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The Charismatic Puritans: Looking to Christ whose love they experienced

Charismatic Christianity takes many colours, and the word is used in many ways. It's used to describe styles of worship, and more so to speak of the continuation of Spiritual gifts. Charismatic also comes with a strong emphasis on experiential Christianity, those who expect direct experience of God today as was evident in the early church. Not as a pursuit of experience but looking out of ourselves to Christ having an effect upon us. Call it Mystic or Affectionate if you want...

Anyways, this is no new phenomenon. As Ron Frost observes, in these final excerpts from his Dissertation... Series link: The Divided House of Christianity.
For Sibbes' the main purpose of union with Christ "is to make us one with him, and thereupon to quicken us, to guide us, and to dwell in us continually, to stir up prayers and supplications in us, to make us cry familiarly to God as Father". Thus, just as the Bible regularly presented the Spirit as directing Christ in the gospels, and the apostles in the book of Acts, so believers can also expect the same work of direct guidance in their own lives. (p146-7)
The Spirit on Jesus, the Spirit on the Apostles, the Spirit on us.... perhaps the Gospels and Acts are not just descriptive but normative for us...
"Most other ministers in puritan circles were happy enough to leave any immediate or dramatic work of the Spirit to the primitive church. Sibbes was certainly aware of the dangers in opening a door to spiritual enthusiasm, but his position was a logical concomitant to his Spirit-Christicism... He warned against placing limits on the Spirit... "we must have especial heed of slighting any motion" of the Spirit."
This puritan calls for a high expectation of the Spirit's work today, not relegating his ministry to the early church, but taking high regard for him today. Frost is analysing the Puritan era, but could be speaking of the church today just as easily.
The Breath of the Spirit in us is suitable to the Spirit's breathing in the Scriptures, the same Spirit does not breathe contrary motions. Thus the Word of God and the words of God were of the same Spirit and can never be at odds with each other.
Sibbes' confidence that the Spirit's motions, working in accord with the scriptures, is an important part of normal spirituality was characteristic of his moderate mysticism.
This stood in contrast to Perkins' belief that most Christians will have little, if any, direct experience of the Spirit's motions. Perkins prefered to see the Bible as the source of God's will, epitomised in the decalogue, which is applied by the Spirit-enabled mind and will.
The Spirit acts in accord with Scripture. This is a moderated mysticism, anchored to the Scriptures, fixed upon Christ. And it argues that we can expect 'direct experience' of the Spirit today. Can we, or Perkins right to say we can't, or at least shouldn't really expect to? The division stands. The question is asked, do we come down with Sibbes or Perkins in this?  Heart or Will? Experienced Spirit or Distant?
The flavour and feel will be very different.
Calvin:"Will not biblical warnings of God's wrath only cause the soul to shun the God whom it dreads?" From this, Calvin concluded, "merely to know something of God's will is not to be counted as faith. But what if we were to substitute his benevolence or his mercy in place of his will... for it is after we have learned that our salvation rests with God that we are attracted to seek him." (Institutes 3 2 7)
Frost notes that Sibbes was largely disinterested in Predestination, though he believed in it. Many think the choice we face is to be Calvinist or Arminian. I think Frost's work suggests that there is at least one other position to take in light of the Reformation... or perhaps more that you can be Sibbesian or Perkinsian (with the Arminian/Calvinist debate being held within the House of Perkins).

Frost argues "Calvin's affirmation of sin as self-love set up his belief that a solution is provided by a new and greater affection." And, "the focus of all promises, the whole gospel, is on Christ". Sibbes believed with Luther and Calvin that God fulfills his promises of salvation through Christ alone. And that "faith is nothing but the act whereby we apprehend this effectual love of God to us in Christ" (Sibbes, Matchless Love). Frost:
"But while Sibbes held, with Calvin, that the salvation comes through the Spirit's work of drawing the elect through the mind, will and affections to encounter the melting quality of Christ's love, Sibbes realised that many of his listeners lacked this experience. Thus he affirmed Perkins' position, in part, by setting our a twofold ground for assurance." First the Spirit's illumination, and then in our progress in sanctification.... "However, unlike Perkins, Sibbes made the discernment of the Spirit's active presence the primary ground for assurance rather than a secondary and largely unexpected experience." Frost argues then that Sibbes' teaching on assurance is a little inconsistent. Yet: "In a final sermon before he died Sibbes continued to cling to his Christological emphasis for assurance, "look to him for all perfections and for your title to heaven, and not to faith"
Frost concludes:
"Sibbes and Perkins offered profoundly different portrayals of God. Both men believed in God's trinitarian nature, in his absolute authority, his wisdom, and his predestinarian work by which he shows mercy to some, and judges other in their sin.
Perkins' God... is primarily transcendent, characterised as pure will and motivated by the goal of self-glorification.
Sibbes' God, by contrast, is characterised by the inherent self-love of the Godhead, who as a community of Father, Son and Spirit, offers a spreading goodness to the creation.
In other words, God's eternal love overflows to his creation, a belief Sibbes drew from Jesus' prayer of John 17. Thus paradoxically, God's essential motivation is a selfless self-love which extends outward. These different views of God led to fundamentally different definitions of grace..."


  1. brilliant. Thanks again Dave.

    Was looking at Matthew 20 last night, the words of Jesus:
    I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?'

    It's romans 4: to those who work under the law their wages are not counted as a gift but as their due, but to those who do no work but trust him who justifies the ungodly their faith is counted as righteousness, as a gift!
    it's ephesians 1-3, the mystery hidden that the gentiles are fellow heirs of the promised spirit

    I'm convinced that every time predestination is used by paul it's in this context of israel. Compare Romans 9 with Ephesians 2, and just note the "we/you" in Ephesians. We weren't predestined, they were, but in christ we were also chosen, and included in grace!

    too often the question is phrased, "do you begrudge my abandoning some"? (the house of perkins) rather than "do you begrudge my generosity"? (the house of sibbes). The scandal is surely that those who were born with great patience as objects of wrath, prepared for destruction were precisely those (unfaithful israel) upon whom God has lavished his mercy & grace, and made objects of his love in Ephesians 2, and not only that, those who were not his people have also benefited and been invited in to Christ & given the spirit, to enjoy his benefits. Marvellous. Those whose end is destruction are those who begrudge his generosity, enemies of the cross, hating the LORD & neighbour, not knowing that God's kindness is meant to lead them to repentance. This really came out last night.

  2. The idea that Acts is only descriptive rather than normative is one I find very odd. It seems to me that the burden of proof is on those who want to suggest it shouldn't be - and I haven't heard any arguments that I find convincing.

    However... that leaves some big questions. Notably, if it should be normative, why does it often not seem to be so?

    And if we allow a comparatively high degree of subjectivity on the work of the Spirit in the church, how do we also maintain a strong connection to biblical doctrine. You can't have the first without the biblical correction of the second.

    I recently came across a situation where I think someone was within a hair's breadth of justifying something in contradiction to scripture with the words "God has told me." (conservative evangelicals' worst nightmare!)

    What is the answer in this situation? To deny prophecy today? I hope not. To let it go unchallenged? Definitely not! Or to have a clear understanding of how to correct in love, how to test and discern, and how to say "thank you, but the leaders of the church don't think that is from the Lord." If we are unable to do this, the natural reaction of people concerned for truth will be to deny the existence of contemporary prophecy for fear of where wrong, uncorrected words will lead

  3. No commands in acts, not a single one, so my approach is: dont let it stress you out, just enjoy watching jesus rule from heaven. It's really very funny. He who sits in heaven laughs, psalm 2 says - if he's having a laugh, why can't we? It's also incredibly jewish; Acts 1-9 is centred around the temple & jews, which is hardly factored in - but the more i read paul & jesus and acts, the more I see they're talking about the same stuff - the promised spirit has returned to his temple, the atoned for people of God, times of refreshing have come - not only for the jews but also for the Gentiles. So fwi that's how i see things join up - more about discerning wisdom/folly in the light of the resurrection & outpouring of the spirit than hearing a ton of commands; likewise the "commands" in paul's letters.

  4. Dave,

    If our definition of the term "charismatic" is to consist of no more than deciding whether we are with Sibbes or Perkins, then we will have missed the mark by a long way.

    The family of churches that you currently are part of arose from a definition of "charismatic" in the 60s and 70s that was far more robust. Indeed, the term was routinely used to describe the operation of those gifts (especially the supernatural gifts) given by the Spirit to each member for the building up of the local church. These manifestations included speaking in tongues, prophecy, healing, miracles, discernment of spirits, faith, etc, and were regarded as normative in every local church as it gathered.

    In this sense, Sibbes must surely be seen as a starting point, not a destination.

  5. Al, no intent to portray Sibbes as a destination, more a friend along the way. One who can serve us in pursuit of Christ.

  6. A couple of points in response to Marcus on normative vs. descriptive in Acts - although I wouldn't want to have to choose exclusively between them.

    1) The temple is still operational in Acts, we are pre- AD 70 which is a big event talked about a lot in NT teaching, particularly by Jesus. This provides clear discontinuity between now and then.

    2) People in England aren't frequently being raised from the dead in 2011 (or indeed in the more revivaly times of our country), nor are large groups of people supernaturally able to understand someone speaking in a language they don't normally understand, nor are people teleported from A to B by the Holy Spirit. Purely empirical argument, I appreciate, but surely we see some differences.

    I don't make these points to write off the continuationalism - which I generally agree with, but surely we can recognise *some* discontinuity between then and now?

  7. Dave, since the Puritans are unanimous in their cessationism, can it be anything other than misleading to call them charismatic? I'm frustrated by the attempt to claim all 'experiential' Christianity as in some way charismatic - what about all the reformed churches who have continued this heritage down through the centuries, and who have maintained their forebears' cessationism?

    I know this is largely just a matter of semantics, and I'm appreciating your main points, but I think your use of language gives the impression that charismatic Christians have rediscovered the experiential side of Christian life, which just isn't true, and is particularly hard to stomach given the tendency I've noticed in some charismatic circles to talk as if they and they alone - have rediscovered Christianity itself...

    Here endeth the grumpyness. Just something to think about.

  8. Daniel, I was waiting for you to post that! Sorry no apology, plenty of cold reformedness out there too, and too many caricatures that mock us charismatics. I rejoice that sibbes has many heirs today, but I'm not prepared to say all that's good in us reformed charismatics is our reformedness, too much reformed Christianity is perkinsian....
    I'm more out to show modern charismatics have a heritage in their claim of the Spirit's presence. Not claiming uniqueness but more that this is an aspect of charismatic Christianity, though far from being its completeness.
    Not that labels are necessarily that helpful.... depends who gets to define the terms I guess!

  9. Great stuff Dave,

    You have indeed whet my appetite! :-)

  10. It's almost half-term Mr Walker!
    Enjoy your reading, and do blog-out any reflections you have along the way.

  11. Hey does anyone know the name of that painting at the top? It would be great to find it in a higher resolution.

  12. aresix, sadly not. I'd be keen to see a better version of it too!


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