“SOME COMMENTS ON WHAT IS CALLED ‘PURITAN EVANGELISM’”
1. Over the last several years our Church has begun to recognize the errors of and has begun to move away from decisionism toward a more thoroughly Biblical approach to evangelism.
2. But when you move away from decisionism where do you go? Looking back over the centuries, those whose approach to evangelism was most like the evangelism of the Lord Jesus and His apostles, those whose approach to evangelism most heavily relied upon an absolute confidence in God’s Word, were the Puritans of England and the New England colonies.
3. Now, it must be clearly noted that the Puritans were not uniform in their thinking or in their practice. But for three or four generations God worked in the lives of this group of men and the congregations they led in a way that we have not seen either before or since in the English speaking world.
4. I want to make some comments about “Puritan Evangelism,” because that is the direction our Church is going in our effort to see real conversions in our ministry. And please understand that these are comments from a preacher who has not arrived.
5. My comments are for the purpose of providing for you some kind of context, a back drop if you will, against which you can better understand what we are about.
1A. Let Me Begin By Defining ‘PURITAN EVANGELISM’
1B. 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 Christian family and to lead people toward biblical, godly living.
2B. Puritanism grew out of at least three needs: (1) the need for biblical preaching and the teaching of sound 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 Christian worship and church government, so that a well-ordered church life would promote the worship of God as prescribed in His Word.
3B. Doctrinally, Puritanism tended to be but was not exclusively a kind of broad and vigorous Calvinism. Puritans tended to be warm and contagious Christians, and their evangelism was tender as well as aggressive. They clarified for us what the family unit was and how it should operate, and they gave rise to what became the British and American middle class.
4B. “Evangelism” was not a word the Puritans would have used, but they were evangelists nonetheless. Richard Baxter’s book “A Call to the Unconverted” and Joseph Alleine’s “Alarm to the Unconverted” are classic works in evangelistic literature. Evangelism was, for these and other Puritans, a Bible-centered task that the entire congregation participated in, particularly the pastors. They did not de-emphasize the role of the pastor in evangelism as is done in most Churches these days. They also understood the central role of preaching and the necessity of prayer in evangelism. They were truly “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.
5B. Unlike decisionists these days, the Puritans recognized that a sinner’s heart needs to be prepared before conversion can take place. As Spurgeon once said, “Our heavenly Father does not usually make us seek Jesus till he has whipped us clean out of all our confidence; he cannot make us in earnest after heaven till he has made us feel something of the intolerable tortures of an aching conscience, which has foretaste of hell.”
6B. The expression “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 reflects God’s glory. For the Puritans, evangelism not only involved presenting Christ so that by the power of the Holy Spirit people come to God through Him. It equally involved so presenting Christ that the believer would grow in Him, and serve Him as Lord in the fellowship of His Church and in the extension of His kingdom in the world.
6B. Puritan evangelism, in a way that is unknown to contemporary evangelicals, recognizes the role played in the salvation of a sinner by each of the 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 their unbelief.
2A. Second, “PURITAN EVANGELISM” WAS UNASHAMEDLY DOCTRINAL
1B. The Puritans saw theology as being very practical. William Perkins called theology “the science of living blessedly for ever.” William Ames called theology, “the doctrine or teaching of living to God.” One man familiar with the Puritans wrote, “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.”
2B. The Puritans, therefore, were not afraid to preach the whole counsel of God. They did not play with their audience by telling humorous stories or folksy anecdotes. They felt the awesome responsibility of handling eternal truth and addressing immortal souls. They preached the weighty truths of God,
As a dying man to dying men,
As never sure to preach again!
3B. For example, when the Puritans dealt with the doctrine of sin, they called sin sin. They declared sin 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,” stressed the heinousness of sin. In 67 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.
4B. The Puritans taught in no uncertain terms that through the 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 problems make us unfit for communion with God. And much more than an outward reformation of life is therefore needed to meet the demands of God. Inward regeneration of the heart is essential for salvation.
5B. The Puritans also 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, which is fine when the verse is rightly understood and applied, the Puritan would more likely cite Genesis 1.1, “In the beginning God,” to show how everything that happened since the beginning is part of what God has designed for His own glory.
6B. The Puritans understood that the doctrines of atonement, justification, and reconciliation are meaningless apart from a true understanding of God Who condemns sin, and Who sent His Son to atone for sinners, to justify sinners, and to reconcile sinners to Himself. They also made good use of the Law to prepare hearts for conversion and were unafraid to declare the righteous wrath of God ready to be poured upon the unconverted, as Jonathan Edwards’ famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” shows so clearly and so convincingly.
7B. Puritan evangelism also emphasized the doctrine of Christ. “Preaching is the chariot that carries Christ up and down the world,” wrote Richard Sibbes. Puritan titles include 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.
8B. Alleine shows us that the dividing of the offices and benefits of Christ is not a 20th century invention. Throughout the ages man has rebelled against Christ as God offers Him — as Savior and Lord (Psalm 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.
8B. The Puritans would stand against 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. 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 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.
9B. 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 by experience 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.’
1. Time is short and I must stop, but you begin to get the picture. God raised up a group of men in England the later on in the colonies who were giants of personal piety and devotion to Christ. They feared God and not man.
2. Now, they were not perfect men who were right about everything. But I’m convinced that they were fairly well on target regarding those matters they were supremely concerned with . . . glorifying God, analyzing the sinful heart of unconverted man, bringing individual sinners to real conversion to Christ, and heart worship and service to God.
3. There is nothing new being explored at our Churches. Rather, we simply seek to learn from some old masters who were singularly blessed of God, who had some profound insights, and who have so far proven themselves to have done us some good. We thank God for them.