Beeke: It's time to rediscover the Reformers and the Puritans
“Evangelicalism desperately needs a revival of robust Reformed theology that is thoroughly biblical, helpfully doctrinal, warmly experiential, and pointedly practical”, says the President of Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary.
03 OCTOBER 2015 · 23:45 CET
Greetings brothers and sisters and welcome to another edition of Fresh Breeze. Today we are with Joel Beeke, minister at Heritage Netherlands Reformed Congregation (Grand Rapids, Michigan) and perhaps best-known for his role as president of Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary.
Having grown up in a godly home in west Michigan, Beeke was converted and called to the ministry as a young teenager, and ordained at the age of 25. He has since served as a pastor of Reformed churches in Iowa, New Jersey and Michigan as well as obtaining his PhD in Reformation and Post-Reformation Theology from Westminster Theological Seminary.
Happily married to Mary and blessed with three adult children (two of whom are married and the third is in a serious courting relationship with a godly young man), Beeke is expecting his first grandchild early next year. “We are already calling each other Grandpa and Grandma in the privacy of our home,” he comments.
Beeke, a self-confessed compulsive writer loves reading and writing, “I feel closest to God when I write. Consequently, I am the author or co-author of about 80 books and 2,500 articles. I pray that my writing ministry may do some good for others after I am long gone”.
Let’s move on to the interview.
Will Graham (WG): Brother Beeke, let me start by saying it’s a real joy to have you with us on Evangelical Focus. I’ve been thoroughly blessed by your ministry over the past few years. For our readers here in Europe who maybe don’t know you, could you begin by telling them a little bit about how you came to know the Lord?
Joel Beeke (JB): The Holy Spirit convicted me deeply of my sin when I was 14. I knew about God’s salvation in Jesus Christ, but I strove for some time under a heavy burden of guilt. Then the Lord sent a pastor to visit my family. When he stressed that salvation is possible for the greatest of sinners in Christ Jesus, the Holy Spirit applied that truth to my heart with a great deal of power, such that, like Christian in Pilgrim’s Progress, the burden of my sin rolled off my back. I was forgiven and set free in Christ by god’s sovereign grace!
WG: And when did you know that the Lord was calling you to the ministry?
JB: As a new convert, I was very zealous to serve the Lord. I went from house to house seeking to evangelize the lost. However, I soon discovered that I was not very equipped to answer people’s questions about the Holy Scriptures. This, together with a profound experience of God’s call to preach the gospel at age fifteen despite my native shyness, drove me to read Puritan literature and to seek theological education. God has used the church’s affirmation to confirm that call.
WG: Praise God. And what is it that you love about the Puritans exactly?
JB: The Puritans sought to shape their whole lives by Scripture. They married doctrine and practice by addressing the mind with biblical truth, confronting the conscience with the claims of the holy Lord, and engaging the heart to respond with grief over sin, love for God, and hope in His grace. In all this, they kept their focus on Christ. They were evangelical realists, and dug into God’s Word to learn how to handle the most painful of trials. They lived with their eyes on the world to come as pilgrims headed to the Celestial City. Thus they show us true spirituality—and I love them for that.
WG: Amen. I came across the Puritans whilst I was at university in Belfast and they had the same impact upon me. How do you think the Puritans can help contemporary Evangelicalism?
JB: Evangelicalism today exhibits a tendency toward imbalance in doctrine and experience. Some Christians are so driven by spiritual experience that they are unstable and not well grounded in the truth. They are easily swayed by worldliness and false teaching. Other Christians have their heads packed with doctrine, but their hearts are withered, and their actions do not display the love of Christ. I have found great help in affirming both doctrine and experience by reading the Reformers, Puritans, and Dutch ‘Further’ Reformation divines. They consistently aim to apply the Word of God to the heart, and yet do so by illuminating the mind and addressing the conscience with the claims of truth.
WG: If possible, could you name us two or three key works that are must-reads for folk interested in the Puritans?
JB: Two or three?! The wealth of literature by and about the Puritans is staggering. For those just getting started, I would recommend shorter books like John Bunyan, Come and Welcome to Jesus Christ, Anthony Burgess, Faith Seeking Assurance, and William Greenhill, Stop Loving the World. A helpful overview of basic Puritan teachings can be found in Thomas Watson, A Body of Divinity, together with his Ten Commandments and The Lord’s Prayer.
WG: Yes, Thomas Watson is one of my favourite Puritans. Feel free, dear brother, to add some more to the list.
JB: Those desiring to read the classics in Puritan experiential theology should read the Works of William Perkins (vol. 1 now available, and vol. 2 coming soon), John Owen on Christ, communion with God, the Holy Spirit, and sanctification (Works of John Owen, vols. 1, 2, 3, and 6), Thomas Goodwin on Christ the Mediator (Works of Thomas Goodwin, vol. 6), William Gurnall, The Christian in Complete Armour, and John Flavel on Christ and conversion (Works of John Flavel, vols. 1, 2).
For general introductions to the persons, writings, and theology of the Puritans, see two books I co-authored: Meet the Puritans (with Randall Pederson) and A Puritan Theology (with Mark Jones).
I would also add this: read the Puritans with an open Bible. They were saturated in Scripture, and submitted to it as the only divine rule of faith and obedience. Let the Puritans point you to Scripture, and enrich you in the Word.
WG: Amen. Who are some of your theological heroes, dear brother? And why?
JB: As you can tell, I have much respect for the British Puritans. I also look up to the Dutch ‘Further’ Reformation theologians like Wilhelmus à Brakel and Willem Teellinck for their courageous call to live unto God in all circumstances. I greatly admire John Calvin for his personal devotion to God in love and fear (pietas), the profundity of his theological insight, and his prodigious output of books and sermons. Yet I remember that all mere men have great flaws, myself the most of all, and that our only true “hero” can be Jesus Christ.
WG: As you look across the landscape of today’s Protestantism, what things most concern you about the current state of the Evangelical world?
JB: The lack of the fear of God, which leads to the abandonment of the regulative principle in worship, shallow theology, incipient Arminianism, blatant worldliness, and a host of other problems. Evangelicalism desperately needs a revival of robust Reformed theology that is thoroughly biblical, helpfully doctrinal, warmly experiential, and pointedly practical—a theology that ministers to the whole man—head, heart, and hands.
WG: Now that you’ve brought up the theme of Arminianism. Why do you think there has been such a revival of Calvinism amongst young Westerners? We’re seeing something similar here in Spain as well. Young Calvinists seem to be popping up left, right and centre. How come?
JB: I am delighted whenever I hear of people embracing the truths of the Scriptures. Insofar as biblical truths are taken into the heart (and not just the head), this is a work of the Holy Spirit. Though these truths have been nicknamed “Calvinism,” they are in fact the spiritually enriching, God-exalting, Christ-centred doctrines of the Bible. Therefore, where the Spirit breathes love for God and His Word, we anticipate the revival of Reformed theology. May it continue and grow deeper and broader until these men and women see all of life under the banner of sola Scriptura, sola gratia, solo Christo, sola fide, and soli Deo Gloria! Then the problems associated with much contemporary worship and worldliness, which sadly, remain all too common in circles where soteriological Calvinism has been rediscovered, would dissipate.
WG: Now a question about something concerning a lot of us Evangelicals here in Europe. What can be done to stop the advance of pro-gay theology? There seem to be more and more liberal churches promoting homosexuality. I see something similar is going on in the States.
JB: The best way to stop pro-homosexual theology is to refute it from the Scriptures. We must proclaim the clear testimony of God’s Word to His creation of mankind in two genders, who express their sexuality in the marriage of one man and one woman (Gen. 1:27; 2:24). We must compassionately declare the biblical warnings that homosexual desires and practice are condemned by God and lead unrepentant sinners to hell (Lev. 18:22; 20:13; 1 Tim. 1:9–10). We must announce the good news that God saves sinners of all kinds and gives them a new identity in Christ (1 Cor. 6:9–11). (For a helpful refutation of pro-homosexual arguments, see Kevin DeYoung, What Does the Bible Really Teach about Homosexuality?)
At the same time, we must have deep foundations on which to rest these truths. I believe that two reasons why pro-homosexual theology is gaining considerable ground in the church is that incipient theological liberalism is eroding the church’s foundational beliefs in God’s holiness and the authority and sufficiency of Scripture, and replacing them with a God who is only love and an out-of-date Bible that must bow before modern insights into human nature and origins. Biblical arguments will only have weight with us if we know God as “the high and lofty One that inhabiteth eternity, whose name is Holy,” and if each one of us is “poor and of a contrite spirit, and trembleth at my word” (Isa. 57:15; 66:2).
WG: Wonderful! Amen! Brother, I know you’re a busy man so we’ve got to let you go, but if you could give a final piece of godly advice to our younger readers, what would it be?
Cultivate a habit of reading good books. We live in an image-saturated age, but God has chosen to work salvation and sanctification through words (John 17:17). Though some forms of recreation are healthy and needed, don’t waste your life pouring entertainment into your brain. Turn off the TV, close YouTube and Facebook, and let your iPod recharge. Train yourself to read books, and be discerning about what you read. Especially read the Bible so that you can become a Psalm 1 person, as Jesus was, meditating day and night on the Word. Supplement your reading of the Bible with solid Christian literature, especially the Reformers and Puritans (see www.heritagebooks.org). Find friends of like mind, and talk about what you are learning, and how it applies to your lives. Use God’s truth to fuel spiritual love, and by the Holy Spirit you will grow in grace.
WG: Thanks so much, brother Beeke, for taking the time to be with us today. May the Lord keep blessing your labours for His kingdom. Let’s keep hoping for a real revival of Puritanism and biblical values in the West and beyond.