A few months ago, a conversation with Joel Beeke went in an unexpected direction. We were talking Puritans (what else do you talk about with Dr. Beeke?) and we tried to think of a way we could team up to help people read A Puritan Theology. At that point I had only just begun reading the book, but was enjoying it tremendously and was eager to make it known to others. Yet I realized the price and sheer size of the volume makes it more than a little intimidating.
After some thought we decided to make A Puritan Theology the next of the books I would take on in the Reading Classics Together program. Not the whole book, mind you, but just the last eight chapters which deal with practical theology, the “so what?” of systematic theology.
This week we read chapter 52 which shows how Puritan theology was shaped by a pilgrim mentality. Dr. Beeke was kind enough to answer a few of my questions about this kind of mentality, what it meant to the Puritans, and what it might mean to us if we had a better sense of it.
TC: This chapter discusses the pilgrim mentality. Most of us are familiar with Pilgrim’s Progress, but should we understand that the pilgrim mentality was prevalent across most or all of the Puritans?
JB: Yes, the Puritans consistently saw the Christian life as a pilgrim’s journey to heaven. They suffered much and chose obedience over compromise, keeping their eyes upon Christ and heaven. J. I. Packer says, “The Puritans have taught me to see and feel the transitoriness of this life, to think of it, with all its richness, as essentially the gymnasium and dressing-room where we are prepared for heaven, and to regard readiness to die as the first step in knowing how to live.”
TC: Could you give a short definition of that pilgrim mentality and tell us what difference it made to the Puritans?
JB: The pilgrim mentality is living against this world in hope of glory in another world by faith in Christ. Like Moses, believers in Christ today choose to trade this world’s pleasures for present suffering and future glory with Christ (Heb. 11:24–26). Jeremiah Burroughs said that faith has power “to take off the heart from the world” because its “primary work” is “for the soul to cast itself upon God in Christ for all the good and happiness it ever expects … upon God as an all-sufficient good.” This weans our affections from the world, and enables us to wait patiently on the Lord (Ps. 37:7).
Faith also empowers believers to rejoice in what we do not see, for, as Burroughs said, “Faith makes the future good of spiritual and eternal things to be as present to the soul, and to work upon the soul, as if they were present.”
The Puritans lived in a world of suffering, political oppression, epidemic plagues, and civil war, where many of their children never survived to adulthood. They also suffered because of their stance against worldliness and false worship. Yet they had a vibrant joy and hope. They were positive people. Why? John Trapp said, “He that rides to be crowned, will not think much of a rainy day.”
The Puritans enjoyed God’s creation, but did not entangle themselves in the pleasures and pursuits of this world, because they were headed for something better. William Perkins said, “Pilgrims take but little delight in their journeys, because they think themselves not at home.” They used this world as if they did not use it, for it was passing away (1 Cor. 7:31).
Christians must long to leave this world and be with the Lord (2 Cor. 5:8). Perkins said that a “pilgrim” is “always thinking” of his homeland “and sighing after it.” Christians must desire heaven (Heb. 11:16), seek heaven (Col. 3:1), and use this world not as an end in itself but as a means to gain heaven.
TC: What do we stand to gain, as contemporary Christians, if we regain something of this pilgrim mentality? What do we stand to lose or to miss if we do not regain it?
JB: First, we would gain a more antithetical stance towards this world. This is not isolationism, where we try to hide from sin and the devil (impossible!), but warfare, where we stand for righteousness against the wickedness and accusations of the world. Peter speaks of this when he calls believers to abstain from sinful desires as “strangers and pilgrims” in the world, precisely because lusts war against our souls and the world accuses us of evil (1 Peter 2:11).
This world is not a friend to help pilgrims to heaven; it is dangerous country we must traverse on our way there. William Ames said, “This may serve to admonish us, not to place our inheritance or our treasure in the things of this world, [and] to exhort us, to lift up our hearts always toward our heavenly country; and to gain all those things that may help us forward.”
Second, we would gain a strong foundation for suffering and dying. Perkins said that one of Christianity’s great lessons is that “we must live that we may die in faith.” Few Christians today consider how to suffer well and how to die for God’s glory (Phil. 1:20), but how many of us will avoid pain and death?
To deal with these inevitable realities (if the Lord tarries), we need vision that penetrates beyond the horizons of our mortality. Perkins said that faith is like the tall mast of a ship which a sailor may climb and see land while it is still “afar off” (Heb. 11:13). As pilgrims of faith we need not fear death. Thomas Watson said that “death will put an end to a weary pilgrimage”–it will take away the pilgrim’s staff and replace it with a crown.
Third, we would gain unshakable optimism and hope. I share the same concerns that many American Christians have about the direction of our government and popular culture. But I think that we face a danger as great as persecution and societal decay: I fear that evangelicals are in danger of bitterness and despair. Could it be that we have forgotten that this world is not our home?
The Puritans conquered by the blood of the Lamb. Some scholars might say that the Puritans ultimately lost every political and ecclesiastical battle in which they engaged, but I believe that they triumphed in the spiritual battle for the kingdom, and genuine believers still today are more than overcomers in Christ. John Owen said, “Though our persons fall, our cause shall be as truly, certainly, and infallibly victorious, as that Christ sits at the right hand of God.” Christ has won the victory, He will bring His kingdom, and all His called and chosen people will share in it (Rev. 17:14).
Ultimately, the pilgrim mentality is not about just a place but a person. Christians should see all their earthly lives as a journey to see the face of God. My dad prayed hundreds of times with us in family worship, “Lord, let our lives be primarily a preparation to meet Thee in the righteousness and peace of Christ.” That’s the prayer and God-centered desire of a pilgrim.
If you are reading along with us, be sure to read Chapter 53 (“The Puritans on Walking Godly in the Home”) by next Thursday. Then simply check in here to see what Dr. Beeke has to say about it.
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.