But how can God’s will be known? Can we tell His requirements with certainty and exactness? Is there any way out of the fogs of pious guesswork on this point into the clear light of certainty? Yes, said the Puritans, there is; the way out is to harness our consciences to the Holy Scriptures, in which the mind of God is fully revealed to us. To them, Scripture was more than the fallible and sometimes fallacious human witness to revelation which is all that some moderns allow it to be; it was revelation itself, the living Word of the living God, divine testimony to God’s own redemptive acts and plans, written by the Holy Ghost through human agents in order to give the Church of every age clear direction on all matters of faith and life that could possibly arise.
But, it might be said, such a formula is unrealistic and empty. The Bible is, after all, a very old book, the product of a now long-vanished culture. Most of it was written for people in an utterly different situation from our own. How can it throw clear and direct light on the problems of life today? It can do so, the Puritans would reply, because the God who wrote it remains the same, and His thoughts about man’s life do not change. If we can learn to see what principles He was inculcating and applying in His recorded dealings with Israel and the early Church, and to reapply them to our own situation, that will constitute the guidance that we need. And it is to help us to do this that the Holy Spirit has been given.
Certainly, seeing the relevant principles and applying them correctly in each case is in practice and arduous task; ignorance of Scripture, and misjudgment of situations, constantly lead us astray, and to be patient and humble enough to receive the Spirit’s help is not easy either. But it remains true nonetheless that in principle Scripture provides clear and exact guidance for every detail and department of life, and if we come to Scripture teachably and expectantly God Himself will seal on our minds and hearts a clear certainty as to how we should behave in each situation that faces us. “God hath appointed means for the cure of blindness and error,” wrote Baxter. “Come into the light, with due self-suspicion, and impartiality, and diligently use all God’s means, and avoid the causes of deceit and error, and the light of truth will at once show you the truth.”
The Puritans themselves sought clear certainty as to God’s truth in its practical bearing, and believed that they had been given it. Their quest sharpened both their moral sensibilities and their insight into the Bible. They would not have been interested in vague moral uplift; what they wanted was to grasp God’s truth with the same preciseness of application with which they held that He had revealed it. Because of their concern for preciseness in following out God’s revealed will in matters moral and ecclesiastical, the first Puritans were dubbed “precisians.” Though ill-meant and derisive, this was in fact a good name for them. Then as now, people explained their attitude as due to peevish cantankerousness and angularity or morbidity of temperament, but that was not how they themselves saw it.
Richard Rogers, the Puritan pastor of Wethersfield, Essex, at the turn of the sixteenth century, was riding one day with the local lord of the manor, who, after twitting him for sometime about his “precisian” ways, asked him what it was that made him so precise. “O sire,” replied Roger, “I serve a precise God.”
If there were such a thing as a Puritan crest, this would be its proper motto. A precise God – a God, that is, who has made a precise disclosure of His mind and will in Scripture, and who expects from His servants a corresponding preciseness of belief and behavior – it was this view of God that created and controlled the historic Puritan outlook. The Bible itself led them to it. And we who share the Puritan estimate of Holy Scripture cannot excuse ourselves if we fail to show a diligence and conscientiousness equal to theirs in ordering our going according to God’s written Word.
J. I. Packer, “The Puritan Conscience” in Puritan Papers, Vol. 2, 245-47.