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Puritan Evangelism (1): A Biblical Approach

(This is the first of five articles on the subject of Puritan evangelism.)

A great Puritan evangelist, John Rogers, warned his congregation against neglecting Scripture by telling them what God might say: “I have trusted you so long with my Bible … it lies in [some] houses all covered with dust and cobwebs, you care not to listen to it. Do you use my Bible so? Well, you shall have my Bible no longer.”

Rogers then picked up his Bible and started walking away from the pulpit. Then he stopped, fell on his knees, and took on the voice of the people, who pleaded, “Lord, whatever 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.”

“Say you so?” the minister replied, impersonating God. “Well, I will try you a while longer; and here is my Bible for you. I will see how you use it, whether you will search it more, love it more, observe it more, and live more according to it.”

Thomas Goodwin was so moved by Rogers’s dramatic presentation that when he left church he wept upon his horse’s neck for fifteen minutes before he felt strong enough to mount it.

John Calvin and his Puritan successors did not lack evangelistic zeal, as some have claimed. David Calhoun has defended Calvin’s work as a teacher and practitioner of evangelism. Similarly, I will show, in five articles, how the Puritans brought the gospel to others in a thoroughly scriptural manner. First, I’ll define what I mean by Puritan evangelism, then show that the Puritan evangelistic message, based on Scripture, was doctrinal, practical, experimental, and symmetrical. Then I’ll examine the primary methods they used to communicate the gospel—a plain style of preaching and the practice of catechetical evangelism. Finally, we’ll see that the Puritans believed that the message and methods of evangelism were inseparable from the inward disposition of an evangelist. That disposition included a heartfelt dependence on the Holy Spirit and earnest prayer that God’s Word and Spirit would bless all evangelistic efforts.

A look at the scriptural message, methods, and disposition of Puritan evangelism should convict us of our need to return to a scriptural foundation for all evangelism. As the Puritans adopted biblical principles of evangelism and became practitioners of them in their ministries, so we should embody these same principles in our teaching and work. We have much to learn from the Puritans about how to evangelize.

Puritan Evangelism Defined
Our use of the word Puritan includes not only those people who were ejected from the Church of England by the Act of Uniformity in 1662, but also those in Britain and North America who, for several generations after the Reformation, worked to reform and purify the church and to lead people toward biblical, godly living consistent with the Reformed doctrines of grace. Puritanism grew out of at least three needs: (1) the need for biblical preaching and the teaching of sound, Reformed doctrine; (2) the need for biblical, personal piety that stresses the work of the Holy Spirit in the faith and life of the believer; and (3) the need for a restoration of biblical simplicity in liturgy, vestments, and church government, so that a well-ordered church life would promote the worship of the Triune God as prescribed in His Word.

Evangelism was not a word the Puritans commonly used, but they were evangelists nonetheless. Richard Baxter’s Call to the Unconverted and Joseph Alleine’s Alarm to the Unconverted were pioneer works in evangelistic literature. The Puritans were fishers of men, seeking to awaken the unconverted to their need of Christ, to lead them to faith and repentance, and to establish them in a lifestyle of sanctification.

Puritan evangelism, then, refers to how the Puritans proclaimed what God’s Word counsels regarding the salvation of sinners from sin and its consequences. That salvation is granted by grace, received by faith, grounded in Christ, and reflective of the glory of God. For the Puritans, evangelism not only involves presenting Christ so that by the power of the Spirit people come to God through Him, but equally involves so presenting Christ that the believer may grow in Him, and serve Him as Lord in the fellowship of His church and in the extension of His kingdom in the world. Puritan evangelism involves declaring the entire economy of redemption by focusing on the saving work of all three Persons of the Trinity, while simultaneously calling sinners to a life of faith and commitment, and warning that the gospel will condemn forever those who persist in unbelief and impenitence.

The Puritans viewed evangelism as a Word-centered task of the church, particularly of her ministers. They understood well the centrality of preaching, the role of the pastor, and the necessity of prayer in evangelism. Doctrinally, Puritanism was a kind of broad and vigorous Calvinism; experientially, it was a warm and contagious kind of Christianity; evangelistically, it was tender as well as aggressive.

Characteristics Of Puritan Preaching
In discussing the message of Puritan evangelism, we’ll focus on five distinctive characteristics of Puritan preaching and then consider how those characteristics differ from what’s used in evangelistic preaching today.

1. Thoroughly Biblical
The Puritan message was found in God’s Word. “The faithful Minister, like unto Christ, [is] one that preacheth nothing but the word of God,” said Puritan Edward Dering. John Owen agreed: “The first and principal duty of a pastor is to feed the flock by diligent preaching of the word.” As Miller Maclure noted, “For the Puritans, the sermon is not just hinged to Scripture; it quite literally exists inside the Word of God; the text is not in the sermon, but the sermon is in the text…. Put summarily, listening to a sermon is being in the Bible.”

Puritanism was a Scripture-based movement. The Puritans were people of the living Book. They searched, heard, and sang the Word with delight, and encouraged others to do the same. Puritan Richard Greenham suggested eight ways to read Scripture: with diligence, wisdom, preparation, meditation, conference, faith, practice, and prayer. Thomas Watson provided numerous guidelines on how to listen to the Word. Come to the Word with a holy appetite and a teachable heart. Sit under the Word attentively, receive it with meekness, and mingle it with faith. Then retain the Word, pray over it, practice it, and speak to others about it. “Dreadful is their case who go loaded with sermons to hell,” Watson warned. By contrast, those who respond to Scripture as a “love letter sent to you from God” will experience its warming, transforming power.

The Puritans loved, lived, and breathed Scripture, relishing the power of the Spirit that accompanied the Word. They regarded the sixty-six books of Scripture as the library of the Holy Spirit that was graciously bequeathed to them. They viewed Scripture to be God speaking to them as a father speaks to his children. They saw the Word as truth they could trust in and rest upon for all eternity. They saw it empowered by the Spirit to renew their minds and transform their lives.

“Feed upon the Word,” the Puritan preacher John Cotton exhorted his congregation. The preface to the Geneva Bible contains similar advice, saying the Bible is “the light to our paths, the key of the kingdom of heaven, our comfort in affliction, our shield and sword against Satan, the school of all wisdom, the glass wherein we behold God’s face, the testimony of his favor, and the only food and nourishment of our souls.”

The Puritans sounded a clarion call to become intensely Word-centered in faith and practice. They regarded the Bible as a trustworthy guide for all of life. “We should set the Word of God alway before us like a rule, and believe nothing but that which it teacheth, love nothing but that which it prescribeth, hate nothing but that which it forbiddeth, do nothing but that which it commandeth,” said the Puritan preacher Henry Smith to his congregation. “The Scriptures teach us the best way of living, the noblest way of suffering, and the most comfortable way of dying,” wrote John Flavel.

No wonder, then, that a typical page of a Puritan evangelistic sermon contains five to ten citations of biblical texts and about a dozen references to texts. Puritan preachers were conversant with their Bibles; they memorized hundreds, if not thousands, of texts. They knew what Scripture to cite for any concern. “Long and personal familiarity with the application of Scripture was a key element in the Puritan ministerial makeup,” Sinclair Ferguson writes. “They pondered the riches of revealed truth the way a gemologist patiently examines the many faces of a diamond.” They used Scripture wisely, bringing cited texts to bear on the doctrine or case of conscience at hand, all based on sound hermeneutical principles.

The evangelistic sermons of contemporary preachers often incorporate verses wrested out of context or a string of texts that don’t belong together. Modern evangelism, in quest of a “simple gospel,” favors a mere formula, a packaged presentation, instead of the whole counsel of God. Moreover, some preachers seem to have a better understanding of professional football and television programs, or of the teachings of Sigmund Freud and Paul Tillich, than they do of Moses and Paul.

Puritan preachers, for the most part, were well-grounded in biblical languages and classical learning. But they were also men who were convinced of the need to be “born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the word of God, which liveth and abideth forever” (1 Pet. 1:23). They were persuaded that the Holy Spirit worked through Scripture to bring truth home to sinners. The very thought patterns of the Puritans were steeped in the exact phraseology of the Bible.

If we are ever prone to be proud of our Bible knowledge, we ought to open any volume of John Owen, Thomas Goodwin, or Thomas Brooks, note how some obscure passage in Nahum is quoted followed by a familiar passage from John—both of which perfectly illustrate the point the writer is making—then compare our knowledge to theirs. How can we explain this marvelous—for us, humbling—grasp of Scripture other than that these divines were ministers of the Word? These men obviously studied their Bibles daily, falling to their knees as God’s Spirit burned the Word into their pastoral hearts. Then, as they wrote or preached their evangelistic messages, one scriptural passage after another would come to mind.

Our evangelistic efforts must be similarly grounded in the Bible. We must search the Scriptures more frequently and love the Word of God more fervently. As we learn to think, speak, and act more biblically, our messages will become more authoritative and our witness will become more effective and fruitful.

2. Unashamedly Doctrinal
The Puritan evangelist saw theology as an essentially practical discipline—William Perkins called it “the science of living blessedly for ever”; William Ames, “the doctrine or teaching of living to God.” As Ferguson writes, “To them, systematic theology was to the pastor what a knowledge of anatomy is to the physician. Only in the light of the whole body of divinity (as they liked to call it) could a minister provide a diagnosis of, prescribe for, and ultimately cure spiritual disease in those who were plagued by the body of sin and death.”

The Puritans, therefore, were not afraid to preach the whole counsel of God. They did not conciliate their hearers by lightening up their messages with humorous stories or folksy anecdotes. They felt the awesome responsibility of handling eternal truth and addressing immortal souls (Ezek. 33:8). They preached the weighty truths of God as a dying man to dying men, as never sure to preach again!

For example, when the Puritans dealt with the doctrine of sin, they called sin sin, and declared it to be moral rebellion against God which reaps eternal guilt. They preached about sins of commission and sins of omission in thought, word, and deed. Works such as Jeremiah Burroughs’s The Evil of Evils: The Exceeding Sinfulness of Sin, stress the heinousness of sin. In sixty-seven chapters, Burroughs exposes sin for what it is: the least sin involves more evil than the greatest affliction; sin and God are contrary to each other; sin opposes all that is good; sin is the poison of all evils; sin bears an infinite dimension and character; and sin makes us comfortable with the devil.

The Puritans linked sin with the fall of Adam and Eve in Paradise. They taught in no uncertain terms that through that fall we inherit the depravity that makes us unfit for God, holiness, and heaven. “In Adam’s fall, we sinned all,” they affirmed. They stressed that the problem of sinners was twofold: a bad record, which is a legal problem; and a bad heart, which is a moral problem. Both make us unfit for communion with God. More than an outward reformation of life is needed to meet the demands of God; inward regeneration of heart through a Triune God is essential for salvation (John 3:3-7).

The Puritans also preached the doctrine of God without equivocation. They proclaimed God’s majestic being, His trinitarian personality, and His glorious attributes. All of their evangelism was rooted in a robust biblical theism, unlike modern evangelism which too often approaches God as if He were a next-door neighbor who can adjust His attributes to our needs and desires. While modern evangelism claims John 3:16 as its text, the Puritan would more likely cite Genesis 1:1, “In the beginning God,” to show how everything that happened since is part of what God has designed for His own glory. The Puritans understood that the doctrines of atonement, justification, and reconciliation are meaningless apart from a true understanding of God who condemns sin, and atones for sinners, justifies them, and reconciles them to Himself.

Puritan evangelism also proclaimed the doctrine of Christ. “Preaching is the chariot that carries Christ up and down the world,” wrote Richard Sibbes. In works such as Thomas Taylor’s Christ Revealed, Thomas Goodwin’s Christ Our Mediator, Alexander Grosse’s Happiness of Enjoying and Making a Speedy Use of Christ, Isaac Ambrose’s Looking Unto Jesus, Ralph Robinson’s or Philip Henry’s Christ All in All, John Brown’s Christ: the Way, the Truth, and the Life, John Owen’s The Glorious Mystery of the Person of Christ, and James Durham’s Christ Crucified, the Puritans preached the whole Christ to the whole man. They offered Him as Prophet, Priest, and King. They did not separate His benefits from His person or offer Him as a Savior from sin while ignoring His claims as Lord. As Joseph Alleine wrote in his model of Puritan evangelism, An Alarm to the Unconverted:

All of Christ is accepted by the sincere convert. He loves not only the wages but the work of Christ, not only the benefits but the burden of Christ. He is willing not only to tread out the corn, but to draw under the yoke. He takes up the commands of Christ, yea, the cross of Christ. The unsound convert takes Christ by halves. He is all for the salvation of Christ, but he is not for sanctification. He is for the privileges, but does not appropriate the person of Christ. He divides the offices and benefits of Christ. This is an error in the foundation. Whoever loves life, let him beware here. It is an undoing mistake, of which you have often been warned, and yet none is more common.

Alleine shows us that the dividing of the offices and benefits of Christ is not a twentieth-century invention. Throughout the ages man has rebelled against Christ as God offers Him—as Savior and Lord (Psa. 2). The true convert, however, is willing to receive a whole Christ, without limitations. “He is willing to have Christ upon any terms; he is willing to have the dominion of Christ as well as deliverance by Christ,” Alleine said.

This unreserved receiving of Christ is especially evident in written covenants entered into by Puritans. Puritan preachers encouraged their listeners to “close with” (appropriate) a freely offered Christ by faith, then draft and sign a document of total commitment, in which they “covenanted” (surrendered) their entire lives to God. These moving covenants are found in numerous Puritan diaries and evangelistic books. The Puritans would stand aghast at the present trend in modern evangelism which seeks merely to rescue sinners from hell, postponing their submission to the sovereign lordship of Christ until later.

Preaching Christ with winsomeness and grace was the greatest burden and most essential task of the Puritan evangelist. “Christ crucified” must be “the subject matter of gospel-preaching,” Robert Traill said. “Two things ministers have to do:… 1. To set him forth to people; to paint him in his love, excellency, and ability to save. 2. To offer him unto them freely, fully, without any limitation as to sinners, or their sinful state.” Robert Bolton agreed: “Jesus Christ is offered most freely, and without exception of any person, every Sabbath, every Sermon.” The Puritan evangelists repeatedly presented Christ in His ability, willingness to save, and preciousness as the only Redeemer of lost sinners. They did so with theological articulation, divine grandeur, and human passion. They extolled Christ to the highest as both an objective and a subjective Savior, and abased man to the lowest. They were not worried about injuring the self-esteem of listeners. They were far more concerned about esteeming the Triune God; the Father who created us with dignity in His image; the Son who restores that dignity to us through redemption and the adoption of sons; and the Holy Spirit who indwells us and makes our souls and bodies His temple. Self-esteem messages which do not center upon a Triune God they would have viewed as “self-deceit” messages. We have nothing to esteem in ourselves apart from God, the Puritans said. Apart from His grace, we are fallen, wretched, unworthy, and hell-bound.

To mention only one more doctrine, Puritan evangelists also stressed sanctification. The believer must walk the king’s highway of holiness in gratitude, service, obedience, love, and self-denial. He must know experientially the continued exercise of the twin graces of faith and repentance. He must learn the art of meditation, of fearing God, and of childlike prayer. He must press on by God’s grace, seeking to make his calling and election sure.

Dr. Joel Beeke is Professor of Systematic Theology and Homiletics at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary, pastor of the Heritage Netherlands Reformed Congregation of Grand Rapids, Michigan, and editor of the Banner of Sovereign Grace Truth periodical.