God's Ambassadors: Advice for Preachers

If a hundred preachers could agree on advice to be given to other ministers, it would probably be worth weighing their wisdom on the subject. This is just what the Westminster Assembly offered in a "sub-directory" on preaching within the body's larger Directory for Worship. It is there that the gathering explained that one who expects to preach needs to be a scholar, a worshipper, an orator, an apologist, a pastor and a servant.

1. A scholar

Even before he enters a pulpit, the preacher is called to be a scholar. Referring readers back to the Directory for Ordination, the assembly explained that "accordinge to the Rules of Ordination" a minister must "in some good measure" be "guifted for soe weighty a service." He is to have "skill in the originall languages & in such arts & Sciences as are hand maides to Divinity." He is to have "knowledg in the whole body of Theology, but most of all in the holy Scriptures." He is to be able to understand and to summarize scripture, to analyze and divide texts, to ensure that the truths he expounds are "contained in or grounded on that text" he preaches, and to "cheefly insist upon those doctrines which are principally intended" in the passage he addresses. Nonetheless, he is to be the kind of scholar whose teaching is "expressed in plaine termes" because he is a scholar whose work is for the benefit of others and not just for himself or his peers.

  1. A worshipper
In the paragraphs most clearly emphasizing a preacher's scholarly abilities, the assembly also stressed that he is a worshipper. In fact, immediately after stressing that a preacher is to be a student of truth and an expert in the Bible, the directory states that the preacher must have "his senses & hart exercised in them above the common sort of beleevers." He is to trust in "the illumination of gods Spirit & other guiftes of edification." In "reading & studying of the Word," and in seeking God "by prayer, & an humble hart," the preacher is always to be "resolving to admitt & receive any truth not yet attained, when ever God shall make it knowne unto him." Assembly members considered preparation for preaching as an act of piety, a sanctifying experience of personal worship. And thus "he is to make use of" and "improve" on "his private preparations, before he deliver in publique" what he has studied. That is to say, he is to be "persuaded in his owne heart that all that he teacheth is the truth of Christ" and "earnestly both in private & in Publique recomending his labours to the blessing of God, & wachfully looking to himselfe & the flocke wherof the Lord hath made him overseer."

  1. An orator
Preachers are not mere professionals, paid to study topics and prepare sermons. Nonetheless, they are to be orators, men able to construct and deliver addresses that are well-ordered and persuasive. The assembly expected sermons to have introductions, well-ordered arguments, and illustrations that engender "spiritual delight." The directory directs him to exhort and dehort; to explicate and to insist. The liability of the label "orator" is that it could suggest that preaching is but a type of rhetoric. This the assembly would reject. The subdirectory insists that preachers communicate in a manner "that the meanest may understand, delivering the truth not in the entiseing words of mans wisdome, but in demonstration of the spirit & of power, lesse the crosse of Christ should be made of none effect." The preacher's "gesture[s], voice & expressions" were to be appropriate to his ministry. The preacher must abstain "alsoe from an unprofitable use of unknowne tongues, strange phrayses & cadences of sounds & words, sparingly citing sentences of Ecclesiasticall or other humane writers, ancient or modearne, be they never so elegant." It was not elegance that the assembly was after. While they knew preaching would be "a worke of great difficulty . . . requireing much prudence, zeale, & meditation," what the assembly really wanted were men who could preach in such a way that "auditors may feele the word of God to be quicke & powerfull," to discover the "discerner of the thoughts & intents of the heart." And "if any unbeliever or ignorant person be present, he may have the secrets of his hart made manifest, & give glory to God."

  1. An apologist
The directory also insists that a preacher is to be aware of and respond to error, that there is an apologetic dimension to his work. There is no assumption on the part of the directory that people who come to worship will believe whatever the preachers says. That is why the sermon is to employ "places of scripture, confirming the doctrine," and why these places "are rather to be plaine & pertinent then many." The preacher is to offer "Arguments or Reasons" that are "solid, &, as much as may be, convincing." What is more, "If any doubt, obvious from scripture, reason, or prejudice of the hearers, seeme to arise, it is very requisite to remove it, by reconciling the seeming differences, answering the reasons, & discovering & taking away the causes of prejudice & mistake." Of course there are preachers who have made it their hobby to refute heresy, and so the assembly also added, sensibly, that "it is not fitt to detaine the hearers with propounding or answering vaine or wicked cavilles, which as they are endlesse, soe the propounding & answering of them doth more hinder than promote edification." Or to put it another way, "In Confutation of false doctrines, he is neither to rayse an old heresy from the grave, nor to mention a blasphemous opinion unnecessarily. But if the people be in dang[e]r of an error he is to confute it soundly, & endeavour to satisfy their Judgments & consciences against all objections."

  1. A pastor
Unsurprisingly, the assembly speaks to preachers in such as way as to remind them that both in his motivations and in his concerns the preacher is a pastor. The preacher is to address the people in such a way that they sense his "loving affection" and his "godly zeale & hearty desyre, to doe them good." He is to walk "before his flocke as an example to them in it . . . wachfully looking to himselfe & the flocke wherof the Lord hath made him overseer." And he is to be mindful of both their weakness and sinfulness. His sermons are not to be too complicated. He is "neither to burden the memorie of the hearers in the begining with too many members of division, nor to trouble their mindes with obscure termes of Art." His concern is for their souls. In his preaching he will "make most for the edification of the hearers." A good preacher not only calls them to their duties, but helps them to see how to get there. He is to point out the misery and danger of sin, to offer comfort against temptations, "troubles and terrors." He is to answer the objections that troubled hearts will likely raise against his preaching. Through "his residence & conv[e]rsing with his flocke" he will select the best uses and applications of texts and doctrines "such as may most draw their soules to Christ, the fountaine of light holines & comfort."

  1. A servant
Above all, the preacher is a servant, or "minister." And while preaching is "one of the greatest & most excellent works," it remains work. The preacher is a "workeman," one who hopes not to be ashamed in his Master's assessment of his labours. He is a minister of Christ, but he is also a servant of God's people. He is to work hard to make sure that his sermon is not a "burden" for the memory of hearers to bear, or trouble for their minds, and he is to have in view their edification and benefit. He is to offer a removal service for doubts, "taking away the causes of prejudice & mistake," or whatever else might hinder the progress of his congregation. As a servant, he must not "rest" with easy applications, but give something which will be truly be useful, even if "it prove a worke of great difficulty to him selfe."

The preacher as servant is the sub-directory's major motif for the preacher, and it ends with a stirring call to faithful labour: "the Servant of Christ, what ever his method bee, is to performe his whole ministry . . . Painfully, not doeing the worke of the Lord negligently." He is to serve on behalf of the "meanest" of his listeners. Echoing Jesus's parables about laborers, the preacher is told by the assembly to be ever "looking at the honor of Christ" and "the conversion, edification & salvation of the people, not at his owne gaine or glory: keeping noething backe which may promote those holy ends." As a servant he is to be wise, grave, and loving, "that the people may see all coming from his godly zeale & hearty desyre, to doe them good." In the end, he is to recommend "his labours to the blessing of God. . . . Soe shall the doctrine of truth bee preserved uncorrupt, many soules converted & built up & himselfe receive many fould comforts of his labours even in this life & afterward the Crowne of glory laide up for him in the world to come."

This article is an extract and adaptation from Chad Van Dixhoorn's forthcoming book, God's Ambassadors: The Westminster Assembly and the reform of the English pulpit, 1643-1653. Footnotes, references, and fuller discussions of this subject are found there.