Puritan Man Bad

This week I posted a meme about Puritans and slavery on social media. That sort of thing tends to ruffle the scruffles. I’m in print on the grim topic here, here, and here, but I wanted to offer a word or two to those who have not had the pleasure (or pain).

Puritan Man Good

I began studying this issue over a decade ago. I was reading Puritans and being blown away by what they wrote about God. But I was haunted by troubling uncertainties. Did these guys own black slaves? Lots of people just assume that they were racist slave owners. It was honestly too much for me; I was going to stop reading altogether any man who could, in good conscience, own my future wife and children because of the skin God gave them. But over the years I’ve been pleased to discover the integrity and holiness that, on the whole, existed among these men.

Let me speak for myself by quoting myself.

Let’s begin with a bit of historical orientation. When we talk about John Owen, we’re talking about the Puritans. That terrible word stirs up many a thought in the foul bosoms of men. But who were these slave-holding, witch-burning pilgrims anyway?

The Puritans had neither pilgrim ships nor slave-holding itches, and, needless to say, they burned no witches. The Puritans lived in England during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The infamous intolerance of the so-called “New England Puritans,” (upon whose account this group of men is often maligned) was “an embarrassment to [Owen] and his English colleagues.” Amid never-ending chants of puritan man bad we have been pleased to find, not only their prince standing firmly against such oppressions, but their father as well, in the absolutest terms. For that towering progenitor, William Perkins, was what we would now call an abolitionist.

Wrong century, wrong continent

The Puritans were a particular set of Englishmen of the late-16th and 17th centuries. Church historians agree.

Puritanism I define as that movement in sixteenth- and seventeenth- century England which sought further reformation and renewal in the Church of England than the Elizabethan settlement allowed.

— J.I. Packer, A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1990), 35.

Much ink has been spilt over the meaning of the term [Puritan], but, to cut a long story short, I shall use the word to denote that tendency to push for a more thoroughly Reformed theology and ecclesiology within sections of the Anglican Church between the early 1530s and 1662, the date of the most important Act of Uniformity. The definition is far from perfect; but it is probably as good as it gets...”

— Carl R. Trueman, “PURITANISM AS ECUMENICAL THEOLOGY.” Nederlands ArchiefVoor Kerkgeschiedenis / Dutch Review of Church History, vol. 81, no. 3, 2001, pp. 326–336. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/24011335.

Although Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) was a Puritan in theology and piety and is sometimes regarded as the last of the Puritans, he was not a Puritan in the strict historical sense. This book therefore does not include chapters on Edwards’s theology, however fascinating they would have been.

— Joel R. Beeke and Mark Jones, A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2012), 4.

So what about Jonathan Edwards anyway? I still read my brother, not-Puritan Jonathan Edwards with great profit, but also with a grain of salt. Call me the weaker brother. And don’t cite Abraham to me. That there is a large difference—a difference of life and death, in fact—between lawful slavery and kidnap-based slavery is evident from Moses: “Whoever steals a man and sells him, and anyone found in possession of him, shall be put to death.” (Exodus 21:16). If we must cite the deep magic, let us cite it correctly. Was it lawful and proper for an Israelite—let’s call him Jonathan Edwards—to buy a kidnapped person for a slave? If he wanted to be canceled, Mosaic style, then sure.

I’ll mainly stick to the real Puritans for now. Those dudes were bad after another fashion.

The song of apostasy

We have no portion in David, and we have no inheritance in the son of Jesse; every man to his tents, O Israel!

2 Samuel 20:1

This was the poetic expression of a worthless man named Sheba, who capitalized on the tension between Judah and Israel. This saying is always found on the lips of those who fall away from God: there is no profit for us in the Son of David. It is the song of apostasy.

Is it true? Never! The only real portion is found in Jesus. They say there's no gain in godliness; they inherit fire and brimstone. We have a great portion in our Greater David. As David himself says,

The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; indeed, I have a beautiful inheritance. Psalm 16:6

Little old me and you are heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ. We are the children of his household and the apple of his eye. We have every promise, every grace, every help, every angel, every brother and sister, every providence, and every attribute of God working for us. We are rich.

Crouching David, Hidden Deity

“And when you hear the sound of marching in the tops of the balsam trees, then rouse yourself, for then the Lord has gone out before you to strike down the army of the Philistines.” 2 Samuel 5:24

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a classic production of Chinese Kung Fu film. In one of my personal favorite scenes, Li Mu Bai and Jen Yu cross swords among the treetops of a bamboo forest, leaping and floating from tree to tree, lightly balancing on the thinnest, topmost branches. Fantastical scenes like this are elements of the genre. Warrior legends of old dueled as superheroes among men.

King David saw the real thing. Before going to battle against the Philistines, he sought God’s counsel. The Lord told him to wait among the balsam trees, listening. For he himself was going before David into battle, and the sign of his coming would be the sound of marching in the treetops. As David crouched among the trees, the Lord was his hidden army above.

It is just the same for us today. The same Lord goes out before us. He leads from on high, swooping against our airy foes. In fact, he ever works among the trees. Was not his legendary Triumph from the treetop? Are not our enemies given into our hand through the tree? He marches forth in the tree on which he died! He walks invisible but powerful amidst its timber. Wherever the cross is preached, the mighty sound of his warring footsteps may be heard, and the hearts of his people may rejoice.

He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.

The pouch of the living

“If men rise up to pursue you and to seek your life, the life of my lord shall be bound in the bundle of the living in the care of the LORD your God.” 1 Samuel 25:29

The Lexham English Bible has it, the pouch of the living. The NET calls it, the bag. It means that the Lord has a stash. What does someone keep in their pouch, but their valuables? Too precious to be left at home, these must be kept on hand at all times. I think Bilbo Baggins would have given more than a fourteenth share of his treasure to acquire a secret pouch fitted for the One Ring!

When Joseph’s brothers journeyed to Egypt in search of bread, they kept their money in this kind of pouch. It’s a moneybag. Riches, treasure, currency—a mini dragon’s hoard carried about one’s person. And the Lord’s got one, and we’re in it. He paid a mighty price for us. We are his secret treasure, snuggled safely in his care. No devil is getting at that bag!

And the day of our great opening approaches. “They shall be mine, says the LORD of hosts, in the day when I make up my treasured possession” (Malachi 3:17). Then the children of the living God will stand forth with Christ, revealed with him in glory.

Wise as wizards, innocent as wee ones

“Be wise as serpents and innocent as doves,” was the Lord’s charge to his preaching apostles. Their conduct among the ravening wolves was to be as such. I think we would not be amiss if we paralleled his command to our reading of Scripture. We must be both wise and innocent in our approach to the oracles.


The Hebrew word for wisdom denotes skill or competency. It’s used for an array of abilities, but the overall wisdom presented in Scripture is that of living well unto God. A rare skill indeed!

Not every skill is learned from the Bible—for instance (fun fact) I didn’t learn to cut my own hair by searching the nooks and crannies of the original Greek! But our spiritual skillset does come from the Bible. And one of the greatest skills God gives his people is the competency to read the Bible correctly.

He lays out very exact statements about such things as the object of our faith (Jesus, Gal 2:20) and the nature of his covenant with us (grace, not works, Rom 6:14). These alone will help us locate the fixing point for our faith in any given text. If my eyes of faith are to stay upon my Lord Jesus Christ, then I keep them fixed on him wherever I am in the Bible; if my relationship with God is based entirely on his grace to me in Christ, then the first word I come away with, no matter what text I’m in, is not do but done. In fact, he tells us quite plainly (more on that in a bit) what the subject of the Bible is: Jesus.

But beyond these sweeping (and game-changing!) ground rules for reading the Bible correctly, God also provides us with many examples of how to do it. The Bible teaches us how to read the Bible by reading itself. A good friend of mine has said, “Subsequent revelation often makes explicit what is implicit in antecedent revelation.” In other words, later Bible verses often tell us what earlier Bible verses really meant the whole time. Trust me, when the Bible says what the Bible means, the Bible is right about that.

Wee Ones

The elegant hermeneutical wisdom we find in the Bible resists the very overly-wise systems of modern Christianity. This wisdom carries itself like a child. Our scientific age has taken the wonder out of God’s word. We are taught to box every text into a nice, neat package and tie a pretty bow on top. “That is what the text means, no more, no less.”

Interestingly, this is, perhaps, not so much the overstep of arrogance as the understep of unbelief (although the two are related). We stand as scientists over the text, all too happy to mark out its limits, instead of children under it, swept away by the other-worldly storytelling of our heavenly Father.

It is a fact of life that grown ups who talk most about being grown up are usually the most childish. Interestingly, those who speak most of the plain reading of the text seem to falter when presented with very plain texts about the meaning of other texts. When the text is very scientific about what other texts mean (Rom 4:13; 1 Cor 10:4; Heb 1:5, 8, 10-12, 2:5, 9, 13, 11:16, and 13:5 for starters), these voices seem to do everything in their power to avoid the straightforward reading of it! Ah, but this happens because the system, not the text, is governing the reading of the text.

Beloved, let’s leave our little systems behind and let God teach us what reading the Bible is all about: TRUSTING JESUS!

Ol' bright eyes

“and his eyes became bright” 1 Samuel 14:27

A beloved verse! Jonathan the valiant disregards his father’s foolish command (after the fact, for he knew it not) and is strengthened by wild honey, even as he singlehandedly surged Israel into victory (his armor bearer worked cleanup, verse 13).

The brightness of the eyes signifies life, energy, vigor, and quickening. We would not be wrong in saying that Jonathan, in this instance, was lit. The honey did the trick. What a marvelous, magical kind of food! God’s premium candy. Is not wisdom as such to our souls?

My son, eat honey, for it is good, and the drippings of the honeycomb are sweet to your taste. Know that wisdom is such to your soul; if you find it, there will be a future, and your hope will not be cut off. Proverbs 24:13-14

Wisdom, insight, or knowledge of God quickens our whole self, and sharpens the eyes of our hearts. “Those who look to him are radiant” (Psalm 34:5). We see better, and attempt more, when we are in such a state. This wakeful frame of spirit is most desirable.

So let’s be off to the goods! Just as the busy bees transform nectar into honey, so the apostles and prophets, busy with revelations of God, have produced wisdom in its final form: the sweet honeycomb of the Scriptures.

We are fools to pass it by! Some have even vowed, like Saul, to fast (verse 24), closing their Bibles to listen to the voice of the Spirit, as they say. But only a strange spirit would suggest such a strange thing. The Spirit of God speaks in this word, and gives this wisdom. This is not the fast that God has chosen!

Let us freely taste of the wild honey that drips throughout God’s word as we journey heavenward. In it we will find pleasure and profit, and much power. Get ahold of some today.

The lightning and thunder

“But the LORD thundered with a mighty sound that day against the Philistines and threw them into confusion, and they were defeated before Israel.” 1 Samuel 7:10

A man once asked a famous minister if he could put his sermons into writing. "Well,” said the preacher, “I have no inherent objection, if you like, but you will never be able to put on the printed page the lightning and thunder." Ah yes, the lightning and thunder. If you’ve seen it, and heard it, you know what it is. Such things do not exactly translate into print.

The roar of a lion, the boom of a father’s voice, the peal of a thunderclap—sounds like these remind us who’s in charge, and hearing about them is not the same thing as hearing them. In our text, the Lord asserts his dominance with a divine ahem that sends chills through the bones of his enemies. There is majesty in that Voice.

Modern, scientific man sees only a natural thunderstorm in the incident before us. But the Philistines knew better. All men sense God’s power when it’s in flex. The learned naturalist would quiver under the sound of that thunder as his fake gods withered. The atheist, sitting under the preaching of the Lion of Judah, would find himself ducking for cover. As it is written, "The LORD roars from Zion, and utters his voice from Jerusalem, and the heavens and the earth quake.” Joel 3:16a

But what is terror to those who reject the Christ is comfort forever to those who trust him. As the rest of the verse says of this roaring God, “But the LORD is a refuge to his people, a stronghold to the people of Israel.” Joel 3:16b.

Gospel death by qualifications

It is an interesting expression—to die the death of a thousand qualifications. The idea comes to us from the Parable of the Invisible Gardener, an attempt to discredit claims of belief in the invisible God. While Christians have done well to expose the falsehood of the argument, I think the bad reasoning has infected us in other, deeper ways. The Lord may own the cattle on a thousand hills, but we have made the gospel to die on a thousand hills of our own making. Let us consider how the free grace of God dies the death of a thousand qualifications every day in our hearts.

Just as the man in the parable is dead-set on believing in the existence of an invisible gardener in the face of all contrary evidence, are we not dead-set on the existence of our own special case that somehow disqualifies us from the gospel? Do we not find ourselves taking the free mercy of God and marching it up these hills to die? We say:

Jesus “came not to call the righteous, but sinners” but I’m not a regular sinner. My sin is so bad that he is not calling me.

“If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” but that’s for believers who don’t sin like I did after I was saved. My past sin as a believer disqualifies me from the gospel.

“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” but the sin I’m dealing with right now means I am condemned. First I need to overcome this, then there will be grace for me.

“Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” but my feelings are too powerful for him. I change too much for the grace of God.

“Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” but my trials are unique. The way my life is going proves that I am outside the kingdom and beyond gospel hope.

What makes us so unique, that we are the exception to the gospel rule? Nothing! Who do we think we are, sticking our little buts in God’s eternal gospel and dragging it up the dunghill of our pride? For that is what these hills are, pride. Pride commands us to feel special, even if we are only special in our misery. My dear soul, leave your petty, self-important arguings with God and go to the cross. And don’t do the prideful thing with your pride when you get there. Instead, let it go in the strong currents of his mercy.

Pharisee godmother

“I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” Mark 2:17

The Pharisees were Jesus’ chief opponents. And is it any wonder? Wherever the gospel appears, the legalists will rage. His very demeanor boils their blood. See how nonchalantly he disregards their make-believe rules! A non-stop feast with his disciples, or a Sabbath stroll through the fields, were declarations of war upon their pretend world.

Ah, but lest we point the finger too quickly (the gesture a Pharisee would choose, by the way!), let’s remember that in these very hearts of ours the Pharisee yet lives. Legalism is the cold skeleton of our old man, and it must be put off. May these bones that you have broken, O Lord, never rejoice again!

How did we get here? Simple—we are born this way. Legalism was woven into our souls in the Garden. In fact, we may lay the fall of the human race at the feet of this iron-fisted lie. Satan tempted Eve, not first by lawlessness, but by legalism. Yes, it was legalism which readied her to commit lawlessness.

She must first be made to believe that God is strict, harsh, and (perhaps with a little help from Adam), that it was even good to create buffer laws of our own making to protect us from breaking the command. Properly bewitched, she was now ready to lash out against God as she imagined him to be. It has been the same with us ever since.

We are quite content to take God on these terms. In fact, we love legalism. It shows up in the way we think about things like sermons. “Just give me something to do,” we say. Our flesh loves all manner of activity, anything but quietly beholding Jesus Christ and him crucified. The answer is see the Creator as he really is: full of goodness and rich in mercy.

Not only must we not make up our own pretend spiritual rules, but we must not imagine for even a moment that it is our performance of holiness that maintains his favor to us. That belongs to Christ and Christ alone, the spell breaker. So by real gospel power let’s keep the enchantment of our first mother broken. As Sinclair Ferguson wrote in his breath-of-fresh-air-from-heaven book The Whole Christ:

‪“The root of legalism is almost as old as Eden, which explains why it is a primary, if not the ultimate, pastoral problem. In seeking to bring freedom from legalism, we are engaged in undoing the ancient work of Satan.”

Level the gospel against your legalism.

Nothing undone

“Just as the LORD had commanded Moses his servant, so Moses commanded Joshua, and so Joshua did. He left nothing undone of all that the LORD had commanded Moses. So Joshua took all that land…” Joshua 11:15-16

Joshua gets slept on (which is a slang phrase meaning he is generally ignored), mostly because he stands in the shadow of the great Moses. Yet, Joshua is a shadow of one greater than Moses — one greater than all!

The greater than Joshua (who shares his name, by the way) fulfilled these verses in marvelous fashion. Did he not keep the law of Moses in all its particulars? Did he not observe the ten commandments in flawless, spiritual perfection? His life was one continuous good work—or to view it from another biblical angle, one continuous loving of God and people.

You may have heard of the infamous video game killstreak. Well, here was a lifestreak of heavenly wonder. Jesus took all that land for us single-handedly, spilling his own blood for our sin, putting the principalities to open shame, granting us eternal life, guaranteeing all of God’s promises and blessings to us, and filling our ledgers with his spotless righteousness.