For the Puritans the husband was the family pastor, responsible for channeling the family into religion, taking them to church, catechizing the children, teaching them the faith, examining the family after the sermon to check retention and understanding, filling any gaps along the way, leading family worship and setting a godly example in all manners of living.
It was his great design to promote holiness in the life and exercise of it among you… He was a burning and shining light, and you for a while rejoiced in his light. Alas! It was but for a while; but we may rejoice in it still.
The figure of John Owen (1616-1683) towers above – almost head and shoulders above – the galaxy of writers we know collectively as the English Puritans. His theological learning and acumen was unrivalled; his sense of the importance of doctrine for living was profound.
The Puritan ethic of marriage was to look not for a partner whom you do love passionately at this moment, but rather for one whom you can love steadily as your best friend for life, and then to proceed with God’s help to do just that. The Puritan ethic of nurture was to train up children in the way they should go, to care for their bodies and souls together, and to educate them for sober, godly, socially useful adult living. The Puritan way of home life was based on maintaining order, courtesy and family worship. Goodwill, patience, consistency and an encouraging attitude were seen as the essential domestic virtues.
The subject of spiritual experience is at the forefront of thinking in evangelicalism worldwide today. A clear line of division can be drawn between those who insist that the Bible must be the basis by which all spiritual experience is tested and those who regard experience as pre-eminent and resist the tests of Scripture. Is the Word our authority, or is spiritual experience our authority? The Puritans were strong in the area of knowing God by heart experience but they sought to test everything by Scripture. We do well to follow their example.
[The Puritans believed in] the supreme importance of preaching. To the Puritans, the sermon was the liturgical climax of public worship. Nothing, they said, honours God more than the faithful declaration and obedient hearing of His truth. Preaching, under any circumstances, is an act of worship, and must be performed as such. Moreover, preaching is the prime means of grace to the church.
Underlying the preaching of the Puritans are three basic axioms:
1. The unique place of preaching is to convert, feed and sustain.
2. The life of the preacher must radiate the reality of what he preaches.
3. Prayer and solid Bible study are basic to effective preaching.
The Puritans…were great souls serving a great God. In them clear-headed passion and warm-hearted compassion combined. Visionary and practical, idealistic and realistic too, goal-oriented and methodical, they were great believers, great hopers, great doers, and great sufferers. But their sufferings, both sides of the ocean (in Old England from the authorities and in New England from the elements), seasoned and ripened them till they gained a stature that was nothing short of heroic. Ease and luxury, such as our affluence brings us today, do not make for maturity; hardship and struggle however do, and the Puritans’ battles against the spiritual and climatic wildernesses in which God set them produced a virility Of character, undaunted and unsinkable, rising above discouragement and fears, for which the true precedents and models are men like Moses, and Nehemiah, and Peter after Pentecost, and the apostle Paul.
Knowing that God’s way to the human heart (the will) is via the human head (the mind), the Puritans practiced meditation, discursive and systematic, on the whole range of biblical truth as they saw it applying to themselves. Puritan meditation on Scripture was modeled on the Puritan sermon; in meditation, the Puritan would seek to search and challenge his heart, stir his affections to hate sin and love righteousness, and encourage himself with God’s promises.
It must by now be apparent that the great Puritan pastor-theologians—Owen, Baxter, Goodwin, Howe, Perkins, Sibbes, Brooks, Watson, Gurnall, Flavel, Bunyan, Manton, and others like them—were men of outstanding intellectual power, as well as spiritual insight. In them mental habits fostered by sober scholarship were linked with a flaming zeal for God and a minute acquaintance with the human heart. All their work displays this unique fusion of gifts and graces. In thought and outlook they were radically God-centred. Their appreciation of God’s sovereign majesty was profound, and their reverence in handling His written word was deep and constant. They were patient, thorough, and methodical in searching the Scriptures, and their grasp of the various threads and linkages in the web of revealed truth was firm and clear. They understood most richly the ways of God with men, the glory of Christ the Mediator, and the work of the Spirit in the believer and the church.
Puritan preaching revolved around “Christ, and Him crucified” – for this is the hub of the Bible. The preachers’ commission is to declare the whole counsel of God; but the cross is the center of that counsel, and the Puritans knew that the traveler through the Bible landscape misses his way as soon as he loses sight of the hill called Calvary.
Owen did not revere himself as a master of Scripture but as a humble servant of it. His devotion to the Word of God was in direct correlation to his devotion to God Himself. Indeed, Owen was a man of God who served the church of God as a student of God’s Word. To him we owe great respect, for he lived coram Deo, before the face of God, as a burning and shining light to the world.
The Puritans believed that without perseverance in the obedience of faith the result would be eternal destruction, not lesser sanctification. Therefore, since preaching and the pastoral ministry in general are a great means to the saints’ perseverance, the goal of a pastor is not merely to edify the saints but to save the saints. What is at stake on Sunday morning is not merely the upbuilding of the church but its eternal salvation. It is not hard to see why the Puritans were so serious.
The Puritans declared the sanctity of all honorable work. In so doing, they rejected a centuries-old division of callings into “sacred” and “secular”… This Puritan rejection of the dichotomy between sacred and secular work has far-reaching implications. It judges every honorable job to be of intrinsic value, and integrates every vocation with a Christian’s spiritual life. It makes every job consequential by regarding it as the arena for glorifying and obeying God and for expressing love (through service) to a neighbor.
Ministers never write or preach so well as when under the cross; the Spirit of Christ and of glory then rests upon them. It was this, no doubt, that made the Puritans such burning and shining lights. When cast out by the black Bartholomew-act [the 1662 Act of Uniformity] and driven from their respective charges to preach in barns and fields, in the highways and hedges, they in an especial manner wrote and preached as men having authority. Though dead, by their writings they yet speak; a peculiar unction attends them to this very hour.