Tuesday, September 01, 2009

The Legalistic Tendencies of the Puritans (Part 1)

Part 1 - by Terry Rayburn
(Part 2 is here)

Since there are certainly a large number of Christians who read the Puritans, I wanted to make some comments about the Puritans in order to bring attention to a form of Legalism that they are prone to, largely because of their Covenant Theology.

No one likes to pick on such esteemed men as the Puritans, but Grace is too important to neglect the subtle spiritually-detrimental influence that the Law-based message of the Puritans can bring on an unsuspecting reader.

The following link is to a fairly representative message from Thomas Watson, entitled "A Godly Man Is A Lover of the Word":


I urge you to read it before reading comments by me in this post ("The Legalistic Tendencies of the Puritans, Part 1"), and by my wife Michele in the next post (Part 2).

Part 1, Comments by Terry:

Warning: Sin-centered Christians will not like the following comments. But sin-centered Christians love warnings, so I knew it would be an attention-getter :)

Watson, like other Puritans in general, thought he was being Christ-centered by being sin-centered.

This is a result of his not cutting straight (rightly dividing) the Word of Truth.

He didn't understand that the Old Covenant was made obsolete by the New (Heb. 8).

He didn't understand that sin shall no longer be master of us because we are no longer under Law but under grace (Rom. 6:14).

While he acknowledges grace in a vague way, his *focus* is on himself and his sin. This is unbiblical under the New Covenant.

Our *focus* is to be on Christ, and walking by His Spirit. Keeping our eyes on Him, fellowshiping with Him. Not examining our spiritual navel 24 hours a day to see if we're more sinless than we were yesterday, and wringing our hands and hankies when we're not.

"If we walk by the Spirit, we will not fulfill the lusts of the flesh" (Gal. 5:16). The love of Christ constrains us to walk this way, and the love of Christ is grown in our hearts and minds as we look on Him, not our fleshly wretchedness.

And the Puritans didn't get it, because they were reactionaries, reacting to a decadent immoral secular English church. And they reacted with a law/sin-focused life and study.

They rightfully gloried in the greatness of God, and this is the one value of reading the Puritans, but it's a big mistake to go to them for tips on Christian living.

They are the Emperor who has no clothes. Greatly admired, almost worshiped like they were Christ himself, they were Law/Sin nerds who never got out of Old Covenant thinking, and into the bright light of Gal. 5:1, "Stand fast therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made us free, and do not be entangled again with a yoke of bondage."

And yet, I mean no disrespect to them as men. They were influenced by their peers and their times.

But we are in another time, friends. A time in which we have an opportunity to bring the light of the New Covenant to a generation of believers who still think that their performance is the point.

A time when we can shake off "Religion" and replace it with Christ Who is our Life (Col. 3:4), and leave "Religion" for the World.

A time in which we can build true "...fellowship with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ" (1 Jn. 1:3), because "...the blood of Jesus Christ His son cleanses us from all sin." (1 Jn. 1:7)

We all want "true revival". But true revival is happening now in the hearts of those who understand the radical nature of Grace, who understand the freedom which is in Christ, and I don't mean Antinomianism.

The Performance-Based Believer can never have the revival he thirsts for, because his *focus* is himself, and he doesn't even know it.

He thinks he still has a wicked heart, and doesn't realize that he's been given a *new* heart, a heart of flesh to replace the heart of stone. (He has no idea what Paul means in Rom. 7:17, when he says, "...it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me.")

His goal in a good sermon is to be "convicted", so that he can head back to his laboratory of Performance and maybe get it right this time.

"Tetelestai!" It is finished! He has done it! Life conquered Death! Our sins, beloved are *all* forgiven. We are free to take our eyes off of ourselves and put them on the Author and Finisher of our Faith.

And the Catch-22 is that then we will sin less.

And it's all of Grace.

That's the New Covenant.


Bhedr said...

Thank you Terry. My computer has been down for a while and I am on some one elses. I just thought I would come by and say "Hey!" and encourage you to keep it up brother.


Terry Rayburn said...


Great to hear from you, brother. We've been thinking of you. Hope you're doing well.


Terry Rayburn said...


By the way, I don't know if you follow Twitter, but we're over there also. Come visit us.



Michael Adams said...

Terry. This was so encouraging to read and right on target. Unfortunately, even having a good grasp on the workings of the New Covenant is no guarantee that one will not get caught in the trap of performance-based Christianity. It's a subtle thing to fall into and then it takes a work of the Spirit to see it and come out of it, as you stated. Keep up the good work!

Julius Mickel said...

hmm,is this the only way to view the Puritans? I personally have been delivered from much and been blessed with their passion for the Lord. Isn't this more of a reaction against CT? Because that's not what I have got from them, nor many of the pastors I hear quote them.
Is sin not an issue? Doesn't sin affect us? Even with a glorious understanding of the new Covenant we wage war against sin (not only by a understanding of what we are- but a conscious repentance against what we do now)-to say that's 'performance' based I think is quite unfair. Let a NCT teacher preach against sin and it's just good ole gospel preaching but let a CT guy preach the same thing and because he's labeled as CT (even if not by his own admission) then it's legalism.---> That's the extreme I see happening from time to time.
threatenings?? Don't know if that's the word i would use but are there not warnings in the NT? Warnings which many confuse as 'proofs' that a believer can lose their salvation? Doesn't church discipline involve an element of 'threatening' unless their is repentance. As Paul Washer mentioned recently their's still an element of holy terror about the presence of God (we still tremble before Him).

Terry Rayburn said...

Thanks, Mike.

even having a good grasp on the workings of the New Covenant is no guarantee that one will not get caught in the trap of performance-based Christianity

You're sure right.

I've found that a combination of (1) "rehearsing" the truths (even for the ten-thousandth time) combined with (2) actually spending time alone with Jesus (easier said than done in our fast-paced world) goes a long way toward keeping us free and experiencing the fruit of the Spirit...

...love, joy, peace, etc.

Terry Rayburn said...


"hmm,is this the only way to view the Puritans?"

It's not the only FACET of the Puritans, but it's the FOCUS of this post, because it's a widespread problem, even among those who don't even know they have the problem (of performance-based Christianity).

"I personally have been delivered from much and been blessed with their passion for the Lord."

While personal experience has something to be said for it, I'm sure you'd agree that your experience can't be the authority as to whether the sin-focused law-focused habits of the Puritans are biblical (they're not).

"Isn't this more of a reaction against CT?

It is indeed partly a reaction against CT. To quote my post, I said that the Puritan's being prone to this form of Legalism is "largely because of their Covenant Theology".

"Is sin not an issue? Doesn't sin affect us?"

I'm not sure what your point is. My point, however, is that FOCUSING on sin and law is not only counterproductive, resulting in more sin, but self-centered, turning our focus away from Christ, the very Source of our spiritual Life.

When we "turn our eyes upon Jesus", as the song goes, "the things of earth will grow strangely dim."

Or as 2 Cor. 3:18 puts it, "But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord."

"are there not warnings in the NT? Warnings which many confuse as 'proofs' that a believer can lose their salvation?"

You're actually proving my point.

Performance-based legalism continually confuses "SINNERS in the hands of an angry God" (a right warning), and "SAINTS in the hands of an angry God" (an unbiblical, almost blasphemous concept, which denies God's clear statement that all of our sins have already been forgiven, and the Lord is now our Friend, Savior, Lover, and Advocate Who has declared us Righteous).

There is a "godly fear" (better translated "reverent awe") which honors the awesome God who humbled Himself to become a Man to save us.

But focusing on our sins and performance because of "terror" and "threatenings" from our loving Lord, as though our good performance could "earn" his love and favor, is an insult to His love and Grace.

Thank you for your comments, Julius.


Julius Mickel said...

thanks for your reply,
Nonetheless I don't believe that people can be put in such categories anyways (unless they put themselves there and then there is still need for clarity). As far as the Puritans go (which is quite a broad category) I however find and this seems to be the testimony of such as Piper among others, that they gloried in their intimacy with their Savior. I admire and love the way they approach the Song of Solomon and many other passsges. They(the good of 'they') seem to have a desire to exhaust whatever it was they taught(sin, grace, glory of Christ, preaching, parenting, prayer etc..) yet it's very possible to be concious of our present sins and to wage war on them yet at the same time not fall into condemnation because we fully grasp (well as fully as we can) the grace and perfect love we have with Christ. Yes we look unto Jesus and we stand by grace and yet we press, yet we work out our salvation with fear and trembling while being upheld by the fact that it is God who is doing the work. Now if that's what you are saying then amen, I don't think i would disagree with anything taught, but with the critique which in my eyes seems like typical NCT critiques which always end at "so and so (some CT or dispensationalist) believes this because they haven't arrived at our understanding". We can rest in Him and kill sin!
grace and peace

Bhedr said...

Thanks Brother Terry. I will have to check you guys out. Someday I wish we could visit together and fellowship. One day when I am more financially able I want to get out that way and visit. I also have a friend I was in the Marines with who lives out that way and I would like to see him as well. I haven't seen him since the Gulf War almost 19 years ago.

Love in Christ,


Vicki said...

This is excellent, Terry. Helps me a lot. I stopped reading much of the Puritans awhile back due to this...didn't even quite understand why. But the sin-focus was confusing.

Love your grace ministry!

Terry Rayburn said...


Good to hear. Very interesting. Have really enjoyed your blog, too. Thanks.