Perkins’ Principles for Preaching Christ
“The heart of the matter is this: Preach one Christ, by Christ, to the praise of Christ.” These words were written by the great Puritan William Perkins (1558-1602) as his summary of the task of preaching. Perkins has been called the “principal architect of the Puritan movement.” Although he died as a relatively young man at the age of 44, Perkins was remarkably prolific as both a writer and a preacher. He has been described as a man with “exceptional gifts for preaching and an uncanny ability to reach common people with plain preaching and theology.”
Perkins penned almost fifty works throughout his life, covering everything from practical and exegetical treatments to doctrinal and polemical treatises. The heart of his ministry, however, was preaching. Perkins’ understanding of preaching was inseparable from the person and work of Jesus Christ.
What were Perkins’ principles for preaching Christ? We can answer that best by turning to The Art of Prophesying. This was one of his most popular works, and it became a handbook of sorts on the plain-style of preaching which characterized the Puritan era. In the book, Perkins walks his readers through the task of preaching by discussing the contents of Scripture, the interpretation of Scripture, the exposition of Scripture, and extensive consideration of the application of Scripture. A full survey of all that Perkins has to say on the subject is beyond the scope of this post, but we can highlight a few basic principles.
The Purpose of Scripture
Perkins’ first principle relates to the purpose of the Scriptures. For Perkins, the entire purpose of the Bible can be captured in one word: Christ. For example, in his chapter on the Word of God Perkins says:
“The sum and substance of the message of the Bible can be summarized in an argument (or syllogism) such as this: Major Premise: The true Messiah shall be both God and man, from the seed of David. He shall be born of his heavenly Father’s bosom. He shall satisfy the law. He shall offer himself as a sacrifice for the sins of the faithful. He shall conquer death by dying and rising again. He shall ascend into heaven. In due time he shall return for judgment. Minor Premise: Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Mary, meets all of these requirements. Conclusion: Therefore Jesus is the true Messiah.”
Perkins does not just see the Gospels or the New Testament developing this theme. Rather, he argues that the whole of the Bible is concerned with Christ. What he describes as the “major premise” of the Bible is contained in the writings of the Old Testament prophets while the “minor premise” is the focus of the New Testament evangelists and apostles. The purpose of the Bible is to reveal Jesus as the Messiah.
The Purpose of Preaching
This understanding of the purpose of the Scriptures flows naturally into Perkins’ view of the purpose of preaching. The purpose of preaching and the purpose of the Scriptures are one in the same: to reveal Christ. No other purpose will do. In this way the Bible provides the focus and framework which the preacher must faithfully fulfill.
For Perkins, the task of the preacher is linked to the commission of Christ. As he puts it at the beginning of the book, “Preaching the Word is prophesying in the name and on behalf of Christ.” Preachers act as Christ’s ambassadors (2 Corinthians 5:20), and they must therefore speak the words of Christ. This view became the dominant perspective for Puritan ministers who learned from Perkins’ preaching and writings. As Sinclair Ferguson puts it, “the main business [of Puritan preaching] was to preach Christ and to reach the heart. Everything was subservient to this.” For Perkins the connection between the purpose of the Bible and the purpose of preaching is simple: our preaching must be full of Christ because the Bible is full of Christ.
This all seems fine in theory, but what does it look like in practice? To answer that, we can look at Perkins’ sermons on Matthew 4:1-11, which provide a wonderful window into how Perkin’s put his principles to work. But we'll save that for another post.
Ben Franks serves as the Senior Pastor of Ketoctin Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Purcellville, VA. A native son of the PCA, he has done mission work in England with the EPCEW and served with churches in the PCA and OPC. He studied at Patrick Henry College, completed his B.A. in Classical Christian Education through Whitefield College, and earned his M.Div from Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary. His writings have been published in the Puritan Reformed Journal, the Confessional Presbyterian Journal, and the Banner of Truth Magazine.
"Perkins on Common Faith and Saving Faith" by Derrick Brite
"Puritan Preachers: William Perkins" by Joel Beeke
"Always Preach Christ?" by Ryan McGraw
William Perkins: Architect of Puritanism, ed. by Joel Beeke and Greg Salazar
The Gospel Pure and Simple, with Sinclair Ferguson, Liam Goligher, and Mark Johnston
. William Perkins, The Art of Prophesying and The Calling of the Ministry (Edinburgh, UK: Banner of Truth Trust, 2011), 75.
. Joel R. Beeke and Randall J. Pederson, Meet the Puritans: With a Guide to Modern Reprints (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2006), 473.
. Beeke, Meet the Puritans, 472.
. Beeke, Meet the Puritans, 474.
. Perkins, The Art of Prophesying, 11.
. Perkins, The Art of Prophesying, 11.
. Perkins, The Art of Prophesying, 7.
. Perkins, The Art of Prophesying, x.