The Reformed Theology of Grace and Its Influence on Puritan Spirituality

The Reformed theology of grace, as articulated in the Canons of Dort, informed and influenced the spirituality of the Puritans. These Canons of Dort, also called the Five Articles against the Remonstrants, consist of doctrinal statements adopted by the Synod of Dort in 1618–19 against the Five Articles of the Remonstrants (conditional election based on foreseen faith, universal atonement, partial depravity of man, resistible grace, and the possibility of lapsing from grace). In response to these five articles, the delegates at the Synod of Dort issued what came to be known as the five points of Calvinism or doctrines of grace (unconditional election, limited atonement, total depravity, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints). These doctrines highlight the sovereign and gracious work of God in salvation (see The Doctrines of Grace by Boice and Ryken).

For the Reformed, grace is a favor that God sovereignly and freely bestows on those who do not deserve it; in fact, they deserve the exact opposite. Grace rests on God’s eternal election without foreseen faith, its ground is the person and finished work of Christ, and its efficient cause is the Holy Spirit. With this grace, man is given the ability to repent and believe. And as a recipient of God’s unwavering favor, man will persevere until the end. While there is significant diversity among the Puritan heirs of this Reformed view of grace (for instance, there were strong Calvinists like Thomas Goodwin, moderate Calvinists like Richard Baxter, and even Arminian Calvinists like John Goodwin), these doctrines of grace are the broad lines of the Puritan understanding of grace, which impacted their spirituality in various ways. What follows are at least five effects that the Reformed theology of grace had on Puritan spirituality in general.

First, with the Reformed emphasis on the unconditional election and sovereign giving of grace, Puritan spirituality flowed from God’s work and not the product of mere human effort. On the flip side, it saw the human depravity that not only did not merit God’s favor but merited his condemnation. That the Puritans adopted the Calvinistic view on depravity and grace is clear in the Westminster Confession, in which the Puritan divines maintain that man by his fall has totally lost his ability to choose any spiritual good for his salvation. Their emphasis on total depravity underlined the necessity of God’s sovereign grace in salvation. Hence, as Gleason and Kapic have noted, the spirituality of the Puritans was “predominantly Augustinian” in its emphasis on human depravity and sovereign grace (see their The Devoted Life). Yet this Reformed emphasis on election, depravity, and grace did not stop the Puritans from freely and sincerely offering the gospel to all sinners. In their preaching and writing they called sinners to repentance and faith (see, for instance, John Bunyan’s Come and Welcome to Jesus Christ).

Second, the spirituality of the Puritans was shaped by their understanding of grace as grounded in the person and finished work of Christ. Because Christ is the basis of grace, union and communion with him is often foregrounded, and meditating on Christ is one way this manifests in spirituality. Thus, the Puritans wrote lengthy meditations on Christ. Take, for example, Samuel Rutherford’s collection of letters in The Loveliness of Christ and Thomas Goodwin’s The Heart of Christ in Heaven toward Sinners on Earth. Likewise, with this view of grace, the Puritans avoided exalting excessively the physical humanity of the Savior, as seen in certain strains of Roman Catholicism with its emphasis on the Eucharist. Instead the Puritans recognized it was Christ himself who worked salvation and thus whom the heart must love and adore.

Third, Puritan spirituality viewed the Holy Spirit’s work in the soul as the effectual cause of grace. Despite our deadness in sin, the Spirit regenerated us, planting the seed out of which a life of grace would bloom. Indeed, the need for regeneration by the Spirit became a dominant theme in Puritan spirituality. To illustrate this, Thomas Goodwin, author of The Work of the Holy Spirit in Our Salvation, once said that at regeneration the Spirit quickened, enabled, and inclined the soul so as to believe and repent. The Puritans believed that all spirituality resulted from the Spirit’s prior work in the soul. It is immediately upon regeneration that man becomes a cooperator with the Spirit, yet this is always in response to the Spirit’s work. Thus, the Puritans stressed the Spirit’s role not only in conversion but also in sanctification. To give an example, they emphasized the role of the Spirit in prayer, realizing that apart from the Spirit we cannot pray in such a way pleasing to God (see Bunyan’s I Will Pray with the Spirit).

Fourth, the Reformed emphasis on the Father’s electing work, Christ’s redeeming work, and the Spirit’s sanctifying work is another hallmark of Puritan spirituality. This trinitarian emphasis is clearly seen in John Owen’s Communion with God, a work that is not really about prayer but about the doctrine of the Trinity. Owen teaches the Christian that a life of spirituality is about communing with each one of the members of the Trinity in the proper way, each one being the object of our adoration, affection, and prayer. As Rutherford expressed it, “I do not know which person of the trinity I love the most, but this I know, I love each of them and I need them all.”

Finally, and closely related to the emphasis on God’s sovereign, gracious, and definitive work, is the fact that man can be assured of his faith and that he will persevere until the end by God’s preserving grace. The Puritans spent a lot of time on assurance of faith, on its objective grounds and its subjective marks. They attempted to balance a firm trust in what God has done and is doing, without becoming presumptuous, while also identifying the subjective marks without causing those subjective feelings in the soul to simply become the reason for assurance of faith. For instance, according to Joel Beeke in his book Living for God’s Glory, the delegates at the Synod of Dort recognized that Arminian theology threatened the believer’s eternal security and assurance in God’s sovereign grace. Why? Because according to the Remonstrants you can lose your salvation. By understanding the Reformed theology of grace, the Puritans could enjoy assurance of faith because they knew that God would preserve them for eternity.

Sadly, some historians such as David Bebbington think that the Puritans held the position that assurance is rare. This, Bebbington argues, is in contrast to the evangelical belief which maintains that assurance is normal (see his Evangelicalism on Modern Britain). Scholars such as Beeke and Michael Haykin have challenged Bebbington’s view and convincingly argue that the Puritans practiced and taught assurance of faith (see Beeke’s Quest for Full Assurance and Haykin’s coedited book The Advent of Evangelicalism). That the Puritans preached and taught assurance of salvation is clear. For example, Baxter exhorted his congregation not to sit down without assurance, meaning they should not rest until they were assured of God’s saving grace in their lives. Thomas Brooks expressed his assurance of faith this way: “I am wholly His . . . I am eternally His.” “To all who love Christ sincerely,” said William Pinke, “God presently gives an everlasting assurance of salvation.”

Puritan Puritan piety Reformed Theology Spirituality