The Puritans: Models for Godly Living

“What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin so that grace may abound? 2By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?”[1] In the tableau Christian history, the Puritans shine brightly as a movement that grasped what it means to live godly lives and to embody the truth of this passage. Writing strongly against heresies like Antinomianism[2]—which took the doctrine of Justification by faith to places it does not lead, believing that since we are justified by faith and not works we can ignore the law and do whatever we want—the Puritans championed holiness in living and attempted to have lifestyles that embodied the singular purpose of honouring God in everything they did.[3] The Puritans, a reforming movement from England, were monumental theologians and godly pastors who had a profound grasp of the Christian life. They have been highly influential for those who have studied them and they have a lot to teach the Church today. To learn from the Puritans, to lay hold of what they have to teach us, we first must know who they were, then look at what makes them special, and finally examine how they speak to our lives today.

 

In recent history those who have heard of the Puritans have pictured them as prudes who were against all fun and who were hypocrites. A quote by a man named Henry Mencken sums up the common conception of the puritans quite well; “Puritanism is simply the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.”[4] Is this an accurate description of the Puritans, is this truly who they were?

The Puritans were not a denominational movement and they did not have distinctive leader; they were a mixed group of English reformers in the 16th and 17th centuries[5] that brought the protestant reformation to England in a way that had not been achieved before their time. At its heart Puritanism was a movement that fought for spiritual revival, church reform, evangelism, and change in the clergy of England; “it was a world-view, a total Christian philosophy, in intellectual terms a Protestantised and updated medievalism, and in terms of spirituality a reformed monasticism outside the cloister and away from monkish vows.”[6] Puritanism was a movement made up of clergy and lay men that shared core values, but differed on issues such as church government; some of the puritans were Presbyterians, some were Congregationalists, and some were Episcopalians.[7] For the influence they have had in American and English history, the Puritans were largely unsuccessful in achieving their goals. While some desired to separate from the Church of England,[8] many wanted to work from within the church and establish a state church that was more God centered and less political. They wanted to institute effective discipline in the church, reform the church’s worship, and see the people of England engaging in real faith.[9] They set out with grand ambitions, but in the end succeeded in achieving almost none of their goals; they lost almost every public battle they faced and they failed to cause significant reform in the Church of England and the communities of the lay Englishmen.[10] Even the name “Puritan” was a derogatory term assigned to them by the High Anglican Church.[11]

Despite the fact that the Puritans lost most of their political battles and did not achieve many of their goals, they still had an impact on the lay people of England—capturing the support of “many lawyers, merchants, and country gentry”[12]—as well as having a continuing impact today. Why have the Puritans, despite failing the goals they set out to achieve, managed to be influential over the past few hundred years?

 

The Puritans were giants of men, passionate pastors and brilliant theologians who produced some of the greatest works of doctrinal writing in the history of the church. J.I. Packer compares them as a whole to the towering redwood trees of California, soaring high above their peers and us today.[13] They shared together strong Calvinistic theology and had a profound understanding of sanctification and the need for Christians to pursue holiness in their lives. Their writings, especially John Owen’s grand treatise on limited atonement The Death of Death in the Death of Christ, have provided much fodder for contemporary Calvinist movements, but more significantly their ideas of sanctification and Christian devotion stand out among their works. While they produced many theological works, the Puritans were not stoic academics separated from real life. They were preachers before they were theologians and they placed a huge emphasis on the application of Christian doctrine to real life, to the Christian walk.[14]

The Puritan understanding of sanctification was that pursuing sanctification is absolutely necessary for the Christian walk. Sanctification for the Puritans involved a twofold strategy; pursuing holiness by pursuing God and mortifying sin.[15] By pursuing God and his glory, by finding happiness in him, the allure of the world would fade away and holiness would become more and more the life’s pursuit. Jonathan Edwards—an American theologian and philosopher who, while not being a direct part of the puritan movement, is often considered a puritan because of their influence on him—in an essay on The Christian Pilgrim wrote of the eternal rewards of heaven in contrast with the fading glory of this world and exhorted his readers to;

Labour to obtain such a disposition of mind that you my choose heaven for your inheritance and home; and may earnestly long for it, and be willing to change this world, and all its enjoyments, for heaven. Labour to have your heart taken up so much about heaven, and heavenly enjoyments, as that you may rejoice when God calls you to leave your best earthly friends and comforts for heaven, there to enjoy God and Christ. Be persuaded to travel in the way that leads to heaven; viz. in holiness, self-denial, mortification, obedience to all the commands of God, following Christ’s example; in a way of heavenly life, or imitation of the saints and angels in heaven.[16]

The Puritan’s lived a life that we would classify as holistic; they aimed to do everything to the glory of God, to honour God in every aspect of their life. They did not dichotomize life into the “sacred” and the “secular,” into the holy and profane; they viewed the whole of life as being lived to the glory of the God.[17]

The other aspect of the Puritan pursuit of sanctification is mortification. Mortification is the putting to death of sin, in Romans 8:13 we read “For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death [“do mortify”, KJV] the deeds of the body, you will live.” This idea of mortifying sin was prominent in Puritan thinking. John Owen’s On the Mortification of Sin remains an influential treatise on the subject, in this work he writes; “be killing sin or it will be killing you.”[18] Owen believed that we need to pursue the killing of sin, we couldn’t just beat it back and leave it alive; “He that is appointed to kill an enemy, if he leave striking before the other ceases living, does but half his work.”[19] Our work must be to fight sin to the death in all its expressions in our lives. This striving for holiness and pursuit of sanctification gave their ministry a distinctive edge of piety that led to the modern picture of the Puritans as legalists, but this is far from the truth.

The Puritans in their view of devotion and the Christian life found a delicate balance between the excess and debauchery of Antinomianism and the opposite but equally dangerous view of legalism.[20] The Puritans did not want to live—as many professing Christians do today—as close to the world as possible, instead they desired to be as godly as possible in their lives.[21] They did not desire to live like this for the sake of earning their salvation, as the legalist did, but instead they did this out of their desire to express their sonship in God and their eternal destiny in Christ.[22] They believed in living a life of discipline as their act of devotion; this meant giving up the safety and security of conforming to the ways of those around them and pursuing reform in their lives and in the greater world around them. In the pursuit of discipline and holiness the Puritans emphasized the law as having a practical use in the believer’s life; it could direct believer’s conduct and restrain sin.[23] Discipline was the puritan’s act of devotion and pilgrimage was the way they viewed the Christian life; it was both a war with spiritual conflict and a pilgrimage towards the final destination of heaven.[24] The previously mentioned essay by Edwards on The Christian Pilgrim illustrates this, but probably the greatest work that display’s the idea of a pilgrim’s life is John Bunyan’s famous The Pilgrim’s Progress. This work in two parts reflects the Christian life through a man named Christian and his wife Christiana on a pilgrimage to the “Celestial City.” The first part of the book reflects the trials and often terrifying struggle of the Christian life and the second reflects the calm and peace that also accompanies the life of a Christian (these two parts reflect two stages of Bunyan’s life as he was in prison and then moved on from prison to preaching ministry and peace at the end of his life).[25]

The writings of the Puritan’s are treasure troves of penetrating insights from Scripture and of profound applications that arose as the Puritan’s brought the Scripture to bear on the human experience. While the Puritans have much to say to various areas of Church life, the specific areas of devotion, life, and sanctification provide much application for life today.

 

How often do those in our churches ride the border between the world and God’s standard of holiness; how often do we try to get away with as much as possible, pushing the boundaries until sometimes the Christian becomes indistinguishable from the unbeliever? The Puritan’s offer a challenge to this aspect of life; instead of trying to be as dark as possible while still being a light, how would it look if the church as a whole pursued being the brightest city on a hill as possible (Matt 5:14)? How would it look if the Church really tried to be holy as God is holy (1 Peter 1:14-16)? This is not a call for legalism, for we are saved by grace through faith alone (Romans 4:4-5); but this is a call for obedience. The Puritans have much to teach us in this area; how we can be successful in killing sin so that it is not killing us, and how we can pursue God as the source of our happiness. It was the puritans who were a huge part of the Westminster catechism and the Westminster confession of faith; the first question of this catechism was “what is the chief and highest end of man?” Their answer was that the chief end of man is to glorify God and to fully enjoy Him forever.[26] The idea that the end of man is to enjoy God forever would be foreign to many Christians and unbelievers, but this is firmly grounded in Scriptural truth. How much would the attitude of those in the Church change if they realized that pursuing God does not mean forgoing happiness for a kill-joy life, but actually pursuing the highest heights of happiness we can have in this life and the life hereafter? The things that Owen and other Puritan writers have to say on the nature of sin,[27] and the ways to truly mortify it, could give hope to the generations entrenched in sin and struggling for victory. Even though they lived more than 300 years ago, the Puritans have many profound things to teach us about God’s word and His ways of working with man.

 

While they were by no means perfect, the Puritan’s shone as beacons of light piercing the darkness of their time; a time after the reformation where the church was still entrapped by the dangerous tendrils of Catholicism and in many other areas captured by lifeless scholasticism. Their light, the things that God did through them and revealed to them so as to glorify His mighty name, still shines forth into our world today through those they have influenced and their works which are still read. We have much to learn from these saints from a bygone age. Though it is often tedious reading to traverse hundreds of years of a language barrier, the work of the Puritans is accessible today and promises to teach us much about God and what He has taught His servants if only we will undertake the task of plumbing the depths of what He has shown them.


Endnotes

[1] Romans 6:1-2. All verses are from the ESV unless otherwise stated; Crossway Bibles, ESV Study Bible: English Standard Version, ESV text ed (Wheaton, Ill: Crossway Bibles, 2008).

[2] Antinomian means to be against law.

[3] J. I. Packer, A Quest For Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life, 1st U.S. ed (Wheaton, Ill: Crossway Books, 1990), 23.

[4] Brad Copp, “The Puritans” (Class Lecture, Pacific Life Bible College, Surrey, BC, March 7, 2013).

[5] Bruce L. Shelley, Church History in Plain Language, Updated 2nd ed (Dallas, Tex: Word Pub, 1995), 291.

[6] Packer, A Quest for Godliness, 28.

[7] Earle Edwin Cairns, Christianity Through the Centuries: a History of the Christian Church, Rev. and enl. ed., 2d ed (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Pub. House, 1981), 335, 337.

[8] Morton Dexter and John Browne, “Puritans, Puritanism,” ed. Samuel Macauley Jackson, The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge (Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1911), 368–369.

[9] Packer, A Quest for Godliness, 28.

[10] Ibid., 23.

[11] Edward E Hindson, Introduction to Puritan theology : a reader (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1980), 20.

[12] Cairns, Christianity Through the Centuries, 335.

[13] Packer, A Quest for Godliness, 11, 22.

[14] Hindson, Introduction to Puritan theology, 20–21.

[15] Copp, “The Puritans.”

[16] Jonathan Edwards, The Christian Pilgrim in Jonathan Edwards, The Works of Jonathan Edwards, ed. Edward Hickman, vol. 2 (Carlisle, Pennsylvania: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1974), 246.

[17] Packer, A Quest for Godliness, 23–24.

[18] John Owen, Overcoming Sin & Temptation (Wheaton, Ill: Crossway Books, 2006), 50.

[19] Ibid., 51.

[20] Copp, “The Puritans.”

[21] Hindson, Introduction to Puritan theology, 22.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Copp, “The Puritans.”

[25] John Bunyan, The pilgrim’s progress : from this world to that which is to come, delivered under the similitude of a dream (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 2004), xii.

[26] “The Westminster Larger Catechism,” July 2, 1648, Question 1, http://puritanseminary.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/Larger_Catechism.pdf.

[27] See John Owen’s On Indwelling Sin and On Sin and Temptation in Owen, Overcoming Sin & Temptation.


Bibliography

Bunyan, John. The pilgrim’s progress : from this world to that which is to come, delivered under the similitude of a dream. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 2004.

Cairns, Earle Edwin. Christianity Through the Centuries: a History of the Christian Church. Rev. and enl. ed., 2d ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Pub. House, 1981.

Copp, Brad. “The Puritans.” Class Lecture, Pacific Life Bible College, Surrey, BC, March 7, 2013.

Crossway Bibles. ESV Study Bible: English Standard Version. ESV text ed. Wheaton, Ill: Crossway Bibles, 2008.

Dexter, Morton, and John Browne. “Puritans, Puritanism.” Edited by Samuel Macauley Jackson. The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge. Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1911.

Edwards Jonathan, The Christian Pilgrim, in Edwards, Jonathan. The Works of Jonathan Edwards. Edited by Edward Hickman. Vol. 2. 2 vols. Carlisle, Pennsylvania: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1974.

Hindson, Edward E. Introduction to Puritan theology : a reader. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1980.

Owen, John, On The Mortification of Sin, in Owen, John. Overcoming Sin & Temptation. Wheaton, Ill: Crossway Books, 2006.

Packer, J. I. A Quest For Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life. 1st U.S. ed. Wheaton, Ill: Crossway Books, 1990.

Shelley, Bruce L. Church History in Plain Language. Updated 2nd ed. Dallas, Tex: Word Pub, 1995.

“The Westminster Larger Catechism,” July 2, 1648. http://puritanseminary.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/Larger_Catechism.pdf.

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