Reading the Puritans

What do you think when you hear the word “Puritan?”  Do you think of a dour, joyless, legalistic man (or woman), dressed in black and void of all happiness and pleasure?  Or do you think of a man (or woman) who loves God, his family, his neighbor, and does everything to the glory of God?  So many of us automatically think of the Puritans as being like the first description whereas, in reality, they more often matched the second description.  J.I. Packer’s description gives us a tiny glimpse of the Puritan lifestyle:

“As their Christianity was all-embracing, so their living was all of a piece….There was for them no disjunction between sacred and secular; all creation, so far as they were concerned, was sacred, and all activities, of whatever kind, must be sanctified, that is, done to the glory of God.  So, in their heavenly-minded ardour, the Puritans became men and women of order, matter-of-fact and down-to-earth, prayerful, purposeful, practical.  Seeing life whole, they integrated contemplation with action, worship with work, labour with rest, love of God with love of neighbour and of self,  personal with social identity, and the wide spectrum of relational responsibilities with each other, in a thoroughly conscientious and thought-out way.”

That description doesn’t strike me as miserable or passionless but instead describes a good way of living.

Yesterday I was reading an interesting article by Rosaria Butterfield, entitled You Are What You Read.  In the article, she says,

Worldview matters. And if we don’t reach back before the 19th century, back to the Bible itself, the Westminster divines, and the Puritans, we will limp along, defeated. Yes, the Holy Spirit gives you a heart of flesh and the mind to understand and love the Lord and his Word. But without good reading practices even this redeemed heart grows flabby, weak, shaky, and ill. You cannot lose your salvation, but you can lose everything else.

Enter John Owen. Thomas Watson. Richard Baxter. Thomas Brooks. Jeremiah Burroughs. William Gurnall. The Puritans. They didn’t live in a world more pure than ours, but they helped create one that valued biblical literacy. Owen’s work on indwelling sin is the most liberating balm to someone who feels owned by sexual sin. You are what (and how) you read. J. C. Ryle said it takes the whole Bible to make a whole Christian. Why does sin lurk in the minds of believers as a law, demanding to be obeyed? How do we have victory if sin’s tentacles go so deep, if Satan knows our names and addresses? We stand on the ordinary means of grace: Scripture reading, prayer, worship, and the sacraments. We embrace the covenant of church membership for real accountability and community, knowing that left to our own devices we’ll either be led astray or become a danger to those we love most. We read our Bibles daily and in great chunks. We surround ourselves with a great cloud of witnesses who don’t fall prey to the same worldview snares we and our post-19th century cohorts do.

She then goes on to say that we “honor God with our reading diligence” and asks what do we think would happen if we replaced even part of the time we spend watching TV and surfing the net with reading the Bible and Puritan writings.

I know that in the past, when I have spent time reading Scripture and the older books, written by great men and women of God, my walk with the Lord has improved, my faith has deepened, and my mortification of sin has increased.

Almost twenty years ago, I picked up a book by J.I. Packer, A Quest for Godliness.   Before reading that book, I had not had a high opinion of the Puritans and read very little of their writings.  As I read that book in my pursuit of the Lord and living a life that is pleasing to Him, I discovered an entire group of people who had the same goals as I did: to love God and live for His glory.  After finishing the book, I began to seek out books by John Owen, Elizabeth Prentiss, Jonathan Edwards, and others.  In those pre-internet days, books by the Puritans weren’t always easy to find but those I did find were like precious jewels.  They aren’t always easy to read and oftentimes I had to read a page, walk away and meditate on it for a few days, and then come back for more.

We all grew up hearing, “you are what you eat.”  Just as we need to eat nutritious food for our bodies, we need to take in nutritious thoughts for our minds and souls.  After Scripture itself, there are few books that are more solid and edifying than those written by the great Puritan writers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries:  John Owen’s Mortification of Sin, Jonathan Edwards’s Religious Affections, Thomas Brooks’s Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices, Jeremiah Burroughs’s The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment, and many more.  

Here’s another article on reasons to read the Puritans from Ligonier Ministries.

As I’ve mentioned in a couple of Wednesdays with Words, I’m slowly reading John Flavel’s The Mystery of Providence.  If you’ve never read a book by a Puritan writer, I encourage you to try one.  If it’s been a while since the last time you picked up a Puritan book, try another one.  If you are a regular reader of the Puritans, keep up the good work. And please do share what you are reading in the comments.  The only thing better than reading a book by a Puritan writer is finding others reading the same books and discussing how the Lord is speaking to them through their reading. 

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