Relying on the Spirit
The Puritans were able to weather trials and rebuke pride because of their profound reliance upon the Holy Spirit. They keenly felt their inability to bring anyone to Christ as well as the magnitude of conversion. “God never laid it upon thee to convert those he sends thee to. No; to publish the gospel is thy duty,” William Gurnall said to ministers. And Richard Baxter wrote,
“Conversion is another kind of work than most are aware of. It is not a small matter to bring an earthly mind to heaven and to show man the amiable excellencies of God, to be taken up in such love to him that can never be quenched; to make him flee for refuge to Christ and thankfully embrace him as the life of his soul; to have the very drift and bent of his life change so that a man renounces that which he took for his happiness, and places his happiness where he never did before.”
The Puritans were convinced that both preacher and listener are totally dependent on the work of the Spirit to effect regeneration and conversion when, how, and in whom He will. The Spirit brings God’s presence into human hearts. He persuades sinners to seek salvation, renews corrupt wills, and makes scriptural truths take root in stony hearts. As Thomas Watson wrote, “Ministers knock at the door of men’s hearts, the Spirit comes with a key and opens the door.” And Joseph Alleine said:
“Never think you can convert yourself. If ever you would be savingly converted, you must despair of doing it in your own strength. It is a resurrection from the dead (Eph. 2:1), a new creation (Gal. 6:15; Eph. 2:10), a work of absolute omnipotence (Eph. 1:19).”
Especially as a young minister, Timothy, you need to be persuaded that the Spirit’s regenerating action is, as John Owen wrote, “infallible, victorious, irresistible, and always efficacious”; it “removeth all obstacles, overcomes all oppositions, and infallibly produces the effect intended.” All modes of action which imply another doctrine are unbiblical. J.I. Packer writes: “All devices for exerting psychological pressure in order to precipitate ‘decisions’ must be eschewed, as being in truth presumptuous attempts to intrude into the province of the Holy Ghost.” Such pressures may even be harmful, he goes on to say, for while they “may produce the outward form of ‘decision,’ they cannot bring about regeneration and a change of heart, and when the ‘decisions’ wear off those who registered them will be found ‘gospel-hardened’ and antagonistic.” Packer concludes in a Puritan vein:
“Evangelism must rather be conceived as a long-term enterprise of patient teaching and instruction, in which God’s servants seek simply to be faithful in delivering the gospel message and applying it to human lives, and leave it to God’s Spirit to draw men to faith through this message in his own way and at his own speed.”
Remember, Timothy, the Holy Spirit must and will also bless faithful preaching both to the conversion of unbelievers and to the growth in grace of believers. Be encouraged; God’s Word will accomplish its purpose by His Spirit (Is. 55:10-11; John 3:8). The Westminster Larger Catechism (Q. 155) says that the Spirit of God makes “especially the preaching of the word an effectual means of enlightening, convincing, and humbling sinners; of driving them out of themselves, and drawing them unto Christ; of conforming them to his image, and subduing them to his will; strengthening them against temptations and corruptions; of building them up in grace, and establishing their hearts in holiness and comfort through faith unto salvation.”
Previous articles in the "Learn from the Puritans" series:
- Being Shaped by the Word
- Marrying Doctrine and Practice
- Preaching Practical Piety
- Preaching Experientially
- Focusing on Christ
- Keeping with Catechizing
- Praying Without Ceasing
- Learning How to Meditate
- Handling Trials; Rebuking Pride
Joel Beeke (@JoelBeeke) is president and professor of Systematic Theology and Homiletics at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary and one of the pastors of the Heritage Netherlands Reformed Congregation both in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He has written, co-authored, and edited over 80 books.
"Patience and Maturity" by Gabriel Williams
Solitude Improved by Divine Meditation, available in paperback through Soli Deo Gloria Publications
Reformed Preaching by Joel Beeke
Meet the Puritans by Joel Beeke and Randall J. Pederson
 The Christian in Complete Armour (1662; reprint London: Banner of Truth Trust, 1964), p. 574 (second pagination).
 Cf. Richard Baxter, Reformed Pastor, abridged (1862; reprint London: Banner of Truth Trust, 1974), pp. 94-96, 114-16.
 Packer, A Quest for Godliness, pp. 296-99.
 The Select Works of Rev. Thomas Watson (New York: Robert Carter & Brothers, 1856), p. 154.
 An Alarm to the Unconverted (Charlestown: Samuel Etheridge, 1807), pp. 29-30.
 Works of John Owen (1850; reprint Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1976), 3:317ff.
 A Quest for Godliness, pp. 163-64.