Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The Manliness of Puritanism

*The following is excerpted from J. I. Packer's A Quest for Godliness, as found here:

Anyone who knows anything at all about Puritan Christianity knows that at its best it had a vigour, a manliness, and a depth which modern evangelical piety largely lacks. This is because Puritanism was essentially an experimental faith, a religion of ‘heart-work’, a sustained practice of seeking the face of God, in a way that our own Christianity too often is not. The Puritans were manlier Christians just because they were godlier Christians. It is worth noting three particular points of contrast between them and ourselves.

First, we cannot but conclude that whereas to the Puritans communion with God was a great thing, to evangelicals today it is a comparatively small thing. The Puritans were concerned about communion with God in a way that we are not. The measure of our unconcern is the little that we say about it. When Christians meet, they talk to each other about their Christian work and Christian interests, their Christian acquaintances, the state of the churches, and the problems of theology—but rarely of their daily experience of God. Modern Christian books and magazines contain much about Christian doctrine, Christian standards, problems of Christian conduct, techniques of Christian service—but little about the inner realities of fellowship with God. Our sermons contain much sound doctrine—but little relating to the converse between the soul and the Saviour. We do not spend much time, alone or together, in dwelling on the wonder of the fact that God and sinners have communion at all; no, we just take that for granted, and give our minds to other matters. Thus we make it plain that communion with God is a small thing to us. But how different were the Puritans! The whole aim of their ‘practical and experimental’ preaching and writing was to explore the reaches of the doctrine and practice of man’s communion with God. In private they talked freely of their experiences of God, for they had deep experiences to talk about, like the ‘three or four poor women sitting at a door in the sun’ whom Bunyan met at Bedford:

Their talk was about a new birth, the work of God on their hearts, also how they were convinced of their miserable state by nature; they talked how God had visited their souls with his love in the Lord Jesus, and with what words and promises they had been refreshed, comforted, and supported against the temptations of the devil. Moreover, they reasoned of the suggestions and temptations of Satan in particular; and told each other by which they had been afflicted, and how they were borne up under his assaults. . . . And methought they spake as if joy did make them speak. . .

And the Puritans never ceased to feel a sense of awe and wonder that access to God in peace and friendship was possible for them at all. ‘Truly for sinners to have fellowship with God, the infinitely holy God, is an astonishing dispensation,’ wrote Owen, and Puritan hearts thrilled again and again at the wonder of God’s ‘astonishing’ grace. To them it was the most marvellous thing in the world. Yet we in our day, much as we love to sing ‘Amazing Grace’ (I suppose, because we like the tune), are not inwardly amazed by grace as the Puritans were; it does not startle us that the holy Creator should receive sinners into his company; rather, we take it for granted! ‘God will forgive; that’s his job’ was the final scoff with which the French cynic went to meet his Maker. ‘God will receive; that his job’ seems to be our bland assumption today. Surely something is wrong here.

Then, second, we observe that whereas the experimental piety of the Puritans was natural and unselfconscious, because it was so utterly God-centred, our own (such as it is) is too often artificial and boastful, because it is so largely concerned with ourselves. Our interest focuses on religious experience, as such, and on man’s quest for God, whereas the Puritans were concerned with the God of whom men have experience, and in the manner of his dealings with those whom he draws to himself. The difference of interest comes out clearly when we compare Puritan spiritual autobiography—Grace Abounding, say, or Baxter’s autobiography, or the memoirs of Fraser of Brea—with similar works our own day. In modern spiritual autobiography, the hero and chief actor is usually the writer himself; he is the centre of interest, and God comes in only as a part of his story. His theme is in effect ‘I—and God’. But in Puritan autobiography, God is at the centre throughout. He, not the writer, is the focus of interest; the subject of the book is in effect ‘God—and me’. The pervasive God-centredness of Puritan accounts of spiritual experience is a proof of their authenticity, and a source of their power to present God to the modern reader. But when experience of God is told in a dramatised and selfglorifying way, it is a sure sign that the experience itself, however poignant, lacked depth, if, indeed, it was genuine at all.

Third, it seems undeniable that the Puritans’ passion for spiritual integrity and moral honesty before God, their fear of hypocrisy in themselves as well as in others, and the humble self-distrust that led them constantly to check whether they had not lapsed into religious play-acting before men with hearts that had gone cold towards God, has no counterpart in the modern-day evangelical ethos. They were characteristically cautious, serious, realistic, steady, patient, persistent in well-doing and avid for holiness of heart; we, by contrast, too often show ourselves to be characteristically brash, euphoric, frivolous, superficial, naive, hollow and shallow. Owen’s advice to ‘my fellow-labourers and students in divinity’ about the way to approach the task of upholding the faith against falsehood and folly climaxes with a call to ‘diligent endeavour to have the power of the truths professed and contended for abiding upon our hearts’; surely in saying this Owen plots the path from where we are to where the Puritans were, and where we should be, and need to be, in the quality of our own walk with God. The whole passage calls for quotation.

When the heart is cast indeed into the mould of the doctrine that the mind embraceth; . . . not the sense of the words only is in our heads, but the sense of the things abides in our hearts; when we have communion with God in the doctrine we contend for,—then shall we be garrisoned, by the grace of God, against all the assaults of men. And without this all our contending is, as to ourselves, of no value. What am I the better if I can dispute that Christ is God, but have no sense of sweetness in my heart from hence that he is a God in covenant with my soul? What will it avail me to evince, by testimonies and arguments, that he hath made satisfaction for sin, if, through my unbelief, the wrath of God abideth on me, and I have no experience of my own being made the righteousness of God in him? . . . it be any advantage to me, in the issue, to profess and dispute that God worketh the conversion of a sinner by the irresistible grace of his Spirit, if I was never acquainted experimentally with the deadness and utter impotency to good, that opposition to the law of God, which is in my own soul by nature, [and] with the efficacy of the exceeding greatness of the power of God in quickening, enlightening, and bringing forth the fruits of obedience in me? . . . us, then, not think that we are any thing the better for our conviction of the truths of the great doctrines of the gospel . . . we find the power of the truths abiding in our own hearts and have a continual experience of their necessity and excellency in our standing before God and our communion with him.

A word to the wise? There was once a day when God sent Jeremiah to say to Israel, ‘Ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls’ (Jer 6:16). As we study Owen on the spiritual life, may it be that God is speaking in similar terms to us? Owen’s instructions and directions are indeed ‘old paths’, as old as the Bible, but they are paths which the Puritans as a body found to be in truth ‘the good way’. We shall do well to seek for grace to start walking in them ourselves. ‘And you will find rest for your souls.’


  1. What would you say to a woman who doesn't like this idea?

    I love this quote and would like to post it on my blog.

  2. Great quote!
    Packer sure knows how to pack in the truth!


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