Robbers of Assurance? In Defense of the Puritans

In recent years I have heard and read various criticisms of the Puritans and (rather surprisingly) Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. Bunyan’s “dream” is certainly not a perfect system of theology by any stretch of the imagination, but if it leaves you cold then I would be very interested in what makes you warm. There must be a reason that Charles Spurgeon said: “Next to the Bible, the book I value most is John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress.” Or why Machen called it that “tenderest and most theological of books.”

Not all English Puritan works on Christian living are equally good. Thomas Watson’s, Heaven Taken by Storm, could use a little more Christology, in my mind. And Baxter, who is frequently misunderstood and misread (or, apparently, not read at all but still an easy whipping boy for some), also had some wild ideas at times that I wouldn’t suggest every Christian read and embrace. (I cannot confirm whether swallowing a bullet can relieve constipation). And while not a Puritan, I don’t really care for Edwards’s Resolutions, which I wish had been between him and the Lord. When you consider the vast number of writings from the seventeenth century, including the English Puritans, it would be silly to think they are all great simply because they were from that era. Only exclusive Psalmists can make such claims about their theological distinctive.

Nonetheless, to make a sweeping claim that basically amounts to warning people that the Puritans are dangerous to the soul (e.g., they rob one of assurance) reveals a stunning ignorance of their theology.  

Consider that Dane Ortlund’s book, Gentle and Lowly, would not exist if it were not for Thomas Goodwin’s pastoral masterpiece, The Heart of Christ in Heaven Towards Sinners on Earth. Ortlund makes positive use of many Puritans, including Sibbes and Bunyan. Chapter 6 is taken up summarizing Bunyan’s work, Come and Welcome to Jesus Christ, which Ortlund describes as lovely and warm. So, the most popular work on Christian assurance in the last decade is basically Puritanesque. But remember, the Puritans rob people of assurance.

Quite apart from Goodwin’s work, there are so many wonderful discourses by Puritan authors that show they were concerned to help “weak Christians.” In one sermon by Christopher Love, Grace: the truth and growth and different degrees, he remarks: “Is it not a demonstration of great power, to keep a small spark of fire that it shall not be quenched in a flood of water? Yet behold that little spark of grace in you shall not be quenched in you by the flood and torrent of your corruptions. It is by God’s power that the least measure of grace shall be preserved.” Imagine listening to those words and walking away robbed of assurance?

There was a concept of “weak grace” among Puritan writers, which they spoke of to comfort God’s people. The weakest or least measure of grace will be sufficient to bring a soul to glory. Stephen Charnock penned a marvellously encouraging work titled, A Discourse Proving Weak Grace Victorious. When the seed of saving grace enters the soul, “though mixed with a mass of corruption,” says Charnock, there will be victory, “for as the weakness of God is stronger than men, so is the weakness of grace stronger than sin…”

In the same work, Charnock speaks of how the strength and vigor of our actions is often “enfeebled” by remaining indwelling sin so that, with Paul, we do the evil we hate and omit the good we should love. Charnock adds, “we cannot deny but that our acts flow [more] often from a corrupt than a renewed principle; yes, and those actions which flow from grace are so tinctured with the vapours of the other [sinful] principle, that they seem to partake more of the impressions of the law of sin than of the law of the [spirit]; so that our perseverance is not to be measured by the constant temper of our actions, but from the permanency of the habit…”  This is a realistic and sober-minded approach to sanctification and growth in grace. Far from affirming a type of Christian perfectionism, or a standard that causes us doubts about our own salvation, he candidly admits to the struggles we all face.

In another place he talks about how grace can never be “blown out, but there will be some smoke, some spark, whereby it may be re–kindled. The smoking snuff of Peter’s grace was lighted again by a sudden look of his Master. Yes, it may, by a secret influence of the Spirit, gather strength to act more vigorously after its emerging from under the present oppression, like the sun, more warm in its beams after it has been obscured by fogs. Peter’s love was more vigorous after his recovery.” So even for those who backslide, the hope is offered that grace will prove victorious.

So, go ahead, critique Puritan theology and literature. But at least give the impression that your opinion has been formed from having read the books that allegedly creep you out. Offering a wholesale write-off of their work tells me that you really haven’t read them carefully and seem to be more interested in cheap point-scoring than in the truth.

Or it may be the case that some of the searching exhortations found in their writings are indeed a little uncomfortable for those who have imbibed a not-so-subtle antinomianism that still masquerades as Reformed theology. After all, if the idea that the gospel contains not just promises but also exhortations and warnings causes you some grief, then criticisms of the Puritans are to be expected.

There are theological truths that have aided my own assurance, as well as that of many others, that are a direct result of insights from the Puritans, which I was not able to find discoursed on so vividly with respect to Christ anywhere else in church history. If you want to pull a group of theologians from church history who best discoursed upon the promises of God, I don’t imagine you’ll get a better group than the Puritans. Now to close with some words of assurance from Goodwin: “For if one promise do belong to you, then all do; for every one conveys [the] whole Christ in whom all the promises are made...”

Mark Jones (Ph.D., Leiden) has been the minister at Faith Vancouver Presbyterian Church (PCA), Canada since 2007.

Picture By Paul-Charles Chocarne-Moreau (1855-1931)