A Case for the Reintroduction of Puritan Theology in a Postmodern World
Part 3: The Puritans and the Preaching of the Gospel
The Problems Facing the Church in a Postmodern World
During the course of the past few decades there has been a subtle shift from preaching a God-centered message to a human being-centered message. This subtle change of diet has produced serious and dangerous flaws in the church. Let me begin by discussing some of these flaws.
1. The proclamation of an Eros centered gospel
Eros simply means a man centered gospel. Here human beings are the center of importance with their insatiable cravings to have their needs met. The characteristics of an Eros relationship with God are as follows:
- Christians who seek God to satisfy their own spiritual hunger by ‘possession’ and enjoyment of God. They want to possess God in such a way that the primary goal is for him to meet all their needs. In other words, God is seen as an ‘ATM bank’ or a ‘user-friendly God.’
- They do not seek God for his own sake rather they seek God to see what they can get from him.
- Thirdly, their relationship with God is not Christ-centered but me-focused. What do I get out of this relationship?
- It is a love that desires ‘to get’ therefore it is a highly refined form of self-interest and self-seeking.
I firmly believe that this type of Christianity is a result of the postmodern worldview that advocates individualism.
2. A subtle move away from proclaiming the cross and resurrection of Jesus preached by the early church in the book of Acts
When Christians become the center of their relationship with Christ there is a drastic move away from the cross with its message of dying to self, and picking up one’s cross to daily follow Jesus.
3. The diet of preaching in a postmodern world is more focused on meeting people’s needs, rather than preaching the doctrines of the faith that produce a mature faith in believers
This has produced disciples in the West that are wrapped up in their own needs rather than being ‘others’ focused. Our church services are filled with disciples who come for one primary reason; what will I get out of today’s service to see me through the week?
Packer (1991:164) has observed the following:
- The chief aim of the Puritans was to teach people to worship God, the concern of the new (postmodern world) seems limited to making them feel better.
- The gospel which the Puritans preached was God and his ways with men; the subject of the new (postmodern world) is man and the help God gives him.
I believe that the theology of the Puritans hold the key to us reversing the curse of these flaws. We now turn our attention to the Puritans and the preaching of the gospel which will help in the process of recovering a gospel which centers on the Trinity and God’s ways with human beings.
The Puritans and the Preaching of the Gospel
I must admit that when I first began to read the sermons of the Puritans I was put off by what I then called an over emphasis on sin, confession and repentance. However, the more I studied their lives; the more I studied Reformed and Evangelical theology; the more I dialogued with their exegesis of Scripture; I soon realized that I was preaching a very shallow version of the true gospel. The Puritans and in particular Martyn Lloyd-Jones (whom I considered to have been a modern day Puritan) steered me away from preaching a psychologized gospel, and centered me on preaching the whole counsel of the Word of God with the emphasis on glorifying and exalting Christ.
At the heart of our preaching to a postmodern world must be Jesus Christ and not the needs of human beings. We must fight the urge or the theological postmodern persuasion to present Jesus simply as One who gives peace, and purpose to the neurotic and frustrated. It is my opinion to follow this route is to deprive believers of the opportunity to grow their faith to maturity. In this light I quote the wisdom of Packer (1991:217): ‘If we do not preach about sin and God’s judgment on it, we cannot present Christ as a Savior from sin and the wrath of God. And if we are silent about these things, and preach a Christ who saves only from self and the sorrows of this world, we are not preaching the Christ of the Bible…Such preaching may soothe some, but it will help nobody; for a Christ who is not seen and sought as a Savior from sin will not be found to save from self or from anything else.’
They preached the whole counsel of God
I have added some short extracts from some of the Puritans to illustrate how they preached a comprehensive gospel. As Packer (1991:220) says ‘to preach the gospel meant to them nothing less than declaring the entire economy of redemption, the saving work of all three Persons of the Trinity.’
The sum of the gospel is this, that all who, by true repentance and faith, do forsake the flesh, the world, and the devil, and give themselves up to God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, as their creator, redeemer, and sanctifier, shall find God as a father, taking them for his reconciled children, and for Christ’s sake pardoning their sin, and by the Spirit giving them his grace; and, if they persevere in this course, will finally glorify them, and bestow upon them everlasting happiness; but will condemn the unbelievers…to everlasting punishment. That this is the sum of the gospel appeareth by Mark Xvi.15,16…’
John Owen shows us how much is involved in declaring the promises of the gospel:
Gospel promises then are: 1. The free and gracious dispensations; and, 2. discoveries of God’s good-will and love; to, 3. sinners; 4. through Christ; 5. in a covenant of grace; 6. wherein, upon his truth and faithfulness, he engageth himself to be their God, to give his Son unto them, and for them, and his Holy Spirit to abide with them, with all things that are either required in them, or are necessary for them, to make them accepted before him, and to bring them to an enjoyment of him.
The Emphasis of the Gospel as the Puritans Preached it (1991:223-234)
1. They diagnosed the plight of human beings
They called sin, sin. Their aim was to expose the sinfulness that underlies sins, and convince human beings of their own utter corruption and inability to improve themselves in God’s sight.
2. They analyzed the issue of sin in terms of God’s hostility in the present, as well as his condemnation in the future.
3. They preached the grace of God
They stressed that the goal of grace is the glory and praise of God and our salvation is a means to this end. God, they said, has chosen to redeem us, not for our own sakes, but for his own name’s sake.
4. They stressed the sufficiency of Christ
5. They stressed the condescension of Christ
He was never to them less than the divine Son, and they measured his mercy by his majesty. They magnified the love of the cross by dwelling on the greatness of the glory which he left for it. They dwelt on the patience and forbearance expressed in his invitations to sinners as further revealing his kindness.
The Demands of the Gospel as the Puritans Presented them (1991:225-231)
The gospel, they said, summons sinners to faith in Christ.
2. Repentance and confession
They held to the belief that repentance is a fruit of faith.
The Puritans were thirsty of desire for men’s conversion and salvation. This is what drove them to preach the whole counsel of God’s Word.
Can such preaching have a place in our postmodern world? Yes it can. Mark Driscoll (2008:15) affirms this when he writes of his experience of preaching a series on Christ on the Cross in Seattle: ‘I saw our attendance grow by as many as eight hundred mainly young, single, college-educated, twenty-something hipsters in a single week. I yelled myself hoarse for well over an hour at each of our Sunday church services about the depth of sin, the wrath of God, and the propitiation of Jesus and am happy to report that the gospel of Jesus Christ remains the power of God.’
 Packer, J.I 1991. Among God’s Giants. The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life. Eastbourne: Kingsway Publications.
 Thomas Manton, Works, II:102f.
 John Owen, Works (see chapter 4 n 43), XI:227.
 Mark Driscoll and Gerry Breshears 2008. Death by Love. Letters from the Cross. Wheaton, Illinois: Christian Art Publishers.