How to Read the Puritan Paperbacks

This is a slightly edited repost from June, 2010.

If you’ve followed this blog for the past few years, you know that we enjoy the little Banner of Truth series of books called “Puritan Paperbacks.”  To be honest, the first time I (Shane) read one of these Paperbacks (I forget which one), I didn’t really enjoy it or appreciate it.  I thought it was too tedious, detailed, and ancient.  That was twelve years ago; now I have about seventeen of them and have benefited from them in many ways.  Here are a few things that have helped me read the Puritan Paperbacks with profit.  This list also applies to other Puritan books, for sure, but to keep it shorter, I’m thinking primarily of the Paperbacks.

To read the Puritan Paperbacks with profit, 

1) Know your systematic theology.  You don’t need a Ph.D. in systematics to benefit from them, but if you know your basic systematics (i.e. the attributes of God, the doctrine of man, the doctrine of Christ, the ordo salutis, etc.) it will be easier to read the Paperbacks.  For example, if you know the Westminster Standards well, or study Louis Berkhof’s Manual of Christian Doctrine, it will make reading the Paperbacks more enjoyable – you’ll be able to see that when the Puritans do “go deep,” they’re staying in the Reformed categories.  When I realized this, it made it easier and more edifying to read the Puritans on sanctification, because (just for one example) I knew that even when they were quite detailed, they were not blending it with justification.

2) Stick with it.  The archaic language and grammar is tough at first (you may need a dictionary!), and even daunting, but after a few Paperbacks you get used to it.  Be patient.  Remember that these authors wrote several hundred years ago, so the language and illustrations will be different (I still chuckle when I come across a word like “compunction”).  And as with all books, don’t be surprised when there are a few sections here and there that are less helpful than others.   Start with a short Paperback and perhaps read a chapter/section or two a week.  One good Paperback to read first is Thomas Watson’s ‘Repentance’ because it is short, clear, and very helpful – it won’t overwhelm you.  Similarly, Watson’s ‘All Things for Good,’ and Bunyan’s ‘All Love’s Excelling’ are short and clear.   Don’t read the longer and harder ones until later.  For example, wait quite awhile until you read The Sinfulness of Sin, A Lifting Up for the Downcast, and others that are detailed and over 200 pages.

3) Take notes.  When I read a Paperback, I have a pencil and highlighter in hand to mark the best sections.  I also make my own index in the back cover so that when I study a certain topic later I can just pull the Paperback off my shelf, turn to the back cover, find the topic and page number that I wrote, and turn there to find it highlighted/underlined.  You may want to do the same for certain Scripture references since the books don’t have scriptural indexes.  You’ll profit in the long run from reading these books by making your own topical or scriptural index so you can use them in your future studies and devotions.  I’ve also heard of some people keeping a reading journal of sorts.  Either way, taking notes on these books is helpful and edifying.

4) Approach reading the Paperbacks differently than you do other books.  The genre of these books is quite different than other things we read from day to day, so read them when you’re in the mood for deeper Christian writing.  Pray that the book will teach, convict, and comfort you in Christ.  If you approach the Paperbacks realizing that they are not newspaper articles, Christian Amish fiction novels, or other Christian fluff books, you’ll be in the right frame of mind to read.  I don’t recommend reading the Puritans on a tablet because if you’re not self-disciplined enough, you’ll be tempted to check email or browse the web when the reading becomes difficult.  I also find that I profit best from these books when I space them out a bit.  Reading them too often is something like too much of a good thing.  And, of course, it is good to vary our reading material; we should read the Puritans, but we should read other authors from other centuries as well.

In summary, I think with some time and effort, most Christians who are “readers” will be able to understand these books, profit from them, and learn to appreciate the Puritans at least to some extent.  Though I don’t elevate the Puritans above other writers/teachers, they have have taught me much about sin, salvation, and serving Christ.  Even if you don’t get “into” the Puritans, I challenge you to at least read a few shorter Puritan Paperbacks.  And I should warn you that once you’ve read a few of these Paperbacks, it just might make you realize how trendy, simple, and “thin” many modern Christian books are (you’ve been warned)!

By the way – one other great thing about these Paperbacks is that they are usually priced well under $10. 

rev shane lems

Could My Tears Forever Flow

Sometimes we tend to forget that Satan is strong and smart.  Jesus called him the “strong man” who is the “prince of this world” (Matt. 12:29, John 12:31).  Peter compared him to a hungry lion on the prowl (1 Pet. 5.8).  Satan is a brilliant tactician (2 Cor. 11:3) who has had thousands of years to become an expert on deceiving and tempting God’s people.  He knows from experience how to look like an angel of light.

Thomas Watson knew that Satan was strong and intelligent.  In his exposition of the sixth petition of the Lord’s Prayer (Lead us not into temptation…) he wrote a brilliant explanation of the many ways Satan tries to trick and deceive God’s people.  In one section of this discussion, Watson noted that Satan tries to hinder us from our Christian duty, discourage us in our duty, or put us too far in duty in order to run us upon the rock of despair.

“If he cannot keep a Christian from duty, he will run him on too far in it.  Humiliation, or mourning for sin, is a duty, but Satan will push it too far; he will say, ‘You are not humbled enough;’ and, indeed, he never thinks a man is humbled enough till he despairs.  He would make a Christian wade so far in the waters of repentance, that he should get beyond his depth, and be drowned in the gulf of despair. 

“Satan comes thus to the soul and says, ‘Your sins have been great, and your sorrows should be proportionate to your sins.  But is it so?  Can you say you have been as great a mourner as you have been a sinner?  You did for many years practice no other trade but sin – and is a drop of sorrow enough for a sea of sin?  No, your soul must be more humbled and lie steeping longer in the brinish waters of repentance.’”

“Satan would have a Christian weep himself blind, and in a desperate mood throw away the anchor of hope.  Now, lest any be troubled with this temptation, let me say that this is a mere fallacy of Satan; for sorrow proportional to sin is not attainable in this life, nor does God expect it.  It is sufficient for you, Christian, if you have a gospel-sorrow; if you grieve so far as to see sin hateful and Christ precious, if you grieve so as to break off iniquity, if your remorse ends in divorcing sin.  This is to be humbled enough.”

“The gold has lain long enough in the fire when the dross is purged out; so a Christian has to be humbled enough for divine acceptance.  God, for Christ’s sake, will accept this sorrow for sin; therefore let not Satan’s temptations drive you to despair” (p. 276-7).

Well said.  Amen.  Jesus saves, not the intensity of our repentance.  Though we must repent to be saved, repentance isn’t a savior.  Repentance didn’t die on the cross to redeem us; Jesus did.  Repentance is not the object of our faith, Jesus is.  We might summarize with the words of the hymn:

Could my zeal no languor (weariness) know, could my tears forever flow,
All for sin could not atone; Thou must save, and Thou alone!

The above quotes are found in Thomas Watson’s exposition of the Lord’s Prayer.

rev shane lems

Bavinck on the Two Kingdoms

(Note: this is a repost from March, 2009)

Earlier, I noted how some Reformed teachers from around 1700 talked about the two kingdoms, the two-fold reign of Christ.  For review, Thomas Watson and Wilhelmus a Brakel (along with others) talked about Christ’s general reign over all things and his special reign over the church.  The former is the kingdom of power and the latter the kingdom of grace.  As a side note, it goes hand in hand with other distinctions: common and special grace as well as general and special providence, just to name two.

Here’s Bavinck, in vol IV of his Dogmatics (the emphasis is mine):

“The kingship of Christ is twofold.  On the one hand, it is a kingship of power (Ps 2.8-9; 72.8; 110.1-3; Matt 28.18; 1 Cor 15.27; Eph 1.21-22; Phil 2.9-11, etc).  In order that Christ may truly be king over his people, the king who redeems, protects, and preserves them, he must have power in heaven and on earth, over Satan and the world.  It is a kingship of power, subordinate to, and a means for, his kingdom of grace” (p. 371).

“On the other hand, the kingship of Christ is a kingship of grace (Ps. 2.6; Is 9.5-6; Jer 30.9; Ezek 37.24; Luke 1.33; John 18.33ff; Eph 1.22, etc).  …For it is a kingdom of grace in which Christ rules by his word and Spirit.  …It is the living Christ exalted to sit at the right hand of God who consciously and endowed with all powers gathers his church, defeats his enemies, and guides the history of the world to the day of his parousia” (p. 372).

These terms to describe the two kingdoms are standard Reformation speak.  The explanation of Luther’s Small Catechism uses the exact same terms and even many of the same proof texts.  This is one of those doctrines, like the law/gospel distinction, that confessional Lutherans and confessional Reformed/Presbyterians can agree upon; it is neither new or novel.

shane lems

sunnyside wa

Prayers of Repentance and Confession

Product Details  In August of 1662 around 2,000 ministers left the national church of England for the sake of conscience (they were called the non-conformists).  You’ll have to read about this significant church history event elsewhere since I simply want to point out a few prayers of repentance that two pastors prayed the last Sunday of their parish ministry in the English state church.  The pastors were Edmund Calamy (d. 1666) and Thomas Watson (d. 1686).  Here are excerpts from their prayers.  Notice the depth of their repentance and confession of sin.

“We confess we have forfeited all our mercies; we have heard much of God, Christ, and heaven with our ears, but there is little of God, Christ, and heaven in our hearts.  We confess, many of us by hearing sermons, are sermon-proof; we know how to scoff and mock at sermons, but we know not how to live sermons” (Calamy).

“We have sinned presumptuously against the clearest light and dearest love; always have we sinned.  …Thou hast shown mercy to us, but the better thou hast been to us, the worse we have been to thee.  Thou hast loaded us with thy mercies, and we have wearied thee with our sins.  When we look into ourselves, oh, the poison of our natures!  …By our spiritual leprosy we infect our holy things.  Our prayers need pardon and our tears need the blood of sprinkling to wash them.  …We confess we are untuned and unstrung for every holy action; we are never out of tune to sin but always out of tune to pray.  We give the world our main affections and our strong desires…there is not that reverence, nor that devotion, nor that activeness of faith that there should be. …Oh, humble us for our unkindness, and for Christ’s sake blot out our transgressions; they are more than we can number, but not more than [thou canst] pardon” (Watson).

When these types of deep, heart-felt prayers of repentance and confession are spoken in private and in the pulpit, the Christian church is strengthened.  We shouldn’t balk at the intensity of confession here, we should likewise say and expound upon the words that arose from the beaten-breast of the tax collector: “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner” (Lk. 18:13; cf. Neh. 9:1ff).

The above prayer excerpts are found in this new revised edition of the Sermons of the Great Ejection (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2012).

shane lems

The Third Use of God’s Law

  What relationship does the Christian have to God’s law – the law which is summarized in the Ten Commandments?  A good place start is with Paul.  He says that Christians are not under the law (Rom. 6.14, Gal. 5.18).  According to Reformed theology, this means that we are not under the law as a covenant of works (WCF 19.6) .  In other words, we aren’t justified by obeying the law.  Another way we’re not under the law is in the national, theocratic sense.  Deuteronomy is not our constitution like it was Israel’s constitution (cf. BCF 25, WCF 19.3-4).

One thing the law does is show us our sin (Rom. 3.20).  The Heidelberg Catechism says that we come to know our misery through the law of God (Q/A 3; cf. CoD III/IV.5).  So confessional Reformed/Presbyterian use the law in the liturgy.  Part of worship, therefore, is to confess sins to God and repent of them as a church, publicly.

Another place the law shows up in Reformed theology is in the discussions on sanctification.  The law of God is needed in the Christian life not just to show sin, but also to guide in grateful obedience.  Though Psalm 119 talks about God’s word in general, it also specifically mentions loving God’s commands  (119.47).  The Psalmist also prays that God would lead him in obedience to the law (119.35).  Jesus, John, James, and Paul describe love as the heartbeat of the law (Matt 22.37-40, Gal 5.14, James 2.8, and 1 Jn 4.11).  Though the law doesn’t give us the power to obey it, it does show the Christian what is good, right, and pleasing to God.  And so the law is in Reformed catechisms that even children learn.  If we can call the law a map, we’d say the Spirit gives us the energy to go the direction the map tells us.  The law tells us the good and right way, and the Spirit gives us the feet to walk the good and right way (Gal. 5.16, 25) to show our thankfulness and bring God glory.

Here’s how a few Reformed confessions (and one Lutheran one) explain this use of the law (a guide for gratitude or the third use of the law):

“[Good works are done] for the glory of God, to adorn our calling, to show gratitude to God, and for the profit of the neighbor” (2nd Helvetic Confession art. 16).

“By them [good works] believers manifest their thankfulness…and glorify God” (WCF 16.2; cf. WLC Q/A 32).

“We do good…so that in all our living we may show that we are thankful to God for all he has done for us and so that he may be praised through us” (HC Q/A 86).

“We need to remind [Christians] of how necessary it is that they exercise themselves in good works as a declaration of faith (Matt. 5.16) and gratitude to God (Heb. 13.15-16)” (Formula of Concord, Epitome, V).

These theologians are also worth listening to.

“Though the law not be the Christian’s savior, it is his guide.  Though it not be a foedus, a covenant of life, yet it is a norma, a rule of life” (Thomas Watson).

“No longer capable of condemning us in God’s courtroom, the law directs our steps in the way of faith-filled gratitude” (Michael Horton).

“If we think of Christ as Paul here depicts him [in Gal. 4]…we shall understand why a Christian observes [God's] laws: for the peace of the world, out of gratitude toward God, and for a good example that others may be attracted to the gospel” (Martin Luther).

“True conversion cannot be without good works, and we in this way especially show our gratitude to God” (Zacharius Ursinus).

“In the first covenant [the covenant of works], man was bound to do this in order that he might live (to deserve life); but in this [covenant of grace] he is bound to do the same (not that he may live, but because he lives) to the possession of the life acquired by Christ and the testimony of a grateful mind” (Francis Turretin).

And the list goes on.  The third use of the law – the law as a guide for Christian gratitude to God for his saving grace – is one of those important strands of Reformed theology.  Take this strand out of Reformed theology and you end up with legalism, antinomianism, and a host of other tragic errors.  Christians should know the law of God, most definitely.  But they should also know the uses of it: to show them their sin, driving them to Christ, and to show them how to thank Christ in faith-filled obedience.  For further study on this, read the last section of the Heidelberg Catechism or work your way through the relevant sections of G. Bethune’s commentary on the Heidelberg Catechsim

shane lems

sunnyside wa

The Sweetness of Tears

 Sometimes Christians forget the sweetness that can exist along with the bitterness of tears.  Because we live in a culture that focuses on entertainment, instant amusement, glamor, fame, and popularity, it is easy for us to jump on the bandwagon by doing our best to avoid tears, pain, and sorrow.  Everyone is searching for happiness and trying to get rid of tears.  So we turn to pills, personal trainers, makeovers, religion, sex, drink, and drugs (the list goes on) to try to attain happiness.  Of course there is a longing in every human heart for happiness because sin (in us and “out there”) has left humans an unhappy bunch.  What about tears?  Should we avoid them at all costs?  Why did Jesus say, Blessed are those who mourn and Blessed are you who weep now?  Below are some points made by Thomas Watson in The Beatitudes, as he discussed Matthew 5.4.

“1) Sin must have tears.  While we carry the fire of sin about us, we must carry the water of tears to quench it (Ezek. 7.16).  We have in  our hearts the seed of the unpardonable sin.  And shall we not mourn?  He that does not mourn has surely lost the use of his reason.

2) Gospel-mourning [the weeping of repentance] is spontaneous and free (it is not forced).  It is spiritual, that is, we mourn for sin more than suffering. 

3) Gospel-mourning sends the soul to God.  Evangelical mourning is a spur to prayer.  Gospel tears must drop from the eye of faith.  Our disease must make us mourn, but when we look up to our Physician, who has made a plaister of his own blood, we must not mourn without hope.  Believing tears are precious.  When the clouds of sorrow have over-cast the soul, some sunshine of faith must break forth.  Though our tears drop to the earth, our faith must reach heaven.

4) Gospel-mourning is joined with self-loathing.  The sinner admires himself.  The penitent lathes himself (Ezek. 20:43).  Gospel-mourning must be purifying.  We must not only mourn but turn.  ‘Turn to Me with weeping’ (Joel 2.12).  We must not only abstain from sin and weep over it, we must also abhor it.

5) Tears cannot be put to a better use.  The brinish water of repenting tears will help to kil that worm of sin which should gnaw the conscience.  Gospel-mourning is an evidence of grace.  Weeping for sin is a sign of the new birth.

6) Repentant tears are precious.  Tears dropping from a mournful, penitent eye, are like water dropping from the roses, very sweet and precious to God.  That heart is most delightful to God which has a fountain of sorrow running in it.  ‘Mary stood at Christ’s feet weeping’ (Lk 7.38).  Her tears were more fragrant than her ointment.  God delights much in tears, else he would not keep a bottle and a book for them (Ps 56.8).  Tears, though they are silent, yet have a voice (Ps 6.8).  David who was the greatest mourner in Israel was the sweet swinger in Israel.  My tears were my food (Ps 42.3).  Ambrose gives this gloss: ‘No food so sweet as tears!’  Bernard says ‘The tears of the repentant are sweeter than all worldly joy.’

7) Tears line the road to the New Jerusalem.  Perhaps a man may think, ‘If I cannot mourn for sin, I will get to heaven some other way.  I will go to church, I will give alms, I will lead a civil life.’  No, but I tell you there is but one way to blessedness, and that is through the Valley of Tears.  ‘I tell you, except you repent, you shall all likewise perish’ (Lk 13.3).

8) Christian tears will eventually end.  It is only a while that we shall weep.  After a few showers fall from our eyes, we shall have perpetual sunshine.  God shall wipe away all tears (Rev. 7.17).  When sin shall cease, tears shall cease.  ‘Weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning’ (Ps. 30.5).”

There are other reasons why Christians weep, to be sure.  I appreciate Watson’s perspective here because he gives us a good biblical way to view tears of repentance.  They don’t save us nor do they wash away our sins, but they do have a place in our pilgrimage.  So Christian weeping truly is bittersweet: bitter because it has to do with sin and sweet because it has to do with faith in Jesus the Savior.

The above quotes are slightly edited and abbreviated.  You can find the full discussion in chapters 6-10 of Thomas Watson’s The Beatitudes.

shane lems

Affliction: The Christian’s Great Teacher

 Though affliction, trials, suffering, and sorrow are difficult to bear in this life, they are not meaningless for the Christian.  In fact, as Paul says, God can uses affliction for our good (Rom 8).  Thomas Watson, in All Things for Good, lists several ways how affliction works for the good of God’s people.  I’ve slightly edited them here.

1) Affliction is our teacher.  Affliction teaches us to know ourselves.  In prosperity we are for the most part strangers to ourselves.  God makes us know affliction, that we may better know ourselves.  We see corruption in our hearts in the time of affliction, which we would not believe was there. 

2) Affliction draws the Christian away from the love of the world.  In prosperity the heart cleaves partly to the world, partly to God.  Then God takes away the world so that the heart may cleave more to him in sincerity.

3) Afflictions conform the Christian to Christ.  God’s chastening rod is a pencil to draw Christ’s image more lively upon us.  Was Christ’s head crowned with thorns, and do we think to be crowned with roses?

4) Affliction takes away the dross of sin.  Just like a doctor sometimes prescribes painful methods to get rid of tumors, so God uses afflictions as the painful medicine which heals many spiritual diseases.

5) Afflictions help loosen our grip on the world.  When you dig away the dirt from the root of a tree, it is to loosen the tree from the earth.  So God digs away our earthly comforts to loosen our hearts from the world.

6) Affliction is a sign of God’s fatherly love.  God disciplines those whom he loves.  Every stroke of the rod of affliction is a badge of sonship.

Watson lists a few more ways that affliction is one of the teachers God uses in the Christian’s life.  Again, though they are difficult to bear and bring tears, they are not useless.

The above quotes and paraphrases above are found in chapter two of All Things for Good.

shane lems