The Reformed emphasis on election, depravity, and grace did not stop the Puritans from freely and sincerely offering the gospel to all sinners. In their preaching and writing they called sinners to repentance and faith.
The Reformed theology of grace, as articulated in the Canons of Dort, informed and influenced the spirituality of the Puritans. These Canons of Dort, also called the Five Articles against the Remonstrants, consist of doctrinal statements adopted by the Synod of Dort in 1618–19 against the Five Articles of the Remonstrants:
- Conditional election based on foreseen faith
- Universal atonement
- Partial depravity of man
- Resistible grace
- The possibility of lapsing from grace
The Synod’s response to these five articles came to be known as “The Five Points of Calvinism” or “Doctrines of Grace”:
- Unconditional election
- Limited atonement
- Total depravity
- Irresistible grace
- Perseverance of the saints
These doctrines highlight the sovereign and gracious work of God in salvation (see The Doctrines of Grace by Boice and Ryken). For the Reformed, grace is a favor that God sovereignly and freely bestows on those who do not deserve it; in fact, they deserve the exact opposite. Grace rests on God’s eternal election without foreseen faith, its ground is the person and finished work of Christ, and its efficient cause is the Holy Spirit. With this grace, man is given the ability to repent and believe. And as a recipient of God’s unwavering favor, man will persevere until the end. There is significant diversity among the Puritan heirs of this Reformed view of grace; there were strong Calvinists like Thomas Goodwin, moderate Calvinists like Richard Baxter, and even Arminian Calvinists like John Goodwin. Nevertheless, these five points of doctrine are the broad lines of the Puritan understanding of grace, which impacted their spirituality in various ways.
What follows are five effects that the Reformed theology of grace had on Puritan spirituality in general.
Puritan spirituality flowed from God’s work, not mere human effort.
The Puritans recognized that we do not merit God’s favor, and in fact merit his condemnation. Their view on depravity and grace is clear in the Westminster Confession, in which the Puritan divines maintain that man by his fall has totally lost his ability to choose any spiritual good for his salvation. Their emphasis on total depravity underlined the necessity of God’s sovereign grace in salvation. Hence, as Gleason and Kapic have noted, the spirituality of the Puritans was “predominantly Augustinian” in its emphasis on human depravity and sovereign grace (see their The Devoted Life). Yet this Reformed emphasis on election, depravity, and grace did not stop the Puritans from freely and sincerely offering the gospel to all sinners. In their preaching and writing they called sinners to repentance and faith (see, for instance, John Bunyan’s Come and Welcome to Jesus Christ).
Puritan spirituality was grounded in Christ.
Because Christ is the basis of grace, union and communion with him is often foregrounded, and meditating on Christ is one way this manifests in spirituality. Thus, the Puritans wrote lengthy meditations on Christ. Take, for example, Samuel Rutherford’s collection of letters in The Loveliness of Christ and Thomas Goodwin’s The Heart of Christ in Heaven toward Sinners on Earth. Likewise, with this view of grace, the Puritans avoided exalting excessively the physical humanity of the Savior, as seen in certain strains of Roman Catholicism with its emphasis on the Eucharist. Instead the Puritans recognized it was Christ himself who worked salvation and thus whom the heart must love and adore.