I found myself in my favorite used bookstore, going through my usual routine. Scanning the shelves, finding my favorite sections, picking through the titles, pulling some out to look at the prices or endorsements, putting most back, keeping a couple. I laid eyes on a Puritan Paperback. One of my favorite book series of all, a collection of some of the greatest Puritan writings compiled by Banner of Truth. The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment by Jeremiah Burroughs. I pulled it out to check its price and what condition it was in. A good price. I opened the front cover and found the title page, and there I found a message from the previous owner of this book:
“Read with caution!”
Mark’s reminder gave me a smile/laugh at first. I was happy to see that he was alerting readers that this book was going to pack a punch. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized how utterly serious this caution was.
I love the Puritans. Sibbes. Owen. Rutherford. Flavel. Boston. Goodwin. Bunyan. Watson. Many more. The names alone carry with them a whole slew of feelings. When I hear these names, I am immediately reminded of the richness of their writings. I remember their various quotes and phrases that stick with me along the way. I am intimidated by the size and the precision of their works. I marvel at how God used them individually to build His church. As a student of theology, I find myself craving opportunities to read works by these men. I just bought Sibbes’ complete works, for example, and just finished Lloyd-Jones’ book on the Puritans.
But Mark is onto something. The Puritans are not merely treasures to be marveled at. Yes, the Puritan Paperbacks collection looks incredible on a bookshelf, like a work of art highlighting some of the most important works in church history. But if our theological study is only meant to be a showcase, or to help us fill our social media queue, I think we have missed the point. What Mark means by “read with caution” is simple: He’s asserting that Burroughs not only is a good writer, but that Burroughs means what he says.
Theology is a serious business. It is not a good hobby, because it is not something we can merely pick up and put down as we wish. It is not something we can do, unconsciously, to pass the time, like a dice game. The Puritans are not speaking candidly about insignificant issues, but carefully about eternal issues. These letters and works were not written for the sake of a nicely-Instagrammed bookshelf, but for the earnest care of our souls. We read theology, we read the Puritans, not because we want to impress or look the part, but because we want these writings to truly help shape us into men and women who know and love God.
“Read with caution” reminded me that next time I come to a wonderful John Owen quote, or Samuel Rutherford letter, I need to do some introspection. Many times I have skipped this step, immediately jumping to tweet a great line or update my index of quotes or underlining in my book and moving on. But these words on these pages are not a superficial novel. These words should bring me pause. “How does this apply to me?” “How are these words confronting my sin?” “How can I change in light of what he is saying here?” To do this is to profit from studying the works of these great men.
“For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?” (Mark 8:36)