My life has been profoundly shaped and enriched by men who died long ago, but whose ministries live on through their books. As a theologian I have read a lot of books about the teachings of the Bible, but none affect me more than the writings of the Puritans, and its parallel movement in the Netherlands, the Dutch Further Reformation.
As a young man, I found myself nourished by the writings of Thomas Goodwin, whose books about Christ the Mediator and Christ’s compassionate heart in heaven deeply moved me with faith and love for Christ. In my adult years, some of my favorite books have been Wilhelmus à Brakel, The Christian’s Reasonable Service, a combination of Reformed theology and ethics written in a warmly experiential tone; Anthony Burgess, Spiritual Refining, a classic on recognizing God’s saving work in our lives; and The Letters of Samuel Rutherford, letters full of meditations on the beauty of Christ by a man who suffered much for Him.
While there are many ways that the Bible-saturated books of the Puritans have influenced me, I would like to highlight three special lessons I have learned from them about experiential, practical Christian living.
- The Priority of Love
The Puritans not only commended love, but called Christians to excel in love with godly zeal. Oliver Bowles said zeal “is a holy ardor kindled by the Holy Spirit of God in the affections, improving a man to the utmost for God’s glory, and the church’s good.” Such zeal is not proud and harsh, as religious zeal can sometimes be, but a sweet and gentle energy to do good. Jonathan Edwards wrote,
As some are mistaken concerning the nature of true boldness for Christ, so they are concerning Christian zeal. ’Tis indeed a flame, but a sweet one; or rather it is the heat and fervor of a sweet flame. For the flame of which it is the heat, is no other than that of divine love, or Christian charity; which is the sweetest and most benevolent thing that is, or can be, in the heart of man or angel.
William Ames said that love for our neighbors means that we desire their good “with sincere and hearty affection” and “endeavor to procure it.” When we speak of being on fire for God, the Puritans remind us that it must be a fire of love. And they realized that no one but God can kindle and fan this fire. John Preston wrote, “The love of God is peculiarly the work of the Holy Ghost…. Therefore the way to get it is earnestly to pray . . . . we are no more able to love the Lord than cold water is able to heat itself . . . so the Holy Ghost must breed that fire of love in us, it must be kindled from heaven, or else we shall never have it.” This leads me to my next point.
- The Power of Prayer
When it came to ministry, the Puritans were definitely activists, putting in long hours of arduous labor to spread the kingdom. However, they also understood on a practical level that all kingdom work is God’s work. Neither evangelism nor edification can succeed without the Spirit of God. Thomas Watson wrote, “Ministers knock at the door of men’s hearts, the Spirit comes with a key and opens the door.” John Owen said, “The Lord Christ . . . sends his Holy Spirit into our hearts, which is the efficient cause of all holiness and sanctification—quickening, enlightening, purifying the souls of his saints.”
Therefore, our ministry must be done on our knees. Richard Baxter said, “Prayer must carry on our work as well as preaching; he preacheth not heartily to his people, that prayeth not earnestly for them. If we prevail not with God to give them faith and repentance, we are unlikely to prevail with them to believe and repent.” And Robert Traill wrote, “Some ministers of meaner [lesser] gifts and parts are more successful than some that are far above them in abilities; not because they preach better, so much as because they pray more. Many good sermons are lost for lack of much prayer in study.”
- The Pursuit of Holiness
In the worldliness of our fallen nature, our hearts pursue earthly happiness. When sorrow, disappointment, and frustration inevitably come, we grumble and dishonor God. Thomas Manton said, “Murmuring is an anti-providence, a renouncing of God’s sovereignty.” Watson wrote, “Our murmuring is the devil’s music.” However, the Puritans recognized that in Christ, our hearts have a new fundamental direction, one that cherishes God’s kingdom and righteousness above all earthly treasures.
Holiness begins and flourishes with faith in Christ. John Flavel wrote, “The soul is the life of the body, faith is the life of the soul, and Christ is the life of faith.” Isaac Ambrose said that we must fix our eyes upon Christ, not with a bare, intellectual knowledge but an inward and experiential “looking unto Jesus, such as stirs up affections in the heart, and the effects thereof in our life. . . . knowing, considering, desiring, hoping, believing, loving, joying, calling on Jesus, and conforming to Jesus.”
Holiness must be real in our private lives and families, or it is nothing but a hypocritical show. John Trapp wrote, “Follow hypocrites home to their houses, and there you shall see what they are.” Matthew Henry said, “It is not enough to put on our religion when we go abroad and appear before men; but we must govern ourselves by it in our families.” Real holiness is a reflection of Christ having been brought into the heart and the home.
Love, prayer, and holiness—these are the ABCs of a biblical life. They are the very outworking and activity of a living faith in Christ. That’s a large reason why I am so indebted to the Puritans: they keep driving me back to the basics of walking with God through Christ.