What is a Puritan?

From 1580 to 1720 a group of Christians originated in Britain, sprouted in places in Europe and dominated New England. The church of England refusing to follow Scripture or take seriously the fear of God compelled the most dedicated to live so as to earn the name “Hot Protestants.” But more commonly, they were called Puritans.

No single definition seems to squeeze in all the people who look and sound like Puritans. Jonathan Edwards ministered after 1720. William Carey left England in 1793, and Robert Murray McCheyne lived in Scotland in the 1800’s as well as Spurgeon. Are any of these men in the group?

George Whitefield was an Anglican as was John Newton who wrote “Amazing Grace.” Also, J. C. Ryle and other lesser-known men. Can any of these take the title Puritan?

Some theologians question the theology of Richard Baxter and John Milton, yet they are usually included as Puritans. Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Baptists, and Anglicans are all commonly included in the group.

If the definition of Puritan is decided by time, then William Tyndale, Robert McCheyne, Charles Spurgeon, and Martyn Lloyd-Jones do not make the team. If the definition is by geography such as Britain, that won’t do at all since it cuts out Edwards, Davenant, and Zinzendorf. If the definition is by denomination, then we have a broad enough group to include Methodists, separatists, and churchmen who preach in robes.

Like Gallio in Acts 18, I care for none of these things. In my mind, if an author is published by the Banner of Truth he can fit in the group. Who is helped, save academics in their footnotes, by a technical definition of such a historically profitable group?

Why not define the group by the spiritual characteristics which have kept them in demand for hundreds of years and which have sprouted at least 6 modern publishing companies? Therefore, I propose that the fear of God is the defining mark of a Puritan.

A high view of God that trembles at His Word receiving every commandment with joy is what makes a Puritan to me. These were men who wrote books that had no time for explaining reasons Isaiah wrote the book which bears his name. They believed in inerrancy, young earth creation, the new birth, repentance, a glorious Heaven, a Hell with literal and eternal fire, and deep experiences with the saving, personal love of God. They loved conversion, preaching, and the gospel. They sought as Leland Ryken documents in his pleasing book, Worldly Saints, to be consistent Christians for each day they were stationed here on earth. They expected persecution and mockery, yet a constant refilling of joy and faith. They tried to work through doctrines of Scripture in meticulous statements of faith like the Baptist Confession of 1644 (which came before the Presbyterian Westminster Confession) and theological works like A Display of Arminianism by John Owen in 1642. They loved their families enough to be specially marked as the group that does family worship often twice per day. They were serious Christians.

He is no Puritan who questions the Bible. If he thinks evolution “makes some good points,” he is out of the group. If his nuance is bigger than his wonder, if he plays at religion, if he rationalizes why he can skip a church meeting to be at a sporting event, he may rightly have many names, but not Puritan.

When I think of the Puritans, I think of the fear of God. When I listen to Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ sermons, I hear in his voice what I read in Gurnall or Brooks or Watson.

And that is the kind of religion I aspire to. I want my kids to be Puritans according to that lengthy paragraph. I want to plant Puritan churches.

I am not agreeing with all the decisions of different good men from the past, most notably the death penalty for Baptists or political disagreements. Many Puritans were baby sprinklers and theonomists. There was not a strong emphasis on missions, though the best of them were very evangelistic such as Baxter, Bunyan, and Boston.

If we need a revival of dedicated Christians—those who are not afraid to commit to the church, face mockery by the world, call Sunday the Lord’s Day, and in short make every minute and every dollar a religious test, then we need modern Puritans.

Call me what you will, but those are the marks that by God’s grace, I want to be mentioned at my funeral. For short-hand, I will take that name. I am a Puritan.

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