Being Shaped by the Word

Dear Timothy,

You asked me in your last letter, “As you look back over 25 years of ministry, what was the most helpful, optional spiritual discipline that you maintained for your own spiritual life and for your preaching and pastoral ministry?” I answer without hesitation: Maintaining a steady diet of Puritan literature.

Reading Puritan literature has been a major boon for me spiritually for many years. When the Holy Spirit began to convict me of the seriousness of sin and the spirituality of the law at age fourteen, I searched the Scriptures and devoured Puritan literature from my father’s bookcase. My mother would call upstairs each evening at 11:00 p.m., “Lights out!” After my parents’ lights went out, I would turn mine back on and read until 12:30 or 1:00 a.m. I read all the Puritan titles published by Banner of Truth Trust with relish, started a church library, then founded a non-profit organization called Bible Truth Books and later, as a minister, Reformation Heritage Books. I have spent thousands of hours with Puritan writers in my life and sold tens of thousands of Puritan books over the spread of the last thirty-five years.


First, let me tell you briefly what I mean by “the Puritans,” then show you how reading the Puritans can be so profitable for you. Simply put, my use of the word Puritan includes not only those people who were ejected from the Church of England by the Act of Uniformity in 1662, but also those in Britain and North America who, for several generations after the Reformation, worked to reform and purify the church and to lead people toward biblical, godly living consistent with the Reformed doctrines of grace.[1]

Puritanism grew out of at least three needs: (1) the need for biblical preaching and the teaching of sound, Reformed doctrine; (2) the need for biblical, personal piety that stresses the work of the Holy Spirit in the faith and life of the believer; and (3) the need for a restoration of biblical simplicity in liturgy, vestments, and church government, so that a well-ordered church life would promote the worship of the triune God as prescribed in His Word.[2] Doctrinally, Puritanism was a kind of broad and vigorous Calvinism; experientially, it was a warm and contagious kind of Christianity; evangelistically, it was tender as well as aggressive.[3] J.I. Packer wrote, “Puritanism was, at its heart, a movement of spiritual revival.”[4]

            With the Spirit’s blessing, here’s how the Puritans can profit you:[5]

Being Shaped by Scripture

More than any other group of writers in church history, the Puritans show us how to shape our entire lives and preaching by the Holy Scriptures. 

The Puritans were people of the living Book. They loved, lived, and breathed Scripture, relishing the power of the Spirit that accompanied the Word.[6] They regarded the sixty-six books of Scripture as the library of the Holy Spirit that was graciously bequeathed to them. They viewed Scripture to be God speaking to them as a father speaks to his children. They saw the Word as truth they could trust in and rest upon for all eternity. They saw it as Spirit-empowered to renew their minds and transform their lives.

The Puritans searched, heard, and sang the Word with delight, and encouraged others to do the same. Puritan Richard Greenham suggested eight ways to read Scripture: with diligence, wisdom, preparation, meditation, conference, faith, practice, and prayer.[7] Thomas Watson provided numerous guidelines on how to listen to the Word. Come to the Word with a holy appetite and a teachable heart. Sit under the Word attentively, receive it with meekness, and mingle it with faith. Then retain the Word, pray over it, practice it, and speak to others about it.[8] “Dreadful is their case who go loaded with sermons to hell,” Watson warned. By contrast, those who respond to Scripture as a “love letter sent to you from God” will experience its warming, transforming power.[9]

“Feed upon the Word,” the Puritan preacher John Cotton exhorted his congregation.[10] The preface to the Geneva Bible contains similar advice, saying the Bible is “the light to our paths, the key of the kingdom of heaven, our comfort in affliction, our shield and sword against Satan, the school of all wisdom, the glass wherein we behold God’s face, the testimony of his favor, and the only food and nourishment of our souls.”[11]

The Puritans sounded a clarion call to become intensely Word-centered in faith and practice. Richard Baxter’s Christian Directory shows how the Puritans regarded the Bible as a trustworthy guide for all of life. Every case of conscience was subjected to Scripture’s directives. Henry Smith preached to his congregation, “We should set the Word of God alway before us like a rule, and believe nothing but that which it teacheth, love nothing but that which it prescribeth, hate nothing but that which it forbiddeth, do nothing but that which it commandeth.”[12] Perhaps John Flavel said it best, “The Scriptures teach us the best way of living, the noblest way of suffering, and the most comfortable way of dying.”[13]

Puritan preaching was shaped in content and method by Scripture. The Westminster Directory of Public Worship says of ministers, “Ordinarily, the subject of his sermon is to be some text of scripture, holding forth some principle or head of religion, or suitable to some special occasion emergent; or he may go on in some chapter, psalm, or book of holy scripture, as he shall see fit.”[14] Edward Dering put it succinctly, “The faithfull Minister, like unto Christ, [is] one that preacheth nothing but the word of God.”[15] John Owen agreed: “The first and principal duty of a pastor is to feed the flock by diligent preaching of the word.”[16] As Miller Maclure noted, “For the Puritans, the sermon is not just hinged to Scripture; it quite literally exists inside the Word of God; the text is not in the sermon, but the sermon is in the text.... Put summarily, listening to a sermon is being in the Bible.”[17]

Puritan preaching allowed Scripture to dictate the emphasis for each message. The Puritans did not preach sermons that were a kind of balancing act between various doctrines. Rather, they let the biblical text determine the content and emphasis of each message. When Jonathan Edwards preached on hell, for example, he didn’t make a single reference to heaven, and when he preached on heaven, he didn’t speak about hell.[18] 

The Puritans preached a Bible text completely, whatever its theme, so in time they would be sure to address every major theme of Scripture and thereby every major doctrine of Reformed theology. Nothing was left unbalanced in the total range of their many and lengthy sermons. In theology proper, they proclaimed God’s transcendence as well as His immanence. In anthropology, they preached about the image of God in its narrower as well as its wider sense. In Christology, they exhibited Christ’s state of humiliation as well as exaltation. In soteriology, they focused both on God’s work and on man’s response, and knew when to accent each. In ecclesiology, they acknowledged the high calling of special offices (ministers, elders, and deacons) as well as the equally high calling of the general office of all believers. In eschatology, they declared both the glories of heaven and the horrors of hell.

Timothy, learn from the Puritans, in your lifestyle and your preaching, to show wholehearted allegiance to the Bible’s entire message. Be a man of the living Book. Believe in preaching. Never forget that when you proclaim the Scriptures as a lawfully ordained preacher, Christ speaks through you so that, by His Spirit, the preached Word is a living Word.

That makes your calling so significant, that Henry Smith could preach to his flock, “If ye did consider, my beloved, that ye cannot be nourished unto eternal life but by the milk of the word, ye would rather desire your bodies might be without souls, that your churches without preachers.”[19] 

Editor's Note: This is Part 1 in the Learning from the Puritans series.


Joel Beeke (@JoelBeeke) is president and professor of Systematic Theology and Homiletics at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary and one of the pastors of the Heritage Netherlands Reformed Congregation both in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He has written, co-authored, and edited over 80 books.

Related Links

The Spirit and Scripture: More than Divine Advice by Todd Billings

Meet the Puritans by Joel Beeke and Randall J. Pederson

William Perkins: Architect of Puritanism, edited by Joel Beeke and Greg Salazar

Reading Holy Scripture by Thomas Cranmer [ Booklet  |  Download ]

The Character of an Old English Puritan by John Geree [ Booklet  |  Download ]


[1] Richard Mitchell Hawkes, “The Logic of Assurance in English Puritan Theology,” Westminster Theological Journal 52 (1990): 247. For the difficulties in, and attempts at, defining Puritanism, see Ralph Bronkema, The Essence of Puritanism (Goes: Oosterbaan and LeCointre, 1929); Leonard J. Trinterud, “The Origins of Puritanism,” Church History 20 (1951):37-57; Jerald C. Brauer, “Reflections on the Nature of English Puritanism,” Church History 23 (1954):98-109; Basil Hall, “Puritanism: The Problem of Definition,” in G. J. Cumming, ed., Studies in Church History, vol. 2 (London: Nelson, 1965), pp. 283‑96; Charles H. George, “Puritanism as History and Historiography,” Past and Present 41 (1968):77-104; William Lamont, “Puritanism as History and Historiography: Some Further Thoughts,” Past and Present 42 (1969):133-46; Richard Greaves, “The Nature of the Puritan Tradition,” in R. Buick Knox, ed., Reformation, Conformity and Dissent: Essays in Honour of Geoffrey Nuttall (London: Epworth Press, 1977), pp. 255-73; D.M. Lloyd-Jones, “Puritanism and Its Origins,” The Puritans: Their Origins and Successors (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1987), pp. 237-59; James I. Packer, “Why We Need the Puritans,” in A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 1990), pp. 21-36; Joel R. Beeke, The Quest for Full Assurance: The Legacy of Calvin and His Successors (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1999), pp. 82ff.

[2] Peter Lewis, The Genius of Puritanism (Hayward Heath, Sussex: Carey, 1975), pp. 11ff.

[3] Sidney H. Rooy, The Theology of Missions in the Puritan Tradition: A Study of Representative Puritans: Richard Sibbes, Richard Baxter, John Eliot, Cotton Mather, and Jonathan Edwards (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965), pp. 310-28.

[4]  Cf. Packer’s introduction in Leland Ryken, Worldly Saints: The Puritans As They Really Were (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990), p. xv.

[5] Some of my advice is being adapted from my Puritan Evangelism: A Biblical Approach (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 1999).

[6] See Joel R. Beeke and Ray B. Lanning, “The Transforming Power of Scripture,” in Sola Scriptura: The Protestant Position of the Bible, ed. Don Kistler(Morgan, Penn.: Soli Deo Gloria, 1995), pp. 221-76.

[7] “A Profitable Treatise, Containing a Direction for the reading and understanding of the holy Scriptures,” in H[enry] H[olland], ed., The Works of the Reverend and Faithfvll Servant of Iesvs Christ, M. Richard Greenham (1599; reprint New York: Da Capo Press, 1973), pp. 389-97. Cf. Thomas Watson, “How We May Read the Scriptures with Most Spiritual Profit,” in Heaven Taken by Storm: Showing the Holy Violence a Christian Is to Put Forth in the Pursuit After Glory, ed. Joel R. Beeke (1669; reprint Pittsburgh: Soli Deo Gloria, 1992), pp. 113-129.

[8] Ibid., pp. 16-18, and Thomas Watson, A Body of Divinity (1692; reprint London: Banner of Truth Trust), pp. 377-79.

[9] Ibid., p. 379. “There is not a sermon which is heard, but it sets us nearer heaven or hell” (John Preston, A Pattern of Wholesome Words, quoted in Christopher Hill, Society and Puritanism in Pre-Revolutionary England, 2nd ed. (New York: Schocken, 1967), p. 46.

[10] Christ the Fountain of Life (London: Carden, 1648), p. 14.

[11] Geneva Bible (1599; reprint Ozark, Mo.: L.L. Brown, 1990), p. 3.

[12] “Food for New-Born Babes,” in The Works of Henry Smith, ed. Thomas Smith (Edinburgh: James Nichol, 1866), 1:494.

[13] Quoted in I.D.E. Thomas, The Golden Treasury of Puritan Quotations (Chicago: Moody Press, 1975), p. 33.

[14] The Westminster Confession of Faith (Inverness: The Publications Committee of the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland, 1985), p. 379. 

[15] M. Derings Workes (1597; reprint New York: Da Capo Press, 1972), p. 456.

[16] The Works of John Owen, ed. William H. Goold (1853; London: Banner of Truth Trust, 1965), 16:74.

[17] The Paul's Cross Sermons, 1534-1642 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1958), p. 165.

[18] Cf. The Wrath of Almighty God: Jonathan Edwards on God’s Judgment against Sinners, ed. Don Kistler (Morgan, Penn.: Soli Deo Gloria, 1996); The Works of Jonathan Edwards, 2:617-41; John H. Gerstner, Jonathan Edwards on Heaven and Hell (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1980).

[19] Works (Edinburgh: James Nichol, 1866), 1:495.

Joel Beeke