It’s not a secret that I love books. Here in my study I often feel like I’m surrounded by good friends. In this series of posts, I’d like to introduce you to some of my friends, both the old ones from centuries ago and the more recent ones. I’ll describe their strengths and, where necessary, their weaknesses. The aim is to help you find good friends for yourself — in other words, to find edifying reading that will give you a better understanding of the Christian faith, a better grasp of the gospel, and a deeper love for Christ.
Today we’re going to go back a few years to my favourite Puritan author, Thomas Watson. Unfortunately, the word “Puritan” will turn some people off right away. If you’ve kept reading up to this point, I applaud your open-mindedness and willingness to give these brothers a chance. We need to set aside our prejudices and what we may have heard about the Puritans and actually go and check them out for ourselves. You may be pleasantly surprised!
Thomas Watson was an English Puritan, probably born in Yorkshire in 1620. Following studies at Cambridge, he spent sixteen years at St. Stephens, Walbrook, London. A Presbyterian, he was forcibly removed from his pastorate in 1662 when the Act of Uniformity was brought into law. He preached for private audiences for some years following. In 1672, however, he was again officially permitted by the authorities to preach and did so at Crosby Hall, Bishopsgate. In 1680, his health began to decline and he was no longer able to preach. He died in 1686.
Why is Thomas Watson important? Watson is easily the most readable of the Puritans. Even when his works are not updated in any way, they are remarkably lucid for being nearly four centuries old. What accounts for Watson’s readability? Primarily his use of word pictures. He knew how to communicate deep truths with vivid language. Moreover, Watson is also important because he combined those communication skills with a deep love for the gospel and a passionate commitment to Christ. In their helpful intro to the Puritans (Meet the Puritans), Joel Beeke and Randall Pederson remark: “Watson’s depth of doctrine, clarity of expression, warmth of spirituality, love of application, and gift of illustration enhanced his reputation as a preacher and writer.”
Where do I start? Unfortunately, I’m not aware of any book-length biographies of Thomas Watson. The best place to start reading Watson for yourself is his classic All Things For Good in the Puritan Paperbacks series published by Banner of Truth. This is an exposition of Romans 8:28. Very few modern writers touch on the subject of repentance. Another Puritan Paperback by Watson tackles this subject: The Doctrine of Repentance. If, like me, you’re called to regularly preach on the Ten Commandments and the Lord’s Prayer, then you need to have Watson’s books on these (also published by Banner of Truth). These are Watson’s sermons on the Westminster Shorter Catechism. Next, there is a new compilation of Watson’s writings, arranged in a 365-day devotional format. Glorifying God: A Yearlong Collection of Classic Devotional Writings is adapted from Watson’s Body of Divinity. My wife and I are using it for daily devotions together and it’s a beautiful and edifying book. Finally, one of the best books about Thomas Watson is Jack Hughes, Expository Preaching with Word Pictures, With Illustrations from the Sermons of Thomas Watson. That volume is one of the most influential and important books I’ve read on preaching.
What to look out for? I would be pleased if all God’s people would read Thomas Watson, ignoring 95% of everything else written in the last four centuries. Spurgeon used to say that if you would cut a Puritan, he would bleed “bibline.” Watson is nothing if not possessed by the Bible. Do I really have any cautions about him? Certainly none that readily spring to mind. He was an orthodox, confessional Reformed pastor through and through.
Let me conclude with a sample from the devotion my wife and I read together this morning:
The Scriptures appear to be the Word of God by the matter contained in them. The mystery of Scripture is so abstruse and profound that no man or angel could have known it had it not been divinely revealed. That eternity should be born; that He who thunders in the heavens should cry in the cradle; that He who rules the stars should suck the breasts; that the Prince of Life should die; that the Lord of Glory should be put to shame; that sin should be punished to the full, yet pardoned to the full. Who could ever have conceived such a mystery had not the Scripture revealed it to us? (Glorifying God, devotion for Feb. 15)