Should We Preach like the Puritans? Yes
April 28, 2017
I certainly do not wish to leave the impression from my previous post that the Puritans were bad examples as preachers. There are many ways in which we can and should imitate their preaching. Here are a few of the lessons we can learn from them.
1. Preach Well-Rounded Sermons
There are four dimensions of a good sermon. It must be biblical, offering an explanation of the meaning of the text in its biblical and historical context; doctrinal, deriving and defining truths from the text about God and man; experiential, addressing the truths to the hearts of the listeners with idealism, realism, and optimism; and practical, giving specific directions for how hearers should respond to God’s Word.
We may view these four words as the "golden chain of preaching." All the doctrine we preach must be rooted in Bible, not in human traditions, experiences, or speculations. Christian experience must be informed by and conformed to the doctrines of Scripture, and must allow itself to be judged and measured by God’s Word lest we drift into mysticism and emotionalism. Our practical activity must always flow from the faith and love of our hearts, and must spring out of spiritual experience based in the truth of the written Word of God.
The Puritans excelled in using all four links of this golden chain of preaching. Consider the preaching of William Perkins (1558–1602) on Galatians 1:12: “For I neither received [the gospel] of man, neither was I taught it, but by the revelation of Jesus Christ.” In the biblical aspect, Perkins explained that Paul did not learn the gospel from a human teacher as he had once been instructed at the feet of Gamaliel, but instead received it by a revelation from Jesus Christ. This, Perkins said, confirmed the point of the previous verse, that the gospel he preached was not “after man,” that is it did not come from man. Perkins proposed a distinction between ordinary revelation by the preaching of the Word and extraordinary revelation by supernatural means. He also expounded the doctrine of the prophetic office of Christ, whom God sent to reveal the truth (Matt. 17:6; 23:8), to call and send ministers to preach it (John 20:21; Eph. 4:11), and to illuminate the mind of those hearing it (Luke 24:45). From this Perkins gave the following experiential and practical directions: (1) Reverence the preaching of God’s Word and carefully obey it, for Christ is our Teacher therein; (2) Be warned that those who reject the gospel treat Jesus Christ with contempt and will be damned for it; (3) Pray to Christ for understanding and submissive hearts. Perkins also drew the implication that because immediate special revelation has ceased, we must train Bible teachers in theological schools, which requires financial investment by those with means, a willingness in parents for their sons to enter the ministry, and the prayers of all God’s people for divine blessing on the seminaries.
2. Preach the Main Doctrine of Your Text Thoroughly
I have spoken about the danger of allowing systematic theology to overwhelm the exposition of Scripture. However, I would not want to discourage you from building doctrine into your sermons. The question is one of focus: Do you explore all the relevant doctrines that touch your text, or do you focus on the central doctrine taught by that text? Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758) was a master at doing the latter, applying his massive intellect and brilliant spiritual insight to probe the depths of the particular doctrine of the text on which he preached.
An example is Edwards’s sermon on 2 Corinthians 4:7: “But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us.” After a brief exposition of the text, Edwards deduced this doctrine: “God is pleased to make his own power appear by carrying on the work of his grace by such instruments as men, that in themselves are utterly insufficient for it.” First, he showed that preachers are unable to do God’s work in the souls of fallen men, for men are “forsaken by God” for their sins, “spiritually dead,” and “in a state of captivity unto Satan.” Second, the preachers are mere creatures, and conversion is a work that even angels cannot affect; yes, even though preachers are “not only creatures, but very weak and infirm, partakers of the same infirmities as their hearers.” Third, because God calls such weak men to be preachers and causes them to overcome the world, it is evident “that the foolishness of God is wiser than men and the weakness of God is stronger than men” (1 Cor. 1:25). Edwards went on to make applications, but let us pause here to consider how thoroughly he developed his doctrine.
I fear that some preachers today are contemptuous of doctrine. Perhaps they think that biblical exposition is somehow superior to doctrine and they sneer at systematic theology. However, they are cutting off their own feet, for until exposition passes into doctrine it does not inform and reform the beliefs that control our minds. Other preachers may ignore doctrine because they are so focused on offering practical application. However, application without doctrine is legalism. Preaching without instruction is only ungrounded exhortation. Only doctrine grounds our faith in Jesus Christ and builds our obedience to God’s law upon our reliance on God’s promises. While we must not turn our congregations into supercomputers without a soul, we must not shirk our responsibility to teach them doctrine. The responsible way to do that starts with preaching the specific doctrine taught by our sermon text.
3. Preach the Whole Counsel of God over Time
We should not attempt to cover all systematic theology in a single sermon: God, man, Christ, salvation, church, and the end times. However, we should feel the weight of Paul’s statement in Acts 20:26–27, “Wherefore I take you to record this day, that I am pure from the blood of all men. For I have not shunned to declare unto you all the counsel of God.” Over the years of our ministries, we must preach through the whole body of truth revealed in the Scriptures so that God’s people are moved to trust in Him at all times and be fully equipped to worship and serve Him.
We have already noted the sermons of Thomas Manton. His Works contain hundreds of sermons that demonstrate a ministry committed to the whole counsel of God. This appears in the variety of texts on which he preached. A look at the “Index of Principal Texts” reveals that he preached individual sermons from every part of Scripture, as well as sermon series on Psalm 119 (the Word of God), Isaiah 53 (Christ’s substitutionary death), Matthew 4:1–11 (Christ’s temptation), Matthew 6:6–13 (the Lord’s Prayer), Matthew 17:1–8 (Christ’s transfiguration), Matthew 25 (judgment day), Mark 10:17–26 (the rich young ruler and conversion), John 17 (Christ’s intercession and our salvation), Romans 6 (union with Christ and holiness), Romans 8 (the Holy Spirit and our hope), 2 Corinthians 5 (reconciliation with God), Ephesians 5 (godliness, marriage, and the work of Christ), Philippians 3 (love for Christ), Colossians 1:14–20 (Christ’s person and work), 2 Thessalonians 1:4–12 (conversion), 2 Thessalonians 2 (end times and salvation), Titus 2:11–14 (holiness by grace), Hebrews 11 (faith), the Epistle of James (practical Christianity), and the Epistle of Jude (false teachers). Manton’s preaching exposed his hearers to the full range of Bible doctrines over the three and a half decades of his ministry.
Preachers should strive to feed the family of God with a balanced diet. Ministers of the gospel, take some time periodically to recollect and reflect on what you have preached heretofore, and compare it to the breadth of Bible doctrine and ethics. Will someone who sits under your preaching for a decade or two be schooled and trained in the whole counsel of God?
4. Preach in Plain Style that Ordinary People Can Understand
In the Puritan age, prominent preachers in the Church of England adorned their sermons with long citations in Latin, Greek, and other languages in order to impress people with their erudition, even though many people would not understand what they were talking about. They attempted to show how clever they were in the pulpit by the way they put words and phrases together, entertaining listeners with rhetorical skill while leaving their hearts unmoved by the glory of Christ. This approach was often coupled with an emphasis upon majestic buildings, visual art, and solemn rituals invented by man—outward forms of worship that impressed the senses. The intellectual Enlightenment also began to rise in the seventeenth century through figures like John Locke (1632–1704) with an emphasis on rationality and human reason as the judge of all things.
The Puritans responded to these trends of the day by insisting upon the biblical simplicity of worship, as regulated by the Word of God alone. They taught that the only images that God authorizes and that people need are “the right administration of the sacraments” and “the lively preaching of the word.” They heeded the words of Paul in 1 Corinthians 2:1–2, “And I, brethren, when I came to you, came not with excellency of speech or of wisdom, declaring unto you the testimony of God. For I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” They refused to make human reason a judge and dictator in all divine matters, but rather a tool and instrument.
The apostle Paul wrote in Galatians 3:1 that his preaching of the gospel had set forth Christ so plainly before them that it was as if they had personally seen Christ being crucified. Perkins said that “the properties of the ministry of the word… must be plain, perspicuous [clear], and evident, as if the doctrine were pictured and painted before the eyes of men.” Rather than using words that may impress the listener but leave their minds uncomprehending, Perkins said that with regard to preaching, “the plainer, the better.”
Today we face similar temptations, for the pride and glory of man ever seeks to intrude into the holy office of preaching. Many ministers today function as entertainers to draw a crowd with their rhetorical skill, or design worship services to move the senses. Others make the pulpit into an academic throne to display their scholarship, or flatter their listeners by trying to convince them that the Bible will satisfy the demands of human reason as it sits in judgment over God’s Word. Against all this we must preach the gospel of Christ with plainness, clarity, and passion. If we would preach a crucified Christ, then we must enter the pulpit with our pride and glory crucified. See yourself not as a great man towering over the congregation, but as the servant of the little children and least educated.
5. Preach with Your Life What You Preach from the Pulpit
There is no substitute for godliness of life in the preacher. His life must not contradict his message, because his actions speak louder than his words. Nothing puts fire into the sermon so much as holiness in the preacher. This was a hallmark of Puritanism. Sinclair Ferguson writes, “The marriage of true learning and personal godliness lay at the heart of the Puritan vision. A recurring note in their thinking was the apostolic injunction, ‘pay careful attention to yourselves’ (Acts 20:28); ‘guard your life…’ (1 Tim. 4:16). Personal godliness was the great essential.”
The Westminster Directory for the Publick Worship of God calls “the servant of God” to “perform his whole ministry” with the following qualities:
- diligence (“painfully,” as the old language puts it), as opposed to negligence;
- faithfulness, “looking at the honour of Christ, the conversion, edification, and salvation of the people, not at his own gain or glory”;
- impartiality, serving each person his gospel food without neglecting the lowly and poor or showing favoritism to the rich and powerful;
- wisdom, endeavoring to shape his work so as to be as effective as possible in doing God’s will, as opposed to being driven about by foolish passions or anger;
- dignity (“gravely”), as is fitting of a messenger of the word of God, avoiding things that would give sinners the opportunity to despise him;
- love for God and man, so that people can see that everything he does comes from his godly zeal, and hearty desire to do them good;
- conviction of truth, as one deeply persuaded by the Holy Spirit that what he teaches and preaches is real, true, and the word of God;
- exemplary conduct, “walking before his flock” as a model of what it means to follow in the pathways of the Lord, and keeping watch over himself;
- prayer, “earnestly, both in private and publick, recommending his labours to the blessing of God” through petition and intercession.
Will you preach to others but not preach to yourself? Beware of becoming a mere ministry professional. If the only reason you read the Bible is to find texts for sermons, then how will you feed your own soul? Make every time you open the Word a time of meditation and prayer, and impress upon your soul the danger of being a hearer only, and not a doer of the Word (James 1:22).
Conclusion: Pray to the Power of the Spirit for Puritan-like Preaching
The Westminster Larger Catechism summarizes the positive lessons we can learn from the Puritans in its statement of the Puritan norms for preaching:
Q159. How is the Word of God to be preached by those that are called thereunto?A. They that are called to labour in the ministry of the Word, are to preach sound doctrine, diligently, in season, and out of season; plainly, not in the enticing words of mans wisedome, but in demonstration of the Spirit, and power; faithfully, making known the whole counsell of God; wisely, applying themselves to the necessities and capacities of the hearers; zealously, with fervent love to God, and the souls of his people; sincerely, aiming at his glory, and their conversion, edification, and salvation.
A key phrase in that statement is, “in demonstration of the Spirit, and power,” alluding to 1 Corinthians 2:4, or “the demonstration of which the Spirit is the author, and which is characterized by power; so that the sense is, the powerful demonstration of the Spirit.” It is not an accident that the next question and answer in the catechism say that those who hear the Word must “attend upon it with diligence, preparation, and prayer.” We cannot expect to approximate the Puritans in preaching if we do not pray for the power of the Spirit that accompanied their preaching of the Word.
We may find fault with some aspects of John Flavel’s preaching, but we must recognize that it was anointed with the Holy Spirit and with power. Flavel preached in times of persecution, yet he preached with great boldness and plainness. Sometimes he had to gather his congregation out in the woods to avoid detection. Once he had to ride his horse into the sea to escape arrest by the authorities. His sermons blazed with light and heat. One of the members of his church said that a “person must have a very soft head, or a very hard heart, or both, that could sit under his ministry unaffected.” One young man, Luke Short, evidently heard Flavel with a hard heart, for he went away unchanged after a message on the horror of dying under God’s curse. Short emigrated to New England, where he became a farmer who lived to be over a hundred years old. One day the old man looked over his fields and remembered the sermon he had heard in England. The Spirit of God pressed Flavel’s message upon the man’s heart, and there, eighty-five years after the fact, Luke Short was converted and saved. His gravestone read, “Here lies a babe in grace, aged three years, who died according to nature, aged 106."
Only the Holy Spirit can imbue our preaching with such lasting, converting power. If you want to preach like the Puritans, or want your pastor to preach like the Puritans, then pray! “God will give His grace and Holy Spirit to those only, who with sincere desires continually ask them of Him, and are thankful for them” (Heidelberg Catechism, Q. 116).