereignty of God, and the like. That system of doctrine has no room for two of the five Reformational Truths: Sola Christus and Sola Gratia. Rather than take up arms against those who would hold such doctrines, the Arminian and Ecumenical church has decided to take a worldly point of view–relativism. Instead of acting in a Puritan/godly fashion by exercising church discipline in this area and correcting the false doctrine, the church has decided to accept the disagreement—they want to agree to disagree. They would rather allow gangrene to enter into the church of Christ than to stand up and be counted among those who fight for the truth. And as a result of this, today’s church has become highly influenced by the Arminian and Finney/Wesleyan tradition. And this type of theology leaves the saint with little if any assurance of salvation, and a God which cannot save in and of Himself. The five points of Calvinism have been either removed or severely distorted so people do not feel violated by such doctrines as election and total depravity. The church desires people to feel better about themselves instead of seeing the truth in who they are and how God acts and relates to them. Far be it for someone to feel bad because he is a sinner. Far be it for the church to hold to election, the sovereign work of God seen throughout the Bible. Rather, the church is now in the business of easing the conscious, which, really, it is not easing it at all but giving it a false understanding of themselves and of God. Just as Ryken had stated, the Puritans lost just about every battle they fought (in a worldly sense), so today those who would hold to a right doctrine of reformation theology are seen as those who are narrow-minded, and living in the past. (See his very good introductory book, “Worldly Saints”.) The church must take a lesson from the Puritans in the area of doctrinal correctness in a mammoth way.
I believe the church has not stood firmly against doctrinal correctness because they do not care enough to do so. They have become Simple, Sloth and Presumption tied to the side of the road without any fear they are in grace danger. In the days of the Puritans, when a cause was great and worthy to be defended, in such matters as the biblical defense against Arminianism and Roman Catholicism, there were persecutions and trials to go through because they stood for what was right–even if it meant opposing the Queen herself. But today’s church could never relinquish their two car garages and built in swimming pools for a matter of doctrine; something they would deem as “insignificant”.
Fourthly, I believe the church could learn volumes from the Puritans in the matter of Christian spirituality; or as Robert Bolton as deemed it, the comfortable walk with God. Concerning spirituality the Puritans were giants; we are spiritual dwarfs. Many of today’s preachers would not be able to become members of a Puritan church because they lack the spiritual vigor of the average laymen of the 17th century. The idea of true spirituality has been lost, and instead, we settle for a spirituality which is impotent. Though we cannot deny that the church houses those who do have spiritual fervor, the church as a whole has lost the motivating connection they once had with God. They do not seem to exemplify the fire of the soul which preachers like Goodwin and Manton possessed. I think this is due to the fact that “persecution” is not a part of our vocabulary. The Puritans were persecuted for their faith, thus they clung to it with a godly fear. But if we live in a country where persecution is not as evident as in those days, should we not have even a greater sense of thanks to God, and so desire to worship Him all the more? Unfortunately we would rather have a McDonalds spirituality–fast food, enjoy it for a few minutes as we intake it, and then drive away waiting for next week when we can come back again. America’s church has adapted a quick fix spirituality. The average Christian prays 15 minutes a week, including prayers at meal-time! Daily reading of the Scriptures is another atrocity. A Baptist preacher said, “If every Baptist picked up their bible and blew the dust off of it at the same time, there would be so much dust rising up into the atmosphere that the earth would have global warming for the next fifty years.” It is sad but true. We are the culture of the one minute bible. Do we really desire to be known for this? We would not take up arms with William Gouge who made it the habit of reading 15 chapters of the Bible a day. Rather, we would market to a consumer generation devotions in a minute, and prayers along with a bag of fries.
The Puritans devoted themselves heartily to prayer and the reading of the word. They saw communion with God as essential and of principal importance in their lives. They were excited to sit and listen to the preacher on the Lord’s Day, in opposition to our church members who constantly watch their timepieces to see if the preacher has gone overtime. The church should take a lesson from those Puritans who shouted, “For God sakes sir go on, go on!” when Chaderton preached a lengthy sermon of 2 hours. Could the contemporary hearer listen for such a time? Would they want to listen for that long? Here we see the radical departure from a delight in Christ to an endurance of traditional church.
Lastly, I feel that the church could acquire a colossal lesson form the Puritans in the area of the family. How important was family to Richard Baxter? He made it a point (with his elders) to attended every family in the congregation in the course of a year in order to test them seeing if they were strong in the faith and to make sure that the family as a unit was catechizing, studying and glorifying Christ and they ought. The Puritans saw the family as the fellowship of God at home. They took time every day to read the word, pray, and have devotions as a family–and this was not including their own personal time in which they devoted to God. We have become too lenient in this day. We often say that we desire to raise godly children. But I think that our example to our children can be the deciding factor in their upbringing. In their youth, children will mimic their parents. If there is no prayer, they will not pray. If there is no self-discipline, they will not be self-disciplined. When they are young they see us as their authority and role model. We are the “Christ” that they see until they are old enough to understand about Jesus. If our walk is ungodly then so will our children’s because they mimic what we do. We must set the example for them and raise them in the good and right way by teaching and example. We cannot leave it all up to the pastor and the Sunday school teachers (which has often happened). Our families are a concern to us, but I know of very few families which pour forth devotions together in a constant and godly household. The usual excuse is “There just aren’t enough hours in the day,” though they have the time to sit and watch the godlessness of the TV. Raising children are a hard and grueling work which bring joy and delight to the Christian parent. But if the parent is not up for the hard work, they should not have children.
If we would make time to raise real godly children rather than the lazy attitude we have towards them today, I think that generation may have a fighting chance to strive back in time towards the goals and values which the Puritans held strongly too both in family at home and the family of God.
I trust in the areas of zeal, doctrine, reform, and family, the church would do well to take advice and form from the Puritans. Today’s church needs to recapture the religious fervency which made the church of old so great. The plea for doctrinal correctness would enhance the worship, fellowship, and right standing with God. Overall reform from pagan influences like Liberalism and Arminianism, a move toward true church discipline would strengthen the church in her role in ministry. A re-focus on the family that would involve essential training from the parents and from the church would enhance the chances of a future generation which would evolve as a reproduction of what used to be held as sacred and holy. The Puritans have so much godly counsel to offer that if the church would just stop and listen, their eyes would open from their sleep.
What shall we do? The next step to a strong church is to pray fervently. The prayers of saints are like a sweet aroma which delights their Savior. The humility of a contrite spirit begging the renewing vigor of Christ to His bride is desperately what we need for the church to sprout signs of godly piety and reform. Unless we humble ourselves and pray, and seek His face, and turn from our wicked ways, He will never hear us. Only through the power of prayer would the church strive forth into a neo-puritan era.