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Puritans: When the Reformation Needed Reforming

Updated: Apr 26



(This week, we continue our series on spiritual formation throughout history. Today, we will take a closer look at the Puritans and how they influenced the spiritual formation of believers in the 1600s and 1700s, and what it meant to be a follower of Messiah in their day.)


Introduction

Mention the word Puritan and a various array of stereotypes flood the psyche, such as prudish legalists, the sexually repressed, or busybodies.[1] However, Tom Schwanda claims, “a more accurate understanding recognizes that Puritanism was in essence a devotional movement that sought to renew the spiritual life of individuals and the church.”[2] Much like ‘Christian’ in Antioch, the term Puritan was initially used derogatorily.[3] It referred to seventeenth-century dissident Protestants within the Church of England who were staunchly committed to seeing the Church of England fully embrace the Reformation:[4]


  • Freedom to read the Bible in one’s own language. (Willaim Tyndale was condemned as a heretic for translating the Bible into English, and his execution involved being strangled to death while tied to a stake, and his body was then burned (1536).

  • The doctrine of justification by faith alone—as opposed to Faith plus sacraments and Works.

  • The priesthood of all believers means that believers can go directly to God through Jesus without the help of a priest.

  • Scripture alone was the sole authority, not church leadership.

  • The democratization of the Bible meant that the pope had no more authority than anyone else to interpret scripture. In addition, the reformers rejected the absolute authority of the pope.


Puritanism was known for its belief in the inerrancy of Scripture and anti-Catholicism, believing “the papacy was the course of all doctrinal and ceremonial errors that have taken the church off the course initially set by [Messiah] and the early disciples.”[5] If a practice wasn’t explicitly found in the Bible, they rejected it, such as the sign of the cross at baptism or priests wearing clerical robes. They even advocated for the abolition of bishops.[6] They had returned to the same passion as the Church Fathers and desert monks but rejected much of the tradition of the church.


Disillusioned with the slow pace of reforms, many Puritans decided to leave their native England in search of a new life in the American colonies. They yearned to live out their convictions “without fear of persecution or oppression.”[7] They envisioned themselves as the modern-day Israelites, escaping the bondage of Egypt for the Promised Land.[8] Three of these nonconformists were Richard Baxter, John Owen, and Issac Ambrose. In this paper, we will examine how their theology contributed to the spiritual formation of believers in their era.


Richard Baxter

Richard Baxter’s life spanned several civil wars in England as well as the neighboring Thirty Years’ War, a religious war that claimed the lives of eight million people.[9] He pastored in Kidderminster for sixteen years, staying there longer than any other place. He arrived to find an ungodly people, says Benjamin Fawcett, but “by the divine blessing on his wise and faithful cultivation, the fruits of righteousness sprung up in rich abundance.”[10] Upon his arrival, he could scarcely find one family giving themselves to prayer. After his faithful service, one could scarcely find one family member not in church on Sunday morning.[11]


On the [Sunday], instead of the open profanation to which they had been so long accustomed, a person and passing through the town in the intervals of public worship, might overhear hundreds of families engaged in singing songs, reading the scriptures and other good books, or such sermons they had taken down while they heard them from the pulpit.[12]


With such results, surely this Reformer can speak to spiritual formation. Robert Hyatt notes that while Baxter is credited with authoring more than 140 books, “he is today best known for his instructions to the clergy of his day regarding their own spiritual formation.”[13] Baxter was himself deeply formed:


Christian, believe this, and think on it: thou shalt be eternally embraced in the arms of that love which was from everlasting, and, will extend to everlasting; of that love which brought the Son of God’s love from heaven to earth, from earth to the cross, from the cross to the grave, from the grave to glory; that love which was weary, hungry, tempted, scorned, scourged, buffeted, spit upon, crucified, pierced; which did fast, pray, teach, heal, weep, sweat, bleed, die; that love will eternally embrace thee.[14]


Our focus here is the spiritual formation of pastors. Baxter’s classic, The Reformed Pastor, was “crafted as a how-to guide for pastoral leadership and includes timeless wisdom for pastors, preachers, and their parishes.”[15] Baxter warned that the enemy would seek to take pastors down. “Pride is a vice that ill beseems them that must lead men in such an humble way to heaven. And let them take heed, lest when they have brought others thither, the gate should prove too strait for themselves.”[16] Pride is an open door to temptation, and the preacher must be extra cautious to stay humble and close to the Lord “because the tempter will make his first or sharpest onset upon you.”[17] When the preacher falls, as we see in our day, the damage is greater. “Take heed to yourselves also, because there are many eyes upon you, and therefore there will be many observers of your falls.”[18]


For this reason and more, Baxter urges the preacher to invest in his own spiritual formation. “Such we must provoke our hearers to be, and such we must be ourselves. O therefore, brethren, lose no time: study, and pray, and confer, and practice; for by these four ways your abilities must be increased.”[19] What stands out about Baxter is his love for the preacher, his understanding of the gravity of the task, and his concern for the flock.


John Owen

John Owen was acquainted with suffering. Not only did his first wife die, but ten of his eleven children died as infants.[20] Suffering has a way of impacting your theology, as it did Paul’s (2 Cor 4:7–18). Owen became one of the most prolific writers of the 1600s, publishing about eight million words.[21] His work on crucifying the flesh is a classic and speaks to spiritual formation. Many teachers preach repentance and the need to live the crucified life, but often, the message is void of grace and does not lead to spiritual formation. Holiness is not the absence of sin but the presence of God! And even with Owen, people sometimes cast him and the Puritans as merely preachers against sin, but he sincerely wanted to see people experience God. Life is promised unto obedience, and that such a life as, both for the present and future condition of the creature, was accompanied with every thing that was needful to make it blessed and happy.”[22]


In Mortification of Sin in the Believer, Owen breaks down Romans 8:13b. He understood that Paul is not merely preaching, “Stop sinning,” but something much deeper and more powerful. “Owen … begins not with a principle of death, but of life.”[23] Paul does not tell us to simply “put to death the deeds of the body,” but to do so “by the Spirit,” and it will lead to life (Rom 8:13b). He makes a clear distinction between human effort and the Spirit’s work. Paraphrasing Paul, he says, “This is the work of the Spirit; by him alone is it to be wrought, and by no other power is it to be brought about.”[24] Owen continues, “Mortification from a self-strength, carried on by ways of self-invention, unto the end of a self-righteousness, is the soul and substance of all false religion in the world.”[25]


He says, “The promise unto this duty is life.”[26] The reader is made to be hungry for God’s Spirit to do this work of mortification. He is not glib, for the preceding words in the passage speak of death to those who ignore the work of mortification (Rom 8:13a). But Owen seeks the spiritual formation that comes from being free of the old man’s grip: “The vigour, and power, and comfort of our spiritual life depends on the mortification of the deeds of the flesh.”[27] 


Isaac Ambrose

In the past few decades, more than a few works have been devoted to the practice of private spiritual disciplines. Modern writers such as Dallas Willard and Richard Foster have sought to bring the exercises of the desert fathers and early monks into the contemporary church. Four hundred years ago, a Puritan preacher attempted the same. Shwanda explains, like Owen, that Isaac Ambrose’s goal was to enhance the spiritual life of his readers, not bring them into some life-less discipline or “duty,” as he calls them. Ambrose “stresses that these duties are a source of delight and joy … because in duties (spiritual disciplines) they come to see the face of God in [Messiah].’”[28] Ambrose says those who embrace these “duties” or disciplines “usually find their hearts sweetly refreshed.”[29]


Using both one’s head and heart, Ambrose borrows from the medieval mystic Bernard of Clairvaux, “Holy contemplation has two forms of ecstasy, one in the intellect, the other in the will (heart); one of enlightenment, the other of fervor.”[30] Like Owen, Ambrose was fully aware that transformation was a work of the Spirit of Jesus and an expression of a robust Christology (the study of the nature of the work of Messiah Yeshua). “Jesus is the object; and Jesus, as Jesus,” writes Ambrose, “as he is our Saviour, as he hath negotiated, or shall yet negotiate, the great business of our salvation. … It is such a look as stirs up affections in the heart, and the effects thereof in our life.”[31]


Like the desert fathers, Ambrose saw temptations as opportunities for growth. “Tell me, are not you roused to make earnest and ardent prayers, by these wars and conflicts? Are not Satan's temptations like bellows to blow the fire of devotion in your soul, and like a hedge of thorns to keep you from going astray?”[32]


This article doesn’t offer enough space to discuss all of Ambrose’s disciplines, but they’re not unlike the ones we speak about, from Bible meditation to solitude. What made him different is that he did them. All who do them will experience God, which is why they were a priority for Ambrose. “Looking unto Jesus,’ declares Ambrose, “is that great ordinance appointed by God for our most especial good.”[33] It’s worth noting that he would spend a month in solitude every year. He planned out his disciplines, and that is where so many fail. Some delight merely in studying the disciplines but struggle to practice them.


Conclusion

What would our Puritan leaders say to a new believer? One (of many) positive outcomes of the Reformation were clear statements of faith ( cf. Calvin, Luther). People knew what they believed. When someone comes to faith today, it could be years before they understand the gospel theologically. But what would they say to those who have been believers for many years? I think they would be shocked at the lack of Bible knowledge, the toleration of sin, and the lack of spiritual discipline.


The Puritan movement was another step in reforming the church. The teachings of these leaders helped individual believers go deeper in their personal reformations. It was one thing to confront the ecclesiology and soteriology of the Catholic Church; it was another thing altogether to help people experience God through these new revelations from Scripture.


 

[1] Francis J. Bremer, Puritanism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2009), 1. Kindle.

[2] Tom Schwanda, “‘Hearts Sweetly Refreshed’: Puritan Spiritual Practices Then and Now,” Journal of Spiritual Formation and Soul Care 3:1 (2010): 21, https://doi.org/10.1177/193979091000300103.

[3] “In all three instances it is a term used by outsiders to designate Christians. Evidently the term was not originally used by Christians of themselves. They preferred terms like ‘believers, disciples, brothers.’” John B. Polhill, Acts, vol. 26, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1992), 273.

[4] Alister McGrath, Christian History (Hoboken: Wiley and Blackwell, 2013), 199. Kindle.

[5] Bremer, Puritanism, 7.

[6] McGrath, Christian History, 199.

[7] Ibid., 200.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Peter Wilson, Europe’s Tragedy: A History of the Thirty Years War (London, UK: Allen Lane, 2009), 2, http://api.overdrive.com/v1/collections/v1L2BaQAAAJcBAAA1M/products/db060d81-159d-46c4-b74e-577c98a76047.

[10] Benjamin Fawcett, introduction to The Saints Everlasting Rest, Richard Baxter, ed. Benjamin Fawcett (London UK: Counted Faithful, 2012) 5.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Robert Hyatt, “Richard Baxter's Paradigm for Pastoral Spiritual Formation,” (DMIN Diss. George Fox Evangelical Seminary, 2016), 25, http://digitalcommons.georgefox.edu/dmin/140.

[14] Richard Baxter, The Saints Everlasting Rest, Richard Baxter, ed. Benjamin Fawcett (London UK: Counted Faithful, 2012), 23, Kindle.

[15] Richard Baxter and William Orme, The Practical Works of the Rev. Richard Baxter, vol. 14 (London: James Duncan, 1830), cover.

[16] Ibid., 25.

[17] Ibid., 63.

[18] Ibid., 64.

[19] Ibid., 58.

[20] Robert Oliver, John Owen—The Man and His Theology (Phillipsburg, NJ: Evangelical Press, 2002), 35.

[21] Crawford Gribben, “10 Things You Should Know about John Owen,” Crossway, July 22, 2020, https://www.crossway.org/articles/10-things-you-should-know-about-john-owen.

[22] John Owen, The Works of John Owen, ed. William H. Goold, vol. 6 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, n.d.), 473.

[23] Kelly Kapic, “On the Mortification of Sin—A Reader’s Guide to a Christian Classic,” Desiring God, November 13, 2021, https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/on-the-mortification-of-sin.

[24] Owen, The Works of John Owen, 7.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid., 8.

[27] Ibid., 9.

[28] Schwanda, “‘Hearts Sweetly Refreshed,” 27.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ibid., 28.

[31] Isaac Ambrose, Looking Unto Jesus (N/A: Ravenio Books, 2013) 7, Kindle.

[32] Isaac Ambrose, The Christian Warrior: Wrestling with Sin, Satan, The World, and the Flesh (West Linn, OR: Monergism Books, 2024), 11, Kindle.

[33] Ibid., 7.

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