Anglican minister and theologian J.I. Packer introduces his book A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life (Crossway, 2010) by reflecting on several ways in which the Puritans have shaped his life. Packer documents how English theologian John Owen has helped him to be realistic of his continuing sinfulness and of the necessity of self-suspicion and mortification; to view “how consistent and unambitious is the biblical witness to the sovereignty and particularity of Christ’s redeeming love;” (p. 12) to understand the significance of Richard Baxter in regards to regular discursive meditation and vision for the ordained minister’s pastoral office; “to see the transitoriness of this life; the Puritans’ influence in in shaping Packer’s churchly identity and to be aware “that all theology is also spirituality.” (p. 15) Packer concludes this first chapter by stating that “the great Puritans, though dead, still speak to us through their writings, and say things to us that we badly need to hear at this present time.” (p. 16)
Packer’s A Quest for Godliness focuses chapters 2-4 on profiling the puritans. In chapter 2, Packer’s A Quest for Godliness makes the case for why we the puritans. After briefly explaining the origin of the word ‘puritan’ and the reasons behind it, Packer’s A Quest for Godliness declares that we need the puritans because of their integration of their daily lives. “There was for them no disjunction between sacred and secular.” (p. 23) We also need the puritans because of the following: the quality of their spiritual experience; their passion for effective action; their program for family stability; their sense of human worth and their idea of church renewal. The puritans were passionate for God and godliness. They were no mere theorists of orthodoxy for they sought to make practice and applied what God taught them. Along the same lines, Packer states that their evangelical zeal was not without knowledge. In fact, Packer argues that the puritans are qualified to help those whose mentalities are characterized by restless experientialists, entrenched intellectualists and disaffected deviationists of the evangelical world. Packer concludes this chapter by claiming that modern evangelical goofiness can be heal by the puritans’ emphasis on the mystery of God, the love of God, the salvation of God, spiritual conflict, the protection of God and the glory of God.
Chapter 3 of Packer’s A Quest for Godliness defines puritanism as a movement in the sixteenth and seventeenth-century England that “sought further reformation and renewal in the Church of England than the Elizabethan settlement allowed.” (p. 35) Puritanism, as a clergy-led movement, was characterized by “a set of shared convictions, Biblicist and Calvinist in character … Christian faith, and practice and … congregational life and pastoral office;” (p. 36) “a shared sense of being called to work for God’s glory” and a “shared literature, catechetical, evangelistic and devotional, with a homiletical style and experiential emphasis that were all its own.” (p. 36) Packer’s A Quest for Godliness also defines revival in this chapter as “a work of God by his Spirit through his word bringing the spiritually dead to living faith in Christ and renewing the inner life of Christians who have grown slack and sleepy.” (p. 36) In fact, Packer affirms that puritanism “was, at its heart, a movement of spiritual revival” (p. 37) for this was central “to what the puritans professed to be seeking;” (p. 37) “personal revival was the central theme of Puritan devotional literature” (p. 39) which consisted on evangelistic, casuistic and paraenetic books and because “the ministry of puritan pastors under God brought revival.” (p. 42)
Chapter 4 of Packer’s A Quest for Godliness focuses on the practical writings of the English puritans. Packer introduces us to the history of the affectionate practical writers. Packer shortly mentions the works of Baxter, Greenham, Chaderton, Perkins and Usher. Packer challenges to appreciate these affectional writers for their “puritan practical theology was the envy of continental Protestants;” (p. 62) and because their “devotional literature, though popular in the sense of being expressed simply and not presupposing any technical knowledge, is not popular in the sense of being crude, or frothy, or theologically inept, or ill-informed, or ill-digested, or incompetent in any other way.” (p. 63) Finally, Packer underscore five positive qualities that made the puritan authors what they were, namely: they were physicians of the soul; expositors to the conscience; educators of the mind; enforcers of the truth and men of the Spirit.
Chapter 5 of Packer’s A Quest for Godliness begins the section of puritans and the Bible. Here Packer discusses John Owen on Communication from God. Puritan Owen defined the concept of divine communication under the following: the giving of revelation, the inspiring of Scripture, the authenticating of Scripture; the establishing of faith in Scripture and interpreting of Scripture. Chapter 6 of Packer’s A Quest for Godliness explores the puritans as interpreters of Scripture. Packer informs us that the puritans tackled the interpretation of Scriptures by being pre-modern exegetes; employing the grammatical-historical exegesis of texts and by applying it. The puritans worked under the presuppositions that Scripture “was the utterance of God” (p. 99) and that subject-matter of Scripture. Puritans interpreted Scripture literally and grammatically, consistently and harmonistically, doctrinally and theocentrically, Christologically and evangelically and experimentally and practically. Chapter 7 of Packer’s A Quest for Godliness delves into the puritan conscience. “The puritan was a man supremely concerned about conscience.” (p. 107) Packer reviews three typical and detailed presentations of conscience and its activity by looking at Richard Sibbes’ picture of conscience as “God’s court within us;” (p. 110) John Bunyan’s Holy War and William Fenner’s A Treatise of Conscience where conscience as a preacher is elaborated. Puritans’ teaching on conscience was emphasized in various ways: namely, reflecting the Puritan view of Holy Scripture that underscore conscience as God’s deputy and as the ultimate standards; reflecting their view of personal religion where godliness was treated as a matter of conscience and as reflected in their view of preaching during which the puritans stressed the “need for searching applications of truth to the hearers’ consciences.” (p. 116) Finally, Packer underscores that the puritan teaching on conscience did not lead to a new form of legalism and curtailing of Christian liberty and that the Great Ejection in 1662 of puritans was an event that clearly marked the consciousness of all Puritan religion.
Chapter 8 of Packer’s A Quest for Godliness starts a new section on the puritans and the gospel. This chapter introduces us to John Owen’s The Death of Death in the Death of Christ. This was a controversial piece that aim at demonstrating that “the doctrine of universal redemption is unscriptural and destructive of the gospel.” (p. 125) Packer introduces us to Owen’s work by stating that the reason for the difficulty implied in this polemical piece is “due to our having lost our grip on the biblical gospel.” (p. 126) Packer compares the gold versus the old gospel and points out the various doctrines such as man’s natural inability to believe that are not preached. Packer clarified the prejudice that is behind equating the defense of the doctrine limited atonement with the aim of trying to convert people into becoming Calvinists. Packer provides a short history of TULIP and then states that Calvinism is broader. Packer then defines the various nouns as they were defined by both Calvinists and Arminians, proceeds to define and explain the gospel biblically and expounds the preacher’s task which is to be grounded in the old rather than the new gospel
Chapter 9 of Packer’s A Quest for Godliness closely looks at the development and decline of the doctrine of justification among the puritans. Packer’s main concern has to do with the predictable attack of this doctrine after Luther’s death. The puritans voiced a similar concern when they stressed that justification was a gospel, climatic, spiritual, life-giving and contradictory mystery. The doctrine of justification was one that Reformers formulated and developed in their opposition to Romanism and Arminianism in three matters, namely: the ground of justification, regeneration and justification and the covenant context of justification. However, Packer closes this chapter by underscoring how this doctrine was distorted by two movements: Arminianism and Neonomianism (Richard Baxter).
Chapter 10 of Packer’s A Quest for Godliness examines the puritan view of preaching the gospel. Puritan preaching was rooted and guided by the “knowledge that fallen men cannot turn to God by their own strength, nor is it in the power of evangelists to make them so … [but] … only God, by his Spirit, through his word, can bring sinners to faith.” (p. 163) Therefore, the puritans were against what we would call today psychological pressures to make a decision for Christ for they do not necessarily lead or make evident regeneration or a change of heart. Packer forcefully states that preaching today suffers from a “minimizing approach to the task of preaching Christians truth” (p. 164) and from the “widespread uncertainty about the evangelistic implications of the Reformed faith.” (p. 165) To remedy this, Packer invites us to consider some of the treatises on preaching that the puritans wrote as well as the doctrinal and applicatory nature of puritan sermons which included the comprehensiveness, emphases and demands of the gospel. Motivated by men’s conversion and salvation and by the ultimate goal to honor Christ, the puritans preached “the gospel of free grace and sovereign grace.” (p. 175)
A new section opens up in chapter 11 of Packer’s A Quest for Godliness that expounds on the puritans and the Holy Spirit. This first chapter here stresses the witness of the spirit in puritan thought. Through the lens of Goodwin, Sibbes and Brooks, Packer here explores what the “Puritans taught about the Spirit’s work in assuring believers of their salvation. Packer reminds us that the puritans spoke of assurance sometimes as a fruit and quality of faith or as growing out of faith or faith growing into assurance. For the puritans faith not only began in the mind with the illumination of the spirit but also extended from the head to the heart. Assurance is sensible and experimental and it increases faith and deepens one’s communion with the Triune God. The Spirit gives assurance by bearing witness. Assurance is given twofold: by discursive and intuitive according to Goodwin, Sibbes and Brooks. This first mode is inferential and the second one is immediately by an overpowering light, also called the indirect and direct witness of the Spirit. Chapter 12 of Packer’s A Quest for Godliness describes the spirituality of John Owen. Packer starts by underscoring Owen’s life from an early age and then his accomplishments. Owen is known as the Prince of Divines. He was “a theologian of enormous intellectual energy” (p. 193) as well as a godly man with a first hand knowledge of the power of the gospel. Packer examines Owen’s central teaching stresses the necessity of recognizing that the “realistic self-knowledge is a sine au non for living the Christian life.” (p. 194) This can be summarized as follows: “the Christian is a man, created for rational action and equipped to that end with a trinity of faculties, understanding, will and affection;” (p. 194) “the Christian man is fallen man;” (p. 195) “the Christian man is a redeemed man;” (p. 196) and “the Christian man is a regenerate man.” (p. 196) Based on these, Owen states that “God’s purpose for the Christian during his life on earth is sanctification” (p. 198) and for this the Christian must use the means of grace. Finally, Packer closes this chapter by emphasizing Owen’s analysis of communion with God and by contrasting the puritans’ manliness, a result of their godliness, with our own today. Chapter 13 of Packer’s A Quest for Godliness looks at John Owen on spiritual gifts. Packer urges us to recognize that the puritans did not pay too much attention to spiritual gifts because their discussion of these was framed within their concerns for ordained ministry. Therefore, Packer attempts to engage with the question of spiritual gifts in regards to laymen and their service by focusing on two modern issues. First, Packer insists that Owen’s writings (specifically four principles) can be used to evaluate the claims of the charismatic movement and their Pentecostal phenomena. Second, Packer states that Owen can be an excellent source and advocate of a congregational life in our churches that can recover and secure an ‘every-member ministry’ “through a renewed quest for the best gifts of the Holy Spirit.” (p. 222) Packer concludes this chapter by considering the nature of spiritual gifts, their place in the church, the diversity of gifts and the place of these gifts in the economy of grace all in light of both the Scriptures and Owen’s writings.
Following the puritans and the Holy Spirit, one is presented with the puritan Christian life. Chapter 14 of Packer’s A Quest for Godliness describes the puritans and the Lord’s Day. This subject allows us to consider how to apply this biblical principle without perpetuating either legalism or antinomianism. Packer unpacks the history behind the creation of the English Christian Sunday by the puritans. The puritans explains the meaning and the character of the Fourth Commandment as well as suggested practical principles for keeping the Lord’s Day holy. Packer concludes here by recognizing the blessings of keeping the Lord’s Day. Chapter 15 of Packer’s A Quest for Godliness describes the puritan approach to worship. Communicating up front that worship was such a controversial theme and practice for the Puritans for they found themselves against its Anglican forms, Packer consider various issues many of which churches still face today. One question of in what sense are the Scriptures authoritative for Christian worship? One central issues here was the claim that “all ceremonies must have direct biblical warrant, or they were impious intrusions.” (p. 247) Another question was what regulations are proper for Christian worship?” (p. 248) And still a third question was what discipline is proper in connection with worship?” (p. 248) Packer recognizes that these represent external forms only and so directs our attention to the inner reality of worship. He defines worship as doxology and points out how Owen reminds us that Christians are “themselves the temple and the dwelling place of God” (p. 251) as well as how Charnock affirms that “only the regenerate can worship God acceptably.” (p. 251) Finally, Packer lists the parts and the activities that constitute worship and the three spheres of Christian worship. Chapter 16 of Packer’s A Quest for Godliness describes puritan thinking in marriage and family. Packer quickly informs us that the puritans glorified marriage directly contradicting its medieval teachings. Setting the record straight against the so called stereotype of the puritans as either solitary ascetics or prudes, Packer describes hoe the puritans: “celebrated marriage as a creation ordinance, a good gift of God to mankind;” (p. 261) “defined and describe marriage in biblical terms;” (p. 261) and “set before marriage partners the ideal of wholehearted mutual love.” (p. 262) The puritans also thought out and grounded the ethics of spirituality and marriage in male-leadership terms by careful exegetical-biblical work. This implied subordination was functional for biblically the puritans believed that “men and women are equal before God.” (p. 267) The puritans also had a high view of the family and viewed all life-activities as callings (vocations).
The final section of Packer’s A Quest for Godliness introduces us with puritans in ministry. Chapter 17 of Packer’s A Quest for Godliness describes puritan preaching. Packer lists the writings of John Bunyan, the Westminster Directory for the Publick Worship of God and the Richard Baxter to profile the ideal Christian preacher. Puritan preaching was rooted in Calvinistic piety. “Puritans preached the Bible systematically and thoroughly, with sustained application to personal life.” (p. 280) Packer underscores four axioms that described puritan preaching: namely, “belief in the primacy of the intellect” (p. 281) for “all grace enters by the understanding;” (p. 281) “belief in the supreme importance of preaching” (p. 281) for the “sermon was the liturgical climax of public worship;” (p. 281) “belief in the life-giving power of Holy Scripture” (p. 282) for the “Bible does not merely contain the word of God … it is the word of God, the Creator’s written testimony to himself;” (p. 282) and “belief in the sovereignty of the Holy Spirit” (p. 283) for “it is for God, not man, to fix the time of conversion.” (p. 283) Puritan preaching was expository in method, doctrinal in content, orderly in its arrangement, popular in style, Christ-centered in its orientation, experimental in its interests and piercing in its applications. Chapter 18 of Packer’s A Quest for Godliness underscores puritan evangelism. Packer starts by distinguishing between two distinct types of evangelism that have been developed since Protestant Christendom: the Puritan and the ‘modern’ types. Packer explains the ‘modern’ types by alluding to Charles G. Finney who introduced ‘protacted meetings,’ the ‘anxious seat’ and who “conceived the whole work of the Spirit in conversion in terms of moral persuasion.” (p. 293) Here, Packer tells us, “is the evangelist’s work and duty always to preach for immediate decision and commitment.” (p. 293) On the other hand, puritan evangelism is rooted in the conviction that “the conversion of a sinner is a gracious sovereign work of divine power.” P. 294) Another word for conversion was effectual calling which is work of divine grace, divine power and of divine freedom. ‘There must be contrition before conversion can result.” (p. 299) Packer ends this chapter by profiling the life of Richard Baxter and his evangelism as an example of how not to do evangelism and what principles to follow and be aware if one hopes to practice biblical evangelism. Chapter 19 of Packer’s A Quest for Godliness examines Jonathan Edwards and revival. After providing a brief biography of Edwards’ life, Packer states that Edwards was a puritan because of his devotion to the Bible, doctrinal convictions, his view of the nature of Christian piety, and his approach to preaching. However, Edwards’ teaching has been obscured by the claims that he is unreadable; that he is essentially a philosophical theologian and by overlooking his biblical teaching on the subject of revival. It is in this last issue that Edwards can help us today the most, meaning in a theology of revival. However, Packer brilliantly argues that before we can appreciate Edwards as a theologian of revival we need to take into consideration the antiquarian and romantic fallacies or mistakes from which Edwards shield us. Edwards’ teaching falls under three themes: principles concerning the nature of revival, principles concerning the outward form of revival and prayer for revival, which is God’s will. Finally, chapter 20 of Packer’s A Quest for Godliness serves as an afterword. Here Packer reflects on three questions. One refers to what is a puritan and what is puritanism? Puritans were characterized by their “a particular blend of Biblicist, pietist, churchly and worldly concerns.” (p. 329) As a movement puritanism was concerned about promoting godliness by: “preaching and praying, by propaganda and pamphleteering, by programmes for changing the church, and by consciousness-raising education at every level.” (p. 330) A second question asks what was so outstanding about the puritans? The puritans were great thinkers, great worshippers, great hopers and great warriors. Finally, a third question is “where do Christian people fall short of the Puritans? And what we ought to learn from them for our own future?” (p. 335) This is something that Packer leaves to the providence of God. Packer’s A Quest for Godliness is an excellent and superb book not only because it helps one to rediscover the richness and beauty of the puritans in their love and passion for the biblical gospel, but also because it causes one to examine the contemporary church situation and recommits oneself to a God-exalting and God-glorifying gospel- and Christ-centered life.