A comprehensive assessment of A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life by Joel Beeke and Mark Jones is something akin to sharing one’s thoughts or emotions while gazing at the Grand Canyon, Niagara Falls, the Statue of Liberty, or the Lincoln Memorial. This magnum opus is like oxygen for the barren soul, light for a blind man, a symphony for a deaf man, and a Super Bowl ring for a lame man.
A Puritan Theology is exactly what it suggests. The authors meticulously walk readers through each branch of systematic theology and discuss the typical view that was embraced by the Puritans. Where the Puritans disagree, the authors are careful to represent each side with graciousness. The book is nothing to trifle with. It is a veritable tome that just falls short of 1,000 pages. But readers should not be intimidated by the sheer volume; rather they should make their way through this valuable book, noting key insights and marking Puritan writers they were previously unfamiliar with.
While the entire book is worthy of a careful read, several chapters stand out as especially significant. I enjoyed Chapter 4 – Stephen Charnock on the Attributes of God, Chapter 5 – The Puritans on the Trinity, Chapter 6 – John Owen on Communion with the Triune God, Chapter 10 – The Puritans on Providence, and Chapter 44 – John Bunyan’s Preaching to the Heart. A few additional chapters are worth examining in some detail.
Chapter 26 – The Puritans on Understanding and Using God’s Promises
Beeke and Jones’ remark, “The promises are the pathways where Christ meets the soul.” It is critical to have a correct understanding of God’s promises. Additionally, it is important to distinguish between different kinds of promises. For instance, “Absolute promises make known a certain and sovereign purpose, while conditional promises reveal what God will do if the fulfillment of those promises glorifies Him and is best for His people.”
Christians must make right use of God’s promises. The Puritan Andrew Gray is cited in this regard and notes ten specific ways to make right use of God’s promises:
1. Believing the promises greatly promotes the difficult work of mortification.
2. Believing the promises helps a Christian in the spiritual and heavenly performance of prayer.
3. Believing the promises upholds a Christian afflicted by spiritual desertions and temptations.
4. Believing fosters patience and submission in the midst of the saddest afflictions.
5. Believing helps a Christian distance himself from the world and live more as a pilgrim on earth.
6. Believing is the mother of much spiritual joy and divine consolation and helps a Christian to express praise.
7. Believing is a notable means to attain spiritual life.
8. Believing raises a Christian’s esteem of the thing promised.
9. Belief is the door through which the accomplishment of the promise enters.
10. Believing secures the advantages mentioned in 2 Peter 1:4: we are brought to the blessed conformity with God that we lost in the fall, and we put off the ugly defilements that are Satan’s images on our souls because of the fall.
The authors point to the Puritans who urged their readers to pray the promises of God which involve submission to the will and way of God.
Chapters 42 and 43 – The Puritans on Preaching
My two favorite chapters in this work focused on the biblical mandate of preaching God’s Word. The Puritans, the authors note, “had a profound sense that God built His church primarily by the instrument of preaching,” an appropriate place to begin, given the reluctance of so many men to preach strong, dogmatic, theologically-informed, expository sermons. “The Puritans were earnest preachers who made it their aim to please God rather than people.”
The authors point to the power of Puritan preaching who “preached out of a biblical framework to address the mind, the conscience, and the heart.” Beeke and Jones add, “The Puritans thus reasoned with sinners through plain preaching, using biblical logic to persuade each listener that because of the value and purpose of life as well as the certainty of death and eternity, it was foolish not to seek and serve God … The Puritans understood that a mindless Christianity fosters a spineless Christianity.
There is no doubt that the Puritans aimed straight for the mind – but never to the exclusion of the heart: “Puritan preaching wooed the heart passionately … The Puritans used compelling preaching, personal pleading, earnest praying, biblical reasoning, solemn warning, joyful living – any means they could – to turn sinners from the road of destruction and to God via the mind, the conscience, and the heart – in that order.”
The Puritans were convinced that preaching must by definition, be doctrinal preaching: “The Puritans believed that to live well, people must know doctrine.” J.I. Packer concurs: “Doctrinal preaching certainly bores the hypocrites, but it is only doctrinal preaching that will save Christ’s sheep. The preacher’s job is to proclaim the faith, not to provide entertainment for unbelievers.”
The Puritans simply believed that preaching was the primary way to nourish the flock of God. John Owen writes, “The first and principal duty of a pastor is to feed the flock by diligent preaching of the Word.” Beeke and Jones offer a challenge to readers: “It is not enough just to read the Puritans. We need the authentic, biblical, intelligent piety of the Puritans in our hearts, our lives, our sermons, and our churches.”
The Puritan approach to the pulpit is a powerful antidote to the sappy preaching that is so prevalent, especially in American pulpits. It is a vivid reminder that preaching stands at the center of God’s purposes for the church.
Chapter 52 – Puritan Theology Shaped by a Pilgrim Mentality
J.I. Packer notes, “Puritans saw themselves as God’s pilgrims traveling home, God’s warriors battling against the world, the flesh, and the devil; and God’s servants under orders to do all the good they could as they went along.” The authors picks up on these pilgrim portrait by showing how the Puritans lived the Christian life in practical terms. First, they had a biblical outlook. Thomas Watson (my favorite Puritan) and John Cotton are given as examples of men who sought to live their lives in a biblical framework.
Second, they had a pietist outlook – that is to say, they feared the Lord. Beeke and Jones continue, “The genius of genuine Reformed piety is that it marries theology and piety so that head, heart, and hand motivate one another to live for God’s glory and our neighbor’s well-being.”
Third, they had a churchly outlook. The authors explain, “We can learn much from the Puritans, especially when so many churches today give scant attention to purity in worship and put all their emphasis on what pleases people rather than God. The Puritans did the opposite. Their goal was to please God through holy worship. The question was never, ‘What do I want in worship?’ but always, ‘What does God want in worship?'”
Fourth, they had a warfaring outlook. There was a battleground mentality that the Puritans embraced, striving always to battle “the triple-headed enemy” by the power of the Spirit, through the instrumentality of God’s Word. The authors reflect the mentality of the typical Puritan: “The Christian fights against the devil, the world, and his old nature by looking to Jesus and using the armor of His provision to stay upright as he progresses from this world to the next.”
The Puritans were indeed on a spiritual pilgrimage. In the final analysis, the authors note: “They can teach us, as no other group of writers in church history, how to live a disciplined life to God’s glory without falling into dead orthodoxy or deadly legalism.”
A Puritan Theology is a labor of love that should be cherished by the church for years to come. It should be read for helpful theological insight. It should be read devotionally. The contents are bound to equip, encourage, and rebuke. For me personally, the Puritans have been a deep source of encouragement, especially concerning the nature of God, the promises of God, the sovereignty of God, the lordship of Christ, sanctification, and the ministry of the Holy Spirit. Of course, no one surpasses the courage demonstrated by the Puritans as they sought to faithfully live the Christian life in the power of the Spirit.
It is not uncommon for people in our generation to marginalize and malign the Puritans. Even more disturbing, it is not unusual to find people who caricature the Puritans or assign them false motives. I know of one personally who accused the Puritans of becoming Unitarians! Much to the contrary, the Puritans were a godly lot who battled sin and believed the promises of God, forever faithful on their Christian pilgrimage. Oh, that we would learn the lesson of church history well and seek to emulate the Puritans. May their love of Christ and his gospel permeate our hearts and minds. May their hatred of sin enter the area of our lives. May their disdain for the triple-headed monster – the world, the flesh, and the devil be weaved into the fabric of our worldviews. And may their passion for God’s Word and holiness become a part of the warp and woof of our lives.