My Indebtedness to the Puritans

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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.”

  1. 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.

Best Wishes in Christ Jesus

Every blessing to you and yours in Immanuel—“God with us”—during this special season, and for 2016 (Phil. 4:19). May it be your comfort that when our Redeemer came to earth, He did not cease being God, and when He returned to heaven, He did not cease being man. Samuel Rutherford said, “My salvation is my Lord’s second greatest miracle—the first is His Incarnation.” Will you pray with me for more grace that we might all live wholly and solely for this glorious Incarnate One?

Fall 2015 Conferences in US, Canada, England, and Wales

If you would like to read a summary of my conference trips this fall, with accompanying photographs, you may download one by clicking here.

Prayer for Michigan Lawmakers

With Majority Whip Rob VerHeulen, Mary, and Senator Dave Hildenbrand

Mary and I drove to our state capital this morning in Lansing, Michigan, as I was invited by our state senator, Dave Hildenbrand, to give the invocation to the senators at the State Legislature. We met with Senator Hildenbrand and the Majority Whip of the State House, Rob VerHeulen, who has been a good friend for many years. After my prayer, we toured the capitol building, and then went out to lunch with Senator VerHeulen. We had a fascinating talk, especially about politics and next year’s election. May God have mercy upon our land and nation. Here is the invocation I gave.

Most High God, we thank Thee that thou art the living Triune God. Grant us to know Thy greatness and to feel our smallness. Thy kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and Thy dominion is from generation to generation. Thou rulest over the kingdom of humanity; the powers that be are Thy servants for the good of mankind.

Therefore, heavenly Father, I thank Thee for these State Legislatures and pray that Thou wouldst grant them in all that they do the holy fear of Thy Name, which esteems the smiles and frowns of Thyself to be of greater value than the smiles and frowns of men. Guide them in all the decisions they make; grant them great wisdom—heavenly wisdom above and beyond their own. Help them to serve Thee and others as men and women of truth, of fairness, and of love. Let them hate sin, and honor Thy Son, the King of kings and Lord of lords. Let them pursue and promote spiritual, moral, and fiscal righteousness. Grant them the courage and wisdom to show mercy to the needy and to defend the defenseless. Fill them with an over-flowing ocean of compassion. Let the reign of love be their motive and the law of love their rule. Let them strive to be godly men and women, well-known for their integrity; let them be honored for their goodness by the people who elected them.

Lord, we live in troubling, sin-embracing times when many people seem to do that which is right in their own eyes rather than Thine with regard to issues that relate to the sanctity of life and the foundational structures of our society. Oh Lord, deliver us from going our own way. Help us all to humble ourselves before Thee, to repent of sin, and to come back to Thee, for Thou has promised that if we repent, Thou wilt hear us from heaven, forgive our sins, and heal our land. Wash away all of our shortcomings and sins in Christ’s atoning blood. Help us all to remember that Thou, O God, art the Judge of all the earth. Grant us all therefore that we may find mercy from Thy Son when He returns to judge the living and the dead. In Christ’s name we pray, Amen.

 

Puritans, Piety, and Prodigals: The Mortification of Spin

Mortification of Spin

An interview that Mortification of Spin did with me is now available on their podcast. Topics include holiness, backsliding, and why read the Puritans.

North Carolina (October 8-12, 2015)

The Beauty of North Carolina

The Beauty of North Carolina

(This blog post was written by my wife, Mary.)

On Thursday evening we flew to Atlanta, then to Ashville, NC. Pastor Mike Thompson and his wife Robin picked us up. We bonded immediately, talking about family and scriptural convictions. Joel was pleasantly surprised to learn that Faith PCA is the church where dear friends Olin and Jean Coleman were members before they went to be with the Lord. Olin was a leader of the Puritan Project in Brazil. As an elder, he mentored Mike and had a profound impact on him.

Our home for these days was a log cabin on a dirt road in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. It is really dark in the country at midnight. After trying a couple wrong driveways, they were quite sure they found the right one. The code worked, and an autographed welcome sign confirmed we were in the right place. Phew!

Hiking with Mary in North Carolina

Hiking with Mary in North Carolina

Our favorite recreational activity is hiking, so we accepted with pleasure their invitation to come a day early to hike the Shortoff Mountain Trail. Dr. Howard Hall picked us up. About 25 folks of all ages came along, ranging from toddlers and babes in arms to a Superior Court Judge of North Carolina! We climbed 1,321 vertical feet in 4.5 miles. Aside from a rain shower, it was beautiful weather.

When some of the group arrived at the top, they realized they had not seen nine-year-old Emmett. Several of the men retraced our steps. The rest of us prayed. He had taken a wrong trail with others in the group, but when they had turned around, they didn’t realize he was out ahead of them. He eventually realized he was alone, and returned to the vehicle just as the men came looking for him. Relief and gratitude! We had a beautiful view of Lake James and the Linville Gorge—called the Grand Canyon of the East. It is always so refreshing to exercise in God’ amazing creation!

The conference began that evening and continued Saturday. The theme was “Parenting by God’s Promises.” The church has been studying Joel’s book on the subject. In six addresses, he spoke on many aspects—bringing our covenant children to Christ; parenting as prophet, priest, and king; encouragements and practical steps. We met some very special people, some who have huge challenges in their everyday life, such as a family with nine children, three of whom have a condition in which they are going deaf and blind. The dad is an orthopedic surgeon; the mom has a degree in psychology and homeschools the children. They drive a cheerfully painted mini-bus. Another couple has a daughter with a severe seizure disorder.

Pastor Mike and Robin Thompson, with their daughter Ginnie

Pastor Mike and Robin Thompson, with their daughter Ginnie

Pastor Thompson’s oldest daughter has a chromosome disorder. At 20 years of age, Ginnie can walk but not talk, except “Mama.” She has a constant smile and shows love to everyone. She doesn’t understand personal space, so she gets very close. She has certain favorites in the church. She adores her dad’s preaching. When the music plays, she stands in front of her dad or mom, and moves her arms up and down. All of these parents with special needs children have had their times of feeling they could hardly go on, but they all say they are so very blessed to have their special children! So much love! What a testimony of God’s grace working through trials! They ministered to us more than we ministered to them!

On Sunday, Joel preached on “Coping with Affliction in a Christ-centered Way,” “To Live is Christ and to Die is Gain,” and “The Utopian Marriage.” We had lots of fellowship over a soup and chili lunch the church shared. Friends formerly from Grand Rapids, now from Charlotte, NC, Leo and Marilyn Markwat, attended. This church has some very special, yet everyday people—doctors, a judge, businesspeople, teachers, nurses, factory workers, etc. We had wonderful fellowship, and they expressed much gratitude for Joel’s ministry. Soli Deo Gloria!

William Perkins on Galatians Now Available

With Paul Smalley, Editor of the Just Released Volume 2 of the Works of William Perkins

With Paul Smalley, Editor of the Just Released Volume 2 of the Works of William Perkins

I am so grateful that the second volume of The Works of William Perkins is now out. Paul Smalley did a fine job editing this exposition of Galatians. Derek Thomas and I are grateful to be general editors of the Works. What wisdom our Puritan forefathers had!

The Works of William Perkins fills a major gap in Reformed and Puritan theology. Though Perkins is best known today for his writings on predestination, he also wrote prolifically on many subjects. His works filled over two thousand large pages of small print in three folio volumes and were reprinted several times in the decades after his death. However, his complete works have not been in print since the mid-seventeenth century. This modern, typeset edition of the Works includes four volumes of Perkins’s expositions of Scripture, three volumes of his doctrinal and polemical treatises, and three volumes of his practical writings.

The first volume, edited by J. Stephen Yuille, contains Perkins’s chronology of biblical history, his exposition of Christ’s temptation (Matt. 4:1-11), and his commentary on the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7).

This second volume contains Perkins’s Commentary on Galatians. Perkins preached on Galatians each Lord’s Day for over three years. Ralph Cudworth obtained Perkins’s handwritten notes and edited them to publication. Because Perkins did not complete the commentary, Cudworth supplemented the manuscript with his own comments on chapter 6.

This commentary of Perkins and Cudworth on Galatians first appeared in print in 1604, two years after Perkins’s death. Perkins’s other writings had already begun to be gathered and published. When the three-volume edition of his collected works first appeared, Galatians occupied over 320 large folio pages in the second volume (1609). It continued to appear as a part of several editions of the Works through their final 1635 reprint. Evidently, interest in the commentary warranted its publication again as a separate volume in 1617.

Following the model taught in his treatise The Art of Prophesying, Perkins’s pattern in commenting on Galatians is to explain the text, deduce a few points of doctrine from it, answer objections raised against the doctrine, and then give practical uses of what the passage teaches.

J. I. Packer writes, “On the broad shoulders of William Perkins, epoch-making pioneer, stood an entire school of seventeenth-century Puritan pastors and divines, yet the Puritan reprint industry has steadily bypassed him. Now, however, he begins to reappear, admirably edited, and at last this yawning gap is being filled. Profound thanks to the publisher and heartfelt praise to God have become due.”

Upcoming Tour: In the Footsteps of Paul and John

Amphitheatre in Ephesus

Amphitheatre in Ephesus

What would it be like to follow the apostles Paul and John as they traveled the ancient world to preach the gospel? In May 2016, I will be leading a tour with Dr. George Kroeze through areas of Turkey and Greece to visit the very sites where the apostles once ministered.

Dr. Kroeze, former professor of Biblical Studies at Kuyper College, writes,

You will love seeing the site of ancient Corinth where Paul preached for a year and a half as well as visiting Mars Hill where Paul addressed the Athenian philosophers. We will see the places where early Christians received letters of Christ through the revelation to John. You will thoroughly enjoy this trip as it stimulates your faith and lends further insights into biblical teaching.

The tour will take place from May 18 to June 1, and will visit the sites of the ancient cities Athens, Corinth, Berea, Thessaloniki, Philippi, Troas, Pergamum, Smyrna (Izmir), Philadelphia, Sardis, Laodicea, Colossae, Ephesus, and Constantinople (Istanbul). Along the way we will see impressive ruins of the Greek and Roman civilizations, and meet faithful Evangelical and Reformed Christians persevering in Greece and Turkey.

There is also an optional cruise on the Aegean Sea aboard the Celestyal Olympia beginning on May 13 to 20, leading up to the land tour.

For more information, you may download the tour brochure and reservation forms. Please register in October, or November at the very latest.

CELESTYAL OLYMPIA

 

Ten Commandments for Church Members Regarding Your Pastor

sheep

 

1. Don’t idolize your pastor. Don’t expect him to be able to do what only God can do. Don’t make a savior of him.

2. Don’t criticize your pastor, unless he departs from the truth, and then do it with tears. And please don’t expect perfection. He is a mere man—a weak, sinful man at that, just like you. His office is divine, but his person is human. He sets before you treasure in an earthen vessel. If you don’t remember that, you will cry hosanna today, but will crucify him tomorrow.

3. Don’t avoid your pastor. Go to him, tell him your needs, open your soul, but don’t waste his precious time. It is your duty and privilege to go to him with your questions and spiritual troubles—and that will be to his encouragement and joy.

4. Do pray for your pastor. Pray for his soul, that he may be kept humble and holy. Pray for his body, that he may be kept strong and spared for many years. Pray that he may be a burning and shining light. Pray for his ministry that it may be abundantly blessed. Pray for his wife, his family, his sermon preparation, his delivery, his counseling. Pray your minister full and he will preach you full.

5. Do be a good listener to and doer of the sermons your pastor preaches. Listen to and obey your pastor. As long as he preaches the Scriptures, receive it as the very word of God. Remember, he is Christ’s gift to you.

6. Do be interested in your pastor. Don’t let all your conversation with him be focused only on you. Be kind to him. Show interest in him, his life, and the life of his family; he is human too!

7. Remember to appreciate your pastor’s strengths and minimize his weaknesses, always reminding yourself that your next pastor may not have your present pastor’s strengths. Don’t compare pastors to each other, but learn to appreciate each pastor whom God sends you for the peculiar gifts that God has given to that pastor.

8. Look above and beyond your pastor. Look to Him whom your pastor sets before you.

9. Do be coworkers with your pastor and the consistory. Be self-forgetters, Christ-exalters, and co-laborers. Covet humility, wisdom, peace, unity—and put on charity.

10. Keep an eternal perspective under your pastor’s ministry. Ask God that your pastor may give a good account of your soul on Judgment Day. Remember you don’t have to give an account of your pastor’s blemishes and strengths on the Day of days, but you do have to give an account of what you have done with the word that he will bring you. If you are as yet unsaved, look on his ministry as one more major opportunity God is giving you to receive with meekness His engrafted word. Through his ministry, the Lord is saying that He has more people from your church to be gathered into His eternal harvest—and why should it not be you? Oh, that you would know the day of your visitation under your pastor’s ministry!

Ten Commandments for Pastors

shepherd-with-sheep

1. Give priority to your personal communion with God. Put your own soul first: your maintaining communion with God is a prerequisite for being an effective pastor to your people. “Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers” (Acts 20:28).

2. Give priority to prayer and holiness. Undertake no sermon, no pastoral work, no task of the ministry without seeking God’s face in Jesus Christ. Follow John Bunyan’s advice, “You can do more than pray after you have prayed, but you cannot do more than pray until you have prayed.” Personal holiness is not only a necessary pursuit but a joyful one and is usually inseparable from divine success in the ministry.

3. Be bibline all your life. Be like Bunyan, of whom Spurgeon said, that if you pricked any vein, the blood that would flow out would be bibline. Read the Word, study the Word, believe the Word, pray over the Word, love the Word, live the Word, memorize the Word, meditate on the Word, sing the Word, and practice the Word.

4. Remember that preaching is the primary task of the ministry, and that to do it rightly, you need the Holy Spirit two times for every sermon: once in the study and then again on the pulpit.

5. Be profoundly thankful and humbled for the honor of being an ambassador of Jesus Christ. Remain convinced all your life that you have a crucial vocation, for you are dealing with never-dying souls for a never-ending eternity.

6. Preach Christ to the full. Be determined to know no man after the flesh—including yourself—and to glory in nothing except Jesus Christ and Him crucified, exalted, and coming again! Be a self-forgetter and a Christ-preacher. You can never preach Him enough. Devote the best energy of your life into preaching Him biblically, doctrinally, experientially, and practically. Resolve, like Thomas Boston, to leave the savor of Christ behind in all that you do.

7. Love the triune God; love your wife and children; love people; love your work.

8. Maintain a radical sense of dependency on the anointing of the Holy Spirit in all that you think, say, and do. Lean upon the Spirit at all times.

9. Ask God to give you a few, very close pastoral friends with whom you can hold each other accountable. Love your brethren in the ministry, and do not compete with them.

10. Live every day with an eternal perspective that fuels evangelistic urgency for the lost and pastoral love for the saints’ maturation. Keep eternity in view in all that you do, so that on the great day you may give a good account of your ministry and may hear your Master say, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant… enter thou into the joy of thy Lord” (Matt. 25:21)