25 January 2013

A Reader's Review of "Puritan Portraits"

"In former days, preaching and devotion were seen as correlates—faithful Bible teaching fed hearers with truth to trust, digest, and live out, and faithful Christians looked for, and longed for, didactic displays of biblical thought and teaching by which to shape their self-management in both living with God and relating to family, friends, colleagues and other human beings." (J.I. Packer)

It is this truth, set against the backdrop of "the slimmed down, man-centred idea of devotion to God that has currently become all too common," that J.I. Packer seeks to bring to the forefront as he introduces us to the book "Puritan Portraits," a compilation of introductions he wrote for the Christian Heritage editions of some of the most celebrated Puritan classics.

One might ask, "What is appealing about reading a bunch of introductions?" I would reply, "You obviously have not read a book with a J.I. Packer introduction." Many who are familiar with the author and some of his books ("Knowing God," "A Quest for Godliness," "Concise Theology," etc.) will most likely know of his intimate knowledge of the Puritans... and perhaps, in their own reading of the Puritans, they have come across an introduction written by Packer (many will be familiar with his introduction to John Owen's "Death of Death in the Death of Christ").

Packer, in the book "Puritan Portraits,"  introduces us to:

Stephen Charnock, "Christ Crucified"
John Bunyan, "The Heavenly Footman"
John Flavel, "Keeping the Heart"

...and gives us an in-depth look at two giants of the Puritan era:William Perkins and Richard Baxter.


"Puritan Pastors at Work," Packer shares the rich pastoral legacy of the Puritans, complete with a strong emphasis on the historical context in which these men served. In the midst of the persecution that arose from The 1662 Act of Uniformity, many of these men stayed the course and dedicated their lives to shepherding God's flock. He writes, "They put their preaching of the gospel first, because they believed that in God's economy this was the prime means of the grace by which God saves souls; but they buttressed their preaching ministry with catechizing on the one hand and counseling on the other, and thus made it immeasurably stronger in its impact." This threefold trajectory of gospel ministry was the Puritan standard, a methodology that is (unfortunately) vastly missing from the modern evangelical landscape.


"Puritan Pastors in Profile" is the second part of the book, in which Packer's biographical introductions are showcased...

Henry Scougal

Scougal (a favorite of George Whitefield), according to Packer, was "a holy man excelling as a preacher, catechist, and worship leader." In "The Life of God in the Soul of Man," Packer celebrates the fact that he "never loses sight of the inwardness of true religion, as a state of being that starts in our hearts, nor of the fact that it is a supernatural product, 'having God for its author, and being wrought in the souls of men by the power of the Holy Spirit'... we do not find him slipping into the self-reliant, performance-oriented, surface-level, ego-focused, living-by-numbers type of instruction that is all too common among Christians today."

Stephen Charnock

This ministry partner of Thomas Watson, was "intensely analytical," and the author has no qualms about pointing out some of his quixotic quirks. Of Charnock, Packer writes, "his power of boiling down and compressing... can leave the wisdom and truth he sets forth... at a distance from our inner being... his writing reveals him as a man of bony thoughts who sees it as our part rather than his to put flesh on the bones and warm up the thoughts so that they gain heart-piercing power... Evidently, he thought that the dramatising and interiorising of gospel truth was for his hearers to do by personal meditation, rather than for him to attempt by pulpit rhetoric." Nonetheless, in his book "Christ Crucified," the "Reformed and Puritan understanding of penal substitution at Calvary is expressed with plain and simple precision."

John Bunyan

Packer writes of Bunyan's conversion (for more on this, see "Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners") and call to ministry (pulpit and pen), and then mentions his incarceration for nonconformity before closing the biographical portion by mentioning his "years of distinction" as a powerful preacher and accomplished author (it was during this time that he authored "The Pilgrim's Progess"). "The Heavenly Footman," the author explains, "is a single sustained exhortation to run, to run hard, and to keep running, along the path of life." He continues, "Bunyan assumes that his readers already know the objective truths of the gospel... and now concentrates on raising consciousness and generating commitment with regard to gaining heaven and escaping hell... his intensity almost overwhelms you."

Matthew Henry

This "precocious, bright, lively and Bible-loving" man, explains Packer, was grounded in "Puritan beliefs and behaviour patterns (daily prayer, Bible reading, self-watch, and self-examination; journal keeping, and practice of the presence of God; scrupulous morality and generous philanthropy, thorough-going Sabbatarianism, and hard work for the other six days of the week." Shortly after he died, "The Pleasantness of a Religious Life" (a compilation of six sermons he preached on the Christian life) was released. In this book, "Henry's aim is to make us see that real Christianity is a journey into joy, always moving us on from  one joy to another, and that this is one of many good and strong reasons for being excited and wholehearted in our discipleship."

John Owen

Of Owen and his classic book, "The Mortification of Sin," Packer says: "I owe more... to John Owen, than to any other theologian, ancient or modern... [he] has contributed more than anyone else to make me as much of a moral, spiritual, and theological realist as I have so far become. He searched me to the root of my being. He taught me the nature of sin, the need to fight it and the method of doing so. He made me see the importance of the thoughts of the heart in one's spiritual life, He made clear to me the real nature of the Holy Spirit's ministry in and to the believer, and of spiritual growth and progress and of faith's victory. He showed me how to understand myself as a Christian and live before God humbly and honestly, without pretending either to be what I am not or not to be what I am." Coming from a man like J.I. Packer, this is noteworthy... we would do well to follow suit and seek counsel from the pen of John Owen. After rightly affirming Owen's status as "the weightiest Puritan theologian," the author proceeds to describe his ministry. The literary audience of this brilliant Puritan were "readers who, once they take up a subject, cannot rest till they see to the bottom of it..." those who consider "exhaustiveness of coverage and presentation of the same truths from many different angles not exhausting, but refreshing." In preaching, he "bowed before his own maxim, that 'a man preacheth that sermon only well unto others which preacheth itself in his own soul.'" The classic work on killing sin (a set of sermons on Romans 8:13) entitled "The Mortification of Sin" helps the reader to understand what sin is in order to put it to death. "Mortification is Owen's subject, and he is resolved to explain from Scripture the theology of it–that is, God's will, wisdom, work and ways regarding it–as fully as he can."

John Flavel

After describing the Puritan (and biblical) understanding of the heart, Packer chronicles the ministry of John Flavel. During his first six years of pastoral ministry, Flavel "gained distinction as a preacher of the classic Puritan type, expository, analytical, didactic, applicatory, searching, converting and edifying, with divine unction regularly empowering his pulpit work. His writings reveal him as clear-headed and eloquent in the plain Puritan style, orthodox, Christ-focused and life-centered in his subject-matter, with his mind always set on advancing true godliness, with peace and joy in the Lord." Like many of the other Puritans written about in this book, Flavel endured persecution after he was forcibly removed from his pulpit due to the Act of Uniformity, but pressed on with a type of "renegade ministry" (like any nonconformist would). In his book, "Keeping the Heart," "Flavel leads us into... the most basic of all the disciplines of the Christian's inner life–basic to worship and prayer; basic to faith, hope and love; basic to humility, peace and joy; basic to pure-heartedness and steady obedience."

Thomas Boston

"As Boston had a sensitive spirit," says Packer, "so he had a first-class mind, a retentive memory, and a way with words... He had matured early; his theological convictions were clear, his sense of call to a preaching and shepherding ministry was strong, and his insight into the vistas opened by biblical texts was already deep." J.I. Packer does an excellent job of prefacing Boston's views on "the call of God to shepherd His flock" (a concise summary of "The Art of Manfishing" full of sound biblical wisdom for the pastor) with Westminster (as in The Westminster Assembly) theology and Puritan evangelism and catechesis. Of "The Crook and the Lot," Packer says, "along with his permanent purpose of leading the unconverted to faith and the new birth, his clear purpose is to discipline Christ's disciples in reverent, realistic, hope-filled humility, as they face up to the inescapable imperfections of life in general and their own lives in particular." In the third section of Packer's biographical sketch of Thomas Boston, he lays out the biblical view of repentance (contrasted with the unbiblical view held by many in the Middle Ages), before introducing us to Boston's own treatise, "Repentance". In it, he writes of "the necessity, nature, and urgency of repentance, and the folly of ignoring or postponing this life-and-death issue" and "explains that repentance is a matter of the heart, a lifetime's task, a gift of God's Spirit through God's Word, a change involving conviction, distress, faith in Christ, humiliation of heart, 'holy shame' and violent self-dislike, a confessing, renouncing, and turning from all one's sins as one knows them and a sincere, whole-hearted turning to God in total commitment to obedience henceforth and forever."


In "Puritan Paragons," the author takes a closer look at two eminent Puritan pastor-theologians [on the eve of publishing this review, my computer crashed... this section of my review has been limited to a set of quotes from the book that pertain to these men]...

William Perkins

"At first Perkins ran wild, but then was converted (details not known); a passion for theology now replaced the devotion to astrological studies that had marked him hitherto, and he impressed his peers by the thoroughness and speed with which he mastered the things of God."

"During the years that Perkins preached his pen was busy and he left behind him almost fifty separate treatises of various kinds, covering the whole range of theology, spirituality and ethics, and including several major pieces of biblical exposition. Perkins’s special strength both in preaching and on paper was to be systematic, scholarly, solid and simple at the same time. No one else in world Protestantism had hitherto produced material of Perkins’s type and range, at Perkins’s level of lucidity"

"in daily life he was a man of peace, studied moderation, and a personal sanctity that impressed everyone. He was faithful in fulfilling his role as a professional academic and a college tutor, but it is clear that his wider ministry at Great St Andrews, and the popular writing that went with it, were his chief concerns."

"Perkins gave prime attention throughout his ministry to the religious concerns already indicated—each person’s need of regeneration; the quest for the peace and joy of assurance; the duty and discipline of self-examination to uncover one’s sins, and of invoking Christ constantly by faith to cover them by His blood; the experience of flesh-spirit conflict; the reality of falls and recoveries as one travels the path of obedience; battles against doubts, discouragements and depression; the practice of lifelong repentance, and conscientious avoidance of wrongdoing."

"Basic too to all Perkins’s work was his insistence that Holy Scripture must be received as the teaching and testimony of God, and that interpretation must take the form of applying biblical principles to the interpreter’s own times and needs."
"Majestic and magisterial, expository and evangelical, informal and applicatory, Perkins’s preaching set standards for the whole Puritan movement thereafter, just as it brought benefit to great numbers in the Cambridge of his own day."

"...we should call William Perkins the Father of Puritanism, for it was he more than anyone else who crystallised and delimited the essence of mainstream Puritan Christianity for the next hundred years."

Richard Baxter

"Though he was, as we would say, ecumenically oriented, sympathetically alert to all the main Christian traditions and happy to learn from them all, he constantly equated the Puritan ideal with Christianity... and all his writings display him as the classic mainstream Puritan that he ever sought to be."

"Baxter appears throughout his ministry as the very epitome of single-minded ardour in seeking the glory of God through the salvation of souls and the sanctification of the church."

"The quiet peace and joy that shine through these almost clinical observations on himself are truly impressive; here is an endlessly active man whose soul is at rest in God all the time as he labours in prayer Godward and in persuasion manward."

"Puritanism, as Baxter understood it and as modern scholarship, correcting centuries of caricature, now depicts it, was a total view of Christianity, Bible-based, church-centred, God-honouring, literate, orthodox, pastoral, and Reformational, that saw personal, domestic, professional, political, churchly, and economic existence as aspects of a single whole, and that called on everybody to order every department and every relationship of their life according to the Word of God, so that all would be sanctified and become ‘holiness to the Lord’.

"Puritanism’s spearhead activity was pastoral evangelism and nurture through preaching, catechizing, and counselling (which the Puritans themselves called casuistry), and Puritan teaching harped constantly on the themes of self-knowledge, self-humbling, and repentance; faith in, and love for, Jesus Christ the Saviour; the necessity of regeneration, and of sanctification (holy living, by God’s power) as proof of it; the need of conscientious conformity to all God’s law, and for a disciplined use of the means of grace; and the blessedness of the assurance and joy from the Holy Spirit that all faithful believers under ordinary circumstances may know."


In the epilogue, Packer poses a sobering question: "Should clergy no longer spend their strength teaching the faith, preaching the gospel, and seeking the salvation of souls; should believing parents no longer labour to share their faith with their children, and believers with their neighbours; should the practice of evangelism be abandoned; should the Bible and Christian books be left around the house unread; and should church people settle for being the nicest persons in the world according to the world's specifications; how long do you think the church would remain a going concern?" Next, he lays out the Puritan pastoral ideal as put forth by John Owen in his "The True Nature of a Gospel Church" and Richard Baxter in his "The Reformed Pastor". The book closes with the reexamination and continuation of the previous question: "can the church survive without pastors of this quality today, fulfilling their ministry according to Puritan specifications?"

I recommend that the contemporary western Christian culture reflect upon this line of questioning and meditate upon what the Scriptures say before answering. I agree with J.I. Packer that we would do well to recover the Puritan pastoral ideal, and I recommend the book "Puritan Portraits" as both a primer for those who are unfamiliar with the Puritans, and a guidebook to Pastoral Theology for those already acquainted with them.

Other books by J.I. Packer:

Effective December 1, 2009, Federal Trade Commission guidelines state that bloggers receiving any kind of compensation should disclose that information clearly on their blog when posting a review of the product... that being said: I RECEIVED A FREE DIGITAL COPY OF THE BOOK. CLEAR ENOUGH?


  1. Timothy,

    Thanks for being a part of the Puritan Portraits blog tour. Loved your review!

    Shaun Tabatt
    Christian Focus Publications

  2. Can't wait to read this. Thanks Timothy!