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Preaching: Learning from the Puritans – Part 4

11 minutes to read

Do Not Preach Like the Puritans in These Ways
There are other ways in which we should not preach like the Puritans today. The Puritans followed an educational method called Ramism after French philosopher Petrus Ramus (1515–1572) who attempted to modify the Aristotelian philosophy popular in the schools and orient it toward practical godliness instead of intellectual speculation. In many ways, the Ramist approach helped them to analyze a topic theologically and practically. However, Ramism also introduced a methodological complexity to Puritan preaching that few modern hearers can receive well from the pulpit. Let me offer some specifics.

1. Do Not Structure Most Sermons by Theology, but Rather by Exegesis
The typical Puritan sermon began with an exegetical introduction, looking at a particular Scripture text in its context, and “raising” or deriving a specific doctrinal proposition from that text. The doctrinal proposition is broken down into its parts, and each part is expounded in turn. Finally, various applications are made from what has been expounded. 

This is not the best way to preach for the modern hearer today. I am not against topical preaching or teaching systematic theology; in our Dutch Reformed tradition, we regularly preach topical messages based on the Heidelberg Catechism. However, the standard Puritan method places systematic theology in the foreground and the particular words of the Scripture text in the background. We would do better to reverse this order and devote the whole sermon to expounding and applying the message of this particular text in its context. Systematic theology is only a servant of the Word. As a servant, it should help us understand, believe, rejoice in, and obey the Word. 

2. Do Not Multiply Points and Sub-points, but Rather Strive for Simplicity
The Ramist method analyzed a topic by dividing it into categories, and those categories into sub-categories, and so on, with each level becoming more specific. The aim was to avoid abstract generalities and to discuss a topic with a level of detail and concreteness that facilitated practical application. Put down on paper, the result was an outline that looked like a tree lying on its side, with its branches stretching out to the right with points, sub-points, sub-sub-sub points, and sometimes, even sub-sub-sub-sub points. 

Granted, the Puritan hearer, being trained in the Ramist method, could follow such sermons, but the modern hearer, no matter how well-intentioned, gets lost usually already at the sub-sub point level. So, don’t try this at your church! In all fairness, we should also remember that a Puritan sermon as it appears in print may not reflect exactly how it was preached, especially if the author later revised his notes for publication. Nevertheless, the Puritan style of preaching involved a complexity of structure that most modern hearers cannot sustain well in their minds. A typical sermon today should have two to four main points, each supported by a few sub-points. Taking your points and sub-points together, if you have more than fifteen headings in your entire outline, then you probably have more than one sermon to preach!

3. Do Not Overwhelm Your Hearers with Applications, but Rather Focus Your Sermon
The Puritans called applications “uses,” that is, uses to make of the text or doctrine of the sermon. They developed multiple uses for different spiritual conditions of people, as well as different kinds of applying Scripture. Their preaching was so rich in application that it functioned as a kind of biblical counselling from the pulpit, and no doubt it reduced the number of individual counselling cases their pastors needed to address in private. It should be noted that Puritan preachers were advised: “wisely to make choice of such uses, as, by his residence and conversing with his flock, he findeth most needful and seasonable” (Directory for Public Worship, “Of the Preaching of the Word”). 

The effect of such elaborate schemes of application today, however, would be too much for people to take in. While the Puritans teach us the importance of applications, we must be careful to choose our applications judiciously—applications that flow out of the text and enable our hearers to leave worship with two to four important applications penetrating our mind and heart rather than half a dozen to a dozen. Today, with the modern hearer’s attention span being severely limited, a dozen applications might well blunt the effect of the whole sermon. If someone asked what the preacher said, the response might well be, “Well, what didn’t he say?” 

4. Do Not Preach Too Many Sermons on One Topic or Verse, but Rather Keep Moving
The Puritans’ thorough approach to every subject they addressed often resulted in extended sermon series. You can see this in their books, many of which consist of published sermons. Robert Traill (1642–1716) preached sixteen sermons on John 17:24 containing a wealth of teaching and application on the doctrines of heaven, election, and the work of Christ. His Works consist of three hundred pages of beautiful, heart-warming truth. And yet we think, Sixteen sermons on only one verse? This method makes for excellent reading but will not work well as a series of messages today.

To balance our preaching, we should move through the Scriptures at a steady pace, neither rushing forward nor getting stuck in a rut. God has so designed the Bible that it weaves together both doctrine and application with beautiful wisdom. While it is helpful to look deeply into a single subject and form the worldview of our hearers with systematic theology, we must not lose the wise balance of Holy Scripture. Don’t preach thirty-five sermons on the sinfulness of sin, and then thirty-five on the efficacy of Christ’s intercession. Let the Holy Spirit lead you to consider various subjects as you preach through books of the Bible.

5. Do Not Preach with Too Many Cross-References, but Rather Use Them Judiciously
It is amazing to see the Puritans’ grasp of the whole Bible, especially knowing that they lived long before the days of Bible software and internet search engines. They drew proof texts from all over the Old and New Testaments as they sought to ground their doctrine in God’s Word. For example, Owen preached two sermons in May 1670 on Romans 1:16: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek.” Over the course of twenty pages, these sermons cite fifty texts in addition to his main text, citing from Deuteronomy, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Acts, Romans, 1 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, 2 Timothy, Hebrews, James, and 2 Peter. 

The Puritan delight in multiplying Scripture proof texts displays both a strength and a weakness. The great strength of the Puritan approach to cross-referencing Scripture is that it roots their systematic theology of particular doctrines in the whole Bible. The wide-ranging and detailed knowledge of God’s Word that these hard-working pastors and preachers had at the tip of their tongues should humble us. However, today it is best to focus on an exposition of one text, and cite only one or two cross-references for each point. 

In critiquing Puritan preaching, we do not dishonor the Puritans as faithful servants of God, but only acknowledge that they were fallible men of a particular time and place. Even as we view a few of their methods as unsuitable for the hearer of our own day, let us admire their zeal and effectiveness under the blessing of God’s Spirit. They were bold beacons of truth, like John Bunyan (1628–1688), who suffered in prison for years because of his commitment to preach the gospel. After Bunyan was released in 1677 from his second imprisonment, rather than hiding himself to avoid more trouble, he found a door wide open for more preaching of the gospel. He preached at his hometown of Bedford, in the villages around it, and in London. It is estimated that he preached to three thousand people on one Lord’s Day in London. On a weekday in the winter, twelve hundred people gathered at seven o’clock in the morning to hear him preach. Such was the power blessing of God upon the preaching of the Puritans. While we do not follow the Puritans in everything, we would say of them what Owen said of the poor tinker, Bunyan, in a conversation with King Charles II, “that he would willingly exchange his learning for the tinker’s power of touching men’s hearts.”

Conclusion: Pray for the Power of the Spirit in 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 man’s wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit, and power; faithfully, making known the whole counsel 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 the words of the apostle Paul in 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. There is a great reason why the methodological flaws of the Puritan did not impair the power of their preaching, and that reason is summed up by the phrase of the Apostles’ Creed, “I believe in the Holy Ghost”—a phrase that Spurgeon recited as he ascended the steps to his pulpit.

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 for this grace often and lean heavily upon the Holy Spirit both in preparing your sermons and in delivering them.

This article is the final 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.

37 For example, see Peter Vinke, “Of Original Sin Inhering,” in Puritan Sermons, 5:115–34.
38 Robert Traill, Sixteen Sermons on the Lord’s Prayer, in The Works of Robert Traill (1810; repr., Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1975), 2:1–298.
39 John Owen, “The Divine Power of the Gospel,” in Works, 9:217–37.
40 Charles Doe, “The Struggler,” in The Works of that Eminent Servant of Christ, Mr. John Bunyan, the First Volume (London: William Marshall, 1692), Ttttt2r–2v.
41 John Brown, John Bunyan: His, Life, Times, and Work (London: Hulbert, 1928), 366.
42 John R. Bower, The Larger Catechism: A Critical Text and Introduction, Principal Documents of the Westminster Assembly (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2010), 103.
43 Charles Hodge, Commentary on First Corinthians (repr., London: Banner of Truth, 1958), 32.
44 Joel R. Beeke and Randall J. Pederson, Meet the Puritans: With a Guide to Modern Reprints (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2006), 245–49.

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