Four Lessons I’ve Learned From the Puritans

Note: Today I have Dave Arnold as my guest blogger. He is a pastor and writer living in the Monroe-area of Michigan. He has authored five books and contributed to The Jonathan Edwards Encyclopedia. You can contact him at davejarnold16@gmail.com

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Although I was exposed to a few of the Puritans when I was in college – namely, in my preaching classes – it wasn’t until 2014 that God, by His grace, opened my eyes to these spiritual giants of the seventeenth century and forever changed my life.

I remember the morning clearly. It was early and my daughter (who was only a few months old), was sitting on my lap contently. I reached over to grab my Kindle and scrolled through the “free books” section. It was then my eyes fell upon a title Samuel Rutherford and Some of His Correspondents by Alexander Whyte. I knew of Whyte and had read some of his sermons, so I thought I’d download it. And I’m so glad I did!

Whyte had me at the introduction, as he beautifully portrayed the life of Rutherford, the great Scottish divine of Anwoth, his exile in Aberdeen, his involvement in the Westminster Assembly, and most importantly, his ardent love for Christ.

Not only did I read Whyte’s classic work on Rutherford’s letters, but then went on to read the Letters myself, which drastically impacted the trajectory of my life. Moreover, through Whyte, and then incidentally, Rutherford, their writing opened my eyes to other Puritans; and thus, my journey to understand the Puritans began.

With that said, I’d like to share with you four lessons on how the Puritans have impacted me personally.

1. Personal Holiness

The first lesson I learned from the Puritans was the importance (and urgency!) of personal holiness, both within the believer and the church. To be honest, my Christian life prior to reading Whyte’s book on Rutherford was lacking in holiness. I believed in the Lord, was involved in ministry, had regular time with Him, but I had grown apathetic.

Shortly after I read Rutherford, I dusted off an old copy of a Jonathan Edwards book I had and read his Personal Narrative (the story of Edwards’ conversion and growth in Christ). I was struck with how serious Edwards took holiness. He writes, “I had vehement longings of soul after God and Christ, and after more holiness, wherewith my heart seemed to be full, and ready to break.” Oh how my heart soared when I read those words, and how I too had a greater longing for more holiness.

The Puritans saw holiness as both experiential and holistic; that is, holiness should be in every part of our lives.

2. The Ugliness of Sin

Not only did the Puritans help me understand the importance of personal holiness, but also of the ugliness of sin. “Sin is likened to the rot,” says Puritan Ralph Venning, “to the filth and corruption of the foulest disease, which is so foul and rotten that one would not touch it with a pair of tongs.” The Puritans took the doctrine of sin very serious, much more than we tend to in our modern day. In our culture of excessive hedonism, the Puritan seriousness of sin is a much-needed reminder. Indeed, we cannot understand the sweetness of grace unless we know the bitterness of sin.

3. The Importance of Reverence

Another vital lesson I have learned from the Puritans is the importance of the fear of the Lord, a theme we don’t hear preached too often from the pulpit. And yet, one cannot understand the love of God without the fear of God.

The Puritans reminded me of how crucial it is to have a holy reverence toward the Lord. In fact, in my recent book In This Manner: Six Essential Truths on How to Live Out the Lord’s Prayer, I touch on this subject in great detail.

4. Delighting in the Lord’s Day

My first pastorate position was as a youth and associate pastor of a church in Romulus, Michigan, a few miles away from Detroit Metropolitan Airport. And in that church, we had two services: a morning service and an evening service. Sunday was the Lord’s Day… the whole day. Therefore, I spent the majority of that day at church and within fellowship with the congregation. I loved it!

But when my wife and I moved to Ohio, the church I worked at had two morning services and no evening service. And I noticed something: once church was over, people rushed to get out, go out to eat, watch football, or play golf (depending on the weather). It was as if they said, “Well, church is done; I can check that off my list… now it’s football time!”

This is a sad reality for many of our churches today. We have lost the sanctity of the Lord’s Day.

Thankfully, when I began to read the Puritans regarding the Lord’s Day, it breathed new life into my week as I began to anticipate Sunday – the “market day of the soul,” as the Puritans called it. Thomas Watson said “you cannot love the Lord unless you love His day.”

I am eternally indebted to the Puritans and to the many lessons I’ve learned from them. In fact, studying Puritan theology has become a passion of mine, and one I plan to continue throughout the rest of my life.

Note: Here are three books on the Puritans that you may be interested in:

  1.  Taking Hold of God: Reformed and Puritan Perspectives on Prayer
  2. The Very Heart of Prayer: Reclaiming John Bunyan’s Spirituality
  3. Jonathan Edwards: His Doctrine of & Devotion to Prayer 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A Proud Calvinist

In May of 2009 Dr. Joel Beeke and I were in the Philippines to attend a conference on reformed theology in which Dr. Beeke was the speaker. During the Q&A session one of the delegates asked, “Can you be a Calvinist and at the same time proud?” To this question Dr. Beeke initially replied, “To be a Calvinist and proud at the same time is an oxymoron.”proud calvinist

Indeed, a proud Calvinist is a combination of two terms that have opposite meanings. A true Calvinist is one who humbly submits to God’s sovereignty. A proud person is one who places himself above God. A Calvinist prays with the tax collector, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” A proud person prays with the Pharisee, “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector” (Luke 18:11-13).

I think the aforementioned question arose out of a concern that some of those who have discovered Calvinistic theology have become proud of themselves. What does a proud Calvinist look like?

  1. A proud Calvinist looks down on those who are not Calvinists. He thinks that he is superior to them. And when he refutes their unscriptural doctrines, he does so very sarcastically. He acts like the unbelieving criminal, who railed at Jesus, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us! (Luke 23:39). Likewise, when he defends his faith, he does so with harshness and disrespect. This proud Calvinist should learn from Peter: “honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15).
  1. A proud Calvinist brags about his collection of reformed books. He gathers books for his self-glorification, rather than for his sanctification and God’s splendor. John Bunyan calls this kind of sin “the pride of the library.”[1] According to Bunyan, this particular sin is committed:

When men secretly please themselves to think it is known what a stock of books they have; or when they take more pleasure in the number of, than the matter contained in their books.

When they buy books rather to make up a number, than to learn to be good and godly men thereby.

When, though they own their books to be good and godly, yet they will not conform thereto.[2]

 

  1. A proud Calvinist is only concerned with theology (the study of God); he does not care about piety (the practice of godliness). For instance, with great diligence he reads a lot of books on reformed theology but only to increase his knowledge, so that he can show to others how theologically intellectual he is. This proud Calvinist should realize that the Reformers as well as the Puritans did not only write to inform the head (know God) but to touch the heart (love God) and move the hands (serve God). In fact, the very purpose of John Calvin in writing the Institutes, his great theological work, was “solely to transmit certain rudiments by which those who are touched with any zeal for religion might be shaped to true godliness.”[3] In short, Calvin wrote to promote what John Murray called “intelligent piety,” spirituality that is rooted in Scripture. In Calvinism, theology and piety are inseparable. The study of God prompts the practice of godliness.

Are you a proud Calvinist? Does your study of reformed theology produce piety in your Christian life? Does your study make you love Christ more and hate sin more? Pray with Robert Murray M’Cheyne, “Lord, make me as holy as a pardoned sinner can be.” Remember, a true Calvinist is marked by piety not pride, humility not haughtiness.

 

 

                 [1] John Bunyan, “A Holy Life,” in The Miscellaneous Works of John Bunyan, vol. 9, gen. ed. Roger Sharrock (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981), 324.

                 [2] Bunyan, “A Holy Life,” 324.

                 [3] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill and trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), 1:9.

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A Brief Purpose of “The Very Heart of Prayer”

The purpose of my book is twofold:  first, to demonstrate that while John Bunyan (1628-1668) historically belonged to the sectarian world, he can still rightly be considered a Puritan; and Book on Bunyan (picture)second, to reclaim Bunyan from scholars who not only dispute his identity as a Puritan but also overlook his rich and peculiar spirituality.

The volume has only three chapters. Chapter 1 carefully explores Bunyan’s religious identity, leading to the conclusion that he may be labeled a sectarian Puritan. Chapter 2 critically examines his theology of prayer, one important aspect of his spirituality. In this segment, I particularly scrutinize Bunyan’s treatise I will pray with the Spirit (1662). The analysis of this treatise shows Bunyan’s radical emphasis on the Holy Spirit’s work in prayer. It also shows both Bunyan’s sectarianism and Puritanism. Chapter 3 probes his teaching on piety, as found in A Holy Life (1684). This chapter demonstrates that Bunyan’s goal in all of his life was the pursuit and promotion of piety. Sadly, some scholars who put Bunyan within a sectarian context not only suspect his identity as a Puritan but also slight his rich spirituality. Chapter 3 seeks to recover Bunyan from such scholars who depreciate his piety.

I hope my work will create a thirst among readers to pray more—to pray with the Spirit, which for Bunyan is “the very heart of Prayer.”

Note: If you purchase a copy of my book from Reformation Heritage Books, you save $5.00.

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A Sketch of Christian Spirituality: From the Patristic Period to the Evangelical Era (Part 4 of 5)

Puritan Reformed Spirituality

The problem with medieval Catholic spirituality is that it does not purely stem from God’s Word. Consequently, it often produces unscriptural mysticism. In contrast, Puritan Reformed spirituality is essentially based on the Bible and in dependence on the Holy Spirit. The by-product is biblical piety.

Anyone who studies Puritan Reformed spirituality should not neglect Joel R. Beeke’s priceless work whose title itself is Puritan Reformed Spirituality. Beeke, president of Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary, Grand Rapids, Michigan, is a first-class scholar of Reformation and Post-Reformation theology. This book, according to Beeke, “promotes biblical spirituality through a study of the Reformed and Puritan heritage.”[1] Actually, all chapters in this volume (except for chapter 13) have been previously published in a periodical or book. As a result, and what could be perceived as a disadvantage, each chapter “is an independent unit with the exception of chapters 11 and 12.”[2] Yet, these independent units do not affect the serviceability of the material to understanding Puritan Reformed spirituality, a type of spirituality which the author believes to be biblical.

Puritan Reformed Spirituality deals with different dimensions of spirituality (assurance of faith, evangelism, the Decalogue, meditation, preaching, justification by faith, and others) with a special focus on the writings of the following authors:  French reformer John Calvin, English Puritans William Ames and Anthony Burgess, Scottish divines John Brown of Haddington, Thomas Boston, and Ebenezer and Ralph Erskine, and Dutch Second reformers Willem Teellinck, Herman Witsius, and Theodorus Jacobus Frelinghuysen. Noticeably, Beeke includes the spirituality of the Dutch Second or Further Reformation, which resembles English Puritanism, especially in terms of the practice of piety.

Of all nineteen chapters of Beeke’s book, one may find chapters 1, 4, 14, and 18 as most helpful for the understanding of Puritan Reformed spirituality. In chapter 1, “Calvin on Piety,” Beeke examines Calvin whose “reputation as an intellectual… is often seen apart from the vital spiritual and pastoral context in which he wrote his theology.”[3] Beeke dispels this caricature, insisting that for Calvin “theological understanding and practical piety, truth and usefulness, are inseparable.”[4] In fact, the very purpose of Calvin in writing his great theological work—the Institutes—was “solely to transmit certain rudiments by which those who are touched with any zeal for religion might be shaped to true godliness.”[5]

Ironically, Calvin’s concept of piety also has an element of mysticism—mystical union with Christ—which is cardinal to his system of theology. Beeke says, “For Calvin, piety is rooted in the believer’s mystical union (unio mystica) with Christ; thus this union must be our starting point.”[6] But such piety is different from medieval spirituality for the simple reason that Calvin’s piety is solidly grounded in the proper knowledge of God. Calvin believes that right doctrine of God prompts holy practice, and that the practice of holiness becomes only superficial when it does not emanate from the right knowledge of God. To further distinguish Calvin’s piety from medieval spirituality, Beeke gives the following explanation:

For Calvin, the Reformation includes the reform of piety (pietas), or spirituality, as much as a reform of theology. The spirituality that had been cloistered behind monastery walls for centuries had been broken down; medieval spirituality was reduced to a celibate, ascetic, and penitential devotion in the convent or monastery. But Calvin helped Christians understand piety in terms of living and acting every day according to God’s will (Rom. 12:1-2) in the midst of human society. Through Calvin’s influence, Protestant spirituality focused on how one lived the Christian life in the family, the fields, the workshop, and the marketplace. Calvin helped Protestants change the entire focus of the Christian life.[7]

In chapter 4, “The Puritan Practice of Meditation,” Beeke discusses one critical aspect of spirituality—meditation. For the Puritans, meditation is a spiritual exercise of both mind and heart. In the words of Thomas Watson (c. 1620-1689) meditation is “a holy exercise of the mind whereby we bring the truths of God to remembrance, and do seriously ponder upon them and apply them to ourselves.”[8] Puritan meditation centers on the written truth (Scripture) as well as the living Truth (Christ). As such, Beeke says, “the Puritans distanced themselves from the kind of bogus spirituality or mysticism that stresses contemplation at the expense of action, and flights of the imagination at the expense of biblical content.”[9]

In chapter 14, “Willem Teellinck and The Path of True Godliness,” Beeke addresses one of the foremost representatives of the Dutch Second Reformation, namely, Teellinck (1579-1629) who is often considered the father of the Dutch Further Reformation. Teellinck was profoundly influenced by the Puritans, particularly by their practice of piety.  This Puritan influence is seen in his sermons and writings in which his concern was always to promote holy living. In Teellinck’s The Path of True Godliness, his magnum opus on sanctification, he castigates those who claim to have faith in God, and yet do not show godliness in their lives. For Teellinck, “the true Christian faith is knowledge that leads to godliness.”[10] Beeke, commenting on the impact of Teellinck, states: “Teellinck’s positive emphasis in promoting biblical, Reformed spirituality serves as a corrective to much false spirituality…. to orthodox teaching that presents truth to the mind but does not apply it to the heart and daily life.”[11]

At the latter part of his life, however, Teellinck became somewhat mystical, emphasizing feelings more than faith. This mystical tendency can be detected from Teellinck’s The New Jerusalem, published posthumously. The Dutch Calvinist theologian Gisbertus Voetius (1589-1676) commented that, in this volume, Teellinck “could rightly be regarded as a second Thomas ä Kempis.”[12] Beeke agrees with Voetius’ comment, but adds that, unlike Thomas ä Kempis, Teellinck was “Reformed in his theology.”[13]

Beeke, in Chapter 18, “Cultivating Holiness,” reaches as it were the climax. This chapter is packed with quotes from the Reformers and the Puritans, and their like-minded successors. Here Beeke demonstrates to his readers what Puritan Reformed spirituality really is. The chapter ends with a pastoral plea to pray for piety with Robert Murray M’Cheyne (1813-1843), “Lord, make me as holy as a pardoned sinner can be.”[14]


[1] Joel R. Beeke, Puritan Reformed Spirituality (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2004), viii.

[2] Ibid., ix.

[3] Ibid., 1.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Cited in Ibid., 1-2. The quote is taken from John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill and trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), 1:9.

[6] Beeke, Puritan Reformed Spirituality, 4.

[7] Ibid., 26-27.

[8] Cited in Ibid., 74. The quote is taken fromThomas Watson, Heaven Taken by Storm (Morgan, Pa.; Soli Deo Gloria, 2000), 23.

[9] Beeke, Puritan Reformed Spirituality, 74.

[10] Willem Teellinck, The Path of True Godliness, ed. Joel R. Beeke, trans. Annemie Godbehere (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, reprint, 2006), 31.

[11] Beeke, Puritan Reformed Spirituality, 329.

[12] Cited in Ibid., 315.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Cited in 421.

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Forthcoming Book—Jonathan Edwards: His Doctrine of & Devotion to Prayer

Book Cover for Jonathan Edwards-His Doctrine of & Devotion to Prayer“In giving Jonathan Edwards to the church, God did her an inestimable favor. In giving Jonathan Edwards to the reader, Brian Najapfour has done the Christian a great favor.

Edwards rightly stands at the fountainhead of a great theological tradition. The depth of Edwards’ theology, however, often overwhelms the uninitiated. In response, the reader turns to shallower streams and dies instead of theological thirst. The great riches of Edwards await those who will swim against the current. Those who persevere find not only the majesty of his thought on such great doctrines as the will and sin. They find on the far shores of their efforts the gems, ideas and doctrines directly related to God’s call upon every Christian. Edwards’ theology of prayer is such a gem. Given the chance, Jonathan Edwards and this volume, Jonathan Edwards: His Doctrine of & Devotion to Prayer, promise to change the way we pray.”

Dr. Peter Beck, Assistant Professor of Religion, Charleston Southern University

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“Thomas Shepard, the Harvard man, once quipped that there are times in his life when he’d rather die than pray. No doubt we sometimes feel this way. This book on the man from Yale by Brian Najapfour will help remedy the problem of prayerlessness. For that reason alone I am grateful for this enjoyable read on the prayer life of Jonathan Edwards.”

—Dr. Mark Jones, Minister of Faith Presbyterian Church (PCA), Vancouver, British Columbia and Research Associate, University of the Free State, Bloemfontein, South Africa

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“Brian Najapfour weaves together a beautiful tapestry of theology and piety, of doctrine and devotion, from the life, sermons and writings of Jonathan Edwards. You’ll end up knowing much more about this godly man; but, if you follow his example, you’ll end up knowing even more about God.”

—Dr. David P. Murray, Professor of Old Testament and Practical Theology, Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary

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“Historically informed and contemporarily relevant, Jonathan Edwards: His Doctrine of & Devotion to Prayer equips one in the life of prayer.”

—Dr. Adriaan C. Neele, Associate Editor and Director of the Jonathan Edwards Center, Yale University Divinity School

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Brian G. Najapfour is pastor of Dutton United Reformed Church, Caledonia, Michigan, co-editor of Taking Hold of God: Reformed and Puritan Perspectives on Prayer (2011), and author of The Very Heart of Prayer: Reclaiming John Bunyan’s Spirituality (2012).

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New Book on John Bunyan (1628-1688)

The Very Heart of Prayer: Reclaiming the Spirituality of John Bunyan

 

“Najapfour advances a well-researched thesis that Bunyan was in fact a sectarian Puritan. While Bunyan was not a Puritan in the sense of a reformer within the Church of England, Najapfour demonstrates that Bunyan embraced a Reformed and Puritan spirituality—godliness empowered by biblical truth. Not only does Najapfour bridge the gap between scholarly and pious readings of Bunyan, but he also explores Bunyan’s view of prayer, the Holy Spirit, and godliness in a way that enriches our minds and souls.”

—Dr. Joel R. Beeke, President of Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary, Grand Rapids, Michigan.

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“Brian Najapfour has provided the church with a helpful introduction to Bunyan’s spirituality. I commend this book, and more importantly Bunyan himself, as a conversation partner for all evangelicals who desire a Word-centered, Spirit-led, gospel-driven spirituality.”

—Dr. Nathan A. Finn, Assistant Professor of Church History and Baptist Studies, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.

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“This new study by Brian Najapfour opens up to us Puritan views on what it means to pray in the Spirit and how deeper godliness is to be sought. Here we have solid help from some of Bunyan’s lesser known devotional writings. Those who are seeking serious godliness in our own times will find a good deal to help them in this book.”

—Rev. Maurice Roberts, Minister of Greyfriars Congregation, Inverness, Scotland, and former editor of Banner of Truth magazine.

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“A blend of history, biography, and practical theology, Najapfour’s book will be of profit to anyone who wants to learn more about either the life and times of the remarkable John Bunyan or about prayer.”

—Dr. Donald S. Whitney, Professor of Biblical Spirituality, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Kentucky.

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To purchase this book, click here.

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FORTHCOMING BOOK: The Very Heart of Prayer: Reclaiming the Spirituality of John Bunyan

Forthcoming book: The Very Heart of Prayer: Reclaiming the Spirituality of John Bunyan

“Najapfour advances a well-researched thesis that Bunyan was in fact a sectarian Puritan. While Bunyan was not a Puritan in the sense of a reformer within the Church of England, Najapfour demonstrates that Bunyan embraced a Reformed and Puritan spirituality—godliness empowered by biblical truth. Not only does Najapfour bridge the gap between scholarly and pious readings of Bunyan, but he also explores Bunyan’s view of prayer, the Holy Spirit, and godliness in a way that enriches our minds and souls.”

—Dr. Joel R. Beeke, President of Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary, Grand Rapids, Michigan.

__________________________________________________

“Brian Najapfour has provided the church with a helpful introduction to Bunyan’s spirituality. I commend this book, and more importantly Bunyan himself, as a conversation partner for all evangelicals who desire a Word-centered, Spirit-led, gospel-driven spirituality.”

—Dr. Nathan A. Finn, Assistant Professor of Church History and Baptist Studies, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.

__________________________________________________

“This new study by Brian Najapfour opens up to us Puritan views on what it means to pray in the Spirit and how deeper godliness is to be sought. Here we have solid help from some of Bunyan’s lesser known devotional writings. Those who are seeking serious godliness in our own times will find a good deal to help them in this book.”

—Rev. Maurice Roberts, Minister of Greyfriars Congregation, Inverness, Scotland, and former editor of Banner of Truth magazine.

____________________________________________________

“A blend of history, biography, and practical theology, Najapfour’s book will be of profit to anyone who wants to learn more about either the life and times of the remarkable John Bunyan or about prayer.”

—Dr. Donald S. Whitney, Professor of Biblical Spirituality, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Kentucky.

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Brian G. Najapfour holds a Th.M. in Historical Theology from Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary (PRTS). From 2001 until his coming to PRTS in 2006, Najapfour served as a pastor in the Philippines. He is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Biblical Spirituality at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is co-editor (along with Joel R. Beeke) of Taking Hold of God: Reformed and Puritan Perspectives on Prayer. He is married to Sarah J. Najapfour.

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