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Let me begin our consideration of Puritan preaching with several positives and then conclude with a few negatives.
Do Preach Like the Puritans in These Ways
There are many ways in which we can and should imitate their preaching, for they were models of what it means to obey 2 Timothy 4:1–2, “I charge thee therefore before God, and the Lord Jesus Christ, who shall judge the quick and the dead at his appearing and his kingdom; preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine.” Here are seven lessons we can learn from them.
1. Preach Well-Rounded Sermons that Are Biblical, Doctrinal, Experiential, and Practical
These four dimensions of preaching reflect the fullness 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, with each link clasping the one before it. First, the substance of preaching is 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.”9
All the doctrine we preach must be rooted in the Bible, not in human traditions, experiences, or speculations. Paul wrote in Colossians 2:7–8 that we must be “rooted and built up in [Christ], and established in the faith, as ye have been taught, abounding therein with thanksgiving. Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ.”
Christian experience, in turn, 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 as Christians and churches 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 being experiential and practical in their sermons. Experiential preaching stresses the need to know by experience the truths of the Word of God. It 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.
These applications must target the right people, the Puritans taught, or they might do more spiritual harm than good. Puritan preaching was marked by a discriminating application of truth to the non-Christian and the Christian. Puritan preachers took great pains to identify the marks of grace that distinguish the church from the world, true believers from merely professing believers, and saving faith from temporary faith.10 Thomas Shepard in The Ten Virgins, Matthew Mead in The Almost Christian Discovered, Jonathan Edwards in Religious Affections, and other Puritans wrote dozens of works to differentiate imposters from true believers.11
The Puritans show us a biblical pattern to follow in moving from biblical exposition to doctrinal definition and defense, and then to addressing spiritual experience and calling for practical action. Application without exposition is like a plant without roots, a spiritual tumbleweed that is driven about by the agendas of men. Exposition without application is a tree that cumbers the ground but bears no fruit and is in danger of being cut down and burned. Taken together, doctrine and experience form the vital links between the Bible and our lives, for we are people with minds that need to be instructed and hearts that need to be moved. We should preach in a way that brings the whole Bible to bear on the whole person, head, heart, and hands.
2. Preach the Main Doctrine of Your Text Thoroughly
Though there is a danger for some preachers to allow systematic theology to overwhelm their exposition of the Scripture text, we must follow the Puritans in drawing doctrine out of our texts so that our sermons are permeated with truth. For the Puritans, 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.
For example, consider 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.”12 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.”13 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.”14 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.”15 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).16 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 usually produces 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 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.
Here again the Puritans set an example for us to follow. Consider the sermons of Thomas Manton. Manton’s 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 substitute 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).17 Manton’s preaching exposed his hearers to the full range of Bible doctrines over the three and a half decades of his ministry.
A commitment to the whole counsel of God also appears in Manton’s balanced approach to doctrine. J. C. Ryle (1816–1900) wrote, “In Manton’s Calvinism there was a curiously happy attention to the proportion of truth. He never exalts one doctrine at the expense of another. He gives to each doctrine that place and rank given to it in Scripture, neither more nor less.”18 Thus, Ryle noted, Manton preached both particular divine election and general divine mercy over all creation, both effectual calling and the universal call to repentance and faith, both justification and sanctification, both the certainty of perseverance and necessity of holiness in the believer.
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?
This article is the second of the four-part article series of the transcript of the Session 2 preached by Dr Joel R. Beeke in Online AIPC 2020 Conference held on Sep 15-17, 2020.
Please click here to see the video.
9 Quoted in Everett H. Emerson, English Puritanism from John Hooper to John Milton (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1968), 45.
10 Thomas Watson, The Godly Man’s Picture (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1992), 20–188, sets forth twenty-four marks of grace for self-examination.
11 Thomas Shepard, The Parable of the Ten Virgins (Ligonier, Pa.: Soli Deo Gloria, 1990); Matthew Mead, The Almost Christian Discovered; Or the False Professor Tried and Cast (Ligonier, Pa.: Soli Deo Gloria, 1988); Jonathan Edwards, Religious Affections (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1959).
12 Jonathan Edwards, The Salvation of Souls: Nine Previously Unpublished Sermons on the Call of Ministry and the Gospel by Jonathan Edwards, ed. Richard A. Bailey and Gregory A. Wills (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2002), 43–55.
13 Edwards, Salvation of Souls, 45.
14 Edwards, Salvation of Souls, 45–47.
15 Edwards, Salvation of Souls, 47–48.
16 Edwards, Salvation of Souls, 48–49.
17 Manton, “Index of Principal Texts,” in The Complete Works of Thomas Manton, D.D., ed. T. Smith, 22 vols. (London: J. Nisbet, 1870–75), 22:455–60.
18 J. C. Ryle, “An Estimate of Manton,” in Manton, Works, 2:xvii.