Puritan Preaching

Some say biblical preaching is in serious decline.  Now we are have more entertainers than biblical preaching.  I don’t know this for a fact since I haven’t traveled round the globe to hear preachers in their local churches.  But I suppose there is some truth to this observation.

Writing in 1990, J.I. Packer, in his blessing to the Christian community with A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life, believe that “the well-being of the church today depends in large measure on a revival of preaching in the Puritan vein” (p. 281).  What is it about Puritan preaching that would lead someone lead Dr. Packer to so commend them?

In the rest of the chapter “Puritan Preaching,” Packer explores the foundational elements behind Puritan preaching under two main headings: First, the four axioms that underlay all Puritan thought about preaching:

1.  Belief in the primacy of the intellect.  For the Puritans “all grace enters by the understanding.”

2. Belief in the supreme importance of preaching.  “To the Puritans, the sermon was the liturgical climax of public worship.”  Preaching was an act of worship and must be performed as such.

3. Belief in the Life-giving power of the Holy Scripture.  In the words of John Owen, that greatest of Puritan theologians, “The first and principal duty of a pastor is to feed the flock by diligent preaching of the Word… This feeding is of the essence of the office of a pastor.”

4. Belief in the Sovereignty of the Holy Spirit.  The Puritans believed that is was their task to faithful preach and teach the Word of God.  To them, “it is God’s work to convince of its truth and write it in the heart.”

Second, building on the four axioms above, let’s explore with Packer the type of preaching of the Puritans:

1.  It was expository in method.  For the Puritan preachers their task was to bring out of Scripture what is already there.

2.  It was doctrinal in content.  The Puritans called the Bible–the self-contained and self-interpreting revelation of God–the “body of divinity.”  According to Packer, to the question, “Should one preach doctrine,” the Puritan answer would have been, “Why, what else is there to preach?”

3.  It was orderly in its arrangement.  They wanted their congregations to memorize their sermons, look up references, take notes, “so that they could ‘repeat’ the messages afterwards and meditate on them during the week.”

4.  It was popular in its style.  The Puritan preachers believe that preaching that calls attention to the preacher is both unedifying and sinful.  In the words of Richard Baxter, whom Packer calls “Mr. Reformed Pastor,” “The plainest words are the profitablest oratory in the weightest matters.”

5.  It was Christ-centered in its orientation.  Veteran Puritan Sibbes to fledging Goodwin, “Young man, if ever you would do good, you must preach the gospel of the free grace of God in Christ Jesus.”

6.  It was experimental in its interests.  They first sought to preach to themselves before they preached to others.  Again, John Owen, “A man preached that sermon only well to others, which preached itself in his own soul.”

7.  It was piercing in its applications.  According to Packer, the strength of application was the most striking feature of Puritan preaching.  That the Puritan preachers labored hard at application is noted in their forty-two distinct applications.

8.  It was powerful in manner.  The Puritan preachers sought both unction and passion in their preaching.  In the immortal words of Baxter, “As one that ne’er should preach again, And as a dying man to dying men.”

While we have not all been called to preach like the Puritans, I believe, as we seek to faithfully preach the Word of God, we can learn a great deal from the Puritans.  May their legacy continue, in some way.

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