J.I. Packer is no light-weight. His book, A Quest for Godliness, is a treasure of historical study and theological truth. But, like most treasure, it’s buried deeply, and asks great determination from the seeker. For those who search, Packer’s book is both a valuable reference and an unavoidable challenge to today’s evangelical church. It is a piercing look at the Puritans, always with an eye towards the church of today, and what we have to learn.
The Puritans were an often misunderstood group of Christians who are usually blamed for the English Civil War and credited for little. They’re seen as boring, dry, and overly legalistic. Packer’s large task in this book is to study the Puritans as a movement, both in England and America, and restore their rightful place in history. He frames the book in terms of the question, “Why do we need the puritans?” Packer traces the revivals of eighteenth-century England and America back to these men, so while he is concerned with understanding the Puritans, Packer is simultaneously drawing parallels between their day and ours, and boldly calls the modern-day church to aspire towards the beliefs, and fruit, of the Puritans.
The core of Puritan belief, as defined by Packer, is an experiential, practical faith that is heavily based on application. Though this can be construed as legalism, Packer is very careful to lay out the Puritan concern for doctrine as the engine of their belief, which bears fruit in everyday life. Thus, the Puritans were concerned with genuine faith: faith that mattered more than empty words in a doctrinal textbook. They were consistently practical: always concerned with what implications their beliefs and theology would have on the world around them, and on their own lives.
Packer includes many long excerpts from notable Puritans, including Richard Baxter, John Owen, and Jonathan Edwards. But his tour touches on many others, including Bunyan, Hopkins, Spurgeon, Greenfield, and Whitefield. All of these men are given large paragraphs, and there is no sense that Packer is picking piecemeal from their writings to corroborate his views; instead, A Quest for Godliness is truly a labor of love to assemble a cohesive portrait of the Puritans.
To dig deeper into their beliefs, Packer breaks the book into five main sections, after a three-chapter intro. First, he considers the Puritans and their attitude towards the Scriptures. By studying John Owen, Packer expounds on Owen’s belief that “the testimony of Scripture is God’s own infallible testimony to himself.” In a time of loose, undisciplined revival, Puritan attention and devotion to the scripture is what kept them rooted and stable. The Puritans considered scripture to be covered in the fingerprints of God, describing who God is, what one is in the sight of God, and who Jesus Christ is.
Second, Packer considers the puritan emphasis on the Gospel and Christ’s sacrifice, in two sections. Again, Packer builds around Owen, spending chapters on his landmark work The Death of Death in the Death of Christ. Here, Packer takes a meaty chapter (#8) to defend the Puritan-Calvinist view and dismantle several common misconceptions about reformed beliefs. By framing Calvinism in the broader study of the Puritans, Packer defuses a lot of the back-and-forth arguments that take place today, while still presenting a compelling picture of Puritan doctrine as a whole.
The final half of the book moves to practical life applications, with a section on the Holy Spirit and assurance, the Puritan Christian life, and the Puritan ministry. Packer is faithful to reproduce Puritan consistency on all these matters: in how they understood the Holy Spirit as a stamp upon the hearts of believers. This stamp is continually applied, creating in us assurance of faith and building the image of God, which, of course, is to be applied practically in daily life, which concerns the final two sections. The total picture of the Puritans is extremely consistent: they were a people who put God first in all things, who valued right doctrine and the word of God, and always saw their lives as vehicles of application of the truth that they believed in.
A Quest for Godliness is the Puritans distilled into their bare minimum of three hundred and fifty pages. Though Packer would certainly urge many to read the Puritans for themselves, the book serves the purpose of summarizing their beliefs for the purpose of stirring up the modern church. In addition to the Puritans, Packer has a second passion of seeing the church restored and swept with revival, much as happened during the days of Edwards, Owen, and the others. Both passions come through clearly in reading the book.
God has used this book in my own life to continue to stir up and solidify a passion for the local American church. I have seen the Puritans through Packer’s eyes, and he’s made me ache for the revival that they experienced. But beyond simply the Puritans themselves, Packer points most emphatically to the truth the Puritans believed in, and the God that they worshipped. At least in me, he has created a hunger to bring this truth, this God, to the nation around me.
A Quest for Godliness is an essential manual packed with solid truth and teaching, relayed along a line three hundred years old. Packer’s passion for the modern church is contagious, and in this book he has given leaders and believers the blueprints for revival in our own day. It’s not a simple, three-step watered-down success plan filled with buzzwords; instead, it’s slow and belabored in points. But it will continue to ring true, because truth does not expire — and the same truth that the Puritans lived out in their practical, grounded lives is the same truth that Packer calls today’s church to return to.
Published on 8 September, 2015. Last updated on