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Why Pastors Should Engage the Puritan, Thomas Goodwin

Like everyone who loves Puritan writings, I love John Owen’s (1616–1683) Works. But unlike most Puritan readers, I suppose, I have learned more and been fed in the depths of my soul more by Thomas Goodwin (1600–1679) than by John Owen. Consequently, Goodwin would be my number one choice of a Puritan pastor that pastors today should engage with. His insightful exegesis, doctrinal precision, experiential depth, and pastoral warmth are extraordinary.

The first collection of Goodwin’s works was published in five folio volumes in London from 1681 to 1704, under the editorship of Thankful Owen, Thomas Baron, and Thomas Goodwin Jr. An abridged version of those works was later printed in four volumes (London, 1847–50). James Nichol printed a more reliable collection of Goodwin’s works in twelve volumes (Edinburgh, 1861–66) in the Nichol’s Series of Standard Divines. It is far superior to the original five folio volumes and was reprinted in 2006 by Reformation Heritage Books. You will never be sorry for buying, reading, and praying over Thomas Goodwin’s remarkable writings. By God’s grace, your soul and ministry will be the better for doing so. Click To Tweet

Goodwin’s exegesis is massive; he leaves no stone unturned. His first editors (1681) said of his work: “He had a genius to dive into the bottom of points, to ‘study them down,’ as he used to express it, not contenting himself with superficial knowledge, without wading into the depths of things.”[1] Calamy said: “It is evident from his writings [that] he studied not words, but things. His style is plain and familiar; but very diffuse, homely and tedious.”[2] One does need patience to read Goodwin; however, along with depth and prolixity, he offers a wonderful sense of warmth and experience. A reader’s patience will be amply rewarded.

Reading Goodwin’s Works

Here is a plan for reading Goodwin’s works.

1. Begin by reading some of the shorter, more practical writings of Goodwin, such as Patience and Its Perfect Work, which includes four sermons on James 1:1–5. This book was written after much of Goodwin’s personal library was destroyed by fire (Works, 2:429–67). It contains much practical instruction on the spirit of submission—a grace that pastors desperately need, especially in the challenging pastoral ministry of our day with all of its disappointments!

2. Read Certain Select Cases Resolved, which offers three experiential treatises that reveal Goodwin’s pastoral heart for afflicted Christians. Each deals with specific struggles in the believer’s soul: (a) “A Child of Light Walking in Darkness” encourages the spiritually depressed based on Isaiah 50:10–11 (3:241–350). The subtitle summarizes its contents: “A Treatise Shewing The Causes by which, The Cases wherein, and the Ends for which, God Leaves His Children to Distress of Conscience, Together with Directions How to Walk so as to Come Forth of Such a Condition.” (b) “The Return of Prayers,” based on Psalm 85:8, is a uniquely practical work. It offers help in ascertaining “God’s answers to our prayers” (3:353–429). (c) “The Trial of a Christian’s Growth” (3:433–506), based on John 15:1–2, centers on sanctification, specifically mortification and vivification. This is a mini-classic on spiritual growth.

You might also read The Vanity of Thoughts, based on Jeremiah 4:14 (3:509–528). This work, often republished in paperback, stresses the need to bring every thought captive to Christ. It also describes ways to foster that obedience.

3. As pastors, read some of Goodwin’s great sermons. They are strong, biblical, Christological, and experiential (2:359–425; 4:151–224; 5:439–548; 7:473–576; 9:499–514; 12:1–127).

Goodwin’s Works that Explain Major Doctrines

4. Delve into Goodwin’s works that explain major doctrines, such as:

(a) An Unregenerate Man’s Guiltiness Before God in Respect of Sin and Punishment (10:1–567). This is a weighty treatise on human guilt, corruption, and the imputation and punishment of sin. In exposing the total depravity of the natural man’s heart, this book aims to produce a heartfelt need for saving faith in Christ.

(b) The Object and Acts of Justifying Faith (8:1–593). This is a frequently reprinted classic on faith. Part 1, on the objects of faith, focuses on God’s nature, Christ, and the free grace of God revealed in His absolute promises. Part 2 deals with the acts of faith: what it means to believe in Christ, to obtain assurance, to find joy in the Holy Ghost, and to make use of God’s electing love. One section beautifully explains the “actings of faith in prayer.” Part 3 addresses the properties of faith: their excellence in giving all honor to God and Christ, their difficulty in reaching beyond the natural abilities of man, their necessity in requiring us to believe in the strength of God. The conclusion provides “directions to guide us in our endeavours to believe.”

(c) Christ the Mediator (2 Cor. 5:18–19), Christ Set Forth (Rom. 8:34), and The Heart of Christ in Heaven Towards Sinners on Earth are great works on Christology (5:1–438; 4:1–92; 4:93–150). Christ the Mediator presents Jesus in His substitutionary work of humiliation. It is a classic that God used greatly in my life as a teenager. Christ Set Forth proclaims Christ in His exaltation, and The Heart of Christ explores the tenderness of Christ’s glorified human nature shown on earth. Paul Cook says Goodwin is unparalleled “in his combination of intellectual and theological power with evangelical and homiletical comfort.”[3]

(d) Gospel Holiness in Heart and Life (7:129–336) is based on Philippians 1:9–11. It explains the doctrine of sanctification in every sphere of life.

(e) The Knowledge of God the Father, and His Son Jesus Christ (4:347–569), combined with The Work of the Holy Spirit (6:1–522), explore the profound work in the believer’s soul of the three divine persons. The Work of the Spirit is particularly helpful for understanding the doctrines of regeneration and conversion. It carefully distinguishes the work of “the natural conscience” from the Spirit’s saving work.

(f) The Glory of the Gospel (4:227–346) consists of two sermons and a treatise based on Colossians 1:26–27. It should be read along with The Blessed State of Glory Which the Saints Possess After Death (7:339–472), based on Revelation 14:13.

(g) A Discourse of Election (9:1–498) delves into issues such as the supralapsarian-infralapsarian debate, which wrestles with the moral or rational order of God’s decrees. It also deals with the fruits of election (e.g., see Book IV on 1 Peter 5:10 and Book V on how God fulfills His covenant of grace in the generations of believers).

(h) The Creatures and the Condition of Their State by Creation (7:1–128) is Goodwin’s most philosophical work.

5. Prayerfully and slowly digest Goodwin’s nine-hundred-plus-page exposition of Ephesians 1:1 to 2:11 (1:1–564; 2:1–355). Alexander Whyte wrote of this work, “Not even Luther on the Galatians is such an expositor of Paul’s mind and heart as is Goodwin on the Ephesians.”[4]

6. Save for last Goodwin’s exposition of Revelation (3:1–226) and his only polemical work, The Constitution, Right Order, and Government of the Churches of Christ (11:1–546). Independents would highly value this polemic, while Presbyterians probably would not, saying Goodwin is trustworthy on nearly every subject except church government. Goodwin’s work does not degrade Presbyterians, however. A contemporary who argued against Goodwin’s view on church government confessed that Goodwin conveyed “a truly great and noble spirit” throughout the work.

You will never be sorry for buying, reading, and praying over Thomas Goodwin’s remarkable writings. By God’s grace, your soul and ministry will be the better for doing so.


[1] For the reprinting of the original preface, see The Works of Thomas Goodwin (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2006), 1:xxix–xxxii.

[2] Edmund Calamy, The Nonconformist’s Memorial, ed. Samuel Palmer (London: Alex. Hogg, 1778), 1:186.

[3] Paul Cook, “Thomas Goodwin—Mystic?” in Diversities of Gifts (London: Westminster Conference, 1981), 45–56.

[4] Alexander Whyte, Thirteen Appreciations (Edinburgh: Oliphant, Anderson & Ferrier, 1913), 162.

Joel R. Beeke

Joel R. Beeke (PhD, Westminster Theological Seminary) is President and Professor of Systematic Theology and Homiletics at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary and a Pastor of the Heritage Reformed Congregation in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He has authored or coauthored one hundred books and edited another one hundred titles including A Puritan Theology, Meet the PuritansReformed Preaching, and Puritan Evangelism

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