What Can We Learn About Spiritual Disciplines From the Puritans?

Excerpted from
The Lost Discipline of Conversation
By Joanne J. Jung


If you have been a Christian for any length of time, you have been encouraged to exercise spiritual disciplines. These are practices that help believers become more like Christ. The disciplines are tools or activities we engage in toward that end, and Christians throughout the history of the church have practiced them. These include, but are not limited to, regularly reading the Bible, prayer, secluded times of silence and solitude and scheduled times to fast. The goal in incorporating these disciplines for growth and maturity is not to become an expert in a discipline but to evidence a growing knowledge of God, seeing his Spirit manifested in and through us in Christlikeness.

One can determine if this growth in Christlikeness is happening by honestly reflecting and answering two questions based on Matthew 22:37–39 (Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18): Do I love God more today than I did before? and Do I love people, who matter deeply to God, more today than before? Now, before answering too quickly, consider what Jesus says in John 14:15 and 21. Obedience is an indicator that demonstrates love toward Christ. One’s obedience quotient reveals the measure of one’s love for Jesus. Being honest, there are times when we must answer no to these questions. No, Lord, I do not love you more today than last year. My obedience is waning. And no, God, I do not love people more today than before. In fact, they have become intrusions in my life or rungs on a ladder to climb toward my self-determined success. An accurate assessment is the first step. The spiritual disciplines are exercised in continuing response to the desire for change, to be more aligned with new creation living (2 Cor. 5:17).

Spiritual disciplines have been exercised by believers for centuries, but they went by a different name among the English Puritans. Our impressions of the Puritans are often stuck somewhere between the Salem witch trials and The Scarlet Letter. It remains challenging to rid our minds of the unrelenting stereotype caricaturing Puritans as grim, killjoy fanatics in black steeple-hats, indifferent to humanity and the splendors of this world. Not only is this branding no longer reasonable, but maintaining this short-sighted view blinds the Christian to a wealth of material that is helpful to Christians today. C. S. Lewis states, “We must picture these Puritans as the very opposite of those who bear that name today: as young, fierce, progressive intellectuals, very fashionable and up-to-date. They were not teetotalers; bishops, not beer, were their special aversion.” In Lewis’s Screwtape Letters, Uncle Screwtape, in seeking to derail a Christian’s growth in godliness, remarks proudly to Wormwood upon the distorted reputation created of the Puritans: “All that, your patient would probably classify as ‘Puritanism’—and may I remark in passing that the value we have given to that word is one of the really solid triumphs of the last hundred years? By it we rescue annually thousands of humans from temperance, chastity and sobriety of life.

The Puritans sought to cultivate a biblical worldview by maintaining a high view of Scripture, dependence on the Holy Spirit and a commitment to developing a holistic, working theology of the spiritual life. This was accomplished by various spiritual disciplines, or “means of grace.” These means of grace were understood as unforced rhythms through which God communicated himself; they were tools graciously extended by God to assist the believer toward conversion and growth in godliness. Describing these rhythms this way helps to keep the key emphasis in its proper place—on God. In response to faith, by and through these means, God would supply the believer with grace sufficient for growth in godly living, or sanctification.

The English Puritans took the Bible, their community and their growth in godliness seriously. Puritan John Preston says, “For know that the means without God, is but as a pen without Ink, a pipe with- out water or a scabbard without a sword.” Preston understood the Spirit’s life-giving role for the means of grace and describes the result of engaging these spiritual rhythms: “as water is carried from the wellhead unto the pipe, and so from the pipe unto many places, so the means are as pipes to carry grace into the soul.”

It was clear to the Puritan divines that in order to live the Christian life—beginning with the preconversion experience, then growing in spiritual maturity while having an impact on one’s community—the means were essential. The saint was to guard against depending on the means without God, and on God without the means. Careless and unconscious employment of them yielded shallow souls, “Dwarfs in grace and holiness.”

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Excerpted from The Lost Discipline of Conversation by Joanne J. Jung. Copyright © 2018 by Joanne J. Jung. Used by permission of Zondervan. Zondervan.com.