Focusing on Christ

Dear Timothy,

As we've seen, when God’s Word is preached experientially, the Holy Spirit uses it to transform people and nations. And in this experiential preaching, the Puritans focused on Christ.

As Scripture clearly shows, evangelism must bear witness to the record God has given of His only begotten Son (Acts 2:3; 5:42; 8:35; Rom. 16:25; 1 Cor. 2:2; Gal. 3:1). The Puritans thus taught that any preaching in which Christ does not have the preeminence is not valid preaching. William Perkins said that the heart of all preaching was to “preach one Christ by Christ to the praise of Christ.”[1] According to Thomas Adams,

“Christ is the sum of the whole Bible, prophesied, typified, prefigured, exhibited, demonstrated, to be found in every leaf, almost in every line, the Scriptures being but as it were the swaddling bands of the child Jesus.”[2]

Or as Isaac Ambrose said, "Think of Christ as the very substance, marrow, soul, and scope of the whole Scriptures."[3]

Like Paul, the Puritans preached Christ crucified. J.I. Packer explains,

“Puritan preaching revolved around ‘Christ, and him crucified’—for this is the hub of the Bible. The preachers’ commission is to declare the whole counsel of God; but the cross is the center of that counsel, and the Puritans knew that the traveler through the Bible landscape misses his way as soon as he loses sight of the hill called Calvary.”[4]

The Puritans were lovers of Christ, and wrote much about His beauty. Listen to Samuel Rutherford:

“Put the beauty of ten thousand thousand worlds of paradises, like the Garden of Eden in one; put all trees, all flowers, all smells, all colors, all tastes, all joys, all loveliness, all sweetness in one. O what a fair and excellent thing would that be? And yet it would be less to that fair and dearest well-beloved Christ than one drop of rain to the whole seas, rivers, lakes, and foundations of ten thousand earths.”[5]

As Thomas Goodwin concluded, “Heaven would be hell to me without Christ.”[6]

With Christ as their focus, the Puritans were able to maintain a proper sense of biblical balance in their preaching. Let me just mention three important ways:

1. By maintaining the objective and subjective dimensions of Christianity.

The objective is the food for the subjective; thus the subjective is always rooted in the objective. For example, the Puritans stated that the primary ground of assurance is rooted in the promises of God, but those promises must become increasingly real to the believer through the subjective evidences of grace and the internal witness of the Holy Spirit. Without the Spirit’s application, the promises of God lead to self-deceit and carnal presumption. On the other hand, without the promises of God and the illumination of the Spirit, self-examination tends to introspection, bondage, and legalism. Objective and subjective Christianity must not be separated from each other.     

We must seek to live in a way that reveals Christ’s internal presence based on His objective work of active and passive obedience. The gospel of Christ must be proclaimed as objective truth, but it must also be applied by the Holy Spirit and inwardly appropriated by faith. We therefore reject two kinds of religion: One that separates subjective experience from the objective Word, thereby leading to man-centered mysticism; and one that presumes salvation on the false grounds of historical or temporary faith.[7]

2. By maintaining the sovereignty of God and the responsibility of man.

Nearly all of the Puritans stressed that God is fully sovereign and man is fully responsible. How that can be resolved logically is beyond our finite minds. When Charles Spurgeon was asked how these two grand, biblical doctrines could be reconciled, he responded as a real heir of the Puritans: “I didn't know that friends needed reconciliation.”

He went on to compare these two doctrines to the rails of a track upon which Christianity runs. Just as the rails of a train, which run parallel to each other, appear to merge in the distance, so the doctrines of God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility, which seem separate from each other in this life, will merge in eternity. The Puritans would wholeheartedly concur. Our task, they said, is not to force their merging in this life but to keep them in balance and to live accordingly. We must thus strive for experiential Christianity that does justice both to God’s sovereignty and to our responsibility.

3. By rejecting Arminianism and hyper-Calvinism.

False converts are multiplied today through shallow Arminian and decisionistic methods, which has given birth to the carnal Christian theory in order to accommodate non-fruitbearing “Christians.” The Puritans combated shallow Arminianism through their sovereign grace soteriology. John Owen’s A Display of Arminianism and his The Death of Death in the Death of Christ powerfully underscore that the fallen will of man is in bondage.

On the other hand, a growing number of Reformed conservatives today, moving beyond Calvin, are espousing that God does not sincerely offer grace unconditionally to every hearer of the gospel. The result is that the preaching of the gospel is hampered and man’s responsibility is dismissed, if not denied. Happily, we are freed from such rationalistic, hyper-Calvinistic conclusions about the doctrines of grace when we read Puritan writings such as John Bunyan’s Come and Welcome to Jesus Christ, John Howe’s The Redeemer’s Tears Shed Over Lost Souls, or William Greenhill’s sermon, “What Must and Can Persons Do Toward Their Own Conversion.”[8]

Timothy, if you preach with a true Reformed balance, some of your parishioners may call you a hyper-Calvinist and others may call you an Arminian, but the majority will view you as being solidly biblical and Reformed. 

Previous articles in the "Learn 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

An Introduction to the Death of Death in the Death of Christ by J.I. Packer

"Preaching the Good News" by Adam Parker

Preaching the Gospel (with Rick Phillips and Harry Reeder) [ Audio Disc  |  MP3 Disc  |  Download ]

Reformed Preaching by Joel Beeke

Meet the Puritans by Joel Beeke and Randall J. Pederson

Why Johnny Can't Preach by T. David Gordon 

[1] Works of Perkins, 2:762.

[2] The Works of Thomas Adams (1862; reprint Eureka, Calif.: Tanski, 1998), 3:224.

[3] Works of Isaac Ambrose (London: for Thomas Tegg & Son, 1701), p. 201.

[4] A Quest for Godliness, p. 286.

[5] Quoted by Don Kistler, Why Read the Puritans Today (Morgan, Penn.: Soli Deo Gloria, 1999), p. 4.

[6] Ibid., p. 3.

[7] Joel R. Beeke, Quest for Full Assurance: The Legacy of Calvin and His Successors (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1999), pp. 125, 130, 146.

[8] Bunyan, Come and Welcome (Choteau, Montana: Gospel Mission, 1999?); Howe, Redeemer’s Tears (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1989?); Greenhill, Puritan Sermons: 1659-1689: The Morning Exercises at Cripplegate, (Wheaton, Ill.: Richard Owen Roberts, 1981), 1:38-50.

Joel Beeke