PRC (7): Puritans, Assurance, and Preaching

The Puritans and Assurance

In my last blog post, I spent a good deal of time talking about the Puritan practice of discriminatory preaching. I know that some of the things that I said in that post are controversial, especially saying that the preacher may preach, at times, with the intent to cause doubt in the hearers. In this post, I hope to further develop and elaborate upon some of the things that I said regarding the Puritans, assurance, and briefly, preaching.

First, I think it is important to state that the PRC, in recent articles and literature, has come down hard on certain teachings of the Puritans, especially as it pertains to the doctrine of the assurance. Thus, many in the Protestant Reformed Churches are very reluctant to read the Puritans (which I believe is a very sad thing). Rev. McGeown writes in the Protestant Reformed Theological Journal, reviewing Prepared by Grace, for Grace by Joel Beeke and Paul Smalley,

  • The Puritans have written some good material, but their doctrine of assurance (which flows out of their doctrine of preparation) is, quite frankly, miserable. Why, then, do Beeke and his allies insist on publishing books which praise the worst of what the Puritans have written? If you are interested in historical theology, this book will be helpful; if you are interested in the assurance of salvation, avoid the Puritans. A more appropriate title for this book would be “A Dart in the Liver,” to echo the miserable experience of John Winthrop whose assurance was shaken through reading the “old Puritan writers, who convinced him that he had gone no further in spirituality than a reprobate man.”[1]

Prof. Herman Hanko in his pamphlet, “Ought the Church to Pray for Revival” compares certain teachings of the Puritans to Roman Catholicism. He states,

  • It is very striking that that Roman Catholic idea of mysticism found a certain analogy in the thinking of the Puritans. Now, I know when I say anything bad about the Puritans it is almost as if I am beating a sacred cow. And I do not want to leave the impression that the Puritans are of no value. The works which they produced, especially the early Puritans, can be read even today by any child of God with a great deal of pleasure and spiritual benefit, so much so that I would urge you to read Puritan literature. And, in fact, I can think of little devotional literature that is better to read than Puritan literature. That does not alter the fact, however, that they were wrong, desperately wrong, in their conception of Christian experience. What the medieval mystics called the “dark night of the soul” became, in Puritan thinking, “the conviction of sin” or “being under the conviction of sin.”[2]

Prof. David Engelsma goes into great depth in his criticism of the Puritan doctrine of assurance in his pamphlet The Gift of Assurance. He writes,

  • Do not quench the Spirit of assurance either by listening to Puritan preaching that is forever questioning your assurance, forever challenging your right to assurance, forever sending you on a quest for assurance, and forever instilling doubt.[3]

Disclaimer Regarding the Puritans

I do not think the Puritans are above reproach. Indeed, I believe some of them often went too far with preaching doubt. They failed at times to bring the full gospel of Jesus Christ to their congregations. So, I do not defend every single Puritan (indeed the Puritans were an extremely vast movement, covering several centuries, and different geographical regions. Thus one always has to be careful in using the term Puritan). Nor do I defend ever single thing that they said and taught. I believe that the Puritans, exactly like us, were prone to sin and error. As Joel Beeke rightly states,

  • Puritan ministers and their sermons were not perfect. At times, some of them took on a legalistic tone. Some of their sermons are so packed full of doctrine that one forgets the text being expounded. Sometimes their ‘uses’ seem endless. Sometimes they focus so heavily on the individual that these lose sight of the corporate body of Christ.[4]

I also believe some Puritans went too far from the relationship between justification and sanctification and taught Antinomianism. John Crisp is a good example of this. Hoeksema quotes him in his commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism as saying “’An elect person is not in a condemned state while an unbeliever; and should he happen to die before God calls him to believe, he would not be lost.’ And again ‘Repentance and confession of sin are not necessary to forgiveness. A believer may certainly conclude before confession, yea, as soon as he hath committed sin, the interest he hath in Christ, and the love of Christ embracing him.’”[5] That certainly is not a Biblical view of the relationship between justification and sanctification!

The Only Ground for True Assurance: Justification by Faith

True assurance is only found in justification by faith alone. We are only assured of our salvation when we look to Christ and see our justification. As Hoeksema states, “When the Catechism teaches here [Lord’s Day 32] that everyone may be assured by good works of his faith, we must not change this into the statement that good works assure faith. True and saving faith does not require any props, or external supports. It can and does indeed stand alone. For faith is itself assurance.”[6] Indeed, all the good works we do can never truly grant us real lasting assurance. Indeed, one could very well be deceived into thinking he was saved by his outward righteousness (as were so many of the Pharisees).

Faith is intimately connected to assurance, as Calvin states,

  • Now we shall possess a right definition of faith if we call it a firm and certain knowledge of God’s benevolence towards us, founded upon the truth of the freely given promise in Christ, both revealed to our minds and sealed upon our hearts through the Holy Spirit. [Faith is connected intimately to assurance. To have faith is to have assurance!][7]

Thus, assurance must be found in every true believer. Anybody whom God has truly justified is also granted the gift of assurance. That being said, assurance is going to vary in every believer. Some are going to struggle with assurance all their life and to these people, Jesus Christ must be preached. Part of the sorrow of living in a fallen and depraved world, is that the believer is always going to have to struggle with faith and assurance. It is the job of the pastor to help the believer with that, as he himself deals with it.

I also believe some may falsely believe they have assurance, when in very truth they do not. This is a Biblical idea as evidenced from Matthew 7:22 – 23, “Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? And in they name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity.”

Thomas Brooks and Assurance

Regarding the doctrine of assurance some Puritans greatly erred. They seemingly taught that assurance was not granted to all those who were justified. I here quote Thomas Brooks, from Engelsma’s critique of the Puritan doctrine of assurance in The Gift of Assurance. Brook states,

  • Now though this full assurance [his distinction between full assurance and assurance bears studying on my part SM] is earnestly desired, and highly prized, and the want of it much lamented, and the enjoyment of it much endeavored after by all saints, yet it is only obtained by a few. Assurance is a mercy too weighty for most men’s heads. Assurance is optimum maximum, the best and greatest mercy; and therefore God will only give it to his best and dearest friends. . . . Among those few that have a share or portion in the special love and favor of God, there are but a very few that have an assurance of his love. It is one mercy for God to love the soul, and another mercy for God to assure the soul of his love.[8]

Having not read Brooks, Heaven on Earth: A Serious Discourse, Touching a Well-Grounded Assurance yet (from which the above quote is taken), I do not wish to pass judgment on him, with the same forcefulness of Engelsma. The major issue that I have with the quote above is that he states that very few actual believers have assurance of the love of God. In that he is absolutely dead wrong!! Brooks makes too sharp of a distinction between justification and assurance. The believer who is justified will also have assurance of his justification! What then is the point of knowing we are justified if we cannot revel and joy in that justification?! Having assurance that we are at peace with God?

Yet I strongly believe, and I have experienced it in my own life, that believers grow in assurance. I think The Gift of Assurance fails to mention this. There is a very real sense in which the believer grows in assurance, grows in confidence, grows in knowledge and experience of his salvation. As he progresses throughout the Christian pilgrimage he grows in the confidence that he has truly been saved. He grows in boldness in stating “yes! Jesus Christ died for me!” Perhaps this is in part what Brooks is getting at (again I need to study his doctrine of assurance in greater depth).

Puritans and Salvation by Works??

However, I do believe that Engelsma goes too far in The Gift of Assurance saying that “The Puritan doctrine of assurance is a form of salvation by works.”[9] It was not the intention of many of the Puritans to teach justification by works. Indeed, that would be the farthest thing from their mind and that is something they would often be accused of by their antinomian enemies. That is a selective understanding of the Puritans: an understanding that only focuses on their teachings on assurance. Joel Beeke states on Thomas Brooks, “Thomas Brooks (1608 – 1680) asserted that sanctification is simply a living out of one’s adoption and sonship (John 1:12; Rom. 8:18). He wrote, ‘If thou art a holy person, then of a child of wrath thou art become a child of God, a child of love; and of an heir of hell thou art become an heir heaven; and of a slave, thou art become a son.’” [Emphasis Mine] [10]

Puritans on the Relationship between Justification and Sanctification

Many of the Puritan writers (Samuel Rutherford, Thomas Edwards, Jonathan Edwards)[11] were responding to the Antinomianism of the day. Indeed, their very name indicates the opposition they faced in this regard. John Spurr, a historian of 17th century Puritans, argues that the caricatured idea of a puritan (someone who was a “kill-joy, a contentious busybody, rebuking others for alleged failures of morality and piety, while unaware of the mote in his or her own eye”[12]) became cemented in the mind of the populous at the beginning of the 17th century. In fact, the term puritan is one of derision and not something that puritans applied to themselves.[13] This is especially evidenced in this quote from a clergyman during the 16th century:

  • If a private Christian makes conscience of swearing, sanctifying the Sabbath, frequenting sermons, or abstaining from the common corruptions of the time he shall straightaway be condemned for a puritan, and consequently be less favoured than either a carnal gospeller or a close papist.[14]

Thus, Jonathan Edwards spoke out against was the belief “that sanctification is not evidence of justification, and all not notes and sign of a Christian’s estate are legal and unlawful.”[15] Thus, the Puritan quite often emphasized the relationship between justification and sanctification (some of which is shown in that quote above by Thomas Brooks.

Thomas Bedford also wrote in the 17th century that,

  • There must also be another law written in tables, and to be read by the eye, to be heard by the ear: Else…how shall the believer himself be sure that he doth not swerve from the right way wherein he ought to walk?… The Spirit, I grant, is the justified man’s Guide and Teacher…. But he teacheth them…by the law and testimony.[16]

This is not a teaching that our sanctification, our keeping of the law, merits us eternal life, as is the contention of many of the Federal Visionists. Rather, the Puritan Samuel Bolton, in response to the claim that he was preaching justification by works writes, “We preach obedience to the law, but not as they do; they preach obedience to justification, and we preach justification that we may obey. We cry down works in opposition to grace in justification; and cry up obedience as the fruits of grace in sanctification.”[17]

Bolton once again,

  • The law…is subservient to the gospel, to convince and humble us, and the gospel…enables [us] to the obedience of the law. The law sends us to the gospel for our justification, and the gospel sends us to the law to frame our [conduct]; and our obedience to the law is nothing else but the expression of our thankfulness to that God, who hath so freely justified us.[18]

Evidence of Justification: Good Works

Our good works give evidence of our justification by faith. This is often forgotten in both the liberal church world and the even conservative church world. Churches are full of the immoral. But the basic connection between justification and sanctification is what is clearly taught in the Heidelberg Catechism clearly Question and Answer 86,

  • 86. Since then we are delivered from our misery merely of grace, through Christ, without any merit of ours, why must we still do good works?
    A. Because Christ, having redeemed and delivered us by His blood, also renews us by His Holy Spirit after His own image; that so we may testify by the whole of our conduct our gratitude to God for His blessings, and that He may be praised by us; also, that every one may be assured in himself of his faith by the fruits thereof; and that by our godly conversation others may be gained to Christ. [Emphasis Mine]

So when we examine our own lives and see good works and growth in holiness we are not looking at those works in such a way that we believe we are saved by them. Rather, we are looking at those works as the work of the Holy Spirit in us. We look at those works and then those works point us to Jesus Christ and His work in and for us. We look at those works remembering the words of 1 John 1:6 “If we say that we have fellowship with him, and walk in darkness, we lie, and do not the truth.” We also remember 1 John 2:3 – 4, “And hereby we do know that we know him, if we keep his commandments. He that saith, I know him, and keepeth not his commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him.” Finally, we remember James 2:17, “Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone.” As we grow in holiness, we rejoice for we see God working in us!

However, we also sorrow. For if we truly examine ourselves we will see sin. We will see lack of growth. This should rightly cause us to tremble. But then this is where 1 John comes in again. The apostle John in his sharp rebukes regarding the absolute necessity for sanctification in the life of the believer, never forgets the cross. He is always urging us to examine our lives to see if we walk in the truth. But when we find that we do not walk in the truth, he does not command us to work so that we may be saved. Rather, he points to Jesus Christ, our advocate. He states in chapter 2:1 – 2, “My little children, these things write I unto you, that ye sin not. And if any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous: and he is the propitiation for ours sins: and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.”

Is this not a contradiction? We must keep the law, but yet we must look to Christ?

This is what I find the amazing thing about the Law of God. The more we see our complete wretchedness, the more we see our complete unrighteousness, the more we will see our utter need for Jesus Christ. This is why I so strongly call for the harsh, convicting, discriminatory preaching of the law.

The more we see our need for Jesus Christ, the more we will cling to Him as our only hope.

The more we cling to Him as our only hope, the more we will want to give thanks to Him for our blessed salvation.

And the more we will want to give thanks to Him for our blessed salvation, the more we will seek to do His law.

The more we will seek to do His law, the more we will see our inadequacies to fulfill that law.

And so the blessed circle continues. This blessed circle is what God uses to sanctify us. This is the use of the law! This is the use of Christ! This is the importance of self-examination!


This blessing is one reason I believe, among the numerous reasons I presented in my last post, that the preacher may preach discriminatory sermons: he may on occasion preach with the intent of causing doubt in some of his hearers. This will not only work to the salvation or further damnation of hypocrites, but it will also work to the strengthening of believers in both their justification and sanctification. I want to see people converted by the preaching. I want to see believers grow in their justification and sanctification. I think the Puritans strove for the same thing and I believe this is one thing that makes their preaching so effective.


[1] Martyn McGeown, “Book Review: Prepared by Grace, for Grace by Joel Beeke and Paul Smalley” in the Protestant Reformed Theological Journal Vol. 49, Issue. 2 (April 2016)

[2] Herman Hanko, “Ought the Church to Pray for Revival”

[3] David Engelsma, The Gift of Assurance, 53

[4] Joel Beeke, A Puritan Theology, 710

[5] Hoeksema, Love the Lord Thy God, 35

[6] Hoeksema, Love the Lord Thy God, 56

[7] John Calvin, Institutes, 3.2.7

[8] Engelsma, The Gift of Assurance, 10

[9] Engelsma, The Gift of Assurance, 12

[10] Beeke, A Puritan Theology, 541

[11] Beeke, A Puritan Theology, 558 – 559

[12] Beeke, A Puritan Theology, 23

[13] Beeke, A Puritan Theology, 23

[14] Beeke, A Puritan Theology, 19

[15] Beeke, A Puritan Theology, 559

[16] Beeke, A Puritan Theology, 559 – 560

[17] Beeke, A Puritan Theology, 562

[18] Beeke, A Puritan Theology, 566 – 567

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