Worship: Learning from the Puritans – Part 4

By: Dr Joel R. Beeke Topic: Worship Series: AIPC 2020

The Preaching of Puritan Worship
The Puritan movement from the mid-sixteenth century to the late seventeenth century has been called the golden age of preaching.48 Whereas medieval worship centered upon the visible and tangible, Puritan worship rejected the use of images in worship and instead focused adoration through the lens of the preached Word. Perkins wrote, “If any man be yet desirous of images, he may have at hand the preaching of the gospel, a lively image of Christ crucified (Gal. 3:1)…. The like may be said of the two sacraments.”49 He said, “The preaching and hearing of the Word of God is a common and usual means of God to begin and to confirm faith and all graces of God that depend on faith, and consequently to work our salvation” (Rom. 1:16, 10:14; 1 Cor. 1:21).

Hearing the preaching of the Scriptures is “the means of this new birth” (1 Cor. 4:15; Gal. 4:19).50 This is why the Puritan worship service centralized around the preaching of the Word. One hour was the standard length of a sermon, though you could preach longer on fast days and special occasions, or if you had something especially important that you had to finish saying. But it was thought that an hour was the appropriate length, and normally a Puritan sermon did not last longer. Some were known for stretching this, however. It is reported that John Howe, Puritan pastor down in Devon in the 1650s, on one fast day preached a single discourse that lasted for three hours without stopping. Matthew Henry, too, would have an hour sermon, taking a text and opening and applying it, but then he would have an additional hour of exposition of a whole chapter of Scripture. He would read a chapter and go through just about what is the exposition of the chapter in his commentary. 

Unlike today, when preaching is shortened and minimized to satisfy the layperson, in the days of the Puritans, the common people gladly heard Puritan preaching. Henry Smith (1560–1591), sometimes called the golden-tongued Chrysostom of the Puritans, was so popular as a preacher that, as Thomas Fuller writes, “persons of good quality brought their own pews with them, I mean their legs, to stand upon in the aisles.”51 No wonder the Puritan minister was called “the hero of sixteenth-century Puritanism.”52

Perhaps this is in part because the Puritans taught people how to listen to sermons with spiritual profit, according to Luke 8:18, “Take heed therefore how ye hear.” Before the sermon begins the hearer must prepare himself by getting rid of presumptuous pride, sinful anger, hardness of heart, love of the world, and itching ears that only want to hear what suits his sins (James 1:19). He must pray sincerely for a heart to listen and obey the Word. When seated in the congregation he must consciously “set himself in the presence of God,” for He is always present with the Word is preached (Acts 10:33).53 William Ames said that we must give the kind of “attention” to the Word that comes from “the consideration of the majesty of God,” has a sense of “divine obligation” to do God’s will, and is activated by “the reference and fear of God.”54

Once the sermon begins, he must listen with discernment, measuring what he hears by the standard of the Holy Spirit in Scripture. He must work to get the Word rooted in his heart by mingling it with faith (Heb. 4:1), moving the affections of our hearts (2 Chron. 34:27; Luke 24:32), and allowing it to dwell in us richly and rule where corruption once had dominion.55

After the sermon is over, he must treasure the Word in his heart (Ps. 119:11), meditating on what he heard so that he may “experience” the Word of God in himself (Ps. 34:9). This requires him to examine himself and his ways by God’s standards (Ps. 119:59) and obeying them so that he is a doer of the Word and not just a hearer (James 1:22).56 This is not to say that human effort can save or sanctify us, but “when we hear and meditate on the Word, God withal gives his Spirit to work that in us which the Word signifeth and testifieth”; there is a “conjunction between the Word and the Spirit.”57

Ames said that then people listen to men speak, they generally listen in one of four ways. They may be like sponges that soak up both the good and the bad, or like hour-glasses that let out one ear what they take in the other, or like wine bags that keep the dregs but let go of the good wine, or like sieves that let go of what is worthless but retain what is good. The last is the best way to listen to mere men. But when it comes to “the pure Word of God” we should be like the earth that drinks up the rain that falls upon it.58

For the Puritans, the substance of preaching was declaring God’s Word to men. John Preston (1587–1628) provided us with a simple, yet typically Puritan, working definition of preaching: “a public interpretation or dividing the Word, performed by an ambassador or minister who speaks to the people instead of God, in the name of Christ.”59 

In terms of style, the Puritans believed in a plain style of preaching. This plainness did not mean anti-intellectualism. Rather, plainness referred to a simple and clear communication from the Bible to the mind, then into the heart, and then outward to direct the conduct. Henry Smith said, “To preach simply, is not to preach unlearnedly, nor confusedly, but plainly and perspicuously [clearly], that the simplest which doth hear, may understand what is taught, as if he did hear his name.”60 Cotton Mather wrote in his eulogy for John Eliot (1604–1690), a great Puritan missionary to the Indians, that his “way of preaching was very plain; so that the very lambs might wade into his discourses on those texts and themes, wherein elephants might swim.”61 Increase Mather (1639–1723) wrote of the preaching of his father, Richard: “His way of preaching was plain, aiming to shoot his arrows not over his people’s heads, but into their hearts and consciences.”62

The first part of a Puritan sermon was exegetical and expositional; the second, doctrinal and didactic; and the third, applicatory.63 First, Puritan preaching was biblical, that is, an exposition of the text of the Bible. “The faithful Minister, like unto Christ, [is] one that preacheth nothing but the word of God,” said Puritan Edward Dering (c. 1540–1576).64 John Owen (1616–1683) agreed: “The first and principal duty of a pastor is to feed the flock by diligent preaching of the word.”65 Millar Maclure noted that “for the Puritans, the sermon is not just hinged to Scripture; it quite literally exists inside the Word of God; the text is not in the sermon, but the sermon is in the text…. Put summarily, listening to a sermon is being in the Bible.”66

Second, the exposition of Scripture led the Puritans to develop clear and well-defined doctrines. William Perkins called doctrine “the science of living blessedly for ever”;67 William Ames referred to “the doctrine or teaching of living to God.”68 Ferguson writes of the Puritans: “To them, systematic theology was to the pastor what a knowledge of anatomy is to the physician. Only in the light of the whole body of divinity (as they liked to call it) could a minister provide a diagnosis of, prescribe for, and ultimately cure spiritual disease in those who were plagued by the body of sin and death.”69

Packer describes their convictions: “To the question, ‘Should one preach doctrine?,’ the Puritan answer would have been, ‘Why, what else is there to preach?’ Doctrinal preaching certainly bores the hypocrites; but it is only doctrinal preaching that will save Christ’s sheep. The preacher’s job is to proclaim the faith, not to provide entertainment for unbelievers.”70

This is because Puritan preaching recognized that all biblical doctrine centers on Christ.71 According to Thomas Adams (1583–1652), “Christ is the sum of the whole Bible, prophesied, typified, prefigured, exhibited, demonstrated, to be found in every leaf, almost in every line, the Scriptures being but as it were the swaddling bands of the child Jesus.”72 Preaching the doctrines of Christ naturally led them also to preach other doctrines in connection to Christ, such as the doctrines of the triune God, of sin, and of sanctification and self-denial.73 

Third, the teaching of doctrine led to the application, often called the “uses” of the text, which could become lengthy as the minister applied Scripture to various listeners. The goal always was to drive the Word of God home or, as Baxter put it, “to screw the truth into their minds, and work Christ into their affections.”74 

Puritan preaching was experimental and practical. Experimental preaching stresses the need to know by experience the truths of the Word of God. Experimental preaching seeks to explain in terms of biblical truth how matters ought to go and how they do go in the Christian life. It aims to apply divine truth to all of the believer’s experience in his walk with God as well as his relationship with family, the church, and the world around him. We can learn much from the Puritans about this type of preaching. 


48 Tae-Hyeun Park, The Sacred Rhetoric of the Holy Spirit: A Study of Puritan Preaching in a Pneumatological Perspective (Apeldoorn: Theologische Unversiteit, 2005), 4. This chapter is a condensed version of “Puritan Preaching I, II,” chapters 41 and 42 in Joel R. Beeke and Mark Jones, A Puritan Theology (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2012).
49 Perkins, A Golden Chaine, 59.
50 Perkins, Diuine Worship, 232–33.
51 Quoted in Winthrop S. Hudson, “The Ministry in the Puritan Age,” in The Ministry in Historical Perspectives, ed. H. Richard Niebuhr and Daniel D. Williams (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1956), 185.
52 Michael Walzer, The Revolution of the Saints: A Study in the Origins of Radical Politics (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1965), 119.
53 William Perkins, The Whole Treatise of the Cases of Conscience, in The Works of That Famovs and Worthy Minister of Christ in the Vniversitie of Cambridge, M. William Perkins (London: Iohn Legatt, 1631), 2:70.
54 Ames, Conscience, 2:25.
55 Perkins, Cases of Conscience, 2:70–71.
56 Perkins, Cases of Conscience, 2:71.
57 Perkins, Diuine Worship, 236.
58 Ames, Conscience, 2:26.
59 Quoted in Everett H. Emerson, English Puritanism from John Hooper to John Milton (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1968), 45.
60 Henry Smith, Works of Henry Smith, 2 vols. (Stoke-on-Trent, U. K.: Tentmaker Publications, 2002), 1:337.
61 John Eliot, The Great Works of Christ in America: Magnalia Christi Americana, Book 3 (London: Banner of Truth Trust, 1979), 1:547–48. For a bibliography of Eliot’s sermons and writings, see Frederick Harling, “A Biography of John Eliot” (PhD diss., Boston University, 1965), 259–61.
62 Increase Mather, The Life and Death of that Reverend Man of God, Mr. Richard Mather (Cambridge, Mass.: S. G. and M. J., 1670), 31–32.
63 Miller, The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century, 332–33.
64 Edward Dering, M. Derings Workes (New York: Da Capo Press, 1972), 456.
65 John Owen, The Works of John Owen, ed. William H. Goold (London: Banner of Truth Trust, 1965), 16:74.
66 Millar Maclure, The Paul’s Cross Sermons, 1534–1642 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1958), 165. On how the Puritans interpreted Scripture, see Thomas Lea, “The Hermeneutics of the Puritans,” Journal of Evangelical Theological Society 39, no. 2 (June 1996): 271–84.
67 Perkins, Works 1:10.
68 Ames, The Marrow of Theology, 77.
69 Sinclair B. Ferguson, “Evangelical Ministry: The Puritan Contribution,” in The Compromised Church: The Present Evangelical Crisis, ed. John H. Armstrong (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 1998), 266.
70 Packer, Quest for Godliness, 284–85.
71 Thomas Taylor, Christ Revealed: or The Old Testament Explained; A Treatise of the Types and Shadowes of our Saviour (London: M. F. for R. Dawlman and L. Fawne, 1635) is the best Puritan work on Christ in the Old Testament. Thomas Goodwin, “Christ Our Mediator, vol. 5 of The Works of Thomas Goodwin (Eureka, Calif.: Tanski, 1996) ably expounds primary New Testament texts on the mediatorship of Christ. Alexander Grosse, The Happiness of Enjoying and Making a True And Speedy Use of Christ (London: Tho: Brudenell, for John Bartlet, 1647) and Isaac Ambrose, Looking Unto Jesus (Harrisonburg, Va.: Sprinkle, 1988) are experiential Christology at its best. Ralph Robinson, Christ All and In All: or Several Significant Similitudes by which the Lord Jesus Christ is Described in the Holy Scriptures (1660; repr., Ligonier, Pa.: Soli Deo Gloria, 1992), Philip Henry, Christ All in All, or What Christ is Made to Believers (1676; repr., Swengel, Pa.: Reiner, 1976), and John Brown, Christ: the Way, the Truth, and the Life (1677; repr., Morgan, Pa.: Soli Deo Gloria, 1995) contain precious sermons extolling Christ in all His relations to believers. John Owen, A Declaration of the Glorious Mystery of the Person of Christ (reprinted in vol. 1 of Works of Owen) is superb on the relation of Christ’s natures to His person. James Durham, Christ Crucified; or The Marrow of the Gospel in 72 Sermons on Isaiah 53, 2 vols. (Glasgow: Alex Adam, 1792) remains unrivaled as a scriptural exposition of Christ’s passion.
72 Thomas Adams, The Works of Thomas Adams (1862; repr., Eureka, Calif.: Tanski, 1998), 3:224.
73 For choice samples of Puritan preaching on God, sin, sanctification, and self-denial, see, respectively, Stephen Charnock, Discourses on the Existence and Attributes of God, 2 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996); Jeremiah Burroughs, The Evil of Evils (Morgan, Pa.: Soli Deo Gloria, 1995); Walter Marshall, The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1954); Thomas Watson, The Duty of Self-Denial (Morgan, Pa.: Soli Deo Gloria, 1995), 1–37.
74 Baxter, Works, 4:370.

Dr Joel R. Beeke serves as a pastor of the Heritage Reformed Congregation

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