The Puritans on Loving God
Within the confessional Reformed community, ‘Puritan’ is almost a household term.
Most Reformed Christians recognize one of the three historic Reformed confessions –– the Three Forms of Unity, the London Baptist Confession (1689), or the Westminster Confession –– all of which were framed by Puritans.
When the Reformed child of God ventures out of their comfort zone, and begins talking to those who don’t necessarily espouse a Reformed theology, at least comprehensively, the outlook on the Puritans is sometimes found to be bleak and dark –– one of general negativity and even disdain.
The Puritans have been put through the ringer in the secular education system by the liberals, and even by some anti-Calvinistic theologians.
According to many 21st century evangelicals, Puritans are known as those who loved their traditions more than God, those who were rigid legalists obsessed with burning witches, or even those who desired a church-state conflation wherein people who didn’t agree with them would be tried as criminals.
Much of Puritan practice is written off as commitment to archaic traditions which have no Scriptural backing. This is largely because it has been assumed that much of what Puritans practiced couldn’t possibly be found in the Bible.
Did they have a strange obsession with burning people at the stake for being “witches”? Did they want the church and state to become one? And, did they really want to punish people as criminals if those people disagreed with them theologically?
Surrounded by the many accusations, we could ask the simple, yet important, question: Did the Puritans really love their traditions more than God?
In this article, I hope to provide helpful insight
THE PURITANS LOVED GOD
“If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”
— John 14:15 (ESV)
I want to discuss the Puritan movement at large. Generally speaking, the question, “did the Puritan population love God” concerns us here.
Many evangelical Christians today might question whether or not Puritans actually loved the Lord. Theodore Shoebat, of the Shoebat blog, wrote an article titled “The Puritans Were Just as Violent as the Muslims,” wherein he says, “The Puritans are almost always portrayed as a peaceful and persecuted bunch, but they were a very revolutionary, seditious, and violent people.”
Some, like Shoebat, may look back at what they’ve been taught about the Puritans and see something like a strange cult who loved their traditions more than their professed Lord and Savior.
But does this way of thinking have any merit? I think when we delve into primary Puritan literature we will find a very different story.
Earlier, I asked the question, Did the Puritans love their traditions more than God? The answer to this is simple, yet bears some explaining.
Contrary to popular understanding, the Puritans did what they did chiefly because they believed the Bible taught them to do it. In other words, the ‘traditions’ of the Puritans were seen, by them, to be an outworking of biblical truth.
Christians everywhere, even those who don’t claim to, have traditions. The question is not whether or not we have traditions, but whether or not our traditions, or our ways of doing things, are biblical.
The question, “did the Puritans love their traditions more than God” is a false dichotomy since the Puritans saw their traditions as a way to love God.
We could think of John Bunyan, the 17th century Baptist Puritan who so believed in the efficacy of the gospel that he preached it tirelessly from his prison cell for twelve years. He was kept in this cell precisely because he refused to stop preaching the power of God revealed unto salvation (Rom 1:16).
Does this sound like an attitude of not loving God, but traditions instead?
John Owen and his Mortification of Sin is a book predicated upon the principle of killing our sin by the Holy Spirit in fulfillment of the Great Commandment, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind (Matt 22:37).”
The idea of killing sin in order to please our Lord is perhaps one of the most practical ways our love for God is made manifest.
What about the less-known guys like Stephen Charnock, or Robert Asty? Both of these men took action and accomplished much, to the glory of God, because of their faith––because they were loving God.
The prolific Puritan authors, like John Owen and Thomas Watson, represented more people than just themselves. These men were pastors, teachers, and prolific authors of their day. That said, Puritans were generally concerned with how they could love God. The Westminster Shorter Catechism’s first question is this, “what is the chief end of man” to which the answer is, “to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.”
We can then begin to see the central focus of Puritanism. The central focus of Puritanism, completely contrary to modern opinion, was the question of how man could glorify God and enjoy Him for eternity in Christ. This way of thinking motivated all of their movements. Puritans thought Scripture was the ultimate foundation for all of faith and life. Thus, they based everything from their societal structure to their church polity on what they believed Scripture taught.
A SHINING EXAMPLE
It as if the church today could learn at least one thing from Puritan thought. Loving God is involved and is not only something we confess, but is something we do, both in thought and in deed.
In much of today’s church, emphasis is placed upon congregational satisfaction in things like the aesthetics of a worship service or the size of the church. However, our chief focus, along with that of the Puritans, ought to be to, “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind (Matt 22:37).”
We ought to join with the Puritans in affirming with Paul when he writes, “do all to the glory of God (1 Cor 10:31).”
APPENDIX: PURE DOCTRINE
Are there other things which the modern church could learn from Puritan theology, both in principle and practice?
In the next installment of this series, I will talk about the Puritan drive for a pure doctrine.
Is doctrine important? Is the division that doctrine creates necessarily a bad thing? We will explore what the Puritans thought concerning these questions, and just how consistent that thought is with the Word of God.