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The Theology of the Puritans

Renewing Your Mind / R.C. Sproul
The Truth Network Radio
March 31, 2023 12:01 am

The Theology of the Puritans

Renewing Your Mind / R.C. Sproul

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March 31, 2023 12:01 am

The reforming of the Reformation--that is what the Puritans were all about. Today, Michael Reeves conveys how these English Christians sought to bring the Word of God to bear on all of life.

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For the Puritan, the Bible is the most valuable thing that this world affords. Puritanism was about reforming all of life under the supreme authority of the Bible, and that was something that would put the fear of God into the authorities.

The highest authority in the Christian life is God's Word, the Bible, because as Paul teaches, it is God-breathed. It's useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness. And we see that zeal so clearly in the life of the Puritans.

Hi, I'm Nathan W. Bingham, and thank you for joining us today for Renewing Your Mind. This week, Michael Reeves has been helping us see the hand of God in England in the 16th century, and he spent most of his time focusing on kings and queens. But today, he will shine a spotlight on a group of people who, despite the image that might come to mind when you think of them, had a zeal, a passion to obey God, and for many of them, had a gospel that could not be sweeter. Here's Michael Reeves. In this lecture, what we're going to do is we're going to press in a little bit to see who were these Puritans.

Who were they? Now, Puritan, the word has always been more of a weapon than a real description. For the very small minority today, Puritan is used as a description of a united golden team with impeccable spiritual theological credentials, something that's not strictly true, as we'll see. For the vast majority, though, the word Puritan is verbal mud. You throw it at someone and it makes them look like a laughable, lemon-sucking fool, the sort of, you know, the frozen chosen baptized in vinegar.

H.L. Mencken put it, he said, Puritan is the haunting fear that someone somewhere may be happy. There's that very negative view of Puritanism, and the word was coined originally as a term of abuse, shortly after Elizabeth became queen. So for the average Englishman, there was the papist on one side, and then there was the precisionist or Puritan, those were the two terms, who went too far in the other direction. The English like being the sort of golden mean in the middle. And this term Puritan, it's suggested a nitpicking, holier than thou sought, who considered themselves purer than the rest.

You are much too precise and panickety. Now this certainly wasn't a fair description. People who thought they were purer than the rest, their descriptions of themselves, clearly they never thought of themselves as purer than the rest. A constant testimony to their own sinfulness demonstrates that.

But neither was it a very precise description. A recognized Puritan could differ from another on a whole host of different issues. They were quite a broad and varied bunch. And so the word Puritan is about as accurate a description as the word evangelical today.

You can mean quite a few things by that. And so recognized Puritans could disagree with each other over what the cross was about. They could disagree how to be saved. So John Owen, who we'll come to see in a moment, disagreed with Richard Baxter, another major Puritan figure over the cross, over what justification meant, over the nature of the Christian life. John Milton, the poet and author of Paradise Lost, he was an undoubted Puritan.

But Milton almost certainly didn't even believe in the Trinity, God of all Christian creeds. If that's the case, well, who were the Puritans then if they could be that diverse? Well, perhaps John Milton put it best when he spoke of the reforming of the Reformation. So Puritans were not those who thought they themselves were pure. It was that they wanted to purify what in the church had not yet been purified and what in themselves had not yet been purified.

They wanted reform. And while they had some different ideas as to what that should look like, the Puritans wanted to apply Reformation to everything, to themselves, to the church, to the country, to everything it hadn't touched. So they thought the Reformation was a good thing, but unlike Elizabeth, they thought it wasn't over yet.

It wasn't complete. Now, before seeing their story, some of the mud that's been thrown at the Puritans needs to be wiped off a little bit so we can get to know them. Now, for one thing then, who were the Puritans?

They didn't even look like what we tend to think they looked like. And this helps because visually you picture a Puritan and you feel you've got a good idea of what they're like. So we tend to think of the gaudy puffed sleeves of the Elizabethan period, the beautiful bodices, the jolly ruffs and doublets of the laughing cavaliers, and then you've got the Puritans who are black and scowled. And that is often how their portraits showed them.

But you need to know a couple of things. Virtually nobody smiled when their portrait was taken because you had to hold that pose for days and it was a formal thing. And also the reason they wore black was because that was their Sunday best.

It's wearing a suit to be smart for a portrait, which is going to last for years. But on other days, they'd wear all the colors of the rainbow. So John Owen, perhaps the greatest Puritan theologian, will come to meet him. He would walk through Oxford, we are told, hair powdered, cambric band with large costly band strings, velvet jacket, breeches set about at knees with ribbons pointed, and Spanish leather boots.

Oh, he loved his Spanish leather boots with with cambric fancy lacy tops. And they weren't a crowd of inveterate sourpusses either. One author put it like this. He said, contrary to popular impression, the Puritan was no ascetic. If he continually warned against the vanity of creatures as misused by fallen man, he never praised hair shirts or dry crusts. The Puritan liked good food, good drink, homely comforts.

And while he laughed at mosquitoes, he found it a real hardship to drink water when the beer ran out. Now, bluntly, to say what all Puritans were like is going to be misleading, given what a varied bunch they were. And so, of course, some were quite glum. William Prynne we'll hear of in a bit. William Prynne once said, Christ just bit. William Prynne once said, Christ Jesus, our pattern was always mourning, never laughing.

You think, OK, doesn't seem to be much room for Christ's language of his own joy there. But what's true of one Puritan isn't necessarily true of the next at all. So we'll be meeting Richard Sibbes in a bit.

And something I found out is there are only, I think, a couple of 17th century portraits that I've ever seen that show someone with a twinkle in their eye or a bit of a smile. One of them is Richard Sibbes, one of the leading Puritans, testament to his enormous amiability shining through even a portrait. What can be said, a concession I'll make, is the zeal for reforming all of life could make many of them a little pedantic. They could often be very, very detailed in how they wanted to speak of something very particular. And so you read a Puritan and they will quite often go on a bit.

They'll really cover a ground quite thoroughly, more thoroughly than we're used to. But the most important trait that really unites all Puritans and the one that makes them so misunderstood is this, their passionate love for the Bible, for Bible study, for listening to sermons. And again and again we read of Puritans happily traveling for hours to hear a good long sermon, how they thought an evening's Bible study was better than an evening's dancing, and how they loved a good long sermon. Sermons of up to seven hours long were not unheard of.

Happy days, eh? Thinks a preacher. Lawrence Chadderton, who the extraordinarily long-lived master of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, which was a real nursery of Puritanism. He lived to be over a hundred. And Lawrence Chadderton, he once found that he'd been preaching, and without noticing, he found that he'd been preaching for two straight hours, which point he paused and apologized to the people. And the people shouted back, for God's sake, sir, go on, go on. Such eagerness there was to hear the Word of God. Now, to people who've never experienced the Bible as something exciting, at best that sounds boring, at worst it sounds deranged.

But think about it. Europe had been without a Bible that people could read for something like a thousand years. And to hear God's words and in them see such good news that God saves by his grace alone, it was like a burst of Florida sunshine into this gray world of religious guilt. It was intoxicatingly attractive and alluring for people. And really, to fail to understand that love of the Bible makes it impossible to understand the Puritans. So take, for example, an account of a typically Puritan event, a sermon preached by roaring John Rogers of the pretty little village of Dedham.

I say pretty. I spent much of my childhood in Dedham. My grandparents lived there, and they're buried right by Rogers' pulpit. And he was known as roaring John Rogers because he could be quite a character in the pulpit. He would, for example, he'd personate the screams of the damned in the pulpit and so on.

He'd be quite a character. And here's one episode recorded for us by a young Thomas Goodwin went out to hear him from Cambridge. And here's his recollection of hearing Rogers preach. Goodwin recorded that in a sermon he went to hear, Rogers fell into an expostulation with the people about their neglect of the Bible. So soon, neglect of the Bible. And he impersonated God to the people.

Rogers liked his impersonations. And as God, he addressed the people telling them, well, I've trusted you so long with my Bible, you've slighted it. It lies in such and such houses covered with dust and cobwebs.

You care not to look into it. Do you use my Bible so? Well, you shall have my Bible no longer. And he takes up the Bible from his cushion and, personating God, walks away with it. Then, Rogers immediately turns and impersonates the people addressing God and says, falling on his knees, crying and pleading most earnestly, listen to these words, Lord, what so ever thou dost to us, take not thy Bible from us, kill our children, burn our houses, destroy our goods only, spare us thy Bible, take not away thy Bible. And then he personated God again to the people, say you so. Well, I will try you a little longer and here is my Bible for you. I will see.

How you will use it, whether you will love it more, whether you'll value it more, whether you'll observe it more, whether you'll live more according to it. And by these actions, he put all the congregation into so strange a posture, Goodwin said he'd never saw any congregation in the like in his life. The place was like the valley of Bauchim. The people generally, as it were, deluged with their own tears. And Goodwin told me, said the recorder, that when he got out, when he was ready to take horse again to be gone, he was fain to hang about a quarter of an hour upon the neck of his horse, weeping before he had the power to mount. So strange an impression was there upon him, and generally upon the people, upon having thus been explained to him, upon the people, upon having thus been expostulated with for the neglect of the Bible. Now that story is quite incomprehensible without appreciating that for the Puritan, as the new coronation service said, the Bible is the most valuable thing that this world affords.

Words that are still said in the coronation service of every English monarch. Puritanism was about reforming all of life under the supreme authority of the Bible, and that was something that would put the fear of God into the authorities. But I want to look at an internal tension that Puritanism as a movement faced. You see, the whole story of the Reformation in Britain, I hope you've been able to see a little bit so far, was that it was so easy for Protestantism to become a mere political party. By a good way into Elizabeth's period, it had become all too simple to be zealously anti-Catholic and yet to have no understanding or experience of God's grace. For when just about everybody went to church, it was entirely undemanding to be nominally Protestant.

Everyone did it. And this is what the Puritans fought. They urged people to a personal Reformation. The Puritans wanted a Reformed church in England filled with hearts that had been Reformed. And so in the Puritans, you get to see a group of pastors and theologians who saw themselves really as heart doctors concerned with the inner workings, the inner lives, the secret lives of their people. And that meant a group of pastors concerned with what their people loved, what they desired. They wanted to know, did their people love the Lord heartily or were they just nominally acting out the Christian life? Now, that fight had a considerable danger.

And I wonder if you can think what that would be. And it was a danger for Puritanism's sister movement in Germany, Lutheran Pietism. And it was this, the desire to have people respond to the gospel could lead to a focus on the response, not the gospel. So in looking for Reformed lives, the sign that a person had responded rightly to the gospel, it was easy to let a concern for a focus on growth in personal holiness eclipse a focus on justification by faith alone. The message that the Puritans were supposed to receive was that they could be tempted to concentrate on holy living in response to the gospel, instead of focusing on the gospel, which will promote holy living. And thus, the experience of many churchgoers could be that they would hear a sermon on the Ten Commandments, they'd hear lessons about the need for holiness, but they wouldn't hear about Christ's free gift of righteousness, meaning that many then acted as if their salvation depended on their holiness of life, Luther's original problem. And so, the message that the Puritans were supposed to receive was that they would act as if their salvation depended on their holiness of life, Luther's original problem. And this could all be coupled with very strong warnings about the dangers of damnation.

These could be very strong. So the great Cambridge Puritan said, damn, in such a way as would leave a sad echo in his listeners' ears a long while after. So, strong warnings people would hear, but if they weren't coupled with hearing of the free saving grace of Christ, then people were forced to a morbid introspection, sniffing around inside themselves to see if their heart felt good enough or to see if there was any faith in there that they could trust in, so trusting in their own faith and not Christ. And it was just here that some of the Puritan ministries that are still most refreshing came in with a cure. So the men will be focusing on Richard Sibbes, Thomas Goodwin, John Owen.

They all saw this danger and tendency around them, and they preached into it with a glorious perception and insight. In fact, in the next lecture, we're going to meet a man saved by Richard Sibbes from this morbid, self-dependent religion. We're going to get to know Sibbes a little bit next, but I want to introduce you to the sort of things that Sibbes would preach to people struggling with self-dependence, morbid introspection, depending on themselves before God.

Here's the sort of thing Sibbes would say. He would say, often think with thyself, what am I? A poor, sinful creature, but I have a righteousness in Christ that answers all. Oh, I'm weak in myself, but Christ is strong, and I'm strong in him. I'm foolish in myself, but I'm wise in him. What I lack in myself, I have in him.

He is mine. His righteousness is mine, which is the righteousness of God, man. And being clothed with this, I stand safe against conscience, hell, wrath, and whatsoever. And though I have daily experience of my sins, yet there is more righteousness in Christ who is mine and who is the chief of 10,000. There is more righteousness in him than there is sin in me. See, he's preaching that Christ clothes sinners in his own righteousness and entirely against the idea that sinners need to make themselves holy in order to be saved, which assumes that God is not actually being gracious but simply rewarding people for their effort.

Sibbes preached a most gracious Christ. So he asked his people this question. Do we entertain Christ to our loss? Does he come empty to us?

Isn't that a good question? People so naturally fall into thinking that we're the ones doing him a favor. Does he come to us empty?

No, says Sibbes. He comes with all grace. His goodness is a diffusive goodness. He comes to spread his treasures, to enrich the heart, to bear all afflictions, to encounter dangers, to bring peace of conscience, joy in the Holy Ghost. He comes, as it were, to make our hearts a heaven.

Consider this. As this fountain has the fullness of a fountain, he strives to empty his goodness into our souls. He comes out of love for us. Sibbes saw, it's only like that when you see the glory, the graciousness of Christ. Only then do you seek not to buy him off with works. Then you seek him because you desire him, your eyes haven't been opened to him.

Then you find he becomes more attractive than sin to you. When you know how he loves, you begin to love, 1 John 4.19. We love because he first loved us. And so Sibbes saw himself as a shining sacrifice. And so Sibbes saw himself as a chef holding out the banquet of Christ's delicious grace.

Let me read you a little bit, one last bit from Sibbes. He said, we see, we cannot please Christ more than by a cheerful taking part of his rich provision. That's what pleases Christ, his grace. It is an honor to his bounty to fall to.

It is the temper of spirit that a Christian aims at to rejoice always in the Lord. And he asks, what will we do for him if we will not feast with him? We won't suffer with him if we won't feast with him. You won't do much for Christ if you don't love him.

He must be lovely to you before you will do much for him. We will not suffer with him if we will not joy with him and in him. Therefore, friends, that which we should labor to bring with us is a taste of these dainties Christ offers, an appetite to them. The chief thing that Christ requires is a stomach to his dainties.

Well, I will be thinking about that all day. There really are so many gospel riches in the words of the Puritans. That was Michael Reeves, and you're listening to Renewing Your Mind. The messages we've heard this week are from a 12-part series by Michael Reeves, the English Reformation and the Puritans. Today, you got a little taste of Richard Sibbes.

Well, the rest of the series digs a little deeper into the life of Sibbes, as well as other Puritans like Thomas Goodwin and John Owen. And we'll send you this 12-part series on two DVDs for your donation of any amount. You can give your gift at or by calling us at 800-435-4343.

Not only will you have digital access to the series, we'll also provide you the digital study guide. So make your donation today by visiting Next week is Holy Week. And as you gather with family and friends, perhaps you'll have increased opportunity to speak about the resurrection. And so on Monday, we're starting a series from Dr. Gabe Fleur, and he'll help you give a defense of the resurrection. So I look forward to you joining us Monday for Alive, how the resurrection of Christ changes everything, here on Renewing Your Mind.
Whisper: medium.en / 2023-04-04 00:54:26 / 2023-04-04 01:03:20 / 9

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