[Reformation Heritage Books has graciously provided this biographical and reprint essay on the life and works of John Flavel. You can find this information and others in the book, Meet the Puritans.]

Thomas Watson (1620-1686)

Thomas Watson was probably born in Yorkshire. He studied at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, earning a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1639 and a Master of Arts degree in 1642. During his time at Cambridge, Watson was a dedicated scholar. After completing his studies, Watson lived for a time with the Puritan family of Lady Mary Vere, the widow of Sir Horace Vere, baron of Tilbury. In 1646, Watson went to St. Stephen’s, Walbrook, London, where he served as lecturer for about ten years, and as rector for another six years, filling the place of Ralph Robinson.

In about 1647, Watson married Abigail Beadle, daughter of John Beadle, an Essex minister of Puritan convictions. They had at least seven children in the next thirteen years; four of them died young.

During the Civil War, Watson began expressing his strong Presbyterian views. He had sympathy for the king, however. He was one of the Presbyterian ministers who went to Oliver Cromwell to protest the execution of Charles I. Along with Christopher Love, William Jenkyn, and others, he was imprisoned in 1651 for his part in a plot to restore the monarchy. Although Love was beheaded, Watson and the others were released after petitioning for mercy. Watson was formally reinstated to his pastorate in Walbrook in 1652.

When the Act of Uniformity passed in 1662, Watson was ejected from his pastorate. He continued to preach in private—in barns, homes, and woods—whenever he had the opportunity. In 1666, after the Great Fire of London, Watson prepared a large room for public worship, welcoming anyone who wished to attend. After the Declaration of Indulgence took effect in 1672, Watson obtained a license for Crosby Hall, Bishopsgate, which belonged to Sir John Langham, a patron of nonconformists. Watson preached there for three years before Stephen Charnock joined him. They ministered together until Charnock’s death in 1680. Watson kept working until his health failed. He then retired to Barnston, in Essex, where he died suddenly in 1686 while engaged in private prayer. He is buried in the same grave as his father-in-law who served as a minister at Barnston.

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. His books are still widely read today.

All Things for Good (BTT; 128 pages; 1988).

Watson once said he faced two great difficulties in his ministry: to make the unbeliever sad without grace and to make the believer glad with grace. In this study of Romans 8:28, formerly titled A Divine Cordial (first printed in 1663, one year after two thousand ministers were ejected from the Church of England), Watson encourages God’s people to rejoice. He explains how the best and worst experiences work for good. He writes, “To know that nothing hurts the godly, is a matter of comfort; but to be assured that all things which fall out shall co-operate for their good, that their crosses shall be turned into blessings, that showers of affliction water the withering root of their grace and make it flourish more; this may fill their hearts with joy till they run over.”

If someone asks, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” or “How can I know if I am called by God?,” offer them this book. Its chapters on the love of God, effectual calling, and the purpose of God are especially helpful in understanding Romans 8:28. Chapter 5, on the “tests of love to God,” is particularly searching.

The Art of Divine Contentment (SDG; 133 pages; 2001).

Watson’s works are all marked by profound spirituality, terse style, impressive remarks, and practical illustrations. This book, first printed in 1653, is no exception. Based on Philippians 4:11, “I have learned, in whatsoever state I am therewith to be content,” Watson writes, “For my part, I know not any ornament in religion that doth more bespangle a Christian, or glitter in the eye of God and man, than this of contentment. Nor certainly is there anything wherein all the Christian virtues do work more harmoniously, or shine more transparently, than in this orb. If there is a blessed life before we come to heaven, it is the contented life.”

Godly contentment is a theme missing from many pulpits today. A serious reading of this treatise or Jeremiah Burroughs’s Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment would do much to fill this void.

The Beatitudes (BTT; 307 pages; 1971).

First published in 1660, this exposition of Matthew 5:1-12 is rich with instruction. For example, in explaining the blessedness of meekness (5:5), Watson explains meekness towards God as submission to His will and flexibility to His Word. Meekness towards man, he says, involves bearing injuries, forgiving injuries, and recompensing good for evil. In bearing injuries, meekness opposes a hasty spirit, malice, revenge, and speaking evil of others. In forgiving injuries, meekness forgives truly, fully, and often. In recompensing good for evil, Watson says, “To render evil for evil is brutish; to render evil for good is devilish; to render good for evil is Christian.” He offers numerous reasons why Christians should be meek, such as: Jesus Christ is meek; meekness is a great ornament to a Christian; meekness is the way to be like God; meekness argues a noble and excellent spirit; meekness is the best way to conquer and melt the heart of an enemy; meekness contains great promises, for the meek shall inherit the earth; and an un-meek spirit hinders peace. All of this is cogently explained in a mere fifteen pages (pp. 105–119).

A Body of Divinity (BTT; 316 pages; 1998).

This book, first published after Watson’s death in 1692, was his magnum opus and became his most famous work. Following the question-and-answer format of the Westminster Shorter Catechism, it offers 176 sermons on the essential teachings of Christianity. It shows the author’s deep understanding of spiritual truths and his ability to make them clear to anyone. Unlike most other systematic theologies, it weds knowledge and piety together, and can be used effectively in daily devotions. It is perhaps the most experiential systematic theology ever written, with the exception of Wilhelmus à Brakel’s The Christian’s Reasonable Service.

The Lord’s Prayer and The Ten Commandments (cf. below) complete Watson’s exposition of the Shorter Catechism. This trilogy on the Shorter Catechism has been reprinted often over the centuries in one or three volumes.

The Duty of Self-Denial and Ten Other Sermons (SDG; 210 pages; 2001).

This book includes eight chapters on self-denial, based on Luke 9:23, and ten additional sermons, seven of which have not been reprinted since the seventeenth century. Watson teaches that “self-denial is the first principle of Christianity.” He describes what self-denial is, then demonstrates the Christ-asserting nature of every self-denying act. The additional sermons in this volume are also valuable, particularly those on God as the reward of His people (Gen. 15:1), “kissing” the Son (Ps. 2:12), the comforting rod (Ps. 23:4), and the Judgment Day (Acts 17:31).

The Fight of Faith Crowned (SDG; 191 pages; 1996).

This book contains six sermons that had not yet been reprinted in the twentieth century. They include “The Crown of Righteousness” (2 Tim. 4:8), “The Righteous Man’s Weal and the Wicked Man’s Woe” (Isa. 3:10–11), “Time’s Shortness” (a funeral sermon for the Puritan preacher John Wells, based on 1 Cor. 7:29), “The Fight of Faith Crowned” (a funeral sermon for Henry Stubbs, based on 1 Tim. 4:7–8), “A Plea for Alms” (Ps. 112:9), and “The One Thing Necessary” (Phil. 2:12). The last sermon strips away every excuse for not seeking God and pleads that we bow to the demands of the gospel. Watson concludes by explaining six helps for working out one’s salvation: Christ’s strength, diligence, love, humility, hope, and prayer.

Gleanings from Thomas Watson (SDG; 144 pages; 2001).

This work offers quotations from Watson’s writings. It sorts them according to fifteen areas of the believer’s walk with Christ, including contentment, persecution, temptation, preaching, prayer, and meditation. Watson had the gift of presenting profound doctrinal truth in vivid images and colorful metaphors that are particularly memorable.

Here are a few samples:

• He who is ashamed of Christ is a shame to Christ.
• Worldly sorrows hasten our funerals.
• They that bear the cross patiently shall wear the crown triumphantly.

The Godly Man’s Picture (BTT; 252 pages; 1992).

This work is subtitled Drawn with a Scripture Pencil, or, Some Characteristics of a Man who is Going to Heaven. After explaining the nature of godliness, Watson describes twenty-four marks of a godly man, including “moved by faith,” “fired with love,” “prizes Christ,” “loves the Word,” “is humble,” “is patient,” and “loves the saints.” The concluding chapters offer helps to godliness, advice on how to persevere in godliness, counsel and comfort for the godly, and teaching on the mystical union between Christ and His people.

Harmless as Doves: A Puritan’s View of the Christian Life (CFP; 188 pages; 1994).

This book contains ten excellent sermons that provide a biblical picture of practical Christian living. They include “Christian Prudence and Innocency,” “On Becoming A New Creature,” “The Evil Tongue,” “Not Being Weary in Well-Doing,” “On Knowing God and Doing Good,” “Christ All in All,” “The Preciousness of the Soul,” “The Soul’s Malady and Cure,” “The Beauty of Grace,” and “The Trees of Righteousness Blossoming.” These sermons reveal Watson’s colorful and compelling style of preaching. They are experiential and practical and make excellent devotional reading.

Heaven Taken by Storm (SDG; 135 pages; 1992).

This is an excellent handbook—perhaps the best ever written—on how to use the various means of grace. Based on Matthew 11:12, Watson describes how the Christian is to take the kingdom of heaven by holy violence through the reading and exposition of Scripture, prayer, meditation, self-examination, conversation, and keeping the Lord’s Day. He explains how the believer is to battle against self, Satan, and the world, and counters objections and hindrances to offering such violence. An appendix to the book includes two additional sermons: “The Happiness of Drawing Near to God” and “How We May Read the Scriptures with Most Spiritual Profit.”

This book helped lead Colonel James Gardiner (1688–1745) as well as many others to conversion. It is an excellent book to give to those who want to start reading the Puritans.

The Lord’s Prayer (BTT; 332 pages; 1994).

Originally produced as a companion to A Body of Divinity on the Shorter Catechism, Watson continues the question-and-answer format to explain the petitions of Jesus’ model prayer. In our opinion, this book matches Herman Witsius’s The Lord’s Prayer in usefulness. Witsius’s work is more deliberate and theological, while Watson’s is more devotional and practical.

The Mischief of Sin (SDG; 176 pages; 1994).

This is Watson’s most definitive treatment of sin. It includes four parts: “The Mischief of Sin,” “The Desperateness of Sinners,” “An Alarm to Sinners,” and “Hell’s Furnace Heated Hotter.” “The Mystery of the Lord’s Supper” is included in an appendix.

John MacArthur writes, “Thomas Watson’s study of sin is profound, convicting, thought-provoking, and filled with rich spiritual insight. It distills the best attributes of Puritan writing. As devotional as it is doctrinal, as practical as it is biblically sound, and as delightful as it is convicting, this books cuts to the very heart of the biblical issues regarding sin. You cannot read it and remain indifferent toward sin in your own life.”

A Plea for the Godly and Other Sermons (SDG; 480 pages; 1997).

This collection containing some of Watson’s best work includes: “Comfort for the Church,” “The Happiness of Drawing Near to God,” “The Tongue, a World of Iniquity,” “The Mystical Temple,” “Christ All in All,” “The Perfume of Love,” “A New Creature,” “The Heavenly Race,” “The Fiery Serpents,” and Watson’s farewell sermon.

The Puritan Pulpit: Thomas Watson (c.1620–1686) (SDG; 233 pages; 2004).

This book, the second in the Puritan Pulpit Series, is a collection of ten sermons not found in any other work of Watson’s in print today: “A Christian on Earth Still in Heaven,” “Christ’s Loveliness,” “God’s Anatomy Upon Man’s Heart,” “The Beauty of Grace,” “The Preciousness of the Soul,” “The Saint’s Desire to be with Christ,” “The Saint’s Spiritual Delight,” “The Soul’s Malady and Cure,” “The Tree of Righteousness Blossoming and Bringing Forth Fruit,” and “The Spiritual Watch.” These sermons are vintage Watson—pastoral and easy to understand, rich with illustration and abounding in application.

Religion Our True Interest (BB; 144 pages; 1992).

This work consists of Watson’s notes on Malachi 3:16–18. It offers helpful teaching on religious conversation, God-centered thinking, God’s disposition toward His people, and the fear of God, which Watson defines as “reverencing and adoring God’s holiness, and setting ourselves always under His sacred inspection.” Today, we’re sorely in need of such teaching, for too many people who call themselves Christians lack this mark of grace, which Watson calls “the best certificate to show for heaven” though “the fear of God is not our plea, yet [it is] our evidence for heaven.”

The covenant-keeping character of God is evident as Watson explains God’s promise “They shall be mine” from the book of Malachi. Believers belong to God, Watson says, but God and all His riches also belong to believers. God says, “My wisdom shall be yours to teach you, my holiness shall be yours to sanctify you, my mercy shall be yours to save you,” to which Watson responds, “What richer dowry than deity? God is a whole ocean of blessedness. If there is enough in Him to fill the angels, then surely He has enough to fill us.” This book is rich fare for the encouraging, enlightening, and admonishing of believers.

Sermons of Thomas Watson (SDG; 745 pages; 1997).

This work was originally titled Discourses on Interesting and Important Subjects, being the Select Works of the Reverend Thomas Watson (2 volumes). With the exception of The Beatitudes, this reprint puts everything in the original two volumes under one cover. It includes “The Christian’s Charter of Privileges,” “The Saint’s Spiritual Delight,” “A Treatise Concerning Meditation,” “The Upright Man’s Character,” and “The Godly Man’s Picture Drawn with a Scripture Pencil.” The treatise on meditation is particularly valuable. Edward Reynolds writes in the introductory epistle: “Meditation is the palate of the soul whereby we taste the goodness of God; the eye of the soul whereby we view the beauties of holiness; the askesis and gymnasia, whereby our spiritual senses are exercised,… it is the key to the wine-cellar, to the banqueting house, to the garden of spices, which letteth us in unto him whom our soul loveth; it is the arm whereby we embrace the promises at a distance, and bring Christ and our souls together.”

The Ten Commandments (BTT; 245 pages; 1998).

This third volume that Watson wrote on the Shorter Catechism examines the moral law as a whole as well as each of its commandments. Watson repeatedly shows the various ploys of indwelling sin. In view of the importance of law in Christian living, this is an extremely valuable work.