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 compliment."
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 life.
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 the passions"
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 saints,
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.