A Few Practical Lessons from the Puritans

Over the past few weeks Dr. Joel Beeke and I have been teaming up to work our way through a portion of his massive new work A Puritan Theology. We have not been reading the whole book, but just the final eight chapters which deal with practical theology, the “so what?” of systematic theology.

Become a Patron

This week, the last week of the program, we read chapter 59 which discusses practical lessons from Puritan theology today. I asked Dr. Beeke a few questions related to the Puritans and some of the lessons we ought to allow them to teach us.

TC: As you near the conclusion of A Puritan Theology, you suggest that a dedication to Puritan writings will serve us by helping maintain biblical balance in preaching. Are many of today’s preachers out-of-balance? What is a biblical balance and why do we need to maintain it?

JB: I do not know how many preachers are out-of-balance, but every preacher must keep watch over himself because we all have a tendency to go astray, both in theology and personality (1 Tim. 4:16).

Balance in preaching includes a healthy mixture of biblical, doctrinal, experiential, and practical ingredients. There are as many different approaches to preaching as there are cakes, but like cakes our preaching must always be a mixture of certain basic ingredients.  

The biblical ingredient means we must “preach the Word” (2 Tim. 4:2), giving an exposition of the meaning of one or more biblical texts and rooting all we say in Scripture. Without this our preaching has no divine authority. The doctrinal ingredient means we must declare the “form of doctrine” (Rom. 6:17), including “all the counsel of God” (Acts 20:27) in distinct teachings, especially those teachings summarized so beautifully in the Reformed confessions and catechisms. This gives our preaching clarity. The experiential ingredient brings biblical doctrine to bear on the hearts of sinners—the heart being the source of all our activity (Prov. 4:23). That begins with the heart of the preacher so that he can preach from his heart to the hearts of his listeners. By this means our sermons are simultaneously idealistic, realistic, and optimistic about the Christian life. The practical ingredient brings biblical doctrine to bear on specific matters of direction, exhortation, self-examination, warning, and comfort depending on a person’s spiritual condition. Such preaching aims at calling people to a new life.

If God permits, I hope to publish a book on Reformed experiential preaching sometime in the next few years that will address this very subject, with examples drawn from history.

TC: The Puritans emphasized the importance of catechizing. I grew up in a tradition that largely emphasized the memorization and recitation of catechisms. Is this the heart of catechesis? If not, what is? What do we stand to gain if we recover this emphasis?

JB: The means of catechesis is memorizing and reciting questions and answers. But that is not its heart and soul. The purpose of catechizing is to instill in a person a basic framework for understanding life, and to give him material for meditation and heart-application for years to come. The Puritans understood that “the understanding is the guide and pilot of the whole man.” So in their commendation of the Westminster Confession and Catechisms they said, “A most sovereign antidote against all kinds of errors, is to be grounded and settled in the faith.” Yet they made this clarification: “But yet the knowledge we especially commend, is not a brain-knowledge. . . . but an inward, a savoury, an heart knowledge.” Catechism aims not just at memory and understanding of truth, but also at an experiential taste of Christ’s sweetness (which is what they meant by “savoury”).

TC: Trial and persecution were constantly present during the era of the Puritans and so too were the realities of illness, disease, short lifespans, and infant mortality. We live with much greater safety and security, but are there still things we can and should learn from the Puritans about perseverance in difficulty?

JB: Despite our modern technology (and sometimes by means of it), babies still die, guilt disturbs the soul, wars traumatize and bereave, and accidents disable and kill. The Puritans help us to respond to such sorrows by looking up to God in Christ and experiencing His consolation. They teach us to view pain through the humble lenses of God’s sovereignty. David prayed in Psalm 39:9, “I was dumb [silent], I opened not my mouth; because thou didst it.” Thomas Brooks taught on this basis that it is the great duty of Christians to remain silent under the saddest affliction—not with a stoic, unfeeling silence, or a sullen, angry silence, or a despairing, hopeless silence, but with the inner quietness born of looking past earthly causes to see God’s holy hand ruling over all.

The Puritans can especially teach us how to find peace through faith. William Bridge wrote, “Faith quiets one’s heart in times of discouragements. ”Isaiah 26:3 gives us God’s promise, “Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on thee: because he trusteth in thee.” How does God work peace through faith? Bridge said that faith brings light into the understanding, reins in overblown fears, assures our consciences before God, and brings us near to God with boldness (Ps. 37:1–7; Heb. 10:22; Eph. 3:12).

Even if our faith is weak, we need not despair, for though a weak faith brings many trouble, still we can cry out, “Have mercy upon me, O Lord; for I am weak” (Ps. 6:2). Our weakness does not exclude us from His mercy but instead attracts His mercy. The Puritans understood that sometimes the Lord brings His children into a frightening and stormy darkness of the soul. Timothy Rogers, who suffered from deep depression, said God ordains such things to conform His servants to Christ (Isa. 53:3), to wean us from the worldly pleasures by which man first fell, to lead us through a season of sorrow into joy, and to show His sovereignty over both affliction and comfort.

TC: The Puritans went to war against pride. What would they want to teach us about pride and how we ought to put it to death?

JB: The Puritans exhort us to love humility because God is Lord. Do we want to approach the King and receive His favor? Henry Smith proclaimed that the King has declared pride and all her friends to be His enemy, but those who clothe themselves in humility may boldly draw near to Him. For the proud man “sets himself against God . . . he maketh himself equal with God, because he doth all without God, and craves no help of him; he exalteth himself above God, because he will have his own will, though it be contrary to God’s will.” How ugly is pride!

They urge us to treasure humility if we love Christ. Andrew Gray wrote that Christ never offered Himself as a pattern to us so much as in this, that He was humble (Matt. 11:29; John 13:12–14). Humility is the beauty of Jesus Christ, the servant of the Lord.

They warn of how subtle pride can be. We get so egotistical about the smallest things. Smith said, “The proud man is proud of a feather.” Spiritual pride is especially tricky. Pride can build a throne for itself on the lowest step of humility. Gray said, “It is difficult to be humble in our humility.” Pride can abuse our spiritual mountaintop experiences of God’s glory and twist them into occasions for self-exaltation (2 Cor. 12:7). Therefore we must watch and pray!

The Puritans tell us to humbly receive afflictions from God’s hand, even as those afflictions reveal the sin within us. Gray said, “A Christian never knows the strength of his lusts so well as under afflictions.” But believers must remember that God sends us through the wilderness of sufferings in order to humble us and reveal what is in our hearts (Deut. 8:2).

They call us to remember how little we understand God. John Owen wrote, “Be much in thoughtfulness of the excellency of the majesty of God. . . . how little a portion is it that thou knowest of him!” When Job saw a glimpse of God’s glory, he exclaimed, “I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:6). Owen said that the most spiritual men on earth “know but a little of him and his glory.” How ridiculous it is for us to be puffed up by our knowledge of theology, when our theology teaches us the infinite glory and incomprehensibility of God!

TC: We have now reached the final chapter, having read the final eight. How will it benefit us if we now turn to the beginning and read chapters 1–51?

JB: There are many helpful topics which we have not even touched yet. Do you desire to learn about God’s attributes and the Trinity? Would you like to understand better His control of all things for good? Do you want to see more of the beauty and glory of Jesus Christ? These are just a few of the precious gems found in the other chapters. This book allows you to sit at the feet of some of the greatest Bible teachers the world has ever known. I have sat at the feet of the Puritans for decades, and remain their life-long student. Insofar as they were faithful to Scripture, Christ speaks in them.

For those interested in understanding the core of Puritan theology, I would especially commend Mark Jones’s brilliant chapters on the Puritans and the covenants. The covenants are the heart of Reformed doctrine, and yet little understood even among professing Calvinists.

Your Turn

The purpose of this project is to read classics together. Please feel free to leave a comment below or to provide a link to your own blog if you have discussed this week’s chapter there.