Category Archives: Puritanism

Read the Puritans, Love the Puritans

Watson All Things

Every now and then I still run into prejudice against the Puritans amongst Reformed folk.  I deeply lament this.  Hundreds of years later, there is still much of value that can be gleaned from these Reformed giants of old.

I was introduced to the Puritans while in university.  An online friend from South Africa moved to Edmonton to study.  He had a nearly complete collection of the Puritan Paperbacks published by Banner of Truth.  He got me hooked.  My copy of Thomas Watson’s classic All Things for Good was a gift from this brother — still a treasured gift and one of my favourite books.

We discussed theology and the Puritans endlessly in those days.  We talked about the prejudices that many people have against the Puritans.  He pointed me to two books that dispel the myths surrounding these men.  These books are still worthwhile and I want to recommend them to those readers who are willing to have an open mind.

The first is Leland Ryken’s volume, Worldly Saints: The Puritans As They Really Were.  This book takes a balanced look at Puritanism.  Ryken takes apart the caricatures that have often been painted — for instance, he has an entire chapter on marriage and sex.  Be ready to rethink the label “Puritan” when it comes to those subjects!  The book tackles the Puritan approach to a number of subjects and then concludes with two summary chapters.  One deals with some of the things the Puritans did wrong, the other with what they did right.

The other volume I want to recommend as an introduction to the Puritans is J. I. Packer’s A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life.  This is a more theological book, but with a focus on how theology bears on living as a Christian.  This was one of the strengths of many Puritans.  They understood that doctrine was not a game theologians play, but the foundation and root of a God-pleasing existence.  Packer’s book does touch on many Puritan figures, but he spends the most time with John Owen.  If you need to be convinced to read the Puritans, Packer presents a compelling case.

I love the Puritans and have for many years.  I get a lot of spiritual nourishment from reading their works.  That said, not all Puritans are equal.  Not all Puritan works are of equal value.  Some, like Thomas Watson, were dynamic preachers and communicators.  Because of his use of vivid word pictures, his writing has a timeless quality.  Others were excessively verbose, at times convoluted, and sometimes brought methods that belonged in the academy into the pulpit.  However, they were Reformed, many effectively combined emphases on head and heart, they all understood the gospel, and they believed that an understanding of the amazing grace of God in Christ would compel one to strive for holiness.   One can find valid reasons to criticize some of the Puritans in certain times for this or that.  However, the same can be said for Reformed figures of any era or background.  No matter who we’re reading, we must always chew the meat and spit out the gristle and fat.  If you begin with Ryken and Packer, you’ll quickly figure out where to find some of the best cuts.

Friends You Should Meet (2) — Thomas Watson

It’s not a secret that I love books.  Here in my study I often feel like I’m surrounded by good friends.  In this series of posts, I’d like to introduce you to some of my friends, both the old ones from centuries ago and the more recent ones.  I’ll describe their strengths and, where necessary, their weaknesses.  The aim is to help you find good friends for yourself — in other words, to find edifying reading that will give you a better understanding of the Christian faith, a better grasp of the gospel, and a deeper love for Christ.

Today we’re going to go back a few years to my favourite Puritan author, Thomas Watson.  Unfortunately, the word “Puritan” will turn some people off right away.  If you’ve kept reading up to this point, I applaud your open-mindedness and willingness to give these brothers a chance.  We need to set aside our prejudices and what we may have heard about the Puritans and actually go and check them out for ourselves.  You may be pleasantly surprised!

Thomas Watson was an English Puritan, probably born in Yorkshire in 1620.  Following studies at Cambridge, he spent sixteen years at St. Stephens, Walbrook, London.  A Presbyterian, he was forcibly removed from his pastorate in 1662 when the Act of Uniformity was brought into law.  He preached for private audiences for some years following.  In 1672, however, he was again officially permitted by the authorities to preach and did so at Crosby Hall, Bishopsgate.  In 1680, his health began to decline and he was no longer able to preach.  He died in 1686.

Why is Thomas Watson important? Watson is easily the most readable of the Puritans.  Even when his works are not updated in any way, they are remarkably lucid for being nearly four centuries old.  What accounts for Watson’s readability?  Primarily his use of word pictures.  He knew how to communicate deep truths with vivid language.  Moreover, Watson is also important because he combined those communication skills with a deep love for the gospel and a passionate commitment to Christ.  In their helpful intro to the Puritans (Meet the Puritans), Joel Beeke and Randall Pederson remark:  “Watson’s depth of doctrine, clarity of expression, warmth of spirituality, love of application, and gift of illustration enhanced his reputation as a preacher and writer.”

Where do I start? Unfortunately, I’m not aware of any book-length biographies of Thomas Watson.  The best place to start reading Watson for yourself is his classic All Things For Good in the Puritan Paperbacks series published by Banner of Truth.  This is an exposition of Romans 8:28.  Very few modern writers touch on the subject of repentance.  Another Puritan Paperback by Watson tackles this subject:  The Doctrine of Repentance.  If, like me, you’re called to regularly preach on the Ten Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer, then you need to have Watson’s books on these (also published by Banner of Truth).  These are Watson’s sermons on the Westminster Shorter Catechism.  Next, there is a new compilation of Watson’s writings, arranged in a 365-day devotional format.  Glorifying God: A Yearlong Collection of Classic Devotional Writings is adapted from Watson’s Body of Divinity.  My wife and I are using it for daily devotions together and it’s a beautiful and edifying book.  Finally, one of the best books about Thomas Watson is Jack Hughes, Expository Preaching with Word Pictures, With Illustrations from the Sermons of Thomas Watson.  That volume is one of the most influential and important books I’ve read on preaching.

What to look out for? I would be pleased if all God’s people would read Thomas Watson, ignoring 95% of everything else written in the last four centuries.  Spurgeon used to say that if you would cut a Puritan, he would bleed “bibline.”  Watson is nothing if not possessed by the Bible.  Do I really have any cautions about him?  Certainly none that readily spring to mind.  He was an orthodox, confessional Reformed pastor through and through.

Let me conclude with a sample from the devotion my wife and I read together this morning:

The Scriptures appear to be the Word of God by the matter contained in them.  The mystery of Scripture is so abstruse and profound that no man or angel could have known it had it not been divinely revealed.  That eternity should be born; that He who thunders in the heavens should cry in the cradle; that He who rules the stars should suck the breasts; that the Prince of Life should die; that the Lord of Glory should be put to shame; that sin should be punished to the full, yet pardoned to the full.  Who could ever have conceived such a mystery had not the Scripture revealed it to us?  (Glorifying God, devotion for Feb. 15)

The Art of Prophesying

What does a pastor (or aspiring pastor) read for personal edification?  Well, if you follow the advice of C. S. Lewis, you’ll be making sure that at least some of your edifying reading comes from older writers.  Most of my favourite older writers are Puritans.  Those godly Reformed men blended great learning with passion and commitment to Christ.  My friend Chris Gordon is big on William Perkins (1558-1602), often regarded as the first of the English Puritans.  So last week I was at Reformed Book Services in nearby Brantford and I picked up Perkin’s The Art of Prophesying.  It’s published in the Puritan Paperbacks series put out by Banner of Truth and includes another little work by Perkins, The Calling of the Ministry.  This edition has been revised by Sinclair Ferguson and is very readableThe Art of Prophesying is a little homiletics handbook.  The Calling of the Ministry features expositions of two passages (Job 33:23-24 and Isaiah 6:5-9) with an eye to the bearing of these passages on pastoral ministry.  This is an excellent little book — unfortunately, I don’t think the text of the book is available online.  Of course, you can purchase it from the usual sorts of online retailers.

Glorifying God

The last two weeks I’ve had a seminary student working with me as part of the Pastoral Training Program.  I’ve enjoyed Tim’s company and we’ve had some great discussions.  Yesterday we took a field trip to Reformed Book Services in Brantford.  One of the books that I picked up was Glorifying God: A Yearlong Collection of Classic Devotional Writings. This is a compilation of devotions from Thomas Watson’s Body of Divinity.  It’s beautiful, inside and out.  I have a deep appreciation for Watson and have learned much from him as a Christian and as a preacher.  So did Charles Spurgeon.  This is what he said about him:

Watson was one of the most concise, racy, illustrative, and suggestive of those eminent divines who made the Puritan age the Augustan period of evangelical literature.  There is a happy union of sound doctrine, heart-searching experience and practical wisdom throughout all his works…His writings are his best memorial; perhaps he needed no other, and therefore providence forbade the superfluity.

If you’re looking for an accessible introduction to the Puritans, pick up anything by Thomas Watson. All Things for Good is a great place to start.

BTW, we’re still waiting for the Acts of the last two days of Synod.  I think we’ll probably be waiting until next week for them.

Calvin and the Regulative Principle of Worship

There are those, especially in continental Reformed circles, who argue that the regulative principle of worship (we must worship God in no other manner than that which is commanded in his Word) is a Presbyterian innovation or distinctive.  I have never been persuaded of this.  W. Robert Godfrey is not persuaded either and he says as much in his recent John Calvin: Pilgrim and Pastor.  He noted that Calvin’s approach to worship would later be known as the regulative principle.  He gives a lengthy quote from Calvin’s On the Necessity of Reforming the Church to back up this assertion.  But footnote 24 is what really caught my attention:

Attempts have been made at times to argue that the regulative principle is a Puritan invention foreign to the thought of Calvin.  Such a division cannot be maintained.  It is true that Calvin’s application of the principle was not always in harmony with some Puritan applications, but Puritans differed among themselves on the application of the principle.  This crucial distinction between principle and application is missed in Ralph J. Gore Jr., “The Pursuit of Plainness: Rethinking the Puritan Regulative Principle of Worship,” PhD dissertation, Westminster Theological Seminary, 1988, and therefore the relationship between Calvin and the Puritans on this point is fundamentally misunderstood.  (78)

I love good footnotes and this one definitely qualifies.  Although the name is never used (it didn’t appear until the twentieth century), Calvin definitely was in line with the RPW.  I have more proof for this in my booklet, The Whole Manner of Worship: Worship and the Sufficiency of Scripture in Belgic Confession Article 7.  The RPW is found with Calvin, in the Belgic Confession, and also in Lord’s Day 35 of the Heidelberg Catechism.