The Puritans and Sin

Ralph Venning

Ralph Venning

The Main Problem of the Human Condition
Generally speaking, the puritans have been collectively dismissed as harsh and even obsessive in their views on personal morality! The very word ‘puritanical’ gives you the idea! But let’s not be too quick to write these guys off.

The puritans had a passion for the Bible, a passion for the Church and a passion for seeing the gospel impact every area of life.

They also had a frank view of the primary problem confronting mankind which they unashamedly declared to be sin.  To a puritan who was committed to Biblical thinking this was a clear as day.

Mankind’s primary internal problem was sin, their primary enemy was sin, and their most significant hindrance in his relationship to God was sin.

The solution to this problem was not to be found in a strict morality but in the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ on the cross. He died for sin, taking the weight of the just penalty of sin upon Himself, for our benefit. He did this so that, by repentance and faith, we might be forgiven and reconciled to God.

The hostility between God and Man would end, and sin could be defeated at last. And because He overcame both sin and death, we too might live a life pleasing to God.

The Plague of Plagues
It’s not altogether surprising then, to find amongst a bookshelf of puritan writings a volume entitled ‘The Plague of Plagues’ (1669), a startling assault against sin and its damaging effects on mankind.

Indeed, Ralph Venning, its author states that he was writing against sin because sin ‘is against man’s good and happiness.’

Venning, like Brooks, was educated at Cambridge University and pastored in London. He, like Brooks and others, was fired from his position in the Church of England, and became a minister of an Independent Church in London.

Here are some edifying examples of Venning’s clarity on the subtle dangers of sin. In urging his hearers to decide for Christ and holiness, he also restores clarity to the essential nature of mankind’s struggle against God’s goodness.

‘It cannot but be extremely useful to let men see what sin is: how prodigiously vile, how deadly mischievous and therefore how monstrously ugly and odious a thing sin is.’ (p.18)

‘It [sin] gives out false reports of God and goodness.’ (p.35)

‘Shall I not plead for God and your soul, and entreat you to be on God’s side, and to depart from the tents of wickedness? Poor soul! Can you find it in your heart to hug and embrace such a monster as this? Will you love that which hates God, and which God hates? God forbid!’ (p.36)

‘Oh, look to yourself, for sin, notwithstanding all its flattering pretences, is against you, and seeks nothing less than your ruin and damnation.’ (p.37)

‘Sin in the Christian is ‘a self civil war.’ (p.43)

‘Sin is the burden of every good man’s soul.’ (p.126)

All quotes are taken from Ralph Venning, The Plague of Plagues, now published as ‘The Sinfulness of Sin’ (Banner of Truth).

Read the next post on, ‘The Puritans on Hell and How to Avoid it’

© 2009 Lex Loizides

Miracles, Morality and the Power of the Local Church

We’ve been enjoying Edward Gibbon’s references to the Christian church in the latter years of the Roman Empire. We’ve seen that he emphasised three factors which assisted the growth of the Church and the influence of Christianity through the Roman world.

Firstly, he mentioned their zeal, their passion. They were on a mission to reach the world. Secondly, he emphasised that their confidence in their eternal security made them courageous even in the face of danger. Thirdly, he noted that these Christians were not only zealous and bold, but that they also prayed for the sick successfully, moved in the gifts of the Holy Spirit and were able to evangelise not with persuasive words of wisdom but in a demonstration of the Spirit’s power that clearly showed to a pagan world that Jesus Christ was indeed ‘Lord’. (see 1 Cor 2:4)

Before we leave Gibbon I want to draw on his further two observations as these will serve as a safeguard to us. Having shown us the impressive nature of their gifts and works, he also mentions the morality of the believers. He notes that there was a harmony of charismatic passion and personal integrity. Indeed, in beautifully quaint language he points to ‘the reformation of manners which was introduced into the world by the preaching of the Gospel.’ (Gibbon, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Penguin Classic edition ibid. p.283)

This process began, obviously, in evangelism: ‘The friends of Christianity may acknowledge without a blush that many of the most eminent saints had been before their baptism the most abandoned sinners.’ (ibid. p.284)

But the conversion of a person to the Christian faith produced not only an immediate moral impact in their lives but an ongoing one, so that they turned from their past sins, sought to support the social and economic structures of the society of which they were a part, became reliable workers, fair in business, honest in labour, modest in behaviour and faithful to both spouse and family. This notably different Christian lifestyle commended itself to those who were living close to them.

Lastly, Gibbon mentions the unity and discipline of the local churches as a factor in the sustained growth and spread of the Christian faith. The believers were locally organised under spiritually qualified elders, who cared for them, teaching them and supporting them in their new found faith. There were miracles but there were relationships and pastoral oversight.

Interestingly, Gibbon notes, ‘Independence and equality formed the basis of their internal constitution.’ (ibid. p.293) Somewhat different from the view that a single ecclesiastical power-structure oversaw all the churches, it seems that the churches were led by their own elders who drew on the wisdom of those who were apostolically or prophetically gifted.

Indeed, as we will later see, the local church has always been a key in the spread of the Christian faith in a nation or time period, and a sustainer of those powerful impulses in revival that have so impacted the world.

But, before we get there, we must look at some questions around the relationship between church and state. Just imagine if you were a Christian living in those days, wouldn’t you have prayed for the conversion of those in authority – and even the conversion of the Emperor himself? Well, early in the fourth century, after so many years of persecution, it happened!

The conversion to the Christian faith of Emperor Constantine brought a sudden and much longed-for release from persecution and an elevation and respect for the Christian faith. This was indeed an answer to prayer – but was it all good? And, what was the nature of his ‘conversion’?

We’ll see next time.

© 2008 Lex Loizides