J.I. Packer’s A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life (1990) is not a new book, but it has been redesigned and re-released this year from Crossway. You can pick it up from Crossway here or from WTS Books here. Quest is a biographical/historical study of the Puritans, specifically in their passion for the glory of God, their pursuit of holiness, and their consuming drive to exalt Christ in every facet of life. It is an excellent look at the oft-misunderstood Puritans.
As Packer shows, the Puritans are not legalistic, callous, or ascetic. Instead, they were a godly people characterized by their piety, graciousness, and focus on God’s grace shown to us through Christ. Packer is passionate, balanced, and thorough in his examination of the robust Puritan life, showing how the gospel touched every aspect of their lives including their worship, preaching, marriage and family life, doctrine, prayer, and evangelism. As Packer writes,
“Anyone who knows anything at all about Puritan Christianity knows that at its best it had a vigour, a manliness, and a depth which modern evangelical piety largely lacks. This is because Puritanism was essentially an experimental [i.e. experiential] faith, a religion of ‘heart-work,’ a sustained practice of seeking the face of God…The Puritans were manlier Christians just because they were godlier Christians.” (p. 215)
The main character in Packer’s study is the Prince of Puritans, John Owen. Richard Baxter and John Bunyan play solid supporting roles with other Puritans also featuring prominently. Owen’s monumental works on the Holy Spirit, limited atonement, and communion with God each merited their own chapters, and it was great to have summaries and insights into each of these. Baxter’s preaching and pastoral care as well as Bunyan’s accessibility and passion were frequent themes.
It was fascinating to read Packer’s unique perspective on the Puritans, as he expertly combined summaries of their studies and doctrine with biographical sketches which showed their faith working itself out in their daily lives. For example, they took seriously the Bible’s teaching on marriage and family life, celebrating marriage as one of God’s great gifts. They followed the Reformers before them in reclaiming the importance of companionship in marriage and mutual love and respect.
Packer’s joy in learning from and teaching about the Puritans shines forth on every page of A Quest for Godliness, making it a delight to read. The contemporary church would gain much from learning from the Puritans’ faith and practice. It would behoove us to study the Puritans and learn from their great faith to apply it to our own day, as Packer exhorts:
“If we would stand in the true Puritan tradition, we must seek to apply those same truths to the altered circumstances of our own day. Human nature does not change, but times do; therefore, though the application of divine truth to human life will always be the same in principle, the details of it must vary from one age to another. To content ourselves with aping the Puritans would amount to beating a mental retreat out of the twentieth century, where God has set us to live, into the seventeenth, where he has not. This is as unspiritual as it is unrealistic. The Holy Spirit is pre-eminently a realist, and he has been given to teach Christians how to live to God in the situation in which they are, not that in which some other saints once were…And therefore our aim in studying the Puritans must be to learn, by watching them apply the word to themselves in their day, how we must apply it to ourselves in ours.” (p. 234)
Note: I received a free copy of this book from Crossway for review purposes.