The life of evangelical churches and their spiritual leaders has been portrayed in some recent films and series. Can they help us start conversations?
In the 400th anniversary of Richard Baxter, today I give you 10 reasons why it is important to read the Puritans.
This week marks the 400th birthday of one of the Evangelical world’s most beloved pastors, namely, Richard Baxter, who was born on 12th November 1615.
Baxter forms part of a movement within Protestantism known as Puritanism. It lasted between 1550 and 1700 with the goal of reforming the Church of England –known as the Anglican Church- in the light of Scripture. The Puritans were convinced that the principles of the Protestant Reformation had to transform both Anglican doctrine and practice.
I came across the Puritans about ten years ago thanks to a wonderful book penned by the leading Evangelical scholar Dr. J.I. Packer named Among God’s Giants. I read it whilst I studied it at Queen’s University (Belfast) and Packer’s passion for the Puritans birthed a similar zeal within me. I started to read them for myself and I still recall how their books edified my soul throughout the remainder of my time at university.
Dr. Joel Beeke, the president of Reformed Heritage Books, recently remarked that there has been a revival of interest in the Puritans throughout the Anglo-Saxon world.
With this good news in mind, I would like to dedicate my weekly article to the legacy of our dear brother Richard Baxter and give you all ten reasons why you have got to read the Puritans. I also recommend you his fantastic book The Reformed Pastor which is the crown jewel of Protestant Pastoral Theology. When I interviewed the Spanish expository preacher David Barceló at the end of August, I was happy to hear that The Reformed Pastor was one of his favourite books as well.
So, why read the Puritans? Here are ten reasons:
01.- You’ve got to read the Puritans because they were Bible-saturated
It is nigh on impossible to read a Puritan text without being exposed to Scripture. The Puritans edified their lives and ministries upon the rock of the Bible. To use one of Spurgeon’s expressions, they had “Bibline” flowing through their veins. They read the Word, believed the Word and expounded the Word. The Puritan movement was, first and foremost, a Bible-centred affair. Puritan literature abounds in rich biblical teaching.
02.- You’ve got to read the Puritans because they ached for God
The Puritan heart panted after God. Puritan preachers such as Baxter were characterized by an intense longing for the Lord. They believed in the need of public and private prayer as a blessed means of grace. They rejoiced in communion with God, directing themselves to Him with reverence and simplicity of heart. Many of the Puritans published sermons and books upon the grand theme of prayer. They were a lot more than dry academics; they dwelt under the wings of the Almighty.
03.- You’ve got to read the Puritans because they preached sound doctrine
As well as possessing an inextinguishable desire for the Most High, the Puritans were all first rate theologians. Given their expertise in the key tenets of the Protestant Reformation, they assured themselves that their flocks were well instructed in Evangelical Theology. In contrast to the evangelical spirit at work in our days, the Puritans were neither slaves of pragmatism nor numerical success. Their whole focus was the depth of their ministry and they allowed God to worry about its breadth. They preached continually upon the Trinity, the double nature of Christ, His expiatory work, salvation by grace alone through faith alone, and the eternal realities of heaven and hell, etc.
04.- You’ve got to read the Puritans because they had deep convictions
In spite of living in terribly turbulent times (above all after the 1662 Act of Uniformity), the Puritans stood their ground and remained faithful to the Word of the Lord. They had plenty of enemies but never once did they let their guard down in order to appease society or ecclesiastical authorities. They decided to follow Christ with all that such discipleship entailed. They shed their blood, went to jail, lost their ministerial posts and were cast out of England due to their love of the Word. They believed that truth matters and so they understood that the church is a company of faithful soldiers willing to wage a good warfare in the name of their heavenly Captain. Through experience they came to learn that one of the best professors in Christian life is Dr. Adversity.
05.- You’ve got to read the Puritans because they were mature
J.I. Packer gave one main reason as to why contemporary believers have got to read the Puritans, that is, their spiritual maturity. Packer explained that the Puritans were spiritual giants compared to us spiritual dwarfs. By this Packer referred to their theological and practical knowhow, their goodwill towards all alongside their resistance and creativity. Through many dangers, toils and snares, their characters were moulded in the furnace of faith and so they were enabled to pour comfort upon the hearts of their people at a pastoral level. They did not have as half as many gadgets and possessions as we do; but they had riches –true everlasting riches- in their souls.
06.- You’ve got to read the Puritans because they believed in the power of Catechisms
In the West, the Christian church has spent the best part of a century without taking Catechisms seriously. A Catechism is a means of doctrinal teaching by means of questions and answers. When the Reformation hit Germany and Switzerland in sixteenth century Europe, there was an explosion of interest in Protestant Catechisms. Such Catechisms generated an age of Bible experts. The Puritans learnt this lesson from their continental forefathers and imported the same teaching method into the British Isles. Many brethren could recite The Heidelberg Catechism and The Shorter Westminster Catechism off by heart (to name but two examples).
07.- You’ve got to read the Puritans because they promoted domestic worship
The aim of a Puritan father was to turn his home into a little church where he would glorify God with his precious wife and their offspring. Parents saw themselves as missionaries and evangelists for their children so that they would grow up in the fear of the Lord. The Puritan household was a place for Scriptural reading, family prayers and the study of the Catechism. Christian parents did not expect Sunday School teachers or church youth leaders to look after their children’s spiritual wellbeing (in fact, such ministries did not even exist back then). Parents understood it was their duty to nurture their kids in the faith. Puritan parents always filled their homes with the sweet aroma of God-talk.
08.- You’ve got to read the Puritans because they were magnificent pastors
Without exaggerating, Dr. Joel Beeke affirms that the Pastoral Theology as developed by the Puritans was the greatest of all Christian history. Puritan pastors knew how to apply the glorious truths of their sermons to the hearts and minds of their hearers in expert fashion. Puritan sermons normally divided up into two parts: doctrine and application. What’s more is that those pastors weren’t merely satisfied with getting up into the pulpit every Lord’s Day to preach; but they actively taught their flock throughout the rest of the week. Baxter, for example, spent his Mondays and Tuesdays visiting the 800 families that made up his congregation with the purpose of testing their knowledge of the Catechism and checking up on their spiritual progress.
09.- You’ve got to read the Puritans because they wanted to renew the Church
The Puritans lived in the light of the great Protestant slogan: Ecclesia reformata semper reformanda verbum Dei. This means that a truly reformed church must always go on being reformed by the Word of God. The Puritans did not believe that the Anglican Church had the right to impose extra-biblical commands upon their parishioners. They wanted to get back to the biblical model of church, namely, a congregation of the called where the Word would be preached, the sacraments celebrated (baptism and the Lord’s Supper) and discipline duly administered. They wholly believed in the freedom with which Christ had made them free and therefore they attacked any type of anti-biblical demand which could not be scripturally justified. The Puritan conscience –following the lead of Luther- had to be subjected to the Word of God alone.
10.- You’ve got to read the Puritans because they have influenced so many servants of God
Although Puritanism disappeared around about 1700, their writing still speaks today. In the eighteenth century, John Gill, George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards fed themselves on a staple diet of Puritan literature. In the nineteenth century, J.C. Ryle and Charles Spurgeon exemplified the Puritan ideal in their respective ministries. Last century, the Puritans fascinated the likes of Dr. Ian Paisley in Northern Ireland and Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones in England. It was after reading a biography on Richard Baxter that set Lloyd-Jones ablaze for the Puritans. Even in our own days, many sound Evangelical leaders have sat at the feet of the Puritans. Folk like John Piper, John MacArthur, R.C. Sproul, J.I. Packer, Paul Washer, Joel Beeke and Mark Dever, etc.
To draw this article to a close, I think it would be a good idea to leave you with some key Puritan authors. That way you can discover them for yourselves and experience that sweet joy that accompanies the reading of Puritan classics. My advice for you all is: buy Puritan books and devour them! And if you can only buy one, make sure it is The Reformed Pastor penned by our dear birthday boy.
Many happy returns, Brother Richard on your 400th birthday! We’ll see you real soon!
Here you have twenty Puritan names in chronological order: