Andy Hynes is a PhD candidate at Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Follow him @ABHYNES on Twitter.
There is much to learn from our Puritan brothers. As pastors they spent countless hours studying, praying, and pouring over the souls of people. They were deeply embedded in pursuing the things of God. They diagnosed the plight of man not merely as guilt for sins, but a greater pollution and bondage to sin. Not bondage to sins of particular weaknesses of character or bad habits, but a state of being. The depravity of man’s heart was the concern. “They sought to expose the sinfulness that underlies sins, and convince men of their own utter corruption and inability to improve themselves in God’s sight. This, they held, was a vital work of the gospel preacher . . .” (J. I. Packer Quest for Godliness, 170). Unless the Gospel went forward, individual men remained helpless.
However, before they stood to preach, they disciplined themselves in a rigorous way. Some may think this is legalism, or not necessary. I think we need a little more of this today. I KNOW I need more of this today. Harry Stout wrote concerning the Puritan pastors,
Ministers rarely talked about their own turmoil and uncertainties in their sermons; indeed the pronoun I hardly ever appears in their notes. . . . In fact ministers agonized over their sermons and recorded that agony in another staple of the Puritan literature, the diary. . . . From these it is clear that, along with the hours of biblical study and analysis, the ministers engaged in ceaseless self-examination and self-censure. Before calling the congregation to account to God for their lives, thoughts, and feelings, the minster first had to submit his own life to a withering divine scrutiny. Only then could he project that message outward and say to his congregation with the proper combination of humility and finality, “Thus saith the Lord.” (Harry Stout, The England Soul, 35).
Stout goes on to talk about Thomas Shepard, one of the great 17th century American Puritans. He gives segments from his diary that described the immense agony with which he faced on a weekly basis before standing before the congregation to preach. The Puritans hated sin, and they saw sin permeating the entirety of their lives. They understood the great struggle of Romans 7. For Shepard and others, they weren’t satisfied and agreed with Paul when he said he had not yet attained that which he sought after.
Unfortunately, personally much of my early ministerial opportunity was not coupled with this practice. I was saturated with pride and arrogance. Therefore, much of my preaching was done with an agenda to “reach” a target audience. I had not spent sufficient time allowing the work of the Holy Spirit in me. I didn’t even think I needed it, and it was not on my radar. The gross sin of my heart darkened my ability to listen to the voice of God. I was too busy seeking to preach a message that would “hit” the sins of others. The Puritans have spoken to me in more ways than one. I understand and hold to the fact that the Word is the ONLY authoritative source for doctrine, correction, and growth. But I also know that studying the lifestyles and habits of others before our time can speak volumes into our lives.
What we see in the lives of these Puritans was a great desire to see God’s work before they delivered God’s Word. I don’t think their lives depicted “legalism” or introspection. If it was introspection, it wasn’t just for the sake of self-examination, but for a deeper more intense passion for holiness. They understood the severity of standing and delivering.
What about it, pastor? PLEASE know I am not saying I have all the answers or accusing anyone! I am only posing the question from this area of study because God has dealt with me over the subject for the past few years. Would we be willing to allow the Holy Spirit’s work in our lives before we would preach God’s Word? Would we be wiling to dive into a little self-examination on a regular basis in order to see a greater work of God through us?