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Puritan wisdom for today

September 1998 | by Erroll Hulse

Puritan congregations (1558-1662) were led by ministers of theological understanding and missionary vision. Their knowledge of other countries was small, yet they prayed for the earth to be filled with the knowledge of the glory of God as the waters cover the sea. Today the gospel has spread through the world, but the biblical teaching which engenders holy living and stability in the faith is more needed than ever. Puritan teaching of the kind found in the writings of Thomas Watson, Thomas Manton, John Owen, Richard Sibbes and John Flavel is supremely able to supply this need. This is demonstrated by examining some strands of contemporary evangelicalism.

Fundamentalism

Fundamentalism gathered momentum in the 1920s and 1930s, with certain evangelicals uniting on a common basis to combat modernist theology. Their leaders drew up a list of basic truths which were being undermined by theological liberalism, to be upheld and defended as the ‘fundamentals’ of the faith. Fundamentalism was strong in the USA and spread to other countries. Unhappily, fundamentalists have often added to those basic doctrines other tenets, not central to salvation, that they hold to be ‘fundamental’ to the faith, such as a pre-millennial doctrine of the last things.

Puritans also were ‘fundamentalists’, defending such major doctrines as the reliability of Scripture, the Trinity and the deity of Christ. Yet they were not all of the same viewpoint in lesser matters, nor did they make eschatological belief a point of division. Christ’s second coming to judgement, the end of the world, the universal physical resurrection from the dead, eternal heaven and hell are foundational truths, but Scripture does not map out the future in precise detail. Evangelical unity is a precious commodity, and the Puritans teach us to avoid damaging unity over secondary issues. We learn from the Puritans not to ‘major on minors’.

Fundamentalists have also sometimes treated lesser, practical matters as fundamental. These include bans on alcohol, card playing, tobacco, dancing and theatre-going. These additions have been the cause of endless strife among Christians. For instance, the Bible teaches the need for temperance, but it does not command total abstinence. Furthermore, wine is used at the Lord’s Table. Puritanism is a wonderful antidote to needless divisions caused by adding man-made rules to Scripture. It points out that worldliness is the real enemy. The cause of worldliness lies in the heart, and its cure must be applied there also. A man can keep many rules but be worldly still and possess a Pharisaical spirit of self-righteousness.

Puritanism concentrated on the state of a person’s heart. When someone is joined to Christ, every part of him, his thoughts, words and actions become subject to the Word of God. Even if he makes rules for his own life, he avoids making them for others. There is a chapter in the Westminster Confession of Faith on the subject of Christian liberty. The Puritan message is one of liberty of conscience combined with self-control, with Scripture as the only authority. The seventeenth century doctrinal confessions are all silent where Scripture is silent. There is nothing in the Bible about smoking, for example, but there are texts which remind believers that their bodies are the temples of the Holy Spirit.

The New Evangelicalism

Fundamentalism has sometimes been intolerant and aggressive. One reaction to this has been the emergence of a movement, at once broad, scholarly and friendly, called the New Evangelicalism. However, in the name of ‘scholarship’ and reasonableness, this movement has compromised on the inerrancy of Scripture. In contrast, while not anticipating every detail of modern controversies, the Puritans embraced the authority, infallibility and inerrancy of Scripture. This is clearly shown, for example, by the opening chapter of the Westminster Confession.

The Charismatic movement

The Charismatic movement today emphasizes three subjects: spiritual experience, spiritual power and corporate joy. The Puritans stressed these matters too, but in a biblically balanced way. First, they stressed the paramount need for people to experience God’s free grace in conversion. True spiritual experience comes from being freely justified through faith in Christ. Ongoing spiritual experience flows from the believer’s union with the three persons of the Trinity. This leads to the enjoyment of Christ and patience in tribulation, amongst other graces.

The New Testament does not prescribe a specific ‘second blessing’ for believers after conversion, as though something has to be added to what believers already have in Christ in order for them to be complete. As even some Charismatics concede, all who are in Christ have been baptized spiritually into him (1 Corinthians 12:12) and no mandatory further experience is an ‘open sesame’ to further spiritual development. Puritans would concur that true spiritual power is needed, not only for preaching but also for Christian living and service generally. They would emphasize that the Holy Spirit is always at work in the believer to teach, correct, guide, comfort and empower. But the Puritan teaching is that all believers are complete in Christ from their conversion.

Liberating teaching

Second, the Charismatic movement stresses the continuation of signs, wonders and miracles for today. However, the Puritans taught that apostles and prophets in the New Testament were ‘extraordinary’ officers of the church. They were given a special endowment of the Holy Spirit for the work of laying the church’s foundations. Later generations of believers, once the New Testament Scriptures had become widely available, did not need to repeat this foundational work. Signs and wonders are no longer necessary to bear witness to Christ and vindicate the Word of God.

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Puritan teaching is wonderfully liberating, because it shows us that spiritual leaders are not now required to walk on water, replace missing limbs, raise the dead, or perform stupendous miracles such creating wine, fish or bread (John chapters 4 and 6)! The Word of God is all-sufficient, and it is no longer necessary to exercise the supernatural gifts of prophecies, tongues and interpretation of tongues. Today, when the promises of healing from the ‘miracle-worker’ fail, then hurt and disillusionment set in. The Puritans would point men to the promises that will never fail, those of the gospel, by which eternal life is given to those who repent and believe.

Joy in worship

Third, there should indeed be joyful public Christian worship, but the only ingredients of spiritual worship will be those specified in Scripture — the public reading of Scripture, preaching, intercessory prayer and singing. Otherwise there is freedom. There is no reason why these should not be marked by great joy. Emotional uplift of a worldly kind and the provision of entertainment are completely unnecessary. Puritan worship was marked by dignity and reverence, but it was combined with joy and gladness.

Stephen Charnock, in his exposition of John 4:24, captures the God-centredness of true worship: ‘God is a Spirit infinitely happy, therefore we must approach him with cheerfulness; he is a Spirit of infinite majesty, therefore we must come before him with reverence; he is a Spirit infinitely high, therefore we must offer up our sacrifices with deepest humility; he is a Spirit infinitely holy, therefore we must address him with purity, he is a Spirit infinitely glorious, we therefore must acknowledge his excellency — he is a Spirit provoked by us, therefore we must offer up our worship in the name of a pacifying mediator and intercessor.’

Intellectual Calvinism

Calvinism is commonly summarized in its ‘five points’, easily remembered by the acrostic TULIP. This stands for Total depravity, Unconditional election, Limited atonement, Irresistible grace, and Perseverance of the saints. This formulation originated at the Synod of Dort in 1618-1619. These points highlight the truth that salvation is by grace alone.

Yet this reduction to five points can sometimes foster a simplistic approach to the gospel. In Scripture, wherever the truth of salvation by grace alone is stated, it is in the context of spiritual application to the heart and practical application to the life. Without application there is the danger that ‘Calvinism’ becomes merely academic or intellectual. For example, to imply that only those who subscribe to the five points are born-again Christians, betrays a cultic spirit. A man’s salvation is not to be judged by his level of theological comprehension. The Puritans taught that salvation was by grace through faith alone, and were careful not to add intellectual understanding as a further qualification for heaven.

Conclusion

Puritan writings at their best are profoundly relevant for the whole Church of Christ at the end of the twentieth century. Puritanism is strongest where the churches today are weakest, and Puritan teaching is only strong because it represents biblical truth applied with thoroughness, yet gentleness, to the ‘smoking flax’ and ‘bruised reed’.