“The venerable dead are waiting in my library to entertain me and relieve me from the nonsense of surviving mortals.” -Samuel Davies
The Puritans have often been given a bad rap. To a nonbeliever “Puritan” is a pejorative word that simply means “killjoy” [a criticism that has been debunked by those who've actually read the Puritans]. Even in the church, though, Puritans sometimes get a bad reputation. Sometimes the criticisms are warranted, sometimes exaggerated, and other times they arise from ignorance or misunderstanding. As a point of preference, I love the Puritans! Now, I don’t want to make preference rule, as so many are apt to do, but I’d like to highlight five reasons I think the Puritans are worthy of a wide and lasting readership. In no particular order:
- They loved Jesus. Agree or disagree with them, their view of the person and work of Jesus was enormous and comprehensive. One of the greatest dangers in our living and dying is to have a narrow view of Jesus—an epidemic which is evident from many pulpits. Personally, I have found this to be one of the most contagious things about the Puritans. Rarely have I read them and not stepped away loving and worshiping Jesus more than when I sat down.
“Preach Christ, let your end be to glorify him, to render him amiable and precious in the eyes of his people; to lead them to him as a sanctuary to protect, a propitiation to reconcile, a treasure to enrich, a physician to heal, an advocate to present, as righteousness to justify, as sanctification to renew, as redemption to save, as an inexhausted fountain of pardon, grace, comfort, victory, and glory” (Edward Reynolds, The Works, 1:105).
- They loved the Word. Having grown up in mainline evangelicalism, I have found in the Puritans a source of welcomed biblical depth in an otherwise vapid culture. Being fully persuaded that the Bible as the Word of God, the Puritans were careful, studied, and precise in their opening of it. They were, and in my mind continue to be, exegetes of the highest rank and file.
“You all have by you a large treasure of divine knowledge, in that you have the Bible in your hands; therefore be not contented in possessing but little of this treasure. God hath spoken much to you in the Scripture; labor to understand as much of what he saith as you can” (Jonathan Edwards, The Works of President Edwards, 8:22).
- They hated sin. We live in an day when people, even inside the church, are more and more comfortable with sin. Rather than viewing it with horror and hatred, many have come to tolerate it. The Puritans have helped me to grasp the true wicked nature of sin as an infinite offense against an infinite God. We would do much better if our continual prayer was, “Teach me to hate the things you hate, and love the things you love.”
“In short, sin is the dare of God’s justice, the rape of his mercy, the jeer of his patience, the slight of his power, the contempt of his love” (Ralph Venning, The Sinfulness of Sin, 32).
- They encouraged precision in living. I know! Surprisingly this is one of the chief criticisms of many against the Puritans. Personally, I don’t think it’s a fair assessment, nor do I think that most in our own day struggle from too much precision—rather a serious lack of it! The inspired authors weren’t kidding when they said, “[We] take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Cor 10:5), or, “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!” (Psalm 139:23-24).
“What! Is the devil a master good enough for a soul that has God for its maker? Is feeding swine—making ‘provision for the flesh, to fulfil the lusts thereof,’—work good enough for a soul that is capable of glorifying and enjoying God? Are husks, the food of swine, proper provision for a soul that is capable of being feasted with angels’ food?” (Matthew Henry, Works, 1:159).
- They are timeless. Having worked in Christian publishing I’ve been disappointed with much of what is being printed today (am I allowed to admit this?). Our fast-paced culture lacks, as a whole, a timeless character. Where are the great poets, orators, authors, musicians, and artists who will make an indelible mark on history? Ours is a culture that moves from one thing to another with the speed of light! I wonder if the same can be said about many Christian books. They’re here today, and gone tomorrow. In such a fluid society, I find the Puritans to have a permanent character, and a lasting impression. Their writings are anything but irrelevant, and though dead, they still speak.
Well, there’s at least five reasons. But like I said, it’s a personal preference, and I won’t make preference rule. And if you haven’t seen it yet, you should probably get Drs Joel Beeke and Mark Jones’s new book, A Puritan Theology.