Reviewed by J. Stephen Yuille
Why study the Puritans? In the opinion of some, we have come such a long way since the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. What could the Puritans possibly teach us? The answer, according to J. I. Packer, is maturity. “We are spiritual dwarfs. The Puritans, by contrast, as a body were giants. They were great souls serving a great God”1 Packer’s criticism of contemporary evangelicalism is painfully blunt, yet even a cursory glance at today’s church confirms his assessment. To put it simply, we need the Puritans (their piety in particular) because they were strongest where perhaps we are weakest.
One aspect of their piety – noticeably absent in our day – is biblical meditation. The Puritans were convinced that there is a marked difference between knowing with the head (theoretical, notional, speculative knowledge) and knowing with the heart (practical, inclinational, sensible knowledge). This difference raises an important question in terms of Christian experience: When it comes to our knowledge of God’s truth, how do we bridge the gap between the head and the heart? For the Puritans, the answer is biblical meditation. It is essential because it functions like fire to water. Water is naturally cold, but fire makes it hot, causing it to boil. Likewise, our hearts are naturally cold, but biblical meditation makes them hot, causing them to boil with love for God and His Word. Biblical meditation, therefore, is the means by which what is known in the head seeps down into the heart. It is the bridge that spans the gulf between theoretical knowledge and practical knowledge.
In God’s Battle Plan for the Mind, David Saxton takes up this important theme: The Puritan Practice of Biblical Meditation. At the outset, he states that his goal is to argue for the “absolute necessity” of biblical mediation (p. 2). Without the regular practice of biblical meditation, our minds wander dangerously into a world of enticing thoughts, discouraging thoughts, embittering thoughts, and distracting thoughts. When they do, the result is a crumbling spiritual life. But biblical mediation cultivates spiritual growth as it fixes our “fluttering minds” to God’s Word – the “true spiritual anchor of stability” (p. 3).
The Nature of Meditation
When speaking of biblical meditation, Saxton is not referring to the mere reading and studying of Scripture, but the purposeful reading and studying of Scripture. It involves musing and mulling over the biblical text, whereby the truth of God’s Word grips the mind, affections, and will. The Puritan George Swinnock defined such mediation as “a serious applying the mind to some sacred subject, till the affections be warmed and quickened, and the resolution heightened and strengthened thereby, against what is evil, and for that which is good” (p. 46).
Biblical meditation, therefore, is the means by which we fill our heads and affect our hearts with God’s truth to such a degree that our lives are brought into greater conformity to God’s Word. “In direct meditation,” explains Saxton, “the believer digs out the treasure of God; but it is in reflexive meditation that he brings this treasure home to his own soul in a practical, personal way” (p. 49).
The Practice of Meditation
Moving “from theory to reality,” Saxton provides a number of pointers for practicing biblical meditation (pp. 51–55). For starters, we must schedule time for it because we rarely accomplish activities that we do not plan ahead. Moreover, we must guard it because we easily divert our attention to other matters. Finally, we must savor it because we usually rush from one activity to the next. Like a good meal, biblical meditation takes time to plan and enjoy.
As for specific steps, Saxton encourages simplicity (pp. 60–63). Having selected a single truth from God’s Word, we should ask questions of it to ensure we understand it. The truth should be practical – an attribute of God, characteristic of sin, office of Christ, etc. Then, we should apply the truth to ourselves, resolving to act upon it. What have I done? What will I do? “Meditation is not the time for inquisitive thinking,” says Saxton. “Rather, meditation employs practical reflection upon matters already known to some degree” (p. 77).
The Importance of Meditation
According to the Puritan Thomas Watson, meditation possesses “a transforming power” (p. 96). How so? It deepens repentance, inflames devotion, produces maturity, imparts comfort, and cultivates thanksgiving (pp. 105–114). More importantly, it is God’s ordained means “for progressive sanctification” (p. 102). A large part of sanctification is seeking to make sin unattractive to us. This is done through biblical meditation, which opens the door between the head and the heart whereby the Holy Spirit makes deep impressions upon our affections. He cultivates love for God, thereby making sin repugnant to us.
Given the importance of biblical meditation, Saxton warns that we must watch for those things that hinder it; e.g., wandering thoughts, condemning feelings, passing pleasures, and distracting entertainments (pp. 115–125). At times, we’re our own worst enemy. We convince ourselves that meditation is too difficult or impractical or demanding. When tempted to think like this, we would do well to consider how much time and effort we give to other things that are not nearly as important as biblical meditation. Saxton remarks, “The reality is that the greatest gifts of God to His people will do no good if they are not unwrapped and enjoyed” (p. 137).
This is but a sampling of what Saxton offers in God’s Battle Plan for the Mind. The book is a pleasure to read: well-researched, well-organized, and well-written. And I highly recommend it to you.
It will inform you, as it provides valuable insight into both Puritanism and biblical spirituality – two themes that intersect at many junctures.
It will challenge you, as it prescribes biblical meditation as the remedy for the contemporary church’s “shallow” and “superficial” spirituality (p. 1).
It will edify you, as it encourages believers to find their “greatest delight in life in the presence of Christ through His Word” (p. 137).
J. I. Packer, A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1990), 22
Dr. J. Stephen Yuille is Pastor of Grace Community Church, Glen Rose, TX, Director of Baptist Studies at Redeemer Theological Seminary, Dallas, TX, and Book Review Editor for Spirituality and Christian Living here at Books At a Glance.
Buy the books
God's Battle Plan For The Mind: The Puritan Practice Of Meditation