Thomas Watson As Pastor and Scholar
It is my opinion that Thomas Watson is one of Christian history’s greatest kept secrets. Although he was one of the most popular preachers in Puritan London in his time, few people today have even heard of him. My first objective was to investigate the biographical information available. This was particularly difficult given that most books and articles only offer one or two paragraphs on his life. I felt that it was also important to consider any background information that might be available to help me understand the original context of his sermons and books. Secondly, I wanted this paper to accurately summarize the primary sources available from Watson. Given the parameters, I sought only to address those themes which appear in every sermon or book. In the last section of the paper, I will attempt to propose some practical applications from Watson’s life and writings. It is my hope that with the seemingly renewed interest in Puritan writings fueled by the combined efforts of the major Christian publishing houses, Thomas Watson might once again aid the disciples of Christ in their quest to know God more fully and live their lives to His glory.
The Origins and Ideals of Puritanism
Puritanism is thought to have originated with Reformed ministers Richard Greenham and Richard Rogers in the 1570s, but some would argue that the idea behind Puritanism goes all the way back to William Tyndale in 1524. The term “Puritan” was at first a pejorative term to describe both the purity of life, church, and doctrine for which the first adherents strived. Because of its unfortunate history, many members wanted to remove association with the name. Others saw the term as a compliment and sought rather to change the meaning of the word entirely. One such man who was instrumental in developing the idea of Puritanism was William Perkins. Unfortunately, derogatory nicknames were the least of the worries for the Puritans. Over the years many pastors and laymen were cast out of their churches. Some men and women, who continued to meet illegally, were tortured or killed for their faithfulness to the cause. Instead of suffocating the movement, the persecution actually chased some Puritans to the New World where they flourished in the New England Colonies.
At a foundational level, Puritanism was a system of chiefly pastoral theology that concentrated on the holiness of the believer and the holiness of doctrine. It was a system that held that the Reformation was incomplete and that the end goal should be a truly Reformed church. For this reason, the Puritans respected Church tradition but were quick to disregard it if it disagreed with Scripture. Although most historians mark the end of Puritanism with the Act of Toleration in 1687, many pastors such as Jonathan Edwards and Charles Spurgeon are considered Puritans who were born out of season.
A Brief Biography of Thomas Watson
Almost nothing is known about the birth of Thomas Watson. No date or place of his birth is known. Nothing remains to indicate who his parents were or if he had any siblings. In a way, it is almost fitting that such a brilliant man should have such an obscure past. One of the earliest records of his life shows that he attended Emmanuel College in England, which was the college choice of many of the great Puritans. During his life he accepted many different pastorates and many forms of itinerate speaking. His ministry was supported by his wife, Abigail and his seven children. Sadly, four of Watson’s children did not survive their early childhood years. Amazingly, in his books and sermons there does not seem to be the slightest hint of this struggle. In his later ministry, Watson was preaching several times a week (sometimes illegally), he was publishing books and sermons on a yearly basis, he was persecuted for his political connections–imprisoned at least once , he was persecuted for his doctrinal stances, his grief-stricken wife was taking care of his remaining children, he was bearing the burdens of his various flocks, and all of this time Watson was still able to proclaim the sovereignty and goodness of God.
One of the most significant events to take place during his life was the uprising of the Puritans against King Charles I. Unlike many of the Puritans, Watson opposed Oliver Cromwell’s attempt to take over the English government. At one time, Watson was called to speak before Parliament with his good friend Thomas Brooks. In his sermon to Parliament, Brooks stated that it was God’s will for Charles to be removed and for the Puritans to take over the government. Brooks warned that if the Puritans did not finish what they had started, God would judge them for not doing His work. Immediately after his sermon, Watson was asked to take the pulpit. His sermon, entitled “God’s Anatomy upon Man’s Heart” argued that God had placed Charles in power for a reason and that the Puritans must submit to his leadership. He warned that if the Puritans continued in the same path, God would judge them for removing one of His chosen leaders. As could be expected, Parliament sided with Brooks and published his sermon for the public. Watson was discouraged but decided to raise the money himself to publish and distribute his own sermon.
After Charles I was beheaded, Watson continued to try to remove Cromwell from power. Along with Christopher Love, he tried to usher Charles II into the throne. For their efforts, Love was executed and Watson was sentenced to be kept in the infamous London Tower. After the death of Cromwell, Watson eventually received his wish as Charles II took over the throne. His reign started out with grand promises for toleration and freedom, but instead brought even worse persecution on the Puritans. During his reign, Charles II instituted the Act of Uniformity (also known as The Great Ejection–1662). Those who chose not to conform to the prescribed limitations on worship were tossed out of their pulpits and were not allowed to preach. It is interesting to note that within the first year after Watson lost his pulpit he published All Things for Good, which was his meditations on God’s sovereignty and power from Romans 8:28. Charles also developed the Conventicle Act and the Five Mile Act. The Conventicle Act stated that a pastor could have no more than five non-family members in his house at one time. The Five Mile Act forbade any pastor from living within five miles of their former parishes. These laws were brought up to prohibit the Puritans from meeting together for worship. In disobedience to these laws, Watson would walk several miles to speak with his people. He would also hold secret church meetings deep in the woods or in a barn. Eventually the turmoil subsided and Watson was able to have several more years of active preaching ministry. When his health started to deteriorate he retired from his vocational ministry, but he never truly stopped being a pastor. He died in 1687 while praying in his closet.
What seemed to set Watson apart from other great thinkers and preachers in Christianity past was his ability to take difficult theology and make it understandable for the average church-goer. The primary way by which he did this was through his vivid word pictures. It was as though Watson could adequately explain a theological issue in a couple of sentences when most pastors or scholars would have to supply a small paper. Watson was very imaginative and poetic in his presentation of Scripture. Throughout his writings the reader finds illustrations from history, botany, medicine, physics, mythology, logic, economics and human nature. Watson had a seemingly endless supply of knowledge about almost every subject in the world. It was through these word pictures that he helped his people make mental connections to any given text. Watson was also very poetic in the way that presented his sermons. Almost every sermon still in publication contains elements of rhythm, rhyme, alliteration and euphony. Watson masterfully crafted sermons that were not only substantive and satisfying theologically, but also that had the simplicity and beauty that even the most casual attendee of his church could appreciate and admire.
Watson on Preaching, Scripture, and Theology
Watson had much to say about the value of Scripture and theology for himself and for his people. Apart from any mistakes he may have made in his political choices, it was clear that this man labored for his people in the Word. It would have been difficult enough either to have been persecuted or to care for his congregation in troubling times, but Watson did both. He was able to prepare brilliant sermons knowing that he would be breaking the law to preach them. Many times the pain and struggle can be picked up merely from reading some of his sermons. In a sermon on the Westminster Catechism, Watson said, “Every blow of the hammer is to fasten the nails of the building; so the preacher’s words are to fasten you the more to Christ; they weaken themselves to strengthen and settle you.” Throughout his ministry, he saw himself as a doctor of souls, prescribing precious promises to ward off the sickness of sin and despair.
God worked through Watson’s weaknesses and struggles to keep him vigilant that his flock would not wander from the faith. Watson even corrected other ministers who seemed to be less concerned with handling the Scriptures accurately and powerfully. In trying to justify putting forth the effort to preach well, Watson mourned that many pastors had “sown pillows under their people, making them sleep so securely that they never woke till they were in hell!”
Paired with Watson’s precision of doctrine was his mission to oversee himself. Watson feared being a hypocritical pastor. He understood that it would be much better to find another source of work than to push his people to be holy if he was unwilling to yield to righteousness. The wrath of God that he so often preached about would become a terror-striking reality if he proved not to be of the faith. It would be heightened if his sin caused any of his people to stumble.
While there are some instances of Watson’s own personal discipline of becoming a student of the Bible, much of what he had to say was directed to his people. He understood that his people would be best prepared for suffering, pursuing holiness and entrance into eternity if they were solidly anchored in Scripture and correct theology. Watson’s starting point was to make his people aware of their dependence upon the Holy Spirit for the interpretation and application of Scripture. In seventeenth century Europe, questions about the Reformation doctrines were still being raised. Many believers were forced to choose between the traditional Catholic Church and the many new Protestant branches. To teach a people to seek God for understanding and wisdom in Bible reading would have been difficult enough, but Watson also had to battle Catholic influences which sought to drag his churches from him.
On the other hand, Watson did not want to make Bible reading into an academic exercise that neglected fruit. In his sermons on Biblical interpretation, Watson advocates consistent meditation upon the character of God as found in the Scriptures. In order for the Word to become ingrained in the minds and hearts of his people Watson encouraged them to be careful of what they heard. The temptation would have been to become complacent with merely the hearing of Word to the neglect of knowing the Word. When discouraged or in a season of doubt, Watson encouraged his people to pick up their Bible and read until their hearts were happy in God. Regardless of what difficult circumstances they faced or what evil notions they were tempted to have against God, Watson believed that the Holy Spirit was willing and capable of comforting and strengthening them through the Word.
When his people knew the biblical narrative and were constantly thinking about what they read and heard, Watson challenged his churches to formulate good theology. As mentioned above, Watson was a strong advocate for training in the catechism for adults as well as children. He supported this effort by preaching approximately one hundred and seventy-six sermons on the Westminster Assembly’s Catechism. As in his concern in Bible reading, Watson did not want his people just to know good doctrine. He saw training in good theology to be a life and death issue. The amount of value that a believer placed on his relationship with God could be measured by the amount of quality time that they spent thinking about Him and praying to Him. Watson taught that while the visible fruits of holiness were necessary and important, the invisible fruits of the heart and mind were also necessary for assurance of salvation.
Additionally, if the people were not able to formulate a good foundation in their thoughts of God, they would be tossed and destroyed by both poor preaching and suffering. Watson keenly understood that times of spiritual struggle were not the times to formulate accurate thoughts about God. He exhorted his people to come to the correct conclusions about the nature of God before they entered trials so that they would be sustained: “The thoughts we have of God in the time of health, will be a comfort to us in the time of sickness.” If his churches were not grounded in their faith and understanding of Scripture, they would neither be inclined to suffer nor contend for it.
Watson on the Gospel
Regardless of the topic, Watson always kept the gospel at the center of his books and sermons. His stern view on the heinousness of sin and its corrupting nature made him appreciate the work of God in regeneration all the more. Watson considered it the greatest miracle in that while “Satan would have Christ prove his deity by turning stones into bread, Christ has wrought a far greater miracle in making stones become flesh.” All of Watson’s writings share a child-like wonder at the sacrificial depth of Christ’s love for His people. This love caused Christ to set aside His heavenly glory for a time in order to suffer as a man. Watson pointed out the biblical truth that while earthly relationships were a sign of the love of God, they were eclipsed many times over by the Savior who died to save His wife:
“Christ has suffered more for his spouse than ever any husband did for a wife. He suffered poverty and ignominy [humiliation]. He who crowned the heavens with stars was himself crowned with thorns. He was called a companion of sinners, so that we might be made companions of angels. He was regardless of his life; he leaped into the sea of his Father’s wrath to save his spouse from drowning.”
In presenting the gospel, Watson was quick to point out the strength and value of the atoning blood. This served to glorify Christ by relieving the fear of the lost that they were too evil to be saved. Even though they committed sins only for the span of their earthly lives, the just penalty was eternal death. But Watson lifted the hearts of his listeners in explaining that Christ’s merit was greater than their sin: “Consider, thou almost despairing soul, there is not so much sin in man as there is mercy in God.”
In each of his sermons, Watson stressed that this atoning blood was available for as many as would repent of their sins and believe in Christ. He argued that if a man had a disease for which there was a known cure, that man would take every necessary step to find and use that cure. But in the matter of the soul, which was far worse than any physical disease, men seemed to be content to wallow in damnation:
“If a man were poisoned, what a comfort it would be to him to hear that there was an herb in the garden that could heal him! If he had a gangrene in his body, and were given over by all his friends, how glad he would be to hear of a surgeon who could cure him! O sinner, you are full of peccant tumors; you have a gangrened soul. But there is a Physician who can recover you. There is hope in Israel concerning this; though there is an old serpent to sting us with his temptations, yet there is a brazen serpent to heal us with His blood.”
Watson also showed the availability of forgiveness to those who were already saved. To keep them from sinking into morbid depression over the possibility of falling out of God’s favor, Watson counseled them that if Christ told his followers (who were selfish, sinful and finite) to forgive those who did wrong to them “seventy times seven” times a day then they could know that their heavenly Father would be sure to outdo His children in forgiveness.
The result of realizing the value of Christ’s sacrifice and repenting of one’s sins meant pure joy for the believer from that moment to the end of eternity. He could then live his life in victory knowing that God was for him and would orchestrate the events of his life in a magnificent, perfect plan. Now that the weight of God’s impending wrath had been removed, the believer was now free to suffer for the glory of God, pursue holiness for the glory of God, and enter eternal bliss for the glory of God.
Watson on Suffering
At a time when Protestants in general and Non-Conformists in particular were being persecuted, Watson was a good shepherd that settled the sheep. Watson did not shy away from the problem of pain that seemed to affect the godly more than the sinful. Watson said of his ministry that “there are two things which I have always looked upon as difficult. The one is, to make the wicked sad; the other is, to make the godly joyful.” Because he had suffered with them, he could speak from personal experience on the reality of loss and affliction. Primarily from Scripture but also from his experience, he understood that God used suffering not only to correct the sins of His people but also to make them long for His presence all the more.
In an interesting fashion, Watson rarely made a distinction between the suffering of persecution and the suffering that God allowed for growth. While the two different kinds of suffering may have seemed to have come through different means, Watson observed that God was in control of all events surrounding pain. If God allowed someone to persecute His Church, it was for their good and His glory. If God allowed one of His children to suffer the loss of a child, it was for their good and His glory. The means of affliction were not nearly as important as the glorious end. Watson was cautious, yet confident to answer the questions both of discouraged saints and slanderous devils.
Why suffer? It makes us more like Christ.
Watson’s first observation on suffering was that God used it to conform His people more into the image of His Son. Watson had learned from the Apostle Paul that in order to truly appreciate the glory of Redemption and the Resurrection, God caused His children join Christ in his sufferings (Philippians 3:7-11). To experience something of the pain of Christ was to grow more in the knowledge of the glory and love of God. When the Christian understood the power of the sacrifice, he would then be more zealous for the spread of the gospel.
Why suffer? It tears us away from the world.
Watson believed that God chose to allow His people to go through hardship so that they might find joy and satisfaction only in Him. Because of their extreme cravings for sin, men desired earthly comforts at the expense of eternal rewards. Left to their own inclinations, mankind would plunge themselves into a sea of God’s wrath. Watson understood affliction to be part of the salvation process. To describe the process of “escaping” affliction, he used the image of drowning: “A man, by falling into briers, is saved from falling into the river; so God lets us fall into the briers of affliction that we may not be drowned in perdition.” Through carelessness and deception, many people find themselves consumed in God’s wrath. Watson argued that giving light affliction on earth was a sign of covenantal, redeeming love. Although the separation from sinful things was painful, he viewed his sufferings as giving up the lesser in order to save the greater.
God would have all of His children’s attention and affection. In fact, Watson understood that for God to allow people to continue in their sin without any restrictive suffering was a sign of strict judgment. Through pain, God was severing the Christian’s heart from the world. From Watson’s perspective, suffering had a way of chasing the believer closer to God:
“How comforted should they be in all conditions, let the times be what they will! Their Father who is in heaven rules over all. If troubles arise, they carry them sooner to their Father. The more violently the wind beats against the sails of a ship, the sooner it is brought to the haven; and the more fiercely God’s children are assaulted, the sooner they come to their Father’s house.”
While Watson believed that there were appropriate forms of mourning and questioning, he always sought to bring his people back to the sovereignty of God. If God was good, all-powerful, and all-knowing; and if He had chosen a people to love eternally, then any event in their lives was an example of condescending grace. God was allowing His children to suffer only for a few years as opposed to an eternity of suffering. This created a clear distinction between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of the world. For Watson, those whom God intended to destroy, He allowed to drown in their own “prosperity.”
Why suffer? God leads to something better.
But some cynics might find the use of persecution and affliction to be outside of God’s character. Is God not love? Why would He allow His creatures, especially His chosen creatures to suffer as they do? Watson answered this question by arguing that when God takes away something good, it is only to bring them something better: “Afflictions are sharp arrows, but shot from the hand of a loving Father. If a man should throw a bag of money at another, and it should bruise him a little, and raise the skin, he would not be offended, but take it as a fruit of love; so, when God bruises us with affliction, it is to enrich us with the golden graces of his Spirit ” This is not to confuse Watson’s teachings with those of the “prosperity gospel.” Since God should be the sole source of satisfaction for His people, He gives them what they desire the most. God, in His infinite love and wisdom, takes away empty idols and replaces them with fullness of joy.
Watson believed that the application of this doctrine of suffering was for the congregation to trust God in His providence and to be content with His plan for their lives. As stated above, Watson never argued that the Christian must be stoic amidst pain. The main distinction that he made between correctly handling affliction and committing blasphemy is that “in the one we complain to God; in the other we complain of God.” How the Christian handled hardship was directly tied to the glory of God. God is willing to patiently listen to His children when they hurt, but He will not suffer His reputation to be tarnished.
If the Christian needed more motivation to fight “hard thoughts” against God, Watson believed that the devil saw the discontent of the believer as a success. If he was unable to steal away their souls, he was content to steal their confidence in God:
“If the devil is capable of any delight, it is to see the saints’ disquiets: their groans are his music. It is a sport to him to see them torture themselves upon the rack of melancholy, and almost drown themselves in tears. When the godly have unjust surmises of God, question his love, deny the work of grace, and fall to wishing they had never been born, Satan is ready to clap his hands, and shout for a victory.”
When the believer is content in His God, he has the ability to be at peace in any situation in which he finds himself. Although the world and the Satanic forces may be granted the power to take away earthly possessions and physical comfort, God never allows them to take a Christian’s faith and contentment. In fact, the only way by which a saint may lose his confidence is to disbelieve the promises found in God’s Word: “This holy contentment keeps the heart from fainting in the autumn: when the fruit and leaves are gone, there is still sap in the root. So when there comes an autumn in the history of the Christian, and the leaves of his earthly prosperity fall off, there is the sap of contentment in his heart. The contented heart is never out of heart.”
Watson on the Pursuit of Holiness
One of the other major themes in Watson’s works is holiness. Like many of the Puritans before and after him, Watson was concerned not only that his people have the correct theology but that assurance of their salvation was seen through the fruit in their lives. Throughout his writing and preaching ministry, Watson waged a continuous campaign to alert his people of the dangers of sin and the joy in conquering it.
The Argument for Fighting Sin
It is not as though Watson made sin out to be merely an inconvenience on the path to heaven. Instead, the battle for purity would be a daily struggle from which the Christian would have no rest until his promotion into the presence of God. Watson made clear the cost of following Christ and made sure that he communicated the necessary sacrifice to both his saved and unbelieving listeners. But while this message might have caused some to rethink their commitment to the body of Christ, Watson warned, “It is better to go with difficulty to heaven than with ease to hell.” Self-denial would be required either temporarily in denying fleshly desires or throughout eternity in the denial of the kind affection of God.
For Watson, the decision was clear. The only explanation for why a person would choose the transient joys over the eternal was a marring of the reason and the conscience from sin. Watson believed that men simply did not know how to contemplate the reality of eternity. They were actually convinced that their desires, which would cost them an infinite sum to satisfy, were too strong to be restrained. Watson considered them fools who were willing “for a drop of pleasure to drink a sea of wrath.” In a powerful illustration portraying the utter stupidity of choosing sin, Watson reports:
“I have read a story of a virgin who, being tempted by a young man to commit folly, said unto him, ‘Grant me but one request and I will do what you ask.’ ‘What is that?’ said he. ‘Do but hold your finger one hour in this burning candle.’ No he would not do that. Said she, ‘Will you not for my sake hold your finger an hour in the candle, and will you have my soul lie burning in hell forever?’”
This is not to say that Watson was self-righteous in his stance on sin. His wonder of the dullness of man’s reason was exceeded only by his wonder in the God who had opened his eyes to the truth. In order to be a child of God the Christian had to have a holy hatred of the damnable desires of the flesh. Indeed, Watson pointed out that it was these very sins for which Christ died on the cross: “A true child of God seeks to be revenged most of those sins which have dishonored God most.” Watson argued that believers should not honor those wicked requests when they brought so much shame on Christ. That glory which seemed to be lost at the crucifixion could now be proclaimed from the mouths of those satisfied only in the blessings of the risen Savior. For Watson, one could not consider himself in love with Christ until he was at war with sin.
For Watson, the only godly response to temptation was to fight consistently and passionately. In order to be a successful soldier, it was important to have the correct mindset when facing sin. He argued that some temptations could be avoided in a passive manner simply by making a conscious effort to know one’s surroundings. Christians should be knowledgeable both of their weaknesses and the ways that the enemy has caught them before. On the other hand, some forms of temptation could only be suffocated by intense mortification. Watson used the image of Uriah being sent to the front lines of a war: “Oh, if you would not lose glory, mortify the beloved sin; set it, as Uriah, in the forefront of the battle to be slain. By plucking out this right eye you will see the better to go to heaven.”
It should be noted that there is available forgiveness in case of failure. While the Puritans have often been labeled as legalists, those who actually read Watson find that the people in the original audience would have been warmed by the pastoral appeal to grace found in every sermon or book. Watson encouraged those who were seeking to reform by offering them guidance to learn from their past mistakes: “When a wild beast gets over the hedge and hurts the corn, the farmer will make his fence stronger; so, when the devil gets over the fence by temptation, and foils a Christian, he will be sure to mend his fence, and be more vigilant against temptation afterwards.” Watson was also gracious towards his people in that he did not expect overnight change. As mentioned above, Watson saw the fight against sin as a lifelong war and not a short-term skirmish. The Christian’s goal should be either to improve in strength daily or to learn from failures.
In opposition to the problem of Christians sinning, Watson was also intentional to address those who were lost yet seemed to live lives of piety and generosity. Watson was willing to admit that sinful people have the ability to do good works and to even show characteristics of a saved person without actually having a saving knowledge of Christ. These he warned, “A piece of brass may shine, but, lacking the king’s image, it will not pass as currency. A man may shine with moral virtues, but lacking the image of God consisting in holiness he will not pass as currency at the Day of Judgment.” Watson was sure to make a clear distinction between those who are good outwardly and those who are truly born again. Although a sinner may fool people, including his church, he will not fool God on Judgment Day.
The Method of Fighting Sin
It must not be assumed that Watson believed that mere mental power and good choices were enough to fight sin. For him, believers carried no power in themselves except that which they received from God. The first way through which Christians received power was the intercessory prayers of Christ. Watson said, “This prayer [John 17], which he made on earth, is the copy and pattern of His prayer in heaven. What a comfort is this; when Satan is tempting, Christ is praying.” This prayer was mighty to secure the power of God to fight and conquer sin. Watson believed that the answer to this prayer came chiefly through the Word of God administered through the Holy Spirit. The Word was to be read, heard, memorized, discussed, and meditated on. If the believer put forth the effort to study God’s Word, he would be granted the necessary faith and power to fight off the thief who came to steal, kill and destroy.
When a community of people made this commitment to the Word, the result would be a church where no soldier would be fighting alone. The church became something of a hospital where wounds were bandaged, medicine was given, and encouragement was administered to go back into the world and continue the fight. Watson believed strongly in the power of the Word preached, the Word discussed, and the Word prayed. Concerning corporate prayer Watson argued, “If you had a child who was sick, you would beg the prayers of others. You have a soul that is sick, sick with pride and lust, sick unto death. Oh, beg the prayers of godly friends that God will heal you with His grace.” Watson believed that the fellowship of the Body was an important gift of God to fight off the temptations of the world. He encouraged his people to commit to this community of people instead of attaching themselves too often with friends who would only weigh them down in their travel to heaven.
The Joy of Fighting Sin
With all of the hatred and war language that Watson used, it might be easy to misunderstand him. Watson was not saying that the Christian life is one of pain and suffering with no joy mixed in. In fact, he preached that joy is to be found in pain and suffering because of the promise of the eternal reward of joy in Christ. Watson taught that God receives the most glory when His children are joyous and satisfied in their obedience to Him. About the correct use of the ordnances to fight sin, Watson wrote:
Would it not be an encouragement to a subject, to hear his prince say to him, “You will honour and please me very much, if you will go to yonder mine of gold, and dig as much gold for yourself as you can carry away”? So, for God to say, “Go to the ordinances, get as much grace as you can, dig out as much salvation as you can; and the more happiness you have, the more I shall count myself glorified.”
Watson saw the Christian’s happiness in God to be both an instrument of praise to God and an instrument of ridicule to the temptations of the devil. In finding satisfaction in Christ alone, the Christian was able to preach the gospel to a lost world. When the heart was made glad by knowing God and following Him, the Christian was given assurance and peace that they were truly united to Christ. In a powerful image of redemption and holiness Watson wrote:
“The condemning power of sin is taken away when the commanding power of it is taken away. We know our sins are forgiven when they are subdued. If a malefactor be in prison, how shall he know that his prince has pardoned him? If the jailor come and knock off his chains and fetters, and lets him out of prison, then he knows he is pardoned; so we know God has pardoned us when the fetters of sin are broken off, and we walk at liberty in the ways of God.”
Those whose thoughts and affections have been purified know that they have been transformed only by the grace and mercy of God. This is the sole source of joy in all of existence: to know God and be pardoned by Him. The example that Watson and his followers set directed those who were then searching for joy and meaning in the temporary pleasures of the world.
Watson on Death and Eternity
In direct opposition to the world’s perception of death, the Christian should have no fear about making the transition from a relationship with God on earth to a relationship with God in heaven. From Watson’s perspective, a Christian had nothing to loose but pain and suffering and nothing to gain but everlasting joy in seeing God as He truly is. The promises of God to His children concerning their exceedingly great reward should chase away all of their fear. All of this confidence in the face of death is derived from truly knowing God and making Him the focus of existence. The gospel is the message not only of being saved from hell but being promoted to the throne room of Christ:
No cause has a pardoned soul to fear death; what needs he fear to have his body buried in the earth who has his sins buried in Christ’s wounds? What hurt can death do to him? It is but his ferryman to ferry him over to the land of promise. The day of death to a pardoned soul is his ascension-day to heaven, his coronation-day, when he shall be crowned with those delights of paradise which are unspeakable and full of glory.
Not only should believers be confident on the day of death, they should actually anticipate it. In the moment that life ended, Watson anticipated that all pain would be removed. This removal of pain included persecution, depression, physical pain, and various other trials. For those who were suffering, Watson encouraged them in the following argument:
“O thou saint of God, who now hangest thy harp upon the willows, and minglest thy drink with weeping, in the kingdom of heaven thy water shall be turned into wine; thou shalt have so much felicity that thy soul cannot wish for more. The sea is not so full of water as the heart of a glorified saint is of joy. There can be no more sorrow in heaven than there is joy in hell.”
On that day, God would remove the cross and replace it with a crown. For Watson, the separation between friends and family at death was infinitely small in comparison to the time they would spend together with Christ after death. Instead of speaking about “loosing” someone, Watson encouraged his people by saying, “That only is lost which we have no hope ever of seeing again.” For him, this severance was more on scale with a friend going on a brief trip instead of moving away permanently.
Given Watson’s paradigm of the shallowness of life and the depth of eternity, he encouraged his people to commit their time to bearing fruit and storing up rewards for themselves in heaven. Instead of fretting about the unknown aspects of death, Watson urged his congregation to make use of what they did know. Of all the things that would pass away, the fruits of righteousness would endure through death and would last throughout eternity. He also warned his churches against the evils of idolatry. Earthly things, such as money and possessions, were given to them by God in order to aid their spiritual growth instead of impeding it. Possessions were to help the Christian preach the gospel and to help them on their way to heaven.
As stated above, Watson considered making the lost sad in their condition one of the toughest parts of his ministry. Like his own people, they failed to think about the shortness of life and the length of eternity. The main difference between the two was that the sinner had infinitely more to lose. Watson mourned the fact that so many of his countrymen sought to satisfy sinful appetites to the expense of eternal judgment. For him, death was the end of his comforts and only the beginning of sorrows. It is in this theme of his writings where some of his most vivid images can be found. Watson focused all of his creative efforts in trying to portray the desperation of lost and the wrath they would soon bear:
Oh eternity! If all the body of the earth and sea were turned to sand, and all the air up to the starry heaven were nothing but sand, and a little bird should come every thousand years, and fetch away in her bill but the tenth part of a grain of all that heap of sand, what numberless years would be spent before that vast heap of sand would be fetched away! Yet, if at the end of all that time, the sinner might come out of hell, there would be some hope; but that word “Ever” breaks the heart.
Considering the themes of this article, the most practical application that can be proposed is to read books by Thomas Watson and be challenged to think about the character and power of God. Many of his books are either still in print or are coming back into print. They are filled with solid exegesis, brilliant illustrations, and soul-satisfying theology. Readers will come away better informed about God and challenged to live a more holy life.
Another application that could be made is to consider Watson’s treatment of theology as medicine. When a member or portion of his flock was struggling, he was prepared to address them with the Word. Each problem in the church had a corresponding theological solution. Watson’s first priority was for the development of the mind for God. If his people could discipline their minds to think correctly, all other necessary actions would fall into place. For him, appeals to the emotions were only powerful if they were backed with the truth. This is seen most clearly in his collection of sermons on the Westminster Catechism. That book continues to be one of the best-selling books for the Banner of Truth publishing group.
One strategy that pastors could observe from Watson was his use of illustrations. He was constantly increasing his knowledge of all subjects and always had fresh examples with which to aid his communication. From reading Watson’s sermons and books, it seems as if he believed that if he could increase the diversity of his illustrations, each listener would find at least one example that would make sense to him. From botany to life at sea, Watson saw all of history as one large picture of the goodness and power of God. Every day presented new opportunities for him to pick up new weapons with which to pierce the hearts of his people. This is one application that Charles Spurgeon made from his reading in Watson. Spurgeon considered Watson to be one of the most influential writers for his ministry. From him, Spurgeon learned to stimulate the hearts of his people for God by presenting them with vivid illustrations to contemplate. At the end of his life, Spurgeon had several books full of illustrations, quotes, and stories that could be used to foster theological growth.
Finally, readers of Watson should seek to imitate his confidence in the sovereignty of God. When Watson wrote of the saints’ belief in the promises of God, he was writing from personal experience. Whether he was opposing a powerful political leader or trusting God in the midst of burying several of his young children, Watson truly believed that God was working all things for his good. He had an intimate, childlike knowledge of his heavenly Father and rested satisfied in His grace and protection. Watson entered eternity certain of his fate because he had spent so much time in worshiping God with his life. n
1 Even as late as March of 2009, more books are coming back into print after hundreds of years. Some of the key publishers are The Banner of Truth Trust (whose first title after its founding in 1957 was Watson’s A Body of Divinity), Soli Deo Gloria, The Northampton Press, Christian Focus, and Christian Heritage.
2 In order to concentrate mainly on the events that directly shaped Watson, a comprehensive history of Puritanism will not be given here. For a more detail summary, see Martin Lloyd-Jones, The Puritans: Their Origins and Successors : Addresses Delivered at the Puritan and Westminster Conferences 1959-1978 (Edinburgh, [Lothian]: Banner of Truth Trust, 1987), and Kelly M. Kapic and Randall C. Gleason, The Devoted Life: An Invitation to the Puritan Classics (Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 2004).
3 Lloyd-Jones, The Puritans, 239-40.
5 Kapic and Gleason, The Devoted Life, 21-22
6 Lloyd-Jones, The Puritans, 239.
7 Kapic and Gleason, The Devoted Life, 18.
8 The history of this strife will not be recounted here. For a summary see Kapic and Gleason, The Devoted Life.
9 This story can be found in various books from various points of view. For a shortened view see Kapic and Gleason, The Devoted Life, 201.
11 David W. Bailey, “The Witticism as an Element of Style in the Preaching of Thomas Watson, 1998,” (An unpublished manuscript presented to the Evangelical Theological Society in Orlando, FL. Used by permission of the author), 2.
12 Although he was an extremely brilliant man and preached impressive sermons, he was always aware of his audience. He intended to push his people to think grand thoughts of God, but he was also aware that he had to preach so that believers at all levels of spiritual growth could understand him. In an address given at the funeral of one of his fellow pastors, Watson said, “He preached intelligibly to the capacity of his assembly of hearers because he was sure that a minister would never touch the hearts of his hearers if he shot over their heads.” Thomas Watson, “Time’s Shortness” in The Duty of Self-Denial and 10 Other Sermons (Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 1996), 79.
13 Thomas Watson, A Body of Divinity in Sermons Upon the Westminster Assembly’s Catechism (London: Banner of Truth Trust, 1965), 2.
14 Thomas Watson, The Godly Man’s Picture, Drawn with a Scripture Pencil, or, Some Characteristic Marks of a Man Who Is Going to Heaven (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1992), 155.
15 “A good preacher, but a bad liver, is like a physician who has the plague: though the advice and prescriptions he gives may be good, yet his plague infects the patient.” Thomas Watson, “The Preciousness of the Soul” in Thomas Watson: Pastor of St. Stephen’s Walbook, London, ed. Don Kistler (Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 2004), 101.
16 To be fair, the Catholic Church which Watson battled most of his life was not the progressive Catholic Church of today. In almost all of his technical theology sermons/books, Watson attempts to show negative examples of abuses of Papal authority. He even delivered an entire sermon on “Roman Catholicism.” His main text was 1 Corinthians 10:14 — “Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry.”
17 “It is not the receiving of meat into the mouth, but the digesting of it that makes it nutritive.” Thomas Watson, Heaven Taken by Storm: Or, The Holy Violence a Christian Is to Put Forth in the Pursuit After Glory, ed. Don Kistler (Orlando, FL: Northampton Press, 2007), 34. Also “The Word must not only fall as dew that wets the leaf, but as rain which soaks to the root of the tree which makes it fruitful.” Thomas Watson, The Art of Divine Contentment (Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 1995), 4.
18 “The reason our affections are so chilled and cold in religion is that we do not warm them with the thoughts of God. Hold a magnifying glass to the sun, and the glass burns that which is near to it. So when our thoughts are lifted up to Christ, the Sun of righteousness, our affections are set on fire.” Thomas Watson, All Things for Good (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1986), 86-87.
19 These are currently printed by the Banner of Truth publishing trust in three volumes: A Body of Divinity, The Ten Commandments, and The Lord’s Prayer.
20 “Oh, how far are they from being lovers of God, who scarcely ever think of God.” Watson, All Things for Good, 74.
21 Ibid., 88.
22 “How far are they from loving God, who are not at all affected with His dishonour? A man who is dead drunk, never minds nor is affected by it, though another be bleeding to death by him; so, many, being drunk with the wine of prosperity, when the honour of God is wounded and His truths lie a bleeding, are not affected by it.” Thomas Watson, All Things for Good, 77.
23 Thomas Watson, The Doctrine of Repentance (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1987), 53.
24 Watson, The Godly Man’s Picture, 245.
25 Thomas Watson, The Lord’s Prayer (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1982), 234. Watson goes on to say, “Man’s sin in comparison of God’s mercy is but as a spark to the ocean; and who would doubt whether a spark could be quenched in an ocean.” Earlier in the book, Watson writes, “What though thy sins have been heinous? The wound is not so broad as the plaister of Christ’s blood. The sea covers great rocks; the sea of God’s compassion can drown thy great sins; therefore be not discouraged, go to God, resolve to cast thyself upon His Fatherly compassion” (p.15).
26 Thomas Watson, “The Soul’s Malady and Cure” in Thomas Watson, 179.
27 As will be argued later in the paper, Watson did not use this doctrine of forgiveness as a means to live sinfully. In fact, Watson wrote an entire book on the correct, biblical way to repent.
28 “He who is humbled for sin will value pardoning mercy the more. When there is nothing in the soul but clouds of sorrow, and now God brings a pardon–which is a setting up of a rainbow in the cloud, to tell the sinner that the flood of wrath shall not overflow him–oh, what joy there is at the sight of this rainbow.” Thomas Watson, The Godly Man’s Picture, 10.
29 Watson, All Things for Good, 8.
30 This seems to be the biblical way of viewing suffering. The Bible has much to say about the glory of God in persecution, but the reader also sees the stories of the blind man (John 9:2-3) and Lazarus (John 11). Both of them suffered not at the hands of persecutors, but of “natural causes.” Yet, Christ says that they were both put in their respective situations so that the glory of God might be advanced.
31 “God has one Son without sin, but no son without stripes.” Thomas Watson, The Lord’s Prayer, 177.
32 Thomas Watson, The Lord’s Prayer, 177 The silver and jewels are sometimes cast overboard to save the passenger.” Watson, The Art of Divine Contentment, 35.
33 “If a husband bestows a jewel on his wife, and she so falls in love with that jewel as to forget her husband he will take away the jewel so that her love may return to him again If we begin to idolize it, God will take away the jewel so that our love may return to him.” Watson, The Godly Man’s Picture, 122.
34 Watson, The Lord’s Prayer, 27. “The worst that God does to His children is to whip them to heaven.” Watson, All Things for Good, 32.
35 Watson, The Doctrine of Repentance, 50.
36 “What though he wants other things, is not Christ enough? If a man hath sunshine, he doth not complain he wants the light of a candle.” Thomas Watson, “Christ All in All” in Harmless As Doves (Fearn (Ross-shire): Christian Focus, 1993), 93.
37 Watson, The Art of Divine Contentment, 17.
38 Watson, The Lord’s Prayer, 280.
39 Thomas Watson, Puritan Gems, or, Wise and Holy Sayings of the Rev. Thomas Watson, ed. John Adey (London: J. Snow, Ward and Co., 1850), 29-30. “A bee may sting through the skin, but it cannot sting to the heart. Outward afflictions cannot sting to a Christian’s heart where contentment lies. Thieves may plunder us of our money and silver, but not of this pearl of contentment, unless we are willing to part with it; for it is locked up in the cabinet of the heart. The soul which is possessed of this rich treasure of contentment is like Noah in the ark, who can sing in the midst of a deluge.” Watson, The Art of Divine Contentment, 20.
40 Watson, The Doctrine of Repentance, 8.
41 Watson, Heaven Taken by Storm, 69.
42 Watson, “The Righteous Man’s Weal and the Wicked Man’s Woe” in The Duty of Self-Denial, 56.
43 Watson, The Doctrine of Repentance, 81.
44 An adaptation of Watson quote “Christ is never loved till sin be loathed.” Also “So, let us say, Is not this the sin that poured out Christ’s blood? Let out hearts be enraged against sin, When the Senators of Rome showed the people Caesar’s bloody robe, they were incensed against them who slew him. Sin has rent the white robe of Christ’s flesh, and dyed it a crimson colour; let us seek to be avenged of our sins. Under the law, if an ox gored a man, so that he died, the ox was to be killed. Sin has pierced and gored our Saviour: let it die the death. What a pity it is that that should live which would not suffer Christ to live!” Watson, The Lord’s Supper, 29.
45 “They who pray that they may not be led into temptation must not lead themselves into temptation.” Watson, Heaven Taken by Storm, 13.
46 Watson, The Lord’s Prayer, 118. It should be noted that Watson does not take the story in context or raise the main point of the story. In face, that was not his goal. Watson is not arguing that Uriah was sinful or that he deserved to be sent to the front. He believed that his people would be familiar with the story and that he could use the image of being on the front line to describe the believer’s attitude toward sin. Watson does this numerous times in his writings.
47 I am not here arguing that there is no room for critique of the Puritans. Certainly there were pastors, as in every generation, who beat their sheep too often when they should have been nursed and fed. Unfortunately, many contemporary readers make hasty judgments on all Puritans based only on anecdotal evidence instead of actually giving them a chance.
48 Watson, The Lord’s Prayer, 291.
49 “Oh, that every day some limb of the old man may drop off!” Thomas Watson, The Mischief of Sin (Morgan, PA: Soli Deo Gloria Publications, 1994), 50-51.
50 Watson, The Duty of Self-Denial, 9. “Let not any man say he is called of God, that lives in sin. Has God called you to be a swearer, to be a drunkard? Nay, let not the merely moral person say he is effectually called. What is civility without sanctity? It is but a dead carcass strewed with flowers.” Watson, All Things for Good, 108.
51 Watson, All Things for Good, 23.
52 “He who travels a road where there is robbing will be sure to ride with his sword; we are traveling to heaven, and in this road there is a thief who always besets us in every place where we go.” Watson, The Lord’s Prayer, 295. Don’t miss the sword imagery here.
53 Watson, “The Beauty of Grace” in Thomas Watson, 91.
54 “If you mingle bright and rusty metal together, the rusty metal will not be made bright, but the bright will become rusty. So an evil companion who is rusted with sin will always rub some of his unholy rust upon a man who is bright with grace.” Watson, “Spiritual Watch” in Thomas Watson, 215. This is not to say that Watson was in favor of total separation from the world. He himself sought opportunities to influence the lost and share Christ with them. He was concerned more that his people would be influenced instead of doing the influence.
55 Watson, A Body of Divinity, 14. While the idea behind “Christian Hedonism” is as old as Christianity itself, it has become more popular for the current generation through the ministries of such men as John Piper and C.J. Mahaney. Both of these men, and everyone else who advocates the paradigm, willingly admit that these ideas are not new to them. The development and articulation of this system can be traced back to the Puritans. Watson also comments on the happiness of obeying God by saying, “To a saint, Christ’s laws are no more burdensome than wings to a bird.” Watson, The Lord’s Prayer, 114.
56 Watson, The Lord’s Prayer, 239. If there is one quote or image that contemporary authors and speakers use from Watson, this is it.
57 “Death may take away a few worldly comforts, but it gives that which is better; it takes away a flower and gives a jewel; it takes away a short lease and gives land of inheritance. If the saints possess a kingdom when they die, they have no cause to fear death. A prince would not be afraid to cross the sea, though tempestuous, if he were sure to be crowned as soon as he came to shore.” Watson, The Lord’s Prayer, 101.
58 Watson, The Lord’s Prayer, 246-247.
59 Ibid., 87. Watson also wrote, “Death is the handkerchief to wipe away all tears.” Watson, “The Saints Desire to Be with Christ” in Thomas Watson, 114.
60 Watson, The Godly Man’s Picture, 122.
61 “Death, like a whirlwind, may blow down the tree of the body, but it cannot blast the fruit of our graces. The trees of righteousness carry their fruit with them.” Watson, “The Trees of Righteousness Blossoming” in Thomas Watson, 205.
62 “Let us so possess things temporal, that we do not lose things eternal.” Watson, The Lord’s Prayer, 104. Also “Water is useful to the ship and helps it to sail better to the haven, but let the water get into the ship, if it is not pumped out, it drowns the ship. So riches are useful and convenient for our passage. We sail more comfortably with them through the troubles of this world; but if the water gets into the ship, if the love of riches gets into the heart, then we are drowned by them.” Watson, “A Christian in Heaven Still on Earth” in Thomas Watson, 13.
63 Watson, A Body of Divinity, 63. Concerning hell, Watson also wrote, “No, if the damned had lain in hell as many thousand years as there are drops in the sea, eternity as yet to begin.” Watson, All Things for Good, 153.
64 Watson, A Body of Divinity, back cover.
65 Charles Spurgeon, “A Brief Memoir of Thomas Watson” in A Body of Divinity, vii-xii.