Joel Beeke – Puritan Preachers: Richard Sibbes

Continuing in our series on Puritan preachers (parts #1, #2), we come to Richard Sibbes (1577–1635). One source in which he reveals his view of preaching is The Fountain Opened, a collection of his sermons on 1 Timothy 3:16 (Works, vol. 5), where he addresses the office of the preacher particularly when he comes to the phrase “preached unto the Gentiles.”

When a king is enthroned, both his nobles and his common subjects must know it. Therefore, it is not enough for Christ to be “seen of angels,” His heavenly nobility. His kingdom must also be proclaimed to the entire world, all men called to submit to Him. He must be preached before He can be “believed on in the world,” Sibbes writes, for “faith is the issue and fruit of preaching” (Works 5:504). Sibbes says, “Preaching is the ordinance of God, sanctified for the begetting of faith, for the opening of the understanding, for the drawing of the will and affections to Christ.” This is the ladder of heaven that we must ascend one step at a time: first preaching, then faith, then prayer (Works 5:514).

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Joel Beeke – Puritan Preachers: Richard Rogers

Richard Rogers (1551–1618) is best known today for his massive Commentary on the Book of Judges, which is a collection of 103 sermons. In it we see that his preaching was very practical and experiential. For example, in Sermon 74, he describes the Holy Spirit’s inward work of conversion upon the soul: “While we give heed to the doctrine of the Lord Jesus, which is plainly, soundly, and powerfully taught us, the Lord enlighteneth us with grace and power of the Holy Ghost, and giveth us another heart to serve him (as he saith in Ezek. 36), than we had before” (pp. 655–656).

Here again we see the Reformed doctrine of predestination applied to the personal experience of salvation. Referring, like Perkins, to “that golden chaine” of Romans 8:30, Rogers said, “There is no other way to seek out the certainty of our election” apart from “the gift of faith, and the Spirit of God sanctifying” in our effectual calling. He explains that “predestination itself is manifested in time, by the enlightening and opening of the heart to receive the glad tidings of the gospel,” so that “Christ is embraced by faith” and “the Holy Ghost is given to the believer, who quickens the heart with spiritual grace.” God gives different degrees of grace to different people, but the work of salvation is fundamentally the same (p. 656).

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Joel Beeke – Should We Preach like the Puritans? Yes

I certainly do not wish to leave the impression from my previous post that the Puritans were bad examples as preachers. There are many ways in which we can and should imitate their preaching. Here are a few of the lessons we can learn from them.

1. Preach Well-Rounded Sermons

There are four dimensions of a good sermon. It must be biblical, offering an explanation of the meaning of the text in its biblical and historical context; doctrinal, deriving and defining truths from the text about God and man; experiential, addressing the truths to the hearts of the listeners with idealism, realism, and optimism; and practical, giving specific directions for how hearers should respond to God’s Word.

We may view these four words as the “golden chain of preaching.” All the doctrine we preach must be rooted in Bible, not in human traditions, experiences, or speculations. Christian experience must be informed by and conformed to the doctrines of Scripture, and must allow itself to be judged and measured by God’s Word lest we drift into mysticism and emotionalism. Our practical activity must always flow from the faith and love of our hearts, and must spring out of spiritual experience based in the truth of the written Word of God.

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Joel Beeke – John Bunyan: The Faithful Tinker

Young John Bunyan (1628–1688) hardly seemed fit for preaching. He was a coarse person with little education and a mouth full of foul language. He had lost his mother and sister to death and was exposed to the evils of military service before his seventeenth birthday. As a young man, he worked with his hands as a tinker or worker in soft metals. His soul was probably much like his body after carrying his sixty-pound portable anvil: outwardly tough and calloused, though inwardly bruised and burdened. Marriage to a church-going woman brought some moral improvement and produced much self-righteousness, but it was not until Bunyan overheard a few poor women talking about the new birth and the grace of God in Christ for sinners that he realized his greatest need.

The faithful pastor of those women, John Gifford, taught Bunyan about the grace of God. Bunyan read Martin Luther’s Commentary on Galatians and learned how Jesus Christ made satisfaction to divine justice for our sins by His death. Bunyan was transformed, and others soon called upon him to speak in meetings for evangelism and exhortation. Feeling very unworthy, he nevertheless was able to speak from his experience of the truth: “I preached what I felt, what I smartingly did feel, even that under which my poor soul did groan and tremble to astonishment.” He was not a fire-and-brimstone preacher who looked down on unbelievers, but one who lived with a “fire in mine own conscience.”

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Joel Beeke – Marital Love Must Be Sexual

As we’ve seen, the Puritans had a rich understanding of Christian marriage (part 1, part 2, part 3). In this final post, I’d like to show that they also believed marital love must be sexual. Both marital partners should give themselves fully to each other with joy and exuberance in a healthy sexual relationship marked by fidelity. Reformers such as Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, and John Calvin re-established this aspect of marriage by abandoning medieval Roman Catholic notions that marriage was inferior to celibacy leading to “religious” (clergy, monks, nuns) and “profane” (laity) classes of Christians, that all sexual contact between marital partners was only a necessary evil to propagate the human race, and that any procreative act that involved passion was inherently sinful. This negative view was rooted in the writings of the ancient church fathers, such as Tertullian, Ambrose, and Jerome, all of whom believed that, even within marriage, sexual intercourse necessarily involved sin (see Packer, A Quest for Godliness, 261).

Puritans preachers taught that the Roman Catholic view was unbiblical, even satanic. They cited Paul, who said that prohibition of marriage is a “doctrine of devils” (1 Tim. 4:1-3). Puritan definitions of marriage implied the conjugal act. For example, William Perkins (1558-1602) defines marriage as “the lawful conjunction of the two married persons; that is, of one man and one woman into one flesh” (“Christian Oeconomy,” 419). The Puritans viewed sex within marriage as a gift of God and as an essential, enjoyable part of marriage. William Gouge (1575-1653) said that husbands and wives should cohabit “with good will and delight, willingly, readily, and cheerfully” (Quoted in Ryken, Worldly Saints, 44). “They do err,” added Perkins, “who hold that the secret coming together of man and wife cannot be without sin unless it be done for the procreation of children” (“Christian Oeconomy,” 423).

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Joel Beeke – Marital Love Must Be Spiritual

Continuing with our series on the Puritans’ views of marital love (see introduction) we come to the theme of the spirituality of marital love, that is, that is must be in Christ and in accord with God’s commandments. Love must be rooted in the experience of being equally yoked together spiritually as believers. Richard Baxter (1615–1691) said that husbands and wives have the responsibility “especially to be helpers of each other’s salvation: to stir up each other to faith, love, and obedience, and good works: to warn and help each other against sin, and all temptations: to join in God’s worship in the family, and in private: to prepare each other for the approach of death, and comfort each other in the hopes of life eternal” (Practical Works, 4:234).

Although marriage is a universal institution ordained by God for the whole human race regardless of whether they are saved or not, marriage fulfils its deepest purpose and achieves its greatest stability only when grounded in Christian faith and the fear of God. If built on the sandy foundation of physical beauty or exceptional gifts and talents, it can easily be blown away by some storm.

The Spiritual Duties of the Husband

Marital love should be profoundly spiritual because, as William Gouge (1575-1653) observed, Christian marriage should conform to the pattern of Christ and His church. As Christ loves His church, so the husband must love his wife. He is to love her absolutely (v. 25), purposefully (v. 26), realistically (v. 27), and sacrificially (vv. 28–29). He must exercise a “true, free, pure, exceeding, constant love” to his wife, nourishing and cherishing her as Christ does His gathered people (v. 29) (Of Domestical Duties, 31).

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Joel Beeke – The Puritans on Marital Love: Introduction

Edward Taylor (c. 1642–1729), a pastor, physician, and poet of Puritan New England, wrote, “A curious knot God made in Paradise…. It was the true-love knot, more sweet than spice” (“Upon Wedlock, and Death of Children,” in The Poems of Edward Taylor, ed. Donald E. Stanford, abridged ed. [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1963], 344). The writings of the Puritans are sprinkled with declarations of the sweetness of marital love. By “sweet” and “sweetness” they meant to describe “a pleasant or gratifying experience, possession or state; something that delights or deeply satisfies” (Webster’s Dictionary). They delighted in the love of God and in every form of love commanded by God among mankind. In particular, they rejoiced in the love shared by husband and wife, and called married couples to love each other romantically, wholeheartedly, and perseveringly.

This may come as a shock to twenty-first-century minds; not many people today would use “Puritan” and “love” in the same sentence. Though evangelicals have become much more aware of the positive heritage of the Puritans, thanks to scholars such as J. I. Packer and his book, A Quest for Godliness, and literature produced by publishing houses such as Banner of Truth Trust and Reformation Heritage Books, the common cultural perception of the Puritans remains negative, a perception informed only by what the Puritans opposed. One prominent dictionary defines the noun “Puritan” first as “a member of a Protestant group in England and New England in the 16th and 17th centuries that opposed many customs of the Church of England,” and second, “a person who follows strict moral rules and who believes that pleasure is wrong.” We are quick to overlook that fact that perhaps the most well-known sentence ever written by the Puritans is, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever” (Westminster Shorter Catechism, Q&A 1).

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D. A. Carson – The Puritans: What They Have That The Moderns Have Not

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Whoever dares embark on a subject of this nature in a paper this brief faces three insuperable difficulties. The first concerns definition: how large a group of people, over how broad a time-span, can be included in the term “Puritan”? Even if that problem is solved, it leads directly to the next: in a brief article, the detailed documentation needed to be convincing cannot possibly be included. And that lack produces the third difficulty: as the documentation decreases, the dangers inherent in subjectivity increase in proportion. It is all too easy to discover in Puritan writings precisely what the critic would like to discover. Having admitted the difficulties, we nevertheless plunge into the subject since the contemporary Church of Jesus Christ continues to exhibit a sad ignorance concerning that incomparably Godly and influential minority group of believers called Puritans. Though the term be filled with opprobrium and mockery by the ignorant, let those who love the Lord. Jesus remember with respect that genuine purity is never to be despised; and the Puritans, in church life as in individual deportment, in private prayers as in scholarly achievement, stand amongst the grandest exemplars of Biblical purity.

The Puritan age proper spans a mere hundred years. In the middle of the sixteenth century, the crying need in both England and Scotland centred on the appalling ignorance of the masses at the parish level. Nominally, the people had become Protestants by royal decree. Following the years of turmoil under Henry VIII, the boy King Edward VI (1547-1553), and Mary Tudor (1553-1558, of “Bloody Mary” fame), the accession of Elizabeth I in 1558 coupled with the formal abolition of Catholicism by the Scottish Parliament in 1560 brought back scores of British exiles from their havens of refuge on the Continent. No haven was as influential as Geneva, where Calvin and his colleagues had taught some two hundred British exiles. They returned to their homeland bringing with them the so-called Geneva Bible, which went through 140 editions during the subsequent eighty years, read by Scottish Presbyterians and English Puritans alike. The Westminster Assembly, which effectively brought together divines from both groups, met in 1643; and out of this convention there emerged a matchless expression of Biblical truth in systematic and catechetical form: the Confession of Faith and the Larger and Shorter Catechisms.

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Ryan McGraw – Wilhelmus à Brakel on Damnation by Faith

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Can faith damn us? The Dutch “Puritan” theologian Wilhelmus à Brakel (1635-1711) argued that the first sin of Adam and Eve was unbelief. To state this differently, they exchanged faith in the Word of God for faith in the word of the Serpent (The Christian’s Reasonable Service, 1:372-373; print; online). He argued that in perfect humanity, emotion would have been subject to the intellect. Therefore, the temptation of Satan in the Garden of Eden consisted in appealing to the judgment of Adam and Eve. God told Adam and Eve that “in the day that you eat of [the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil] you shall surely die” (Gen. 2:16). Satan told them that they would be as gods instead (Gen. 3:5). à Brakel concluded:

The issue at hand – namely, not to die, but to gain wisdom by eating of this tree – was confirmed by faith, this being the act whereby one holds the words of someone else for truth. Therefore the first sin was faith in the serpent, believing that they would not die, but instead gain wisdom. . . . Therefore, the first sin was not pride, that is, to be equal with God, also not rebellion, disobedience, or an unwarranted appetite, but unbelief (1:373).

Unbelief is misplaced faith. à Brakel argued that the first link in a chain that led to all other sins. As Paul preached justification by faith, Adam experienced damnation by faith.

Allow me to add some practical reflections of my own. Adam’s damnation by faith has far reaching consequences for the human race. Faith ultimately rests upon the testimony of another rather than upon bare evidence. This is the primary point of John Owen’s (1616-1683) book, The Reason of Faith (Works, volume 4). Owen argued that it is the nature of faith to rest upon the authority of testimony. The primary reason why believers have faith in the divine authority of Scripture is that God Himself has spoken in Scripture. In light of à Brakel’s comments, it is noteworthy that Adam and Eve accepted the word of the serpent without prior evidence. Their true trial was considering whether they would rest on God’s authority alone, or on the authority of a creature. This accurately describes the history of faith in the Triune God versus unbelief ever since man’s Fall into sin. Those who reject God’s Word act like they do so based upon evidence or lack thereof, but they have unknowingly believed the lie of Satan by faith. The ultimate lie of Satan is that man’s reason and judgment rather than God’s authority determines the nature of reality, truth and falsehood, and right and wrong. Was this not the sin of our first parents?

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Patrick Ramsey – Good Works and Sola Fide

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In my last article I discussed that the puritans believed that good works are more than the fruit of faith, justification and salvation in that they are the way to eternal life and an antecedent condition of glorification. The minority of puritans labelled as “antinomians” not only rejected this view, they characterized it as a form of legalism. They were by no means the only ones to have done so. A noted 20th century scholar wrote that you didn’t have to be an antinomian to regard this view of good works “as a betrayal of the Reformation doctrine of justification by faith alone.” Indeed, more recently John Piper sparked something of an outrage by his statement that we do not attain heaven by faith alone, which essentially is no different from the puritan view.

I do not believe that the critics are right. The puritans didn’t betray justification sola fide (by faith alone) by their doctrine of good works. Nonetheless, I can see why people might think that they did and so in this article I want to make a few observations to demonstrate that they were able to maintain a high view of works without falling into works-righteousness or subverting the precious the precious doctrine of justification by faith alone.

First, the puritans were quick to point out that good works are non-meritorious. They do not “merit pardon of sin or eternal life” (Westminster Confession of Faith 16.5). Despite their necessity, good works are not the grounds or basis for entering into eternal life. When John Davenant affirmed that good works “have a relation to the attainment of eternal life,” he did not fail to qualify that relation by noting in the very same sentence that it was “not as merits by the value and worth of which we attain it, but as the intermediate courses, or paths, by which we advance towards the goal of eternal life, according to the appointment of God.” Similarly, John Ball said: “Without observation in some measure to all the Commandments of God, we cannot enter into the kingdome of heaven: but we enter not for the obedience we have performed.”

Second, the puritans emphasized that the ability to do good works is “wholly from the Spirit of Christ” (WCF 16.3). Westminster Larger Catechism Q&A 32 says that the Holy Spirit is given to the elect “to enable them unto all holy obedience…as the way which he hath appointed them to salvation.” The puritans didn’t neglect the role of the Holy Spirit or the unconditional promises of God. They believed and taught that obedience is a condition and a benefit of the covenant of grace. In other words, they affirmed that God gives what he requires of his people. Hence, they expounded the condition of sincere obedience within an Augustinian — and not a Pelagian or Semi-Pelagian — framework of salvation.

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