Rev D J MacDonald
The term Puritan was first used in the reign of Elizabeth (15581603) as a term of reproach for those who, in the eyes of their opponents, were too taken up with the purity of the visible Church. The Puritans regarded the religious reforms of the reign of Edward VI (154753) as incomplete. The Church in England was largely reformed in doctrine, but in its government and practice there was much for which there was no scriptural warrant. When Elizabeth came to the throne in 1558 she produced what was later known as the “Elizabethan religious settlement, which was basically a political device her main aim being to consolidate her own position. This led to a “broad Church” which could and did swallow up all but the most die-hard Papists on the one hand and all but the most convinced Reformers on the other.
The Puritans, believing as they did that the Scriptures are the only rule for the practice as well as the doctrine of the Church, were opposed to the new religious regime. They found themselves opposed to Elizabeth, James I and Charles I and, though they enjoyed a brief spell of ease under the rule of Cromwell, they were forced out of the Church of England in 1662, when some 2000 ministers refused to submit to the Act of Uniformity. Throughout the seventeenth century and afterwards, the influence of the Puritans continued to wane and, until a new wave of interest in their writing came in the 1950s (largely through the work of the Banner of Truth Trust), they remained something of an historical oddity in the eyes of the majority.
May we not ask then, Why should we concern ourselves today with the opinions of the Puritans? The question may be answered briefly. During the Puritan era, roughly 15601700, the Church in England was favoured by the preaching, influence and writings of some of the foremost of Puritan writers. Names like Owen, Flavel, Manton, Perkins and Watson spring readily to mind. These, with many others, rank with the foremost names of the Protestant Reformation. Their doctrine, practice and worship were based on the thoroughly Calvinistic precept, “By Scripture alone”, and so their writings and ideas are as acceptable today as ever they have been to all who wish to discover “what saith the Scripture”.
The Puritans wrote much on the office and work of the gospel ministry and, for that reason alone, deserve to be read and treasured. There is little written by the Puritans on the ministry which, of itself, will comfort us. The reason for this is that they set a very high standard for all aspects of the ministry, and perhaps this will leave some of us painfully conscious of coming short of the standard commended by the Puritans. Yet we are left with the abiding impression that the Puritan standard for ministers is nothing less than the standard required by the Word of God, to which we are to seek to attain in the midst of the many spiritual evils of our day and in spite of our felt darkness and weakness. Besides this, we may see in their writings the power of God to take men of like passions with ourselves and to make them worthy servants of Christ in difficult times. It is the working of this power in our hearts and lives we surely crave, for it is this power which will make the gospel we preach to be “the power of God unto salvation” on a large scale, something we have never known in our time.
I propose to deal with my subject under five headings: 1. The call to the ministry. 2. The difficulty of the ministry. 3. The responsibility of the ministry. 4. The primacy of preaching. 5. Some direct applications of Puritan principles.
1. The call to the ministry
The sentiments of the Puritans on this matter are best summed up by Thomas Manton: “That none can enter upon the work or the office of the ministry without a call is, I suppose, out of controversy. This call is inward and outward. Now what is the inward call? I answer, God calleth us when He makes us able and willing; the inclination and the ability are from God; gifts and abilities are our letters of credence that we bring to the world [to show] that we are called of God and authorised to this work. It is true there is a latitude and difference in the abilities, but all that can look upon themselves as called of God must be able and apt to teach.”2
To this William Perkins adds, “Wouldest thou know whether God would have thee go or no? Then thou must ask thy conscience and ask the Church. Thy conscience must judge of thy willingness and the Church of thy ability. As thou mayest not trust other men to judge of thy inclination or affection, so thou mayest not trust thy own judgement to judge of thy worthiness or sufficiency. If thy conscience testify unto thee that thou desirest to do service to God and His church above any other, and if upon trials made of thy gifts and learning the Church . . . do approve of thy desire and of thy sufficiency to do God service in His ministry, and therefore by a public calling bid thee go; then God Himself has bid thee go.”3
Manton goes on to say, “The inward call is not enough; to preserve order in the Church an outward call is necessary. As Peter in Acts 10 was called of God to go to Cornelius and then, besides that, he had a call from Cornelius himself, so must we, having an inward call from the Spirit, expect an outward call from the Church; otherwise we cannot lawfully be admitted to the exercise of such an office and function. As, in the Old Testament, the tribe of Levi and house of Aaron were appointed by God to the service of the altar, yet none could exercise the calling of a Levite or serve as a high priest until he was anointed and purified by the Church (Ex 28:35). So the ministers of the gospel, though called by God, must have their external separation and setting apart to that work by the Church, as the Holy Ghost saith: “Separate Me Barnabas and Saul for the work whereunto I have called them” (Acts 13:2). Mark, the Spirit of God had chosen them, yet calls upon the Church, the elders at Antioch, to separate them for the work of the ministry.”
This in brief sums up the position of the Puritans concerning the call to the ministry. This position is still the guiding rule as far as Churches who call themselves Reformed are concerned. The Puritans place the responsibility on the candidates and on the Church. The candidate was to discern his own desire; the Church was to discern his gifts and fitness. This highlights the need for discernment, particularly by the Church when such solemn judgements have to be made.
A brief quotation from John Flavel will, I think, be a fitting conclusion to this section of our subject: “This office is to be committed to faithful men, who shall be able to teach others also (2 Tim 2:2) not to novices. I know the necessities of the churches are great but no more haste, I beseech you, to supply their wants than good speed. That is soon enough, which is good enough. It is a lesser hazard to put an ignorant rustic into a chemists shop to compound and prepare medicines for mens bodies than to trust a man destitute both of faithfulness and prudence with the dispensations of Christs ordinances to mens souls. What mens secret ends are we cannot know, but the qualification for the work we may, and ought, to know. I would discourage none that appear to have pious inclinations matched with competent qualifications. Many may be useful who cannot be excellent, and I think the plainest men have done the greatest service to the Church of Christ. But still, fidelity and prudence are indispensable qualifications. We are solemnly charged to lay hands suddenly on no man (1 Tim 5:22).”4
2. The difficulty of the ministry
“The work of the preacher,” says Perkins, “is to stand in Gods presence, to enter into the holy of holies, to go betwixt God and His people, to be Gods mouth to the people, and the peoples to God; to be the interpreter of the eternal law of the Old Testament and the everlasting gospel of the New; to stand in the room of Christ Himself; to take the care and charge of souls; these considerations are so many amazements to the conscience of men who do with reverence approach, and not with rashness rush, unto the holy seat.”5
“Is it not hard to teach?” says John Collings, in his A Vindication of the Great Ordinance of God, a Gospel Ministry (1651). “My beloved friends, we are with you in much fear and trembling; and when we have consulted the original, weighed the coherence of a text, compared our thoughts with the thoughts of many other divines and chiefly compared Scripture with Scripture, yet are we trembling and see cause to cry unto the Lord with Augustine (before our interpretation of Scripture), Grant, Lord, that we may neither deceive ourselves in the understanding of Thy will nor deceive others with a false interpretation.”
Whenever we look or dip into the writings of the Puritans, we are left with the impression that they had a serious and high view of the ministry. “It was”, Iain Murray says, “a life which filled them with awe. They were of the same spirit as Luther, who was wont to say that if he were again to choose his calling he would dig or do anything rather than take upon him the office of a minister. Calvin, even after he had written his mighty Institutes, judged himself insufficient to undertake the weight of the ministerial function. Knox . . . was so deeply affected by the responsibility of the office that it was with great difficulty that he could be induced to begin his preaching ministry. Knox trembled in taking the office of the ministry upon him, not only because of his sense of unfitness, but from the knowledge that the responsibilities of the office once undertaken must, at whatever cost, be discharged.
“It is recorded of James Durham that, towards the end of his life, he said that if he were to live another ten years he would choose to study for nine years in preparation for preaching the tenth. Perkins was so impressed by the charge that he was under that he wrote on the title page of his books, Thou art a minister of the Word. Mind thy business. Thomas Shepherd, addressing some young ministers who called to see him on his death bed, said, Your work is great and requires great seriousness. For my own part I never preached a sermon which in the composing did not cost me prayers with strong cries and tears. I never went up into the pulpit but as if I was going to give an account of myself to God.”6
3. The responsibility of the ministry
Time and again the Puritans wrote on this subject. The Reformer Hugh Latimer said in a sermon, “God commandeth thee to preach. If thou warn not the wicked, he shall die in his wickedness, but I will require his blood at thy hand” “Hearken well to this, mark it well; I will ask his blood at thy hand. If you do not your office, if you teach not the people and warn them not, you shall be damned for it.”7 These brief quotations seem to catch the spirit of the Puritans as they considered their awful responsibility as those who spoke the Word of God to their fellows. We, in our day, would do well to let these sayings sink into our ears, for our responsibility is no less than theirs was, although we live in a much more frivolous age, in which seriousness in every facet of life seems to be dismissed from the thoughts of the majority of men.
A New England preacher, Daniel Dana (born c1760), echoes this theme of ministerial responsibility when he says, “To the private Christian are entrusted the concerns of one soul, and when he reflects that his little moment of life will give complexion to his whole eternity and that he is constantly a borderer on unending joys or miseries, the thought must press upon his inmost spirit. But to the minister is committed the care of hundreds of souls. Indeed thousands and tens of thousands of immortal beings either near or remote, either existing or unborn, may receive their stamp for eternity under his influence. What overwhelming considerations are these! How adapted to crush a tender spirit! Yet the minister from whose mind they are banished has not learned the first lesson of his vocation.
“It is a constantly recurring duty of the Christian minister to converse with the sublimities of the gospel to meditate its profound and unsearchable mysteries. These are the subjects which occupied from eternity the mind of the infinite God. These are the themes in which angelic minds are lost. Here are embraced at once the glories of the Deity and the everlasting destinies of millions of created beings. And what is the spirit in which themes like these are to be apprehended? None but a mind deeply serious is prepared to enter this hallowed enclosure.
“The true minister looks beyond time. He is surrounded by immortal beings who forget their immortality, with dying creatures who live only for this world; with sinners who, unconscious of their depravity and guilt, neglect their souls and their Saviour. The true minister lives less for the present than for the future. He has eternity in his eyes. He lives and acts, he preaches and prays for eternity. Millions of years hence, his life and actions, his sermons and his prayers may be remembered by millions of beings beside himself, with unutterable joy or grief.”8 No wonder even the Apostle Paul said, “Who is sufficient for these things?” (2 Cor 2:16).
Flavel writes on the same lines: “We have a solemn charge given us by Christ: I charge thee therefore before God, and the Lord Jesus Christ, who shall judge the quick and the dead at His appearing and His kingdom; preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine (2 Tim 4:1-2). It must be a powerful opiate indeed that can so benumb and stupefy the conscience of a minister, as that he shall not feel the awful authority of such a charge. The precious and immortal souls of men are committed to us, souls about which God has concerned His thoughts from eternity, for the purpose of which Christ hath shed His own blood, for the winning and espousing of which to Himself He hath put thee into the office, at whose hand He will also require an account of them in the great day.”
After quoting the verse, “Knowing therefore the terror of the Lord, we persuade men” (2 Cor 5:11), Flavel goes on, “O brethren, let us beware of committing, or of neglecting, anything that may bring us within the compass of the terrors of that day. Let our painfulness and faithfulness, our constancy and seriousness, compel a testimony from our congregations as the apostle did from his in Acts 20:26 that we are pure from the blood of all men.”9
In writing on the ministry many Puritan writers again and again stress the point that no man on earth is in a more solemn position than the minister of the gospel. No one will have to give an account of so much at the last day. This view of the ministry has been all but lost in our day. Let us however be convinced of the truth of it and seek grace and humility to apply it to ourselves, being convinced that it is not the demand of any one age or era in the history of the Church of God, but the requirement of the Word of God in all ages. Thomas Brooks says, “Now a man were better to have all the blood of the world upon him than the blood of one soul. The blood of souls, of all bloods, cries loudest and wounds deepest. Hence that passage of Paul in l Corinthians 9:l6, Woe is unto me, if I preach not the gospel! The motto that should be put upon the study door of preachers, on their walls, on all the books they look on and the seats they sit on should be this: the blood of souls, the blood of souls! It was a comfort and an honour to Paul that he kept himself from the blood of all men.”10
Under the heading of ministerial responsibility we may usefully quote the words of Richard Baxter, where he particularly addresses ministers on the oversight of ourselves: “Content not yourself with being in a state of grace but be careful also that your graces are kept in vigorous and lively exercise and that you preach to yourselves the sermons which you study before you preach them to others.”
“I confess,” he goes on, “I must speak it by lamentable experience, that I publish to my flock the distempers of my own soul. When I let my heart grow cold, my preaching is cold. I can often observe in the best of my people that when I have grown cold in preaching, they have grown cold too. We are the nurses of Christs little ones. If we forebear taking food ourselves, we shall famish and it will soon be visible in their leanness and dull discharge of their several duties. O brethren, watch therefore over your own hearts; keep out lusts and passions and worldly inclinations; keep up the life of faith and love and zeal. Above all, be much in secret prayer and meditation. Watch therefore for the souls of yourselves and others.
“Take heed to yourselves lest your example contradict your doctrine, lest you lay such stumbling blocks before the blind as may be the occasion of their ruin, lest you unsay with your lives what you say with your tongues and be the greatest hindrance of the success of your own labours. It much hindereth our work when other men are all the week long contradicting to poor people in private what we have been preaching to them from the Word of God in public, but it will much more hinder your work if you contradict yourselves, if your actions give your tongues the lie, and if you build up an hour or two on Sabbath with your mouths and all the week after pull down with your hands. This is the way to make men think that the Word of God is but an idle tale and to make preaching no better than prating. He that means as he speaks will surely do as he speaks. One proud, surly, lordly word, one needless contention, one covetous action may cut the throat of many a sermon and blast the fruit of all you have been doing.
“Do you regard the success of your labour so little that you will not put up with an injury or a wrong word, nor stoop to the meanest, nor forbear your proud and lordly bearing, for the winning of souls? It is a palpable error of some ministers who make such a disproportion between their preaching and their living, who study hard to preach exactly and study little, or not at all, to live exactly. All the week long is little enough to study how to speak two hours, and yet one hour seems too much to study how to live all week. They are loath to misplace a word in their sermon but they think nothing of misplacing affections, words and actions in the course of their lives. O how curiously I have heard men preach, and how carelessly have I seen them live. Certainly, brethren, we have great cause to take heed what we do as well as what we say. If we be the servants of Christ indeed, we must not be tongue servants only but must serve Him with our deeds. As our people must be doers of the Word and not hearers only, so must we be doers of the Word and not speakers only.
“Take heed to yourselves lest you live in these sins which you preach against in others and lest you be guilty of what you daily condemn. Will you make it your work to magnify God and, when you have finished that work, dishonour Him as much as others? Will you preach Gods laws and then wilfully break them? If Gods threatenings be true, why do you not fear them? If they be false, why do you needlessly trouble men with them and put them in such fright without a cause? Thou that makest thy boast of the law, through breaking the law dishonourest thou God? (Rom. 2:23). What! Shall the same tongue speak evil that speakest against evil? Shall these lips censure and slander and rebuke your neighbour that cry down these things and the like in others? O brethren, it is easier to chide at sin than to overcome it. Take heed to yourselves lest you cry down sin and yet do not overcome it.”11