by Felipe Diez III
A vast amount of books and sermons produced by British Puritans in the 1600s have been considered by many to constitute a fruitful example of biblical exposition, faithful systematization of doctrine, and a commitment to Reformation principles which extol Scripture and the sovereignty of God. It may be stated that the tumultuous times in which they lived contributed to their uncompromising ideals, including the opposition to certain mandates of the Church of England. Such rejection of the national Church served as a catalyst for Puritan thought, identity, and practice. The analysis and evaluation of Puritan works has been, and will continue to be of great profit to Christian scholarship and to God’s Kingdom.
This essay will examine the usage of key scriptures in the book of Isaiah found in Thomas Watson’s “The Doctrine of Repentance” and Stephen Charnock’s “A Discourse of the Pardon of Sin” with the aim to analyze patterns of use by both Puritans. Both works, written during the same time period, touch upon the paramount and lofty subjects of repentance and forgiveness. The aim of this essay is to identify possible correlations of language usage by both men based on certain clues. These may be deduced from their treatment of certain texts in the book of the Prophet Isaiah, included in both primary sources in this study that belong to the two Puritans consigned to this study. It will be argued as a probability, such as would constitute something beyond a reasonable doubt, that the reason for any existing correlation in their writings is due to some factors that affected the men as they lived during that period. Taken into careful consideration are the place where they studied, the documents they may have read, and how their strong Calvinistic espousal of Sola Scriptura may have led to an emphasis on their doctrine. These historical factors will be explored throughout the essay as the Isaiah usage is examined. No definitive arguments will be given in the attempt to confidently fuse together the reality of seventeenth century Puritan England as an indubitable explanation of Watson and Charnock’s citations. I do not intend to overstate my claims. Rather, some evidence will be stated and evaluated that seems to point in a direction of an argument for the aforementioned possibility of citation patterns and their respective conclusions.
Thomas Watson’s book is primarily focused on individual repentance. Although he does give passing mention of God’s gracious role in forgiveness, the majority of his content defines repentance, the necessity and benefits of it, reasons for and consequences of not repenting, and the gravity of sin in the eyes of God whereby He demands contrition of heart for the forgiveness of transgressions.
Stephen Charnock’s sermon, on the other hand, deals more explicitly with the issue of God’s pardoning of sinners, how He goes about doing so, what is takes for Him to be able to forgive sins, and what the Scriptures say that God has promised for the repentant. In both works, there are overlapping situations where both God and people are mentioned. What will be considered is how both men’s angles are expressed with special attention given to a handful of Isaiah verses that one or both men use, keeping in mind the peculiarity of such usage.
Early in “The Doctrine of Repentance,” Watson elucidates, in a question and answer format, as to how sorrow for sin should be expressed. The question is: “But how great must sorrow be for sin in all?”1 It is followed by “Sorrow for sin must surpass worldly sorrow. We must grieve more for offending God than for the loss of dear relations.” ‘In that Day did the Lord God of hosts call to weeping, and to baldness, and to girding with sackcloth’ (Isa. 22.12).2 Watson proposes that genuine repentance is something that God commands. It must exceed simple human sorrow for less important reasons. A few pages later, in a subheading that reads: “We must confess our sins with a resolution not to act them over again,”3 Watson follows with: “…many seem to kill their sins in their confessions and afterwards let them grow as fast as ever. ‘Cease to do evil’ (Isa. 1.16). It is vain to confess, ‘We have done those things we ought not to have done’, and continue still in doing so.”4 Biblical repentance demands a resolve to cease wrongdoing.
It is interesting to note that Watson places many verses in early Isaiah chapters. These chapters are filled with great judgment, condemnation, oracles of impending destruction, and calls to repent. Since Watson’s work mostly encompasses repentance, it would make sense to cite verses where the Prophet deals primarily with that issue. His book, in later chapters, occasionally addresses promises on condition of repentance. Isaiah also follows the same theme of “condemnation that leads to restoration.”5
Puritans are noted for their zeal. In his book, Watson explains that a true Christian will experience great zeal against sin:
“David did by sin defile his bed; afterwards by repentance he watered his bed with tears. Israel had sinned by idolatry, and afterwards they did offer disgrace to their idols: ‘Ye shall defile also the covering of thy graven images of silver’ (Isa. 30.22)”6
Having now examined three examples of usage, Watson has clarified his message. He has presented a “boldly repent, despise the sin, and cease its practice” prescriptive pattern.
As strict biblicists, Puritans employed a certain method of communication using plain language, frequent scripture citations, logic, the analysis of arguments, and common examples bathed in scriptural terminology. This expository philosophy in writing and preaching allowed for the thorough examination of a structured topic with supporting verses, or the examination of a scripture with a commentary designed to engage and
strike the heart, dissecting its content for the purpose of producing the desired reaction. Francis J. Bremer comments:
“At the heart of this [communication] approach is the Puritan emphasis on the inerrancy of Scripture. The Word of God as revealed in the Testaments was the basis of all religious knowledge and, properly explained, was sufficient for men…this scripture focus is evident in the content of Puritan religious writings, in the frequent citations of Scripture to underline truths, and in the fact that even when they used their own words Puritan clergymen evoked biblical images and biblical language…throughout the process the focus was kept on Scripture. Puritans believed in the overall consistency of the books of the Bible, and in developing their message they frequently drew connections to other verses that reinforced their point or put it in a richer context. This pattern of collating various texts was an important element in the development of the argument.”7
Watson’s book resembles the above writing approach in various ways. After the chapter “A Serious Exhortation to Repentance,”8 there appears a personal message:
“Let me in the next place persuade you to this great duty of repentance. Sorrow is good for nothing but sin. If you shed tears for outward losses, it will not advantage you. Water in the garden, if poured in the sink, does no good. Powder for the eye, if applied to the arm, is of no benefit. Sorrow is medicinable for the soul, but if you apply it to worldly things it does no good. Oh that our tears may run in the right channel and our hearts burst with sorrow for sin!”9
Messages of this sort often appear in Puritan books. He proceeds with the subheading: “Repentance is necessary for all persons.”10 followed by a short paragraph:
“Thus God commands all men: ‘now God commandeth all men every where to repent’ (Acts 17.30). It is necessary for great ones: ‘Say unto the king and unto the queen, Humble yourselves’ (Jer. 13.18). The King of Nineveh and his nobles changed their robes for sackcloth (Jon. 3.6). Great men’s sins do more hurt than the sins of others. The sins of leaders are leading sins, therefore they of all others have need to repent. If such as hold the scepter repent not, God has appointed a day to judge them and a fire to burn them (Isa. 30:33).”11
Four verses are referenced in this paragraph, mostly from the OT. Many such instances occur in Watson’s book. The “sins of the leader” argument continues with: “if oaths and drunkenness, if perjury and luxury will make a people guilty, then it is to be feared England is in God’s black book.”12 Watson is chastising England due to his espousal and understanding of Puritan Theonomy, namely, the nation’s need to be governed by God’s law as an elect nation. Bremer states:
“Joined with a belief in the communion of elect saints was a belief shared by most Puritans of the late Elizabethan and early Stuart era that England itself was an elect nation – not in the sense that all English men and women would be saved, but that the social nation should and could be reformed and that even the reprobate could be improved by instruction.”13
A key Isaiah scripture used by both Watson and Charnock is Isaiah 55:7. As he describes the concept of “turning from sin,” Watson states (followed by a little example): “This turning from sin is called a forsaking of sin (Isa. 55.7), as a man forsakes the
Stephen Charnock, in his sermon “A Discourse on the Pardon of Sin,” cites the same verse, not in the context of a topical book, but of a Puritan sermon:
“The debt you owe is a vast debt, but Christ’s satisfaction is of a greater value; a king’s revenue may well pay a beggar’s debts, though she owe many thousands the first day of marriage. Multiplied sins upon repentance shall meet with multiplied pardons: Isa. 55:7, ‘abundantly pardon.’ We cannot vie our sins with God’s mercy.”16
Charnock’s focus here is on the pardon of God while still mentioning repentance. Since this is a sermon on forgiveness, it would be appropriate to focus on pardon while still mentioning “debt” and “repentance,” so hearers and readers can understand who it is that God pardons and why. Another verse used by both men is Isaiah 43:25. This is one of the few times an Isaiah verse is cited by Watson in the context of pardon late in his book:
“The Lord will never in a judicial way account for them [sins]. When He pardons, God is as a creditor that blots the debt out of his book (Isa. 43.25). Some ask the question, whether the sins of the godly shall be mentioned at the last day. The Lord said he will not remember them, and he is blotting them out, so if their sins are mentioned, it shall not be to their prejudice, for the debt-book is crossed.”17
As for the same verse, near the beginning of his sermon, Charnock states:
“Covering, as it alludes to the manner of writing, and so is the same with blotting out: Isa. 43:25, ‘I, even I, am he that blots out thy transgression;’ whereby is implied, that sin is a debt, and pardon is the remitting of it.”18
Slightly later in the sermon, Charnock states after a numbered subheading:
“(2) Not imputing. Not putting upon account, not charging the debt in a legal process. To this is equivalent the expression of not remembering: Isa 43:25, ‘I will not remember their sins.’”19
And in the third and last citation of Isa. 43:25, Charnock continues:
“This prerogative [to pardon] he glories in as peculiar to himself; the thoughts of this honour are so sweet to him, that he repeats it twice, as the title he will not share with another: Isa 43:25, ‘I, even I, am he that blots out thy transgressions.’”20
A portion of Isaiah, dealing with Jesus, sin, forgiveness, and promise that Watson does include in his book is the messianic prophecy of chapter 53, used several times in Charnock’s sermon, in particular verses 6, 7, and 10, in three paragraphs. A key section that has been used to formulate the doctrine of substitutionary atonement (penal) would be crucial in a sermon that deals with sin, pardon, and how God is able to be just and at
the same time justify sinners. Charnock states: “He is the scape-goat upon whom our sins are laid, Isa. 53:6. Our sins are made Christ’s, and Christ’s righteousness is made ours”21 A paragraph later, Charnock continues: “God did not only consent to it [the sacrifice], or give a bare grant, but it was a propense and affectionate motion of his heart: Isa. 53:10, ‘It pleased the Lord to bruise him.’”22 The next paragraph goes back a few verses: “When he was afflicted and oppressed, he murmured not at it: Isa. 53:7, ‘He opened not his mouth, he opened not his mouth.’ It is twice repeated, to shew his willingness.”23
Charnock’s sermon is based on Psalm 32: 1,2, which reads: “Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man unto whom the Lord imputes not iniquity.” This is placed at the very beginning of the sermon. Afterwards, a list of headings that comprise doctrines are listed to organize the future contents. These are: “I. The nature of pardon. II. The author of it, God. III. The extent of it, transgression, V. The effect of it, blessedness.”24 This was a typical way to write sermons, as expressed by Bremer:
“In sermons, and occasionally in other writings, he did so by starting with the announcement of a scriptural text to be explained. After explaining the meaning of the passage itself, the minister then stated the specific doctrines he would explore. He often examined reasons for the doctrines, stating possible objections and then refuting the objection.”25
An example of a possible objection (in the form of a question) and a refutation (in the form of an answer) in Watson’s book is when an imaginary person asks:
“Question 1: Suppose a person has wronged another in his estate and the wronged man is dead, what should he do? Answer: Let him restore his ill-gotten goods to that man’s heirs and successors. If none of them be living, let him restore to God, that is, let him put his unjust gain into God’s treasury by relieving the poor.”26
Both Puritans studied at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, founded by early Puritans27 where Puritanism in general was taught and nurtured. Martin Garrett writes:
“Emmanuel did indeed grow into a powerfully Protestant oak. The openness with which it declared its Puritan allegiance at times enraged the Church establishment. They [fellows and scholars] did not wear their surplices or hoods at services. They engaged in their own “private course of public prayer, after their own fashion,” rather than following the Book of Common Prayer.”28
Emmanuel graduates were invited to participate in the Westminster assembly. These included: John Cotton, John Wallis, William Bridge, Jeremiah Burroughs, Anthony Burges, and Peter Sterry. The Westminster Confession of Faith, developed during the 1640s by this Assembly, systematized doctrine in a way that reflected Calvinistic principles of sola scriptura. They took what the Magisterial Reformers began and polished it further, at least in the theological sense. Author Gary Crampton states:
“According to the Puritans, the Christian’s axiomatic starting point is that the Bible is the inspired, infallible, and inerrant Word of God. The Puritan worldview, therefore, is founded on divine, propositional revelation: Scripture and its self-authenticating claim to inspiration. This is why the Westminster Confession of Faith begins with the chapter called “Of the Holy Scripture.”29
The Westminster Confession states: “IV. The authority of the Holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed, and obeyed, dependeth not upon the testimony of any man, or church; but wholly upon God (who is truth itself) the author thereof: and therefore it is to be received, because it is the Word of God”30
John Owen, a contemporary of both Charnock and Watson echoes the Confession:
“It is solely on the evidence that the Spirit of God, in and by the Scripture itself, gives unto us that it was given by immediate inspiration from God; or, the ground and reason whereon we believe the Scripture to be the Word of God are the authority and truth of God evidencing themselves in and by it unto the minds and consciences of men.”31
Thomas Watson, having lived in the thick of all this tempestuous conflict, seems at times to use terminology that resembles Westminster. Perhaps the environment fostered by Emmanuel, the Puritan divines who drew up the Geneva Bible and later the KJV, the Westminster Assembly developments, and some political and social tensions had an impact in his thought and pen.
The Westminster Confession subheading “Of Repentance unto life”32 part III includes the phrase: “[a penitent person] grieves for, and hates his sins, as to turn from them all unto God, purposing and endeavoring to walk with Him in all the ways of His commandments.”33
Watson writes: “[if] people are not turned from their sins, they are still the same as they were…though men have seen so many changes without, yet there is no change wrought within: ‘the people turneth not unto him that smiteth’ (Isa. 9.13). How can they say they repent who do not turn?”34 A few pages later he writes: “(Isa. 1.16) go, steep yourselves in the brinish waters of repentance. Then, says God, I will parley with you”35
He quotes again: “For some of the Jews who had a hand in crucifying Christ, upon their repentance, the very blood they shed was a sovereign balm to heal them: ‘though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be white as snow’ (Isa. 1.18).”36
Watson references Jesus here: “See his Commission: ‘The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me; he hath sent me to bind up the brokenhearted’ (Isa. 61.1).”37 Watson considers “true repentance” to be the only way (in faith) to please God. He will not listen to wicked people unless they repent. However, Jesus forgives. No sin is too great (even that of the Jews who crucified Jesus) that God cannot or will not pardon. The Westminster Confession of Faith states, in the same section on Repentance, the following quotes that seem to corroborate with or fit within Watson’s citation framework:
Stephen Charnock’s sermon provides an excellent Isaiah quote for this context:
“Christ hath so compounded the business with divine justice, that we have the sins remitted, never returning upon us, and the renewal also of remissions upon daily sins, if we truly repent…yet the covenant of God stands firm, and he will not take away his kindness (Isa. 54:9,10).”40
Having compared verses from Isaiah cited by these two theologians in their works, we may be able to detect some possible similarities in usage and correlations in the way that they understood repentance and forgiveness as it relates to God as He has revealed himself in Scripture alone and by the witness of the Holy Spirit. Some identifications with the Westminster Confession of Faith have possibly served to connect these thoughts and ideas that were probably unique to the Puritans who built their legacy and thrived in learning institutions such as Emmanuel College where they plied their trade as uncompromising biblicists, non-conformists, and people of God.
1 Thomas Watson. The Doctrine of Repentance. (Peoria, IL: Versa Press, 2009), 23.
2 Ibid., p. 23, 24. The verse is used twice in the book to convey this point. (italics mine)
3 Ibid p., 33
4 Ibid., pp. 31,32 (italics mine). Only the last part of the verse is quoted. The whole reads “wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from before mine eyes; cease to do evil.” He may not have found it necessary to quote the rest since “cease to do evil” was sufficient to make his point. On page 59, the same verse is used in part, consisting of “wash you, make you clean.” There, the topic deals with God’s purity vs. man’s impurity, so the selective use is contextual yet not careless.
5 Around half of the 25 total verses that Watson uses are found in early Isaiah chapters.
6 Ibid., p.95 (italics mine).This verse, again, is cited in part to make a point. The original verse reads “and the ornament of thy molten images of gold: thou shalt cast them away as a menstruous cloth; thou shalt say unto it, Get thee hence.” The other usage of the same verse on page 108 just mentions the “menstruous cloth” part of this scripture.
7 Francis J. Bremer. Shaping New Englands: Puritan Clergymen in Seventeenth Century England and New England. (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1994), 25-26. [brackets mine]. Watson and Charnock held to this philosophy although the term “inerrancy” used would not have been relevant to them since the discussion of inerrancy was not an issue of their time. They placed an emphasis on studying the whole of the Bible. Since most of it is composed of Old Testament writings, they probably studied the OT more often. This may serve to explain why most verses in Watson’s book are from the OT.
8 Thomas Watson. The Doctrine of Repentance.
11 Ibid., pp.63 – 64. The Isaiah scripture is included for relevance to the context of this essay.
12 Ibid., p. 64
13 Francis J. Bremer. Shaping New Englands, 16
14 Thomas Watson. The Doctrine of Repentance, 52
15 Ibid., p.54. Watson does not cite the whole verse for contextual reasons. The rest of the verse reads: “and the unrighteous man his thoughts: and let him return unto the LORD, and he will have mercy upon him; and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.”
16 “Stephen Charnock. A Discourse of the Pardon of Sin. Puritan Sermons.” http://www.puritansermons.com/charnock/charnoc6.htm (accessed April 10, 2011).
17 Thomas Watson. The Doctrine of Repentance. (Florida: The Banner of Truth: Re-Published by Puritan Publications, 2009), 98. [brackets mine]
18 “Stephen Charnock. A Discourse of the Pardon of Sin. The KJV says “blotteth” instead of “blots” and has “transgression” in the plural. Maybe he took some liberty with the text since it was a sermon rather than an academic treatise.
19 Ibid. (italics mine). He now quotes the second half of the verse this time.
20 Ibid. (italics and brackets mine). Charnock’s quote is now closer to the KJV. This time, he only replaces “blotteth” for “blots.” Both this and the first time he cites the verse, it is the first part of it.
21 Ibid. The key words here are “he” “sins” and “laid.” Sins were laid on Christ by God.
22 Ibid. (italics and brackets mine). Later in the sermon, he quotes more of the same verse.
23 Ibid. (italics mine). Again, Charnock quotes key words and phrases liberally.
25 Bremer, Francis J. Shaping New Englands: p.25
26 Watson, Thomas. The Doctrine of Repentance, p. 23
27 Watson was graduating when Charnock was entering. There is a chance that, it being a small school, they may have met, known of one another, or studied under the same tutors. They later ministered at Crosby Hall in London where there is a greater chance that they assuredly would have met and maybe worked together since they both served there during the 1670s. Even with all this evidence, whether or not they influenced each other remains a question.
28 Martin Garrett. Cambridge: A Cultural and Literary History (Northampton, MA: Interlink Publishing Group, 2004), 127 [brackets mine].
29 Gary W. Crampton. What The Puritans Taught. (Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 2003), 5,6.
What added to this cultural development was the publication of the King James Authorized Version (1611).
Watson and Charnock would probably have immersed themselves in the Confession and the KJV for use in sermons and writings. It should be noted that the Puritanical presuppositions were axiomatic only in a natural and possibly fideistic manner, and not by philosophical definition. Therefore, Crampton’s anachronistic use of the words “axiomatic” and “inerrant” is only useful if one understands that the words were not employed by the Puritans. Since the Bible had not yet been cast under a shadow of serious doubt, no kind of philosophical theory of apologetics had been devised. The Bible itself was its own defense and confirmation, and this fact remains so.
30 Wayne Grudem. Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing, 1994), 1180.
31 Gary W. Crampton. What The Puritans Taught, 7.
32 Wayne Grudem. Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine, 1186.
33 Ibid., (brackets and italics mine)
34 Thomas Watson. The Doctrine of Repentance., 56 [brackets mine].
35 Ibid., p. 59
36 Ibid., p. 78
37 Ibid., p. 60
38 Wayne Grudem. Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine, 1186.
40 “Stephen Charnoch. A Discourse of the Pardon of Sin.
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