Introduction

J.I. Packer, in his book A Quest For Godliness, describes the theology of the Puritans and how that theology produced a God-centered life that we should gain many lessons from. His treatment covers not only a general summation of the history of the Puritan movement but also a look into what the Puritans believed about the Bible, the Holy Spirit, ministry as well as their practical outlook on the Christian life. It is with regard to the latter two subjects that this essay will be directed towards.  I will be summarizing the Puritans’ approach to Preaching, Worship, the Sabbath, and the Family.

Puritan Preaching

Throughout the history of the Puritan movement, there were many great pastors and preachers that led their congregations throughout England. Perhaps the best way to understand what the Puritans believed about preaching would be to look at the Westminster Assembly’s Directory for the Publick Worship of God. It states that “Preaching of the Word, being the power of God unto salvation, and one of the greatest and most excellent works belonging to the ministry of the gospel, should be so performed, that the workman may not be ashamed, but may save himself and those who hear him[1].” While some have criticized Puritan preaching over the years, Packer states that their preaching was “less [about] its style than its substance[2]”. What was the “substance” of their preaching? First we must look at the convictions behind their preaching and then the general characteristics of it.

The Puritans had four convictions about their preaching. Firstly, they believed that “grace enters by the understanding”, that is, people do not believe in God based on physical or mental coercion, but rather, through the working of His Spirit through His Word[3]. Therefore, the hearer’s first obligation is to understand what is being preached and the preacher’s primary duty is to explicate the Word[4]. Secondly, the Puritans believed in the great importance of preaching, as mentioned before by the Westminster Assembly. Packer reiterates this, “To the Puritans, the sermon was the liturgical climax of public worship[5].” Thirdly, they believed that the Word of God contains tremendous life-giving power. Packer states that, “[t]he Bible does not merely contain the word of God, as a cake contains currants, it is the word of God, the Creator’s written testimony of himself. And, as such, it is light for the eyes and food for the soul[6].” Therefore the Puritans fed the flock of God with the Word of God, “not the dry husks of their own fancy, but the life-giving word of God[7].” Fourthly, they believed that the Holy Spirit alone can make preaching effective[8]. The preacher’s duty is to “preach the word; be ready in season and out of season;” God is the one who writes it on man’s heart[9].

These four convictions beget seven attributes of Puritan preaching. First, the Puritans were expositional in their preaching; their task was to expound what was encased in the Scripture[10]. Second, their preaching was doctrinal[11]. They drew theology, the truth about God and man, out of the texts to feed and save the sheep. Third, their preaching was well organized in its arrangement[12]. They used clear headings and “deliberately allowed the skeletons of their sermons to stick out[13]”. Fourthly, their preaching was “popular”, meaning that they preached in plain English rather than the “eminentist farrago” of the times[14]. Fifth, their preaching was Christ-centered. It revolved around “Christ, and him crucified[15].” Sixth, their preaching was experimental, that is, it was about experiencing God and all the things that Christians will experience in this life[16]. Finally, it was piercing in its applications[17]. They were very skilled in speaking and applying the Word of God to each different class of congregant. The Puritans were very fervent and grave in their exposition of the Word of God and deemed it the highest form of worship.

Puritan Worship

Before looking at what was characteristic about the Puritan form of worship, let us seek to define worship through their eyes. Packer uses a quote by George Swinnock: “Worship comprehends all that respect which man oweth and giveth to his Maker[18].” Worship is “essentially doxology, a giving of glory, praise, honor, and homage to God[19].” The Puritans were so concerned about worshiping God aright, “in spirit and in truth[20]”, that they made every effort to study how to worship in a time where there were many controversies about how to worship. They sought to understand exactly “in what sense are the Scriptures authoritative for Christian worship”, which “regulations are proper for Christian worship”, and who ought to make the decision of how we worship[21]. Although the Puritans sought to pursue these issues, their understanding of the nature and characteristics of worship is worthier of greater study. Worship entails two threads: it must be “inward, a matter of ‘heart-work’’, and it “must be a response to the revealed reality of God’s will and work, applied to the heart by the Holy Spirit[22].” “Therefore,” Packer implies, “worship must be simple and scriptural[23].” The Puritans’ services are often ridiculed for being simple. However, John Owen brilliantly argues that simple worship is more glorifying to God:

That what is so [orderly, comely, beautiful, and glorious] in his worship and service, God himself is the most proper judge. If then we evince not that spiritual gospel worship, in its own naked simplicity, without any external, adventitious helper or countenance, is most orderly, comely, beautiful, and glorious, the Holy Ghost in the Scripture being judge, we shall be content to seek for these things where else, as it is pretended, they may be found.[24]

With a clear understanding that worship must be simple and scriptural, they included the following activities as part of worship: “praise (especially the singing of psalms), prayer (confession, adoration, intercession), preaching, the sacrements (‘ordinances’), and also catechizing and the exercise of church discipline[25].” Out of all of these activities, wherein God met his people for worship, they considered preaching as the highest form of worship, as mentioned earlier[26]. Thomas Goodwin wrote that “it is not the letter of the Word that ordinarily doth convert, but the spiritual meaning of it, as revealed and expounded… ….Now, preaching in a more special manner reveals God’s word[27].” Finally, the Puritans believed there were three “spheres” of Christian worship: public (in the local church), domestic (family worship), and private or personal worship. Packer says, “Of these three, public worship is the most important. David Clarkson was entirely typical when, preaching on Psalm 87:2 under the title of ‘Public Worship to be preferred before Private’, he argued from Scripture that ‘the Lord is more glorified by public worship[28].’” This is merely a brief glimpse of the Puritans’ views on Worship.

The Puritans and the Lord’s Day

The Puritans’ observance of the Sabbath day is closely tied with their understanding of worship. If worshipping God is extremely important through its internal “heart-work” and external “response” which is “applied to the heart by the Holy Spirit,” then the day on which we worship God must be incredibly important and different than all the other days of the week[29]. Historically speaking, the Puritans were the pioneers, so to speak, in the “English Christian Sunday[30].” During the latter part of the 16th century, the English spent their Sundays “frequenting bawdy stage plays, may games, church ales, feasts and wakes,” and much more[31]. By 1677, however, the Sunday Observance Act was passed wherein all should “spend Sunday, not in trading, traveling, ‘worldly labour, business, or work of their ordinary callings[32].’” The Puritans drew their practice of observing the Sabbath Day directly from their exposition of the Fourth Commandment. The Puritans defined the Sabbath as “one day’s rest for public and private worship of God at the end of each six days’ work” and being a “law of creation” is “binding upon man as long as he lives in this world[33].” Packer also states that they saw the Sabbath as integral in the structure of the first table of the Law wherein it talks about worship: “the first command fixes the object, the second the means, the third the manner, and the fourth the time[34].” They also understood the Sabbath as a “privilege and a benefit” not drudgery[35]. The Sabbath means action, not inaction, is a joyful privilege, a means of grace, and any breaking of the Sabbath day brings severe discipline[36]. Finally the Puritans also taught several applications for keeping the Sabbath day. We must prepare our hearts for the Sabbath and learn to value it aright[37]. It is extremely important to prepare since worship is about “heart-work”[38]. Public worship, from our discussion earlier, is the most important form of worship and must therefore be “central on the Lord’s Day[39].” The family must also “function as a religious unit on the Lord’s Day[40].” This is incredibly important because fathers are not only supposed to keep it themselves but are responsible for teaching their children and their spouses[41]. Lastly but of equal importance, the Sabbath must not be treated in a legalistic or pharisaical manner[42]. The Puritans warned against this error since it springs up all too readily in our sinful hearts. We must all be careful to study and observe all that the Lord has commanded in this area but be humble and sober and not pass judgment on others. The Lord alone judges.

The Puritans and the Family

            In our modern day sex-obsessed culture, many people tend to think that the Puritans were “solitary ascetics” who would “pluck the thorn and cast away the rose[43]”. But Packer dispels this notion through his description of the Puritans’ view on marriage and the family. The Puritans viewed marriage in much the same way as did the Reformers, they “glorified marriage in conscious contradiction of the medieval idea that celibacy as practiced by clergy, monks, and nuns is better—more virtuous, more Christlike, more pleasing to God—than marriage, procreation, and family life[44].” The Puritans turned the tables on the matter by showing that marriage was, in fact, a “creation ordinance, a good gift of God to mankind” instituted in the Garden of Eden[45]. It is not second best but the ideal way of life as God intended[46]. They also defined marriage in biblical terms. They showed that marriage was, “ordained for the mutual help of husband and wife, for the increase of mankind with a legitimate issue, and of the Church with an holy seed; and for preventing of uncleanness[47].” The Puritans stressed a great deal on the companionship aspect; that the wife should be a helpmeet and a “city of refuge[48].” Puritans preached on the blessings of marriage a great deal and also taught how mutual love should be expressed[49]. Richard Baxter also wrote a detailed system of question and answer on how the husband and wife should love one another[50]. Edmund Morgan dispels the modern myth of “prudish Puritans’ by saying “the Puritans were neither prudes nor ascetics. They knew how to laugh, and they knew how to love.[51]” Packer makes an interesting point that all the words on the subject of Godly marriage come from the male perspective. There is a twofold answer: first, culturally speaking, women in that time period were not totally emancipated nor were they entirely educated; secondly, the Puritans believed that since male leadership is prescribed in the Bible, marriage should be written about in those terms[52]. However, women were not discounted but were praised and duly considered for their “sweet and strong affections. Likewise they are subject to weakness, and God delights to show his strength in weakness[53].” The Puritans also spoke about courtship and finding or choosing a wife. They emphasized the beauty of mind and character over physical beauty and gave much wise counsel on what qualities to look for[54]. Finally, the Puritans sought to treat their families, which included servants, elderly relatives, and any other guests living with them in addition to parents and children, as a church “both in regard of persons and exercises, admitting none into it but as such that feared God; and laboring that those born in it, might be born again to God[55].” The father functioned as a pastor with his wife as the assistant and it was especially the husband’s duty to take everyone to church on Sunday, to oversee the proper observance of the Lord’s Day by all in the house, to catechize the children, to lead family worship, make sure that he himself is learning the faith, and much more[56]. The Puritans recognized that both the domestic and particular (vocational) callings in their lives are God given and should both be given strict discipline in performing to the glory of God[57].

Conclusion

If there is one thing that characterizes the Puritans and the way they lived their lives, it could be summarized in the doctrine of Sola Scriptura (Scripture Alone). Their wholehearted devotion to the Word of God, especially being preached as mentioned earlier, defined how they lived their lives and how they worshiped God. They sought to understand the Scriptures diligently and preached them clearly and expositionally to their congregations. They structured their church services according to what the Bible said, they sought to honor the Lord’s Day in the way that the Scriptures taught, and they sought to love their wives and their children and instruct them as taught in Ephesians 5, Deuteronomy 11 and Proverbs 22. The pursuit of Godliness and the pursuit of understanding the Scriptures was manifested in all areas of their lives. As the Westminster Shorter Catechism teaches, the Puritans truly sought to pursue their chief end: the enjoyment and glorification of God in all areas of life.

 


[1] J.I. Packer, A Quest for Godliness (Crossway Book: Wheaton, 1990) 278.

[2] Packer 280.

[3] Packer 281.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Packer 282.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Packer 283.

[9] 2 Timothy 4:2. ESV Bible.

[10] Packer 284.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Packer 285

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Packer 286.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] George Swinnock, Works, I: 31. Qtd. in Packer 249.

[19] Packer 249.

[20] John 4:24

[21] Packer 246, 248.

[22] Packer 249.

[23] Ibid. 250.

[24] John Owen, Works, IX: 56f. Qtd. in Packer 250.

[25] Packer 253.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Thomas Goodwin, Works, I: 473, 475. Qtd. in Packer 254.

[28] David Clarkson, Works, III: 190ff Qtd. in Packer 255.

[29] Packer 249.

[30] Packer 235.

[31] Baxter, Works, III: 904. Qtd. in Packer 235.

[32] Packer 236. It should be noted that this was passed by an Anti-Puritan Parliament.

[33] Packer 237.

[34] Jonathan Edwards, Sermon II in Works II: 95. Qtd. in Packer 237.

[35] Matthew Henry. Mark 2:27. Qtd. in Packer 238.

[36] Packer 239-40.

[37] Packer 240.

[38] Packer 241.

[39] Ibid.

[40] Ibid.

[41] Ibid.

[42] Packer 242.

[43] Packer 259.

[44] Packer 260.

[45] Packer 261.

[46] Ibid.

[47] Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 24.2.

[48] John Dod and Robert Cleaver, A Godly Forme of Householde Government (1598), p 125. Qtd. in Packer 263.

[49] Packer 262.

[50] This excellent catechism is too long for this brief summary. However the list can be found in Packer 263.

[51] Qtd. in Packer Ibid.

[52] Packer 266.

[53] Richard Sibbes, Works: VI: 520. Qtd. in Packer 267.

[54] Packer 268.

[55] John Geree, The Character of an Old English Puritaine, or Nonconformist (1644) p X. Qtd in Packer 270.

[56] Packer 270.

[57][57] Packer 273.