It might seem more than a little strange to spend an October evening in 2001 considering the life of a Puritan divine who died nearly 350 years ago. For some, such an exercise is of pure antiquarian interest: it can be fascinating to read about and hear about significant figures in history - a reasonable way to spend a damp October evening. My hope tonight, however, is that considering Goodwin will, if nothing else, remind us what evangelical Christianity essentially is and help us assess biblically the poverty of much that claims to be evangelical today. James Packer entitled his labour of love on the Puritans, “Among God’s Giants”. It is to our great shame, that such giants, for spiritual giants they surely were, are all but unknown to the modern evangelical church.
According to Alexander Whyte, Thomas Goodwin was the “greatest pulpit exegete of Paul” who ever lived. He further commends Goodwin’s sermon, “Christ Dwelling in Our Hearts by Faith”, as one of the “two very greatest sermons in the English language”. This is praise indeed, but by all accounts, Goodwin, the “Atlas of Independency”, was a great divine, and, more importantly, a humble and holy Christian.
It is not my intention to give either an exhaustive account of Goodwin’s life or of his theology. My intention is more modest: First, to give a brief sketch of his life; and secondly, to reflect on three related aspects of his evangelical theology that, in my judgement, desperately need to be recovered in the evangelical church today viz. his teaching on the seriousness of sin, the wrath of God against sin, and God’s gracious remedy for our sin.
Goodwin was born on October 5, 1600, at Rollesby, Norfolk to godly parents. In the Memoir of his life, composed from his own writings by his son, Goodwin tells us that from the age of six years he “began to have some slighter workings of the Spirit of God”. He speaks of “weeping for sin” and “having flashes of joy upon thoughts of the things of God”. Goodwin later concluded, however, that these early spiritual experiences were but the natural workings of conscience under the influence of a good education, not the soul-quickening operations of the Holy Spirit. Referring to this time in his life, Goodwin later wrote, “God was to me as a wayfaring man, who came and dwelt for a night, and made me religious for a fit, but then departed from me.” These early spiritual experiences could not but influence Goodwin’s understanding of the working of the Holy Spirit in conversion.
Goodwin’s parents secured for him the best education they could afford and at the age of only twelve years he entered Christ’s College, Cambridge, eleven years before John Milton was admitted into the same College. During these formative University years, Goodwin was greatly impressed by the preaching of Richard Sibbes, the “heavenly doctor”, and by John Calvin’s “Institutes”: “Oh how sweet was the reading of some parts of that book to me! How pleasing was the delivery of truths in a solid manner then to me.”
The next few years, however, saw Goodwin fall into deep spiritual decline and discouragement, until, in 1620, it pleased the Lord to bring him, as Goodwin himself believed, to a genuine repentance through listening to a funeral sermon on the text Luke 19:41-42. William Barker, in his fine “Puritan Profiles”, comments: “This personal experience of the Lord’s grace, which he (Goodwin) took to be the difference between the natural conscience, though enlightened, and the motions of the heaven-born soul under the influence of the Holy Spirit, colored his preaching and ministry afterwards.”
After receiving his M.A in 1620, Goodwin became a Fellow and lecturer at St Catherine’s Hall, having transferred there from Christ’s the previous year. During the next seven or so years, Goodwin struggled for personal assurance of faith. Through the counsel of a godly minister, Mr Price of King’s Lynn, he was led to see his need to “live by faith in Christ, and to derive from him life and strength for sanctification, and all comfort and joy through believing”. Goodwin later wrote of these years: “I was diverted from Christ for several years, to search only into the signs of grace in me. It was almost seven years ere I was taken off to live by faith on Christ, and God’s free love, which are alike the object of faith.”
Goodwin’s experience of God’s grace has much to teach us. Above all, that the believer’s primary focus is Christ, not himself. “I am come to this pass now, ” wrote Goodwin to Mr Price, “that signs will do me no good alone; I have trusted too much to habitual grace for assurance of salvation; I tell you Christ is worth all.” All that Goodwin had experienced persuaded him of Dr Sibbes' justly famous advice to him, “Young man, if you would ever do good, you must preach the gospel and the free grace of God in Christ Jesus.”
In 1628, having earlier in 1626 been appointed a preacher at the University, Goodwin was appointed lecturer at Trinity Church, in succession to Sibbes and John Preston.
One of the most significant events in Goodwin’s life took place in 1633. Along with Philip Nye and John Davenport, he met with John Cotton to persuade him not to go to New England and to conform to some of the “indifferent” ceremonies in the Church of England. Far from influencing Cotton, Goodwin and the others became persuaded that Cotton’s views on Congregational church polity were scriptural. This “conversion” led Goodwin to resign as vicar of Trinity Church and leave the University, no longer able to conform to Archbishop Laud’s high church innovations.
The following years are difficult to piece together, although it is probable that Goodwin lived and served in London as an Independent minister. In 1639, he moved to the Netherlands where the ecclesiastical climate offered greater freedom to those who wanted to experiment with Congregationalism. For nearly two years, Goodwin served the Independent English-speaking church in Arnhem, returning to England in early 1641. The new climate of ecclesiastical and theological openness ushered in by the convening of the Long Parliament, enabled Goodwin to pastor an Independent congregation in London, and on June 12, 1643, he was appointed to be a member of the Assembly of Divines at Westminster. Goodwin was highly regarded in the Assembly both for his scholarship and piety. It is a particular loss to subsequent generations that Goodwin’s personal account of the daily debates in the Assembly has been lost. His son tells is in his “Memoir of Dr Thomas Goodwin DD”, that “he took a brief account of every day’s transactions, of which I have fourteen or fifteen volumes in 8vo, wrote with his own hand.” If Goodwin’s daily observations had survived, they would have made an interesting comparison with the sources of Baillie, Gillespie and Lightfoot - all Presbyterians!
Goodwin became the chief spokeman for the Independents in the Assembly. These “five dissenting brethren”, as they came to be known, resisted the Presbyterian majority in the Assembly. In January 1644, they published “An Apologeticall Narration”, commending their Independent polity.
In 1647, Goodwin received an invitation from John Cotton to come and minister in New England. At first Goodwin was greatly attracted to the prospect of ministering in the congenial ecclesiastical surroundings of New England, so much so that the greater part of his library was on board the ship when the “persuasions of some friends, to whose counsel and advice he paid a great deference, made him alter his resolution.”
It was not surprising that when Cromwell came to power Goodwin was quickly elevated to positions of some prominence and importance. In November 1649, he was appointed a chaplain to the Council of State, and in January 1650, he was made President of Magdalen College, Oxford, “where”, his son tells us, “he made it his business to promote piety and learning.”
During Cromwell’s Protectorate, one of Goodwin’s greatest achievements was, along with John Owen, to persuade the Lord Protector in 1658 to sponsor a conference of Congregational Churches at the Savoy Palace. The subsequent “Savoy Declaration” ( basically the Westminster Confession with obvious amendments to the section relating to church government), became one of the fundamental formularies of both English and American Congregationalism.
With the accession of Charles 11 in 1660, Goodwin was removed from the Presidency of Magdalen and returned to London where, with some of his Oxford congregation, he founded an Independent church in Fetter Lane. During the brief illness prior to his death, Goodwin said: “I am going to the Three Persons, with whom I have had communion. They have taken me, I did not take them. I shall be changed in the twinkling of an eye. All my lusts and corruptions I shall be rid of, which I could not be here. These croaking toads will fall off in a moment.” Almost his last words were, “Now, I shall be ever with the Lord.”
He died on February 23, 1680, and was buried in Bunhill Fields.
Goodwin was clearly a most remarkable Christian. He was a scholar of international renown. He was a greatly respected church leader. He did much to promote Puritan piety. But above all, Goodwin gives the lie that Puritanism is coldly intellectual and narrowly partisan. Goodwin was a convinced Independent, and yet he exhibited a truly catholic spirit towards other Christians. In 1651, he sought to bring unity between Independents and Presbyterians in “Christ the Universal Peacemaker”. He was a man whose whole spirit breathed love to Christ and to his people: “Christ cannot love me better than he doth; I think I cannot love Christ better than I do; I am swallowed up in God.”
During his last years, his son tells us that he read much: Augustine, Calvin, Musculus, Zanchius, Paraeus, Gomarus, Amesius, and others. but above all “the Scriptures were what he most studied.” In all his reading, Goodwin was seeking not the mere advancement of knowledge, but an ever deepening knowledge of his God and Saviour: “The love and free grace of God, the excellencies and glories of the Lord Jesus Christ, were the truths in which his mind soared with the deepest delight. And it was not merely a speculative pleasure, but these truths were the life and food of his soul; and as his heart was affected with them, he wrote them with a spiritual warmth that is better felt than expressed,” This is not “Puritanism”, this is living, experimental Christianity. And so, “he, being dead, yet speaks”!
Having briefly outlined Goodwin’s life, I would like to spend the remainder of our time reflecting on a most particular contribution Goodwin can make to today’s version of evangelical Christianity. During the past half century the Christian Church has undergone a seismic revolution. This should not in itself be a cause for mourning; Reformed Christians should in principle be in the forefront of change in the Church - semper reformanda, ecclesia reformata! The Holy Spirit is not encased in any era of church history, however blessed the era! The tragedy, however, about the seismic change in the Church during my own lifetime is that the change has been, by and large, shaped by the agenda of the world and not the truth of God’s Word. In an attempt to impact the world with the gospel, many evangelicals have sought to “contemporise the gospel”. What’s so wrong with that? Nothing - in itself. The tragedy lies not the attempt to contemporise the gospel, this is a responsibility we all have; the tragedy lies in the virtual abandonment of any truth that offends, humbles and crushes man with all his fallen conceits. More than ever we need to recover in our day, in particular, the biblical teaching on the seriousness of sin and the glorious, consuming holiness of God - that is to say, God as he reveals himself to be, and not as many have vainly imagined him to be; this perhaps more than anything else, will save the Church from transforming the glorious sin-conquering, wrath-exhausting, life-giving gospel of the Blessed God into a self-validating programme for personal renewal.
To help us, I would like us to reflect a little on what Thomas Goodwin taught about sin, its nature, its desert and its remedy, three truths that are fast disappearing from evangelical theological distinctives.
Sin’s Grievous Nature
It is the greatest tragedy of our age, that the supreme focus in much of the Christian Church today is man, not God! Man and his needs, not God and his glory is, tragically, the organising principle and central concern of much that passes for evangelical Christianity. One great bulwark against having our thinking and theology infected by this fatal disease ( for “fatal” it surely is), is for us to be re-acquainted (or acquainted) with the Puritan teaching on sin and the wrath of God. Perhaps the greatest difference between ourselves and the Puritans is that they had high views of the glory of God and therefore deep views of the sinfulness of sin, while we have shallow, user-friendly views of God, and therefore shallow and user-friendly views of sin and wrath! Where do people hear today, in our “Alpha” dominated Christian culture that “the greatest evil of sin”, so wrote Goodwin, “lies in the injury by it done unto the honour and sovereign glory, and to the person of God himself, which is the thing that makes sin so heinous”
We live in a world where “sin” has been “deconstructed” to mean little more than a personal or social inconvenience. Sin disrupts relationships, destroys families, disfigures society - and it does! But Goodwin recognised that the fundamental nature of sin is its hatred of and opposition to God - it is rebellion against the person and purposes of God. In Vol 5, of his “Works”, Goodwin dwells upon the nature and tendency of sin:
“a) now sin tends to destroy God’s ‘law’, though it doth not; for not one iota of it shall pass; yet because it tends to it, as much as in it lies, Ps.cxix.126, God accounts of it as destructive of his law” .
“b) So the manifestation of God’s glory, though it shall receive no soil.... yet sin tends to darken it and obscure it, and to dishonour him, setting up other gods”
“c) so God’s being it toucheth not, yet (sin) is a ‘denial of God’, Titus 1.16, a professing there is none. It makes a man hate God; and as ‘he that hates his brother is a murderer’, so he that hates God is (what in him lies) a destroyer of his very being; Peccatum est Deicidium.”
Here is someone expounding the nature of sin biblically and theologically, not psychologically or sociologically: this is what this present generation, pagan and professing Christian alike, are all but completely ignorant of - we have all but lost the sight and sense of what sin fundamentally is. One of the most crucial texts for the Puritans in this regard is Psalm 51:4 “Against you, you only, have I sinned.” Here we are confronted both with the exceeding sinfulness of sin and its unspeakable seriousness - it is against God! And sets God against us! Sin makes us “God-haters” (Romans 1:30) and makes us God’s “enemies”(Romans 5:8,10). This was a truth the Puritans laboured to press home to the consciences of their people: Ralph Venning wrote, sin “goes about to ungod God, and is by some of the ancients called Deicidium, God-murder or God-killing” . This is not what a few “extreme” sinners seek to do: “what is done by any man would be done by every man, if God did not restrain some men from it by his power, and constrain others to obedience by his love and power”.
Goodwin understood well that the acme of sin’s heinous nature was most manifested in the sufferings of Christ; so, he wrote, “if thou wouldst see what sin is, go to mount Calvary... as God is in himself invisible, so is the evil of sin; and as Christ is the livliest image of the invisible God, so are his debasement and his sufferings the truest glass to behold the ugliness of sin in, and the utmost representation to make us sensible of it.”
George Swinnock, a contemporary of Goodwin’s, could have been speaking of our own day when he wrote,
“We take the size of sin too low, and short, and wrong, when we measure it by the wrong it doth to ourselves, or our families, or our neighbours, or the nation wherein we live; indeed, herein somewhat of its evil and mischief doth appear; but to take its full length and proportion, we must consider the wrong it doth to this great, this glorious, this incomparable God. Sin is incomparably malignant, because the God principally injured by it is incomparably excellent.”
How then can people, not least ourselves, be helped to see the true size and true height of sin? Surely by seeing sin in the light of God as he is! People have such slight and superficial views of sin because they have such slight and superficial views of God! Perhaps the greatest good Goodwin could do to todays evangelical church, is to re-acquaint it with the “sinfulness of sin”.
Sin’s righteous desert
Goodwin’s most detailed exposition and analysis of God’s wrath is found in Vol. 10 of his Works, especially in the section entitled, “Of the Punishment of sin in hell.” Goodwin’s exposition is quintessential Puritan teaching on this awesome subject. At the outset of his treatment, Goodwin informs us that God’s wrath against sin is “so great that it cannot be comprehended by our thoughts, nor even be sufficiently expressed. For what hell and destruction are, is a mystery, as well as what heaven is: and the true and proper notion of conception of either, are a riddle to the most of men.”
Goodwin well understood that the Scriptural teaching on God’s wrath (which is, he said “the immediate cause” of sin’s punishment in hell),is often described in pictures and metaphors. He argues, however, that the three texts which form the substance of his exposition, Romans 9:22, 2Thessalonians 1:8-9, Hebrews 10:30-31, “do more plainly, and without parables, declare (that punishment) to us, in its immediate causes, and from them do leave us to infer the fearfulness” . He maintains that while all the images and metaphors of Scripture “are but shadows and similitudes... these Scriptures... all speak essences, quintessences” . A number of striking emphases are highlighted in Goodwin’s exposition:
1. God himself, by the power of his wrath, is the “immediate infliction of that punishment or destruction of men’s souls in hell. It is a ‘falling into the hands of God.’” For Goodwin, it is vital that we understand that God inflicts wrath as a Judge and as an “avenger!” God will avenge himself on all unrepentant sinners, finally and forever at the last.
2. God’s wrath is inflicted on unrepentant sinners “though with a vast difference of degrees”
3. God’s people, “are able to measure what he is in his wrath by what he is in his love” - we do this, says Goodwin, from “the law of countraries.” The centrality of the cross runs like a golden thread through Goodwin’s Works: it is Calvary which most reveals to us the heinousness of sin; and it is Calvary which most lays bare the unspeakable awfulness of God’s wrath.
4. God’s wrath is executed on both body and soul in hell! “... I must not, nor dare I say that there is no material fire in hell ordained for punishment to men’s bodies, but that it is rational, that the body having sinned as well as the soul, it should have a meet recompense of reward suited thereto, as well as that the soul should.” (quotes Matthew 10:28, God destroys “both body and soul in hell.”)
5. God’s avenging wrath in no sense “stains” his glory, rather says Goodwin, God and Christ “account it a part of their glory,” the glory of their justice, the glory of avenging righteous, retributive judgment. In support of this, Goodwin highlights Isaiah 63v1ff: Christ “glories in it!!” Far from being embarrassed by God’s wrath, Goodwin saw it as the necessary vindication of his essential being and character. God would “un-God” himself if he did not execute his holy wrath on impenitent sinners. If Goodwin is in any sense faithfuly representing the teaching of Scripture, the modern evangelical church is in a parlous state.
6. Sinners prepare themselves unto the execution of God’s wrath upon them. Referring to Romans 9:22-23, Goodwin says, “The only thing which by the way I observe is, that the sin of the creature is that which prepareth or fitteth the creature for the execution of this punishment; and a difference may be observed in this... that God himself prepareth the saints to glory, verse 23; but the other are fitted, that is, but themselves, unto destruction, verse 22, ere he destroyeth them”
It is deeply sobering, as well as deeply instructive, to see how Goodwin brings his extensive study on God’s holy wrath to a conclusion. Typically, Goodwin considers “the uses” of this truth to God’s people. Here is true “theology,” theology that operates between two poles, the pole of God’s glory and the pole of sinners' good. He will not allow us merely to leave with our thoughts instructed, or even connected: he would have us leave humbled before God, adoring his majesty and prepared to enter the glory of his nearer presence. Listen to his concluding admonitions:
“I would first persuade you to believe, that there is this wrath to come.” Goodwin is deeply concerned lest we might end up preaching and teaching these truths while being personallly insensible to the truth of them. So, Goodwin urges us to make sure that what is true of Paul in 2 Corinthians 5:11, is true of us: above all “Consult thine own heart.”
Secondly, “learn to adore and fear the greatness of the Lord”
Thirdly, “Consider what it is to die, and what the state and condition of the other world is.”
Finally, “Let all believers from hence learn how to set a due and full value upon that salvation which they profess to expect, and which God hath designed to give them.”
Applying these “uses” to ourselves should bring us, says Goodwin, “two ends and purposes,” a deep and abiding thankfulness to God and Christ, and a deep and abiding comfort to our souls. In his exposition of God’s wrath, Goodwin is not simply concerned to vindicate God’s justice and righteousness. He is, of course deeply concerned to do this, but he never loses sight of the evangelistic and pastoral implications of his exposition.
It is one of the saddest and tragic features of much that passes for evangelical Christianity, that God has been domesticated. You wouild think our Lord Jesus never said, “Do not fear him who can kill the body...fear him who after killing the body can cast you into hell”!! We do sinners the greatest of harm by proclaiming to them an emasculated God! How many will rise up on the day of Christ and say “They never told me you were such a God!” And to how many will God say, “Their blood will I require at your hands!”
Sin’s extravagant remedy
The Puritans were pastoral theologians; their great concern was not only to explore the depths of God’s revelation, but to minister comfort and support to God’s elect. This concern appears at the heart of Goodwin’s exposition of the imputation of sin to Christ in his marvellous treatise on “Christ the Mediator!” Once again, let me focus on one particular facet of Goodwin’s teaching in this theological locus. In reading Goodwin’s exposition, one aspect of his teaching in particular struck me afresh and moved me. As he expounds and defends the doctrine of the imputation of our sins to Christ, Goodwin asks,
“But when we say Christ was made sin, what sin was it that he is made, and that was thus imputed to him? Was it sin in the general only, and in the abstract evil of it? Surely more...The Scripture seems to speak more, and as if he bore particular sins... so over the scape-goat were the particular sins of the congregation confessed... And as Christ bore sins (in the plural), and innumerable sins, so he bore the sins of all, and every particular man he died for... he being made as the common drain and sink into which all the sins of every particular man do run, and the centre in whom they all meet; and that meeting implies an assembly of particular sins.”
What Goodwin says here echoes the justly famous comment of Luther on Galatians 3:13:
“our most merciful Father, seeing us to be oppressed and overwhelmed with the curse of the law... sent his only son into the world and laid upon him the sins of all men, saying: ”Be thou Peter that denier; Paul that persecutor, blasphemer and cruel oppressor; David that adulterer; that sinner which did eat the apple in Paradise; that thief which hanged upon the cross; and briefly, be thou the person which hath committed the sins of all men; see therefore that thou pay and satisfy for them."
The deep pastoral concern of Goodwin in treating of our sins being particularly imputed to Christ, is seen in the “Uses” he draws out from this truth:
“1. See the immense love of Christ unto his elect, in that he would not only be made a curse, but sin too for them; which he being holiness itself, must needs be most abhorrent of such an imputation... For a chaste and undefiled maid to be counted a whore, how nearly would it touch her, how deeply affect her! But for holiness itself to be ‘numbered among transgressors,’ for God to be called devil, yea, prince of devils, how beyond all expression, unsupportable must it needs be!”
“2. Learn we to confess and take upon us our sins in particular. Men’s sorrow for sin is usually general and confused. They acknowledge they are sinnners, etc., but Jesus Christ’s soul could not escape with a general charge... but the particulars are charged on him... and if Christ took them on him to satisfy for them, thou must at least take them on thee to humble thee.”
“3. If thou canst not confess all thou art guilty of (as thou canst not) yet comfort thyself with this, that Jesus Christ knew all particulars to satisfy for them, and so entreat the Lord to cleanse thee from thy secret sins... may we consider (this) to our comfort, that Christ is greater than our hearts, and knows more of our sins by us than all we do, yea, and knew them to take them off from us.”
“4. Make use of Christ’s blood and satisfaction, not for thy sins in the lump, but for particular sins, because he satisfied for particulars. Not only spread the plaster over all, but lay particular plasters of his blood to particular sins... so apply Christ’s satisfaction, and his being made sin to every tittle and circumstance in sins more heinous, and go over them again and again with cross lines of Christ’s blood...”
“5. It may serve to strengthen thy faith against particular sins by this, that Christ bore them. Say and plead to Christ when thou beggest pardon, was not this sin in the number?”
“6. See here the completeness of justification. All sins are laid to Christ, that we might say... not the least thing shall be exacted of us... nothing fearing that any exception can be made, or that the least sin was left out of the catalogue which Christ had of them, that should yet remain unpaid for.”
“7. It may teach us how to mourn and be troubled; not for punishment only, but for sin as sin also.”
“8. Those that are the greatest sinners should mourn most for sin, and love Christ most; and this, because he hath borne their sins, and more of their sins than of others. They are to ‘love much’... because Christ paid more for them, he underwent and suffered more that their sins might be forgiven, than for other men. Mary loved much, because much was forgiven her, Luke vii.47.”
It is not hard to see in these “Uses” that Goodwin’s great concern in expounding the imputation of our sin to Christ, is to bring us to a deep and felt sense of the wonder of his redeeming love, and to help us mortify the sin that yet remains in us. But most of all we can see in Goodwin’s exposition the pastoral pulsebeat of his heart. He was never content merely to teach the truth and defend it: his exposition was full of pastoral application! I wonder if this is not what we most need to learn from the Puritans in their teaching on sin and wrath, the pastoral sensitivity and tenderness of their preaching - even when they were ploughing up the hearts of their hearers!
Read Goodwin, and you find yourself immersed in the world of grace, confronted with theology that is biblical, evangelical, God-centred, Christ-exalting, man-humbling. His writings bring you very low - but they also lift you very high. These are missing notes in evangelicalism today. Their recovery would bring great honour to God and great good to sinners. The failure to recover them would bring the greatest dis-honour to God and imperil the immortal lives of countless men and women. Of Thomas Goodwin it can also be said, “He being dead yet speaks”.