How the Puritans Have Shaped My Ministry

In the words of J. I. Packer, “Puritanism was at heart a spiritual movement, passionately concerned with God and godliness.” My first introduction to this “spiritual movement” was a seminary course almost twenty years ago. I’m exceedingly grateful, as it altered the course of my life—not only spiritually but theologically and ecclesiastically.

One particular feature of the Puritans—that keeps me coming back—is their commitment to the pastoral office. While it’s true that among them stood towering theologians such as John Owen, they were for the most part common pastors—a few preaching to large congregations in major urban centres, but most serving in small rural churches. Regardless of their setting, they carried out their ministry with uncommon devotion, fully convinced—in the words of George Swinnock—that it was “a calling above all others of greatest weight.”

I’m thankful I discovered their pastoral example early on, as they’ve proved to be a reliable source of instruction, correction, and encouragement, through many different seasons. They’ve shaped my ministry in fairly significant ways. Here are six examples. [1]

They’ve convinced me that the local church is the greatest place on earth

The Puritans prized the local church because they understood that it is the temple of the living God (1 Cor. 3:16–17; Eph. 2:19–22). David Clarkson declares, “The presence of God, which enjoyed in private is but a stream, in public becomes a river, a river that makes glad the city of God.” How is God present in the gathering of the local church? For the Puritans, the answer resides primarily in the preaching of God’s Word. Having ascended to glory, Christ gave public offices (and, therefore, public ordinances) for the purpose of edifying His people (Eph. 4:8–16). It’s by means of these ordinances (chiefly, the preaching of God’s Word) that He walks and works among us.

The implication is that preaching is the principle means by which Christ comes to His people. The Puritans were convinced that, when He does, the most wonderful things on earth occur: “The Lord speaks life to dry bones, and raises dead souls out of the grave of sin. Here He gives sight to those who are born blind. Here He cures diseased souls. Here He dispossesses Satan and casts unclean spirits out of the souls of sinners. Here He overthrows principalities and powers and vanquishes the powers of darkness. Here He makes old things to pass away and all things to become new” (David Clarkson).

They’ve convinced me that God’s Word is comprehensive enough

Believing that the Bible is God’s Word for God’s people, the Puritans insisted that it’s comprehensive enough to deal with every human condition. George Swinnock writes, “My soul is sinful, and it is the Word that must sanctify it. My soul is sick, and it is the Word that must heal it. My soul is hungry, and it is the Word that must feed it. My soul is thirsty, and it is the Word that must satisfy it.”

The Bible alone addresses our needs because it alone reveals a glorious God and a great salvation. In so doing, it strengthens the weak, comforts the sorrowful, challenges the obstinate, and informs the ignorant. It sustains in times of dark affliction, comforts in times of deep sorrow, strengthens in times of danger, and guides in times of confusion. It promises the greatest blessings and entitles us to the best inheritance. It has God for its author, Christ for its subject, and eternal life for its end. In short, it’s a “special treasure” which God has deposited “into the hands of the children of men” (George Swinnock).

They’ve convinced me that we need Christ far more than we realize

The Puritans were persuaded that there’s nothing more soul-satisfying than contemplating Christ and our interest in Him. In the words of John Owen, “Unto them that believe unto the saving of the soul, Christ is, He always has been, precious—the sun, the rock, the life, the bread of their souls—everything that is good, useful, amiable, desirable, here or unto eternity.” For this reason, Puritan pastors constantly urged their people to look “to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith” (Heb. 12:2).

Likewise, we must encourage our people to behold Christ, specifically His manifold roles and relations. As Redeemer, He delivers us from sin. As Mediator, He reconciles us to God. As Husband, He unites us to Himself. As Father, He cares for us. As Priest, He intercedes for us. As Shepherd, He leads and protects us. As Prophet, He instructs and illuminates us. As Advocate, He pleads for us. As Friend, He loves us with fervent affection. As King, He rules over us. As Surety, He guarantees our inheritance. As Rock, He satisfies us. “Look on Christ,” declares John Flavel, “in whatever respect or particular you will; cast your eye upon this lovely object, and view Him in every way; turn Him in your serious thoughts which way you will; consider His person, His offices, His works, or any other thing belonging to Him; you will find Him altogether lovely.”

They’ve convinced me that God’s truth must be implanted deep within the heart

The Puritans recognized the difference between knowing with the head (theoretical knowledge) and knowing with the heart (practical knowledge)—the difference between thinking that honey is sweet and tasting that honey is sweet. For this reason, they were adamant that a pastor must possess not only “the knowledge of divine things flowing in his brain but engraved on his heart and printed in his soul by the spiritual finger of God” (William Perkins).

Far too many of us are prone to feeding others while starving ourselves. We fall into the error of equating spiritual maturity with our comprehension of doctrine rather than our application of doctrine. This is hazardous to our well-being because it leads to a dwindling appreciation of the things of God. The devil knows we crave the experience of amazement, and he will tempt us to seek it in all the wrong places—a new cause, new house, new relationship, or the latest fashion or gadget. We must guard ourselves by pursuing true knowledge—God’s Word engraved upon the deepest affections of the heart.

They’ve convinced me of the need to declare the truth in love

In speaking of his own ministry, George Swinnock said that he longed to be like Boanerges, “a son of thunder to the presumptuous,” and Barnabas, “a son of encouragement to the penitent.” This desire was characteristic of the Puritans who were careful to maintain the relationship between truth and grace. They viewed these two as inseparable companions.

We too must be convinced of this relationship. Truth cuts, but grace heals. Truth stings, but grace soothes. Truth disturbs, but grace comforts. Truth demands that we declare what a righteous God says, but grace demands that we declare what a compassionate God says. While we proclaim God’s utter displeasure with sin and sinners, we do so against the backdrop of His abounding mercy. We make it clear that where there’s brokenness for sin, God promises healing; where there’s conviction for sin, He promises mercy; where there’s weariness for sin, He promises rest; and where there’s repentance for sin, He promises forgiveness. We never lose sight of the fact that we proclaim the truth in the shadow of the cross. Our “principle work,” therefore, is “to preach a crucified Saviour in a crucified style” (George Swinnock).

They’ve convinced me that my identity rests in Christ, not my ministry

I end with this one, because it’s perhaps most timely. We all know that pastoral ministry is fraught with challenges. One of the most common is discouragement. It’s easy to preach when people flock to hear; it’s easy to counsel when relationships are healed; it’s easy to evangelize when people are sincerely seeking; it’s easy to lead when people are eager to follow; and it’s easy to teach when people are attentive and appreciative. But what happens when the opposite occurs? How do we keep going in the day of small things?

For the Puritans, the answer lies in a proper understanding of the relationship between a pastor’s identity and ministry. If we make an idol of our ministry (as many of us are prone to do), we’re sunk. If, however, our identity is firmly rooted in Christ, then our sense of self-worth will not rise and fall with the ups and downs of pastoral ministry; instead, it will be firmly fixed. “Let us live in constant contemplation of Christ’s glory,” writes John Owen. Why? He tells us: “When our souls are filled with thoughts of Christ and His glory, they will discard all causes of spiritual weakness. … Nothing will so much excite and encourage our souls as a constant view of Christ and His glory.” Amen.

 


[1] For a more extensive treatment, see J. Stephen Yuille, A Labor of Love: Puritan Pastoral Priorities (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2013).

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