The Puritans are derided as legalistic killjoys whose meticulous writings tend to parse the life out of true piety. Even a quick overview of their work will reveal their ability to write exhaustively on a topic and to exhaust the reader in the process! However, the careful, charitable reader of Puritan works will spy in them a faith of studied simplicity, one from which we could benefit in the midst of current battles among believers.
The Puritans’ active attention to detail – some would say hyperactive – is actually quite common among people who find something or someone utterly captivating. Consider, for example, a rabid baseball fan – apologies to Pittsburgh readers for not using football here! The fan may struggle to remember birthdays and anniversaries of family members, but he can tell you without a second’s pause the career batting average of a long dead, revered ballplayer. Blissful thoughts of the ballpark woo his attention away from his responsibilities throughout the day. He spends countless hours contemplating the glories of the national pastime and his favorite team in particular. He is eager to tell anyone everything about his team for as long as his listener can last. He’ll proclaim his team’s praises at the slightest mention of the sport, or even when baseball has nothing to do with the current conversation. The fan is not embarrassed to yell loudly and publicly when his team wins; and when they lose, everyone knows it by the forlorn look on his face. All the time spent analyzing the sport’s minutia, the stats and the stories, is not burdensome. For him, such extensive effort is pure joy. So it is with any of us when our hearts are riveted by another person, by an idea, by a possession. And so it was with the Puritans and Jesus Christ, His Word, and the salvation He graciously gave them. They could not get enough, so they could not write enough!
The warmth of the Puritans’ affection for Christ could not help but boil over into searches for every possible application of Christ’s truth to life. As with all merely human compositions, there are excesses and errors to avoid. And some of their works are not for the spiritually faint of heart. Strong medicine must be applied to the appropriate illness at the appropriate time. If a struggling Christian is scarred from time spent under the tyranny of legalism, pointing that believer to Thomas Watson’s Heaven Taken by Storm may be like dropping an ocean onto a smoking flax. But Watson also wrote All Things for Good, a calming balm for those with torn hearts. Christ’s anxious or discouraged sheep will know anew their Shepherd’s tenderness as they imbibe Richard Sibbes’ The Bruised Reed. And for the Christian whose spiritually soggy heart could use a fresh kindling of holy zeal, Watson’s Storm more than suffices! The various writings among the Puritans demonstrate their strenuous considerations of their simple collective goal: to point people in all circumstances to Christ.
The Christ-loving carefulness in their writing, their courage to say hard things in a well conceived way, bears faithful fruit ripe for the picking in the midst of complex contemporary debates among Christians. Consider for example the recent dustup concerning law and gospel, particularly the role of good works in the life of the believer. The concern to maintain a pure focus on Christ’s work regarding the believer’s justification, sanctification and sense of practical assurance, and the concern to emphasize the nature and necessity of the believer’s doing good works as defined by God’s law, meet together in a book by Thomas Brooks as the simultaneously true points of biblical emphasis which they are.
In Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices, Brooks seamlessly and naturally, without a view toward theological controversy, weaves both themes together. He lists in great detail what believers are to do in order to avoid Satanic snares while warning his readers away from resting their confidence on good spiritual conduct. Brooks writes that Satan tries to distract “ … poor souls from those services which should be their joy and crown…” by encouraging them to put confidence in religious service as the means by which they are assured before God. Ironically, such misplaced confidence can lead to the disastrous view that such spiritual duties are unnecessary for believers. A disciple’s disdaining Christian duty or a disciples’ depending on it are opposite sides of the Devil’s delight. So to encourage believers toward Christian faithfulness, Brooks writes:
“If God in that day doth but withhold the influence of his grace, thy former services will be but poor cordials to comfort thee; and then thou must and will cry out, Oh, ‘none but Christ, none but Christ.’ Oh my prayers are not Christ, my hearing is not Christ, my fasting is not Christ. Oh! One smile of Christ, one glimpse of Christ, one good word from Christ, one nod of love from Christ in the day of trouble and darkness, will more revive and refresh the soul than all your former services, in which your souls rested, as if they were the bosom of Christ, which should be the only centre of our souls. Christ is the crown of crowns, the glory of glories, and the heaven of heavens.” – Thomas Brooks, Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devices (Carlisle: Banner of Truth, 2008), pp. 140-1.
Singular preoccupation with Christ results, necessarily, in focused attention on the details of Christian duty. Resting in Christ begets an eagerness to labor in His name. Simple! Agreeable! But if different sides in the different debates agree on these matters, then why are they not all agreed?
Perhaps our contemporary efforts at simplicity have helped to complicate matters. In the lightning pace of the information age, we feel pressure to make a good impression quickly, to bait our theological thoughts with catchy wording (see my attempt above). Knowing that perseverance and patience are not popular virtues in a viral world, we sloganize truths which require sustained, prayerful thought to understand and apply aright. At times, our efforts at brevity betray us, and we wind up defending in exhaustive detail our trendy repackaging of Christian truth, rather than the truth itself.
Contemporary Christian debates sometimes turn on the title of a book, or of a blog entry. Sometimes these titles are windows into errant teaching in need of loving redress; at other times, debates prove to be more about the framing of an issue than the issue itself. If we are not careful, our favorite biblical themes become hobby horses. We ride them hard until they run wild, no longer tethered to the truths they are meant to convey.
Perhaps it is not the Puritans with their endlessly annotated outlines but we, with our theological soundbites and snippets, who have unnecessarily complicated Christianity. Perhaps the Puritans, for all their fastidiousness, show us a simpler and more Christ-centered way. Their unpopular approach reveals an unadulterated focus on God’s Word, and their care and concern for their subject matter and their readers.
Errors and excesses notwithstanding, the writings of these bygone worthy servants of the King still serve to shepherd souls toward sincere, active, studied simplicity of faith in the all-sufficient Christ. And at the end of the day, and for all eternity, isn’t that what pure joy is all about?